Updated: Sep 12, 2020
The book of James, grouped with the “General Epistles,” doesn’t fit neatly in that grouping or any other New Testament division. It does not follow the formal letter form as do the Pauline epistles. This epistle is intended for Jewish Christians, probably those living in Palestine and was designed as a circular letter due to its opening address in 1:1b, “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” That is a reference to the Jewish Christians who had scattered from the Jerusalem/Judean area to avoid possible persecution.
As Bruce Metzger in The New Testament, Its Background, Growth and Content, wrote, James is abounding with Old Testament allusions, references, and familiarity with the Wisdom literature of the period between the Old and New Testaments. In the opening sentence, the author tells us that he is James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Two of Jesus’ Twelve were named “James” (Mark 3:17–18) and one of Jesus’ brothers was named “James.” In Acts 15:13, we learn that James, Jesus’ brother, was the leader of the Jerusalem Church at the time of the first apostolic council. According to early tradition James, Jesus’ brother, wrote the letter sometime before his martyrdom in A.D. 62. It should come as no surprise that the Epistle of James has the greatest number of parallels to the words of Jesus, particularly to the Sermon on the Mount of all the NT books other than the four Gospels (from pgs. 251–255 of above textbook).
James is a practical, action-oriented presentation of the behavior of a disciple of Jesus Christ. The author is not presenting us with an ultimatum such as “Justification by faith or by works—which will it be? There is no dichotomy here. It is not a choice that one has to make. Instead, he says very plainly and emphatically, faith is both belief or word and deeds. It is all too easy to give mental assent to a set of doctrinal statements and then go on as if nothing has changed—and all too often that is a sad reality. I believe that it was G.K. Chesterton who said, “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it is that it has not been tried.”
Faith is both a noun and an action verb—faith-ing is not a word we use, but if we are to hear James message it is something that we do as well as a foundation for belief. As James’ imperative statement in 1:22 puts it, But be doers of the Word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. Being good listeners (merely hearers) is not enough. What is demanded is that we must be doers as well. In Matthew 21:28–31a, Jesus told the short parable of a man who had two sons. The father gave an imperative statement to both sons—they both heard him. The first son said yes to his father’s instructions but did not do the task; the second son said no to the same instructions but thought of his response and did the work as instructed. Jesus asked those questioning him a rhetorical question in vv. 31a, Which of the two did the will of the father? The answer was simple—the one who did what the father had instructed. So it is with the relationship between faith and deeds.
Who has faith? It is the ones who do their faith. Those who put their faith into action. In John 12: 1-8, Jesus visited the home of his friend, Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary a short time after Jesus had called Lazarus back from the grave. Martha served the guests and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, anointed His feet with costly perfume and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair—they both were putting their faith—what they believed about Jesus into action. Or when the woman identified in Luke 7:36–50 only as a woman in the city who was a sinner (vv. 37), who broached all social decorum & entered Simon, the Pharisee’s house uninvited, anointed Jesus feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair and kissed Jesus’ feet. Jesus said to Simon he had something to say to him. Jesus chastised him for omitting the social decorum attendant upon having a famous Rabbi visit at the table, and this unnamed “sinful woman” had not ceased to do all Simon should have had a servant do. She had demonstrated the depth of her faith and showed great courage in entering the house of Simon; she acted out her faith in demonstrating abject humility but at the same time evidencing tremendous courage born out of her desire to serve the Master Teacher. And the reward of her actions? Jesus’ words of commendation, (vv. 50), And He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you, go in peace.’ She had not said a word, but had heard and believed every word she had heard from and about Jesus—she acted out her faith in this amazingly courageous deed of servitude and penitence. There are so many other places from scripture that many of you know as well as these familiar texts that illustrate the marriage of word and deed in following Jesus.
Perhaps you have heard the saying, “I would rather see a sermon any day than hear one” or the negative statement, “Your actions speak so loudly I cannot hear what you say.” The idea is similar to what James is saying in this text. As stated by Luke Timothy Johnson, in Vol. XII of the New Interpreter’s Bible on James (pg 191), “For faith to be real, it must be translated into deeds. It is not enough to be a ‘hearer of the word’; one must become a ‘doer of the word’ as well. Otherwise, one’s faith is only self-deception. James here agrees with ancient moralists that theoretical correctness (or doctrinal correctness) matters little if one’s life does not conform to the ideas one espouses (1 Corinthians 13:12). This references James allusion to a man who sees his image in a mirror and then quickly forgets how he looks. William Barclay in his Daily Bible Study Series, the Letters of James and Peter (pg 59), James speaks of a man who goes to a church meeting and listens to the reading and expounding of the Word and who thinks that listening has made him a Christian. He has shut his eyes to the fact that what is read and heard in the church must then be lived out. It is still possible to identify church attendance and Bible study with Christianity, but this is to take ourselves less than half the way; the essential point is to turn that to which we have listened into action.”
What does acting out our faith look like for OFWB Churches? Our familiar denominational logo gives us a hint. The cross superimposed on the circle representing the world, with the basin and towel at the foot of the cross. The cross is to remind us that the written word that gives witness to the Living Word is the Gospel message for the world. The basin and towel remind us that we are called to be servants to Christ as we serve the needs of others in the world. There are so many ways that we can put our faith into concrete practice as we share the good news of Jesus with others.
Consider our denomination’s ministries, which are all ways that we can give flesh to our faith as we pray for, support, and even lend our physical energy to these ministries. In every local community where our congregations are located, there are so many opportunities for us to put feet, hands, and voices to our faith. Partnering with your local schools in various ways—instead of complaining about what taking prayer out of our schools has done—be the word as you help to feed the hungry kids through “back-pack buddies” food program or whatever your local organization or school handles this. Do appreciation days for the teachers and staff supplied by the church or assist the local PTO/PTA in doing the same. Have an outreach through supplying meals for homeless or hungry folks as some of our churches are doing. Work with other churches and agencies in meeting the needs of families and persons in your community. Some congregations have active senior citizen ministries or do things for special needs of church or community people, like building a handicap ramp or having grab bars installed in a bathroom if that is what is needed. The possibilities are as endless as the needs and creativity of our people. These kinds of ministry, translating what we have heard and believe in practical applications that are helping make a difference, and bless both those who receive and those who give.
This complete text is very fertile with ideas and connections to both Old Testament concepts and current date applications. In vs. 25, James wrote, …those who look into the perfect law of liberty and persevere, being not hearers who forget, but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. Doing the act of mercy in obedience to the word is all the blessing one could ask for or expect. Then to amplify what had been said James famous definite of religion: vs. 27, Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world (Cf. Micah 6:8 or Matthew 5–7). God grant that we may be, “Doers of the Word and not merely hearers.”