The Epistle of James
Date Of Writing
To determine the date of the writing of this Epistle, we must rely heavily on internal evidence. There is no mention made in the entire Epistle of the Church as the Body of Christ, and neither is the salvation of the Gentiles mentioned. This points to an early writing of this letter, certainly before Paul’s active ministry to the Gentiles began. It would therefore have to be written before the Conference at Jerusalem where James himself welcomed the Gentiles into the Church. That Conference convened about A.D. 48 or 49. It is inconceivable that there should be no mention made of the Gentiles if the letter had been written after that Conference had convened.
Then, James wrote “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” This scattering took place when Saul of Tarsus made havoc of the church at Jerusalem scattering abroad the Christians, except for the apostles. This persecution is dated at about A.D. 35 or 36. Therefore, sometime between the persecution raised by Saul of Tarsus and the Conference at Jerusalem, this letter was written. It is difficult to fix an exact year, but A. D. 40 to 45 comes about as near to the time as the evidence we have on hand justifies.
Occasion For Writing.
The occasion for writing this letter is fraught with interest. Some of the Christian Jews who had been scattered abroad in the persecution returned to Jerusalem for visits and recounted the many trials and difficulties these scattered Christians were subjected to. They also reported some forms of misconduct practised by some of them. Jesus may have had opportunity to hear these reports with his own ears. The conduct of some of these Jews who professed to be Christians, certainly was not becoming the faith they professed to hold. The thought that faith in Christ should be brought into ill-repute by those who professed to have such faith, cut James to his heart. He felt very keenly the need of something tangible that would define the behaviour of saving faith in those who professed to have it. Faith is intangible, it cannot be seen nor touched, but it cannot be hidden. It will manifest itself in some way. The burden, then, of this letter is not to define faith, as such, but to show how it will behave itself in a world hostile to it. The criteria set forth in this letter will easily distinguish those who have saving faith from those who only profess to have it. It is this kind of faith that forms the theme of this Epistle. Works are relative to saving faith; they are produced by it. It is important to notice that the works mentioned in this letter are not law works, but works produced by saving faith. This is the key that unlocks the book.
The Behavior of Faith
When James wrote this letter, the Church was not faced with the problem of circumcision, or law-keeping as essential to salvation. The uncircumcised were not yet in the Church. The Christian Jews who formed the early Church were all brought up under the law, having kept all its precepts as far as possible. They realized that their servitude under the law did not yield the results they longed for. When faith in Christ came, they experienced a new kind of life that they could not enjoy under the law. In the background, of course, they had kept the law, but what part, if any, the law played in their salvation did not come up. There was no occasion for it. Consequently, at this time there was no need to define faith, as such, but rather how it will behave itself. And this behavour of faith becomes the theme of this letter.
The Gentiles Saved
When Paul began his active ministry to the Gentiles, things had definitely changed. He was divinely called and fitted to carry the Gospel of the Grace of God to the Gentiles. A dispensation had been committed to him, and by revelation he received and communicated the doctrines relative to grace and the Church. But his teaching and ministry had not yet taken place when James wrote his letter, hence there is no mention made in the Epistle of the Church as the Body of Christ. When Paul launched his world preaching tour, he met with signal success. Wherever he went Gentiles were saved, and Gentile churches established. This made a tremendous impact on the early Church, and this infant Church was as yet ill-prepared to meet this impact.
The Circumcision Party
An entirely new problem now faced the infant Church. What shall be done with these uncircumcised Gentiles who are now in the Church? What should be their relation to the holy law that God gave to Moses? Can these Gentiles simply ignore this law, and still come under all the covenant promises of God? The leaders, the pillars in the church at Jerusalem, were hesitant. They well understood that justification was not acquired by any deeds of the law, but by faith in Christ. But, who would dare to speak out against the law as relative in some measure to salvation, since all the Jews held such high respect for the law! Many thousands of Jewish believers (Acts 21:20) were zealous for the law, and believed that the Gentiles should be brought under it and keep its precepts to share with them all the privileges which the grace of God bestows. Hesitation on the part of the leaders to take a clear stand on the issue, gave rise to the circumcision party. They felt it their God-given duty to bring this issue to the Gentiles and have them circumcised, and keep the law to enjoy privileges with them of the grace of God.
The Conference at Jerusalem
When these self-appointed law teachers came to Antioch to propagate their teaching, they met with two formidable opponents in the persons of Paul and Barnabas. These two pioneers of the gospel of the grace of God, dared to stand boldly for the grace of God as opposed to law deeds as a means of justification. When much contention followed, the brethren at Antioch decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to have the apostles and elders rule on this matter. The elders of the Church at Jerusalem were, therefore, forced to take a definite stand on the question. The account of the proceedings of this conference is recorded to us in Acts 15 and Galatians 2. Both chapters should be read to get a full account of the proceedings at this conference.
Coming to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas called the apostles and elders together in private consultation and laid before them the gospel they preached to the Gentiles and the signal blessing of God on the preaching of this gospel. Having thus won the confidence of the eldership of the Church at Jerusalem, the whole Church was called into session. The leaders of the circumcision party now loudly proclaimed that the Gentiles must be circumcized and keep the law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas did not for one moment acquiesce to their demands. After much disputing, Peter arose and recounted his experience in being the first to bring the gospel to the Gentiles in the home of Cornelius. The Gentiles who were gathered together in his house believed when they heard the gospel from the lips of Peter, and the Holy Spirit gave them the same tokens of salvation that the Jews received on the day of Pentecost. Now since the Gentiles received the same gift of the Holy Spirit as the Jews did without being circumcized, why, Peter asked, should we now lay a burden upon them which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear?
(To be continued)