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This introductory course is designed to provide key insights into the book of James by pulling together a number of key resources: overview videos from Fast Facts and The Bible Project, helpful contextual information from The ESV Study Bible, commentary recommendations from The Gospel Coalition, a single sermon that sums up the book from beginning to end by Mark Dever, and much more. By watching, listening to, and reading these resources, you’ll be better prepared to read, study, teach, or preach the book of James.
Even though James begins with an epistolary salutation, the rest of the book does not have the format of an epistle but rather is a collection of wisdom sayings, much like the genre of wisdom literature as seen in the OT. The generic format of that wisdom literature is the collection of proverbs. Additionally, the book of James belongs to an ancient Greek form of satire known as the diatribe, the traits of which include: imaginary dialogues (including question and answer constructions); apostrophe (direct address to absent people or things as though they are present and can hear); metaphors taken from nature and everyday life; allusions to famous people from the past (stock instances, or well-known representations of the qualities that are under discussion); harsh addresses to readers; and heightened contrasts.
The most pervasive technique in the book of James is the proverb or aphorism, in the mode of ancient wisdom teachers. Next in frequency is the rhetorical device of direct command, expressed in the imperative mood of the verb (e.g., “be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” James 1:22). In fact, there are over 50 imperatives in the book’s 108 verses. This abundance of commands is a signal that the writer has a practical bent and is interested in action rather than mere belief as the distinguishing characteristic of Christians. There is also a strongly persuasive stance as the author seeks to move his readers to action. The tone is continuously energetic, and satire is never far from the surface, sometimes couched in a somewhat scolding manner.
James’s primary theme is living out one’s faith, being a doer and not just a hearer of the word. This theme is developed in view of the social conflict between rich and poor and the spiritual conflict between factions in the church. James rebukes his readers for their worldliness and challenges them to seek divine wisdom in working out these problems and getting right with God.
James 1:5, 17–18; 2:5, 13, 19; 4:5–6; 5:1–3, 9, 15
James 1:5; 3:13, 17
James 1:3, 13–14; 4:7; 5:7–8
The poor are the special focus of God’s care and must be cared for by his people and not shown prejudice or ignored. The wealthy are condemned for presumptuous pride and for stealing from the poor.
James 1:9, 27; 2:1–5, 15–16; 4:13–17; 5:1–6
James 1:12; 2:5, 12–13; 3:1; 4:12; 5:1–7, 9, 20
James 1:19–27; 2:14–26
James 1:5–7; 4:2–3; 5:13–18
James and Paul are united in teaching that justification comes only by the grace of God through faith but will of necessity result in works. If there are no resultant works, there was no justification in the first place.
The audience for James’s letter is almost certainly Jewish Christians, as evidenced by the designations “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1) and “assembly” (Gk. synagōgē, 2:2), the Jewish reasoning throughout, and James’s frequent reflection on the Torah (Mosaic law). If “Dispersion” is literal as well as metaphorical (see ESV Study Bible note on James 1:1; cf. Acts 2:9–11), then these are a group of Jewish Christian house churches outside Palestine, which fits the situation of persecution and poverty in the letter. More than that cannot be said, but the social situation can be gleaned from the letter. As a result of the troubles, conflict has entered the churches, and they have splintered into fighting factions. Moreover, some have fallen into a worldly lifestyle (James 1:27; 4:4) and have failed to put their faith into practice (James 1:19–26), with the result that they have become “double-minded,” wavering between God and the world (James 1:8; 4:8).
Christians are to live with the wisdom (Prov. 1:2, 7) that befits followers of Christ.
Nancy Guthrie interviews Dan Doriani
The following recommendations are from D. A. Carson, New Testament Commentary Survey. 7th ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013.