[Text: The Epistle of James]
The Book of James may be small, but it packs a lot of thematic muscle. In an effort to accelerate my relearning of this letter before a last-minute Bible teaching assignment this fall, I set myself the task of collecting James’ statements on a number of subjects into a comprehensive topical list. Listing things, by the way, is an effective strategy for getting to know the details of a passage or biblical book. A topical concordance happens when an over-the-top list-maker publishes her lists so that others can use them as reference resources. I highly recommend that you make your own lists while studying, because that’s a great way to train your brain to know what’s there; but if you would like to lean on a prepared collection of James’s themes, here you go:
Here’s a brief sketch of the subject matter that James is working with in this letter, according to the categories that stood out for me as I read. (I’ve listed these here from most prominent to least, though I have arranged them in random order in my document according to what fit neatly onto a sheet of paper for printing!)
Speech & Communication
From beginning to end, James shows his concern for how God’s people use their words. How we speak to God or about God matters; how we speak to our brothers matters; how we speak to visitors matters. Even what we say to ourselves matters (e.g., “God is tempting me!” or “Let’s go to such and such a place and make some money!”). According to James, you can’t overestimate the power of the tongue.
Christian Conduct and Experience
This list overlaps with some of the others, as it’s a general catch-all for anything related to the behavior of believers. James is big on “shoulds,” and in his brief letter I think he manages to communicate just about everything that is expected of a follower of the Way. This collection of imperatives (mostly direct, though some are implied) would make a great overview of the life of faith for a class of new believers.
This densely-packed letter also manages to convey a significant amount of information about God and his work of redemption. We are left with an impression of his majestic power and fierce compassion: he gives generously, cannot be tempted, tempts no one, never changes, saves and destroys, gives grace to the humble, and listens to the cries of the oppressed. Metaphysical realities are here too, hinting at what’s going on in the universe beyond what our eyes can see: demons and the devil are active in the affairs of men; God chooses “the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,” giving us new life by implanting in us the word of truth. James also conveys a strong message about future judgment, laying great stress on the consequences of the self-indulgent injustices practiced by the rich.
Don’t Be Like This
As a corollary to the collection of imperatives mentioned above, here is a list of warnings about behaviors and attitudes believers should avoid. James’ whole letter may be seen as a series of corrections, aimed both at wrong thinking and wrong action. Our assumptions about God, ourselves, and what is permissible in our treatment of others get a thorough housecleaning in this epistle.
Figurative Language/Nature & Agriculture
More than any other New Testament letter, the book of James offers a colorful glimpse into agrarian life in the first century. From nautical metaphors (waves of the sea driven and tossed by the wind; the rudder of a ship) to agricultural figures (a flower of the grass; forest fires; the domestication of animals; fig trees and grape vines) James reinforces his teaching with the same sensitivity to his audience’s context that we see in Jesus’ parables.
James’s use of Old Testament phrases and stories is a similarly rich strategy for underscoring his message to these new converts to the faith. As his audience was likely made up of Jewish Christians, these references to familiar texts and figures would have caught their attention and convinced them the more strongly of his points. Readers today will notice echoes of Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians in James’s use of the words “justification” and “works” – but we should take notice of the fact that because James’s letter was written well before Paul’s, in this letter the terms retain an ordinary rather than a theologically specific meaning. (See Chronological Contexts and Multiple Meanings for more on the difference between James and Paul.)
Much of James’s corrective teaching regarding the treatment of others has to do with economic status and power. Wealth brings with it the temptation of self-indulgence at the expense of the poor, or of favoritism within the congregational gathering. James also calls out the inconsistency of the church’s flattering a potential wealthy patron while undergoing legal persecution by that same class of people. Apparently the allure of riches had not been dulled by conversion in James’s day any more than it is in our own.
James does not hesitate to set all of his warnings in the context of the ultimate Day of Judgment. The vocabulary of the courtroom is also in play as he describes the lawsuits pursued against these believers by wealthy persecutors and the right or wrong way of following the “perfect law, the law of liberty.” In his argument that partiality is a flagrant offense against “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” James uses the analogy of the Mosaic law, which, if broken in any part, designated the transgressor as a breaker of the whole.
James cites our own passions, the oppressive and blasphemous rich, the world, and hell itself as the influential powers that believers must resist.
Finally, there’s a bit of incidental learning to be gleaned from this letter about the life experiences of James’s intended recipients. They were apparently Jewish Christians, scattered throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire; they were being harassed and oppressed by people of influence and wealth in their communities; it was likely that there would be economic disparities among the members of their congregations; and they engaged in trade, travel, and agricultural pursuits with enough regularity that James could lean on these topics as handy illustrations.
As thorough as my list seems, I am sure that I have not exhausted all the possibilities of this brief but dense epistle. Dig in yourself sometime and see what I’ve missed!
All biblical quotations come from the Book of James, ESV.
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