I appreciate what the other conversation partners have contributed. There’s really nothing in their essays that I feel the need to contest, but there are a number of helpful comments and applications related to my thesis.
In this brief closing essay, however, I would like to reiterate the big lessons the church should learn from the epistle of James. These lessons are grounded in reading the letter not as a series of loosely connected timeless aphorisms about Christian living, but as a passionate warning to exiled, persecuted, and impoverished Christians. The more I read through the New Testament the more convinced I’ve become that we have not appreciated just how bad things were for the early Christian community.
Jesus warned them, “I have said these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of their synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God . . . I have said these things to you, that when the hour comes you may remember that I told them to you” (John 16:1-4).
This is precisely the program Saul was engaged in until he was subjugated by the risen Christ.
But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison (Acts 8:3).
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2).
It was powerful, rich men like the Pharisee Saul that James warns his people not to seek to appease in order to win their favor—not rich folks in general, but the influential Jewish leaders with their robes of office and signet rings (James 2:2). They were the ones who were “dragging them into court” (James 2:6, Acts 8:3). The Jerusalem rulers with all the wealth of the Temple and vested with the authority of God did not recognize and renumerate the harvesters sent out by Jesus (James 5:4). All the glory and wealth of the Jerusalem was in the service of those who “blasphemed the Name that was invoked” over these baptized early Jewish Christian disciples of Jesus. All that wealth and power, concentrated in the Temple, was used to pursue Christians, just as it was used to “murder the righteous one” (James 5:6).
Referring to the early days of the persecution, Paul says,
I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
This was all happening with the full support of the Jerusalem council. We should remember that Saul was not the only one who was “zealous” in his rage against Christians. “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women.” But this was fully authorized by the High Priest and the “whole council of elders” (Acts 22:4, 5). So once Saul was baptized, he immediately became the object of the other zealots who took his place as inquisitors.
When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him [Saul] (Acts 9:23).
And this coordinated attack on Saul/Paul and the churches he planted continues throughout his ministry. In the book of Acts there are dozens of references to the Jews stirring up trouble, inciting violence against Paul and the churches in city after city.
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Once I was stoned (2 Cor. 11:24).
The Jewish hatred for and mistreatment of Christians was so grievous that Paul has this stinging indictment of them in his early letter to the Thessalonians.
For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last! (1 Thess. 2:14-16).
Of course, Paul’s reference to the Jews filling up the measure of their sins harkens back to Jesus’ condemnation of the Jerusalem leadership in Matthew 23. At the end of his “woes” Jesus predicts that it will only get worse.
Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth. . . (Matt. 23:32-35).
The “great tribulation” Jesus warns of in Matthew 24 is not something the Jews will experience (Matt. 24:21). Rather, the tribulation will be suffered by Jesus’ disciples.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:9-13).
I have summarized the oppressive situation in the very early church to remind us of just how bad it was for these early Christians. If we add to the relentless ferocity of the Jewish persecution, the hardships experienced by Christians exiled from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1; 11:19; James 1:1), then we may begin to appreciate their frustration and anger.
Put yourself in their shoes. You have seen your friends, members of your family, and men you trusted as pastors mocked, flogged, beaten, stoned, driven from their homes, and their property confiscated. They were imprisoned as blasphemers and tortured. You remember visiting them with food and clean water.
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property . . . (Heb. 10:32-34).
Maybe you were one of the first disciples that were banished from Jerusalem immediately after the execution of Stephen. You lost everything — your home, your family plot of land, your means of supporting your family. Don’t forget the widows and orphans that the community must now care for because their providers are either in prison or have been executed.
Maybe you had a modest but thriving lamp business in Jerusalem. You made these little clay lamps that everyone used in the ancient world to light up their homes. You inherited this occupation from your father, as he learned it from his father before him. You had trade arrangements in the city and with those merchants who visited the city regularly. And you believed that Jesus was the Messiah. You listened to his apostles. You trusted his Word. And suddenly you were cast out of Jerusalem. You were ousted and had to live in Joppa and start all over again. And you now were part of a ghetto in that city, a ghetto composed of other displaced disciples who meet in the early morning on the first day of the week to worship Jesus.
If you were in their shoes, how would you feel? Wouldn’t you likely be mad as hell? If Jesus is who we’ve been told he is, why are we disenfranchised and hated by the leaders of the nation that has been chosen by God? Where is his promised kingdom of righteousness? The kingdom he told us about was at hand?
What are they supposed to do? How should the leaders of these displaced communities guide their people? Surely, it is not too difficult for us to imagine what they were tempted to do. They were angry. And in their anger, they devised ways to rectify the situation and bring about some measure of justice. James addresses these misguided schemes and thereby provides us with some wise advice and admonishment when we find ourselves in similarly desperate conditions. “. . . let every man . . . be slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness/justice of God” (James 1:19-20). Their quick-tempered, angry response to the severe challenge before them led them to six basic forms of ungodly, even demonic (James 3:15) misbehavior.
Their first error was to fail to listen carefully to the words of Jesus concerning the character of his kingdom and justice, and the way it would be established in human communities. This is the “implanted word” that, if received and lived out, has “the power to save their lives” (James 1:21). James’s readers were listening to the wrong sorts of words—angry words spewed out by immature “brothers” and instigating aggressive, violent action against their enemies. He admonishes them to listen to “the mature instruction” that “brings liberty” (James 2:8-13). Put away “filthiness” and rampant malice (James 1:21). The word “filth” in Greek is related to a medical term describing earwax. Our ears need to be opened. We need ears to hear. Priests had to have their ears opened. Bondservants volunteered to have their ears circumcised, opened so that they would hear the voice of their master.
The second error typically dogs opinion leaders in the church, those called to speak and guide other Christians with their tongues. What is that? It is to fail to attend to our personal growth in grace and maturity while we are engaged in public teaching and leadership. James’s letter is written to the leaders of these exiled Christian communities. Twelve times at key junctures in the letter James addresses “the brothers.” They are “the teachers” (James 3:1) whose tongues are guiding the entire body of believers for whom they are responsible (James 3:1-12). But their behavior betrays their lack of maturity. They are “double-minded” and therefore “unstable” (James 1:8). They speak without thinking and are quick to react in anger and malice against their enemies (James 1:19-21). They have not grown in their obedience because they are “deceiving themselves” (James 1:22). They hear the Word, but do not respond in obedience (James 1:23-25). They think that the authenticity of their “religion” will be evident in what they say, rather than by what they do (James 1:26-27). These brothers are misbehaving on every level, but their unbridled tongues proclaim their faith nonetheless (James 2:1-26). By the time we reach the end of chapter 3 and the first half of chapter 4, the magnitude of misbehavior among these brothers is shocking—zealotry, selfish ambition, anarchy, vile practices, covetousness, murder, violence, pride, and idolatrous spiritual adultery.
The third temptation is to cozy up to our enemies thinking that we can win their favor. If we can get them to like us, maybe they will leave us alone. This is the “partiality” problem James criticizes in 2:1-13. It is not simply that they are favoring the rich over the poor. That would be bad enough. But the man who is being catered to in their assembly is the one who wears the ring of authority and the robe of office (James 2:2). He is explicitly identified as an oppressor, someone who drags them into court, and a blasphemer against the name of Jesus (James 2:6-7). To “judge” the rich oppressor as someone more deserving of special care than the poor believer is “to become judges engaging in an evil conspiracy” (James 2:4). That evaluation from James is not just about individual “evil thoughts” but about the way the brothers have conspired together to appease their rich enemies. They have thereby dishonored those poorer disciples whom “God has chosen . . . to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5).
The appeasement option ought not to be on the table for conscientious Christian leaders. To turn a blind eye to immorality and abuse with the hope of getting a hearing from some powerful government or academic figure would be to betray our allegiance to the Lord. Not only is such schmoozing mostly ineffective—the more you give, the more they will take—but such behavior runs counter to the examples of the prophets and of Jesus himself. The prophets denounced the rich and powerful, even, maybe especially, when they were in positions of authority in Israel. Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others did not cozy up to corrupt, immoral leaders. Neither did Jesus.
Fourth, the most insidious temptation, according to James, is to use the power of our words to guide the church toward aggressive and violent action thinking we are acting thereby as agents of God’s justice. As we have argued, James 3:1-12 is at the heart of the letter. And the key passage that unlocks the entire letter is James 1:19-20, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Anger against their oppressors has fueled impetuous speeches with the intent to rally the disciples to make things right by means of aggressive, retributive action (James 3:13-16; 4:1-12). This kind of Christian “zealotry” will not make things right. Rather, such speech and behavior is not of the Spirit but demonic (James 3:15). These angry and violent responses have been fueled by the immature rhetoric of their teachers, the brothers responsible for leading their communities. They want freedom, but they are going about achieving liberty in the wrong ways.
In contemporary, twenty-first century America things have not degenerated to the point where Christians are tempted with the lure of violent zealotry. Or have they? In some circles the desire for “social justice” has become more than simply prophetic speech. We seem to be moving from political theatre (marches, protests, etc.), which is appropriate when moderate, to unrestrained, violent action (riots, destruction of property, etc.). In the modern world where everything seems to be immediately available (or at the most, two-days away when delivered by Amazon Prime), Christians are tempted to want justice now. James warns against that kind of intemperate impatience.
Fifth, it is critical that Christians who have a passion for changing the world not lose heart and grow impatient when God does not act according to our timetable. Although James has warned them against the intemperate use of their tongues in their struggle for justice and freedom (James 3:1-12), he does not hold back words of prophetic condemnation against their oppressors (James 5:1-6). He is not inciting violence, but prophesying God’s just retribution. These harried and mistreated Christians needed to hear this prophetic judgment against Jerusalem just as much as they needed to hear James’s rebuke of their unwise words and zealous behavior. They needed to hear James’s own justifiably angry denunciation of the leaders in Jerusalem and hear his assurance that the days of their oppressors are numbered, and the Lord is coming in judgment soon (James 5:8).
Christians today also need to be reminded of God’s righteous judgment; but not just at the Last Day, but also in history. James comforted his flock with the promise that “the coming of the Lord was near” (5:8). He was not talking about the end of history and the final judgment. His words in the first part of chapter 5 are designed to remind them of Jesus’ prophetic promise that the Temple would be destroyed, and Jerusalem judged (Matt. 24). This promised destruction was on the horizon, and they needed to be reminded so they would wait for their coming vindication patiently. Although we don’t have such definitive prophesies regarding our nation as these early Christians did, we should expect the Lord to act in history against the enemies of the church. The Scriptures are clear: the Lord has repeatedly judged haughty, unjust nations and rulers—Pharaoh, the Canaanites, Nineveh, Egypt, Samaria, Moab, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and even Jerusalem. Why would we think that corrupt, immoral modern nations are exempt from God’s just recompense? We don’t have the assurance of a quick timetable, as the early church did (“this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” Matt. 24:34). Nevertheless, we do have the timeless promises from the prophets that the Lord will act:
If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it (Jer. 18:7-10).
Sixth and last, not only does James warn us against inflammatory rhetoric that leads to violent action, but because of the Lord’s coming judgment against his enemies, he also commends perseverance under trial, prayer for wisdom, mercy toward our persecutors, and special care for those in the community adversely affected by the tribulations. Attending to these challenges is how the kingdom of Jesus is advanced during times of opposition and persecution. This is how mature “brothers” lead their congregations. Maturity comes from faithfulness under trial (James 1:2-4). Growth in obedience to the “royal law” (James 1:8) brings true “liberty” (James 1:12; 22-25). Muzzling one’s tongue and then taking care of orphans and widows is evidence of true religious observance (James 1:26-27). As we have already noted, paying closer attention to the impoverished in our own Christian communities is much more productive than attempting to influence powerful enemies by obsequious favors (James 2:1-9).
Even when talking about “justification,” James zeroes in on their behavior not so much what they say. For all the public talk about their “faith” they have neglected the simple obedience implied in the posture of “trust” Christians profess. There are brothers and sisters in dire need because of their banishment. They need to be cared for, not just talked to (James 2:15-17). When parents are called to put their faith in God even though their children are being “sacrificed” in the turmoil of the on-going persecution, that kind of loyal resignation to God’s will is evidence of living, genuine, justifying faith (James 2:20-24). And just as Rahab was vindicated as a true believer when she deceived Jericho’s secret police about the whereabouts of the Israelite spies, so also believers who risk their lives to help others escape from their Jewish inquisitors manifest a living, active trust in the Lord (James 2:25-26).
If we consider everything that James has commended to his readers, we will have enough to do in our Christian communities and families, even during times of severe persecution. The verdict of history commends the apostolic and post-apostolic church for their conformity to James’ instructions and warnings. They were patient and steadfast during four centuries of severe trials. Kreider argues persuasively that the virtue of patience was the key that led to the cultural dominance of the Christian church over the Roman empire. The church resisted the temptation to respond with violence against their persecutors, patiently waiting for vindication from the Lord, and all the while maintaining a clear prophetic criticism of both the apostate Jews and the pagan Roman authorities. That mature balance is precisely what Jesus and James his apostle commends to us today. The epistle of James contains just the sort of ancient wisdom that today’s Christian dissidents need to hear and heed.
 Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).
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