The following is the first in a series of devotionals I have given at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Wednesday evenings. I will be posting new installments every Monday.
In order to fully understand a book, it helps to know at least a little about the author. What James tells us about himself in this first verse, coupled with what we know about him from other sources, gives us important background for the rest of the book, and teaches us a couple vital lessons.
Who was James? A couple of important facts:
First of all, his named wasn’t “James”. The Greek text renders it Ἰάκοβος – Jacob. There is more than one James/Jacob mentioned in the New Testament. Without going into tremendous detail, suffice it to say that the best evidence points to this James being the half-brother of Jesus Christ. That will be important later on.
Second, he was Jewish. The name indicates that. The reference to the “twelve tribes” is another indicator. This was his way of referring to the church, scattered due to persecution. Remember that the church was mostly Jewish at this time, so most of his readers would not have found it strange to be referred to in this way.
So now we come to the vital lessons we can learn from this very first, introductory verse.
1 There is no privilege at the foot of the cross. I chose the word “privilege” with great care, knowing full well the weight it pulls in our present context. Remember that James is the half brother of Christ. It would seem natural for someone to use that fact in order to gain a special hearing – especially if that someone was writing words inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself – a little name-dropping at the beginning to get people to sit up and take notice.
James knows, however, that the circumstances of one’s birth are of no importance in the kingdom of God. Your family background means nothing. Your ethnic background means nothing. Your economic or social status? Zilch. Zippo. Nada. Left of zero.
So James leaves all that out and puts in the most important thing about him: he is a slave (δοῦλος) of Christ.
And if more Christians would spend more time figuring out what it means to be a slave of Christ, and less time trying to figure out who was a slave to man two centuries ago, our society would be in a much better place.
2 Jesus is God. There is a simple construction here that is easy to miss, but powerful once you see it. James says that he is the slave of God and of Jesus Christ. God and Jesus are put on the same level. Why? Because they are both gods? No…that can’t be. The Jewish James and his largely Jewish readers all knew Deuteronomy 6:4 by heart. There is just one God. So God is God and Jesus is a lesser entity? No, the text indicates no subordination. It was Jesus Himself who said that no man can serve to masters (Matthew 6:24). So does James have two masters here? No, because Jesus and God are of the same essence.
This might be a handy verse to whip out the next time the Jehovah’s Witnesses come knocking.
3 Joy does not depend on circumstances. That last word of the verse, translated “greetings” in many English translations, is significant. It is the word χαίρειν (roughly pronounced “chairain”) and it is a form of the verb which means “to rejoice”. It is translated “greetings” because it was apparently a common form of greeting.
But James is making a subtle play on words, for two words later in the next verse we find the word χαρáν (charon), and even if you don’t know Greek you can see that they are similar. This second word means “joy”. It’s kind of like he says in verse one “rejoice”, and then in verse two he continues with “and speaking of joy”.
And it is interesting to note that this “rejoice” comes right after a mention of the “diaspora” – the scattering of believers due to persecution. And this is not accident, because the next several verses will deal with how believers deal with trials and tribulations.
So, have the circumstances gotten you down? Do you find yourself depressed every time you turn on the news? Has society become unbearably toxic? James’ message to us is rejoice!
And he will spend the next several verses telling us why.
*Banner image: The Martyrdom of James the Just, from a late tenth or early eleventh century manuscript. Source
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