Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters (Mark 6:3). And one of his siblings, James, went from being an unbeliever (John 7:5; Mark 3:21) to one of the most important figures in early Christianity. James had seen the risen Jesus with his own eyes (1 Cor 15:3-7) and it transformed this doubter into a leader and eventual martyr in his brother’s cause.
The slave of the Lord
All the more fascinating is the way James describes himself in the opening verse of his letter. He says he is a ‘servant (or literally ‘slave’) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’. These are amazing words. Calling himself the slave of his own brother is incredible enough but for James to do so in the same breath as describing himself as the ‘slave of God’ is incredible. For James, the Creator and the Messiah (remember: Christ = Messiah) share the lordship of his life. James is a breath away from affirming Jesus’ divinity.
‘Slave’ is not only a title of humility; it is also a title of honour. The trusted slaves of the emperor, for example, were very significant people, frequently performing services on behalf of, even representing, Caesar himself. James sees himself in a similar way: he serves the Master but he also speaks on the Master’s behalf. That’s how we are to read this letter.
A ‘Jewish’ letter?
James refers to his audience as the ‘twelve tribes’. This is an Old Testament phrase for the full community of God’s ancient Jewish people. The first Christians didn’t think of themselves as ‘Christians’. They were simply members of Israel who knew their Messiah had come. What we call Christianity is really just the fulfillment of the hopes and longings of biblical Israel.
The teaching of James makes clear that the first Christian leaders completely transformed what it meant to belong to Israel. At the centre of the life of the New Covenant is not the law of Moses (the Torah) but the teaching of the Messiah or what James will later call “the perfect law that gives freedom” (1:25).
Our Old Testament roots
Verse 1 also reminds us of the essentially Jewish nature of the Christian faith. The reference to Christians as the ‘twelve tribes’ underlines the continuity between faith in Jesus and the promises given to Israel.
In different periods of church history, the Old Testament has been overlooked and sometimes rejected altogether. Christians sometimes speak as though the God of the first covenant is a different Being from the God of the second covenant. Others simply avoid reading the Old Testament, finding it perhaps too difficult or irrelevant. But we neglect the Jewish, Old Testament background of our faith to our peril. Unless we appreciate how Jesus fulfilled the hopes of the “twelve tribes of Israel”, our faith will be less than truly Christian.