I. Introduction to James and 1 Peter
With the epistle of James, we come to the first of the so-called General, or Catholic, Epistles—those letters which, with the exception of the short letters 2 and 3 John, were apparently written not simply to one local Christian congregation, but to several.
II. Background of James
Early church tradition strongly supports the identification of the author of this book with the James who is the half-brother of our Lord Jesus. James the son of Zebedee and brother of John, one of the three intimate apostles, close to Jesus, was martyred under Herod Agrippa I in A.D. 44, and therefore probably died too early to be the author of this work; and the other James, the less, or James the younger—one of the twelve apostles—does not figure prominently enough in early church history to have been the author.
If this letter comes from James, then, who is the half-brother of our Lord, it must be dated sometime prior to A.D. 62 when Josephus tells us this James, too, was martyred. Trying to date the letter more precisely depends on how we understand its relationship with the teaching of the apostle Paul. In chapter 2, in particular in James’ famous discussion of faith without works being dead, it can easily be imagined that he was responding to a misconception or misinterpretation, an exaggeration of Paul’s own teaching of justification by faith apart from works of the law.
If this interpretation is correct, then we have to date James at some point after the major letters of Paul were written and allow time for them to be misunderstood. A date towards the very end of the 50s or early 60s would then be required. On the other hand, as a slight majority of more conservative commentators suggests, it may well be that James’ language seems to be in tension with Paul’s precisely because Paul had not yet written; and James, therefore, had no way of knowing how Paul would phrase things later or how his words, or Paul’s, might be interpreted. In this case, we may suggest that James is actually one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of the New Testament documents, and date him to a time just prior to the beginning of Paul’s public and writing ministry in the late 40s.
The context of the Christians being addressed is one of Jewish Christianity. Chapter 1:1 uses the language of the Jewish Diaspora to refer to these Christians being scattered around. And given that Jewish Christianity was strongest in the eastern part of the empire, combined with the agricultural context of the description of the circumstances of the audience, commentators generally think of some place in Palestine or Syria in which there were largely rural communities of farmers, or more specifically day laborers, those whom today we might consider migrant workers— homeless or displaced people, perhaps even those who had to give up farming their small plots of lands because they could not make a living in an age when Roman and Jewish landlords were increasingly buying up vast tracts of property and creating large estates farmed largely by slave or day or what we would call migrant labor. These Christian farmers are being treated unjustly. Among other things their wages are being withheld. And James writes to give them encouragement.
Perhaps more than any other book in the New Testament, an outline of the epistle of James is difficult to discern, and therefore there is little agreement among commentators. We will propose one, modifying an approach that has been suggested on several occasions. But in fairness, we must say that it is quite possible we are imposing more unity, more structure, on the letter, in light of our modern Western propensity for seeking such structures, than may have originally been in James’ mind. At any rate, our structure allows us to see the key themes that James highlights, even if perhaps it imposes a little more uniformity on his outlining approach than he actually had.
III. Analysis of James
Chapter 1 introduces us to three key themes that seem to remain prominent and account for a substantial amount of the teaching of James in this letter.
A. Statement of Three Key Themes (Jas 1:1 -11)
(1) The first of these themes, introduced in verses 2-4 after an opening verse of greeting, is the theme of trials. Here we have the very challenging teaching to consider it pure joy when we encounter various kinds of trials. James is clearly generalizing, although initially the circumstances of persecution and economic injustice would have come primarily to the fore. (2) In verses 5-8 of chapter 1, James introduces the theme of wisdom. Those of us who lack it should seek it by asking it of God, who gives generously and without reproach. And we must ask in faith, not doubting. In context it is clear that what James is referring to here is faith that believes in the God of Jesus Christ as the one who will answer our prayers. It is not that he is claiming that we must know in advance how He will answer those prayers. (3) The third theme, introduced in verses 9-11, is explicitly the theme of riches and poverty, and how, in a Christian context, believers should understand these socioeconomic circumstances. The poor Christian can take pride in his high position, in Christ, and the rich Christian must recognize the utter transience of worldly wealth and his humble position, therefore, before God.
B. Restatement of Three Key Themes (James 1:12-27)
Then it would appear that chapter 1 goes back through these same three themes again, expanding them. Chapter 1:12-18 returns to the theme of trials, but the same Greek word that is translated “trial” in the sense of an adverse external circumstance can be and is appropriately translated in verses 13 and following “temptation”—when a Christian responds inappropriately to adverse external circumstances and allows it to become a situation in which he or she is seduced into sin. When such things happen, James stresses, believers should not blame God. God never tempts anyone. Rather, they should own their own responsibility that comes from their sinful, fallen, human nature or desires.
Chapter 1:19-26 unpack the theme of wisdom by associating with it the theme of right speech. And verse 19 sums up perhaps James’ main point here: we are to be slow to speak, quick to listen, and quick to hear in the sense of “hear and obey.” Verse 27 then returns to the theme of the dispossessed—wealth and poverty and socioeconomic circumstances—giving a striking and significant definition of true religion: one who cares for orphans and widows in their distress (the social concern element of Christianity), but who keeps oneself unstained from the pollution of the world (the pious or religious or spiritual dimension of the Christian faith). This third theme is now unpacked. Indeed, it would appear all three themes are unpacked in reverse sequence in the remaining chapters of James.
C. The Third Theme Expanded (James 2:1-26)
The theme of riches and poverty occupies James’ attention throughout chapter 2. Verses 1-13 most explicitly discuss the case of an outsider who comes into the Christian assembly who is quite wealthy, as contrasted with one who is quite poor, and the injustice of Christians who might be tempted to discriminate in favor of the rich person and against the poor one. The scene in verses 1-4 here may actually be that of a Christian courtroom. There is significant judicial language throughout this passage, and we know from ancient Jewish practice that Jews were forbidden to take internal disputes to pagan civil law. Paul himself encourages that Christians function as their own courts of adjudication in 1 Corinthians 6, and it may well be that these Jewish Christians are functioning in this context here. The rich Christian, therefore, is not to be given any favoritism, for as 2:5 puts it, God specially loves and chooses the poor who love Him. From these verses comes the appropriate emphasis of certain strands of modern theology of what has been called God’s preferential option for the poor, although we must note that in context these are not all poor, indiscriminately of their religious commitments, but the poor Christians.
Chapter 2:14-26 then proceeds to the most famous portion of James’ letter: a discussion of faith without works being dead. But what is often lost sight of is that this discussion is introduced in verse 14-17 with a specific illustration again out of socioeconomic circumstances. The brother or sister who finds themselves in a position to help the destitute within the Christian community, and yet who refuses to lift a finger, cannot, James says very clearly—even moreso in the original language than in some modern translations—be saved. If one does not have good works, James goes on to generalize, that flow as the outgrowth of one’s faith—including as exhibit A in the area of Christian stewardship—then any profession of faith one may make is simply vacuous.
How is one to harmonize these strong claims with Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans, in particular, of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law? Martin Luther wrestled with this problem and indeed made the famous comment that he felt the epistle of James was “an epistle of straw”—not to be taken as significant or as prominent in the canon, perhaps even having its canonicity questioned. This was almost certainly a wrong approach to James, because Paul makes it very clear repeatedly that the kind of faith he promotes does lead to good works. Galatians 5:6: “faith working through love”; or Ephesians 2:10, after the famous verses that we discussed in an earlier lesson about being saved by grace through faith, “we are created unto good works” as the “workmanship” of Christ Jesus. No, both James and Paul—indeed all New Testament writers—agree that works must necessarily flow from faith. They are merely stressing that it is not the works in and of themselves that save, but faith as the primary and initial foundation.
A simple way of understanding the difference between James and Paul may be to realize how they are defining their terms. When Paul speaks of faith, he speaks of full-orbed Christian faith; and the works that he disparages are not Christian works, but works of the law, works that Jews performed in an attempt to save themselves apart from faith in Jesus Christ. James, however, uses the term “faith” to refer to monotheism, Jewish belief. See especially 2:19, where James says even demons have this kind of faith, believing that God is one. James, on the other hand, when he refers to works refers to the Christian works that flow from saving faith; and thus there is no contradiction between the two writers.
D. Second Theme Expanded (James 3:1-4:17)
Chapter 3:1-4:17 unpack the twin themes of speech and wisdom, beginning by warning against too many people too quickly wanting to become teachers, because of the danger of sins of the tongue—especially when many people are listening and many people can be influenced. The end of chapter 3 and on into chapter 4 unpacks the theme of wisdom, contrasting true, godly wisdom with that which is of the world and the flesh and the devil. Particularly in 4:2, in this context of the combined themes of speech and wisdom, appear key teachings on prayer, teachings about why we do not have certain things God wants to give us, chapter 4 verse 2, because we have not asked (or perhaps following the present tense of the Greek verb form, because we have not asked persistently enough). In other cases, as the text goes on to say, however, we do not have because we ask with wrong motives, simply for selfish reasons. And 4:13-17 includes a third important teaching on unanswered prayer: sometimes we simply have not taken into account the Lord’s will; His will may be different from ours.
E. First Theme Expanded (Jas 5:1-18)
Chapter 5 returns to the theme of trials. Verses 1-12 clearly are in this context. Verses 13-20 may be seen as a conclusion of the entire epistle, but 13-18 also discuss the problem of sickness, which may well be seen as a continuation of this theme of a Christian response to trials. In verses 1-6 the oppressive, rich landlords are described in greatest detail, and their judgment and condemnation is declared to be certain. Because Christians can trust that God will judge and vindicate and take vengeance on their oppressors, they need not revolt, they need not take up arms. But verses 7-12 do more than simply encourage Christians to be patient and prayerful, waiting for God to take justice into His hands. Rather, they liken the way in which Christians should behave to the prophets of old, known for their denunciatory rhetoric of the injustice of their day, and of the patience of Job, which was hardly a passive patience, but took his complaints loudly before God. Christians in the face of injustice today against themselves and others have every right and every responsibility to besiege God with their prayers of lament, and to call out forthrightly to all who will listen, and perhaps to those who will not, in their society about the injustice. But there is no precedent here or elsewhere in the New Testament of violent resistance to the injustice of the world.
As we think back on James, two themes of contemporary significance loom large. One is the whole theme of Christian stewardship and the use of one’s money. As we have noted in previous occasions, in the parables of Luke and 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, a major aspect of new teaching, certainly more prominent than in many Christian contexts today, is what we might call “lordship salvation.” Unless Jesus is Lord of all, He is not Lord at all, and that includes being Lord of our pocketbooks. The whole modern movement of liberation theology calls attention to another one of James’ themes, namely the need to fight and denounce injustice as we see it in our world today. If liberation theology has sometimes erred in making this a violent revolt, nevertheless its proper concern that the social elements as well as spiritual elements of Christianity not be divorced from one another is extremely appropriate.
IV. Background of 1 Peter
The next General Epistle that we come to in the canonical sequence is that of 1 Peter. This letter, attributed to Peter the apostle in the opening verse, is also said to have been written with the help of Silas in 5:12, perhaps accounting for its very distinct style from 2 Peter. First Peter 5:13 claims that the letter was written from Babylon. Babylon, as we know it from Old Testament times, lay in ruins in New Testament days. Almost certainly this is a code word for Rome, as we will see more clearly in the book of Revelation and as we know it was used in other literature of the day. Peter is probably writing, much about the same time as the letter to the Hebrews, at the beginning of or immediately preceding the onset of Neronic persecution in 64, to Christians in Asia Minor and other provinces that make up the modern-day country of Turkey. We read the list of these provinces in 1:1. Peter, then, spending a portion of the decade of the 60s in Rome, was writing from Rome back to communities to the east.
Like James, he uses language of the Diaspora and language of Judaism to describe his audience. But 2:10 and 4:3 make it clear that a majority of the Christians in these Asian communities come from Gentile backgrounds. In fact, one of the significant contributions of Peter’s theology to an understanding of Christian identity is the whole host of terms that he uses throughout his epistle, and particularly in the opening verses of chapter 2, applying language of the “chosen race” or “chosen nation”, the “royal priesthood,” and the like—language that originally referred only to people who were ethnic Jews or full-fledged proselytes, converts to Judaism, now applied to the church of Jesus Christ, Gentile and Jew alike.
Where we have seen Paul, particularly beginning with theology, and then moving to exhortation, Hebrews, interspersing the two but in the same sequence, Peter focuses primarily on exhortation with occasional short, dense, and compact passages of Christian theology interspersed—passages that seem to take on the form of an early Christian creed or hymn or confession, that have often been associated with possible baptismal liturgies in the context of first-century Christianity.
V. Analysis of 1 Peter
A. Introduction (1Pe 1:1-12)
Chapter 1:1-12 begins with a typical epistolary greeting and thanksgiving. In fact, 1 Peter follows most closely the typical letter sequence, apart from the body of the letter and the relationship of exhortation to exposition, of any of the General Epistles.
B. Call to Christian Holiness (1Pe 1:13-2:10)
Chapter 1:13-2:10 is the first major section of the body as, like the epistle to the Hebrews, Peter begins to anticipate ways in which Christians can cope with suffering or persecution, as it seems to be on the rise. The first of these strategies is a call to Christian holiness. It occupies a good part of chapters 1 and 2, and culminates in the first Christological confession, the model of Jesus’ own holy living and behavior which can inspire and empower these Asian Christians to do likewise. The main part of the body of 1 Peter, however, reminds us of those sections of Ephesians and Colossians that we labeled a domestic or a household code. Peter has instructions in these passages about how husbands and wives and slaves and masters are to relate to one another. Instead of referring to children and parents, however, as the third pair of relations discussed, he talks about government and citizens, an appropriate topic to consider if governmental or imperial persecution is on the increase.
C. Principles of Submission (1Pe 2:11-3:22)
The first of these sections in fact, is the section that deals with citizens and slaves in 2:11-25. And here, as in the other sections of this household or domestic code, now expanded to include the entire empire, those in a position of subordination—namely the Christian citizens that Peter is writing to—are called upon to submit, to cooperate with, to defer to, to be good, exemplary citizens and not revolt despite the increasingly difficult circumstances they find themselves in.
This same practice of cooperating and deference is then applied in 3:1-7, following the second Christological confession that inspires Peter’s teaching throughout these chapters—namely, the way Jesus did not fight back or speak out when He was arrested and crucified. Similarly, too, wives can win over unbelieving husbands with a silent testimony. But interestingly here, too, there are commands for the husbands, lest their prayers be hindered, that they are not to abuse their position of authority. They are to treat their wives with respect as “weaker vessels,” a term that may well refer to the more vulnerable position that wives put themselves in with their voluntary submission.
Thirdly and finally, Peter turns to slaves and masters and to the entire church in these chapters 2 and 3 of 1 Peter, culminating his discussion of submission and the principles that are involved there with a third Christological confession in 3:18-22. This is perhaps the most puzzling portion of theology in 1 Peter. It describes Christ’s proclamation to spirits who are in prison. It has been taken by some throughout the history of the church as a reference to Jesus, between His death and resurrection, going to hell or Hades and offering a chance of salvation to those who had not heard the Gospel there previously. There are various other mutations of this interpretation, but a more probable one is that this is a reference to Christ’s ministry between His resurrection appearances and His ascension of proclaiming victory over the fallen angels. The term “spirits” without any other qualification, when used in the plural throughout the New Testament, without exception refers to angels or demons; and it would seem more likely and more consistent with the fact that no other text of the New Testament offers anyone a chance at hearing or having salvation after death that this is not a preaching of the Good News of the Gospel as an offer of salvation, but is the announcement of Christ’s victory over death.
D. Call for Perseverance (1Pe 4:1-5:14)
Chapter 4:1-5:11 then includes an encouragement to persevere despite the suffering. Chapter 4:19 is perhaps a key summary not only of this section but of the entire epistle as Peter commands those under these hostile circumstances to commit themselves to their Creator, to keep their religious and spiritual allegiance, but also to continue to do good, not to retreat from society despite the difficulties of maintaining a good Christian witness within it.
E. Conclusion (1Pe 5:12-14)
Chapter 5:1-14, then follow the typical concluding portions of a letter with various exhortations, including those of what it means to be a faithful Christian elder, and then signs off with the customary closing greetings.
To summarize the message of 1 Peter, we may take two quite different tacks, which at times have been seen as rival approaches but may in fact be viewed as complementary. On the one hand, 1 Peter has been called a letter describing a “home for the homeless”—those who are literal, or at least spiritual, refugees, who are finding this world a very alien place and a very difficult place to get along in. There is much in the calls to Christian holiness and in the household code sections of 1 Peter to suggest that the Christian community is to function as a family, is to form an alternate model when the world itself does not provide a safe haven or a retreat—a home for the refugees, a home for the homeless, spiritually speaking.
But one has also summarized 1 Peter as a letter, following that famous line out of Jeremiah, that Christians, like Jews in the days of the Babylonian exile, are to “seek the welfare of the city.” It would be tempting, and it has been tempting for Christians in many periods of history, particularly in hostile environments, to create a community—a very thriving and healthy home for the homeless—but to do so monastically, or to do so in some sense as a retreat from active social involvement. Peter calls on his listeners equally to continue to do good, to provide a witness, to give an account for the hope that is within them, 3:15, in full view of an unrelentingly hostile public. Together, these two functions will create not only a healthy Christian nurturing community, but a powerful evangelistic device and motive that will enable the church to grow in whatever circumstances it finds itself in.