Studies in James: The Purpose of the Epistle (Part 1)

Identifying the specific purpose of a sacred writing is sometimes relatively easy. Some authors, for example, state it outright (like John 20:31). At other times it is obvious from the subject matter of the letter, and still other times it is an easy inference from various sections of the letter. At other times, however, identifying the specific purpose of a book of the Bible can be challenging. James offers us such a challenge, and yet there is still a purpose to this work. In fact, James has three major themes that weave together to create an overarching purpose for his writing: wisdom, integrity, and community.

It can be somewhat difficult to determine James’ central point. As I have previously pointed out, the content of the book can feel disjointed and random, more like a string of proverbs than a structured letter. In fact, many scholars read it that way and conclude that not only is there no main point but there’s not even a single or primary author. The book is simply a collection of sayings perhaps from the Apostle James. I have argued against that view, but as you read the letter you can certainly appreciate why individuals come to that conclusion. But upon closer inspection you can see several themes tend to weave themselves throughout the entirety of the letter. Let’s consider each briefly.

The first theme is wisdom. It is well documented that James parallels the structure and even verbiage of ancient wisdom literature. He writes in the vein of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and references the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount in detail. In fact, James’ theology is highly practical. There is no discussion of those key doctrinal points that dominate church life later on; his letter emphasizes matters of treatment of the poor, facing persecution, avoiding favoritism, and controlling your tongue. Wisdom is all about the application of truth to life; it is, by nature, oriented towards living not merely knowing.

James speaks of wisdom outright in two specific passages (1:5; 3:13-18). In each reference wisdom is identified as a gift of God. It is “wisdom from above” as opposed to the wisdom of this world. In some literature wisdom is personified (see Prov. 8), making wisdom into a person who speaks and appeals and teaches. Since there is no overt mention of the Holy Spirit in the Epistle of James it is sometimes suggested that these references to wisdom from God is an indirect reference to the Holy Spirit. As attractive as this notion is to Trinitarians, it simply doesn’t conform to the text. Within James wisdom never takes on personal characteristics. Yet, the God gives wisdom is of importance. It connects faithful living to personal relationship.

As you read about wisdom in the book, particularly in 3:13-18, you see that God’s gift of wisdom enables one to live a life of integrity and consistency. So, the fruit of wisdom in James actually parallels the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. The fruit of wisdom, according to James, includes humility, purity, peace, gentleness, an openness to reason, mercy, and general good fruits, impartiality, and sincerity. Peter Davids has a wonderful chart showing the overlap between these fruits, the fruit of the Spirit as explained by Paul, and the characteristics of Kingdom people in the Sermon on the Mount (A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude, 76).

Faithfulness in the Christian life, then, requires wisdom from above. As you can perhaps already see, there is overlap between these first two themes of integrity and wisdom. Let’s explore this concept of integrity next, but for the moment consider James’ discussion of wisdom. Does the wisdom in your life evidence itself in these fruits? Is the wisdom of your life drawn from an intimate and personal relationship with God? Does the wisdom in your life display itself in practical living or does it rest on mere facts? The very structure of James emphasizes the importance of wisdom. He borrows heavily from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and Jesus’ himself. He speaks about wisdom and encourages us to seek wisdom. Much of his letter touches on this theme and so, as readers and as Christians, we should be concerned about wisdom.

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