Hearing the Voice of Jesus in the Epistle of James

Article by   June 2009
James D.G. Dunn once referred to the epistle of James as "the most Jewish, the most undistinctively Christian document in the New Testament." [1]  We all know that Martin Luther had serious concerns about the content of the epistle of James referring to it as "an epistle of straw" and noting that it contained "nothing of the nature of the gospel." [2]  The epistle of James has been saddled with accusations of being "sub-Christian" and bereft of Jesus.  On top of all this, the epistle has to be continually defended against charges that it conflicts with the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone.  
   
Clearly, the epistle of James is much maligned and, in my opinion, these charges have resulted in a paucity of preaching Christ from the epistle of James.  While it does require some additional exegetical effort, the voice of Jesus can be heard among the verses of this grand epistle.  In fact, the voice of Jesus can be heard in the epistle of James in ways it is heard no where else in the New Testament epistolary corpus.  This article will explore three ways in which the voice of Christ resounds in the epistle of James.

The Wisdom Voice of Jesus
Sometimes the epistle of James has been referred to as the "Proverbs of the New Testament."  While in one sense this moniker is inappropriate because the epistle does not fit within the parameters of the genre of Old Testament wisdom literature, [3] there is another sense in which this title touches upon a truth about the epistle of James--the epistle of James, like Proverbs, emphasizes wisdom.  
   
The wisdom of James, however, is starkly different than the wisdom of Proverbs because the wisdom found in the epistle of James is uniquely Christocentric.  The wisdom of James, unlike the wisdom of Proverbs, represents the redemptive-historical realization of wisdom expressed directly by Jesus himself.  Simply stated, the wisdom of James is uniquely and redemptive-historically the wisdom of Jesus.  The wisdom James gives us is derived directly from the words and life of our Lord.  As John Burns so aptly put it, "The understructure of James' theology is the wisdom of Jesus, as our Lord, the Savior taught it and lived it." [4]  In the epistle of James the wisdom voice of Jesus resounds.

The Eschatological-Prophetic Voice of Jesus
Many commentators have noted the predominance of imperatives in the epistle of James.  There are over 50 imperatives in the 108 verses of the epistle. The epistle also employs imperative verbs at a higher frequency than any other New Testament book. [5]  Some have viewed this plethora of imperatives as an indication of James' "works" emphasis, particularly because these imperatives seem unmoored from any Christ-centered gospel indicative. However, a careful and thorough reading of the epistle reveals that there is a grand eschatological indicative which fuels all the imperatives of the epistle--the return of the Lord Jesus on the great Day of the Lord.
   
James comforts those who suffer in this present age by reminding them of the joys they will experience in the age to come when Jesus returns in the consummation. He also sternly warns those who are living contrary to God's commands in this age by reminding them of the coming judgment which will be meted out in the Day of the Lord.  In essence, James tells us that in order to faithfully live the Christian life we most appropriate into this present age the realities of Christ's return and the age to come.

In this sense, James echoes the prophetic voice of the Lord Jesus Christ which, just like the prophets in the Old Testament, reminds the people of God of their covenant callings and of the reality of the coming of the Lord.  In the epistle of James, the eschatological-prophetic voice of Jesus resounds.

The Preaching Voice of Jesus

Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, we hear the preaching voice of Jesus in the epistle of James.  No other New Testament epistle captures this preaching voice of Jesus like the epistle of James.  We hear the preaching voice of Jesus in the epistle of James in two ways.
   
First, James sometimes quotes the preaching voice of our Lord verbatim.  Just consider James 5:12, "Above all, my brothers, do not swear -- not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your 'Yes' be yes, and your 'No,' no, or you will be condemned," (NIV, emphasis mine).  The italicized portions of this verse represent nearly verbatim quotations found in Matthew 5:33-37.
   
In addition to verbatim quotations, James also echoes the preaching voice of Jesus in his epistle through frequent allusions to Jesus' preaching and teaching. Most of these allusions are drawn from the Sermon on the Mount.  In fact, there are so many connections between the epistle of James and the Sermon on the Mount that some scholars view the epistle as a homily, or series of homilies, on the Sermon on the Mount. [6] 
   
It is true that other epistles quote from and allude to the teachings of Jesus, but none echo the preaching voice of Jesus as comprehensively as does the epistle of James.  Douglas Moo notes that James "weaves Jesus' teaching into the very fabric of his own instruction." [7]  Luke Timothy Johnson comments that James naturally uses "his brother's language as his own." [8] When one reads the epistle of James one uniquely hears the preaching voice of Jesus in a unique way.

Distinctively Christian and Christ-Centered
In the epistle of James we encounter the wisdom voice of Jesus, the eschatological-prophetic voice of Jesus and the preaching voice of Jesus.  We hear Jesus in ways that are unparalleled in the New Testament outside the four Gospels.  In response to the assessment of James Dunn, I would suggest that the epistle of James is one of the most distinctively Christian, and Christ-centered, documents in the New Testament!


[1] The scholar is James D.G. Dunn.  The quote is cited in Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim (Philipsburgh, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), p.370.
[2] Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, vol. 6 trans. C.M Jacobs, (Philadelphia, Mulenberg Press, 1932), 444.
[3] For a helpful discussion of the difference between the epistle of James and Proverbs see John A. Burns, "James the Wisdom of Jesus", Criswell Theological Review, vol. 1.1, 1986, 113-135.
[4] John A. Burns, "James, the Wisdom of Jesus", Criswell Theological Review, vol.1.1, 1986, 134.
[5] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), p.1.
[6] See Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1990), pp.729-730, for a helpful comparison of the content of the Sermon on the Mount.  See also Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James: NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), p.47-48, and Virgil V. Porter, "The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 1", Bibliotheca Sacra,  vol.162, no. 647, Julyl-September 2005, pp.344-360.
[7] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), p.7
[8] Luke Timothy Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), p.22

Anthony Selvaggio is presently serving as a teaching elder in the Rochester Reformed Presbyterian Church (PRCNA), Rochester, NY.  He is also a visiting professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

Anthony Selvaggio, "Hearing the Voice of Jesus in the Epistle of James", Reformation 21 (May 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org

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