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by Doug Ward

As participants in the ``new covenant,'' Christians have the law of God ``written on their hearts'' (Jer. 31:31-33). However, the question of what role that law should play in the lives of Christians has often been controversial. In studying this question, we can find guidance in the teaching of Jesus and the writers of the New Testament. One particularly helpful source is the epistle of James, which is full of valuable moral instruction for disciples of Jesus. In this article I will examine several passages from the epistle of James that illustrate the law's application in an early Christian community.

James the Lord's Brother

The epistle of James was most likely written by the apostle known as ``James the Lord's brother'' (Gal. 1:19). This apostle has been the focus of much media attention since the discovery in 2002 of an ancient ossuary bearing the inscription, ``James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.'' A number of experts believe that the ossuary and its inscription are authentic, but there is no way to be certain that the James mentioned in the inscription is the one we read about in Gal. 1:19 [2]. In any case, the excitement over the ossuary has increased public awareness of the life of an important early Christian leader.

The Gospels seem to indicate that James was not a disciple of Jesus before the crucifixion (see for example John 7:1-5; 19:26-27). But shortly after His resurrection, Jesus apparently made a special appearance to James (I Cor. 15:7). This encounter with the risen Lord changed the direction of James's life. He joined the group of Jesus' followers awaiting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14) and became the first leader of the Christian community there (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.1). His unflinching loyalty to Jesus eventually led to his martyrdom in A.D. 62 (Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23).

James had a great reputation for holy living, and this emphasis is reflected in his epistle. It is from James that we learn the definition of ``pure religion''(1:27), the fact that ``faith without works is dead'' (2:14-26), and the importance of controlling the tongue (3:3-12). To identify the source and basis for the instruction given by James, let's take a closer look at several examples of his teaching.

Avoiding Favoritism

In James 2:1-9, James admonishes Christians not to show favoritism based on socioeconomic status. Three factors seem to form the foundation for his teaching. First, such behavior is not compatible with being a follower of Jesus (2:1). Jesus set an example of concern for people at all levels of society. He strove to heal or restore those who were shunned or excluded (see for example Luke 4:18-21; 5:12-15; 19:1-10). He gave His life for all of us.

Second, favoritism ignores the social order of the kingdom of God, as expounded by Jesus (James 2:5-7). Jesus taught that one's status in the present world does not determine one's position in His kingdom. In fact, a reversal may often take place, with those who are poor in this life receiving some of the greatest rewards in the world to come (Luke 6:20-26; 13:30; 16:19-25). In light of that ultimate reality, it does not make sense to show favoritism.

Third, favoritism violates the ``royal law'' (James 2:8-9) recorded in Lev. 19:18: ``Love your neighbor as yourself.'' In agreement with Jesus and Paul (Matt. 22:37-40; Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:8-10), James saw Lev. 19:18b as an important summarizing principle for all of God's Torah. 1 On the other hand, he also viewed the various commandments of the Torah as specific ways of carrying out that important principle. Favoritism, for example, is specifically forbidden in Lev. 19:15:

``Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly'' (NIV).

This section of scripture indicates that James, like Jesus, saw every biblical commandment as important (James 2:10-11; cf. Matt. 5:17-18). He did not view the coming of Jesus as having abolished the laws of God. Instead, Jesus had reinforced and clarified the Torah through His life and His teaching about the kingdom of God.

James and Leviticus 19

Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has pointed out that James may have had Lev. 19:12-18 especially in mind when he composed his epistle [1]. Here are five further examples, each of which reflects the emphases that we have already observed in James 2:1-11.

James 4:11-12.     In this passage James admonishes Christians not to slander one another, in keeping with Lev. 19:16a: ``Do not go about spreading slander among your people.'' James associates slander with judgment or condemnation of others, an activity condemned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:1-5). 2 He notes that judgment is God's prerogative (cf. Rom. 14:10-12), reminding his readers of a coming eschatological judgment.

James 5:1-6.     James warns the rich to repent. By withholding fair wages from workers, the rich violate Lev. 19:13: ``Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.'' Their hoarding of wealth is a fruitless exercise, as Jesus taught in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21).

In vv. 2-3, James writes of wealth wasting away because of moths and rust, imagery reminiscent of the words of Jesus in Matt. 6:20: ``But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.'' James's references to ``the last days'' and a ``day of slaughter'' again point to an imminent time of judgment.

James 5:7-11.    This section contains a command in verse 9 (``Grudge not one against another'' in the KJV) similar to Lev. 19:18a: ``Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people.'' James urges Christians not to bear grudges because a better world is coming. Since a great reward is ahead, patience is in order for the present. Again, James directs the minds of his readers to the ``big picture'' of the kingdom of God.

James 5:12.    We can connect the instruction against swearing with Lev. 19:12: ``Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.'' But James's admonition goes beyond Lev. 19:12, closely following the teaching of Jesus in Matt. 5:33-37. In those days the taking of oaths was very common, and fine distinctions were made about which oaths were the "most binding'' (see Matt. 23:16-22). To stay away from such dishonesty, both Jesus and James advocated that oaths be avoided altogether.

James 5:19-20.     The epistle of James ends with a positive commandment. A Christian who "loves his neighbor as himself'' will take steps, when necessary, to safeguard a brother's place in the kingdom of God. Johnson [1] sees a possible connection between these verses and Lev. 19:17b: ``Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.'' In both passages, the idea of ``covering sins'' or ``bearing sin'' is connected with the correction or reproval of a neighbor. Both convey the message that we are our brother's keepers.


In his instruction to Jewish Christian communities in the Diaspora, James upheld the importance of the Torah. He stressed ``weightier matters'' like the Ten Commandments and the "royal law'' of Lev. 19:18, as expounded and amplified by the life and teachings of Jesus (especially the Sermon on the Mount). He urged his readers to live in a continual awareness of the reality of the return of the Messiah and the coming of the kingdom of God. Even though nearly two thousand years have passed since the time of James, these emphases of his epistle are still very relevant for disciples of Jesus today.


1. Luke Timothy Johnson, "The Use of Leviticus 19 in the Letter of James,'' Journal of Biblical Literature 101 (1982), No. 3, pp. 391-401.


2. Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus : The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, 2003.


1See the article on the two "great commandments'' in this issue of Grace & Knowledge.

2The teaching of James often echoes the Sermon on the Mount. Witherington lists about fifteen possible parallels in [2, pp. 147-151].

Issue 15


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