“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.” (James 1:1, AV)
Once, while servicing a printing machine that our company sold to a business in Cincinnati, I met a group of executives from their corporation. They wanted to go out to dinner with me to ask some questions about the machine. That night, after the meal, we went to a place where there was a comedian. One of the executives, because of his background, was offended by the comedian’s jokes. Imagine, if all the people in the audience were of the same background as the man who had taken offense. It would have been a disaster for the comedian.
The point is that a communicator must know his or her audience. The first devotion I did on Hebrews, was titled, “Changing Lenses.” To understand the book of Hebrews, one needed to understand the audience to which the author wrote. One could not look at the book through 21st Century Christian eyeglasses. One needed to understand the cultural background of the letter’s recipients. We have a similar issue with all the books of the Bible, in particular this letter that James wrote.
The James who wrote this letter was the half-brother of Jesus (there are several reasons that I hold to this view) and a key leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:12-21). He addressed this letter to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” The word “scattered abroad” is translated from the Greek, diaspora, is also translated as dispersion. Israel had experienced a tumultuous history. In 722 B.C. the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel that included 10 tribes. Later, the Babylonians conquered the Southern Kingdom, Judah’s two tribes in the 6th Century B.C. The land of Palestine was then conquered by, Syria, Greece and then Rome. Though these conquests, many Israelites were scattered into lands outside of Palestine.
On the Day of Pentecost, when Peter preached his great sermon and about 3000 came to faith, many who there were of the diaspora, those from other lands (Acts 2:5-13). A bit later when persecution came upon the church, there was an additional scattering as many Jewish Christians fled from Judea to remote lands to escape the hardships (Acts 8:1; 11:19). Based upon James’ writing, I believe that he is writing to all those Jewish believers in the remote regions and has a particular emphasis with regards to those who have fled due to persecution (James 1:2-4).
What is the point? The group to whom James writes are Jewish Christians living outside of Palestine. To understand the letter, we must consider their background. These Jewish people were formerly under a religious system in which they were taught to justify themselves before God through legalistic obedience to the Mosaic law under the Old Covenant. They came to understand that justification came through doing good works. Yet, as Christians they had transitioned to the New Covenant teaching of justification by grace through faith.
You need to understand their struggle. Based upon their background they would have a big question. What do good works have to do with Christianity? James, in this letter, answers this question. His answer is rather than works justifying sinners before God, works will justify one’s faith before men. As James writes about faith and works, we must keep this in mind. James wants the Jewish Christians to understand that they are not justified by works, but true faith will produce good works. Moreover, these good works matter because they mark the validity of one’s faith in the eyes of men.