These two letters are written by Jesus’s half-brothers. James’s letter is one of the earliest written ones to the new Jewish Christian community and expounds on the topic of faith. Jude’s letter was written about twenty-five years before John’s writings. James was written in the beginning era of the acts of the apostles with Jude’s letter listed last in the New Testament before its last book: Revelation. These remaining letters in this section are entitled with author’s name (like the Gospels are) who wrote them (with Hebrews title only known as written by a Hebrew) whereas Paul’s letters were title according to his mentees and churches.
James is compared to the wisdom book Proverbs. It is full of the practical actions of faith, encouraging God’s people to act as God’s people should. “Act like somebody” is a family quip said in my household when encouraging good behavior. James, however, gets more emphatic about acting out faith through service.
A character sketch of James shows the writer of this letter to be held in high esteem. He is one of the five half-siblings in Jesus’s family (cf. Matt. 13:55-56, Lk. 8:19, Mk. 3:31). This James is also known as James the Just, a bishop of the first and oldest church in Jerusalem, and one Paul calls out as having outstanding virtue as a pillar of the Church. The Jewish historian Josephus said this James was a man of preeminent justice. He was killed by Jewish leaders stoning him around AD 62.
The original audience is the Christian Jews from the twelve tribes who were dispersed beyond Jerusalem. It is thought to be one of the earliest written (possibly in AD 45) letter in the New Testament, along with Galatians. At the time, the first century Christians had to contend with Roman authorities as well as that of the Jewish religious leaders wanting Mosaic law to be fulfilled (circumcision, forbidden foods observed, etc.) by the Christians. Later in life, James’s enemies took advantage of an interval between Roman governors in AD 62 and had him put to death by stoning.
It was not until this side of the cross that James (and hints of others in Jesus’s family 1Cor. 9:5) realized who Jesus was. In James 5:7-9, he encourages patience for the Lord’s second coming. Jesus said during His lifetime on earth how a prophet is not accepted in His hometown (Lk. 4:24). A hometown can encompass family as well. Jesus was fully human yet sinless. Like Joseph in Genesis, His siblings probably had difficulty relating to Him as being superior. For us who like Joseph are less than perfect mortals, as we grow in our faith walk, we find it is bumpy and slippery. We hit speedbumps of mistakes by not being more Christ-like, or we seem to slide backward as in one step forward two back into our self-centeredness.
Many have had parallel experiences when sharing their beliefs with siblings and other family members who listened, but their facial expressions said, “Yeah that all sounds good, but I know who you really are.” I hardly consider myself a prophet if not for only a little biblical discernment. I am sure my family saw me as acting self-righteous, someone who thought they were their better, judging them. My family didn’t see I was trying to draw near to God nor do they know or realize as I did that He and his truths drew near to me (Jas. 4:8). Whatever my spiritual transformation is, part of the outcome is to show what the impact of Jesus is in a person’s life. It’s interesting Jesus did not come to judge he came to be an atoning sacrifice.
It can get confusing comparing Paul’s teachings on justification by faith alone and James’s teachings on the works that orthopraxy verse orthodoxy. James wanted to keep Christian faith in balance with works, emphasizing that good actions naturally flow from our faith, and it is how the Fruit of the Spirit and Christianity manifests and is observed by others.
The book of James was probably the most Jewish of the post-resurrection apostles. He cites Mosaic law and explains works of faith with the Christian Jews. He reminds them of their heritage through Abraham and Rahab who acted out their faith through their works. James writes that faith should activate works in us (Jas. 2:22). It’s understandable when my birth family, basing their opinion of my faith from previous works because they themselves didn’t have the perspective of any current or future hope. They could not see that what I wanted to do was influenced by my faith.
What determines people to do good works? When does helping others hurt them and their growth? When does it not enable poor behavior? Faith and service have become the great divorce of our nation. Some of this can be blamed on the federal mandates for nonprofits, particularly when partnering with the government for financial grant support. I have volunteered with organizations that fall under the umbrella of ministry and government. The laws about separation of church and state take its toll on some of the workers and the places of worship have become less and less the face of social ministry. I believe for faith to remain relevant and transformative, it must intentionally serve others. Scratch the surface of the skin of many volunteers, and you find a person of religious conviction. But to partner with the government to provide a service to the community, faith communities cannot speak of their hope (unless asked then a brief statement can be made). Still, many of the volunteer opportunities I have organized for the youth to participate in were at faith-based ministries. My favorites are the holistic ones: those meeting multiple needs of teaching life skills, resumé building, training opportunities versus just meeting a singular need.
I was first introduced to the concept of When Helping Hurts (a book mentioned previously in the Ezekiel chapter) in a social ministries class when it was recommended by a South American missionary in my college cohort. Slowing down to analyze what the motivation behind help or good works alleviates compassion fatigue of the helpers who usually leave with a bad taste in their mouth wondering if their efforts are having any long-term impact at all. When giving a helping hand, we need to be careful that we are not enabling a recipient’s behavior to continue doing the same things that are holding them back. If that need isn’t meet, we are not helping them to move beyond their situation. Social ministry can be an exhausting endeavor, but when said and done, it is a good tired: a labor of love.
Most of the time relief from suffering (hunger, housing, health needs) is the first step, but it does not stop there. Practical steps need to be taken to reduce the sufferer from going back to their pre-crisis condition, and that is through sustainable self-development. As the saying goes don’t just give a man a fish but teach him to fish, which by the way, isn’t a direct quote from the Bible but is a statement from Rabbi Moses ben Maimon commonly known as Maimonides (1135-1204).
If I could turn back the hands of time to correct one out of many moments when I was remiss, it would be when this antidotal story was put to me. The storyteller’s personality is one who is dogmatic, loud, and gregarious. He used to come over to our house, situated across the street from the Missouri River that provided the view to smoke his cigar. He prefaced by saying he had a question at the end before launching into a story about this old woman who lived alone on an island. She was visited by a missionary. The missionary witnessed to her about Christ and she accepted Jesus as the Son of God who died for her sins. The missionary left. Was that woman saved? She was isolated and did not share the message with others or do any other kind of work of faith. She just went back to her life as she knew it.
When told this conjecture, I had a memory lapse on the biblical address or writer who wrote: “Faith without deeds is dead” (Jas. 2:26). Martin Luther expresses it as, “To love is not to wish one another well, but to carry one another’s burdens that are grievous to us and that we would not willingly bear. Therefore, Christians must have strong shoulders and mighty bones…” A comparison can be made to those who put too much emphasis only on their personal salvation. If salvation is exclusively emphasized or focused upon then Karl Marx is right, religion is an opiate for the masses. Living out salvation through the show of benevolent works is how God intended for man to live in the Kingdom.
The above exchange with my friend could fall into the same category as the hypothetical question my son asked about someone’s salvation if they never heard about Jesus. In retrospect, I think my friend was under the misconception of trying to prove a point that once salvation is yours through Jesus, you are always saved, nothing can undo it. It could be another example of “common grace”.
I foolishly was influenced by a secular book on how to work with difficult people that advised to confront a person in the in the same manner they spoke to you. I did so in this incident, miserably I might add, because it is not my style, and I did not do the topic on faith without works the justice it deserves. It was a crazy exchange, almost a shouting match between us. That conversation haunts me to this day how I was not better prepared or equipped with the wisdom of the Bible, and to use it as the credible, authoritative source versus opinion. It was a good lesson for me to study the Word further to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks the reason for my hope (1Pt. 3:15).
Another half-brother, Jude, wrote a short letter included in NT canon, on what he saw as apostasy (defection from the true biblical faith). He launches right into the Jewish Christian community with condemnations, about ungodly people who pervert the grace of God into sensuality and denying who Jesus is. In contrast to a similar name to Jude’s , Judas, the betrayer, this Jude did not shrink from faith or the truth.
The letter is a warning about false teachers and dividers who were convincing believers that being saved by grace gave them license to sin since their brokenness would no longer be held against them. Jude gives us a character sketch of the apostates: they were ungodly, morally perverted, denied Christ, defile the flesh, rejected authority, ignorant, self-destructive, and devoid of the Spirit just to name a few moral deficits.
If this is not a repeated refrain to sing on the definition of “cheap grace” or on what Peter describes in his second letter about not standing your ground in the proper knowledge of God so as not to drift off from the path, then why do we sing choruses if not for emphasis? Jude points to a popular misconception that there is plenty of time to get our collective acts together before Jesus returns (Jude 1:14) so the refrain is sure to be sung again.
Depending on how far God’s message of grace can get perverted, it can end at creating a place where nothing is required. Rampant gnosticism (false esoteric spirituality) was such a perversion that it was taught that it is not necessary to believe in everything God says. That sounds a little like how people view the Bible today. The Gnostics also spread that it is not essential to develop a relationship with Jesus. Being a disciple of Jesus’s in the world is not important either. It then suffices to just say, “I’m really spiritual.” To apply it to current day, let us instead say we engage spiritually when in yoga, in social book clubs, in a therapist office, an art class or in a glass of wine. All those things are not bad in and of themselves, but they are different than behavior worthy of a believer. What’s concerning is the slow and steady rejection of theological depth and meaning for what is easier, familiar, and trendy. As much as it sometimes can give a hangover from Christian ancestry and scholarly debates, it is in seeking to answer questions about why we believe what we believe that brings us closer to understanding the sovereignty and mystery of an awesome God.
Jude wrote in the first chapter, verse 21 to “keep yourself in the love of God, as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.” Dr. Carl Jung said when asked if he believed in this God of the church of his youth, he paused and said that it is a hard question. “Do I believe? (insert a pregnant pause here) No. I know.”
Similarly, I just know someday, in God’s perfect time He will return and the fact of the matter is it could indeed be tomorrow. I turn back in a circular fashion to what I wrote in the first chapter about the way humans measure chronis time as opposed to God’s kairos time. We have become complacent with no sense of urgency about the time of Jesus’s return. The expediency or wanting to anticipate Jesus’s return usually happens when a catastrophic or a life-changing personal event takes place, waking us up from our catatonic sleep.
Jude’s doxology, or benediction (Jude 24-25), is a promise and affirmation which basically confirms God never gives us more than we can handle. I repeat something similar (Numbers 6:24-26) when I toast at weddings. Jude ends his letter on the continued focused attention on God, omnipresent with us and in our future.