Chapter 1

Commentary on Verse 1

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings

James. There were two people of this name—the son of Zebedee, and the son of Alphaeus (James the Less); the latter is the author of this letter. Many of the ancients thought that there was a third person called James—James the brother of the Lord, also called Chobliham, or Oblias, or James the Just, who they thought was not an apostle but Bishop of Jerusalem. Jerome calls him the thirteenth apostle. But there were only two Jameses, this latter James being the same as the son of Alphaeus; for plainly the brother of the Lord is reckoned among the apostles in Galatians 1:19 and is called a pillar in Galatians 2:9; and he is called the brother of the Lord because he was in the family of which Christ was a member. Well, then, there being two, to which of these is the letter to be ascribed? The whole stream of antiquity carries it for the brother of the Lord, who, as I said, is the same as James the son of Alphaeus; and with good reason, the son of Zebedee being beheaded long before by Herod, from the very beginning of the preaching of the Gospel (Acts 12:2). But this letter must be of a later date, as it alludes to some passages already written and notes the degeneration of the church, which was not the condition of the church at the beginning.

James the Less is the person whom we have found to be the instrument whom the Spirit of God made use of to convey this treasure to the church. He was by his private calling a husbandman, by public office in the church an apostle, and was especially called to visit the church in and around Jerusalem, either because of his eminency and being a close relation of Christ, or for the great esteem he had gained among the Jews. And therefore, when the other apostles were going to and fro disseminating the Word of life, James was often found at Jerusalem. (See Galatians 1:18-19; Acts 1:14, 21; 15; etc.) By disposition he was very strict and exceedingly just, and so was called James the Just. He drank neither wine nor strong drink and ate no meat. His knees were like a camel's hoof through frequent prayer. He died a martyr.

A servant of God. The word servant is sometimes used to imply an abject and vile condition, as that of a slave; thus the apostle Paul says, "neither... slave nor free... for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28); for "slave" he uses the word James uses for servant. This great apostle, James, thinks it an honor to be the servant of God. The lowest ministry and office for God is honorable.

But why not "apostle"? He does not mention his apostleship, first, because there was no need, as he was eminent in the opinion and reputation of the churches; therefore Paul says he was reputed to be a pillar of the Christian faith (Galatians 2:9). Paul, whose apostleship was openly questioned, often asserted it. Secondly, Paul himself does not call himself an apostle in every letter. Sometimes his style is, "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus" (Philemon 1); sometimes "Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:1); sometimes nothing but his name Paul is prefixed, as in 1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1.

And of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some people take both these clauses to apply to the same person and read it thus: "A servant of Jesus Christ who is God and Lord"; indeed this was one of the verses that the Greek fathers used when arguing, against the Arians, for the Godhead of Christ. But our reading, which separates the clauses, is to be preferred as less forced and more suitable to the apostolic inscriptions. Neither is the dignity of Christ impaired hereby, as he is the object of equal honor with the Father; as the Father is Lord, as well as Jesus Christ, so Jesus Christ is God, as well as the Father. Well, then, James is not only God's servant by the right of creation and providence, but Christ's servant by the right of redemption; yes, especially appointed by Christ as Lord-that is, as mediator and head of the church—to do him service as an apostle. I suppose there is some special reason for this distinction, a servant of God and of... Christ, to show his countrymen that in serving Christ he served the God of his fathers, as Paul pleaded in Acts 26:6-7.

To the twelve tribes. That is, to the Jews and people of Israel, chiefly those converted to the faith of Christ; to these James writes as the minister of the "circumcised" (Galatians 2:9). And he writes not in Hebrew, their own language, but in Greek, as the language then most in use, just as the apostle Paul writes to the Romans in the same language, and not in Latin.

Scattered among the nations. In the original Greek, the word "dispersion" is used. But what scattering, or dispersion, is intended here? I answer:

  1. Either what happened in their ancient captivities and the frequent changes of nations; there were some Jews who still lived abroad, as John 7:35 shows.
  2. Or, more recently, by the persecution spoken of in Acts 8.
  3. Or by the hatred of Claudius, who commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome (Acts 18:2). And it is probable that the same was done in other great cities. The Jews, and among them the Christians, were thrown out everywhere, just as John was thrown out of Ephesus and others out of Alexandria.
  4. Or some voluntary dispersion, the Hebrews living here and there among the Gentiles a little before the decline and ruin of their state, some in Cilicia, some in Pontus, etc. Thus the apostle Peter writes "to... strangers... scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia" (1 Peter 1:1).

Greetings. A usual salutation, but not so frequent in Scripture. Cajetan thinks it profane and pagan, and therefore questions the letter, but unworthily. We find the same salutation sometimes used in holy Scripture, for example to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:28); see also Acts 15:23. Usually it is "grace, mercy, and peace," but sometimes it is "greetings."

Notes on Verse 1

Note 1. James, a servant of God. He was Christ's close relative and, therefore, in a Hebraism, is called "the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:19)—not properly and strictly, as Joseph's son (though some of the ancients thought he was, by a former marriage), but his cousin. So James, the Lord's kinsman, calls himself the Lord's servant. Note that inward privileges are the best and most honorable, and spiritual relationship is preferred to physical. Mary was happier having Christ in her heart than in her womb, and James in being Christ's servant rather than his brother. Christ himself speaks about this in Matthew 12:47-50. The truest relationship to Christ is founded on grace, and we are far happier receiving him by faith than touching him by blood. Whoever endeavors to do his will may be as sure of Christ's love and esteem as if he were linked to him by the closest outward relationship.

Note 2. It is no dishonor for the highest to be Christ's servant. James, whom Paul calls "a pillar", calls himself a servant of... Christ; and David, a king, says, "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked" (Psalm 84:10). The office of the Nethinim, or doorkeepers in the temple, was the lowest; and therefore when the question was proposed what they should do with the Levites who had moved away from God to idols, God says, "They must bear the shame"; that is, they shall be degraded and employed in the lowest offices and ministries of the temple, as porters and doorkeepers (see Ezekiel 44:10-13). Yet David says, "I would rather be a doorkeeper"; human honor and greatness is nothing compared with this. Paul was "a Hebrew of Hebrews" (Philippians 3:5)—that is, from an ancient Hebrew race and extraction, there being, to the memory of man, no proselyte in his family or among his ancestors, which was seen as a very great honor by that nation. Yet Paul says he counts everything dung and dogs' meat in comparison with an interest in Christ Jesus (see Philippians 3:8).

Note 3. The highest ranks in the church are still only servants: James, a servant. See 2 Corinthians 4:1. The sin of Corinth was man—worship, giving excessive honor and respect to those teachers whom they admired, setting them up as heads of factions and giving up their faith to their dictates. The apostle seeks to reclaim them from that error, by showing that they are not masters but ministers: give them the honor of a minister and steward, but not that dependence which is due only to the Master. See 2 Corinthians 1:24. We are not to prescribe articles of faith but explain them. So the apostle Peter bids the elders not to lord it over God's heritage (see 1 Peter 5:3), not to have mastery over their consciences. Our work is mere service, and we can but persuade; Christ must impose himself upon the conscience. This is Christ's own advice to his disciples in Matthew 23:10: "Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ." All the authority and success of our teaching is from our Lord. We can prescribe nothing as necessary to be believed or done that is not according to his will or word. In short, we come not in our own name and must not act with respect to our own ends; we are servants.

Note 4. A servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. In everything we do we must honor the Father, and also the Son: "all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father" (John 5:23); that is, God will be honored and worshiped only in Christ. "Trust in God; trust also in me" (John 14:1). Believing is the highest worship and respect of the creature; you must give it to the Son, to the second person as mediator, as well as to the Father. Do duties so as to honor Christ in them; and so:

First, look for their acceptance in Christ. It would be sad if we were only to look to God the Father in our work. Adam hid himself and did not dare to come into God's presence until the promise of Christ. The hypocrites cried, "Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?" (Isaiah 33:14). Guilt can form no other thought about God when looking upon him apart from Christ; we can see nothing but majesty armed with wrath and power. But now it is said that "in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence" (Ephesians 3:12); for in Christ those attributes that are in themselves terrible become sweet and comforting, just as water, which is salt in the ocean, once strained through the earth, becomes sweet in the rivers.

Second, look for your assistance from him. You serve God in Christ:

  1. When you serve God through Christ: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:13). When your own hands are in God's work, your eyes must look to Christ's hands for support in it: see Psalm 123:2; you must go about God's work with his own tools.
  2. When you have an eye for the concerns of Jesus Christ—in all your service of God (2 Corinthians 5:15). We must "live... for him who died for [us]"; not only for God in general, but for him, for God who died for us. You must see how you advance his kingdom, propagate his truth, further the glory of Christ as mediator.
  3. When all is done for Christ's sake. In Christ God has a new claim on you, and you are bought with his blood, that you may be his servants. Under the law the great argument for obedience was God's sovereignty: do so—and—so, "I am the Lord"—as in Leviticus 19:37. Now the argument is gratitude, God's love in Christ: "For Christ's love compels us" (2 Corinthians 5:14). The apostle often persuades with that motive: be God's servants for Christ's sake.

Note 5. To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations. God looks after his afflicted servants; he moved James to write to the scattered tribes. Heaven's care flourishes toward you when you wither. One would have thought that people might have been driven away from God's care when they had been driven away from the sanctuary. "This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Although I have sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone" (Ezekiel 11:16). Though they lacked the temple, yet God would be a sanctuary. He looks after them, to watch their spirits, that he may comfort them, and to watch their adversaries, to go before them with his care. He looks after them to deliver them, that he may "assemble the exiles" (Micah 4:6) and make up his "treasured possession" (Malachi 3:17), those that seemed to be carelessly scattered and lost.

Note 6. God's own people may be dispersed and driven from their countries and habitations. God has his outcasts. He says to Moab, "be their shelter" (Isaiah 16:4). And the church complains, "Our inheritance has been turned over to aliens" (Lamentations 5:2). Christ himself had nowhere to lay his head; and the apostle tells us about some of whom "the world was not worthy... They wandered in deserts and in mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground" (Hebrews 11:38). In Acts 8:4 we read of the first believers, who "had been scattered." Many of the children of God in these times have been driven from their homes; but you see we have no reason to think the case strange.

Note 7. To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations. There was something more in their scattering than usual: they were a people whom God for a long time had kept together under the wings of providence. What is notable in their scattering is:

(1) The severity of God's justice. The twelve tribes are scattered—his own people. It cuts out any privileges when God's Israel are made strangers. Israel is all for liberty; therefore God says he will "pasture them like lambs in a meadow" (Hosea 4:16). God would give them liberty and room enough. As a lamb out of the fold goes up and down bleating in the forest or wilderness, without comfort and companion, in the middle of wolves and the beasts of the desert—liberty enough, but danger enough!—so God would cast them out of the fold, and they should live a Jew here and a Jew there, thinly scattered and dispersed throughout the countries, among a people whose language they did not understand, and as a lamb in the middle of the beasts of prey. Consider the severity of God's justice; certainly it is a great sin that makes a loving father throw a child out of doors. Sin is always driving away and casting out; it drove the angels out of heaven, Adam out of paradise, Cain out of the church (see Genesis 4:12, 16), and the children of God out of their homes ("We must leave our land," Jeremiah 9:19).

Your houses will be tired of you when you dishonor God in them; and you will be driven from those comforts that you abuse to excess. You see in Amos 6:5 that when they were at ease in Zion, they would ruin David's music by using it for their banquets. For this, God threatened to scatter them and to remove them from their houses of luxury and pleasure. And when they were driven into a strange land they received the same treatment. The Babylonians wanted temple—music: see Psalm 137:3; nothing but a holy song would serve their unholy pleasure.

Honor God in your houses, lest you become their burdens and they spew you out. The twelve tribes were scattered.

(2) The infallibility of his truth. In judicial dispensations, it is good to observe not only God's justice but God's truth. No calamity befell Israel except what was foretold to the letter in the books of Moses; one might have written their history out of the threatenings of the law. See Leviticus 26:33; God says, in effect, "if you do not listen to me, 'I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you.'" The same is threatened in Deuteronomy 28:64—"The Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other." See how the event fitted the prophecy; and therefore I conceive that James uses this expression the twelve tribes to show that they who were once twelve flourishing tribes were now, by the accompaniment of that prophecy, sadly scattered among the nations.

(3) The tenderness of his love to the believers among them. He has a James for the Christians of the scattered tribes. In the severest ways of his justice he does not forget his own, and he has special consolations for them when they lie under the common judgment. When other Jews were banished, John, among the rest, was banished from Ephesus to Patmos, a barren, miserable island; but there he had those revelations (Revelation 1:9 ff.). Well, then, wherever you are, you are near to God; he is a God close to hand, and a God afar off. When you lose your dwelling, you do not lose your interest in Christ.

—Exposition of the Epistle of James, An