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James and the Last Days?
The epistle of James is a great source for a practical study that encourages endurance through tribulation, ethical living, and a pure heart before God. In addition it is also another epistle that can provide a lot of help to the 21st century student to understand the unique times of the first-century. Because we cannot possibly attempt to make the proper application of scripture until we understand the way in which it would have been understood to its original audience, the book of James is crucial.
Who Is the Audience of this Epistle?
The first thing that must be observed about this letter is that it was specifically written to Jews living in the first century. James begins by addressing the “twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (1:1). Some have suggested that James is writing to “spiritual Israel”, i.e. the church, but the nature of the book implies that James had in mind ethnic Jews some of which had converted to Christ and others that were contrary to christianity.
It may also be concluded that the term, brethren, in verse two suggests that his audience was solely christians. However this term is often times used to refer to a fellow Jew (see Matt. 5:47; Acts 2:29; Acts 3:22; Acts 7:2; Acts 9:17; Rom. 1:13; Rom. 7:4). While we today use “brethren”, in the religious sense, to refer to christians, in the first century there was still a very important emphasis placed on physical Israel because their favor with God and economy was approaching its last days. In this light even Paul, messenger to the Gentiles, proclaimed that the gospel should go “to the Jew first, and to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).
Why Would James Write to Jews?
It makes sense that James would write to his fellow Hebrew brethren because he was apparently one of the elders and pillar of faith at Jerusalem (Acts 21:18; Gal. 2:9). While Paul and others were to seek out Gentiles, the work in Jerusalem was still focused on physical Israel (Gal. 2:9). Consequently, the book of James should be approached more like a pamphlet that was designed to be distributed to non-believing Jews as well as those who had accepted the gospel. This clarifies some of the harsh rebuking language that accuses its readers of being an envious and strife-motivated people that were fighting and killing their own brethren—qualities that were characteristic of Israel (Matt. 13). In fact, one of the reoccurring themes of Christ during his ministry was to expose the evil motives of many Jews and the blood that was on their hands because they were uncircumcised in heart.
What Indicates that James is Writing to Wicked Jews?
James accuses the readers of his letter of being murderers three times in this epistel—once by implication and twice explicitly. The first is in chapter two, verse eleven we read, “for he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.” James indirectly suggests that there were individuals who had not cheated on their spouses, but had taken the life of an innocent person and yet were claiming they were law-abider because of the former. Then in chapter four and verse two James offers a strong rebuke by stating “you kill and desire to have”. But the clearest reference is found in the last chapter. Notice that in chapter 5 and verse six James says, “You have condemned and killed the just(one), and he does not resist you.” Whether we interpret the just as righteous people in general or an allusion to Christ, the murderers can only be first century Israel. Neither the Old Testament or the New Testament places the blame on any other group for taking the blood of the righteous (see Luke 11:50,51).
Another indication that James is speaking to non-converted Jews is the call for them to turn their hearts to God. James tells these wicked Hebrews to cleanse themselves and humbly repent if they wanted to be lifted up (4:4-10). This language is specifically an instruction to a people outside of fellowship with God. This is not just a confession of sins by a well-intended people as we see in 1 John 1:7-9. James is speaking to arrogant and double-minded men with defiled hearts and guilty hands that are instructed to practice true contrition and begin to mourn over their wickedness if they were to draw near to God (4:8-10). These are the same Jews that James tells us are living their lives in pursuit of wealth, inconceivably even while the day of their judgment is drawing near (4:13-5:1). James is writing to the same men who were building up their financial portfolio on the backs of laborers whom they were cheating (5:4). Yet, these very same men were only fattening themselves up for a slaughter that would be distributed upon many of James original readers in the last days (5:3-5). This must be a reference to that portion of the Jews that had not embraced christianity but went about to suborn false witnesses and execute their brethren, who had received Christ.
When Was Christ Coming in Judgement?
So, then the question is—when would this coming slaughter take place? Again, one of the time indicators is in the last days (5:3). [Without making a case in this study, suffice it to say that the term “last days”, in the Bible, only ever references the time from Christ birth to the destruction on Jerusalem in 70 AD. See I Peter 1:18-20 and Acts 2:20] With this in mind, James describes for us the last days under consideration. Men to whom this letter (written probably between 60-63 AD) was originally addressed were then building up treasures for these last days (5:3). This reckoning could not have been delivered after their treasures were dispersed to their heirs, but while they were still in their possession. Furthermore, James tells these first century fat cats that their flesh was going to be burned (5:3). Their flesh could not be burned if the coming judgment being predicted came after they had been separated from their bodies. Additionally, the Lord of Sabaoth (host, armies) was presently hearing the cries of his persecuted people (5:4). The context is clear that the Lord was listening with a longsuffering that was fading. These carnal men had nourished themselves for a day of slaughter (5:5).
The church is told to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord (5:7). The idea of patience during persecution indicates a forthcoming time of rest to which they could look forward. This may remind us of Revelation chapter 6, where many martyred saints were under the alter of God, crying for vindication upon their murderers. John says that they were to wait “a little season” (6:9-11). John guarantees an impending vindication to the martyrs, while James promises the same thing to the living. Yet, what kind of comfort would this prediction offer if Christ arrived beyond their lifetime and the lifetime of their persecutors?
Finally James says that Christ’s coming is drawing near and that He is standing at the door (5:8,9). There can be no other way to interpret this text but that the coming of Christ was imminent. The very next thought is considering the patience of Job. Job was a man who suffered persecution by Satan himself, but endured until his faith was perfected and God, in his compassion, brought Job relief and restored his health and wealth.
Spiritually, the church has been established, restored, and strengthened. We ought to feel grateful that God saw fit to establish and fortify the church in such a miraculous and wonderful way in its infancy. We ought to be even more appreciative that we do not have to live during the days of the great tribulation that so many of our brethren suffered. We are not like the initial audience of James’s pen. They awaited victory while daily being slaughter by vicious and powerful people. We live in the days of victory! We live in the age that was to come—beyond the last days of Israel. To God be the glory.