To the 12 tribes in the Dispersion. Greetings. ~ James 1:1b
Explanation of the Text:James offers no surprises in the opening line of his epistle. He follows the customary format of the day to define who he is and who they are. There is perhaps some difficulty in interpretation by James’ phrasing “the 12 tribes in the dispersion.” His reliance upon the teachings of the Old Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ, and acknowledgment that they meet in a synagogue suggests that these are Jews. More specifically, the rationality of their faith indicates that James is writing to Jewish Christians.
What does James mean by the dispersion though? Many suggest that this is a symbolic reference to the time of Exile and dispersion of the Jews upon being captured by Assyria and Babylon. Certainly, that time in Christian history was one of great dispersion, and while many did return, many also chose to remain abroad. Perhaps this is who James had in mind. Others suggest that these are Jewish Christians who have been dispersed by persecution, notably by Herod (see Acts 12).
Without speculating too much, the content of the letter does tell us that these were believers (note that James uses the word ‘brothers’ 15 times) and that they were most certainly being oppressed by those around them.
Examination & Application of the Text: In light of the suffering that the Christians are facing, James encourages perseverance. Their faith in God is sufficient to sustain them, not because their faith is so strong, but because the object of their faith (God) is. Therefore, he encourages perseverance through obedience, noting that theirs is not a faith by works but a faith that works.
The distinction between by works and for works is crucial to the gospel message, and readers must be cautious to preserve that distinction when interpreting and applying the truth contained within. The depth of the book is profound, teaching principles of wisdom so that one’s conduct will conform to his or her calling in Christ. With this in mind, the journey through James will be one in which a person’s faith will meet his or her practice.
Questions to Consider:
What differences exist between you and the original readers of James’ epistle?
What similarities exist between you and the original readers of James’ epistle?
How does this impact how we interpret and apply James’ teachings?