“My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.” James 5:19-20 (HCSB)
Before expounding on the last sentence of James’ letter, I think we should refresh our memories of its beginning.
“James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ: To the 12 tribes in the Dispersion.”
This letter is, first and foremost, a Jewish letter. More than simply “Jewish,” it was directed to a specific group of Jews: Messianic (Christian) Jews living outside Israel. These Jews had been scattered abroad for several generations, and their newfound acceptance of Jesus as Messiah did not reflect the norm in Jerusalem.
Part of the reason the apostles like Paul began planting congregations outside of Roman-controlled Israel was that the Jews abroad were more likely to assess the gospel, apart from the politics of Jerusalem. James’s letter was one of the first distributed 17 years after Jesus’s resurrection. James’ audience would have been more apt to weigh his words against Scripture than they would in later epistles simply because non-Messianic Jewish opposition had yet to saturate the dispersed Jewish culture worldwide.
Speaking to the “Dispersion,” James was not trying to make his readers “Christians,” as we understand the Church today. At the time of James’ letter, believing that Jesus was Messiah was considered a sect of Judaism by non-Messianic Jews and Romans alike. Of course, to Messianic Jews, believing in Jesus was considered the fulfillment of all they and their forefathers, the patriarchs, had longed for. That is, in Jesus, the Jew is completed in his search for restoration and communion with the Lord. Jewish believers today often refer to themselves not as “Christians” but as “Completed Jews” because Messiah Jesus completes what was lacking in the Law with respect to Israel’s salvation.
James encouraged his Jewish brothers to be good JEWS by submitting to the Lordship of Messiah Jesus. That is not to say that Gentiles were excluded or that Jewish believers are more special than Gentile believers. It’s just that Gentiles were not the primary people group targeted by James’ letter. Jesus, speaking to His disciples (all Jews), said, “I am THE Way” (John 14:6), not, “I’m setting up another way.” Judaism had strayed from God’s original design, and Jesus was restoring it to the way it should always have been. It was the Apostles’ articulated belief, through the revelation of God’s Spirit, that faith in Jesus constituted salvation for both Jews and Gentiles. Apart from Him, there is no salvation.
Jesus had ONE goal: Glorify the Father by atoning for the sin of the world. The primary goal of James’ letter was to exhort the local Jewish believers and persuade the dispersed non-believing Jewish people to turn from their sin to a saving relationship with Jesus. Furthermore, James challenged all believers, Jew or Gentile, to do the same.
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