James introduces himself first as one such servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. His letter will be about this servant-Lord relationship in which all Christians are to persevere. Along the way, true servants of the Lord will have to put their servanthood into practice in the midst of suffering, in choosing their relationship with material wealth, in controlling how they speak and in other life issues James will address.
At the very start of this letter, James is identifying himself as one who is self-consciously accepting this way of life for himself. His purpose in this letter does not require that he assert his apostleship (as Paul and Peter do in their letters) or his eldership (as John does in his letters). James's identity is already known to the church at large. It is only his servanthood to the Lord Jesus Christ that matters to him here, for this is the theme of his letter: How shall we live as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ?
His readers' life setting is equally pertinent to the content of the letter. He is writing to Christian Jews (the twelve tribes) who are scattered among the nations. The reference speaks of a literal diaspora, a scattering of these Christians mainly through persecution. Acts 8:1-3 gives the likely background. By addressing them as ones scattered among the nations, he is telling them at once: "I know you are persecuted; I know you face various trials; I know you are suffering." All that James will have to say to his readers is said with this knowledge of their life setting. All that he will have to say to his readers is applicable even in their life setting of suffering.
Imagine the implications, drawing from the actual phrases of Acts 8:13. Young Christians of Jewish upbringing had become the objects of "a great persecution" by the very ones who had been their leaders in Judaism. Stephen, a loved and respected leader of this Christian movement, had been stoned to death for his faith in Christ. The church "mourned deeply for him." Meanwhile, Saul was determined to destroy the church and so was "going from house to house" forcibly taking men and women to prison. With "all except the apostles" being driven from Jerusalem, James now writes from there to believers scattered among the nations. Certainly among James's readers are people experiencing confusion, fear, sorrow, injustice, loneliness, poverty, sickness, loss of home and family members and livelihood--in fact, "trials of many kinds," as he acknowledges right away in 1:2.
Look squarely now at the issue those Christians were facing as they received James's letter. Would these times of suffering and uncertainty be an interruption in their servant-Lord relationship with Jesus Christ? For example, is any trial a reason not to be joyful (1:2)? Are the differences in poverty and wealth to cause favoritism (2:1-13)? Even in trials, shall we be cursing other people (3:9) or grumbling against each other (5:9)? Is loss of anything a reason to fight with each other (4:1-2)? Is sickness or other trouble a cause to cease praying or trusting in God (5:13-14)? Even in these "trials of many kinds," the servant of the Lord Jesus Christ is to continue living the life that James will describe. His burden in writing is this: "Don't put off your life of faith until times get better. Right now, in the midst of your suffering, is the very time to be putting your servanthood toward Christ into practice."
The message is clearly applicable for Christians today. When we encounter trials, what do we experience? In most of us there is probably a mixture or succession of reactions: fear ("what will become of me?"), anger ("how can they do that to me?"), self-pity ("won't somebody feel sorry for me?"), envy of others ("why aren't they suffering like I am?") and confusion ("why is this happening?"). With these reactions, we often fall into precisely the problems James addresses for his original readers: a jealous focus on material wealth, a selfish neglect of others' needs, a judgmental spirit and hurtful speech, and a bitter fighting with one another.
The church needs a sound theology of suffering. Philip Yancey points out that Helmut Thielicke was asked once what he saw as the greatest defect among American Christians (1977:15). Thielicke's surprising reply was "They have an inadequate view of suffering." We would be helped by a more adequate study of James. His message is this: Your trial is not the time to rejoice less. Your sickness is not the time to pray less. Your loss is not the time to love others less. Rather, now is the very time to practice the joy, peace and love that we know theoretically to be the Christian life. For the Christian life is not mere theory; it is the life of the servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore it must have been of more than perfunctory significance to James when he told his readers, Greetings. The word is chairein: "Joy be to you." Yes, joy! Even though you are scattered among the nations and facing trials of many kinds, do not be robbed of your joy. This joy in the midst of trial becomes the first major topic of James's letter.