Themes of James

 |  May 1, 2019

The topic of “Themes of James” is related to the issue of the letter’s structure, which has been a matter of persistent scholarly discussion and debate. Does James have an intentional structure and, if so, what is it and what does this structure reveal about the author’s main concerns or themes? There is now a strong consensus that James is a structured composition, even if there are disagreements about the details. All recognize that a range of topics are raised in the letter, which is evident at the outset, such as trials (1:2–4), wisdom (1:5–8), poverty and wealth (1:9–11), testing and temptation (1:12–15), God’s good and perfect gifts (1:16–17), the role of the word of truth in birthing and guiding God’s people (1:18–25), and the marks of genuine religion (1:26–27). Additional topical units follow chapter one, such as the sin of partiality (2:1–13), the nature of genuine faith (2:14–26), the dangers of the uncontrolled tongue (3:1–12), righteous and unrighteous wisdom (3:13–18), the chaos wrought by the domination of worldly wisdom (4:1–5), and so forth. The challenge of preaching James has to do with the relationship of these seemingly self-standing units to one another. Should we preach the letter topic by topic or is something more at work in the manner in which James has structured his composition? A few observations are in order that will help one to think about important themes in this letter that bind the various topics together.

James has a somewhat circular or repetitive structure, which highlights the author’s method of emphasizing key themes. Chapter one, for example, is often viewed as an epitome of the whole, that is, key themes are raised and then expanded in the body of the letter, such as testing/endurance (1:2–4; 5:7–11), wisdom (1:5–8; 3:13–18), poverty and wealth (1:9–11; 2:1–13, 4:13–5:6), and so forth.

James also employs parallelism in communicating key themes. The body of the letter opens and closes with themes relating to poverty and wealth (2:1–13 and 4:13–5:6). The call to righteous actions and speech (2:14–3:12) is paralleled by a prophetic call to repentance (4:1–10). At the center of the letter stands James’s call for peace through righteous wisdom (3:13–18). This chiastic arrangement may be depicted as follows:

2:1–11             Violating the Royal Law through Wrong Speaking and Acting Inappropriately toward the Poor

2:12–13           So Speak and Act as One Being Judged by the Law of Liberty

2:14–3:12        Wrong Acting and Speaking in Community


4:1–10             Prophetic Rebuke:  A Call to Humility and Repentance

4:11–12           Do the Law, Do Not Judge It

4:13–5:6          Twin Calls to the Arrogant Rich

Another fruitful way to think about themes in James is to recognize the author’s use of inclusio and transition statements. An inclusio is the repetition of a keyword or words that serve as a boundary marker in the text and reminds the reader/listener of important ideas or themes. For example, the opening unit of James is marked by an inclusio at 1:2–4 and 1:12 around the theme of testing and endurance. Another inclusio occurs at 1:12 and 1:25 around the idea of the “blessed person.” This suggests that chapter one is structured around an overlapping inclusio with 1:12 at the center. The “blessed person” is the one who joyfully (1:2) endures trials (1:12) by remaining faithful to the word of truth (1:25). Everything in James 1 supports this overarching theme.

James also employs key transition statements that summarize, reiterate, and announce important themes. A prime example is the summary/transition paragraph that concludes chapter one (1:26–27), which summarizes the theme of obedience (1:22–25) by specifying three areas of “genuine religion” and announces three major themes of the letter, namely, controlling the tongue (3:1–12), mercy and compassion (2:1–26) and keeping oneself undefiled from the world (4:1–10). James 2:12–13 functions in the same way with the exhortation to “speak” (3:1–12) and “do” (2:14–26) as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. The same text (2:12–13) forms an inclusio with 4:11–12 with an emphasis on “speaking” and “doing” the law. Thus, the themes of right speaking and right acting are major emphases of the letter. The letter’s center (3:13–18, see outline above) also functions as a major summary/transition, suggesting that everything in James falls under the theme of living by righteous wisdom.

Finally, the quote of Leviticus 19:18 in James 2:8, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” combined with references to one’s love for God (1:12, 2:5) and echoes of Deuteronomy 6:4–5 in 2:19 and 4:11–12, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart . . .” suggests that the double love command plays an important role in the letter (see Matthew 22:36–40). Genuine religion at its core is relational and has to do with how one relates to God and his neighbor. Another Old Testament text, Proverbs 3:34, introduced in James 4:6, highlights the themes of pride and humility, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” which are then expounded in reverse order (4:7–10, grace to the humble; 4:11–5:6, opposing the proud).

James is a brief yet complex letter, and preaching through the book presents significant challenges. Recognizing the author’s structuring techniques, however, will guide the expositor toward a fruitful understanding of the letter’s key themes.

Mark Taylor is Professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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