Understand James Better: Read The Old Testament

When I was in seminary I took a class on the book of Matthew from a great New Testament (NT) scholar. We spent the entire first class on just the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, so I knew I was in for an interesting semester. However, one truth he pointed out to us over and over again in class was that if we wanted to understand the Gospel of Matthew better, we needed to be good students of the Old Testament (OT) first. This sounds like a novel idea, but let’s be honest. The OT was the only scripture available for all the NT writers, so no matter what book you study in the NT, a robust understanding of the OT is needed. This is the case even more so in NT books like Matthew and the book of James, which are written to a Jewish audience.

As youth pastors and teachers, we like to hang out in the NT when we teach students, and this has some pretty serious consequences. Our students don’t really “get” the OT and its relevance in their lives. But when you connect the OT together with the NT, you can show students the innumerable connections the Bible has within itself and present God’s Word as one unified narrative. For example, let’s take a look at three areas of the Old Testament’s inclusion in the book of James.

1. Old Testament Law

In chapter two alone, James quotes the OT six times, and three of these references are from the book of Leviticus. One verse from Leviticus is 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. James comments on this verse, saying that it is the “royal law according to the Scriptures”, and in a sense he is utilizing the Levitical law that Jewish readers knew so well to speak to their problem of showing partiality in chapter two of James. What’s fascinating is that James uses this Levitical law to challenge Jewish-Christians to walk in a manner more like Christ. James uses Leviticus to point to Jesus.

Also, these verses show the theological context out of which James is writing. He goes on to allude to or directly quote several verses from Leviticus 19:9-18 in chapters two, four and five of James. You can read in Leviticus 19 how this section gave laws that protected the weak, oppressed and poor in their society with guidance about how much grain to leave for others at harvest time for the poor, not being partial to the rich in the courts, and how and when to pay wages to your workers. James sees the answer to the problems of these Jewish Christians, in a place they would be familiar with, and uses the Levitical law to impress the need to seek justice in cases of unjust partiality. But not only does James use OT law. He also uses a prophetic voice.

2. Old Testament Prophets

 James does not just use the Law to help him write to this Jewish audience. He also taps into the prophetic voices of the OT to help push these believers to lives of faithfulness. The prophets constantly preach themes of personal holiness resulting in the pursuit of justice and compassion towards widows and orphans, especially in passages like Isaiah 1:10-20, which becomes a central theme for the entire book of James.

One of the most obvious areas in James that has been influenced by the OT prophets is James 5:1-6 and its connection with the book of Amos. Several scholars even refer to James as the Amos of the New Testament. In chapter five, James rips into the rich who are most likely corrupt landowners causing injustice. He prophesies their coming destruction for their worship of material wealth. This is the exact theme found in the book of Amos, whose author condemns the rich for their injustice towards the poor and explains the suffering that will come upon them and the destruction of their riches (Amos 1:12,14; 5:6; 7:4; 8:4-6). Therefore, James again is seeking to use the OT to help form and write his letter to Jewish readers. There is one last place he will pull from: the wisdom literature.

3. Old Testament Wisdom Literature

While reading through the entire book of James, you can’t miss the focus James makes on the wisdom that is needed to live the Christian life. In the first chapter he urges his readers to ask God for wisdom in faith. James gets his focus on wisdom for the believer from the wisdom books in the OT.

He borrows an analogy for the shortness of life from Proverbs 27:1; Ecclesiastes 12:6; and Job 15:31, comparing the length of our lives to that of a fading flower. This example is used time and time again to impress on the reader the limited amount of life we really have in the view of eternity. As James addresses the use of the tongue in chapter three we can see similar wisdom from Proverbs 16:27 and 26:2, and in linking peace and wisdom together he refers to Proverbs 3:17 as well. Overall James is using the wisdom of Proverbs to show believers that if they seek wisdom in their trials they will be perfect, complete in a way that pushes them to live lives of consistent obedience to Christ as they wait for his return.

 

It seems obvious that the OT would help us understand the NT, but so many times I find myself focused on one book without seeing the whole of Scripture when this is exactly what my students need to see. They need to see how the entire Bible is one book telling one story of the redemption of humanity. One great way for them to see this is when we link the books of scripture together in ways they have never seen. It shows consistency in the Bible and can strengthen their faith in the reliability of Scripture.

 

Two great resources for seeking a unified understanding of James is Christopher Morgan’s book A Theology of James: Wisdom for God’s People and the James video from the Bible Project. Speaking of, if you haven’t checked out the Bible Project yet, go do yourself a favor and spend about 8 hours on YouTube having your mind blown by Biblical Theology. You can thank me later.

 

About the Author: Andrew Harper

Andrew is the husband to Amber, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the student pastor at First Baptist church of Altus, OK. He spends his time reading, drinking coffee, and schooling students in ping pong. His goal is to see students find their place in the mission of God.