Christianity: More Than Ceremony

By Mike Mazzalongo Posted: Wed. Oct 5th 2016
This introductory lesson reviews the author, date written and general purpose for this practical book on Christian living.

If you were to ask people to define or explain the word "religion" they would probably describe the organizations and ceremonies carried out by various church groups. This is probably why younger people say that they are spiritual but not religious, because they no longer relate to the various rituals and observances practiced by the large denominations in this country. By spiritual intuition they have guessed that Christianity is more than candles, processions, rituals and complex church hierarchies that dominate the Christian religion of our day.

Unfortunately, most people do not realize that biblical Christianity only has two observances that involve some type of ceremony or ritual:

  1. Baptism: Where a repentant believer in Jesus Christ is immersed in water and at that moment, by faith, receives forgiveness of sin, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and is added by God to the church (Acts 2:36-42; Romans 6:3).
  2. Communion: The church comes together on the Lord's Day (Sunday) to share the bread and wine (Luke 22:19) in order to commemorate the death of Jesus and to witness its faith and hope in His return (I Corinthians 11:23-26).

These are the only two ceremonies given by God in the Bible for Christians to perform, and they both have to do with salvation. In baptism we experience salvation, in communion we remember it. Both these ceremonies are intertwined since only baptized believers can take the communion.

37Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" 38Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." 40And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" 41So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 42They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
- Acts 2:37-42

All other ceremonies and traditions have been added by men without God's authorization. The problem with these man-made ceremonies and traditions is that with time, they have become compulsory. Because of these unauthorized additions, Christianity has become a series of:

  1. Festivals (Easter, Christmas, etc.)
  2. Personalities (Pope, Cardinals, TV evangelists)
  3. Denominations (groups who have their own distinctive ceremonies, language and brand)

Christianity, however, is more than a ceremony, a religious leader or a building. It is a way of life. For example, every farmer, regardless of the country or time has a similar lifestyle (get up early, work outside, deal with the weather, prices go up when there is a low harvest, down when there is a bumper crop). All farmers can relate to this lifestyle. In the same way, Christianity is defined by a certain lifestyle regardless of time or place. It is a way of life that is very different from that of others who are not Christians.

This, therefore, will be the purpose of our study, to learn about the Christian way of life (as explained in James) and how to adapt to it. It is interesting to note that the book of James does not contain the gospel message, does not mention baptism or communion, does not declare or explain Jesus' divinity or ministry, crucifixion or resurrection. It is, however, an extremely practical guide to living the Christian life in a way that pleases God, maintains order and peace in the church, and provides a clear Christian witness to those outside the church.

Book of James - 1:1

James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.

Author

In that era people signed letters at the beginning and put the greetings at the end. When studying this epistle there is always the question of authorship, which James wrote this letter? There are four people named James mentioned in the New Testament.

1. James, the brother of John (this James died too soon to have written this epistle, written 40-60 AD):

Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them.
- Matthew 4:21
And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.
- Acts 12:2

2. James, the son of Alpheus, was an Apostle. He was referred to as James the Less, and was probably Jesus' cousin since his father was married to Mary, sister of Jesus' mother, who was also called Mary. There is no other mention of him in historical records as opposed to the author of the epistle of James who was well known in the early church.

Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;
- Matthew 10:3

3. James, the father of Judas (not Iscariot). He also is not mentioned anywhere other than this passage.

Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
- Luke 6:16

4. James, the earthly brother of Jesus. By giving only his name he assumes that everyone knows who he is (unlike the previous two James'). He was not one of the twelve Apostles and does not claim this in his epistle (like Paul does in Galatians 1:1 and Philippians 1:1). The Lord's brother became a leader of the church in Jerusalem and thus had the authority to write such a letter. There are similarities in the style of the letter suggested by James sent to the brethren in Antioch (Acts 15:23-77), and the style of this epistle whose authorship is attributed to James. Both are short and to the point.

Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?
- Matthew 13:55
12All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.13After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, "Brethren, listen to me.
- Acts 15:12-13

Life of James

The Lord's brother, James, did not believe in Him before Jesus' death and resurrection.

3Therefore His brothers said to Him, "Leave here and go into Judea, so that Your disciples also may see Your works which You are doing. 4For no one does anything in secret when he himself seeks to be known publicly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world." 5For not even His brothers were believing in Him.
- John 7:3-5

He was married (I Corinthians 9:5). He and the rest of the family thought Jesus was unbalanced and tried to bring Him home.

When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, "He has lost His senses."
- Mark 3:21

Jesus appeared to him after His resurrection.

then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles;
- I Corinthians 15:7

James was in the company of the Apostles in the upper room after Jesus' appearance (Acts 1:14).

Josephus, a Jewish historian, mentions him being killed in 62 AD by the Jews. He was stoned and then clubbed to death.

In his introductory verse, he refers to himself as a "bond servant" or lowly slave of Jesus, thus demonstrating his love, piety and humility.

The Epistle of James

This epistle was written between 40-60 AD. It may even be earlier because there is no mention of the Gentile influx into the church after 45 AD. It contains little doctrine, no references to Jesus or the gospel. It is extremely practical in its approach and one half of the verses are "imperatives" (sentences written as orders or commands). It is a very short epistle (five chapters), but filled with practical teaching on how to successfully live the Christian life.

Purpose of Letter

The letter is intended for Jewish Christians living away from Israel in various parts of the Empire. During their history, the Jewish people were often conquered and subsequently dispersed to different countries. They were also a nation of traders and businessmen so they settled in many different nations.

During their Babylonian captivity (597 BC), the Jews, having no access to the temple in Jerusalem for worship, began to gather in homes and other places to pray, read Scripture, praise and enjoy fellowship. This was the beginning of the synagogue or house of prayer movement that started while they were in captivity, but continued even after their return to Judah 70 years later. Those Jews, dispersed for various reasons throughout the Roman Empire, would gather and build a synagogue for their weekly meetings. These local synagogues became the network that Paul used to preach to the Jews in his early mission work.

13Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem. 14But going on from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch, and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, "Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it."
- Acts 13:13-15

It is to one of these groups that James is writing to with the hope that his letter will be copied and passed on to other Jewish Christians living abroad.

Reasons for the Letter

First, these Christian Jews are feeling alienated because of their faith:

  • They are surrounded by a pagan, sinful and unsympathetic people.
  • They are being influenced by the world's thinking and attitude.
  • They have been rejected by their Hebrew countrymen, and even attacked for their faith. They have, however, defended their stand with Christ, but have done so at a high cost.

They were feeling alienated from their homeland, their former religion and their culture and now were drifting away from Christ. The way of the world seemed clearer and easy, so many were faltering under this kind of pressure.

This, then, is the historical background that influenced the writing of this letter, a letter that teaches how one can achieve "practical Christian living" in an unbelieving world.

Summary

This epistle, therefore, is a valuable study for several reasons:

  1. It explains, in easy to understand language, using simple examples, how one can live a practical Christian life.
  2. It covers many critical ideas in five short chapters.
  3. Christians often find themselves rejected by family or society because of their beliefs, and require similar encouragement.

James' message is timeless in the sense that it is as easily accessible to the modern reader as it was for the first century Christian.

Reading Assignment:  James 1:2-12