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The Biggest Mistake When Studying James

By Justin Johnson

Discovering the audience of a book of the Bible is chiefly important in rightly dividing the word of truth. Of all the books in the Bible James receives the worst neglect regarding the important contextual question, “to whom is the author speaking?”

Without right division you won’t make it past the first verse of the book. The first verse is a clear and inspired statement of audience:

“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.” – James 1:1

Why Twelve?

It should be clear to any Sunday school student coloring the picture of Joseph’s brothers that the twelve tribes refers to the nation Israel (Gen 49:28, Deut 1:23, Exo 28:21, Josh 3:12).

Despite these simple cross references, commentaries and teachers still say that James is not written exclusively to the twelve tribes of Israel, but that the author intended to write it to Jew and Gentile. This type of Bible misinterpretation takes years of mental gymnastics learned in ivory towers to perform.

Every Bible scholar today worth his salt understands Paul’s doctrine of a Gentile inclusive church:

“Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” – Colossians 3:11

Then why is this mistake so prevalent?

The problem begins with the generally held belief that the church Paul describes began at Pentecost with the twelve Apostles. If the church of Christ’s body began at Pentecost then James 1:1 does not make any sense.

Gentiles were not part of the twelve tribes of Israel. Since Gentiles are perfectly at home among “Gentile” countries, it would not make sense to call them scattered. There are no separate tribes in the mystery church of this dispensation.

How could it be written to the present church if the present church does not have twelve tribes?

Of course, the confusion melts away when you realize that the mystery church did not start at Pentecost in Acts 2. At that time twelve apostles were preaching the kingdom of Israel gospel to twelve tribes on a Jewish feast day.

Why Scattered?

God had intended to take his believing remnant of the twelve tribes of Israel into the kingdom promised to them since the world began (Luke 12:32, Mat 25:34).

When the prophesied persecution began in Jerusalem where this believing group was located they were scattered except the apostles.

“And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.” – Acts 8:1

During this time of scattering and before the mystery church was taught by Paul, James wrote his letter to the twelve tribes scattered.

This explains why James mentions their condition as being one of temptation (tribulation), suffering, and poverty. If the audience were the twelve tribes who were going to inherit the kingdom it makes sense why James makes so many references to the Lord’s kingdom ministry of Matthew and the book of Revelation.

Meanwhile, mid-Acts dispensationalism aligns perfectly with the idea of James writing to twelve tribes. Only right division explains that the audience of James is truly the twelve tribes of Israel mentioned in James 1:1, and those twelve tribes are different from the church of today.

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Published: April 23, 2011
Last Modified: December 31, 2016
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