Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Letter of James


In examining the eschatology in the letter of James, the extent to which it should be considered representative of the early Christian eschatology, depends on how the letter is dated. There is a considerable range of opinion among scholars on this question, with some dating it extremely early (40s A.D.) and others extremely late (first quarter of the 2nd century A.D.). I would tend toward the earlier side, regarding it as having likely been written sometime before 70 A.D. The apparent lack of a developed Christology in the letter is often taken as a sign of a relatively early date. While the identification of the “James” in 1:1 continues to be debated, there is no real reason to doubt the authenticity of the address—that the letter represents instruction addressed to Jews (i.e. Jewish Christians) throughout the Greco-Roman world (the “scattering throughout”, diaspora/).

In my view, the eschatology of the letter corresponds generally to that of the period c. 50-70 A.D. The expectation of the end (and the return of Jesus) is imminent, with a real sense that the time is quite short. Moreover, this eschatology is couched within a general ethical context that, apparently, has not yet been given a distinctly Christian form, in comparison with similar Jewish instruction. As with the letter as a whole, its eschatological references breathe the style and tone of Jesus’ teaching, especially that preserved in the Sermon on the Mount. At the same time, there are several peculiar details and points of emphasis that are atypical of Paul and other (later) New Testament writings.

Chapters 1-3

James 1:12

The main eschatological section of the letter spans 4:11-5:11 (discussed in detail below); however, there are several earlier references which anticipate this more extended treatment. The first is found in 1:9-16, which begins with a warning on the fate of the rich (and those who devote themselves to worldly riches), with echoes of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:19-20, 25-33. The image of the flower that fades away and perishes (vv. 9-11), symbolizing the brevity of human life with its uncertainty and sudden end, is a general wisdom motif, but it has special significance in an eschatological context. This is alluded to by the beatitude that follows in verse 12:

“Happy (is the) man who remains under [i.e. endures] (in the) testing, (in) that, (hav)ing come to be considered (worthy), he will receive the wreath of life which (God) gave the message upon [i.e. promised to give] to the (one)s loving Him.”

The image of receiving a wreath (ste/fano$) to wear—a traditional sign of honor/dignity, given especially to those who are victorious in battle or a contest—is frequently used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, reflecting the idea of the heavenly reward that awaits the righteous (believers) at the end-time, following the Judgment. Cf. 1 Thess 2:19; 1 Cor 9:25; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10; 3:11; the specific expression “wreath of life” occurs in Rev 2:10.

The theme of enduring testing (peirasmo/$) continues in vv. 13-16. This is often understood (and translated) narrowly in terms of “temptation”, however “testing” is more accurate, and better preserves the eschatological connotations of the word in many instances where it occurs in the New Testament–including Matt 6:13; Mark 14:38 par, as well as the more obvious eschatological references in 1 Pet 4:12; 2 Pet 2:19; Rev 3:10.

James 2:5

There is a similar eschatological context to the rich-vs-poor teaching in 2:1-13 as well. Indeed, the eschatological promise in v. 5 is couched in similar wording to that in 1:12 (cp. above):

“You must hear (this), my (be)loved brothers: has not God gathered out the (one)s (who are) poor in the world (to be one)s rich in trust and (one)s receiving the lot of the Kingdom, about which He (has) given a message (promising it) to the (one)s loving Him?”

The contrast is certainly clear: poor in the world vs. rich in trust of God, i.e. worldly vs. heavenly/divine riches. This again echoes the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3ff, and note the stronger contrast in the Lukan version of this material, 6:20ff, 24ff). Paul makes a similar sort of comparison in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. The noun klhrono/mo$ literally refers to one who receives (or is to receive) a share or lot (klh=ro$), often in the sense of an inheritance—i.e. the poor whom God has chosen (to be rich) will inherit His Kingdom. This is precisely the message of Jesus in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3, 10ff).

The theme of trust (or “faith”, pi/sti$) continues in vv. 14-26, perhaps the best-known portion of the letter, due to the perennial debate over its relationship to the Pauline teaching on “faith and works”. In some ways this misses the point, since through the chapter the emphasis is clearly on “works” as demonstrating love and concern for others (especially the poor)—vv. 1-4, 6, 14-17. Insofar as the “works of the law” (to use the Pauline expression) are concerned, the author of the letter (“James”), despite writing to Jews (Jewish Christians), seems to have much the same view of the relationship between believers and the Torah as Paul does (cp. 2:8ff with Gal 5:14; 6:2, etc), though he expresses it rather differently.

The theme of judgment (kri/si$) is also introduced in vv. 12-13, which will be developed in the subsequent chapters (cf. below); this adds to the eschatological context of the teaching, though this aspect may not be immediately apparent. Both the lex talionis principle, and the reversal-of-fortune theme, are in view here, as we find also in Jesus’ teaching (esp. in the Sermon on the Mount). The one who judges others (on earth), will be judged in turn by God (in heaven), with the emphasis being on the harsh judgment that awaits for those who mistreat or disregard the poor and needy.

James 3:5-6

There would seem to be another eschatological allusion in 3:6. The author (“James”) has shifted the focus from his discussion on the rich and poor, to give a similar kind of ethical instruction on guarding the tongue (i.e. how we speak). The colorful imagery he uses is quite typical of Jewish Wisdom literature (on instruction regarding the “tongue” in Proverbs, cf. 10:20, 31; 12:18-19; 15:2ff; 17:20; 18:21; 21:6; 26:28). In vv. 5-6 the destructive power of the tongue is compared to that of fire (cf. Prov 16:27; 26:21). The imagery is applied in verse 5, and then is built on in v. 6, including, it would seem, a kind of eschatological warning:

“And the tongue (is indeed) a fire—(as) the world th(at is) without justice, (so) the tongue is placed down among our members, the (thing) staining the whole body and setting aflame the (entire) course of th(is) coming to be, even as it is being set aflame under the (fire) of Ge-Hinnom.”

At the very least, v. 6b contains a warning of the end-time Judgment that awaits the wicked. It is a Judgment by fire, using the motif of the Ge-Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom) drawn from Israelite history and Old Testament/Jewish tradition. Jesus uses the idiom with some frequency in his teaching, of the fire that will burn up the wicked and faithless (Mark 9:43ff par; Matt 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Luke 12:5). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament outside of Jesus’ teaching. For the use of fire elsewhere, in an eschatological Judgment setting, cf. Matt 3:10-12 par; 7:19; 13:40; 25:41; Lk 17:29; John 15:6; 1 Cor 3:13ff; 2 Thess 1:8; 1 Pet 1:7; 2 Pet 3:7ff; Jude 7; Rev 8:5ff; 14:10, 18; 18:8; 19:20; 20:9-10, 14-15.

The expression o( troxo\$ th=$ gene/sew$ creates some difficulty. The noun troxo/$ essentially refers to something running or rolling (from the verb tre/xw); it could indicate specifically a “wheel”, or to the “track” or “course” in which something runs/rolls. This is the only occurrence of the noun in the New Testament; in the LXX, it typically refers to a wheel. The other noun in the expression, ge/nesi$, literally means “coming to be”, sometimes specifically in the sense of coming to be born, i.e. “birth”. Thus, in English the expression might be translated “wheel of birth”, “circle of life”, or something similar. Here it is intended as a comprehensive expression, describing all life that comes into existence on earth. Thus the imagery spans the macro and micro—the entire evil and unjust world alongside the little tongue. In many ways the two are the same; here the image is of the tongue, with its evil-speaking, setting fire to the entire body (compare Jesus’ similar use of the eye in Matt 6:22-23), the whole being of the person. At the same time, the person’s existence—indeed, that of the entire world—is set on fire by Ge-Hinnom. This may contain an allusion to the idea of the world being consumed by fire at the end of the Age (2 Pet 3:12). At any rate, as noted above, it is a reference to the eschatological Judgment.

James 4:11-5:11

The main eschatological portion of the letter of James begins at 4:11 and extends through 5:11, spanning two parallel sections which may be outlined as follows:

    • 4:11-12—A warning against speaking evil
      • 4:13-17—Warning against the shortness and uncertainty of life
    • 5:1-6—A warning against trust in worldly riches
      • 5:7-11—Warning of the nearness of the end (and the Judgment)

The two areas addressed—speaking evil and worldly riches—have been themes throughout the letter (cf. above). The warning against them has the end-time Judgment in mind. This is clear enough in 4:12, where God is identified as the one who will act as Judge over all humankind. The one who judges others, speaking evil of them (or against them), will be judged in turn by God at the end-time. The condemnation of those who devote themselves to worldly wealth and riches, in 5:1-6, is even harsher. Given the uncertainty and shortness of life (4:13-17), piling up earthly treasure is, in general, foolish and inappropriate. How much more foolish is it when one realizes that the end of the Age is near— “You have gathered treasure (here) in the last days!” (v. 3b) And, since much, if not most, earthly wealth is obtained, at least in part, through the exploitation and oppression of others (including the poor), those who are rich will face God’s Judgment, which is coming soon enough:

“…the cries of the (one)s (hav)ing harvested [i.e. workers/laborers] have come into the ears of the Lord Sabaoth! You destroyed yourself (with pleasure) upon the earth and (liv)ed in luxury, you nourished your heart on a day of slaughter!…” (vv. 4b-5a)

In verse 7, the author turns to address those who are poor and oppressed; at the same time, he speaks to believers, who, in large part, would fit this category. So too, in Jesus’ teaching, he assumes that his disciples will be among the poor and meek, those who mourn and are persecuted, etc (see esp. the Beatitudes, Matt 5:3-12 par). The exhortation here assumes that the end-time Judgment, when the wrongs (on earth) will be righted by God, and the righteous will receive their true wage (reward), is coming very soon. Harvest imagery is employed, regularly used as part of eschatological instruction in the New Testament:

“So (then), brothers, you must be long of impulse, until the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside (us) [parousi/a]. See! the worker of the earth [i.e. land] looks to receive out of (it) the valuable fruit of the earth, having a long impulse upon it, until he should receive (that which comes) before and (that which comes) later. (So) also you must be long of impulse, setting your hearts firm, (in) that [i.e. because] the Lord’s being alongside (us) [parousi/a] has come near!” (vv. 7-8)

The verb makroqume/w is difficult to translate; it means to be makroqumw/$ (“long of impulse”), that is, possessing a long and enduring impulse (qumo/$), or desire, such as for a specific goal or purpose. It can connote specifically the idea of endurance or being patient; however, here it is better understood in tandem with the verb sthri/zw (“set firm”), indicating a strength and firmness of purpose, willing to endure any suffering or hardship. Translating the verb makroqume/w as “be patient” could give the misleading impression that the Lord’s appearance and the end-time Judgment may not occur for quite some time. This is flatly contradicted by the clear statements expressing imminence—i.e., that the end will come very soon, possibly at any moment:

“the Lord’s being alongside us has come near” (v. 8b)
h( parousi/a tou= kuri/ou h&ggiken
“see! the Judge has taken (his) stand before the door” (v. 9)
i)dou\ o( krith\$ pro\ tw=n qurw=n e%sthken

So, too, in the example of Job, etc, in vv. 10-11, it is not the “patience” of Job that is being emphasized, so much as his firm resolve (we might also say his faith) while enduring suffering and hardship.

Twice in vv. 7-8, the noun parousi/a is used. It is a rather ordinary word, referring to a person “(com)ing to be alongside”; however, very early on, it came to serve as a technical term among Christians for the end-time appearance (return) of Jesus (the “parousia”)–cf. Matt 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1, 8; 1 Cor 15:23; 2 Pet 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28. In a Jewish setting, the expression “the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside” (h( parousi/a tou= kur/iou) would have referred to the appearance of God, coming to bring Judgment and to deliver His people; however, for early Christians the title ku/rio$ could be used interchangeably for God the Father (YHWH) and Jesus. Moreover, even in Jewish eschatological tradition, God’s end-time appearance would take place through His appointed representative, a heavenly/divine being or Messianic figure. Paul uses the same expression (of Jesus) in 1 Thess 4:15 and 2 Thess 2:1, filling it out “the parousi/a of our Lord” (cf. also 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 5:23, “…of our Lord Yeshua”).

On the use of the verb e)ggi/zw (“come near”), and other terminology to express the imminent expectation of the end among early Christians, see my separate article on the subject.

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