Getting the whole picture of Romans provides us a clearer understanding of the function of each particular passage in the work as a whole. It also suggests the sort of situation which the letter addresses. What we know of the “background” sheds more light on this situation: Rome earlier expelled the Jewish Christians (Acts 18:1-3), but now they have returned (Rom 16:3). This means that the Roman house churches, which had consisted completely of Gentiles for many years, now face conflict with Jewish Christians who had different cultural ways of doing things. Paul’s letter to the Romans summons Christians to ethnic, cultural, tribal reconciliation with one another by reminding us that all of us came to God on the same terms, through Jesus Christ alone. (But we will turn to the issue of background more fully later.)
2. Justice for the Poor in James
Some people, reading the letter of James, have thought that the letter collects miscellaneous exhortations that do not fit together very well. But their view is unlikely: when one examines James carefully, most of the book actually fits together quite well.
In the “immediate context” section above, we asked how James expected us to resist the devil (4:7), and argued that he referred to resisting the world’s values. This is a valid general principle, but were there any specific values that James was especially concerned about among his readers? Most likely, there were.
In the introduction to James’ letter he introduces several themes which recur through the rest of the letter. By tracing these themes, we get a simple outline of the basic issues the letter addresses. (When I preach on James, I often like to preach from the introduction of the letter, which allows me to actually preach most of the letter using just one or two paragraphs as my outline.)
First of all, we see the problem James confronts: his readers encounter various trials (1:2). As one reads through the letter, one gathers that many of his readers are poor people who are being oppressed by the rich (1:9-11; 2:2-6; 5:1-6). (Background sheds even more light on this situation, which was very common in James’s day. But for now we will continue to focus on whole-book context, since we will do more with background later.) Some of James’ readers appear tempted to deal with their problem of various trials in the wrong way: with a violent (whether verbally or physically) response (1:19-20; 2:11; 3:9; 4:2).