There are four people called James in the New Testament. Most agree that the James who wrote this Letter is the half-brother of Jesus. We know that he was not a follower during Jesus’ public ministry, but became a follower when the risen Jesus appeared to him (1 Corinthians 15:7).
James went on to become a key leader of the Jerusalem church sometime before AD44, and was one of two leaders Paul met with in Jerusalem three years after Paul’s conversion (Galatians 1:19). James’ speech in Acts 15 contains many similarities in language with the Letter of James. It is one of the earliest Letters in the New Testament. We know that this James (known as James the Just) was martyred in AD62, according to sources external to the Bible, and so the Letter was written before then, probably early 50s AD.
The Letter is addressed to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations, which is probably a reference to Jewish Christians who had been scattered from Israel but we have no clear idea who they were. It was probably a general letter intended for anyone of a Jewish background, anywhere in the Roman world, rather than a particular church or group of churches.
James does not state his purpose. We know that persecution from Saul (34AD) and Agrippa (44AD) led to Jewish Christians leaving Jerusalem and James would have wanted to stay in contact and encourage them.
The Letter lacks an ordered structure, with the author moving from one topic to another fairly rapidly but it’s clear that he wishes to explore the idea that someone could claim to have faith but have no works associated with it. It may be that his readers have misinterpreted what Paul had been saying in his Letters. Paul was saying that we are saved by faith, not by works. Paul himself teaches that true faith will lead to appropriate changes in lifestyle and activity. James wants to correct any thoughts that faith might exist as an ‘idea’ without it being carried through into practise.
We know too that there was a worldwide famine in AD44 and there may have been a problem between the rich Jewish Christians and the poor ones.
It seems probable that the believers had not been Christians for long and so James’ basic advice on how to act under trials and how to behave within the company of believers was necessary.
Why read it?
The Letter will help you remember that you need to take the necessary actions that show that your faith matters. Christianity was never intended to be just nice thoughts, but faith acted out in the ups and downs of daily life, providing for the needs of others (1:27; 2:15-16); keeping away from sin (1:21: 1:27; 4:8) and an eagerness to walk in God’s ways (2:21-25).
It will help you have a right attitude to money. You treat the rich and poor equally. If you are rich don’t allow your possessions to possess you. If you are a business owner, treat your workers fairly and pay them on time.
The Letter will also help you remember that your words matter. Don’t curse (3:10), or quarrel (4:1-2), slander (4:11) or boast (4:16) or swear (5:12). It’s much better to use the tongue to bless and pray and praise.
Above all, James reminds you to keep going. Don’t allow trials or persecution to get you down. Remember that God will reward you for your labour in due course and enable you to bear fruit.
|1||Faith during trials|
|2||Faith that works|
|3||Faith in our words|
|5||Faith that waits|