There are four people called James in the New Testament. Most agree that the James who wrote this Letter is a half-brother of Jesus. We know that he did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah during His public ministry (John 7:5) but did believe when the risen Jesus appeared to him (Acts 1:14; 1 Corinthians 15:7).
James went on to become a key leader of the Jerusalem church sometime before AD 44, and was one of two leaders Paul met with in Jerusalem three years after Paul’s conversion (Galatians 1:19).
James’ speech in Acts 15:13-21 contains many linguistic similarities with the Letter of James which is one of the earliest letters in the New Testament. There is extra-Biblical evidence that James (also known as James the Just) was martyred in AD 62; 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 migrated from Israel. However, the New Testament writers often applied Old Testament titles to the church, whether Jew or Gentile: this Letter is relevant to all Christians. James wrote this as a general letter which was intended to warn and encourage believers anywhere in the Roman world, rather than to a particular church or group of churches.
There is a narrative running through the Letter. James wrote as Jesus often spoke, using analogies and questions to drive home a message. It seems that churches had become divided through worldly thinking even though the persecution they were experiencing should have helped them to unite and look to Jesus together. James appeals to them to help each other to get back on track with Jesus. The last two verses (5:19-20) say, ‘My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.’
James carefully lays out his plea for authentic faith expressed in united loving concern for other believers. The last chapter exposes the church as divided by selfish and worldly ambitions. These attitudes may have been a fearful reaction to the persecution by Saul (AD 34) and Agrippa (AD 44) which forced many Christians to leave Jerusalem, but James wanted to stay in contact, to encourage the weak and correct the worldly attitudes that had crept into the church. They may have been tempted to hide their faith when tested or persecuted, but James taught that God’s purpose in the tough times is to test and mature faith. James gave basic advice on how individuals should act in difficult circumstances, and how to relate with other believers in the church.
James also highlighted the wrong idea that someone could claim to have faith but have no Christ-like works (behaviour) associated with it. James corrected the concept that faith might exist as an ‘idea’ without being carried through into practical living which lovingly impacted other believers. Towards the end of chapter 1, James gives three practical results of true faith, which he then explores in the following chapters: love for the poor (chapter 2), control of our tongue/words (chapter 3) and separation from the world (chapters 4-5).
One particular challenge that is seen throughout the Letter is the tension between rich and poor Christians (1:9-11). We know too that there was a worldwide famine in AD 44 and this may have increased that tension. James deals with the issues of selfishness and favouritism in chapter 2, and pride and oppression are addressed in chapters 4 and 5. Like the book of Proverbs this Letter is full of practical wisdom and starkly exposes contrasting life-attitudes.
True faith changes the way we live
This Letter reminds us that if our faith does not enable us to live in a godly way, it is not true faith; and that we need to live so that it is obvious that our faith matters. Believing in Jesus is not an intellectual concept, but the motivation to respond in a Christ-like way to the changing circumstances 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 being eager to walk in God’s ways (2:21-25).
True faith changes our attitude to money
When we realise that knowing God is more valuable than anything (1:9-11) and that money does not last (4:13-17), we should be glad to be generous (2:8-12) and the rich will not allow their possessions to possess them. Christians should treat the rich and poor equally (2:1-13), and those who are employers will treat their workers fairly and pay them on time (5:1-6).
True faith changes what we say
Words matter. Our words express what is in our hearts and what we desire (3:1-13). James helps us to think about the words we say. We must not curse (3:10), or quarrel (4:1-2), slander (4:11) or boast (4:16) or swear (5:12). We should use the tongue to bless and pray and praise.
True faith changes what and who we love
James helps us to examine our hearts (3:13-17) and lifestyle. If we love the world and its ways more than God, we are committing spiritual adultery (4:4-6). When life is difficult it is very tempting to compromise or be selfish, but James helps us to see how wrong that is. James urges his readers to repent and turn back to God and experience His grace, and encourage other believers to do the same. Above all, James reminds believers to keep following Jesus. The weight of trials or persecution do affect us, but God uses them to enable us to trust Him and not give up; in this way our character grows to be more Christ-like. Remember that God will reward each faithful believer in due course, encouraging us to bear fruit now (5:7-12). Therefore, James also urges us to pray for each other and help each other (5:13-20).
|Faith during trials
|Faith that works
|Faith through our words
|Faith that waits