The author of the letter of James was most likely James the brother of Jesus. He was a leader in the Jerusalem church and was highly respected by the Jews. (For further details of the author see JAMES THE BROTHER OF JESUS.)
Background to the letter
It seems that the letter of James was among the earliest New Testament writings. It was written to Jewish Christians who had long been accustomed to the public worship of God in the synagogue, and who took their moral standards from the law of Moses. These things were in some ways a help to Jewish Christians, but in other ways they were a hindrance. Some of the Christians held firmly to the law they had always followed, but they became so coldly legalistic that their Christianity lacked life and enthusiasm.
Others erred in the opposite direction. They reacted against the restrictions they had once experienced under the law, and joined so freely in the common practices of the society around them that their behaviour became unchristian. James dealt with these problems by giving instruction on the nature of Christian faith. Faith is more than intellectual belief, and more than obedience to a set of rules. It is something that is living and active, and it expresses itself in right behaviour. It does not give people freedom to do as they like, but leads them to have a greater love for God and a greater love for others. It enables Christians, whether Jews or Gentiles, to live positively and joyfully for God in an ungodly society, without accepting the ungodly standards of that society.
Contents of the letter
James realizes that Christians face many trials and testings in life, so he begins his letter by encouraging them to meet their trials and testings in the right attitude. If they do, they will grow in their Christian lives (1:1-18). This growth depends upon their being obedient to God’s Word (1:19-27). Low standards of behaviour may be acceptable in society at large, but Christians must not allow such standards to influence their behaviour. They must not, for example, favour the wealthy or ignore the poor, but love all people regardless of class, as God does (2:1-13). If they say they have faith, they must give proof of it by the way they live (2:14-26). They are to control their tongues (3:1-12) and are not to be guilty of unspiritual or selfish behaviour (3:13-18). The attitude that produces such unchristian behaviour is what James calls worldliness (4:1-12). It causes Christians to live like the ordinary people of the world, whose chief concern is for their own advancement regardless of God’s will and God’s values (4:13-5:6). Christians should learn to be patient. They should put other people’s interests before their own and prayerfully trust in God at all times (5:7- 20).