The letter of James was possibly the first New Testament letter to be written. It seems to have been addressed mainly to Jewish Christians – not those of a specific local church, but Jewish Christians in general. Like God’s people in later Old Testament times, these Christians were scattered throughout the region of the Bible’s story (James 1:1). Further indications of the Jewish background to the book are the writer’s reference to the Christian meeting as a synagogue (James 2:2), and his references to the law of Moses (James 1:18; 2:8-11; 5:4).
Author of the letter
From early Christian times it has been understood that the person named James who wrote this letter was James the brother of the Lord Jesus (James 1:1; cf. Mark 6:3). During Jesus’ earthly life, James and his brothers did not believe him to be the Messiah (John 7:3-5), but by the time of his ascension they had become believers (Acts 1:14). This suggests that Jesus’ special appearance to James after the resurrection may have helped turn him and his brothers from unbelief to faith (1 Cor 15:7).
James later became the most prominent leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17; 15:13; Gal 1:18- 19; 2:9,12). Although most of the Jews in the Jerusalem church still held to former beliefs and customs, James was not in bondage to the law. He constantly encouraged his fellow Jews to be more tolerant of others (Acts 15:13,19). The common people respected him for his sincere faith and called him James the Just.
Purpose of the letter
Jews who became Christians had the advantages of a long-established belief in God and a moral outlook moulded by the law of Moses. But these advantages could also become a hindrance. Some Christians were so devoted to the law that they became coldly legalistic and their Christianity lacked vitality. Others erred in the opposite direction. Now that they were released from the law’s restrictions, they thought they were free to join in whatever practices were common in the society around them. As a result their behaviour became unchristian.
James dealt with these problems by giving teaching on the nature of Christian faith. Faith is not obedience to a set of rules, nor is it mere intellectual belief. It is something that is living, and it expresses itself in right behaviour. It does not give people the right to do as they like, but directs them towards a greater love for God and for others. Christian faith changes people’s thinking and behaviour, and is relevant to the problems of daily life. It enables Christians to live positively for God in an ungodly society, without accepting the ungodly standards of that society. This applies not to Jewish Christians only, but to all God’s people.