A note from Jesus’ brother.
As indicated by the title, this letter was written by James, the leader of the gospel-centered movement in Jerusalem. The most reliable church scholarship has widely held that the author of the book of James was in fact Jesus’ brother. It is critical to keep in mind whom we are listening to when reading the book of James.
As a child, James was quoted as saying he thought his older brother Jesus was “out of his mind”1. As an adult, he likely penned this letter before playing a key role in defending the gospel of grace at the famous Jerusalem Council meeting2. James likewise led the church effort which validated the early gospel ministry of Saul of Tarsus, who had become Paul the Apostle3.
The epistle is addressed to Jewish believers dispersed throughout the Roman empire, whom James refers to as the “Twelve Tribes.”
Especially for the Jewish diaspora—those who had been scattered outside the enclave of Israel—Jews protected their cultural identity primarily through dietary and cleanliness barriers: don’t eat, don’t enter, don’t touch. Jews who became Christians were challenged by the gospel because it pushed against these very barriers and called for profound changes in how they worshipped and expressed their faith in God.
These were people who had spent all their lives in a culture of hardened legalism, and James was taking care to communicate to those he shepherded how the gospel works in the many facets of everyday life.
James takes a thematic approach similar to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: he never stops talking about the gospel, he just changes the targets on which the gospel is sighted. So we find him writing about the gospel and trials; then about the connection between the gospel and good works; then the gospel and partiality and how true faith in the gospel begets action; then controlling the tongue and how gospel-wisdom is different than worldly wisdom; then how gospel shapes how we do conflict; then how selfish planning betrays our unbelief in the gospel. He wraps up his epistle talking about the gospel and wealth, suffering and prayer.
We are saved by faith alone, but [true faith] is never alone. – Martin Luther