James is a “general” letter, addressed not to a specific church but to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1). This likely refers to Jewish Christians who were dispersed throughout the regions of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. The fact that James addresses both the rich and the poor provides an idea of the diverse backgrounds of those who made up the first-century church. Many of the scattered Jews fell on hard times in foreign lands. They worked as day laborers and found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder. In contrast, a minority had achieved great financial security and social acceptance. In many areas, these two groups were part of the same Christian congregation, and tensions between the groups occasionally ran high, especially during times of famine and struggle. In his letter, James applies God’s wisdom to the relationship between the “haves” and “have nots” and helps his readers understand how their interaction relates to the greater theme of faith and works.
Several key themes are prominent in the letter of James. The first theme is that believers in Christ must persevere through trials. James is clear that we will experience “various trials” and must develop the skills necessary to patiently endure through them. Such perseverance will lead to spiritual growth, give us a new perspective on our lives, and help us to see the potential for God’s good work in every situation (see James 1:2–4; 5:7–12).
A second theme is that followers of Jesus must love everyone equally. As previously noted, the early church was comprised of those who found themselves at the top of the social and economic ladder and those who were on the lower rungs. But James holds that such differences do not matter in the family of God. All followers of Jesus must love others equally and show no favoritism or partiality based on social standing. Furthermore, James counsels the wealthier believers not to place confidence in their riches or ignore the plight of the poor, whose cries ascend to the very ears of God (see 1:9–11; 2:1–13; 5:1–6).
A third theme is that believers in Christ must be careful with their speech. It appears that malicious gossip was doing great harm to the early church and was damaging relationships between believers. James wanted his readers to understand the incredible power the believers’ words possessed and to use their speech to build up others in love instead of tearing them down. The same tongue that praises God should never be used to curse another person. So, James offers several practical tips for how believers can control their tongues … instead of allowing their tongues to control them (see 1:26; 3:1–12).
A fourth theme is that believers in Christ should practice good works. James is perhaps best known for his teachings on how believers should balance faith and works in their lives. While he, like the apostle Paul, is clear that good works do not save a person, he is equally clear that such good works must be the natural outcome of a person’s salvation. James urges his readers to embrace a personal code of morality and ethics based on loving God with everything that is within them—and loving their neighbors as themselves (see 1:21–25, 27; 2:14–26).
James offers strong pastoral counsel on how our beliefs must translate into life. As Christians, we are held to a higher standard in our conduct, speech, priorities, and relationships. It is not enough for us to have a “private” faith and just blend in with everyone else. We must stand out from the world—and demonstrate the love that Jesus has shown to us by loving others and caring for those in need. The spotlight will be especially intense on us when we face adversity and setbacks. But if we are able to maintain a God-honoring perspective in the midst of those trials, then we will make an impact on others and demonstrate God’s love to them.
Jeremiah, David. 2021. James: The Relationship between Faith and Works. Jeremiah Bible Study Series. Grand Rapids, MI: HarperChristian Resources.