The author of this letter was likely the brother of Jesus, who was also the leader of the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) that deliberated on the issue of whether Gentiles needed to observe Jewish law, especially circumcision, in order to be a Christian. The letter is written to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1). This suggests a largely Jewish audience, which is borne out by other elements of the letter. James, as leader of the church in Jerusalem, likely wrote this letter to encourage those who had been scattered by persecution, a point indicated by the opening comments about trials and tribulations. The letter was probably meant to be circulated to other churches.
One mark of the book of James is the emphasis on not simply hearing the word but doing what it says. The many exhortations of the book resemble the book of Proverbs: impartiality, taming the tongue, humility, warning about riches, and patience.
James may be best known for his understanding of the relationship between faith and deeds. Many see here a difference of opinion with Paul’s view. For example, in Romans 4, Paul uses Abraham as an illustration of one who had faith in God apart from works of the law. James makes the opposite case: Abraham’s faith was not complete until he acted to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Some believe that James and Paul contradict each other. Others think that James is simply saying that true faith always results in concrete evidence of that faith in one’s actions (see also Matthew 7:15-23). Paul, too, would never divorce faith from how one lives. The best explanation for this difference is how they used Abraham in the context of their respective arguments. Paul was arguing in Romans that keeping the Jewish law was no longer a central concern in view of the coming of Christ. Using Abraham as an illustration was powerful. James, on the other hand, is countering the notion that faith is merely a mental activity, a concern that is also seen throughout the Gospels.
Wisdom in particular is aimed at cultivated right behavior. True wisdom, wisdom that comes from God, translates into godly behavior and leads one toward further submission to God.
– Peter Enns