James speaks of the readers’ place of worship as a synagogue (2:2), and uses the Hebrew title kyriou sabaoth (“Lord Almighty” or “Lord of hosts”; 5:4).
His reference to the “early and latter rain” (5:7), hot winds (1:11), sweet and bitter springs (3:11), and figs and olives (3:12) indicate a Middle Eastern context (Lea 9). It seems likely that his readers had once lived or known of the Palestinian climate and culture, even if they are scattered beyond it now.
The internal linguistic evidence indicates that James was writing principally to Jews living in Greek lands and culture. But James does not confine his letter to those who are scattered outside Israel, but means it for those living wherever Israel has been scattered, including Palestine.
Is James addressing only Jewish Christians; only Jews; or both? Internal evidence makes clear that his audience are believers:
He is a “servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ,” writing to people he calls “my brothers” (1:2).
He later calls his readers “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1).
He mentions Jesus only twice and never explains the gospel of salvation, omissions explainable only if his readers are already believers (think of a pastor addressing a group of deacons or Sunday school teachers).
Peter likewise addresses his first letter to readers who are “scattered” in the world (1:1). But he makes clear that they are “God’s elect” (v. 1), and that they “have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, by obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood” (v. 2); clearly Christians can be “scattered” or “dispersed” as were the Jewish people.
What is its purpose?
Practical: the letter sets out the essentials of life lived according to God’s Law, to help the sincere live up to their faith and refuse conduct unworthy of a follower of Jesus (Adamson 20).
Pastoral: James wishes to continue his ministerial relationship with Jewish Christians who have been scattered from Jerusalem by persecution. He preaches his sermon/writes his letter to guide and encourage their continued faithfulness to God.
Apologetic: James knows that Christians are the best (and worst) arguments for Christ. He wants the followers of Jesus to live so faithfully that others will see their faith at work and want to join their commitment to their Master. In this sense, James is the most post-modern book of the NT, with the most thoroughgoing emphasis on relevance and praxis.
What is its structure?
Some have seen the letter as disjointed thematically. At first reading, the epistle does indeed jump from topic to topic with little or no transition or apparent overarching structure. But further investigation reveals an underlying pattern very typical of ancient Jewish rhetoric.
The author begins and ends with the same emphases: the need for patience (1:2-4; 5:7-12) and prayer (1:5-8; 5:13-20). The body of the letter centers in the Christian’s spiritual birth (1:13-19a), growth (1:19-25) and development (1:26-5:6). Such development can be measured by the use of the tongue, care for the needy, and personal purity in life (1:26-27), themes which will be developed in detail.
This thematic development can be outlined as follows (remember that the chapters and verses were added centuries later, and can be misleading):
Introduction: patience (1:2-4) and prayer (1:5-8)
Spiritual birth (1:13-19a)
Spiritual growth (1:19b-25)
Spiritual development (1:26-5:6)
–control of the tongue (1:26; 3:1-12)
–care for the needy (1:27a; 2:1-16)
–personal purity in life (1:27b; 3:13-5:6; Motyer 11-13).
We are the people of God, wherever we find ourselves.
These Jewish Christians are now far from their Holy Land, their Temple, their pastor and church. Since they entered the Promised Land under Joshua, they have historically identified their faith with their place.
However, displacement is not new for the people of God (cf. Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon and a lion’s den, John on Patmos).
As Christians, nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:35-39). David was right: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10).
The question is not where we are, but whose we are. Paul said it well: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi” (Philippians 1:1). We are “in” Christ spiritually and eternally, no matter where we are “at” physically.
God will meet our spiritual needs, wherever we live.
He used James, their “home church” pastor, to deliver revelation which addressed their specific spiritual problems and opportunities. They received theological teaching and encouragement which was more divinely inspired and enduring than anything they had learned while in Jerusalem.
In addition, they are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cointhiansr 3:16), the body of Christ on earth (1 Corinthians 12:27-30). He will use his people to minister to each other, to encourage and guide to the abundant life of Christ, as he meets our needs by his grace (Philippians 4:19).
God cares about every dimension of our lives, “secular” and “sacred.”
The Hebrew people typically disparaged those who lived in Gentile lands (cf. the problem in Acts 6 with the widows). They would have considered these people to be “secular,” and would have given little attention to their lives and faith.
But James will speak to every part of their lives, not just their Sabbath religion and spiritual observances.
Why did God allow his people to be “scattered”?
Free-will theodicy: their persecution was the result of misused freedom on the part of the Jewish authorities, not the prescriptive will of God.
Soul-building theodicy: God used their dispersion to advance his Kingdom, bringing the gospel to those we encounter (Acts 8:1 fulfilled 1:8).
Eschatological theodicy: they would one day see the ways their scattered witness advanced the cause and Commission of Christ.