A Letter From James, Part 2
A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
We continue our study of the letter from James. In part 1 we determined that the letter was written by James, the half brother of Jesus, around 50 AD when most of the Church was still of Jewish origin. They had been scattered throughout Israel and surrounding countries in the persecution that began after the stoning of Stephen in 36 AD, and James was sending what was probably the first letter ever written to the growing Christian community. This week we’ll look at chapter 2.
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
Once again James identified his readers as believers in Jesus. As we began to see in chapter one, the purpose of his letter was to inform these new believers (and us) on proper Christian behavior, admonishing us to be not just hearers but also doers of God’s word (James 1:22).
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? (James 2:5-7)
Many believe that on a proportional basis there will be more people from among the poor than the rich who inherit the kingdom. Obviously we can’t prove this, but from all the Bible says about money and what it can do to people, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is true. If so, it’s the poor who are really God’s favored people. A large percentage of the wealthy will find when they die that they’ve already received every blessing they will ever get, ever, and the rest of their eternity will be far different from their first few years.
And yet most believers typically show an inordinate and often undeserved amount of respect, and even envy, for the wealthy, while “looking down their noses” at the poor. James rightly condemned this practice. As we arrive in the Kingdom, no part of our earthly fame and fortune will accompany us. Therefore, the only thing we should value in each other is our faith, and as a group the poor have a much deeper faith than the rich, because they are much more dependent upon God’s provision. Focusing on people’s wealth rather than on their faith, dishonors the poor.
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker (James 2:8-11)
The term “royal law” appears only here in the Bible and was perhaps a term James coined. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not one of the 10 commandments. The idea comes from Leviticus 19:18 where it was part of an admonition against seeking revenge. I believe James took it from the Lord’s answer to a question about the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:34-40). Jesus said the greatest commandment is the first one, “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind.” Then He said, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Remember, the context here is dishonoring the poor. In effect, James said that even if a person was able to keep the whole Levitical Law and yet dishonored the poor, God would consider him to be a lawbreaker because favoring one person over another due to worldly stature is a sin.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:12-13).
Once again James used the term “the law that gives freedom” from chapter one. There we learned that the law that gives us freedom is the Gospel. Jesus died in our place to fulfill the requirements of the Law, freeing us from the consequences of breaking it.
James is reminding us that this incredible demonstration of God’s mercy toward us is meant to make us more merciful toward others. His mercy has stayed the hand of judgment against us and triumphed over it, canceling the penalties rightfully due us (Colossians 2:13-14). How could knowing this produce any other response in us than to show the same mercy toward others that we have received from Him?
Faith and Deeds
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17).
Remember that James was writing to believers here. He was not talking about what it takes to be saved. He was not talking about what to look for in others to see if they are saved. And he was certainly not talking about combining obedience to the Law with our faith to make our salvation complete.
He was talking about how we can tell we are saved. If our faith manifests itself in acts of charity and kindness toward others then we can be sure it is genuine. If not, then it’s merely theoretical, an intellectual position we’ve taken that has no bearing on reality and no influence in our life.
Believers don’t have to make themselves perform these acts of charity. In fact they have to make themselves not do them. The Holy Spirit will prompt every believer to perform various acts of kindness as circumstances arise. We have to refuse to comply by ignoring His prompting.
When Paul said it is by grace we are saved through faith and not by works, he was talking about the root of our salvation, which is faith alone. James was talking about what happens after we are saved, the fruit of our salvation, which is our faith manifesting itself in the way we live our life.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder (James 2:18-19).
Believing there is one God is not enough to save us. To be saved, we have to believe God sent His son to die for our sins, and accept His death as the payment we owed for them. The gratitude we feel for what He has done for us is the energizing force behind our acts of kindness.
The demons believe there is one God because they’ve seen Him. They shudder because they know the judgment He has reserved for them. They know there is no escape because there is no comparable provision for their forgiveness.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone (James 2:20-24).
In Hebrews 11 the writer summed up Abraham’s situation nicely. Long past child bearing age, he and Sarah, who had been barren all her life, were enabled to conceive and bring forth a son (Hebrews 11:11). Isaac was the heir God had promised Abraham, through whom all of His promises to Abraham would be fulfilled.
Then one day, before any of these promises had been kept, God asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham reasoned that God would raise Isaac from the dead rather than break His promise, and so he agreed. Of course it never went that far, and at the last minute a ram was substituted for Isaac. But figuratively speaking Abraham did receive Isaac back from death (Hebrews 11:17-19).
The whole story is told in Genesis 22 where it turns out they were acting out a prophecy. It foretold that one day God would offer His son as a sacrifice for sin. All this happened on Mt. Moriah, the same place where Jesus was crucified. Genesis 22 is often called the Gospel in Genesis for this reason.
Someone once said, “If what we claim to believe does not result in action, it’s doubtful we really believe it.” And that’s the point James was making. By his actions Abraham’s faith was demonstrated as being genuine.
Some like to point to the apparent conflict between this passage and Paul’s claims about Abraham in Romans 4:1-3 that he was not justified by his works but by his faith. But the context is totally different.
In Romans 3 Paul said no one is inherently righteous (Romans 3:9-19) and no one will be declared righteous by keeping the Law (Romans 3:20). But there is a righteousness from God apart from the Law. It comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe (Romans 3:21-24). In effect, Paul then said Abraham was the prototype for this because, although he was not inherently righteous, and didn’t have the Law to govern his behavior, he believed God and his belief was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:1-2).
Paul was talking about attaining righteousness and James was talking about demonstrating our righteousness by our actions. Again, Paul was speaking about the root of our righteousness and James was speaking about its fruit. Both positions are correct.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead (James 2:25-26).
Rahab lived in Jericho. She and all her neighbors had heard of what God had done for the Israelites, making a path for them through the Red Sea, and destroying the armies of Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. But while the others in Jericho cowered in fear, Rahab had determined that the God of Israel was God of Heaven and Earth, and had helped the Israelite spies who came to her by hiding them from her own people in return for her family’s safety (Joshua 2).
After Jericho had been destroyed, her house was the only one standing, and she and her family were safe inside. Rahab joined the Israelites. She married an Israelite man named Salmon and they had a son who they named Boaz. Boaz was the father of Obed, who was the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David.
Rahab’s faith was demonstrated by her actions. Because of it, she gained a prominent place among the Israelites and is mentioned in the Lord’s genealogy (Matt. 1:5).
So ends James chapter 2. Already we’re beginning to see that James was not writing to Jews still under the Levitical Law but to Jewish believers in Jesus who adhered to the “perfect Law that gives freedom.” More next time.