1 - 7 Chosen To Be Rich In Faith
1 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with [an attitude of] personal favoritism. 2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world [to be] rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?
V1. You have seen in the final verses of the previous chapter that God is a caring Father and that He is light and love. By helping widows and orphans you can show that God is a Father Who looks after those who are deprived of all help. Because God also is light, the command goes together with keeping yourself unspotted from the world.
In order to keep you from exaggeration and from falling into Pharisee-ism in your living in separation from the world, James presents to you in the first verse of this chapter “the glorious Lord”. He does that in connection to the admonition that there should be no “personal favoritism” with those who believe in our “Lord Jesus Christ”.
James calls the Lord by His full name, because he must rail against the great evil in the Christian church, regarding giving preferential treatment to certain people, due to their social position. Such a conduct is absolutely in contrast with the Person of Christ and the confession of the faith in Him. Partiality is totally strange to Him (Acts 10:34). That is also not the way He dealt with you and me, right?
When you are impressed by socially successful people, people with a high position, and admire them for the nice looking car by which they come to the meeting and the nice clothes they wear for that occasion, then you have not really looked well to ‘the Lord of glory’. What does that entire earthly splendor mean in the light of His glory?
The Lord had glory with the Father before the world was (Jn 17:5). Also on earth He had glory, not for men (Isa 53:2), but for those with faith (Jn 1:14). This glory radiated through His humble stature. He will have glory when He returns to earth (2Pet 1:16-17). There is also a glory that is typical of Him and which we will see without taking part of it (Jn 17:24). He is the center and the radiation of all God’s thoughts and glory (Heb 1:3). All glory is in Him.
That glory is in sharp contrast with earthly glory. In the light of the Lord of all glory there is no room for rank or position. Then everything that is attractive to the man of the world shrinks and also the matters that still exert a strong attraction on us as believers, such as wealth, reputation, position and power. Those are all matters that make man blind for true glory and through which he is being drawn to hell. We too are inclined to look at the outward appearance (1Sam 16:7). Let us bear in mind that what is highly estimated by men is an abomination to God.
Besides, James doesn’t appeal to take away all differences, to eliminate ranks and classes out of the world and make all men to be equal. His intention is that the differences in the social life among the believers in their dealings with one another should play no part. In case that happens, he wants this evil to be judged. Actually there are differences among believers that are to be considered in their dealings with one another, such as a difference in age, in gender, in gifts. Those differences were made by the Lord. The differences are not to be played off against one another, but are supposed to be complementary to one another.
V2-3. James calls the evil by its name. He describes how men behave towards a rich man and towards a poor man when they enter the synagogue. Both the way of their approach to the rich man and the way of their approach to the poor man are totally wrong. It is far below the level of the glory of the Lord in Whom they say they believe. They look up to the rich man, due to his golden rings and his nice clothes and they look down to the shabby clothed poor man. They guide the rich man with a bow to a nice place, and they give the poor man a standing place or a place at their footstool.
V4. With such a behavior they show an arrogance that comes down to playing the role of judge. They have neither authority nor ability for such a way of acting. The distinction they made, they made by themselves, for their own benefit. There is nothing of the Lord in this matter. On the contrary, they act “with evil motives”. Such an evil motive is for example that they try to gain favor with rich people, because that can deliver them profit. They cannot gain any profit with poor people and therefore they do not care about them.
Do you still remember what James said about ‘pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father’? Was it not that precisely the poor people were to be visited in their affliction? How far away is making this distinction with evil thoughts from the true religion!
V5. “Listen”, James says. In other words: ‘You must listen very carefully. You are really my beloved brethren and therefore I tell you how God thinks about the socially deprived people. The poor in the world have priority with Him, they have a special place with Him.’
Paul also says that to the Corinthians, who were also that sensitive to the honor and reputation of the world (1Cor 1:16-28). The fact that God has elected the poor does not mean that He has elected them because they have no money, but because they have no rights and because they are dependent on others. With God it is about people who are of no account.
Due to their election they became rich in faith. To be rich in faith means to be rich in God (Lk 12:21). These riches are not to be expressed with money. Even the world is theirs (1Cor 3:21-23), because they belong to Him Who owns all the gold and silver (Hag 2:8). They still have to wait for taking possession of that until the Lord Jesus comes back.
The Lord Jesus was the poor One par excellence. He was rich, but became poor for our sake, that we might become rich through His poverty (2Cor 8:9). That poverty was not the stable in which he was born and the swaddling clothes in which he was wrapped, for that could not possibly make us rich. It was also not His poverty on earth, where He had nowhere to lay His head (Mt 8:20). We have become rich through nothing else than through the poverty of the three hours of darkness on the cross, where He carried the judgment of God over our sins.
That is also the only ground on which God could have made us “heirs of the kingdom”. When the Lord Jesus comes back to claim His kingdom, then all heirs will share with Him in His kingdom. God has promised that kingdom “to those who love Him”. James relates the promise of the kingdom to loving God.
That kingdom is only honored by those who know Who God is in His love. The love for God is present with each who knows that God first loved him (1Jn 4:19). When you have seen and also experienced that God has loved you, of which the highest proof is the gift of His Son, then there is nothing else left for you than to love Him, isn’t that true?
Therefore you as an heir can also look forward to that kingdom. Up to that moment you are able, just like the poor about whom James is talking, to enjoy your spiritual riches. Do you already know something about your riches? They are all included and hidden in Christ (Col 2:2-3). It is up to you to dig them up.
In the light of His riches all riches of the world will lose its grip on you. Each investment of time and effort to make the riches of Christ to be your own, will show its efficiency when the Lord Jesus comes back. When you are that rich you will also be able to make other people rich. Then you can be a person of whom Paul says: “As poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things” (2Cor 6:10).
V6. James points out to the readers that they have dishonored the poor by treating them with such disdain. They are blind for what these poor ones mean to God. But also for their conduct towards the rich with whom they love to gain favor, they seem to be blind. What God has done to the poor is in sharp contrast to what the rich had done to the poor.
Just take a good look at what the rich are doing, James says. They oppress you and drag you into the courts. You think that you will yield profit when you treat them with tribute, but in the meantime you are being robbed by them. These folks are merciless.
V7. And the worse thing is: through the conduct of the rich the “fair name” of the Lord Jesus by which you were called, is being blasphemed. Therefore there is absolutely no reason to look up to them and to approach them obsequiously.
Now read James 2:1-7 again.
Reflection: Do you approach your fellow believers without personal favoritism?
8 - 14 The Royal Law
8 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin [and] are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one [point], he has become guilty of all. 11 For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by [the] law of liberty. 13 For judgment [will be] merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. 14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
V8. The difference between the poor and the rich in the assembly is reprehensible. It is strongly condemned by James. He speaks out his condemnation in such a powerful language, which cannot be misunderstood. When they disregard the poor they are contradicting the “royal law”. In that law all Israelites are considered as objects of God’s favor. There the people are addressed as a whole. James brings his admonition in a positive way. He tells them that they do right when they fulfill the royal law “according to the Scripture”, which means when they carry that out in the way that it has been written in God’s Word and according to its intention.
The royal law is the law of the ten commandments. James calls it ‘the royal law’ in order to emphasize its high value, which is to serve as another exhortation to obey it. This law will be effective in its fullness and excellence in the kingdom to come, that will be reigned by the Lord Jesus as King. That law will then be written in the hearts of the members of God’s people (Heb 8:10). Because that law is written in their hearts they will also be able to live accordingly.
The fulfilling of the royal law happens when we love our neighbor like ourselves. Then we do right, then we live right, then we live just as God has intended it. This commandment makes clear that in the Old Testament each member of God’s people had his own place before God and that they were all equal in the sight of God. Each member of the people was the neighbor of the other and the other had to be treated with the same love with which a person treated himself. By dealing in that way with one another there would be no room for a preferential treatment of the one person or the neglect of another. In loving your neighbor the whole law is being fulfilled (Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10).
You may now ask yourself: ‘But we do not live under the law anymore, do we?’ Indeed, we do not live under the law anymore. Therefore James’ intention is not to bring us back under the law. He shows us that when you love the other you do what the law demands. Do you remember that James writes his letter in a period that God still tolerates His scattered people keeping the law? That’s why James refers to that. He appeals to them in their confession of faith.
This word is to appeal to you too. Not in the way that James appeals to his readers, for you (most apparently) do not belong to Israel. The application for you is, that when you love the other you will never do something that damages or hurts the other. To love is not a score that you achieve because the law demands that of you. To love is the expression of your new life that seeks the good for the other. When you seek the good and not the evil for the other, then it is clear that you, so to speak, automatically fulfill the law.
V9. The law puts everyone on an equal level of responsibility towards God. That law says: You must love your neighbor as yourself. If we then still make distinctions, then we do not act according to the royal commandment. The neighbor is my brother or sister in faith, the member of God’s church, of which also I am a member by grace.
All Israelites belonged to the one people and each Israelite was a neighbor of each other compatriot. That is how we also are related to one another. When you pray for your brother that he may do well, you pray that also for yourself at the same time, for if your brother does well, you also do well. When love is real your preference will disappear. God also did not deal with you by preference.
If you still act with partiality then you sin evidently. Is it not clearly in contrast with the law that says that each member of His people is equal to the other and that you are to treat each member of God’s people with the same love? It is undoubtedly a violation in case you still make a difference in your approach to the members.
V10. By violating this one commandment you are guilty of violating the whole law, although you have not really violated each of the commandments. That is because in the law the will of God comes to you. The authority of the Giver of the law supports the law. When Moses comes back from the mountain, he not only deletes one commandment, but he casts both tablets out of his hands and brakes them (Exo 32:19). The violation of that one commandment caused the people to be guilty of all the commandments. When you violate a commandment you are dealing with God Who gave both the commandment you violated and all other commandments.
V11. James uses an example. You can keep a commandment, but violate another commandment. Then you are by definition guilty of violating that commandment and in that way you stand guilty before the law wherein the other commandments are also established. The law forms a whole because God is the Giver of the law. When you violate a commandment, it means that you have given in to your own will and that you have despised the will of God, which He has revealed in the total of the law.
V12. As it is said, it is not the intention of James to put us under the law of the ten commandments. His argument is intended to clarify on the basis of the law how the interactions in the church are to be. The law contains the words of God and contains also useful education for them. James is giving the education with the view to the Jewish-Christian church, but we can also learn a lot from it. The real significance he has gotten, regarding the law, now he believes in the Lord of glory, is that of freedom. He already talked about that in chapter 1 (Jam 1:25) and here he gets back to it.
Freedom is not a non-aligned status. Freedom surely knows limits. Those limits are not to limit our freedom, but to prevent that we will use freedom in a wrong way. True freedom is doing the will of God and showing Who He is. That was done perfectly by the Lord Jesus. We see that the law of freedom perfectly comes to expression in His life. He was perfectly free, because there was nothing of His own will or sin in Him. In that way He could be perfectly tied to the will of God. There was nothing that separated Him from that, nothing that could come between Him and His God and Father.
V13. That law of freedom is the measure of judgment that we ought to make use of in our contact with others. If we live just like the Lord, in undisturbed fellowship with the Father, then that will be heard and seen in our speech and actions. We will especially show our awareness of being judged by the law of freedom by showing mercy. In that way God’s love also came to us. God came with His mercy in our miserable circumstances.
When we do not express in our speech and actions to others the mercy that we have received, we prove that we have not received the new life and cannot act according to the law of freedom. God will judge over that and that will be just as merciless as the mercilessness with which we have treated others. When we show mercy, we act like God also acted when He dealt with us. Then we do not judge the other, but we show him God’s mercy. In that way mercy triumphs over judgment. Mercy conquers judgment.
V14. When you are merciful you show that you yourself are the object of God’s mercy. You may claim that you have faith, but if you do not show that from your works, by showing mercy for example, then it is no more than sweet talks. It is cheap talk and it doesn’t prove anything of the inward life. To claim that you have faith is hollow and empty when there are no works.
You cannot see faith, but it becomes visible from works. Therefore faith and works are inextricably linked. The faith that a person claims to be having, cannot save him. You do not see the roots of a plant, but when it grows and flourishes it is a proof that the plant has roots. You do not see electricity, but when a lamp goes on there is a proof that there is electricity. The Lord Jesus also speaks about the new birth of which you do not know how that happens, but you certainly hear its sound (Jn 3:8). Works prove that there is faith indeed. James gives an example in the following verses.
Because Luther the reformer had had much difficulty to understand this statement of James, he called this letter ‘a straw letter’, in other words a letter without any nutritional value. He said that, since he had discovered the forgery of the doctrine of the roman catholic church that says that works are necessary to be saved. But in that way Luther threw the baby out with the bathwater. James definitely does not teach that a person is being saved by works. On the contrary he urges to prove faith by works that come out from that faith, works that prove that there is faith. Otherwise there is no faith and therefore no salvation. A ‘lip faith’ doesn’t give salvation.
Now read James 2:8-14 again.
Reflection: How do you bring the royal law into practice?
15 - 26 Works That Justify Faith
15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for [their] body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, [being] by itself. 18 But someone may [well] say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without [the] spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
V15. James clarifies by an example what he means with works that show faith. He suggests his readers to imagine “a brother or sister” who has not got enough clothes against the cold and who has just enough food to survive. That example is very up to date to his readers, for they are not too fond of the poor (verses 2-3). They might have felt involved.
V16. It could have been the case that they had just had a nice talk with one or other poor brother or sister without giving them what is necessary for the body! When they have enough themselves they can easily say to the poor: “Go in peace.” When they even say in addition that they should be warmed and filled without doing anything about that yourself, then all that talk is plain hypocrisy.
V17. Talking about somebody’s lack or even praying for it, without any desire to do something about it, is a dead faith. The proof of mercy is missing and when that is missing there is no faith. Where there are no works, the faith that is present in the mouth, is dead on itself. Then the faith is not alive, there is no living faith. Faith and works are not to be separated. Faith as such cannot be seen. It can only be made visible by works. Through works it becomes apparent that there is faith present.
V18. The argument of James is quite clear. Despite that there comes an objection of somebody who wants to make a distinction between faith and works. It is somebody who has heard what James had said about faith and works. The person himself has no part in faith, but he can actually point at a lot of good works. Because he has no part in faith he has missed the point in James’ message. He is boasting in his works.
James responds to him that the distinction this person makes between faith and works is not possible. If he wants to make a distinction, let him then show his faith without his works. He is not able to do that, but James is definitely able to show faith out of his works. The point is not that James ought to show faith to God. God is sure about his faith. No, the works of faith are precisely to show to men that there is real and living faith in him.
V19. When it is only about faith, without works related to it, then it is no more than an orthodox confession. You can speak that out with your mouth, without it having any meaning to your heart. Look at the Jewish confession. The orthodox Jew whole-heartedly confesses that there is one God. That is what God has also prescribed (Deu 6:4). That is a wonderful and fully just confession. It is a good thing that that confession is being made.
But do you really think that only speaking that out is the proof of a real faith? You can forget that. Then it would mean that demons also really have faith, in other words that they trust God. They confess to believe, but they shudder at the same time, because they know that God will judge them because of their works that are all being done in rebellion against God.
V20. James concludes his dispute with his (possibly imaginary) opponent. As a kind of conclusion he again clearly says to him, whom he addresses as “foolish fellow”, that faith without works are “useless” or meaningless. By the means of two examples he shows the real efficacy of faith.
V21. In the two following examples James clarifies what the works of faith in fact are, how faith becomes apparent from works. Those are not examples of works that men call good works. According to human standards, without the involvement of faith, we would call Abraham a child-murderer and Rahab was no more than a collaborator.
You will see however that those are in fact excellent works of faith. These deeds were achieved out of love for God (by Abraham) and out of love for God’s people (by Rahab). Those are the two characteristics that each work of faith has. Both works speak of the full confidence in God.
James starts with Abraham. He strongly says that Abraham was “justified by works”, without mentioning the faith. By presenting it this way James underlines once again how necessary works are, if you want to make a statement about faith.
If you only look at this verse, without reading the following verses, it seems as if he forgets for a moment that justification can only be received by faith and that he comes into conflict here with what Paul teaches in Romans 4 (Rom 4:2-3). As you have seen earlier James and Paul of course do not contradict one another. Through the Spirit each one of them approaches the truth from another point of view.
Paul speaks about the person of Abraham in his relation to God. With Abraham God saw a faith that was focused on Him. God saw that Abraham trusted Him with a faith that He will do what He had said to do, while there was no indication at all that it was going to happen. Because of that faith God declared the person of Abraham to be righteous. But James is not talking about the person of Abraham to God; he is talking about the faith of Abraham that became visible to men. The faith that God saw in him was to be seen by men.
God needed no proof of Abraham’s faith, but he led Abraham into a situation in which his faith became visible to his environment. Therefore you read in Genesis 22 that God tested the faith of Abraham (Gen 22:1). He asked of Abraham to offer his son Isaac on the altar (Gen 22:2,9). James says that “Abraham our father” (after all, he is their forefather), was justified “when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar”. You know that he did not literally need to offer Isaac, but to God Abraham really offered his son.
V22. In that way he showed that his “faith was working with his works”. It even goes further. The faith that Abraham inwardly possessed, was perfected by his works, in other words completed, accomplished.
V23. By this deed, by this work of the faith, the Scripture was fulfilled that says: “And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” This quotation comes from Genesis 15 (Gen 15:6) and there it refers to the justification of Abraham because of his faith in God. But James connects this quotation to Abraham’s work of faith in Genesis 22, because this work of faith confirms that he really possessed faith. Only in that way Abraham could offer everything he had on the altar. Do you also do that? Offering all your possessions, you yourself, your family as an offering?
In Isaac Abraham offered everything on the altar. In that way he even offered all God’s promises on the altar. In doing so Abraham proved that as for him God was above everything. The Giver surpasses the gift. The only way Abraham could offer his son was because he looked upon God, because He trusted God and loved Him. In this all Abraham behaved as “the friend of God”. This is how Jehoshaphat speaks of him towards God (2Chr 20:7) and that is how God Himself calls him (Isa 41:8). When you are a friend of God it means that you love God.
V24. James concludes this example of Abraham with the undeniable conclusion that works of faith are absolutely essential in order to prove the presence of faith. It is only justified to say that you believe when it also appears from your works.
V25. In order to illustrate this more abundantly James points at another example from the Scripture. Next to the great man of faith he places Rahab, the harlot, the woman from a cursed nation. In that way he delivers a striking proof that with God there is no partiality. He says that she “in the same way”, which means like Abraham, was justified by faith.
And what were her works of faith consisted of? She received “the messengers” into her house and hid them from her compatriots. James calls the spies (Heb 11:31) ‘messengers’, because they came to her with a good message. By receiving the messengers she chose for God’s people and against her people. She believed that the land where she lived lay under the judgment and that this land was to be given by God to His people. She sacrificed the present possession in order to possess it together with God’s people. That is faith in action.
Do you also sacrifice the land where you live in, the world, in order to possess it with the Lord Jesus in future? If you know yourself to be related with God’s people that will only later on take the world into possession, then you are in the eyes of the world a traitor, for you will surely make no effort for anything that is this world. Do not make it difficult for yourself. Just look at the Lord of glory and you will know Whom you are doing it for.
V26. James concludes his teaching about faith and works with a metaphor that is conceivable to everyone: as the body without the spirit is a dead thing, so faith without works is dead also.
Now read James 2:15-26 again.
Reflection: Which works of faith has James mentioned up to now?