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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
James 2

 

 

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Introduction

Chapters 2-5.

Having dealt with subjects in a certain order in chapter 1 the remainder of the letter will now deal with those subjects in the reverse order. Thus:

Analysis of chapter 1.

· Introduction. James the servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1).

· Requirement to rejoice in trials and testings and to reveals patient endurance in the face of them, for which purpose they are to pray for wisdom so that they may overcome, looking to God in complete faith and avoiding doubt (James 1:2-8; compare James 5:10-18).

· Description of what the attitudes of both poor and rich must be, and especially of the rich in the light of the uncertainties of the world, but those who triumph will receive the crown of life at His coming, while those who do not will be left to see everything wither (James 1:9-12; James 4:13 to James 5:9).

· Temptation is not given by God but results from the uncontrolled desires of men for what is of the world, for God’s gifts towards men are good, especially the word of truth which has brought us life. We must therefore choose between what the world gives or what God gives and recognise the splendour of our Father, being submitted to His word (James 1:13-18; compare James 4:1-12).

· Men must be hearers rather than constantly speaking and must control their words and their anger, not having loose tongues but rather receiving true wisdom (James 1:19-21; compare James 3:1-18).

· They must not only hear but do. Actions are the final evidence of what a man is and of the purity and truth of his religion (James 1:22-27; compare James 2:1-26).

The remainder of the letter then splits up as follows:

Analysis of chapter 2-5.

· Faith without action is dead, illustrated (James 2:1-7), will be brought into judgment (James 2:8-13,) and argued (James 2:14-26). Compare James 1:22-27.

· The need to watch the tongue both for teachers and congregation followed by an exhortation to follow true wisdom in the matter (James 3:1-18). Compare James 1:19-21.

· Warning against following the desires of the heart, and a call rather to submit to God and a warning against hostile criticism (James 4:1-12). Compare James 1:13-18.

· Even our business lives are subject to God’s will, men’s riches will rot away, for they have been attained by the subjection of the poor while they themselves have lived luxuriously, nevertheless all must live in the light of the Lord’s coming (James 4:13 to James 5:9). Compare James 1:9-12.

· Happy are those who endure trials, but they must be wholly honest, and overcome their sufferings by faith and prayer, for prayer is powerfully effective (James 5:10-18). Compare James 1:2-8.

· Conclusion; they are to be servants of God in saving men’s souls (James 5:19-20).


Verse 1

‘My brothers, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory, with respect of persons.’

James commences by drawing their attention to the fact that the glory of our Lord, Jesus Christ, is far above that of any other. He is our Lord, set above all things (Acts 2:36; Ephesians 1:20-22); He is Jesus Who will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), He is the expected Messiah, the enthroned Christ (Acts 2:35), but above all He is the Lord of glory (compare 1 Corinthians 2:8 where it is closely associated with the poor and weak Christians of this world described in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 16:27; Matthew 25:31), the possessor of all things, the One Who is over all in splendour, the One Who will come as judge. It is a pointed reminder in the light of what is to follow. Beside Him the glory of the rich man fades into insignificance, and the true glory belongs to those who are rich in faith and heirs of the Kingly Rule of God over which He presides in glory. To them will be the glory. By this means the writer immediately set their minds on things above (Colossians 3:2).

In the Old Testament ‘the glory’ can have a number of meanings, but its prime significance is in describing the glory of the Shekinah, the revelation of YHWH in blinding light (Exodus 16:7; Exodus 16:10; Exodus 24:16-17; Exodus 33:22; Exodus 40:34; Leviticus 9:6; Leviticus 23; often in Numbers; Deuteronomy 5:24; and so on) Whom no man has seen or can see because He dwells in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16). Indeed in the Psalms He is ‘the King of glory’ (Psalms 24:7-10), and ‘the God of glory’ (Psalms 29:3), good parallels with ‘the Lord, Jesus Christ, of glory’, and YHWH’s glory is regularly referred to by the Psalmists. When the glory of YHWH left the Temple in Ezekiel it was a sign of His rejection of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 11:23) to which the glory would never return. When it would re-enter the Temple it would be to a heavenly Temple (there is no suggestion anywhere that it should be built. It was already there in vision. Only the altar was to be built in the new earthly Temple as a contact point with it) situated on a mountain outside Jerusalem in what was an idealised picture (Ezekiel 40:2; Ezekiel 45:1-6; see chapters 40-44). In Zechariah 7:13 it was the coming king, ‘the Branch’ who would ‘bear the glory’, that is, would enjoy royal honour as the representative of YHWH. Thus to be the Lord of glory was to represent YHWH, the King of glory, both as revealing Him to man and as ruling on His behalf. But it also meant more. It meant that He had returned to His Father to receive the glory that had been His before the world was (John 17:5)

A secondary meaning of ‘the glory’ was as indicating the possessions and prosperity of a man or a of nation (e.g. Isaiah 17:3-6; Jeremiah 13:18; Jeremiah 48:18). Thus the Lord ‘of glory’ might be seen as signifying Him as the Possessor of Heaven and earth (Genesis 14:22) and as over the angels. But no doubt the primary idea here is to relate Him to the glory of YHWH (compare John 17:5), and to act as a contrast to the ‘glory’ of the rich man with his golden ring and his fine clothes.

‘My Brothers.’ James wants them continually to realise that he writes not as a superior but as a brother to his beloved brothers and sisters. Compare James 1:2; James 1:9; James 1:16; James 1:19; James 2:5; James 2:14-15; James 3:1; James 4:11; James 5:7; James 5:9; James 5:12; James 5:19. By this he stresses that they are all ‘sons of God’ and on an equality with each other. In other words they are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).


Verses 1-7

Faith Without Works Illustrated In Action In The Treatment Of The Rich As Compared With The Poor In The Assembly (James 2:1-7).

a My brothers, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory, with respect of persons (James 2:1).

b For if there come into your synagogue (assembly) a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, and there come in also a poor man in vile clothing, and you have regard to him who wears the fine clothing, and say, “You sit here in a good place” (James 2:2-3 a).

c And you say to the poor man, You stand there, or sit under my footstool. Do you not make distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:3-4).

d Listen, my beloved brothers, did not God choose those who are poor as to the world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingly Rule which He promised to those who love him? (James 2:5).

c But you have dishonoured the poor man (James 2:6 a).

b Do not the rich oppress you, and themselves drag you before the judgment-seats? (James 2:6 b).

a Do they not blaspheme the honourable name by which you are called? (James 2:7).

Note that in ‘a’ emphasis is on Whom their faith is about, and in the parallel they are warned not to blaspheme His honourable Name. In ‘b’ the rich man is honoured, and in the parallel James reminds his readers that it is the same rich who oppress them. In ‘c’ the treatment of the poor is described, and in the parallel we have the indication that they have thereby dishonoured the poor man. Centrally in ‘d’ the true status of the poor in God’s eyes is revealed. They are rich in faith (the faith of our Lord, Jesus Christ) and heirs of the Kingly Rule of God.


Verse 2

For if there come into your synagogue (assembly) a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, and there come in also a poor man in vile clothing,’

He gives the example of two men entering the ‘synagogue’, that is the ‘assembly’ (compare Proverbs 5:14 LXX where sunagowgos (syanagogue) and ekklesia (church) are paralleled as ‘the congregation and the assembly’). The use of the term suggests an early date when the church and the synagogue were closely related. One of these two men is wearing a gold ring (indeed probably a number of gold rings) and fine clothing. He is displaying his ‘glory’ . But how pathetic it appears in comparison with the glory of the Lord, Jesus Christ, (and is intended to). It is as dust. Indeed in the eyes of YHWH he is wearing ‘filthy garments’ (Zechariah 3:3).

The other is wearing ‘vile clothing’. He is dirty, he smells of the field or the workshop or the tannery or even worse. He has taken an hour or so away from his labours to worship his God. (But he is rich in faith, and in God’s eyes he is clothed in ‘rich apparel’ with a ‘crown turban’ on his head - Zechariah 3:5-6).


Verse 3

‘And you have regard to him who wears the fine clothing, and say, “You sit here in a good place”, and you say to the poor man, “You stand there, or sit under my footstool.” ’

But those whose eyes are not on the Lord of Glory, pay great regard to the rich man in his fine clothing, and lead him to a place of honour, while to the poor man they say, ‘you stand over there’ or ‘come and sit here by my footstool’. He is an ‘also ran’. He is not even given a seat. They cannot see in him what God can see. What a contrast with God’s dealings. He ‘brings down the mighty from their seats, and exalts those of low standing’ (Luke 1:52). That is God’s way, for He knows the heart.

The story is told of when the great English general, the Duke of Wellington, went to partake of Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper). A private soldier was awaiting his turn, and as he began to move forward he saw the Duke coming and immediately stepped back. But the Duke said to him, ‘No, you go first. We are all equal here.’ And that is how it should be in the assembly of God’s people.


Verse 4

‘Do you not make distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?’

James then makes his point. By doing this they are making distinctions among themselves and are judging with evil thoughts. They are looking from the point of view of the world, not from the point of view of God. And in the assembly of God’s people that was not to be. Outside the assembly one might be the Master and the other a slave. But in the assembly they were both vile sinners, in need of constant mercy.

It should in fairness be pointed out that in many such assemblies the slave might very often be made a bishop or a deacon, while the rich man was simply a hearer and a learner, but James clearly knew of some assemblies where this principle was not followed. But the idea here might be that these are newcomers, and even the slave bishop might sometimes fall into the trap of honouring the rich man who enters the church for the first time more than he was due. That is unquestionably what happens in many modern churches. It is human nature. Perhaps James 2:1-6 should be posted up in all churches.


Verse 5-6

‘Listen, my beloved brothers, did not God choose those who are poor as to the world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingly Rule which he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor man.

He then points out in what honour and high esteem that poor man is often held in the sight of God. For God sees the faith in his heart and sees there a richness unknown to the majority of rich men. Indeed God has chosen that man who is poor in the world’s eyes precisely in order to make him rich in faith, and he has thus become ‘rich towards God’ (Luke 12:21). For God has chosen the weak and the foolish to confound the mighty (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). By the word of truth He has begotten that man so that he might be clothed in spiritual splendour, in accordance with His own will (James 1:18). And He has made him an heir of the Kingly Rule of God. One day he will share the glory of the Father and the Son, the glory of the Lord of glory (Revelation 21:23; Revelation 22:3-5). Indeed he has already received something of that glory (2 Corinthians 3:18; John 17:22). How foolish then for us not to recognise it. And all this is promised ‘to those who love Him’. For this phrase compare James 1:12. James probably has in mind here Deuteronomy 6:5-6.

‘An heir of the Kingly Rule of Heaven’. In Matthew 5:3 Jesus said, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ (compare Luke 6:20). They were of the ‘little flock’ to which His Father would give His Kingly Rule (Luke 12:32) which would become a multitude that no man could number (Revelation 7:9), with large numbers of them poor. They had become heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). This idea looks back to Psalms 22:26; Psalms 22:28 where the poor are connected with YHWH’s Kingly Rule that reigns over the nations’. See also Daniel 7:18; Daniel 7:27, ‘And the Kingly Rule and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Most High’.

‘But you have dishonoured the poor man.’ The words bring us down to earth with a bump. Here is a man whom God has chosen to honour, and whom God holds in high esteem, and the assembly have dishonoured him. It is a scandal. But it is because their eyes are on the world and not on God (compare James 4:4). They have lost the ability to see things as God sees them. And spiritually they have brought on themselves great shame. They have dishonoured the man whom God has honoured.


Verse 6

Do not the rich oppress you, and themselves drag you before the judgment-seats?’

James then makes a further point. He is not necessarily saying that this is true of that particular rich man. But his point is that that rich man belongs to a class who, while they might be given honour by some in the church, are in fact, as a class, those who oppress Christians and even have them hauled before the courts on one pretext or another, often with the aim of them being severely punished and even put to death. He is not, of course, calling for discrimination against rich men. He is simply pointing out that as a class they are not to be especially honoured when they enter the assembly of God’s people, for their qualities are not necessarily such as God honours. All must be treated alike. If they are truly His all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

For examples of the rich persecuting God’s people see Acts 4:1-3 (the Chief Priests and most Sadducees were rich), Acts 13:50; Acts 16:19; Acts 19:23-41.

Judgment seats.’ This could refer to synagogue courts as well as Greek and Roman courts. As we see from Acts it was not difficult to get strange people like the Christians before the courts, often with differing verdicts (Acts 8:3; Acts 12:3; Acts 13:50; Acts 16:19-20; Acts 18:12)..


Verse 7

‘Do they not blaspheme the honourable name by which you are called?’

Indeed, he can go further. It is the rich and the powerful who more than any others bring the name of Jesus into disrepute. And they openly blaspheme (use abusive and scurrilous language) against His Name, insulting His Name in public, treating it with contempt, that Name ‘by which His people are called’ (whether as Messiah-nists, or as Christ-ians (1 Peter 4:14; 1 Peter 4:16; cf. Acts 26:28), or as Jesus’ people, or whatever). But in the end to be ‘called by His Name’ was to be set aside as precious and under His care (see Amos 12:9, and compare Jeremiah 14:9). There may be the thought here that Jesus Name was called over them when they were baptised after coming to repentance.


Verse 8-9

‘If you really (or ‘however, if you’) fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself, you do well, but if you have respect of persons, you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors.’

The basic principle here is simple. If they keep the law which says, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ by treating all impartially they ‘do well’. But if they show partiality and reveal respect of particular persons such as the rich then they fail to keep that law, and they therefore become lawbreakers. They do ill. The law then convicts them of breaking the law, of being transgressors. This is even more emphasised by the fact that the law forbade showing discrimination against the poor (e.g. Leviticus 19:15).

‘The royal law (nomon --- basilikon).’ The order of the words shows either that basilikon is accessory to nomon ("a law, a royal one"), or that it has a special force, it is a law which merits being called "royal." But the question is, why is it royal? One answer may be because it was pronounced by the King as the guiding law with respect to our attitudes towards our fellowman (Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). Another may be that it is because it is the ‘king of laws’. It rules over and takes in all the others. Indeed both meanings may be intended by it, for they both merge. As Paul says, whoever fulfils this law has fulfilled the whole law, for ‘the whole law is fulfilled in this word, You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Galatians 5:14). It is another way of saying, ‘do to others what you would have them do to you’ (Matthew 7:12).

‘If you really fulfil --.’ That is, in relation to what is in mind here. Thus it can be said of them that they ‘do well’ as compared with those who show respect of persons. Had it meant that they fulfilled that law in all its aspects he would have said, ‘you have done amazingly well’. It was one of the two commandments, of which Jesus said that on them hung all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:40). A royal law indeed!


Verses 8-13

The Reason That Their Treatment Of Rich And Poor Is To Be Condemned And Will Come Into Judgment Is Now Given (James 2:8-13).

Having opened with an illustration so as to seize the attention, James now applies it. The Law declares that they are to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. This is a requirement of Leviticus 19:18, of Jesus (e.g. Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27), and of Paul (Galatians 5:14). But to show respect of persons is not to be so even-handed as this law requires, and it therefore makes those who do so ‘transgressors’. They have broken the ‘royal law’. And to break one Law is to be guilty of being a lawbreaker. They are thus now guilty before God of being lawbreakers and will come under judgment.

a If you really (or ‘however, if you’) fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself, you do well (James 2:8).

b But if you have respect of persons, you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:9).

c For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all (James 2:10).

d For he who said, “Do not commit adultery”, said also, “Do not kill”. Now if you do not commit adultery, but do kill, you are become a transgressor of the law (James 2:11).

c So speak you, and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of liberty (James 2:12).

b For judgment is without mercy to him who has showed no mercy (James 2:13 a).

a Mercy glories against judgment (James 2:13 b).

Note how in ‘a’ they are to love their neighbour as themselves, thus showing mercy and not judgment, and in the parallel mercy glories against judgment. In ‘b’ showing respect of persons by maltreating the poor is to break that law, and in the parallel the one who has not shown mercy to the poor will be judged unmercifully. In ‘c’ to break one law is to be guilty of all, and in the parallel, they have to have regard for they will be judged by the law, even though it is the law of liberty (not licentious freedom). Centrally in ‘d’ the principle is established by comparisons, establishing the fact that to break one law makes a man a transgressor, a law breaker.


Verse 10

‘For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all.’

This is a no escape clause which embraces us all. In order to back his argument up against anyone who might say that this behaviour is so human that it is not really all that bad James then points out a cardinal principle, and that is that ‘whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all,’ That is, he has become a lawbreaker. We are reminded here of God’s perfect standard, which is why Paul can declare, ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). This verse is extremely important because as a result of it the whole world becomes guilty before God (see Romans 3:19). Not one of us can say that we have always without exception so lived that all others have been treated by us in the same way as we would have treated ourselves under similar circumstances. And once we have failed to do so we have become Biblical criminals, a position from which there is no going back until the consequences of that sin have been fully met. It should be noted here that James is making quite clear that no one (apart from One Who did no sin - 2 Corinthians 5:21) can be accepted by God on the basis of his good works or personal merit. For he is making clear that all are sinners. From a legal standpoint they can never therefore be accepted by God on the basis of their works. Always the law will point at them and cry ‘guilty’.

To us some may seem more guilty than others, and the sins that others commit may appear as far worse than those we commit ourselves. But the fact is that before the bar of God we are all guilty. There we will be in no position to point the finger at others. There, unless we find mercy, we will be too busy unable to defend ourselves.

The Bible makes clear that we cannot pick and choose between the laws of God. Moses, after a series of curses, tells us in Deuteronomy 27:26, "Cursed be he who does not confirm (all) the words of this law to do them". The Hebrew omits ‘all’ but LXX, the Samaritan Pentateuch and Paul in Galatians 3:10 all include it and it is clearly to be implied. Compare Deuteronomy 11:32 where we read, “you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the ordinances that I set before you this day.” Jesus confirms it when He says that ‘not one jot or tittle of the Law shall fail until all is fulfilled’ (Matthew 5:18).


Verse 11

‘For he who said, “Do not commit adultery”, said also, “Do not murder”. Now if you do not commit adultery, but do murder, you are become a transgressor of the law.’

He then illustrates this from two basic laws, the law against adultery (the breaking up of a marriage relationship and the stealing of a man’s wife), and the law against murder (the stealing away from a man of his life by death, and of someone’s beloved relation by the ending of the life of that relation. Everyone murdered is someone’s son or daughter). The laws were carefully selected. No one would have denied that in these cases any guilty party, at least theoretically, deserved death. In the ancient Law these two crimes carried the death penalty. They were seen as the most serious crimes of all. But James’ point is that it is equally as heinous in God’s eyes to act in a way that reveals that we do not love our neighbours as ourselves in lesser thing, as it is to reveal that lack of love by murder or commit adultery. And we should note in this regard that Jesus had made clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbours were men of all races. Thus our love is to be shown towards all, and especially towards those of good will like the Good Samaritan, and to fall short of this requirement is to be as bad as an adulterer or a murderer.


Verse 12

‘So speak you, and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of liberty.’

He then applies his words to the Christians who are hearing his letter read to them. They are to recognise this principle and speak and act accordingly, recognising that their words and their actions are to be judged by means of the perfect law, the law of liberty (James 1:25). But that law is not called the law of liberty because it frees men from the need to obey it and lowers God’s standards. It is called the ‘law of liberty’ because:

· It has been freed by Jesus from all the extra requirements added by man and stands out in all its purity (Mark 7:13). It has thus become a law of liberation.

· It has been amplified and expanded on in order to deal with thoughts as well as actions, freeing men from a dead letter and positively requiring purity of thought.

· It is there to be observed gladly and heartily by all who have been set free from its condemnation and its power to drive men to despair by their whole-hearted response to God and the Lord, Jesus Christ (John 8:34-36; Romans 8:1-16; compare the Psalmist’s joy in the Law in Psalms 119).

· It is the law of all who have been freed from sin and are now His servants (1 Peter 2:16) and sons (Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:4-7).

· It lays bare the way of freedom, for if it is observed fully it makes all men free from sin, and it is the law of freedom because it works hand in hand with God’s work in the heart by which He brings those who respond to Him in obedience to Him and His law so that they are free to fulfil it (Jeremiah 31:31 ff. Hebrews 8:8-12; Philippians 2:13).

· Obedience to it brings men into freedom and blessedness, and gives them fullness of life (Psalms 1:1-3; Psalms 119:1-3; Psalms 119:162-165; Leviticus 18:5).

Thus we too must come to that law and read and study it. For it will show us what it means to be free from sin, and will drive us to call on the strength and power of Christ in order to overcome. And it will convict us of anything in which we go wrong. For studying that Law is ‘coming to the light’, and that will show us the sin from which we need to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus (1 John 1:7-10).

And the result of that cleansing is a constant new freedom. As Jesus said, If the Son shall make you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36) and that by freeing us from our slavery to sin (John 8:34), so that we obey ‘the law of Christ’, God’s perfect Law as revealed especially in the two great commandments and in the Sermon on the Mount. For His service, which brings us under full obedience to Him, is perfect freedom, because it frees us from anything else that might bind us. From then on we need to live only in accordance with the will of our Father (Matthew 7:21). And we do this not out of fear (its power to finally condemn is broken) but out of love.

To use the illustration in James 1:23-25, this law is like a mirror into which we can look so that it shows us the truth about ourselves. But once we have seen what we are the mirror has done its work, and we do not then scrub ourselves with the mirror (which would be of shining metal). Rather we turn from the mirror to the water and wash ourselves clean. In the same way when the Law reveals that we are ‘dirty’ we do not then use the Law as a cleansing agent (although they did under the old Law by turning to offerings and sacrifices). Rather it becomes our tutor to point us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). We allow the law to point us to Jesus Christ as the Saviour from sin Who was sacrificed for us (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:18-19; Hebrews 8-10; Romans 8:3) and was put forth as the propitiation for our sins (Romans 3:24). And we come in order to be cleansed by His blood, that is, by His blood shed for us (1 John 1:7). James recognises this as well as Paul and Peter, for it is intrinsic in his argument here. Otherwise his words simply leave every man guilty before God. And he now expresses this point succintly.


Verse 13

‘For judgment is without mercy to him who has showed no mercy. Mercy glories against judgment.’

He then finishes with two sayings which bring this out. The first is that the one who fails to show mercy will never find mercy. This is a reversal of Matthew 5:7, where Jesus said, ‘blessed (by God) are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy’. Here it is ‘cursed are the unmerciful, for they will obtain no mercy’. Or to put it another way, ‘if you do not forgive men when they sin against you, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you for your sins against Him’ (Matthew 6:14-15). The point is that those who are without compassion, thus revealing that they have not experienced God’s compassion, will be treated without compassion.

But in the second statement we have the remedy. It is that, ‘mercy glories against judgment.’ The point now is that when we find ourselves judged and are declared guilty as lawbreakers, there is a way of escape, a way of mercy. Judgment ‘glories’ against lawbreakers for it always prevails. But ‘mercy glories against judgment’ because it obtains the relief of lawbreakers from their position as lawbreakers, and releases them by forgiveness, and by the payment of a ransom by One Who has suffered in their place (Matthew 20:28; 1 Corinthians 6:20; Galatians 3:13; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 1:18-19). And thus we become His as those who are bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). James does not work this out, but his theology demands it. He is writing to those well versed in the truth of the Gospel.

Herein is the wonder of the cross. It brings rejoicing instead of judgment, because it brings mercy. Judgment is the stark fact that faces all. But mercy laughs joyously, and removes the fear of judgment.


Verse 14

‘What does it profit, my brothers (and sisters), if a man say he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him?’

We should note carefully precisely what is said. The man ‘says’ he has faith. But the question is faith in what? If his faith does not make him active in doing good then it is not faith in the One Who went about doing good. Thus his faith will do him no good. For the only faith that is worthwhile, and that saves, is faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ, of glory (James 2:1). Those who have such faith cannot fail to be active in good works, for they will want to reveal His glory. Indeed He has specifically required it, They must let their light shine before men in order that men might see God’s glory and give glory to Him (Matthew 5:16). Thus it is pointless calling Him ‘Lord, Lord’, if we do not do what He says (Luke 6:46). It is a contradiction in terms.


Verses 14-26

The Reply Comes, ‘But Surely If We Have Faith That Is Enough. Will We Not Be Seen To Be Righteous Because We Have Faith In Christ? Then Surely It Does Not Really Matter How We Behave Towards Others’. The Reply Is That Faith Will Certainly Enable Us To Become Acceptable To God, But That The Only Way In Which It Will Be Seen That We have Been Made Acceptable To God Is By Our Subsequent Lives Which Demonstrate Godlikeness (James 2:14-26).

James is aware that some who have been reading his words will now be saying, ‘what is all this talk about our being found guilty because we have shown partiality to the rich. Are we not saved by faith? How then can we be found guilty? Will not God just look at our faith and declare us righteous?’ James reply is, ‘No He will look at your works to show whether they reveal the evidence that you really do have faith’. He might have added, ‘If you died the moment that you believed then God would look only to your faith, but if you lived, after believing, for more than a few minutes, God would look for the beginnings of the change within your life. For if you have really believed the changes will begin at once because you have become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). You will have been begotten by the word of truth (James 1:18).’

Now James was perfectly well aware that not everyone who ever showed partiality would be condemned, otherwise where would any of us be? What he is seeking to bring home is that if we justify such partiality then the idea that we have been born again of the Spirit must be suspect. For no one who was truly seeking to follow Christ would deny that he must love his neighbour as himself.

It is important to recognise that James is not saying here that we can be made acceptable before God by our works. He is rather pointing out that the works which result from our believing in Christ will be the final evidence that God has truly begotten us (James 1:18). He is asking, ‘How can men be begotten by God in accordance with His will and not become gradually God-like?’ (2 Corinthians 3:18 - Paul would have cried out here, ‘God forbid that such a thing should happen’ - Romans 6:1-2; Romans 6:15). It is parallel to the words of Jesus when He declares to His forgiven disciples, ‘by your words you will be accounted righteous, and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matthew 12:37). There Jesus was not saying that they would be saved by observing carefully the words that came from their mouths, but that those words would be evidence of whether God was at work within them or not.

Analysis.

a What does it profit, my brothers (and sisters), if a man say he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14).

b If a brother or sister be naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you say to them, “Go in peace, be you warmed and filled”, you do not give them the things needful to the body, what does it profit (‘what is the benefit of that’)?’ (James 2:15-16).

c Even so faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself (James 2:17).

d Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18).

e You believe that God is one? You do well. The demons also believe, and shudder, but will you know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is barren? (James 2:19-20).

f Was not Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? (James 2:21).

e You see that faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect (brought to completeness) (James 2:22).

d And the scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness”, and he was called the friend of God (James 2:23).

c You see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith (James 2:24).

b And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works, in that she received the messengers, and sent them out another way? (James 2:25).

a For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26).

Note that in ‘a’ faith without works cannot save, and in the parallel faith without works is dead. In ‘b’ the one who fails to help the needy is profitless, while in the parallel Rahab revealed her faith, and was justified because she helped the messengers and fed and protected them, and sent them to safety. In ‘c’ faith without works is dead, and in the parallel a man is therefore justified by works and not only by faith. In ‘d’ we have what a man will say, “I will show you my faith by my works”, and in the parallel the Scripture says, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness” and he was called ‘the friend of God’, that is the one who did His will. In ‘e’ we have the central point that a man is finally justified by his works as well as by his faith.


Verse 15-16

‘If a brother or sister be naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you say to them, “Go in peace, be you warmed and filled”, but you do not give them the things needful to the body, what does it profit (‘what is the benefit of that’)?’

Once again his thoughts turn for an illustration to the poor. He pictures a fellow Christian without proper clothing and short of nourishment, and the supposed Christian saying piously, ‘Go in peace.May God warm you and fill you’ (the passive tense regularly indicates God’s action). But of what use is that if God’s professed servant fails to warm and fill them? Who else can God use for the purpose? It is piously asking God to do what in fact He expects THEM to do. It is clearly making a mockery of God and demonstrating that they do not go along with Him either in His thoughts or in His purposes. Their faith is thus shown not to be genuine.

This accusation would fit Gentiles more than Jews, for if there was one thing that Jews were good at it was at giving alms and making provision for the poor, supporting the case that the letter is to the whole church.


Verse 17

‘Even so faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself.’

And that is why he can say that such faith is dead. It is unresponsive, it fails to act, and it reveals a closed mind and a closed heart. It in practise ignores the One Whom it claims as Lord. What then is it faith in? It is a moribund faith in an unknown god..


Verse 18

‘Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” ’

He then contrasts two men. One says he has faith. ‘OK,’ says the other. ‘Show me your faith. Let me see it, handle it, touch it, experience it.’ But the man is stumped. He has nothing to show for his faith. Then the other says, ‘Now I have faith, and I can show it to you in practise, for it is my faith that makes me act in obedience to Jesus Christ in letting my light so shine before men that they see my good works and glorify our Father Who is in Heaven. Look then at what I have done and give glory to God that He has worked true faith in me, by begetting me with the word of truth, so that I do His will.’ In other words he was known by his fruits (compare Matthew 7:20).


Verse 19

“You believe that God is one? You do well. The demons also believe, and shudder.’

‘Ah,’ says the first man solemnly, ‘I am a believer. I believe that God is One just as He told me to’ (in Deuteronomy 6:5-6). (Or ‘I believe that there is one God.’) ‘Well done,’ says the other. That puts you on a par with the Devil and his minions. For the demons also believe, and it makes them shudder.’ The thought is that it should make this man professing faith consider whether it should make him shudder too when he thinks how hypocritical he is being. We note that this man, like the Devil, is fully aware of the One God, but he makes no response to Him in his life. It makes him no different from those who have no faith at all. It actually make him no different from the Devil, for it produces nothing positive within him.


Verse 20

‘But will you know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is barren?’

Thus he needs to recognise that he is living in vain and for nothing, because his faith is barren. Unless he does works and fulfils his Father’s will his faith will bear no fruit. It will be prove to be a useless faith. For how can anyone truly know and believe in God as He is, and yet not seek to please Him in any way by doing what He wants? He is thereby demonstrating that the God he believes in is totally unlike God as he is portrayed in the Bible.


Verse 21

‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?’

He then takes the example of Abraham, the first man who is said to have had ‘faith’, the Abraham of whom it was said, ‘Abraham believed God and he counted it to him for righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6)). So we are told that He had faith, and that as a result of that faith he was accounted righteous. No mention of works there. It was pure, untrammelled faith. But how do we know with an absolute certainty that he truly believed in God? A major reason is because he was genuinely prepared to offer his son Isaac on the altar at God’s command, even to the point of raising the knife in order to do so, and was only restrained by a word from God. And what did this show, that Abraham was trying to earn God’s favour? No it revealed his full faith in God. Then all men knew the depths of Abraham’s faith. They knew that his faith in God was genuine, because it made him do something that all could see, something that few others would have done. They could not see his faith, but they could see that He had faith because of what He did. So Abraham was seen to be ‘righteous’ because of what he was prepared to do. But the important point is that he had been reckoned as ‘in the right’ long before in Genesis 15. He was not ‘put in the right’ by his offering of Isaac in chapter 22. He was put in the right by believing in God long before in chapter 15. What his action in chapter 22 did was make his faith clear to the world, and to the angels, and in a sense to God (although God knew all the time). From then on there was no doubt that Abraham had true faith. He was ‘seen as righteous’ and justified in the eyes of God and man by his works.

‘Justified by works.’ This does not mean that God accounted him as righteous because of his works, for he was already accounted as righteous. It means that the righteousness that he had already had accounted to him was now revealed to both heaven and earth. God saw it. The angels saw and wondered. The world of his day saw and were impressed. Here, they said, is a man who has faith in his God. When a man is justified by faith, it means that because of his response to God, God accounts him as righteous. When he is justified by works it means that he is seen to have been already accounted as righteous and that his works now prove that he is so. They are the icing on the cake which shows what the cake is all about.

There is a special poignancy here in that what Abraham believed in chapter 15 was, among other things, that he would beget a son. And now in chapter 22 he was being called on to sacrifice that son. Thus he was proving not only his willingness to obey God in whatever He asked, but his willingness to believe that in some way God would replace his son, whose birth in itself had seemed miraculous, once he had offered him. This ‘work’ was indeed a great act of faith. (God did not approve of most fathers who offered up their sons as sacrifices. Rather He condemned them because it was a kind of bribe and sop being offered to their god to avert their thirst for retribution on humans, or their anger against them. But Abraham was not acting to avoid retribution or God’s anger. He was an already recognised as righteous man acting in obedient love towards his God. Abraham was not attaining righteousness or diverting wrath by offering his son. Rather he was revealing his faith in God’s promises and his willingness to obey God because of that faith. He was seen as righteous because of the faith that he was revealing in offering to God the very one who was the reward of his previous faith, the child of promise, believing that God would still keep His promise. His works proved his faith, they did not supplement it.

‘Abraham our father.’ All who had become Christians saw Abraham as their father, and themselves as blessed through God’s promises made to Abraham (Galatians 3:6-7; Galatians 3:29). But there were very few, whether Christian or Jew who could trace their genuine ancestry back to Abraham (Jesus was one of the few exceptions). For most were not descended from Abraham, they were ‘adopted’ sons of Abraham.


Verse 22

‘You see that faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect (brought to completeness).’

And not only did his works reveal that he really was righteous through faith, something that had been accounted to him long before, but it also made his faith grow stronger and more mature. His faith became complete. The more his faith was active, the more it grew. And the more he obeyed God the more his faith grew. Many a person asks, ‘how can I increase my faith?’. And God’s answer is, ‘Go out and witness for Me, and live for Me, and your faith will grow. But if you sit at home doing nothing your faith will die.’ Indeed sitting at home will reveal that it has really been dead all the time. It will be seen that it could not even stir a person out of his chair (or out of his comfortable prayer meeting. How often we pray, ‘Lord bring them in’, and God replies, ‘Go out and show how much you love them by what you do for them that no one else would do. Then they will come in. That is what will prove to them that you really believe’).


Verse 23

‘And the scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness”, and he was called the friend of God.’

So Abraham’s action in offering Isaacin obedience to God’s commandbrought to completeness (fulfilled) his action of earlier believing in God and His promises, and thus being reckoned as righteous. It demonstrated to Heaven and earth that it was true that he really was righteous, and had become so those many years before when he believed. His action in offering Isaac had not made him righteous. It had simply demonstrated that he was righteous. It had capped many years of faithful response. Once Isaac had been delivered no one could ever again be in doubt about the fact that he was the friend of God, one on whom God smiled, and one who loved God, and it had all been made apparent because of his actions, his ‘works’.

For ‘the friend of God’ see 2 Chronicles 20:7, ‘did you not give -- this land for ever to Abraham your friend?’ Notice there that this demonstrates that he was called the friend of God on the basis of Genesis 15:18 where he was promised the land, and not on the basis of Genesis 22, where he was not promised the land. Again in Isaiah 41:8 Abraham is seen as Abraham’s friend, but in that case it was because he was specially chosen. Thus Abraham became God’s friend, first because he was chosen, and then because he believed God. His works simply proved that he recognised Him as his friend.

We can compare here the many who came to Jesus and said that they believed, and that they accepted Him as their Lord, and then went away smugly satisfied but unchanged. They felt that they had done their bit and that Jesus should be grateful. But Jesus said of them, ‘not every one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter under the Kingly Rule of God, but only those who do the will of My Father Who is in Heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). For how can we be said to have entered under the Kingly Rule of God if we do not do His will? And how can we be said to have been ‘saved’ (‘made whole’) if we have in fact become no different? If we have become no different then the truth is that God has passed us by. But if that is so it is our fault not His.


Verse 24

‘You see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith.’

So James now reaches his conclusion. That having been recognised as righteous as a result of a response of faith towards God in Jesus Christ, a man will be seen to have been accounted righteous by what happens afterwards when as a result of it his life begins to reveal a new righteousness. And when he approaches the great throne of judgment his works will be examined and they will reveal that he was a person who really had been justified by faith, and had thus experienced the work of God within him. It would be clear from his works that he had been begotten by God through the word of truth (James 1:18) and that it had been effective.


Verse 25

‘And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works, in that she received the messengers, and sent them out another way?’

James then brings a second example out of the Old Testament, the example of Rahab who hid the spies when Joshua was about to invade Canaan. Here he is giving an example of a Gentile who also evidenced the same truth, for his message is to both ex-Jews and ex-Gentiles. There in Jericho there was one woman whose heart had been stirred to believe in the God of Israel. And as a result, when the spies came she fed then and hid them, and then arranged for them to escape. And what did this prove? That she believed in the God of Israel and trusted that He would have mercy on her. But how did Israel know that she was a believer, and that they must spare her, even though everyone living in Jericho apart from her and her family had to be killed? And the answer is, because of what she did, because of her works. By this she was seen as righteous (justified) in the sight of Israel. By this they knew of her faith.


Verse 26

‘For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead.’

Then he comes to his final conclusion. Just like the body is dead if it has no spirit (when the spirit has departed from it), so is faith dead if no life can be seen, if no works can be seen to be springing from it. Such a situation makes clear that that faith is totally unproductive, and is not genuine faith in ‘the God Who acts’ at all. It is moribund. The picture is a vivid one. He imagines looking down at the dead body, unmoving and lifeless with no reaction at all. And then he adds, and if faith is like that, producing no reaction and bringing about no movement and no living response, then it too is clearly dead.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on James 2:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/james-2.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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