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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
James 2

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-4

3. No obsequiousness to rich incomers to the Christian synagogue, 1-4.

1. My brethren—The apostle is still administering lessons to the Synagogue of believers. In the first chapter he reproves their disputatiousness; in the present, their courting the rich.

Of glory— Omitting the Italic words, the Greek order is, our Lord Jesus Christ of glory, in which the author does not suppose that inserting the identifying name Jesus Christ prevents of glory from belonging to Lord, so as to make Lord of glory, namely, Jesus Christ. Faith in so glorious a Lord is not in consistency with respect of persons. Respect of persons (see note on Acts 10:34,) means to regard a man for his rank, personal appearance, or any other reason than his true deserts or value. All men are equal before the Lord of glory; and therefore, in his Church, rich and poor are equally valuable in the sight of Him who died for all.


Verse 2

2. If—St. James puts the case with an if. Yet he graphically narrates it in the (aoristic) past historic tense, as James 1:10-11, (where see note,) as a transaction that had happened, (note on Hebrews 6:4-6,) and so might customarily happen.

Unto your assembly—Or, as it is in the Greek, your SYNAGOGUE. See note on Matthew 4:23. The Jewish-Christian conservatism of St. James is strongly marked by his use of this word. The pentecostal Church continued to share in the Jewish service, and it is probable that Jewish synagogues sometimes were converted into Christian churches. Acts 3:1; Acts 4:1. The word, then, may have long been retained among the twelve tribes of James 1:1. There were five synagogues of foreign Jews in Jerusalem. Acts 6:9. In the Apocalypse the word is used of heretics. Revelation 2:9; Revelation 3:9. And in Hebrews 10:25, we have episynagogues. St. Ignatius applies the word to Christian churches, and Alford quotes from the post-apostolic “Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs” the phrase, “in the synagogues of the Gentiles.” The term here indicates that the epistle was written after Christian houses of worship were established and customary.

A man—He may be a Christian, or he may not; that does not vary the principle. But James 2:6-7 clearly show that such are not to be supposed Christians, but really persecutors and blasphemers of Christ. The visitor’s apparel, though doubtless conspicuously different, is not set in contrast with that of the rest of the assembly, but in contrast with that of the poor man. Gold ring—Literally, a man golden-ringed, in splendid dress.


Verse 3-4

3, 4. Say—Huther well contrasts the opposite speeches: Thou… thou… sit… stand… here… there… in a good place… under (rather, at) my footstool. The dignified speaker has a footstool, and seems to be an official of the synagogue. It seems to be a regularly officered Church, with an edifice, and a furnishing; all indicating a mature period. The two clauses beginning with sit, stand, with an or between them, form not two, but one directive speech.

Partial in yourselves—A much debated interpretation. Huther gives a large number of explications, all of which he justly rejects because they do not give the exact meaning of the Greek verb here used, which usually signifies to doubt, to hesitate, or, as used by St. James in James 1:6, to waver. But Alford, following Huther and others, adopts the first of these two definitions, and interprets it of a doubt of their own Christianity! He gives the following far-fetched paraphrase: “Did you not, in making such distinction between rich and poor, become of the number of those who doubt respecting their faith?” But certainly this discrimination was no doubt of the Christian faith! If, however, our English version had translated it as in James 1:6, waver, they would have furnished the true thought. If ye so discriminated, did you not waver (from the straight course)? The writer charges, that, under the fascinations of the gorgeous attire, they were induced to veer and vibrate from Christian integrity. Judges (possessed) of evil thoughts—The evil thoughts were the inward quality of the judges. They became evil-thoughted judges. The word judges is used, not in a judicial, but in an opinionative or discriminative sense, and might be rendered discriminators. Translate the whole, then, If ye have done all this, have ye not wavered (as Christians) and become evil-thoughted discriminators?


Verse 5

4. For the rich are generally persecutors and blasphemers, James 2:5-7.

5. Hearken… brethren—In this earnest expostulation (James 2:5-7) St. James makes two points:

1. The poor are the chosen, and so wrong is done to them.

2. The rich are the oppressors and blasphemers, and so a wicked preference is given to them.

Chosen—The (aorist) tense, Did not God choose? that is, (Gr. middle,) prefer for himself. The objects of his choice present three objective characteristics; they are poor in worldly goods, but (antithetically) rich in faith, and even heirs (heightening the antithesis) of a future royalty. The very nature of the antithesis shows the inadmissibility of Huther’s interpolating (followed by Alford) the words to be, and reading, chosen to be rich in faith. This to be, might just as authoritatively be interposed before poor, and so render, has not God chosen them to be poor? The worldly poverty, the spiritual richness, and the celestial heirship, all precede this choice, which is simply the divine preference in contrast with this, their human, rejection in the synagogue. God chose, but men (next verse) despised them.

The kingdom—The future kingdom of heaven, as being yet subject of promise.


Verse 6

6. Ye—Unlike God.

Despised—Same (aorist) tense as chosen=chose. While God chose, ye despised. Both refer to the same objects and point of time.

The poor—Singular number; the poor man in the above picture.

Rich men oppress you—It is clear from this that it is not Christian rich men the apostle condemns.

Rich here is an epithet for men of persecuting power, whether Jews or pagans. Not their wealth but their oppressiveness that made them guilty. See note on James 5:6.

Draw—Greek, drag, a term of violence.

Judgment seats—To rob them by unjust lawsuits, or to punish them for being deserters from Judaism.


Verse 7

7. That worthy name—Christ.

Called—This probably alludes (as do 1 Peter 4:14 and 1 Peter 4:16) to the name Christian, and indicates a time in which the name, starting from Antioch, had become general throughout the tribes.


Verse 8

5. And violating the divine law on this or any one point breaks the whole law, James 2:8-13.

8. Our apostle here states and denies an excuse of theirs, that their treatment of the rich was accordant with the law of love.

The royal law— The golden rule, called royal because, perhaps, first clearly proclaimed by the royal Jesus; or, more probably, because it is the supreme law which comprehends the entire law over the relations of men to men.

Do well— Your conduct is right if it accord with the royal law. But the question is, Does it accord with that law? He denies it, (9-13,) declares that it is such a transgression as makes them condemnable by the whole law, being a violation of the law of mercy, (James 2:13,) namely, mercy to the poor man, so cruelly slighted.


Verse 9

9. Respect to persons—Honouring the wicked because rich and oppressive, spurning the poor in spite of piety and humbleness.

Commit sin—The reverse of do well.

Convinced—Detected, convicted.

The law—The royal law, which enjoins dealing according to merit, and, therefore, the whole law.


Verse 10

10. For—Refuting the claim that their fault was slight and venial.

Offend in one point—Small as that point appears to you.

Guilty of all—The royal law is a unit; you cannot violate a part of it alone. There may be different degrees of heinousness of violation, but if you have done a loveless act no part of the law acquits you; the whole law of love has been violated, and condemns you.


Verse 11

11. For—It is not meant that you have committed each and every mentionable act of transgression. The ten commandments are but so many specifications under the one law of love; they are but specifications of various ways in which that one whole law can be violated. Every specific violation is a violation of that one whole law. He—The same one undivided divine Authority is promulgator of the one law, which so branches into ten specifications. Violating any one specification impinges against that entire authority. It denies the supremacy of God. It is treason against the government of the universe.

No adultery—You may be as chaste as “the icicle in Dian’s temple,” yet, if you murder, your virtue will not save you. There is to be no balancing of account with heaven between your vices and your virtues. Every vice breaks the whole law.

A modern American poem described a western steamboat pilot who closed a life of profligacy with being blown up in order to save the lives of the passengers on board his boat. It assumes that his self-sacrifice in death would atone for his profligate life, and concludes by declaring that Christ would not severely judge “the man who died for men.” But the death was scarcely less profligate than the life. It was simply that same desperate recklessness of life, acting under an impulse of professional pride, as he would show in a fray for supremacy or advantage in any other matter. No such act could atone for the crimes against temperance, chastity, the rights of his fellow men, and the laws of God, which, as described in the poem itself, formed the staple of this bad hero’s existence. The writing of such poetry is as profligate and demoralizing as the life it heroizes.


Verse 12

12. Speak… do—The two great departments of external Christian morality; the manifestations of the character of the internal man. They must so speak and do in all respects, and especially in their dealings with the rich and the poor; for it must be remembered that that subject is still in sight.

The law of liberty—As given by a royal lawgiver, and ruling with a royal authority, it is a royal law; as obeyed with a free, spontaneous heart, it is a law of liberty; as enjoining and inspiring universal comity, it is a law of love.

Judged—For this law not only requires love, but judges and condemns the want of it as evidenced by the speak and do. This want they evidence in this case by their respect of persons. They do not deal with the poor according to the evangelical law of liberty.


Verse 13

13. For—Deep and solemn motive for the so speak and do.

Mercy— Compassion or tenderness for the lowly, the unfortunate, or the guilty. This mercy would have inspired the Churches to honour and cherish, rather than to despise, the poor.

Judgment without mercyThe law of love will be a law of condemnation; and in the day of judgment pure retribution without mercy will be the order of the day. Mercy, if exercised by us, not only does not condemn us, but it triumphs over and rejoiceth against judgment, and brings us acquittal and salvation.


Verse 14

14. Hath faith… not works—A believer, but not a righteous doer; a Christian, but not a conscientious liver; pious, but not honest. He holds to a humble Christianity, but despises the poor, and is obsequious to the persecutor.


Verses 14-26

6. The Christian synagogue rejects workless faith as unjustifying, James 2:14-26.

St. James now inflexibly chases his brethren out of their last refuge and excuse for their sin toward the poor. Our works, say they, do, indeed, violate the law a little, but then we are justified by faith, and the law will not punish us for subordinate negligences. In other words, we are Christians, and will be saved in spite of our sins. This is antinomianism; and it often appears in various forms, practical and doctrinal, in the Church. Its effect is, as St. Paul says, to “make Christ the minister of sin,” and to demoralize Christianity. In his Epistle to the Romans Paul emphasizes the doctrine of justification by faith alone; yet guards against all antinomianism by insisting that it is a faith from which a holy life must result. Romans 6:1-2. St. James, on the contrary, emphasizes the necessity of works—that is, a holy life—but secures the fact that the works, in order to be a true holy life, must spring from a living faith. Paul says, You are justified by a work-begetting faith; James says, You are justified by faith-begotten works. They disagree, not in doctrine, but in the emphasis they lay on the different parts of the doctrine.


Verse 15

15. If—An illustrative case, in which a fellow Christian is to be supplied with necessaries of life. The firm faith that he will be supplied with food without accordant action will leave him to starvation. So a sentimental belief in all the charities, virtues, pieties, and moralities, will do no good to the world or to the believer until resolved into action.


Verse 17

17. Dead—It has no vital existence, being alone, and not embodied in good doing.


Verse 18

18. May (wisely) say—That is, the advocate of works evidencing his faith, may say to the mere holder of faith without works, thus.

Show… without… works—And prove thyself an antinomian.

And I… faith by… works—And prove myself a duty-doing believer. I hold faith and duty in correspondence and symmetry with each other. My faith inspires my works, and my works evidence my faith.

Works are rightly said to justify a man by evidencing his faith. Yet this is not all. Works are a direct justification of faith before God. According to Paul it is by the act of submitting and self-consecrating faith alone that a man comes into reconciliation and justification with God. But the condition of the continuance of that state of justification is not faith alone, but faith with works correspondent to that faith. And those works justify, not only indirectly, as evidence of the trueness of the faith, but directly, being graciously accepted by God as works of righteousness and true holiness.


Verse 19

19. Thou—Addressed to a monotheist, probably a Jew, who held that all Jews would be saved by their Mosaic belief.

One God—The prime article in which the Jew differed from the polytheist. It is to be noted here that St. James addresses a Jew as included in the twelve tribes to whom the epistle is written.

Thou doest well—So far, good! But it helps very little for salvation, as the next sentence shows.

The devils—The demons, or evil spirits, subordinate to the one devil, or Satan. Note on 1 Corinthians 10:20.

Believe—They are as orthodox on that point as the Jews. Yet their orthodoxy, their monotheistic faith alone, does not save them. We have defined justifying faith (note on Romans 3:22) to be that unity of intellect, heart, and will, by which a man perfectly surrenders himself to Christ for salvation. It is the will element in this faith from which due works result. Without it faith becomes mere intellective belief, and, like that of the devils, is ineffective and dead.

Tremble—Shudder. Their knowledge of God and of his character induces a dread of a future beyond the judgment day.


Verse 20

20. Wilt thouWillest thou? for it is a matter of will. Thou canst know if it is thy will to know.

Vain man—Literally, empty man; vacant of the truth he might know.


Verse 21

21. Abraham—As Abraham is the instance discussed by St. Paul, (Romans 4:1-13 and Galatians 3:6-9,) we deem it very probable, but by no means certain, that James has Paul’s statements in view, and purposes to give, not a disputation in order to refute them, but a counter statement in order to correct those who overstated Paul’s.

Our father— Namely, of both unconverted and converted Jew.

Offered—But did not fulfil the offering by actual sacrifice.

Upon—Or at.


Verse 22

22. Faith wrought… works—As remarked in our notes on the passages referred to in our last note, Abraham was a believer years before the offering of Isaac, and justified. That act of self-surrendering faith by which a man enters into reconciliation with God was performed years before. Yet every signal external act of faith was a renewal of the first. Abraham’s justification came, as Paul says, from his faith alone. Yet the faith which alone justifies is never really alone: it ever combines with works.

Faith made perfect—Had Abraham died at the instant of his first justification he would have been completely justified by faith alone. But his faith would have wanted its proper counterpart in actual works, and so have been in a sense imperfect. Yet it was saving in its quality, being of such a nature and power as would generate works but for the cessation of life. In other words, it was such a self-surrender to, trust in, and oneness of heart and spirit with, God, as would have poured forth works in accord with God’s will. Or, to vary the statement, on condition of such self-surrendering faith a full flow of the divine Spirit is poured into the heart, inspiring a life and course of action accordant with the divine will. When, then, this internal faith is answered to by the correspondent act and course of life, it becomes completed, made perfect.


Verse 23

23. Fulfilled—By the external act of faith the works the faith received a consummation, a perfection, whereby the very Scripture declaring his justification by faith, was visibly fulfilled.


Verse 24

24. By works… justified—Not that by merit-work (except so far as faith itself is a work, note, Romans 3:27) a man is first brought into justification. But he is justified by work as an external completion of his faith.

Not by faith only—For if the faith be alone, and without the working element of faith, namely, the hearty will for work, it is mere speculative faith, as above said, and so dead and unjustifying.


Verse 25

25. Rahab the harlot—See note, Hebrews 11:31.

Received the messengers—An act resulting from her faith in Jehovah, God of Israel, performed bravely in spite of danger, terminating in her incorporation into the people of God and into the line of the Messiah. Note, Matthew 1:2. As it was through her memorable adhesion to Israel that Israel came into Canaan, her faith was a hinging fact in Israel’s history, and so commemorated with great interest.


Verse 26

26. As the body… so faith—Reciprocally, we may make faith the body and works the spirit necessary to its life; or works the body of which faith is the spirit. Faith is the dead body without works; for it is truly without the active will-power, without which it is the mere dead speculative belief, like that of the demons in James 2:19.

St. James’s paragraph here on faith and works has, from its marked antithesis to Paul’s language of the same point, furnished a fruitful topic for discussion to commentators and theologians. Huther, in a brief excursus, summarizes its history. Before the Reformation no difficulty of reconciliation was felt. Luther opened the query with a strong and repeated rejection of the epistle from the canon as contradictory to Paul, unapostolic, and unauthentic. The consistency of James with Paul has, nevertheless, been recognised by the German scholars, Neander, Wiesinger, and Hengstenberg; but denied by De Wette, Baur, and other rationalists. Huther reconciles the two (as Fletcher of Madeley, in his “Checks,” did before him) by saying that Paul speaks of present justification, which is truly by faith, and James of our justification at the day of Judgment, which is “according to” our works, as is attested by many Scripture passages. But so far as time comes into view this distinction fails; for God’s judicial estimate of us is ever now, “according to” our present moral state. The final judgment is but the closing public pronunciation of the final sum total of our character. God’s present judgment is as much “according to” our works as his final. And in this, our moral sum total under God’s adjudication, faith is properly viewed as one of the works “according to” which we are judged. And thus we are justified by works. And yet this is not precisely the view that St. James in this paragraph presents.

Huther places in contrast the words of the two apostles thus: James says, “By works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24.) Paul says, (Galatians 2:16,) “A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by… faith.” Again, James, (James 2:21,) “Was not Abraham… justified by works?” and Paul, (Romans 4:2,) “If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory.” In regard to which we remark: (1.) James does not here, or any where else, deny, but does assume, that we are justified by faith. (2.) Nor does he deny that it is faith which alone, and in itself, justifies; he only denies that the faith which alone justifies is ever alone and unattended by works. (3.) And even in the alone justifying faith there is a virtual inchoate work which (James 2:22) requires to be verified and perfected in the consequent external work. Works, therefore, though never justifying without faith, do have, as inhering in faith, an auxiliary justifying effect. And that view Paul never denies, but frequently implies. See our notes on Romans 2:6; Romans 3:27. With Paul it is working faith, faith with work present and prospective in it, that justifies. It is only merit-work that he denies. But so pointedly antithetical are James’s propositions to Paul’s, that we hold them as intended by him to be the corrective of the effect of Paul’s trenchant statements in the mind of the Church. 4. That there was a standing antithesis, without real contradiction, between Paul and James, is evinced by the “from James” of Galatians 2:12, (where see note, with our note on Acts 15:6;) and we believe that antithesis is here stated, and was, on James’s part, intentional and wise.

(5.) How truly James’s statements do stand as a perpetual corrective of the antinomianism often inferred from Paul’s language in successive periods of the Church, is well illustrated by Wesley’s experience with the Moravians, given in our vol. iv, p. 209. So antinomian had they become by implicitly following Luther and overstraining Paul, that he took to expounding James to bring them to the right position. Not one moment do we hesitate to place the words of this illustrious apostle, James of Jerusalem, the brother of the Lord himself, lineal son of David, and hereditary king of the twelve tribes, as coequal in authority with Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles. Both were apostles, but neither of the twelve. (6.) All this indicates that the Epistle of James is subsequent to that to the Romans; long enough subsequent for that great epistle to have powerfully influenced the mind of the Church. And this passage, like 2 Peter 3:15-16, is a clear allusion to the doctrinal statements of Paul, implying their perversion by many of his readers.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on James 2:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/james-2.html. 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, June 25th, 2019
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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