James, Part 11
James 2 is one of the most debated passages in the Bible. Many have misunderstood what James meant when he said faith without works is dead. Some have come to the hasty conclusion that James is teaching salvation by works, but a closer examination of the passage delivers a different verdict. James is not saying a person must do good things in order to be made right with God–he’s saying a person who is right with God will do good things.
Why? Because people who have been born from above not only have new interests and priorities; we have a new identity in Christ. Believers don’t do good works in order to earn or maintain God’s approval–we do good works because God has given us a new nature and changed us from the inside out (2 Corinthians 5:17). We do good works because we want to.
To fully grasp James’s teaching, we must see it in context. In chapter 1, he admonishes his readers to be “doers” of the Word and lists three characteristics of doers: they have a controlled tongue, a caring heart, and a clean mind. He says religious people who do nothing for God are deceiving themselves–they have no faith (1:22–27).
He then uses an example his readers will quickly grasp: discrimination. People in James’s day, like people today, created social hierarchies based upon wealth and power. The rich were catered to and given preferential treatment everywhere, including the church. James makes it clear that prejudice has no place among apprentices of Jesus and offers three reasons:
- Discrimination is contrary to God’s attitude toward the poor (2:5–6a).
- Discrimination makes no sense (2:6b–7).
- Discrimination violates “the royal law” (2:8–13).
We will explore the first two reasons today and look at the third next time. Let’s read James 2:1–7:
My brothers and sisters, as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, don’t show favoritism. Suppose someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in. If you give special attention to the person wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor person, “You stand over there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters: Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Isn’t it the rich who exploit you and drag you into court? Are they not the ones who slander the noble name of him to whom you belong?
Given the language James uses, it appears favoritism was a major problem in the Christian community. He describes a scene one might encounter when attending worship services: the wealthy are fawned over but the poor are ignored. This is a grave mistake because it puts one in direct opposition to God. “Hasn’t God chosen the poor?” James asks. The word translated “poor” is ptochos. As the verses in James affirm, ptochos is frequently used to identify those with few material possessions (“in shabby clothes”), but in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), ptochos is used to translate the Hebrew word, anawim–one of God’s favorite words to describe those who are spiritually poor (i.e., people who are aware they are spiritually bankrupt and dependent upon God for everything).
Ptochos is the word Jesus used in the beatitudes to describe those who are blessed (Matthew’s gospel says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” while Luke’s account simply says “blessed are the poor”).
How do we know James is speaking primarily of the “spiritually poor” (the meek and humble) in chapter 2? Because of the way he qualifies “the poor.” He asks, “Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (v. 5). James equates the poor with “those who love him.”
It is a mistake, however, to reverse the statement to say, “God does not choose the rich.” James is not addressing wealth; he is addressing our attitude. One can be materially wealthy and spiritually poor at the same time. It is not wealth that is being condemned, but the attitude that says, “I don’t need God; I’ll do it my way.”
Of course, this self-sufficient attitude is often present among the wealthy, and the scene James describes is one we can easily relate to. It’s the world’s definition of the golden rule: “he who has the gold, rules.” In verses 6–7, James asks three rhetorical questions that reveal the foolishness of showing favoritism. “Isn’t it the rich who exploit you? Isn’t it the rich who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who slander the noble name of him to whom you belong?” James is referring to the usual modus operandi of the wealthy: they exploited Christians (who were often persecuted and materially poor); they dragged believers into court; and they slandered (Greek, blasphemo) God. The obvious answer to these questions is designed to raise another question: Isn’t it foolish to defer to those who regularly abuse you and blaspheme your Lord?
In his first two reasons to avoid discrimination, James basically says prejudice is contrary to God’s love for the helpless, and it doesn’t make sense. His third reason is more complicated and more serious: discrimination not only contradicts God’s regard for the poor, it contradicts God’s very nature.
Next: Keeping the royal law.