Notes on James 2:1-13
by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Jas 2:1, KJV 1 My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, (the Lord) of glory, with respect of persons.
This was a very large issue with the Jews and, it seems, even the first generation of believers, predominantly Jewish themselves. God had called Israel to be different from the nations around them, displaying what the God of Israel could do with and for the nation of Israel (Deut. 28:1-14, e.g.).
Converts to Judaism were seemingly rare. Ruth was one golden example as was her mother-in-law, Rahab of Jericho (Joshua 2:1, 3; 6:17, 23, 25). Other Gentiles came to Israel or surrendered to Israel (witness the Gibeonites, Joshua 9) including Uriah the Hittite, Ittai the Gittite (from Gath, a Philistine city) and various other peoples. During Esther’s time many people in the Persian Empire became Jews when they saw how the God of the Jews protected them from destruction (Esther 8:17). Whether or not they believed and followed the God of Israel is open to question. We can rejoice that they joined Israel and can hope they believed in the God of Israel, alone.
But when James wrote this letter, apparently the walls between Jew and Gentile, and rich and poor, were still standing high. Peter may not yet have gone to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion (leader of 100 soldiers) as recorded in Acts 10, where he declared that God is no “respecter of persons (Acts 10:34)". Paul certainly had not yet written the letter to the Ephesians where he wrote that Christ had broken down the walls between Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14) and making one new body, the Church, out of believers from both groups of peoples.
Here, though, James seems to be zeroing in on the wall between the rich and the poor. “With respect of persons”, here, seems to verify what James details in the next few verses. He’s warning them to stop doing what they were them doing and begin to do the right thing.
2 For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;
James gives a vivid example of respect of persons. Note how he contrasts a man, wealthy enough to afford a gold ring and “goodly” clothes with a poor man whose clothes aren’t very nice, apparently. There were rich Jews and poor Jews throughout most of Israel’s history and the Law had provision for providing relief or assistance (Deut. 15:7, e.g.). Even the early church had a program in place for those who were poor (Acts 2:44, 4:32). Had some of these believers, now scattered abroad, experienced this in Jerusalem? Or was he thinking of some people whom Jesus had healed or ministered to, such as Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46), or the man who was laid down to Jesus on a bed after his friends made a hole in someone’s roof (Luke 5:17-26)?
3 And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: 4 Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?
Now James points out step 2 in the judgment in the assembly. Step 1 was the comparison based on clothing and obvious signs of wealth, if any (the gold ring, e.g.). Then, step 2 was telling an attender where to go during the worship of that time. Perhaps this is based on the construction of synagogues in that era. We do know that Jesus Himself stood to read the Word of God in the synagogue, then sat down when He began to explain or expound the reading (Luke 4:16-20). The opposite is true when Paul gave a word of exhortation in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:13-16). The idea is that people were given different places inside the assembly based simply on their clothing. James condemns this strongly.
5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?
“Hearken” is the same word James used at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and it means “Listen!” or “Pay attention!” James has just exposed a problem in the early days of the Church, especially among Messianic Jews or Jewish background believers. Then as now, it seems that the rich received more attention and preferential treatment than the poor, but here James says that God chose the poor to be rich in faith. In fact, Jesus Himself said in the Sermon on the Plateau
(Luke 6:20), “. . . Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.” James may also have had Lazarus in mind (Luke 16), who suffered for an unspecified amount of time but never lost his faith.
James also mentions the kingdom which God promised to “them that love (H)im”. These early believers knew about the kingdom which the Messiah would bring into existence (Daniel 2 and 7, e.g.) but they had also known about the Kingdoms of Heaven and of God. Entrance into both or either had nothing to do with riches but on whether or not the individual was in a right relationship with God.6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?
James reminds the believers that even though God had chosen the poor, they were despising the poor by judging them in regards to their clothing; jewelry, etc. (see vv. 2-3). Now James asks them a series of (rhetorical?) questions. He began by asking who oppressed them and took them to court.
As an irony, these believers were brought before a judgment seat by rich people. Do we have a hint of what happened to these believers in Hebrews 10:32-34? Even if it didn’t happen often in the early days of the Church, it definitely took place by the time when Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews. Regardless, every believer will stand before the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3) and will either receive a reward or loss of reward. So they were judged by man on this earth and may have suffered loss, but if they remained true to the Lord, they will face His judgment seat and be rewarded!7 Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
“They” refers to the rich people who basically were persecuting the believers by taking them to courts, Blaspheme means to speak against or speak evil of someone or something. James does not give specifics but the readers of this letter were no doubt well familiar with the situation. Probably the believers were not yet called “Christians” at this time in any other place besides Antioch. James never mentioned the word “Christian” in this letter, at any rate.
Apparently, because the rich, who may not have been genuine believers, were taking the poor and/or genuine believers to court, the innocent ones were being considered guilty. This is one more of the Enemy’s strategies: if he can’t destroy a church, he will try to destroy the reputation or character of the members. This strategy is in work even today, where believers are slandered or even taken to court over unbelievable, frivolous, or “trumped-up” charges. But they’re in good company—the same thing happened to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
Quoting not only Mark 12:31 but also Lev. 19:18. This is the second great commandment, and the first great commandment is from Deut. 6:4, Matt. 22:37-38, Mark 12:29-30, etc.9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
James circles back to verse 1 by reminding the readers to not have respect of persons. He gave examples and now delivers a final warning, that those who do have respect of persons are committing sin. This is only one of the clearly expressed sins for believers to avoid; other Scriptures give other examples.
“Convinced” means “convicted”.10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one (point), he is guilty of all.
People forget that the Law was not something where a follower could “pick and choose” which parts to observe or ignore. Failure to observe or keep the whole law, as James says, makes one guilty of all.11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
The Law itself condemned the actual deeds, such as murder, adultery, etc. Interestingly, Jesus Himself, in the Sermon on the Mount, went farther than the actual deeds and emphasized the motive as being even more important (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28).12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
Again James quotes from the Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy, Matt 5:7).
Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV).