Faith has been defined as hope, belief, conviction, or trust in something that is not visible or has not yet been realized. Paul defines this all-important Greek word PISTIS:
“Faith is hoping for something, [hoping for] the reality of things without visible proof. For, it was because of [their] faith that the ancients received convincing evidence. By such faith we comprehend how God’s verbal commands set in order the periods of time, so that what is visible came into existence by what is unseen.” [Hebrews 11:1-3 Christian Scriptures 2001]
Other versions render this definition: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the sign that the things not seen are true.” [BAS] “Now faith is the substantiating of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [DAR] “Now faith is a well-grounded assurance of that for which we hope, and a conviction of the reality of things which we do not see.” [WEY] “And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction,” [YLT]
Now, according to the Nazarene faith can have strength and size - as in “little” or “weak.” Paul associates faith with a divine gift. [Roman 12:3] He also writes that “not everyone possesses faith.” [2 Thessalonians 3:2] However, it is the disciple James who speaks of either a living or dead faith. The very idea of a dead faith may come as a shock to some Christians. What does James mean by this? How does he illustrate such a dead faith? Is faith alone enough? Let us do a study of James chapter 2 for the answers.
James introduces his subject of a dead faith with an unusual and unexpected atmosphere in the early Church - social and economic prejudice. Note this in James 2:1-4 --
JA2:1 My brothers, do not hold conviction in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with partiality or favoritism. JA2:2 For if a man in splendid clothing, with gold rings on his fingers, enters your synagogue -- and also at the same time a poor man in shabby clothing -- JA2:3 and you look on the one wearing the splendid clothing, and tell him, “You sit here in this good seat,” and to the poor man you say, “You stand in the back or squat here by my footstool” --- JA2:4 are you not making distinctions among yourselves and have become judges with evil thoughts? [NCMM]
At first it is unthinkable what James describes in some of the early congregations of Christians. On the other hand, it does not come as a surprise that “partiality or favoritism” existed then, for it exists even today at the beginning of Church history in the 3rd millennium. Others phrase this bad characteristic this way: an attitude of personal favoritism [NAS], flattery of human greatness [KNX], and, show snobbery [NEB]. James echoes Proverbs 24:23, “To have respect for a person’s position when judging is not good.” [BAS]
Even the thought of favoritism -- class partiality, status, personality cults, economic bias, race and national distinctions -- within the Christian community is unthinkable, even disgusting. Such attitudes are alien to the Nazarene. And yet, here James finds it -- has observed and witnessed it sufficiently to write about it. This is not one mere isolated case that could be handled personally and corrected. It is a widespread attitude.
What caused it? How did such a thing come about? Obviously egotism and pride are at the root of class distinctions -- rooted in the idea that my way of life, my family status, my financial standing, my racial group, my nation, even the part of the country I am from -- is superior. Even language or accent difference can cause such attitudes. [Acts 6:1, 2] Who bears the brunt of this arrogance? It is generally the poor and it is from this perspective James writes. So, here, in this “favoritism” is economically based.
Shocking such a thing would exist among those who profess to follow the poor Nazarene -- a man unable to scrape up the temple tax together with a close follower so that a miracle had to be performed by finding the coin in a fish’s mouth! A man so poor when a scribe offered to follow him anywhere the Nazarene responded, “Unlike birds with roosts I do not know where I am sleeping tonight.” That was enough to put off the educated copyist.
It is Paul who writes to the rich Corinthians about their fellows and “their deep poverty” and then reminds them “ ... you are aware of the charitable kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, that in your behalf he became poor though he was rich, so that you might become rich through that One’s poverty.” [2 Corinthians 8:2, 9 NCMM] Writing himself, the Nazarene gives stern warning to a congregation which would boast, “I have become rich and do not need anything!” [Revelation 3:17 NCMM] Some modern Christians, lacking true faith, make the same claim in trying to prove God’s blessing.
To be fair, the rich man in these verses cannot be automatically condemned for it is others who also demonstrate the preferential treatment of favoritism to the rich. Though perhaps we can censor this rich man for not refusing the elitist treatment which shames his poor brethren. Or, he is a rich man who has not yet heard of the Nazarene’s teaching at Luke 12:33. Of course, at this moment, we do not even know that he is a Christian, but a stranger who has some interest in this “meeting.” Surely, if this is his first Christian meeting he will draw poor conclusions about such a group and perhaps choose to examine some other form of worship that lacks this prejudice.
How does one identify the rich? Proverbs warns “there is the rich person pretending to be poor.” But, generally, this is not the case and one estimates a person’s material worth by jewelry, clothing, residence or automobile. The poor could not afford gold rings -- note it is plural -- and Jesus said, “... fine, soft clothing is found in the homes of wealthy royalty.” The poor were blessed with but one lifetime garment usually in three or four layers. Paul counsels women -- and we may assume the general principle applies to men - “Women … adorn themselves with appropriate dress, soundness of mind, adorning themselves modestly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls, nor costly clothing.” [1 Timothy 2:9; compare 1 Peter 3:3] The first disciples at Pentecost obeyed the command of the Nazarene and “sold their belongings to distribute to their poor brothers.” [Luke 12:33; Acts 2:45; 4:32-37] Unlike this rich man entering the Christian gathering, Paul was “homeless” and often ill-clad for the weather. [1 Corinthians 4:11] Any serious adherent of the Nazarene would not be identified by “fancy clothing” or “expensive garb” nor be gold-fingered.
The rich man and the poor man enter a Christian (Jewish) “gathering” or “meeting” or “assembly.” The Greek is synagogen and if the word is transliterated and left untranslated it would become ‘into the synagogue.’ It is so rendered in each of the 20 cases in Acts where “synagogue” is mentioned. There is a heightened use in the form episynagogen used at Hebrews 10:25 regarding Hebrew-Christian meetings as well as once with regarding to the Great-Gathering of the saints. [See notes on 2 Thessalonians 2:1] The use of “synagogue” here strengthens the view that James is primarily addressed to Christian-Jews in that early period when Paul and the other disciples were still making use of the synagogue as a standard preaching platform. [Acts 9:20; 13:5, 14, 42, 43; 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 7, 19, 26; 19:8]
Like the Jews, the first Christians gathered in regular assembly and often this was in the private homes of individuals and later during persecution wherever their was a convenient and secret place to meet. In the case in James either the place is very large and crowded or very small because it is standing-room-only. The idea that there would be a “footstool” might argue for a private home. This is a unique occurrence of the word outside of a Hebrew Bible quotation. Perhaps it is an absurdum -- though it is not unlikely one might bring such a footstool to a Christian gathering for comfort.
It is the Nazarene who pronounces the Blessing, “Happy are the poor.” He himself was such by every form of the word: he was often to sleep out doors under the stars, he was hungry on occasion, he relied on the hospitality of others, and he was regularly and normally supplied by those charitable women who looked to his needs. It is true on rare occasions he was treated in an extravagant manner such as the woman of ill-repute and the “waste” (according to Judas) of a year’s wages in perfuming Jesus’ body prior to his burial. But these are extremely isolated. Jesus was poor, and poverty -- even what many today would consider extreme asceticism, or at least a roundly self-sacrificing lifestyle -- was the lot he chose. In this regard he was different from Agur who prayed, “do not give me great wealth or let me be in need, but give me only enough food.” [Proverbs 30:8] Jesus shared the poverty of that majority which responded to him. When the Nazarene says, “For you will always have the poor among you.” [Matthew26:9-11 NCMM] Perhaps Jesus echoes Moses: “For the poor will never cease out of the land: therefore I command you, saying, You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your needy, and to your poor, in your land.”
[Deuteronomy 15:11 WEB] Jesus’ touring group had a “poor box” and the Nazarene displayed a keen interest in the poor. [John 12:5-8; John 13:29] This genuine charity was practiced by his disciples as shown in the instructions of the apostolic body and elders in Jerusalem. [Galatians 2:10] Paul praises the Hebrew-Christians for their general disposition of charity -- “With joy you plundered your own possessions.” [Hebrews 10:34 NCMM]
As a result of these disparities between the rich and the poor, Christians were showing “class distinctions.” The very thought is disgusting and would without argument be repulsive to the Nazarene! In Greek this is diekriphete en eautois and diekrithete is related in the doubting, wavering man in James 1:6. It means to separate in order to make a distinction and often is translated “doubt.” It is also related to diakrisis and a judicial differentiation as at Romans 14:1. It is used in Jude 22 of the doubter in need of mercy. The Greek suffix krith is that of the word “judge” (kritai) which follows. [English “critic” finds its root here.]
These are critical, judgmental persons who “doubt” the value of the poor man and appraise the rich more than he deserves. By these “wicked decisions” they make themselves judges. Jesus warned against this: “Also, stop being judgmental and you will never be convicted. Stop condemning others and you will never be condemned.” [Luke 6:37 NCMM] Paul pursues this powerful theme in Romans chapter 14. The idea of “class” - and the prejudicial distinctions which arise from it - is so common to fallen human nature there seems not a time when it has not been present among mankind. [2 Kings 24:14; 1 Chronicles 23:11; Isaiah 53:9; Jeremiah 5:4; Galatians 2:12]
What gives rise to it? Pride and egotism -- for what man does not believe his own opinion correct and his own lifestyle superior? Paul warns of this “For we are not daring to rank ourselves, or equate ourselves, with some who recommend themselves. But they -- in measuring themselves with their own standards, and comparing themselves by a self-evaluation - are without understanding.” [2 Corinthians 10:12] NCMM] It is the rare individual, indeed, who is the personification of modest humility and who, despite having firm convictions, with empathy views all others to be his “superior.” [Philippians 2:3] It is clear that class distinction rise mainly from economic status but for a disciple of the Nazarene who is taught by his Master to “sell all and give” this is meaningless.
Such persons makes themselves into “judges with evil thoughts.” Or, “prove to be critics with evil motives.” [WMS] Those who verbally or mentally become critics of their brothers and who then render what are truly “wicked judicial decisions” waste their time within the Christian community. They belong to the world and they speak the things of the world. But, what are the reasons James gives why the poor should not be ill-treated by fellow Christians?
JA2:5 Listen, my beloved brothers, did not The God choose the world’s poor to become rich in conviction and heirs of the Kingdom which He promised to those loving Him? JA2:6 For you have dishonored the poor person. Do not the rich oppress you? Are not the rich those who drag you into law-courts? JA2:7 Do not the rich blaspheme the good name by which you have been called? JA2:8 You will do well indeed if you continue to perform the royal law according to the Scripture, “You will love your neighbor as yourself.” [Leviticus 19:18] JA2:9 However, if you show partiality you commit a sin and are exposed by the Law as transgressors. [NCMM]
James first reason is that it was the poor God chose. God chooses whom He pleases and He has been making such choices for thousands of years. [Deuteronomy 4:37; Acts 13:17; Psalm 78:68, 70; Matthew 12:18; Luke 6:13; John 15:16; 1 Corinthians 1:27, 28] With the coming of Christ a special election or choosing began -- the calling of persons to become “people who are the saints of the Most High.” [Daniel 7:27] But, James emphasizes as does Paul that it is the “poor” who will represent the majority in this Kingdom. This is wholly in line with the Nazarene. [Luke 18:24-26] There is not single case of a rich disciple of the Lord save those who were such in secret. Whether Zachaeus remained rich after his promise to the Lord is unknown. Paul does mention “those who are rich” but it would seem if they obeyed his “orders” they would in time do exactly as the Master instructed his apostles at Luke 12:33. It is this choosing in which the poor of James 1:9 “exult.” The rich are exempt or fail to muster to the call for the reasons given later in James.
Though poor, James says they are “rich in conviction” or faith. Now here, first James begins to associate what has gone above with his main theme of faith. As pointed out in James 1:3 faith has strengths and sizes -- here it has values. The idea of being rich materially and poor spiritually dates from the Proverbs and is taught by the Nazarene. It may be said that the rich will probably never fully trust God because they always have their material resources to rely on. The poor have nothing -- but also they have fewer distractions which eat up precious time.
James’ second reason is that the “rich oppress the poor” and are always “dragging them into courts of law.” Historically it is a truism that “the rich oppress.” It is their greed that makes them squeeze every farthing from the mouths of the poor. But, what “rich” does James have in mind? A generic statement of principle? Or, was he aware of rich Christians (or, Jews) who were behaving oppressively? Judging from things he says later it may be true there were such examples within the Christian community just as there were in the Jewish community.
Paul also censors the rich Corinthians for having lawsuits and dragging brothers into courts though in the case(s) he has in mind the defrauded person may be the one doing the suing. [1 Corinthians 6:1-8] With James it is the rich who oppress the poor by means of the judicial and legal system. The rich can afford the attorneys and the time in court -- the poor cannot. It is also possible the rich -- because they can bribe judging elders [a time-honored tradition] -- can manipulate judgments in their favor even within the Christian community. The rich have subtle ways of currying favor with responsible men who lose their freeness of speech because of the largess of rich sponsors.
James 1:9 says the poor or lowly brother is exalted, but the rich “dishonored.” They do not follow what Paul would later exhort in Romans 12:10. How is it the rich drag the poor before courts? Or, why is it? Solomon says “the poor are immune from threats because they have nothing.” In Corinth it was the defrauded one who took his brother to court. Here in James it is rich oppression which “drag the poor into judicial hearings.” The rich are so greedy they cannot rest if there is a single penny they cannot squeeze out of the poor. In James 5:4 the wages of the worker (poor worker) is withheld -- an old trick of the rich because they hate to let go. If the poor laborer made the mistake of borrowing from the rich while waiting for his rightful wage and then that was not forthcoming, the rich could take legal action. The rich do not follow the Nazarene’s teaching, “Give to the one asking and do not expect interest or insist on repayment.” [Luke 6:34, 35] This judicial pressure on the poor Christian abuses the “fine name” by which they are called because it brings reproach on God’s name.
James recommends the Christian alternative -- love -- by quoting Leviticus 19:18 [as did the Nazarene] and giving it the title, The Kingly Law or Royal Commandment. It is “kingly” because God gave it and Jesus repeated it. It is interesting James does not quote Jesus or use as his authority the many teachings of the Nazarene on this subject of neighbor love. Most formal religions would make the most of that authority from their founder or master. But nothing carries more weight with James’ audience than the Law of Moses and thus the quote from Leviticus.
Paul makes use of Leviticus 19:18 twice and in so doing summarizes all the law with this one principle - neighbor love. [Romans 13:9-11; Galatians 5:14] Paul also alludes to this as the “law of the Christ” and so voices something similar to James’ “kingly law.” [Galatians 6:2] Yes, if the rich would practice this and do so in the manner outlined in the Nazarene’s Mountain Teachings this reproach on God and Christ would be removed and these rich men would “prove themselves disciples of the Lord by the exercise of love.”
But instead, some in the Christian Church are “showing partiality.” But, alas, favoritism or prejudicial and divided reckoning and judgments is the problem at hand -- and not of just the rich, but also of the poor who will tend to show favoritism to the rich in hopes of some benefit to themselves. How is this favoritism shown? It may be shown by those who have the financial means by important invitations to prestigious banquets; a currying of favors for political ambition in the form of simonized appointments; by “admiring personalities for personal benefit” [Jude 16]; by preferential treatment; by flattering speech or special recognition.
This prejudice showed its ugly face very early in the first century Church. Acts chapter 6 records the affair. During the daily food distribution the Greek-speaking widows were be “overlooked” - that is putting it politely - in favor of the Hebrew-speaking widows. It seems clear it was the Jewish or Hebrew-speaking Christians who were showing prejudice and partiality toward those who spoke a different language. This problem was corrected with the first appointment of deacons to care for the liberal distribution of this communal food.
James calls this prejudice a sin. He warns such political skullduggery and back-room politics is a sin and transgression of law. Such men are in the wrong religion for one day they will be called upon to prove their faith -- and in this they will fail; or, God’s own judgment will be visited upon them and they will to be found without those ‘friends’ who are truly important. [Luke 16:9] How does James prove his point from the Law?
JA2:10 For whoever observes all the Law but stumbles in one point has become guilty of [breaking] all of them. JA2:11 For the same One who said, “Do not commit adultery,” [Exodus 20:14] also said, “Do not murder.” [Deuteronomy 5:17] So, if you do not commit adultery but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the Law. JA2:12 So, both speak and act as though you are about to be judged by a law of freedom. JA2:13 Because, the judgment will be without mercy to those who have not shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
One cannot decide which laws to keep and which laws to break. For according to James, the violation of one law is a violation of all of them. [Leviticus 4:2; Deuteronomy 27:26; Galatians 3:10] When James uses the word “law” here he means the Mosaic law given at Sinai for he goes on to quote from two of the Ten Commandments. One is either law-abiding or one is a law-breaker. In the absolute sense if one breaks any law he cannot say he is law-abiding for he has broken law. In the contractual sense the people of God agreed at Sinai, “All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.” If they broke one law they had failed in their covenant promise. [Exodus 19:8 LXX]
This is Paul’s argument also. It is not the same as modern law where there are varying degrees of guilt for misdemeanors and felonies. And here James is not discussing equal punishment for law-breaking -- he is arguing the abstraction that a single slip in the slightest point makes one a transgressor and that is all there is to that. So in this absolute sense “There is no one who does good perfectly.” [Romans 3:12] An illustration would be man who is in prison for committing a crime. In matters not to the average person why this man is in prison -- he is a prisoner because he is a law-breaker, whether extortion or murder -- the result is the same; and, in the mind of society he is just a prisoner.
The law made allowances for accidental mistakes and there were sanctifying actions one could take even in some capitol offenses. The subject before James is the rich and their transgression of the single law he stated, “You must love your neighbor.” These rich Jewish Christians, by violating this single law were shown to be transgressors of those laws that are based on this principle of neighbor love. For, neither murder nor adultery will occur where one has neighborly love.
James has already discussed these two points: the tongue and performing. The rich have transgressed with their tongue because they have set themselves up as wicked and critical judges. They have also violated the law of neighbor love by dishonor, oppression and judicial action against the poor. Though the Mosaic Law held the rich liable for the care of the poor there is no way to legislate this. But, these rich have come into a different set of rules and circumstances within the New Covenant. The subject or “doing” or becoming a “doer” and the use of the tongue is one James’ mind and he is moving toward the details
The rich are now members of a community which will be judged by a different set of standards including the principle stated in the law of neighbor love. No Jew could be punished or judged for failure to control his tongue in passing personal critical judgments on others as long as he did not openly lie or offer false testimony in court. He could not be judged or punished for withholding charity from those in need. But, now, not the law but the spirit of the law -- something taught by the Nazarene in his Mountain Teachings -- is the new basis for judging him.
The expression in Greek nomon eleutherias is unique to James and he has used a similar phrase already at James 1:25 -- nomon teleion ton tes eleutherias. Translators approach this phrase differently. The idea of a liberating law is taken up by Paul in Galatians 5:1, 13 and Galatians 6.2 where nomon and eleutheria are used. Paul infers the Law of Moses in a “yoke of slavery” because it is taken en toto with its law on circumcision. The “law of Christ” or the “kingly law” is based solely on Leviticus 19:18 -- love thy neighbor -- without the need of many scores of specifics. This law is defined elsewhere as ‘working what is good to your neighbor’. This law of the Christian community is highly liberating, or “the law of a free people” released from the burden and slavery of the Mosaic Law. This royal legislation is the basis for judging “those” who are a “free people” -- and this judgment comes from God.
Whereas under the Mosaic Law one was judged by the sanctions imposed by individual regulations and carried out under judicial examination by the appointed elders of the community, the “free people” in the New Israel of God will be judged either worthy of everlasting non-existence or immorality in the heavens. Paul often warns of this. [1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10]
James mentions the triumph of “mercy.” The Nazarene considered “mercy” as a “weightier matter of the Law of Moses” ignored by the Jewish hierarchy. The Greek eleos may mean compassion or pity, but generally it is used from the standpoint of “giving” or charity. For compassion and pity are useless without positive action toward the object of the mercy. The Latin root of mercy meant the gift or payment to mercenaries and is used here as kindness manifest to the poor. [Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says: "ELEOS 'is the outward manifestation of pity; it assumes need on the part of him who receives it, and resources adequate to meet the need on the part of him who shows it. . . . sympathy manifested in act.” The merciless will receive merciless judgment. [See notes on Matthew 7:1, 2.]
Those who refuse to give generously and share liberally will likewise receive nothing from God. [James 1:7] This spirit of victorious mercy is straight out of Proverbs: “He who has pity on the poor lends to Yahweh; He will reward him.
(Proverbs 19:17 WEB) The phrase “mercy is triumphant over (God’s) judgment” is straight out of the Mountain Teachings [Matthew 5:7] and the Lord’s Prayer. [Luke 11:4] The thrust of this is directed toward the rich as previously discussed by James [James 1:10, 27] and yet to be expanded upon in James 2:15, 16. Now, how does this all relate to faith? How does it bear on the subject of either a dead faith or a living faith? James continues with a compelling example:
JA2:14 My brothers, what is the profit if anyone says, “I have conviction,” but does not have works? Is just his conviction able to save him? JA2:15 [For example], if a brother or sister is living without adequate clothing and lacks daily food, JA2:16 and anyone of you says, “Go in peace. Keep warm and well fed” -- but do not give them their bodily necessities -- what is the profit? JA2:17 Just so, conviction without works is dead by itself.
James anticipates the defense of the rich person, “I have faith!” This is repeated in James 2:18 and it is likely James has in mind a real person or group of persons who have presented a view or objection. This person or group is most likely the rich who feel faith is sufficient and need not be accompanied by works of charity and humanity -- which is the subject under consideration. In modern times at the beginning of the 3rd Millennium there are some who call themselves “carnal Christians” and believe that God forgives them no matter their sin.
As in James’ day, these claim “I have conviction.” That is belief or faith. James does not define “faith” as does Paul [Hebrews 11:1] but the Greek pistis is simply trust. It was a word even used of credit in business so the rich ought to know something of this. “Faith” is a Lain root word and “trust” is OE drawn from dru or the oak tree. “Faith” is used 500 times and occurs first with regard to Abraham at Genesis 15:6, and most often in all Bible books it occurs 60 times in Romans and 17 times in James -- all but once in chapters 1 and 2.
In James 2:1 he has used “faith” with regard to Jesus Christ and he also uses it in connection with God at James 2:19. How one could reason faith could be separated from action is difficult to comprehend. However, there are millions of Christians in modern times who still think so. The subject of faith and works is a strong one in Paul and many think they have found a rift between James and Paul. Any close study of the two will show them in agreement. Judging from Acts the disciple, and congregational apostle, James -- brother of the Lord -- has Jewish roots as strong as Paul’s. But, Paul breathes of his effort to “become a Greek to win Greeks” though he is submissive to any attempt to also “remain a Jew to save Jews.” One should not struggle so hard to see a difference between the two rather than be aware of the two different audiences. Paul does not speak to a synagogue the same way he speaks to Greek philosophers. [Compare Acts chapters 13 and 17] We do not have a letter from James to a Greek audience to compare. In Paul “works” are largely a matter of the Mosaic Law and he also finally reduces this to the royal law of neighborly love. To James “works” are specifically limited to charity as James 2:16 shows. That faith and salvation are involved is shown by his phrase, “That faith cannot save him.” James writes years before Paul and Paul may be viewed as a clarification on any confusion presented in James.
James uses a practical example, perhaps an experience he actually knows about, or an observation he has made many times with regard to the rich. He has heard this and again he uses “a certain one” but the Greek “you” here is in the plural so this no single incident. The example is pure humanitarism and charity -- or lack thereof. The object of the need is a fellow believer -- a brother or sister -- and the need is immediate and serious. This is not a case of taking care of someone long-term but that requirement for that particular day. The Greek is different from Matthew 6:11 but the spirit is the same -- daily bread.
Whereas the rich will make great plans to make profits over the period of a year in a distant city they do not respond to the daily needs of those whom they profess to be related to in the faith. John uses a similar example in 1 John 3:17, 18, “For example: if any of us has this world’s resources for maintaining life and is aware that another Christian is in need and yet slams shut the doors of his tender affections -- how is it possible that God still loves that person? My little children, make it your habit to always show loving concern, not in speech or words only, but in positive and real action.” Both James and John seem familiar with the parable of the sheep and goats. [See notes on Matthew 25:31-46]
James writes of the same subject as Paul. [1 Corinthians 13:2, 3] It is interesting, James does not amplify or attach additional riders to this simple demonstration of faithful works. For example, he does not clarify by saying, “Of course, the most important act of charity is providing for one’s spiritual needs.” Nor does he once launch into a desertion on the disciple-making commission of Matthew 28:19. Here he is dealing with those within the Christian community and their urgent material needs. This is the same spirit of Galatians 6:10 and Romans 12:13. [See Nazarene Commentary 2000© notes on 1 Thessalonians 1:3; Titus 3:8; 1 Corinthians 13:2; Job 31:19-23; Isaiah 58:7; Matthew 25:35-36; Luke 3:11; Deuteronomy 15:7, 8]
The rich person with the worldly where with all upon observing a Christian
brother or sister in need responds with a “go in peace,” or “good luck to
you.” [NEB] In modern times this is a, “Well, I hope you find something.”
The idea is present in Proverbs 3:27, 28, “Don't withhold good from those to
whom it is due,
When it is in the power of your hand to do it. Don't say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, Tomorrow I will give it to you,’ When you have it by you.” [WEB] Such a person who violates this “kingly law” is in danger of eternal extermination as the Nazarene shows in his parable of the sheep and goats. [Matthew 25:31-46]
And so, James has not linked the rich with his main theme, “Conviction without works id dead.” Faith is dead without positive action. Dead faith is unconscious, sleeping, lifeless, non-existent. It may be active in other areas but if faith forgets basic human need and dignity it is completely worthless and will make no impression on God Almighty. The Father is the epitome of charitable caring as the Nazarene teaches [Matthew 5:45] and any who profess to be His worshippers must be characterized by those attributes of the kindly Samaritan. [Luke 10:33] See Nazarene Commentary 2000© on Deuteronomy 15:7, 8; Matthew 7:22, 23; Luke 3:11; Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 5:14; 1 John 3:17. But, James faces one last justification or rationalization in the self-deception of the rich Christian.
JA2:18 Now, someone will argue, “You have conviction and I have works. Show me your conviction without the works and I will show you my conviction from my works.” JA2:19 You do well if you believe that The God is One. Even the demons believe and shudder. JA2:20 O shallow man, are you unwilling to realize that conviction without works is fruitless. JA2:21 Was our father Abraham not pronounced innocent without works, having offered up his son Isaac upon the altar? JA2:22 You observe that the conviction was working together with Abraham’s works and by these works the conviction was completed. JA2:23 And so the Scripture was fulfilled which said, “And Abraham believed and it was accredited to him for righteousness,” [Genesis 15:6] and, “God’s friend,” [Isaiah 41:8] he was called.
A certain person shows up again, probably the same fellow, type or class of James 2:14 and probably representing the rich for the only justification in clinging to his wealth is to convince himself that faith is enough. He does not feel the need follow the Nazarene’s teaching at Luke 12:33, and elsewhere, and give to his poor brothers. [Galatians 5:6; James 3:3]
This is a real objection known to James or he anticipates it as an argument in favor of the sufficiency of belief alone. Actually this argument is fallacious for the rich man does not have works as he claims. He says to James, “You have faith,” and claims, “I have works,” as he creates a straw-man argument. He claims to be a show-me person: “Demonstrate to me belief without works and I will demonstrate my belief by works.”
James’ response is “You believe that The God is One.” [Deuteronomy 6:4] This is not an atheist as the rhetorical question indicates. Nor is this a polytheist or agnostic? Nor is this a Trinitarian like an Egyptian. James does not ask if this “certain one” believes in Jesus the Nazarene. Since from the outset it is apparent James is writing to Jewish Christians the question regarding “one God” is highly appropriate. Every Jew was familiar with and repeated often the anthem of Israel -- the Shema -- “Jehovah our God is one Jehovah.” [Deuteronomy 6:4] This person is commended for his belief in one God; however, as pointed out, “the demons believe and shudder from fear.” This later phrase is unique to James. The demons have pisteuousin -- a word rooted in pisti for faith or belief. So even the demons have faith! After all they have first-hand experience about God from their previous state. The sense of their trust or belief is shown in their fear when demons beg Jesus not to send them into the abyss or suggest the Nazarene will “torment” them before the due time.
James begins to conclude by addressing this rich Jewish Christian as a “hollow man.” That is a shallow or empty man. This “certain one” is now a man of kene or emptiness, and James drives his point home: “faith without works is dead.” He proceeds with his Scriptural argument based on the case of Abraham.
James has now shown that the rich person who refused to assist the poor and needy has a dead faith. The Christian with the means to help others and refused to sacrifice his or her wealth has an inactive, ineffective, worthless faith that amounts to nothing. So now James moves on to proving Biblical this powerful assertion. He says that “conviction without works [of charity] is fruitless.” [Or, AMP: is inactive and ineffective and worthless; GDSP: without good deeds amounts to nothing; NEB: divorced from good deeds is barren.] One who is convinced about something usually has no trouble expressing an opinion or even trying to convince others. Paul expresses himself this way, “I believed and therefore I spoke.” [2 Corinthians 4:13] According to both Jesus and James the most important element of faith is charity.
James will give two examples. The first is Abraham. It is noteworthy that Abraham is called “our father” and this further supports the view the audience is of Jewish roots. This is a claim made by the Pharisees, "Our father is Abraham." [John 8:39] It is a subject they know about -- Abraham. [It is possible James foresees Paul’s “Abraham, the father of all those having faith” including non-Jews. James refers to the offering up of Isaac and states it was after this event Abraham was justified by this action or works.
This initially presents an interesting problem. The expression “count it to him as righteousness” occurs at Genesis 15:6, “And he put faith in Jehovah; and he proceeded to count it to him as righteousness.” It is not Abraham but Abram and the occasion is much earlier -- at least 25 years or more earlier. It is upon that occasion described in the Genesis account, after having left Ur and traveled to Canaan. [Romans 4:10-12, 18-21; Hebrews 11:8] Abraham is circumcised after his name change and the making of his covenant with God at the age of 99. How is it James could use this argument for works when, as Paul argues, it was a justification based on faith and not on works, for the “work” James mentions had not occurred and would not occur for another 25 years? One answer would be a telescopic view in which the original justification for faith was fully realized or perfected when the seed finally arrived in fulfillment of God’s promise and upon Abraham’s attempt to offer up his son. Thus, Abram’s initial faith in God’s promise was put to the test with the action of offering up Isaac. By this that initial faith was proven beyond a doubt. So, it says at Hebrews 11:17, “In faith when Abraham was tested he approached with Isaac and offered up the only-begotten - the very one who had received the promises.” The “test” was of the initial faith so in this sense that justification which occurred in the original uncircumcised state takes on a more perfected meaning -- which is what James 2:22 suggests -- and James telescopes his view without a contradiction. He sees the altar event as the real culmination of Abraham’s faith and also the complete and mature justification that ushers Abraham into “friendship” status with God.
Thus, “by these works the conviction was completed.” [Or, KJV: by works was faith made perfect; RHM: became full grown; NEB: and that by these actions the integrity of his faith was fully proved.] Though James has given charity as an example of living faith, Abraham’s works involved two major actions: a) He left Ur and traveled to Canaan; and, b) He offered up his son. It is only after such solid evidence that Abraham became “God’s friend.” [Compare 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8] It is thus that the ancient patriarch was possessed of a living faith.
Finally, James gives a second example of how works affirm or validate one’s faith. He speaks of the prostitute Rahab, a non-Hebrew.
JA2:24 You observe that a human is pronounced innocent by works and not just conviction alone. JA2:25 And just so, also, was not Rahab the prostitute pronounced innocent by works, having received the messengers and then sent them out by another way? JA2:26 Therefore, just as the body without pneuma is dead, so also, conviction without works is dead.
James concludes his premise or affirmation that “a human is pronounced innocent by works and not just conviction alone.” [Or, TCN: you see, then, that it is as a result of his actions that a man is pronounced righteous; WMS: you see that a man is shown to be upright by his good deeds.] When viewed from a knowledgeable perspective of Paul’s writings, there is no contradiction here. One cannot insist there was no disagreement at all between those in the Church who wished a continuing Jewish legalistic influence and those who saw a growing non-Jewish influence. We note after chapter 15 in the book of Acts that Peter vanishes and there seem two stellar individuals: James and Paul. Romans 4:5 may be understood to refer to works of the Law in an attempt to be justified by self-righteous efforts. Paul is to echo the Nazarene: “If you are the children of Abraham, continue to do the works of Abraham.” [John 8:39; Romans 4:13] By this Jesus likely means “works [of faith]” such as Abraham had.
James gives “Rahab the prostitute” as his second example. Rahab had already heard the news regarding the Israelites and their escape out of Egypt. [Joshua chapter 2] She had heard of YHWH and had a basis for her faith. Rahab becomes a forebear of the Messiah. (Ruth 4:20-22; Matthew 1:5, 6) Rahab is one of only two women named by Paul as examples of faith. [Hebrews 11:30, 31] And this faith was manifest by hospitality and charity, just as James argues above.
Thus, a person may have faith, but it may be dead, inactive, ineffective faith. James analogy is with the human body, “As the body without breath is dead, so faith without works is dead.” [Compare Psalm 146:4 and Ecclesiastes 3:19-21.] even speaking from a human, earthly standpoint, people who are convinced of something, or believe in something, are moved by such conviction to speak to others about it and to let such belief move them to goodness.
The professing Christian who claims a saving faith must also produce saving works. And this, according to Jesus, Paul and James is made most manifest in works of charity and hospitality. For the parable of the Nazarene regarding the sheep and goats confirms that those who are righteous and inherit the Kingdom are those who observe a humanitarian need and react positively; while, those who are cut off forever from God’s grace and blessings - having ignored the needs of their spiritual fellows - share the fate of the Devil and his demons. [Matthew 25:31-46]
May our Lord Jesus see in you a reflection of himself in that you continually follow a course of loving kindness to others and thus prove your faith is not dead but living.
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
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