THE CONTEXT: This book was written with Jewish readers in mind--people of modest means who were oppressed by the rich, who dragged them before the courts (2:6)--and blasphemed "the honorable name by which (the believers were) called" (2:7)--and kept back the wages of believers (5:4). James counsels patience, and calls them to remember that the Lord will ultimately set things right. The author opened by identifying himself only as James (1:1), traditionally believed to be James the brother of Jesus who came to lead the Jerusalem church. He identifies the recipients of the latter as "the twelve tribes which are in the Dispersion" (1:1)--literally meaning Jews living outside Israel. However, 1 Peter uses the word Dispersion metaphorically to refer to Christians living in "Pontus, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1 Peter 1:1), and that is likely the meaning here. James addresses their temptations, saying, "Count it all joy," because "the testing of your faith produces endurance" (vv. 2-3). He counsels prayer for wisdom, prayed in faith without doubts (vv. 5-8). He counsels the poor to "glory in (their) high position"--and the rich to assume the humility appropriate to their mortality (1:9-11). Then he returns to the issue of temptation, pronouncing a blessing on those who endure temptation, because they "will receive the crown of life" (v. 12). He counsels them not to think of temptations as being sent by God, because God "tempts no one" (v. 13). Verse 15 sets up a parallel with verse 18 when it says, "lust, when it has conceived, bears sin: and the sin...brings forth (Greek: apokueo) death. In verse 18, he says that God "brought us forth (apokueo) by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures." The contrast, therefore, is between the offspring of sin (death) and the offspring of God (first fruits of God's creatures).
JAMES 1:17-18. HE BROUGHT US FORTH
17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
"Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above" (v. 17a) This would better be translated, "Every generous giving and every perfect gift is from above." James' interest here is to show that God is good. Therefore, the gifts sent to us by God are good rather than evil. As noted above, he has already stated that God "tempts no one" (v. 13).
"coming down from the Father of lights" (v. 17b). The phrase, "Father of lights," takes us back to the creation, where "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" (Genesis 1:3)--and God creating the great lights of the heavens (Genesis 1:14-18).
Light and darkness are used in both Old and New Testaments as metaphors for a series of opposites: good and evil--order and chaos--security and danger--joy and sorrow--truth and untruth--life and death--salvation and condemnation (Isaiah 5:20; John 3:19-21; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:17-18).
In the conflict between light and darkness, light always wins. Darkness can never dispel light. Light always dispels darkness.
"with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow" (v. 17c). We think of the sun, moon, and stars as ever faithful--the North Star will always lead us rightly. But the heavenly lights are often obscured by clouds or eclipse, and might not present themselves when we need them most.
God is not like that. God is unchangeable--never given to eclipse. He is accessible to us by day and night,
through times both good and bad, even in life and in death.
"Of his own will" (v. 18a). The sense we get here is of a deliberate, resolute God carrying out his creative vision. It is as if we were watching a gifted artist at work, making something out of a bare canvas--or a brilliant medical researcher, determined to bring health out of illness. There is a nose-to-the-grindstone determinedness behind God's creation work.
"he brought us forth (Greek: apokueo) by the word of truth" (v. 18b). As noted above, verse 15 set up a parallel with verse 18 when it said, "lust, when it has conceived, bears sin: and the sin...brings forth (Greek: apokueo) death. In verse 18, he says that God "brought us forth (apokueo) by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures." The contrast is between the offspring of sin (death) and the offspring of God (first fruits of God's creatures).
"that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures" (v. 18c). God required the Israelites to bring their first fruits as an offering to God (Exodus 23:19; Leviticus 23:9-10; Numbers 15:17-21; Deuteronomy 18:4; 2 Chronicles 31:5; Nehemiah 10:35). The idea behind the first fruits was that the first fruits of any harvest are especially valuable, because they represent something that we have had to do without for a period of time.
There is great joy in first fruits. Not only do they satisfy a real need, they also signal the end of winter--and tell us of more to come.
When James tells these believers in the very early church that they are the "first fruits of (God's) creatures," he is letting them know that they are special--that God finds exceptional pleasure in them, even as we find exception pleasure in the first ripe tomato of the season. These believers are not only precious to God, but they also signal the beginning of a great harvest--a church that will spread the news of Jesus to every corner of the world.
JAMES 1:19-20. SWIFT TO HEAR, SLOW TO SPEAK, AND SLOW TO ANGER
19 So, then, my beloved brothers, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man doesn't produce the righteousness of God.
"So, then, my beloved brothers" (v. 19a). A literal translation would be, "My beloved brothers, know this." This phrase signals that something important follows.
"let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak" (v. 19b). What wonderful advice! People hunger for someone who will listen to them. We prize listeners. The late Dr. Joyce Brothers, the psychologist and television personality, said: "Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery.... If you want to influence someone, listen to what he says.... When he finishes talking, ask him about any points that you do not understand. Then tell him what it is you want and point out the areas where you are in agreement and those where you do not agree. He will be flattered that you have listened intently, that you take him seriously, and that you truly want to understand his position."
Could the same listening counsel be true for prayer? We think of prayer as talking to God, and that is legitimate. But prayer can also be listening quietly for God to speak to us. One way to listen is to read a passage from the Bible, and ask God to help you to understand how that passage applies to you--and then listen prayerfully for the answer.
The late Frank Laubach, the Christian missionary who developed the "Each One Teach One" literacy program, said: "The trouble with nearly everybody who prays is that he says "Amen" and runs away before God has a chance to reply. Listening to God is far more important than giving Him your ideas."
"and slow to anger" (v. 19c). Again, excellent advice! Quick-tempered people are also likely to be quick to speak--and to do so in a manner that hurts others, damages relationships, and (ironically) hurts their chances of getting what they want. The humorist, Will Rogers, said, "People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing." And so they do.
But James doesn't absolutely prohibit anger. Anger is sometimes appropriate--we call it righteous indignation. Jean Baptiste de la Salle advises, "There is a holy anger, excited by zeal, which moves us to reprove with warmth those whom our mildness failed to correct." But "slow to speak" (v. 19b) still applies. We will almost always accomplish more by measured words and actions than by flying off the cuff in anger.
"for the anger of man doesn't produce the righteousness of God" (v. 20). Quick anger is likely to produce sinful words and actions--the opposite of the righteousness of God.
JAMES 1:21-22. BE DOERS OF THE WORD
21 Therefore, putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with humility the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deluding your own selves.
"Therefore, putting away (Greek: apotithemi) all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness" (v. 21a). "Therefore" connects this verse with verses 19-20, which suggests that James considers overly quick speech and anger to be filth and wickedness.
Apotithemi means to renounce or to lay aside or to put off. Believers are to play an active role in shedding moral filth and wickedness. We can (and should) pray for God's help in this challenging endeavor, but must also do our best to live holy lives.
Paul provides a strong rationale for putting away filthiness and wickedness. He says that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death, and like Christ were raised to a new life where filth and wickedness have no place (Romans 6:1-4).
"receive with humility the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (v. 21b). The "putting away" is just a first step. Once we have rid ourselves of filth and wickedness, we must fill the void by receiving with humility the implanted word.
The word "receive" makes it clear that, although we play a significant role in ridding ourselves of filth and wickedness, the implanted word is a gift from God. This is reminiscent of Jeremiah 31:33, where God says, "I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it."
It is also reminiscent of Matthew 12:43-45, where Jesus tells of an unclean spirit that decides to return to his original habitation. Finding it empty, the unclean spirit "goes, and takes with himself seven other spirits more evil than he is, and they enter in and dwell there. The last state of that man becomes worse than the first." That serves as a warning that we dare not leave our cleansed house empty, but must fill it with a Godly presence lest the original evil return to haunt us.
"But be doers of the word, and not only hearers" (v. 22a). We must go beyond hearing the word to doing it--living it. This is consistent with:
"deluding your own selves" (v. 22b). Those who hear God's word but fail to live it delude themselves. They think that their relationship with God is solid, but it isn't. In the final judgment, they will learn that they have failed the test.
Jesus said, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 5:20).
He also said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will tell me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, didn't we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?' Then I will tell them, 'I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity'" (Matthew 7:21-23).
JAMES 1:23-25. BLESSINGS FOR DOERS OF THE WORD
23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he sees himself, and goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and continues, not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in what he does.
"For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his natural face (Greek: to prosopon tes geneseos autou--his birth face or the face of his creation) in a mirror, for he sees himself, and goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was" (vv. 23-24). Scholars have spilled lots of ink trying to explain the significance of to prosopon tes geneseos autou (translated "his natural face" in this version).
I like to think of geneseos (birth or creation) in this verse as referring, not to the person's natural face, but to his reborn face as a follower of Jesus (see John 3:3; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 1:3). This person starts his day by looking at his face in the mirror and recognizing his identity as a child of God, but then proceeds into the whirlpool of daily life, gets caught up in worldly concerns, and forgets his Godly identity. He therefore fails to live according to his new spiritual identity--fails to proceed beyond hearing the word to living the word.
"But he who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and continues" (Greek: parameno) (v. 25a). This verse shows the other side of the coin--the person who hears the word, remembers it, and lives it.
Keep in mind that James wrote this book with Jewish readers in mind. When they saw "perfect law," they would naturally think of the Mosaic Law. However, the phrase, "the perfect law of freedom," moves the discussion into the Christian arena.
The Mosaic Law (613 commandments) prescribed in great detail exactly what a person could and could not do. The Talmud (thousands more rules) tried to specify the exact limits of commandments, such as limits on work on the Sabbath. Even Biblical scholars had problems remembering all the rules. The ordinary person, even if literate, had little access to the Biblical text and could have only a vague idea when he/she had transgressed the law. It was an impossible situation.
But Christ set us free by subjecting us to the rule of grace rather than the rule of law. He too gave commandments ("Love God...love your neighbor" Matthew 22:37-40), but was "full of grace" (John 1:14)--meaning that the transgressor who is also a believer can expect the blood of Christ to make him/her whole in God's sight.
"and continues" (parameno). The word parameno is composed of two words, para (with) and meno (remain), so it literally means "remains with." We say, "sticks with it." In this context, parameno means perseveres--continues.
"not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer of the work" (Greek: poietes) (v. 25b). In verse 22a, James spoke of "doers of the WORD," but here he speaks of "a doer of the WORK" (poietes). This person does a good work--a good deed--is not satisfied simply to hear the word, but acts in accord with the word.
The difference between the hearer and the doer is the difference between lip-service and service. It is the difference between empty discipleship and full commitment. It very well might be the difference between life and death. Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).
We need to hear this. We need to study God's word, but that isn't sufficient. We must also allow the word to reshape our lives. It is worth remembering that the demons knew who Jesus was, but failed to follow him. We must not make that mistake.
"this man will be blessed in what he does" (v. 25c). God will bless the person who allows the word to reshape his/her life so that he/she does good works.
JAMES 1:26-27. BLESSINGS FOR DOERS OF THE WORD
26 If anyone among you thinks himself to be religious while he doesn't bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man's religion is worthless. 27 Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
In these two verses, James takes the general principle--doing God's word, doing good works--and gives three examples of what that would entail:
"If anyone among you thinks himself to be religious while he doesn't bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man's religion is worthless" (v. 26). James has already counseled his readers to be "slow to speak" (v. 19)
In chapter 3, James will deal in great detail with the importance of words. He will liken the tongue to the bit in a horse's mouth that guides the horse's whole body (3:3)--and a rudder that directs the course of a great ship (3:4)--and a small fire that can threaten a great forest (3:5). He then says, "And the tongue is a fire" (3:6)--"set on fire by Gehenna" (3:6). He notes that every sort of animal is capable of being tamed, but not the tongue (3:7-8a). "It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (3:8b).
The person who fails to bridle his tongue fools himself ("deceives his heart"). His "religion is worthless." He worships in vain.
James doesn't use the word hypocrite here, but that word comes to mind. A hypocrite is a pretender--a person who appears to be someone other than who he/she really is. That can be acceptable on a stage where it is clear that the person is acting a role, but it is not acceptable in the spiritual arena.
Jesus said that hypocrites "say, and don't do." They "bind heavy burdens (on others), but "will not lift a finger to help them." They do their works "to be seen by men." They love public acclaim. They love being called Rabbi. They "devour widows' houses, and as a pretense ...make long prayers" (Matthew 23:1-13).
"Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction" (v. 27a). Christ expects us to have compassion for those who are unable to provide for their own needs. Widows and orphans are good examples, but many others are also vulnerable.
"and to keep oneself unstained (Greek: aspilos) by the world" (v. 27b). The word aspilos combines a (without) and spilos (blemish or spot). Christ needs our moral conduct to be such that it honors his name. He was without spot or blemish, and calls us to walk in his moral footsteps.
"by the world" (Greek: kosmos). We live in a kosmos world--a world opposed to God--a world that is often demonic--a world that tempts us to think thoughts and to perform acts that threaten to undo us and to separate us from God.
God loves this kosmos and sent his Son to save it (John 3:16), but the kosmos won't be fully redeemed until Christ comes again. We need to resist the pull of the kosmos world toward those things that would bring dishonor us and compromise our witness to Christ.
JAMES 2:1-4. DON'T SHOW PARTIALITY
1 My brothers, don't hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with partiality. 2 For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in; 3 and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing, and say, "Sit here in a good place;" and you tell the poor man, "Stand there," or "Sit by my footstool;" 4 haven't you shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
"My brothers, don't hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with partiality" (v. 1). A better translation would be "My brothers, don't show favoritism as you hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ."
When James says "the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ," is he speaking of the faith that Jesus possessed--or the faith that believers have in Jesus. Probably the latter, but we can't determine that with certainty.
"For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in; and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing, and say, 'Sit here in a good place;' and you tell the poor man, 'Stand there,' or 'Sit by my footstool;'" (vv. 2-3). We are tempted to show partiality to wealthy or powerful people, sometimes out of respect, sometimes out of fear, and sometimes in the hope that the wealthy or powerful person will donate money or help us in some other way.
But subservience isn't the only special treatment reserved for the wealthy and powerful. Angry people sometimes go to great lengths to show disdain for high status people.
From the standpoint of the Christian faith, both of those approaches are in error, because both respond to the wealth or power rather than to the person.
God shows no partiality, but "without respect of persons judges according to each man's work" (1 Peter 1:17; see also Job 34:19; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Galatians 2:6).
The Torah (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 10:17; 16:19), the Psalms (82:2), and the prophets (Isaiah 3:9; Malachi 2:9) forbid showing partiality.
Jesus rebuked powerful scribes and Pharisees, not because they were powerful, but because they used their power for self-serving purposes.
"haven't you shown partiality (Greek: diakrino) among yourselves" (v. 4a). The word diakrino combines two words, dia and krino.
In this context, diakrino means to make judgments, to categorize people by class, and to respond to them according to their class.
"and become judges (Greek: kritai) with evil thoughts?" (v. 4). Note the similarity between dia krino and kritai. Krino is the verb form for judging, and kitai is the noun for judge. As noted above on verse 3, the Torah, the Psalms, and the prophets forbid showing partiality. The person who divides people into classes and tailors his/her response to those person according to their class is guilty of violating Jewish law forbidding judges to show partiality (Leviticus 19:15). What does James mean by "evil thoughts"? There are many possibilities. A person who shows partiality to the rich might be guilty of coveting the rich person's money--and wanting to find a way to get some of it. Or he might be guilty of hating the rich person and condemning him without cause.
James 1:19-27 - The Relation Between Word and Deed
19 This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. 26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
God sends adversity our way to perfect us, as James indicated in verses 2-4. Adversity reveals our deficiencies, and God graciously provides for our needs in times of trial, producing maturity and wholeness (without deficiency). While God uses adversity to perfect His saints, adversity often brings out the worst in men. Not only are we more prone to anger and harsh words, we may strike out in anger. No wonder James has already warned us about blaming God for tempting us (verses 13-18).
James has already assured us that when we lack wisdom and ask for it in faith, God will give it to us (verses 5-7). That wisdom will often come from the Word of God, but it may also come from those who can give godly counsel from the Word, often from those who have endured such affliction themselves (see 2 Cor 1:3-7). We should therefore be quick to hear and to heed godly counsel. Conversely, we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. How easy it is to "blow up" in times of adversity, saying and doing things that are foolish and hurtful.
Some people have learned that anger is a way of manipulating others. How many children today get their way by throwing a fit? Anger actually does work, in that it intimidates others, or makes them feel guilty, so that they give in to us in an unhealthy way. Human anger may produce sinful results, but James tells us that it will never achieve God's righteousness. The flesh never produces righteousness, and human anger is a manifestation of the flesh:
We have two choices as Christians. Either we may surrender to the passions of the flesh, which lead to death, or we may surrender to the implanted Word of God, which "is able to save our souls" (verse 21). James has just told us that it is the Word of God that was the instrument of our conversion; now he tells us that the Word of God is the instrument of our sanctification. As you can see, I understand the expression "able to save your souls" as a reference to the present aspect of our salvation. There is a past dimension (our initial conversion), a present dimension (our sanctification), and a future dimension -- our ultimate perfection (when we go to be with Him; see 1 John 3:2) - to our salvation.
Merely hearing God's Word is not enough. Even studying and comprehending great portions of the Bible is inadequate. The Bible is a book to be read, and practiced, just as our Lord taught. Jesus used very strong words when He rebuked the scribes and Pharisees. Perhaps the most common term He used to describe them was "hypocrites!" They said one thing and did another. They believed certain things to be true, but they did not act accordingly (see, Mt. 23:1-3). The Word of God exposes all of our sins, all of our weaknesses, all of our needs. If we are to be doers of the Word and not just hearers, then we must do something about those sins that our study of the Word reveals. To study the Word of God without applying it is useless and foolish. When we study God's Word and heed it, then we are blessed in what we do. If we do not apply the Word in our deeds, we miss much of God's blessing. James leaves us with just one specific area of personal application at this point (though he will take up the subject of the tongue later on - see chapter 3): keeping reign on our tongue (verse 26). We appear to be going back to verse 19 and to James' instruction to be "slow to speak."
First, James is about faith, and not just about works. Luther was wrong if he feared that James emphasized works to the exclusion of faith. James does have a lot to say about the relationship of faith and works, and rightly so. But what I wish to point out here is that James begins his epistle by talking about faith. Trials are a testing of our faith (1:3); and in order to obtain wisdom, we must ask God in faith (1:6). James does not talk about saints being saved by works, but about God giving us birth through the message of the truth (1:18). Let us never forget that James believes in salvation by faith every bit as much as Paul.
Second, there is no place in true religion for an "upper story faith." I fear that this is one of the great failings in the church today, especially for those of us who live in the "buckle of the Bible belt." How easy it is to intellectualize our faith, rather than to incarnate our faith. It is easier to study the Bible than to obey it. It is easier to debate points of theology than to evangelize our lost neighbors, or to care for widows and orphans who are in need. As Christians, we may make much "to-do" about the Word, but we often fail to do that which the Word clearly commands. Knowing God's Word is not enough. Doing God's Word begins with taking a good look at ourselves - seeing our own sins and weaknesses and dealing with them, and then moving on to look out for others.
Third, adversity is to be joyfully embraced as God's good work in our lives. It is clear from our text (and many others) that no adversity comes into the life of the Christian that has not been purposed by God. He does not allow us to suffer in order to destroy us, but to chasten and strengthen us. He promises to supply the wisdom we need to respond in a godly manner to our suffering. He assures us that our afflictions are for our good, as well as for His glory. For this reason, we are to rejoice in our afflictions. This is much easier to say than it is to do. How are you doing with adversity? When affliction comes your way, what is your response to it? Do you see it as from the hand of a loving God, purposed for your sanctification? Do you rejoice in it? Do you seek to learn what it is that God purposed to accomplish in your life through your trial?
Fourth, God is always to be praised for the blessings He gives, for all true blessings are from Him. These blessings include those things that are a source of pleasure for us, and those which are painful.
Fifth, God is never to be blamed for our failures in the midst of our afflictions. God tests us, seeking to purify and strengthen us; He does not tempt us. In the final analysis, temptation comes from deep within each of us. We never fail because God has not provided a way of escape (1 Cor, 10:13), but rather because we choose not to take it.
Sixth, there is a very important lesson for us to learn from James regarding suffering, prayer, and faith. How sad it is that some teach that God is obliged to deliver us from (or out of) suffering, if we simply have enough faith. How tragic it is to see someone in their last moments of life, agonizing about their lack of faith, because they have believed that God would deliver them if they only had the faith to believe and claim it.
BIBLE.ORG - COLE: Partiality is wrong because it usurps God's sovereignty, it aligns you with God's enemies, and it violates God's law of love.
1. Partiality is wrong because it usurps God's sovereignty (2:1-5).
James again addresses his readers as "my brethren" (1:2, 16, 19; 2:5, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 4:11; 5:7, 9-10, 12, 19). This shows that he is writing to professing Christians, not to the world. It reveals James' pastoral concern for them and it reminds them (and us) that we are brothers and sisters in the family of God. This is further underscored by James' mention of "your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ." It is faith in Christ that brings us all, whatever our backgrounds, into God's family as brethren. When James says, "do not," the Greek construction has the nuance, "Stop doing it." James had already observed this sinful practice taking place. He is writing to correct a problem before it grows worse. He shows two ways that partiality usurps God's sovereignty:
A. Partiality puts man as judge in the place of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ (2:1-4).
James opens with the command, that we not hold our "faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism." Then he illustrates it with a hypothetical scenario. Two men come into a church gathering (here called "synagogue," a carryover from their recent Jewish roots). One is obviously wealthy, as seen by his gold ring and fine clothes. The other is obviously poor, as seen by his shabby clothes. Someone in the church directs the wealthy man to the best seat in the house, whereas the poor man is told to stand out of the way, or to sit down on the floor. The rich man is given privileges because of his wealth, but the poor man is despised because of his poverty. Such treatment, James says, is evil.
Scholars debate over exactly how to translate the word "glorious." The New King James Bible, for example, translates it as "the Lord of glory." But however it is translated, it refers to the Lord Jesus Christ, ascribing to Him an attribute of God. James was familiar with Isaiah 42:8, where God says, "I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images." It would be idolatry to ascribe glory to a creature. Thus when James refers to the Lord Jesus Christ as "glorious," he is ascribing deity to Him.
This is one of only two references to Jesus Christ by name in this entire epistle (see 1:1), and so it should capture our attention. By focusing our attention on Jesus Christ in His glory, James addresses the problem of favoritism in two ways.
First, he gets us to see how petty our distinctions between the rich and poor (or any other distinctions) really are. Even the most powerfully rich men on earth are nothing compared to the glory of Jesus Christ, the King of kings. King Nebuchadnezzar thought that he was great, but God humbled him so that he ate grass like a beast of the field. When he came to his senses, he acknowledged that God alone is great (see Daniel 4, esp. vv. 34-37).
When we exalt men on account of their wealth or power or status, we rob glory from Jesus Christ, who sovereignly gives us everything that we are and have (1 Cor. 4:7). Rather than exalting the rich, we should exalt the supreme glory of Christ alone. We all are just His unworthy servants. Focusing on the glory of Christ puts us all in our proper place before Him. Of course we should grant honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7), but honor toward Christ and honor toward men are on two different planes.
Second, when James ascribes glory to the Lord Jesus Christ, it probably points to His coming in power and glory to judge the earth (Matt. 26:64; Peter Davids, Commentary on James [Eerdmans], p. 107). James will mention judgment at the end of his argument (2:12-13). In 2:4, he says that when we make distinctions among people based on outward factors, we set ourselves up as judges with evil motives (or, thoughts). We don't see the hearts of men, as God does (1 Sam. 16:7). To judge a man based on his outward appearance is to usurp the place of Jesus Christ in His glory as judge of all the earth.
We would be mistaken to conclude that James is saying that the rich are categorically bad and the poor are categorically good. Some rich men are very godly and some poor men are very evil. But James' point is that any judgments based on outward factors alone are wrong judgments, because they do not discern the heart. Only God can judge the heart, and so we are wrong to usurp His place as judge.
B. Partiality puts man as sovereign in the place of God who chooses (2:5).
James asks his readers to pay attention ("Listen"). He again addresses them as "my beloved brethren," and then asks a question that expects an affirmative answer: "Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?" Note the following:
First, the New Testament writers consistently assume that God chooses those who are saved apart from any merit or qualifications on the part of those chosen. Salvation is not offered to anyone on the basis of anything that God sees or foresees in that person. He does not choose the rich man to get his money for the kingdom. God does not choose the poor man because of his poverty. God does not choose those whom He foresees will one day trust in Him, because that would make salvation depend on something that originates in fallen man. God's choice is completely based on His grace and purpose (Rom. 9:11-16).
James does not stop here to explain or defend the doctrine of God's sovereign election. He assumes that his readers know and believe this, and so he uses it as a reason why they are wrong to favor the rich and despise the poor. When they do this, they align themselves opposite to God, who often chooses the poor to be rich in faith and leaves the rich to perish along with their wealth (James 5:1-6).
James is not teaching that God chooses all poor men for salvation and passes over all rich men. Rather, it was obvious in the early church that many more poor people had trusted in Christ for salvation, as compared to the rich. There were some rich people (Zaccheus, Nicodemus, Barnabas, Philemon, etc.), but the numbers were slanted toward the poor. That's why Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:26-29),
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.
Although there is no merit inherent in poverty, poor people often realize how short life is and thus see their need for eternal life more readily than the rich do. As Jesus explained after the encounter with the rich young ruler, it is hard for the wealthy to get into God's kingdom, because their riches usurp the place that belongs to God alone (Mark 10:17-27). It is those who are poor materially who are also often poor in spirit, recognizing their need for God's grace (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20). When God sent His Son to this earth, He chose a poor Jewish maiden to be His mother. Mary exulted (Luke 1:52-53), "He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent away the rich empty-handed."
By choosing those whom the world rejects and despises, God magnifies the riches of His grace. When James says that God chooses the poor "to be rich in faith," he means, rich in the sphere of faith. They have spiritual riches in Christ through God's sovereign, gracious choice, which brought them to faith in Him (as Paul argues in Eph. 1:3-14). God's choice makes them "heirs of the kingdom" (James 1:5). At the moment of salvation, they come under the reign of Christ in their hearts (Col. 1:13-14), but there remains in the future the fullness of that kingdom and its blessings, when Jesus returns in power and glory (Matt. 25:31-34).
When James says that God promised the kingdom "to those who love Him" (1:5), he is describing the result of salvation, not the means to it. Salvation is completely by God's grace and is received by faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9). But when God lavishes His grace on us, we respond by loving Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:7-10, 19).
So James' first argument is that partiality toward the rich and against the poor (or, partiality based on any external factors) is wrong because it puts us in the place of judge and it puts us in the place of God who chooses. By showing favoritism, we usurp the role that belongs to God alone, who makes sovereign choices.