Scripture: James 2:1-25
- James is all, “Brothas, sistas, people who think Jesus is the coolest ever, you shouldn’t go around thinking that some people are cooler than others.”
- J-bomb then tells them that if some dude waltzes into church looking all swanky, and another dude shows up looking all raggedy, that they can’t say to the swanky dude, “Yo, we got box seats for you, front and center,” and to the raggedy dude say, “Uh… we have standing room only… in the back… next to the bathroom.”
- “If you think Jesus is the coolest,” Jim reminds them, “then you shouldn’t be impressed by how cool someone else is. You aren’t allowed to differentiate between peoples. You ain’t the judge of mankind, okay?”
- James reminds them that God started his kingdom with poor people. He sees those lacking in material goods as being rich in the right thing–belief in God.
- “Besides,” Jimmy goes on, “aren’t the fancy folk the ones exploiting you? They’re dragging you into court, suing you and what not, and they’re dissing Jesus every time they’re mean to you, because you represent the big man, and hurt to you is hurt to him.”
- J-dogg implores them to stick to the one true Law that Jesus exemplified – “Love yo’ neighbor as yo’ self.”
- “If you can’t respect everyone,” James says, “then your no better than a murderer, or a cheatin’ skank bag. Break one law, you broke them all. Sin is sin.”
- Follow Jesus’ commands, is James’ bottom line here. “God showed us mercy, so show it to everyone else in the same manner.”
- James then says, “What good is it to disconnect your beliefs and your actions? Can you really even say you believe something if you don’t act on it? Pshaw!”
- “Let’s say you run across a poor dude,” Jimbo rants, “and he’s all, ‘got any change? I’m hungry,’ and you’re like, ‘God bless you man,’ and move on–what good did you just do? This ain’t just about being nice, it’s about doing nice.”
- But James knows someone might be all, “I’m better at just intellectually understanding and thinking about faith, so I’ll do that part, and you can do the part that helps people.”
- “Oh no you didn’t” James would reply. “I’ll tell you what, you go ahead and display your dedication to God with just your thoughts. Go on now. Show me how much you believe. Oh, wait you can’t. But look, I can show you that I truly follow Jesus at any time. Just watch how I act day to day.”
- “You want to just believe?” James says. “Demons can do that. They believe the same thing you and I do. Yay for them. But you know what? They’re still demons because of how they act.”
- James then reminds his readers of Abraham’s story and that God said they were in a right relationship because when he asked Isaac to be sacrificed, Abe was willing to do it.
- James also reminds them of Rahab’s story and how a lowly, non-Jewish, hooker helped out God’s people in their time of need, and God thought that was awesome.
- Jay Jay closes out by saying, “You can’t tell me your faith is alive if you separate your actions and your thoughts any more than you can separate your soul and your body and still say it’s alive. They need to act as one, or they’re dead.”
This is the only place in the New Testament where the word synagogue is applied to the Christian church. James most likely used this term because he was writing to Christians who had been Jews, and synagogue would be the natural term they would’ve used to designate their congregation.2
However, the original, literal meaning of the word synagogue is “assembly” and had no religious overtones. For example, in Genesis 1:9, the term is used for the gatherings of water.6
Synagogues began during the Babylonian captivity (586–537 BC), when the Jews, devoid of the structure of the Temple, started to standardized their prayers and create individual houses of worship in whatever locale they found themselves. These “assemblies” allowed the Jewish people to maintain a unique identity and a portable way of worship wherever they lived, and continued to exist even after their return to Israel and reconstruction of the Temple.9
Early believers used the word synagogue for their assemblies, but as they grew apart from the beliefs of Judaism they started using the term “church” (Greek: ekklesia), which means “called out,” referring to the fact that they were called out from the world, distinct from other peoples. It is probable that early Christian meetings were modeled after the Jewish synagogue; but there were disadvantages in retaining the name due to the strong Jewish cultural associations it conveyed. Thus,they created a new name, a new identity, for their gatherings that better represented the ideas and practices of Christianity.2
According to the New Testament, demons wander desolate places, (Matthew 12:43,) dwell in the atmosphere, (Ephesians 2:2), have the power to work miracles, but not for good, (Revelation 16:14; John 10:21), are hostile to mankind (John 8:44), can prophecy (Acts 16:17), live in the idols of the pagans (1 Corinthians 10:20), and possess people’s bodies, afflicting them with various kinds of diseases (Matthew 7:22;;9:34; Matthew 10:8;; 17:18;; Mark 7:29-30;; Luke 4:33; 8:27,30).2
In describing the demons’ belief, James uses the phrase “you believe there is one God” to invoke the concept of the “Shema” to his audience. The Shema is, literally, the first two words of Deuteronomy 6:4, which encapsulates the monotheistic essence of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” Observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service in Judaism, and it is to be recited twice-daily.10 James says to his readers that the demons believe “rightly” as they, observant Jews, do. Demons are not atheists, agnostics or skeptics.2 They believe in the same God as Christians, and they believe the same things about God. Demons’ actions (or in-actions) as a result of their belief are what separate them from the saints, not their faith. James’ comparison here infers that a man’s isolated, intellectual assent to the truth is downright demonic.2
James also says the demons “shudder” as a result of their belief. The Greek word, “frissw,” occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It means, “to be rough, uneven; to bristle, to stand on end, as the hair does in a fright; to shudder or quake with fear.”2 Their shuddering is likely the result of knowing their fate for disobedience to God, a reaction that James implies his readers should have if they believe as the demons do.
James vs. Paul
Many have observed that Paul and James appear to be at odds in their statements about faith and salvation.
James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (Js 2:14); and, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone,” (Js 2:24); and, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead,” (Js 2:26).
On the other hand, Paul says, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight,” (Romans 3:20); “We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” (Romans 3:28); “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ,” (Galatians 2:16).2
In addition, both Paul and James refer to the same Old Testament scripture to illustrate their views–the justification of Abraham (Gen. 15:6). Paul refers to it to prove that justification is wholly by faith. “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness,”(Romans 4:1-3). And James refers to it to prove that justification is by works: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?”(James 2:21-22).2 Though it is interesting to note that though the scripture referenced is the same, the events in Abraham’s life that they use to prove their case are about twenty years apart–Paul mentioning Abraham’s covenant with God and James talking about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac.
Scholars have reconciled these statements a few ways:
- Paul is likely discussing what happens before an individual is converted, James afterwards.2 Paul says that a man cannot be saved by his actions. James is saying that a saved man is known by his actions. Paul is saying faith in Jesus is the only thing that makes you right with God. James is saying, how can a man be right with God unless his life displays God-like qualities?
- Paul is referring to works of the Mosaic Law (not only rituals but any act of obedience to God’s commands to Moses), whereas James is referring to moral actions flowing naturally from genuine faith.5 Paul is particularly focused on arguing that circumcision is not a condition that has to be met prior to a person being saved, while James is concerned with the expressing that inward faith and its outward expression must be unified not fragmented.
- Paul and James more often say the same thing about how believers need to live out their faith in ways that align with their beliefs. For example, Paul says, “[We were] created in Christ Jesus to do good works,” (Ephesians 2:10); “Charge them that are rich that they be rich in good works,” (1 Timothy 6:17-18); “In everything set them an example by doing what is good.,” (Titus 2:7); “[Jesus Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good,” ( Titus 2:14); “those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good,” (Titus 3:8).2
- Paul is talking about salvation, but James is talking about spiritual maturity. James implies that Abraham’s faith was made complete (perfected) by what he did. This is one of James’ themes up to this point (Js. 1:14). As Paul says, Abraham was credited with righteousness prior to his circumcision (Gen. 15), but as James says, God’s declaration that Abraham was righteous was proved real when Abraham acted on his faith and offered Isaac to God (Gen. 22).2
- James calls them “brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” to remind them that faith in Christ is what brings us all, whatever our backgrounds, into God’s family at the same level.3
- James talks about our belief in the “glorious Jesus” to contrast his next statements about the “glories” of the rich (gold rings and fine clothes). James is saying that instead of exalting the rich, we should exalt Christ alone. Focusing on the glory of Christ puts us all in our proper place.3
- James continues his discussion on a believers’ divided loyalties in chapter 1 by bringing up the concept of judgment in chapter 2. In chapter 1 James says doubters asking for wisdom are divided internally, and in chapter 2 that Christians who practice favoritism are divided relationally. Doubters are making a judgment whether God will or will not give what is needed; Christians who practice favoritism are making a judgment between the value of the rich person and the value of the poor person. The corrective for both is to be single-minded.5
- The implication in James 1:10-11 is that wealth leads one to become poor in faith because it gives one a false sense of security. In James 2:5 the author is observing that God generally starts with the poor, that there is a longstanding Old Testament tradition of God’s care for the poor (ex. Deut 10:18), and that it is the prevalent economic situation of his readers.5
- In 2:7, James says the rich people are blaspheming the name that, literally translated, “has been called upon you.” Bearing a name implied a relationship with the person whose name you bore, therefore abuse of Christians equates to abuse of Jesus. James concludes that when Christians practice favoritism, they are essentially helping others heap abuse on Jesus.5
- The “law of liberty” is a reference to the teaching of Jesus, not the Old Testament Law. It is likely called the “law of liberty” because of its stark contrast with the Law of Moses, which the apostles called, “a yoke of bondage.” With Jesus there are only two ceremonies initiated, baptism and the Lord’s supper; and one of those (baptism) needs to be observed only once in a lifetime, and the other may be observed anywhere on earth. In Jesus, there is only one sacrifice to be made for sins–himself, on the cross. And with Jesus, entry to the kingdom is free to all, at their own will. By contrast, the Law of Moses required all worshipers to go up to Jerusalem to worship, offer countless animal sacrifices of Moses’ law and was restricted to those of Jewish heritage or conversion to their nationality.6
- James says, “show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works,” to demonstrate that we can’t “see” someone’s faith, but we can see their works. You can’t see faith without works, but you can demonstrate the reality of faith by your actions.5
- James is saying that without good works a person’s faith in God is useless, not nonexistent. Useless(Greek: argos), here means, “ineffectual, idle, unemployed.”8
- James says that Abraham’s faith and actions “worked together,” literally “cooperated,” to make God’s declaration of Abraham’s right standing with him complete.
- James may have used Abraham (the father of the Jews) and Rahab (a sinful Gentile) to subtly reinforce his rebuke of the partiality that developed between Jewish Christians and Gentile believers.7
- James uses the lesson of Abraham to reinforce that if we believe in God, we will do what he tells us to do; and Rahab to remind us that if we believe in God, we will help his people, even at our own expense.7
- James uses Abraham and Rahab to argue that “true religion” is not designed to be a cold abstraction; it is to be a living and vivifying principle.2
- James reminds us that good works are normal for a Christian, but they are not automatic or inevitable.8
- Impartiality is highly valued by God. How impartial are we? Who do we hold in high regard in the church? Who is neglected? Do we treat the rich and powerful different than the poor? Does our church system naturally favor the wealthy and exclude the poor? How has our culture influenced our understanding of who does/doesn’t have value?
- Paul and James seem to say different things about faith and works (see discussion above). What are the similarities/differences in their statements? What is the difference between being saved and acting saved? Why does James connect faith and actions as being a sign of true maturity? How mature are we by this standard? What more do we need to “do” to properly show what we “believe”?
- James says faith separated from one’s actions is like the spirit separated from the body–dead. Is your faith alive or dead? What about our church? On James’ scale of belief from demons to Abraham, where are we?
- Mackervoy’s commentary
- Barnes’ commentary
- Cole’s commentary
- Hawkins’ commentary
- IVP commentary
- Coffman’s commentary
- Guzik’s commentary
- Constable’s commentary
- History of the Synagogue