An Exposition of James 2: 1-10
James is known for his succinct, relevant, and pointed teaching. James addresses only the very common and does so with great clarity and decisiveness. It was he who taught such truths as:
"But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves" (Jas. 1: 22); "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain" (1:26); "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not be faith only" (2: 24); "Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be" (3: 10); "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (4: 17), and "Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door" (5: 9).
Regarding the style of the Epistle of James, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says:
"The sentence construction is simple and straightforward .There is usually no good reason for misunderstanding anything James says. He puts his truth plainly, and the words he uses have no hidden or mystical meanings. His thought is transparent as his life."
The teaching resident in James 2: 1-10 is no exception to the rule. James began in verse one by challenging a too common inconsistent practice. He then provides an illustration to clearly set forth his meaning and then pronounces such a practice involving the rich and poor as sinful in no uncertain terms. The particular sin under consideration is the arbitrary exalting of the rich and degradation of the poor. James does not limit his cogent comments to the symptom, but he addresses the root cause: sinful judgement. I shall now present the text and then briefly comment on each verse.
"1: My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. 2: For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; 3: And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: 4: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? 5: Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? 6: But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? 7: Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called? 8: If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well: 9: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 10: For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all."
The teaching of verse one. James introduces the new theme of chapter two by addressing his readers as "brethren." The " faith of our Lord Jesus Christ" is not Jesus' personal faith (subjective), but the system of faith that Jesus presented (objectively viewed, cp. Jude 3, 2 Jn. 9-11). James often treats the matter of incongruity and shows that one cannot do two contradictory matters at the same time (cp. 3: 10-12). In the case of our study, James shows that one cannot correctly profess to be a Christian, subscribing to the faith producing teaching of Jesus and at the same time have sinful respect of persons. God distinguishes, but he bases his judgement on fact and not arbitrarily impetus (cp. Rom. 2: 6-9).
A study of verse two. James now introduces an example of what he is condemning. He presents a vivid picture of a man " coming into your synagogue ." "Synagogue" is from the Greek sunagogen, sun, with, and ago, to gather. Hence, literally to "assemble with." (Some scholars believe sunagogen is here used for the assembly itself rather than the material accommodation.) Two very different men are pictured as coming into the synagogue; a rich man and a poor man. Each man is dressed in typical fashion depicting their respective financial status: The rich man has a gold ring, goodly apparel and the poor man is wearing vile raiment (see also verse 3).
It appears that on occasion a man of wealth would visit the assembly of the saints but such was not common. The description " a man with a gold ring" is from the Greek aner chrusodaktulios and is literally rendered, "a gold ringed man!" The Greek also has the potential of describing a many ringed man. Hence, the Amplified Version reads, " whose hands are adorned with gold rings." The Greek word for "poor" is ptochos and is used to stress the poverty-stricken condition of a beggar (see W. E. Vine's comments on ptochos, see under "beg B," Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). James uses the Greek rupara estheti ("vile raiment," KJV). The language literally describes cheap and even perhaps dirty clothing. The antithesis is complete: Wealth and its trappings and extreme poverty and its appearance. James does not present the normal visitors to the assembly, but two people who were not the norm and thus stood out as conspicuously different.
Verse three. Verse three contains the different action directed toward the two different men. They say to the rich and the poor, "Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool." The "good place" (kalos hode) was a place of honor in the synagogue. The poor man was contemptuously given the choice of standing or sitting where they rested their feet. Such assignment was the product of having "respect," to gaze with favor upon (epiblepsete de epi) regarding the rich. They thus began to show the sinful respect of persons for which James condemns them and accuses them of being hypocrites.
Allow me to here inject that James' teaching is often abused when it is used to justify and even encourage the wearing of inappropriate clothing to the public worship assembly. In the first place, dress in the assembly is regulated as being that which is appropriate and orderly, reflective of soberness of thought, decent in nature, and avoiding emphasis simply on the outward (I Tim. 2: 9, see verses 8-15). Every culture has clothing that is generally deemed appropriate for different occasions, clothing that makes a statement relative to the occasion. To dress inappropriately for an occasion was considered an insult (cp. Matt. 22: 12). James' teaching does not apply to the average American wearing blue jeans, a sweatshirt, and tennis shoes to the Lord's Day assembly, thus promoting the casual climate. James mentioned the poverty stricken man who wore what he had, cheap clothing (also keep in mind that these men appeared to be visitors). It must also be appreciated that James' teaching is placed in the circumstance of not only comparison but also total opposites. Often accompanying the casual atmosphere that too often characterizes the public worship of God today is also a relaxed mental posture regarding God's appointments in general.
The charge of verse four. Based on their response to the rich and poor man, James states, "Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?" They made unwarranted distinctions and were thus wrong and the posture of the Greek grammar is such to call for an affirmative answer (see addendum).
The teaching of verse five. James captures our attention by beginning verse five with "hearken" (from the Greek akousate, meaning to give attention). Jesus taught that the Kingdom was especially designed for the "poor" (Lk. 6: 20). However, these to whom James wrote were denigrating the poor and arbitrarily exalting the rich. It must be understood that the poor are not chosen simply because of their financial condition, no more than the rich rejected because of their wealth (there are exceptions, notice that the poor are said to be "rich in faith" in James 2: 5). All have the same invitation and are called in precisely the same way, the gospel is God's means of calling (2 Thes. 2: 14). However, the poor often experience a special sense of needing God; while the rich are often complacent and self-dependant.
Verses six and seven. James said that, based on their treatment, they had "despised the poor." The word translated "despised" (etimasate) means more than to ignore. The idea is that of degradation and shame. The Bible teaches against such treatment of the poor and enjoins mercy (see Prov. 14: 21). James said, "But ye have despised the poor," and "you" is emphatic. The irony is that they so treated the poor and elevated the rich when, " rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?" Also, "Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?" The " worthy name by the which ye are called" is probably the name "Christian" (cp. Acts 11: 26, 26: 28, I Pet. 4: 16).
Verse eight, a principle that should result in respect for the poor. James said, "If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well" (cp. Matt. 22: 35-40). In so treating the poor, they certainly were not loving their neighbor, their neighbor included the poor.
Verse nine. Verse nine reveals the seriousness of their action of respect of persons. "But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors," James explains. There is no doubt about it, their action of respect of persons was a sin and made them transgressors of the law. The expression "commit sin" (ergazesthe hamartian) indicates a practice or condition.
Verse ten. These professing Christians who practiced respect of persons were not committing an inconsequential sin (there really is no such thing, Isa. 59: 1, 2). One cannot pick and choose which commandments they want to keep and refuse the others. James wrote, "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." Hence, by so shamefully treating the poor, they had placed themselves outside of law and were sinners!
The lesson for these people in the first century remains the same for Christians today: Christians must not judge and treat others simply based on shallow considerations. We must remember, " for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God" (Lk. 16: 15). While clothing does matter, the sin of James 2: 1-13 was respect of persons and consequent sinful treatment simply based on manifest extreme economic differences that existed on the part of the two visitors. (For additional reading, click on "God Pleasing Dress.")
Addendum: There are areas in which Christians are not judges and should not attempt to exercise judgement, especially improper judgement (Jas. 4: 11, 12). However, we must not ignore teaching that actually requires judgement on the part of the Christian, righteous judgement (Jn. 7: 24). Righteous judgement is applying the principles of God's word to a given situation, possessing the pertinent facts pertaining to the situation and then forming a decision and determination as to right or wrong (see the context of John 7: 24). Even in this circumstance, we must remember that there is only One Official Judge of all men (Jn. 5: 22, 2 Cor. 5: 10).