an image of the first page of the letter to James in the Bible

An Overview of James Chapter 2: Maturity in Unprejudiced Grace

James 2 continues the theme of maturity presented at the beginning of the book. When James opens his letter, he challenges his readers to view trials as opportunities to grow rather than obstacles to lament. He asserts that every trial we overcome helps us mature as Christians. Enduring them makes our faith and relationship with our Savior all the stronger. This maturity leads us to put our faith into action, and James says we are blessed when we look into the perfect law of liberty and then do what we find there.

This theme transitions directly into the thoughts of James 2. When we put our faith into action, we will lose all prejudice and learn to treat others with grace and fairness regardless of any worldly differences that might otherwise separate us.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1–13: Letting Go of Prejudice

My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

James 2:1–4

The Sin of Discrimination

The first way we put our faith into action is by letting go of our prejudices. Most translations read “favoritism” in verse 1, but what James describes comes down to prejudice. In this book, James uses economic status as the basis for prejudice, but we could replace this with any form of discrimination, and it would work just as well. A Latino man versus a white man, a homeless mom versus a business person, a gay person versus a straight person, a pacifist versus a veteran, a Democrat versus a Republican — if we make one person in any of these pairings feel less welcome in our congregations, then we are showing the exact prejudice that James describes.

This is not to say we never deal with sin. This is not to say we never teach about difficult or controversial topics. But anyone should feel welcome and cared for among Christians. How can we ever hope to bring people to Christ if we discriminate against them? When we do so, we betray the righteous judgment Christ says we ought to exercise in John 7:24, and we become judges with evil thoughts, pushing people away from salvation based on our own fears and mistrust. James does not mince words here. In verse 9, he says that we commit sin when we discriminate. This is not a matter of opinion. It is not a matter of politics or cultural preservation. It is sin.

The Cure for Prejudice

The cure is in verse 8 — love your neighbor as yourself. Verse 13 says mercy triumphs over judgment. If we start with love and mercy as a foundation, then it’s easier to let go of our prejudices. When we see each other as God sees us — as souls in need of His grace — then we can be gracious to each other and look past whatever differences that may otherwise come between us. This takes effort, however.

  1. We have to admit to our prejudices. I cannot make any progress if I am unwilling to admit that I have indeed discriminated at times. If someone accuses me of being racist, my initial temptation is to dig my heels in and deny it. But I have to objectively look at the facts. This may begin by simply asking the other person what I did wrong. If I am unwilling to self-examine, then I am like the person in James 1 who looks in the mirror and forgets their face. I have to be brutally honest with myself.
  2. We have to unlearn our prejudices.We all have learned prejudices. Once we acknowledge them, then we can correct our course. We can talk to others to see how we can do better. We can get to know those we’re tempted to fear or distrust. We may also have to turn away from TV, internet, and radio personalities who fuel and reinforce prejudice. I cannot say I am trying to overcome lust while keeping a folder of porn sites to visit; nor can I overcome racism while listening to influences that fuel hatred and fear. I have to unlearn the old to learn a better way.

Paul addresses this issue in the context of baptized believers in Galatians 3:27–29; in contrast, James applies the principle more broadly. Still, I wonder how Galatians would look different if updated for today’s challenges.

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no American or foreigner, citizen or immigrant, patriot or protestor; male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.

Verses 14–26: Faith in Action

James bookends his thoughts on discrimination with putting our faith into action. Essentially, he’s saying, “Learn God’s word and do it. Actively resist discrimination. Put your faith into action.” If that doesn’t emphasize the importance of overcoming our prejudices, I don’t know what does. This is one of the works that shows we have a faith in Jesus Christ, and James makes it clear that faith and action are symbiotic.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.

James 2:14–17

Faith and Action

James uses a simple illustration to show how faith and action work hand-in-hand — providing for those in need. If I see someone in need, and I just give the traditional thoughts and prayers platitude, what good have I done that person? Yes, I should pray for that person, and then I should put my faith into action and provide for that person as well. In this illustration, prayer without giving is empty, but prayer with benevolence shows God’s grace to one who needs it. I become an instrument of His love.

In the following verses, James issues a challenge. Show your faith by doing nothing. How will you ever do that? Instead, our humble, obedient, and gracious works testify to our faith in God. From worshiping God the way He wants to be praised, to teaching those we can about salvation in Christ, to showing love and grace to those around us; we show our faith through action.

Two Examples of Faith

  1. Abraham.First, James talks about the faith of Abraham in offering Isaac in Genesis 22. Abraham already had a relationship with God. Abraham had already shown his faith in numerous ways. What more could he have to prove? The truth is that we are never done working for our God, and faithful living can prove difficult at times. Still, we push forward, faithful and obedient to the God who loves us and saves us.
  2. Rahab.In contrast, Rahab knew little of God when the spies came to Jericho in Joshua 2. She had heard of God’s help to Israel, and she believed God would help them conquer her city as well, so she helped shelter the spies. In turn, Rahab survives the conquest of Jericho and even ends up in Christ’s lineage.

In choosing these two examples, James shows how our faithful action can honor God regardless of where we are in our relationship with Him. Abraham had an established and long relationship with God. Rahab, in contrast, was a prostitute from an idolatrous background. Both pleased God with their works, for those works demonstrated their faith. Faith comes alive when we act on it.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • James 2:13 recalls the parable of the unforgiving slave in Matthew 18:21–35. The king showed mercy to his slave, but the slave was unwilling to show that same mercy to another slave. We are all equal in our humility before the Father. Let’s not think so highly of ourselves that we deny the mercy we hope to gain.
  • James 2:5–7 feels extraordinarily contemporary. We see an unrighteous person who has had great success in this world, and we rally around them despite their obvious sinfulness. Sometimes we even defend their right to mistreat their workers or unfairly game the system, and it just makes no sense from a Christian perspective.
  • James is among the books Martin Luther challenges as canonical. (Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation were the others.) “In a word, [James] wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task in spirit, thought, and words. He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture.”(Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, 1522.) Luther’s main point of contention is chapter 2:14–26.

James 3 will bring us more insights into maturing our faith, focusing primarily on our speech and then touching on wisdom as a cornerstone for our spiritual growth.

an image of the first page of the letter to James in the Bible

An Overview of James Chapter 1: Maturity in Faith

James is a book written to help Christians take their faith to a higher level. Based on the text, it’s written to people who already have a faith in Christ, possibly of Jewish heritage, and who understand the fundamentals of Christianity; but they’re having problems putting it into practice. James spends little time on things like Christ’s deity, baptism, or the nature of the church. Rather, this is a letter about putting faith into action. It speaks to what Christian living looks like in practice. It’s about owning our faith and making it a part of who we are — not just a name we wear.

In this and following articles, I’m going to go chapter by chapter, but it’s always best to read each epistle in one sitting. James and the other New Testament writers didn’t include the chapter breaks or verse numbers we use today. Useful as they are for study purposes, they can also make it easy to take things out of context — adding meaning or removing it from larger thoughts.

As a note, I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1–18: Trials and Maturity

Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

James 1:2–4

James opens with an unexpected theme — maturity through trials. Right after his greeting, James says to his readers that they will endure challenges as Christians. He goes so far as to say these challenges are a good thing because they will result in greater maturity. He then address two seemingly unrelated topics: wisdom and humility. Verses 5–8 say we should ask God for wisdom with confidence, and verses 9–11  tell us we should value humility over riches. In the context, it makes sense that we’d seek wisdom from God in our trials; it’s the eternal question of, “Why is this happening?” Wisdom helps us see past the events of the moment to God’s greater purpose.

Additionally, our trials can challenge us financially. For early Christians, persecution could include the loss of business relationships and even personal property. James reminds us these things don’t matter in the big picture, that we are exulted in humility. Instead of letting trials beat us down, our relationship with God and the love of our fellow Christians can help us emerge with a stronger faith. When we face challenges, persecution, and temptations in this life, we have an opportunity to grow in Christ.

Don’t be deceived, my dearly loved brothers. Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the first-fruits of His creatures.

James 1:16–18

James concludes this thought by reminding us that all goodness comes from God. That should be our focus in trials.

  • When persecuted we should look beyond the pain of the moment to remember God’s love for us, and those who persecute us should see that love and hope in our conduct under pressure.
  • When facing temptation, we should remember the promises of God are better than the passing pleasures of sin.
  • When facing personal tragedy or challenges, we should lean on the goodness of our God and our fellow Christians to help carry us past the pain and back to our hope in Christ.

Verses 19–27: Hearing and Doing

But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works — this person will be blessed in what he does.

James 1:22–25

James introduces a couple of ideas in the second half of chapter 1 that he will come back to later in his letter. The first is that we should watch our speech, and the second is that a complete faith takes action. Verses 19–21 tell us we should be quick to hear but slow to speak in anger. In this direct context, James says we should rid ourselves of “moral filth.” Sometimes, we think nothing of the words we use online and in other public spaces, but this passage equates those angry words with trash. Verse 26 goes on to say that anyone who claims to be a Christian but does not control their tongue has a useless faith. Hateful, cruel, or impulsive speech has no place in a mature Christian’s walk.

In the midst of talking about our speech, James says we need to do more than listen to God’s word. We have to put it in action. It’s a stern warning about our speech that he puts this exhortation right here. He’s essentially saying, “Watch your words. Don’t just listen to God’s word; put it into action, or your words will invalidate your faith.” There are many ways we put faith into action and let God’s word change us, but the direct context here is in our language. If we study God’s word and then we cannot control our own words, then we’re like this person who forgets their own face in the mirror.

Miscellaneous Thoughts & Conclusion

  • Verse 13 should caution us against attributing tragedy to God. I’m talking specifically about statements like, “I guess God needed another angel in Heaven,” or “Well, God has His reasons.” These statements may mean well, but they do not correctly reflect the nature of God as presented by James.
  • In verse 14, James is making the case that God cannot be tempted. In doing so, he presents the path to sin as an equation — desire + temptation = sin. Remove one, and Satan loses his power. He can’t tempt you with something you have defeated desire for, nor can your desires overwhelm you if you don’t invite the temptation in.
  • Verse 25 says Christians are under the law of freedom (or liberty, depending on translation). Consistently, the New Testament writers only speak of spiritual freedoms in Christ. They put no stake in the freedoms of this world, and we too should be careful how much emphasis we place on the civil freedoms we enjoy.
  • The number of times Jesus, James, and other New Testament writers make a point about what we say and how we say it should give us pause when listening to, praising, or repeating public personalities who “tell it like it is” in harsh, vulgar, or otherwise mean-spirited ways.

In James 2, we’ll look at applying the perfect law of liberty to how we treat prejudice, and we’ll study some more about how faith and action compliment each other.

Lessons from the Old Testament

In I Corinthians 10, Paul refers to the Old Testament, the “things written aforetime,” as something from which we can benefit and by which we can grow spiritually.

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…They were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

– I Corinthians 10:6-12 (excerpted)

What can we take from these ancient writings to help us on our spiritual lives? What can we learn about our God and ourselves?

The Seriousness of Sin

In Genesis 3, after the creation of nature and humankind, Adam and Even are driven from the Garden of Eden because of sin. Genesis 4 sees Cain punished for his sinful conduct. Genesis 6 tells of a population who care for nothing but evil conduct. We can see that sin was a problem then just as it is today, separating them and us from God just as Isaiah speaks of in Isaiah 59:2. Likewise, Paul makes this same case in Romans 3-6, and we can see the seriousness of that separation through those Old Testament examples.

God’s Authority

In Genesis 8:13-14, Noah opens the ark to see the dry land in the beginning of one month, but he and his family do not leave the ark until the end of the next month when God finally tells them to do so. In II Samuel 7, David expresses a desire to build a better house for the Lord, but God responds by asking when He had ever asked for such a house; David respects God’s authority and relents. As Paul writes in Colossians 3:17, we need to look to God’s authority for all we do, and the writing of the Old Testament help us understand the completeness of that authority.

God’s Expectations

In Genesis 2:16-17, God lays down a single ground rule for living in Eden, simply expecting faithful obedience. In Genesis 4:3-4, God gives regard to Abel’s offering of faithful obedience. Genesis 22:12 records God recognizing the significance of Abraham’s faith, and Acts 10:34-35 shows Peter expressing that God will accept all who will serve Him in faith and reverence. God’s expectation has always been simple faithful obedience, and we can see that expectation endure from generation to generation.

God’s Love

When Adam and Eve sin in Genesis 3, God approaches them and talks to them. He also, in verse 15, sets in motion a plan of reconciliation for all of mankind. Genesis 12, 26, 28 – these record promises of blessings to the nations. Time and again, we see God deal patiently with imperfect and sinful man. We see His love ultimately in the sacrifice of His son, and how can he be so forgiving and loving to those who continually resist Him?

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

-Isaiah  55:6-8

In Luke 13:34, we see Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem, expressing that continual desire to gather His own to Him, even though they reject Him. II Peter 3:9 reminds us that God is patient with us, wishing that all would come to repentance. His love is still the same.

Conclusion

In I Corinthians 10, Paul writes about some specific events and shows how they point to the New Covenant. Our salvation in Christ began with roots in the times of Adam and Eve, and that plan built up through generation after generation. During that time, the problem of sin persisted, as it does today. Also persistent is God’s love, though, and if we respect His authority and render unto Him the faithful obedience He expects and deserves, then we can hope to be with Him one day.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Treasure in Jars of Clay

II Corinthians is an interesting letter by Paul. It does not flow as smoothly as most of his other epistles, and we see a very emotional side of Paul throughout the book, particularly in chapter 2. He continually returns to the concepts of glory, of mercy, and of his own efforts as a minister in Christ. He spends much of the book defending his efforts, his motives, and his authority. In II Corinthians 2:17, he reminds his audience of his sincerity in teaching them.

Paul’s Defense

We can see many discouraging things in Paul’s letter – opposition from the world, our family, and even brethren, those who would seek profit from Christianity, those who would challenge him at every turn. In chapter 4:1, however, Paul asserts he will not lose hope in his ministry from God. He contrasts himself with those who would tamper with, dilute, or peddle God’s word. He sees opposition all around, but he remains sincere.

When we dilute God’s word, we dim the glory of God. As Paul, we should so internalize the glory and joy of God’s word that we feel a personal attachment to it. Think of Paul’s use of “our gospel” and “my gospel,” not claiming ownership but demonstrating the personal attachment he has to that word.

Paul writes about the god of this world, in verse 4, blinding us to God’s word and crowding it out of our lives. The sins of this world, our physical desires and pursuits, can appear less bad than they are on the surface. Sin can look brighter than it really is, and this leads us to being blinded by that false light. Paul reminds us, though, in verse 6, that God’s light can bring us from that blindness.

Paul’s Treasure

Then, in verse 7, Paul refers to a treasure stored in jars of clay. In contrast to those Pharisees of Matthew 23, who Jesus described as being whitewashed tombs filled with death and bones, Paul says we may be clay pots, but the gospel stored within us is priceless treasure. We may be imperfect and fragile as those earthen vessels, but what is contained in our hearts is beyond value.

In verse 8-9 he speaks in generalities about the persecution that comes from carrying that treasure within him, but II Corinthians 6:4-10 and 11:23-33 go into more specific details. Any of us might lose heart at those obstacles, but Paul does not. Instead in II Corinthians 4:11, Paul says he endures so Jesus may be seen in him. Once, the Word became flesh and dwelt among man. Now, others should see Him in us by the way we reflect his glory in our lives.

In verse 13, Paul quotes from Psalm 116:10 about believing and speaking God’s word, about maintaining hope among discouragement and trials. He reassures them of the hope of resurrection, reminding them the more they reflect the treasure of Christ’s gospel, the more souls that will turn to Christ, the more God will be glorified in our earthen vessels.

Do Not Lose Heart

As in chapter 4:1, Paul repeats the refrain, “We do not lose heart,” in verse 16. Here, he puts his trials, his afflictions, his humiliations, and his pain in perspective to the treasure of eternity. Eternal life is his goal, so he does not lose heart. We have a lot to put up with, as did Paul in his life, and we may feel as fragile and ugly as jars of clay at times. We have a treasure, though, beyond value if our faith and hope are in the resurrection of Christ.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Paul, Philemon, and One “Illegal”

At 460 words (in the ESV), Philemon is the third shortest book in the entire Bible. Only II John and III John manage a greater economy of words. It’s a small book in which little happens, and, in Bible studies in many congregations, it will seldom even get a full lesson to itself. I’ve found myself returning to this book time and again, however, while trying to decide how God would want me to interact with illegal (read: undocumented) immigrants as well as what my priorities should be if I become aware of someone’s undocumented status.

Illegally Free in Rome

I think the conversion of the word illegal into a noun is among the worst things to happen in the English language. By using illegal as a noun, we allow ourselves to dehumanize those immigrants coming to our country in unapproved ways. They are no longer illegal aliens (a term I’ve never been fond of either), undocumented immigrants, or illegal immigrants. They are simply the illegals. How might Paul have treated Onesimus had he been carrying the attitudes and judgments implicit in that dehumanizing term? After all, we can’t get around the fact that Onesimus was, indeed, an illegal.

In ancient Rome, slaves were not looked upon as citizens in any way. As with the practice of slavery in the Untied States fewer than 200 years ago, slaves in Rome were property. They were soulless objects to be bought and sold as one would do with clothing or produce. Many Romans viewed slaves with a certain amount of fear and distrust. According to Naerebout and Singor in “De Oudheid,” there was a common saying in Rome: “As many enemies as slaves.”

According to Professor Keith Bradley, slaves were often criticized for:

  • Laziness and Loitering – People would complain about them mulling about in public entertainment areas.
  • Being a Threat – Many officials seemed to see unsupervised slaves as a threat to national security. (“They’ll revolt!”)
  • Being Murderers – Some slaves escaped captivity by killing their masters. They were often prime suspects.
  • Theft – If food disappeared from a vendor’s stall, a slave would be the first to receive blame.
  • Vandalism – Slaves were frequently accused of defacing buildings and monuments.

Does any of this sound remotely familiar? Historian Moses Finley recounts that the tracking and capture of fugitive slaves was almost a national obsession. There were professional slave catchers one could hire to track an illegally freed slave. Those who harbored fugitive slaves faced the prospect of punishment. Recaptured slaves were branded on their forehead (F, for fugitivus). Slaves would even have collars to wear, proclaiming promises of reward should the slave be returned to their rightful owner. This was the climate under which Paul encountered Onesimus.

Paul’s Treatment of An “Illegal”

What would you or I have done upon hearing Onesimus’ story? Would we have immediately turned him into authorities? After all, if we had been in Paul’s position (verse 9), we would have had some guards conveniently nearby. Would we have asked for a reward from Philemon? One would have been due. Oddly, Paul takes a different approach, and while he does eventually return Onesimus to Philemon, he does so with more instructions for Philemon than the escaped slave.

Paul begins by reminding Philemon that they are fellow laborers in Christ (verse 1). They are both servants of a greater master. I have little doubt that those words kept coming back to Philemon as he reached the main topic of the letter. In verses 4-7, Paul encourages Philemon spiritually. He is about to address a touchy subject, and he takes time to put Philemon in a spiritual mindset before tackling the issue of Onesimus.

When Paul does come to the subject of Onesimus in verses 8-16, Paul is upfront about the slave’s new spiritual status. Understand this: Paul shared the gospel with and baptized Onesimus before reconciling him with his master. Paul’s priorities center around Onesimus’ spiritual citizenship before addressing the problems of his secular status. In doing so, Paul harbors a fugitive slave, placing himself in danger of greater censuring from those authorities under whom he was already captive. Paul’s primary concern is for Onesimus’ soul. Everything else is secondary.

In verse 13, Paul admits to considering keeping Onesimus with him, but he declines to do so, fearing he would wrong Philemon. I can’t help but wonder, however – had Philemon treated Onesimus cruelly upon their reunion, might Paul have purchased the slave to free him? After all, in verse 18, Paul agrees to pay any debts Onesimus may owe Philemon (leading some to believe that Onesimus had stolen from his master). Yes, Onesimus has to right himself with the laws of the land, but Paul takes care of his soul first. Had he treated Onesimus more like the criminal he was, the escaped slave might have never turned to Christ, might have even fled from Paul and into worse circumstances.

There Is No Jew, No Gentile, No American, No Mexican, No Cuban…

Once freed, a slave became a liberti, second-class citizens that would never be completely free from the stigma of their past station. A freed slave wore a special cap, called a pileus, that served as a symbol of their former lives. Even those who, against all odds, rose in wealth and power were derided as “new money.” They did not come from established families and would never be treated as equals among the Roman noble class. These days, racial heritage plays a similar role to that pileus. You are suspect if you have certain accents, certain skin tones, certain customs. You are “illegal” until proven otherwise. In verses 17-20 of Philemon, Paul admonishes Philemon to treat Onesimus as an equal in Christ, for equality in God’s eyes is more important than inequality in man’s eyes.

Secular conservatism teaches us to deal with undocumented immigrants harshly. Deport them; jail them; put them in internment camps. Some even advocate shooting people they see crossing the border without authorization or those they even suspect of not being true United States citizens. This is not what we see in Paul’s treatment of Onesimus at all. Instead of reacting with our self-assured hammer of justice, perhaps we could show some mercy. Perhaps we could prioritize souls over legal issues (knowing full and well that a soul truly converted to Christ will want to voluntarily set things right). We might help set things right, even going as far as helping them apply for citizenship, helping them learn English, even easing their burden by paying any legal fees or fines involved in their naturalization process. Instead of setting them on a boat back to Central or South America, we might actually take the time to take their hand and guide them to Christ’s footsteps. Isn’t this the essence of bearing one another’s burdens, of going the extra mile, of putting the spiritual before the physical?

Let’s be careful of following the examples set by figures on TV and on the radio who face no accountability in this life for the secular gospel they proclaim. It should not be these influences that shape our hearts and our attitudes toward the tired, the weary, the huddled, the wretched, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, those longing to be free. Instead, our hearts should be shaped by the attitudes we see in Christ and his closest followers. When Paul encountered the “illegal” Onesimus, his main priority was the man’s soul. Rather than viewing undocumented immigrants in the way those pagan Romans viewed slaves – as detritus, as vandals, as thieves, as murderers, as threats to our comfortable society – we should instead see them as souls in need of God’s word and God’s mercy.

For what are we all but strangers and exiles on this Earth, looking for a city where our true citizenship is, whose builder and foundation is God?