Literary Structure of James 2:1-26
from A Commentary on James
Kregel Exegetical Library
by Aída Besançon Spencer
James’s parallel thought structure of three reoccurring themes which began in chapter 1 (trials [1:2–4], wisdom [1:5–8], wealth [1:9–11]; trials [1:12–18], wisdom [1:19–21]) is now completed in chapter 2 with a discussion of wealth (2:1–17). The fourth uniting theme (doer of the word) is covered at the conclusion of chapter 2, as the doer of the word speaks and acts (2:14–26). The synonymous terms “doer” (ποιητής) and “action” (ἔργον) occur in 1:22–25 and 2:14–26. The negative aspect of the thesis sentence (1:21) (having laid aside all evil deeds) is covered in this chapter’s discussion against partiality to the wealthy. The reason behind the command (show no partiality to the rich), presented in the first half of the chapter, is developed in the second half of the chapter (verbal faith without actions is dead). The process of receiving the implanted word in humility includes becoming a doer of the word by becoming impartial to wealth and the wealthy.
Thus, the theme of partiality versus impartiality underlies the first set of illustrations (2:1–16) in the chapter, while courageous actions underlie the second set of illustrations (2:21–25), but all the illustrations flesh out what genuine faith looks like. Partiality should certainly not be part of faith in Jesus Christ (2:1). The first illustration (2:2–7) is set in a synagogue. The attractive “face” of a flower (1:11) is now developed, as a man with “splendid” attire entering a place of worship is treated in a different way from the unattractive poor. James then defends the place of the poor as special to those with faith and disparages the rich as oppressive (2:5–7). Why is that? When the rich oppress the poor, they slander the good name that was given to the heirs of God’s reign. Being partial also breaks the Old Testament law to love one’s neighbor. To disobey even one Old Testament commandment is to become guilty of violating the whole law. People who are not merciful, acting like the oppressing rich and the prejudiced greeter, will be treated themselves without mercy by God.
James, then, in a more abstract manner, relates this illustration of an “evil deed” to the meaning of genuine faith (2:14–26). A faith not illustrated in action cannot save.
He returns to the example of the treatment of the poor. In the first il- lustration, the poor are treated partially or unjustly, without the dignity they deserve. In this next illustration, the poor person’s physical needs are not helped with action (2:15–16). Analogously, faith to be alive must have action that flows from it (2:17). James illustrates this idea with two people conversing with each other: one with only verbal faith, the other with verbal faith that is demonstrated by action (2:18). James then moves to a theological illustration. Saying God is “one” is good but insufficient if it does not flow into obedient fear (2:19). James follows this with two Old Testament illustrations: Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac, and Rahab’s welcoming of the Hebrew messengers (2:21–25). He concludes with a principle that actions indicate a living faith even as the spirit indicates a living body (2:26). In chapter 1, James has dealt with believers who think they have faith because they have heard God’s word (1:22); in chapter 2, he deals with believers who think they have faith because they say they have faith (2:14). Neither hearing nor speaking is sufficient by itself to demonstrate live, genuine, saving faith. An “implanted” faith has action that works together with faith and completes it.
This post is adapted from A Commentary on James, the newest addition of our Kregel Exegetical Library series, written by Aída Besançon Spencer. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
A thorough exegetical and homiletical analysis of each passage of James
This definitive commentary sheds exegetical and theological light on the book of James for contemporary preachers and students of Scripture. Listening closely to the text while interacting with the best of scholarship, Aida Besancon Spencer shows what this epistle meant for the early church and what it means for us today. In addition to its perceptive comments on the biblical text, this volume examines James’s four key themes: speaking wisely, using wealth, persevering in trials, and becoming doers of the Word.
Spencer offers astute guidance to preachers and teachers wanting to do a series on James, with homiletical trajectories for each passage to show how historical narrative can be presented from the pulpit and in the classroom.