The declaration of a man’s righteousness is made by those who observe his right action, while the right action itself is the declaration of right faith.
An examination of Yaakov/James 2
2:1-4 Fellow Ye’hudim—Jews, practice the faith of our Lord Yeshua, the glorious Mashiyach—Messiah, without showing favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your synagogue wearing gold rings and fancy clothes, and also a poor man comes in dressed in rags. 3 If you show more respect to the man wearing the fancy clothes and say to him, “Have this good seat here,” while to the poor man you say, “You, stand over there,” or, “Sit down on the floor by my feet,” 4 then aren’t you creating distinctions among yourselves, and haven’t you made yourselves into judges with evil motives?
Yaakov continues to address the Messianic Jewish community of the Diaspora. He begins this portion with a reminder that halakhah—the way we walk—in Messiah is lit with Yeshua’s Glory. Therefore we are to walk as people who are aware of our own identity. We are Talmidim—students—of our Glorious Messiah, having been shown favor we are to reject the practice of favoritism. The key to right action, that is, present halakhah, is the very nature of Messiah Himself. The Jewish writer of Hebrews gives us a beautiful glimpse into the vast glory of the Mashiyach—Messiah—when he writes:
“Ha-Ben—the Son—is the radiance of HaShem’s—G-d’s—glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful d’var—word.” – Hebrews 1:3
Yaakov is reminding his dispersed countrymen that obedience to the Torah—instruction--requires the just treatment of all people within the Jewish community. This is not a foreign practice, it has simply become a neglected one in the Diaspora.
“Do not pervert justice or show partiality—undue favor for one over another. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent.” D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:19
The real issue being addressed here is the motive of the human core/heart—that is the point from which all the parts of our being emanate rather than the heart in opposition to the mind. Perhaps money was needed for the running of the synagogue, the purchase of Torah scrolls etc.? Whatever the reason for showing favoritism, the Torah clearly instructs against the practice.
It is worth noting that in many English translations of the Bible we read “meeting,” or, “assembly,” where the Greek word should translate correctly as synagogue. Translators have attempted to make this very Jewish book of Yaakov sound more universal by hiding words beneath generic terminology. It is important to understand that this letter was being written to a functioning Messianic synagogue around 50 A.D. That means that a majority of the Jewish community in question were Messianic believers and had continued to worship as Jews in a traditional Jewish way within the revelation of Messiah Yeshua.
2:5-9 Listen, my fellow Jews, hasn’t HaShem—G-d—chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith and to receive the Kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you despise the poor! Aren’t the rich the ones who oppress you and drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name of Him to whom you belong? 8 If you truly attain the goal of Kingly Torah—instruction, in conformity with the passage that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show favoritism, your actions constitute sin, since you are convicted under the Torah as transgressors.
“The meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.” - Tehillim/Psalm 37:11
“Blessing comes from G-d for the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” – Mattitiyahu/Matthew 5:3
The Kingdom which He promised to those who love Him. The receiving of the Kingdom is simple, it is given to those who love Him. Do you love Him—G-d, in Messiah? Then the Kingdom is given to you.
Yaakov goes on to challenge the contradictory nature of the synagogue members, not in order to condemn but in order to facilitate learning and reconcile them to the Kingdom Torah—instruction. The Kingdom or royal Torah here cannot be contextually or historically interpreted in light of the Pauline/Shaul’s writings because Shaul wrote his epistles some 20 years hence.
Yaakov’s audience is Jewish, when they hear the word “Torah” they recognize the Torah of Moses. Yaakov then, is linking the Kingly glory of G-d’s Messiah with the Torah of Moses. Therefore the Kingly Torah as understood through the lens of the pivotal verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a unity of belief and action born in the freedom of Messiah’s teaching. The point being that Yaakov is not inventing a new kind of Torah, he is revealing the Torah filled with Messiah and driven by the Ruach ha-Kodesh—Holy Spirit. Yes, there are parts of that same Torah which will become obsolete at the point of final judgment and our entry into the Olam Haba—world to come, but as Messiah himself has said, “I tell you truly, until heaven and earth pass away not one yud or Masoretic mark or even one cantillation notation will be disappear from the Torah until all things are accomplished.” – Mattitiyahu/Matthew 5:18
“Zayit Ra’anan says… ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, says, “you sin in this world because the yetzer (evil inclination) governs you; but in the Olam haba—world to come, I will take it—yetzer ha-ra—away from you;” as it is said in Ezekiel 36:26 “I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”’” – Midrash Yalkut Shim’oni (medieval)
When we abide in the Torah within Messiah we do well, recognizing the discipline and instruction of G-d. On the other hand, when we give in to the yetzer ha-ra—fallen nature, we cloud our ability to see the Kingly Torah—which brings liberty. When we willfully break the Torah we deceive ourselves and are in danger of believing the lie that we are no longer secure. The irony here is that in showing favoritism we perceive the loss of G-d’s favor. So, on the contrary we must show others the favor that G-d has shown us in Messiah.
2:10-11 For a person who keeps the whole Torah, yet stumbles at one point, has become guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For the One who said, “Don’t commit adultery,” also said, “Don’t murder.” Now, if you don’t commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the Torah.
It is important to note that the two commandments mentioned here are to do with the love of one’s neighbor. It is often the case that as we journey with G-d we begin to become complacent. On a historical level the physical separation of the Messianic Jews in the Diaspora from the Jews of Israel was a living metaphor for their journey away from right action. When we become complacent in our faith we can fall into the trap of considering some commandments more important than others, thus we justify sinful action based on a sort of sin hierarchy where murder is bad but lusting after my neighbor’s wife is just what men are prone to do. Yaakov reminds his Jewish brothers and sisters that when we say to G-d, “I’ll keep most of your commandments but I don’t agree with this one, so I’ll just ignore it,” we are already guilty.
2:12-13 Keep speaking and acting like people who will be judged by a Torah which brings liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy toward one who doesn’t show mercy; but mercy triumphs over judgment.
Many believers hear the word judgment and crape their pants. “Oh no,” some say, “I’ve stuffed up, now I’m in trouble, perhaps I stuffed up badly enough that I will lose my salvation this time?” Yaakov is not speaking of the judgment of those who have not received Messiah. He is speaking of the judgment of the righteous in Messiah. Our judgment is one of discipline and reward, not condemnation. The statement of judgment then, is to be understood as a warning and regarded as a disciplinary measure to bring us back in line with right belief and action—which are a unity. The wonderful result of accepting G-d’s mercy is that we will in turn show mercy to others, thus Mercy triumphs over judgment—that is mercy triumphs over a judgment of condemnation. Mercy triumphs in the judgment that brings discipline and freedom, thus we have the Torah that brings Liberty. Again, this is understood as the Torah of Moses filled with the illumination of Messiah and lived in the Ruach ha-Kodesh, not by our strength but in His strength.
2:14-17 What good is it, my fellow Jews, if someone claims to have faith but has no actions to prove it? Is such faith able to save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food, 16 and someone says to him, “Shalom! Keep warm and eat hearty!” without giving him what he needs, what good does it do? 17 Thus, faith by itself, without actions, is dead.
Here Yaakov is speaking of a divisive faith, a faith that compartmentalizes life. The action of a pumping heart is the proof that a man is alive, when the heart ceases its action the body is dead. The predisposition of the Holy Spirit Who lives in us, is to help those in need, in order to fail to help the destitute we must first resist the Ruach ha-Kodesh, for a believer this is known as grieving (not blaspheming) the Spirit. The conclusion then is this, isolated faith is dead. In a believer however, the failure to act causes conviction of spirit and therefore revives the body. It is as if the heart has stopped temporarily for lack of vigor and then the Spirit pulls out the shock panels and gives us a jump start.
The words, “faith by itself without right action is dead,” are a precursor to the final words of this portion of Yaakov. It is important to note that faith in unity with right action is life. The blood, the heart and the oxygen are all required in order to unify the living body.
2:18-19 But someone will say that you have faith and I have actions. Show me this faith of yours without the actions, and I will show you my faith by what I do! 19 You believe that “God is echad—one”? Good for you! The demons believe it too — the thought makes them tremble in terror!
“Really?” Says Yaakov, with incredulity. “You’re able to exhibit faith without acting righteously? Okay, but I will exhibit faith by acting in unity with the Holy Spirit.”
Then he pulls out the big guns, “You say, Shema—hear, listen, perceive and understand, Oh Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is Echad—One, a unity.” Good for you, so you recite the Shema three times a day, mozel tov! The demons know the words of the Shema also, they believe that G-d is One, and it scares the crap out of them. You see, belief is subject to inclination. If your inclination is evil--yetzer ha-ra—then your belief is redundant.
2:20-22 But, foolish friend, do you want to be shown that such “faith” apart from actions is barren? 21 Wasn’t Avraham avinu—Abraham our father--declared righteous because of actions when he offered up his son Yitz’chak—Isaac—on the altar? 22 You see that his faith worked with his actions; by his actions his faith was made full/complete/perfect.
Notice that Avraham’s actions were born of faith. It is a mistake to understand this text as meaning that actions are the proof of faith, they are not. Right action is the fruit of faith, the evidence of healthy roots, and just as a fruit tree is imperfect without fruit, so faith without right action is barren. Yaakov uses the word complete/full/perfect, here in unity with the word One/echad from the previous verses. He is showing that G-d, Who is One, Completes or makes One, faith and action.
2:23-22 and the passage of the Tanakh—Old Testament--was fulfilled which says, “Avraham had faith in HaShem—G-d, and it was credited to him as righteousness (right action).” He was even called G-d’s friend. 24 You see that a person is declared righteous because of actions and not because of faith alone. 25 Likewise, wasn’t Rachav—Rahab—the prostitute also declared righteous because of her actions when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another route? 26 Indeed, just as the body without a spirit is dead, so too faith without right action is dead.
So, Avraham’s faith/belief/trust, was credited to him as right action. Now we see right action as the recompense/payment/credit/reward of right faith/trust/belief. The declaration of a man’s righteousness is made by those who observe his right action, while the right action itself is the declaration of right faith. It was Rahab’s faith in the G-d of Israel that motivated her to act to save her children and protect her family. She rightly believed that G-d was able to destroy the city of Jericho. Therefore her genuine faith bore the fruit of right action.
Finally, “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so to faith without right action is dead.” The spirit and faith correlate to one another and the body and action are also a pair. From this we can conclude that both these combinations—faith and works as well as spirit and body—become unclean when separated. To a Jew a dead body—according to the Torah—is unclean, so Yaakov is making a startling, even defiling insinuation. “If your faith lacks right action you are spiritually unclean and if your actions lack true faith then your actions are unclean. I know you’ve been living in the Diaspora among Greeks for some time now but don’t be misled by Greek philosophy,” says Yaakov, “they seek to divide and conquer, or have you forgotten that we Jews understand life as a unity, a functioning being of many parts, all interconnected. ‘Shema Yisrael, Adonai, Elohaynu, Adonai echad!’”
In Messiah Yeshua there is no separation of faith and works. There are faith-works and there is working-faith. When Shaul/Paul says, “You are saved by faith alone, and not by works, that no one might boast,” he is rebuking boasting—which is work without faith. We are better to understand Paul this way, “It is by faith unified that you are saved and not by works—deeds devoid of faith—so that no one should boast about having earned their own right standing with G-d.” Shaul is definitely not contradicting Yaakov, a man whose authority he both submitted to and respected. On the contrary, Shaul affirms Yaakov’s teaching. Of course this should come as no surprise, given that the Ruach ha-Kodesh inspired the words of both men.
I will conclude this way, concerning faith and right action: what G-d has made one, let no man separate.
© 2014 Yaakov Brown
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.