Study 9            Poor in Spirit

James 1:26, 27

26. If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain.

27. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this; to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

In verse 22 James reminds the believers to be, “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” And in verse 25 he again reminds the readers, “Being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.” James pronounces a simple blessing on those people who once they have heard the word of God as well as stating that a person’s, “religion is vain,” if they turn their back on helping their fellow man.

Remember, from our last study that the James is talking about the Law of Moses as interpreted through Jesus. He is presenting the great law of love to his fellow Christians as the result of following Jesus. If a person does not show love towards others then there is room to doubt whether or not that person is even a Christian. James now gives three practical examples of how believers can be doers of the law (v.25). The first example we have already looked at, the idea of controlling the tongue in verses 19 & 20. James will come back to that theme in chapter 3: 1-12 and chapter 4:11, 12. The second example is in our concern for the helpless and this will be the key thought of Chapter 2:1-13 and finally James admonishes his readers to avoid worldliness in Chapter 4: 4-10.

By now we can’t help but notice that James is presenting practical aspects of what it means to be a Christian for his readers to contemplate. The book is not a legalistic view that opposes Paul, but instead a simple plea for people to love others as Jesus would love them. The Christian church of our day would do well to pay attention to this advice and admonition. We have become so wrapped up in wanting bigger and bigger churches and the fund raising that goes along with it, that we have forgotten James is concerned about the people who can’t put the big checks into the collection plate, but more about that in Chapter 2.

These two verses, 26 & 27 set the agenda for the rest of the letter. Following the leading of God in our personal lives is what separates us from play-acting at being a Christian. If we claim to have a religious experience then it will be manifested in our attitudes towards the less fortunate and our conduct towards each other. I mentioned that in verses 19 & 20 James gave advice on controlling the tongue and now in verse 26 he adds a further dimension to that admonition. He says that a man must, “bridle his tongue,” or his religion is in vain. The reigns and bit of course controlled the horse and kept a “tight rein” on him. In the same manner we are to keep a tight rein upon the tongue, as it is the instrument of the body that can do the most damage to others and ourselves. The word translated vain is based on the Greek word mataios that means worthless and is often associated with idolatry. It is not a secondary matter that James is talking about; rather it is the heart of the Christian experience. If we back bite and destroy each other by finding fault continually, our religion is of no value. We need to be careful before we speak and weigh our words carefully that we do not needlessly harm someone. Further, who has given us the right to criticize others and make pronouncements upon them? I think we sometimes do the work of God when we think we know better how God should work.

It is important for us when looking at verse 27 not to think that James is saying caring for the widows and orphans is the only sign of true Christianity. Instead he is saying any Christianity that ignores these people have missed out on what it means to walk with Christ. Widows and orphans were unable to earn money so they depended upon the generosity and kindness of family and friends to support them. The Old Testament is full of direction for people to remember these people and it was considered a mark of faith to care for those who couldn’t look after themselves. (Please look up Ex.22:22; Deut.14:29; Isa. 1:10-17; Ps. 68:5)

The third great theme of the book of James that will be expounded on later is the directive for his readers to keep themselves from being contaminated by the world. So far in verses 26 and 27 James has shown that true Christianity leads us into action by caring for the needy and watching what we say, but now he turns inward. A follower of Christ leaves the things of the world behind when he picks up his cross and follows Jesus. It is important for a Christian to keep focused on Jesus and not on the temptations (v.12, 13) or else a person easily can fall back into the old ways of living and thinking. We are surrounded by the pressures of the world (lifestyles and worldview) that work to drag us back into the old ways before we knew Christ, and a believer must constantly be on watch for these wiles that would lure them away from Jesus.

James 2: 1-7

1. My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory.

2. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,

3. and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘have a seat here, please,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘stand there,’ or, ‘sit at my feet,’

4. have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

5. Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

6. But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court?

7. Is it not they who blaspheme the honorable name which was invoked over you?

Paul is not making these teachings as he goes along. They are based on God’s directives as found in the Old Testament. Leviticus 19:15 is a pillar that he builds his arguments upon, especially as it relates to 19:18  “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Verse 18 reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

Theologians are divided over the setting for verses 1 through 7. Some of them believe that these verses are referring to a church service while others feel that they are about a judgment scene much like Leviticus 19:15 Most scholars, however, do settle on the church setting for James discussion.

You probably noticed that there seems to be some tie in between verses 26 and 27 of chapter 1 and these 7 verses, and I think you would be right in thinking that. In Leviticus 19:15 God reminds the people that they are not to play favorites neither favoring the rich or the poor. Remember, back in verses 26 and27 we saw that widows and orphans were poor because of their place in society and would be included most certainly in any discussion on poverty such as is found in verses 1 through 7.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems within the organized church to this day is the fact that some people are treated better than others. This is sadly due to the fact that some people are wealthy and can contribute generously, and offer perks to the church leadership while the poor can do neither of those things. This division between poor and rich is not always even intentional, but most pastors come from middle class backgrounds and feel more at ease in a culture they are familiar with or even strive towards than in a less affluent society. It becomes easy to favor these financial supporters over the other members of the church family and thus according to James bring dishonor on the body of Christ.

James states three major reasons for rejecting the wealthy over the poor in these few verses. First of all it is just wrong. A person’s wealth is no proof of spirituality, and nowhere in Scripture is it supposed that someone should be held in high esteem because of wealth. To make such divisions in the church goes against everything that Jesus taught regarding all people’s self worth in the sight of God.

A second reason not to uphold these wealthy people over the rest of the congregation was because these rich people were the very people that were persecuting the members of the church. As has been the case throughout history, greedy, selfish people have taken from the people who have been unable to defend their rights and poverty. The wealthy have the power of the courts and are able to buy the best lawyers to prosecute their case while the poor have little recourse to defend their interest. The third reason is that discrimination against the poor violates the demand to love your neighbor, which is the keystone of Jesus reinterpretation of the Laws of Moses. (See Lev. 19:18 for the tie in)

There is another factor we need to think about before we move on, and that is the fact that the Greek word ptochos that is translated as “poor” is used in the Old Testament Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word anaw and its plural anawim as “poor in spirit”. It has the sense of people who are humble, meek and totally trusting in the Lord for deliverance. (Amos 2:7; Ps.69:32; Isa.29:19; 61:1)  The word ptochos thus has both an idea of material well-being and a spiritual meaning as well. What is very interesting is that the idea of poor has for its antonym wealthy while the idea of the word being used as spiritual poverty has for its antonym the word wicked.

We can very nicely see how Jesus uses both concepts of the word in the Beatitudes. In Luke 6:20 Jesus states, “Blessed are the poor,” and in Matthew 5:3 He gives ptochos its spiritual definition, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” James, is probably not only stating that it is wrong to discriminate against someone who is poor materially, but that person could be a humble, devoted follower of Christ (poor in spirit) and by rejecting that person would in fact be rejecting Jesus.

Verse 1 My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory

James only refers directly to Jesus by name twice in his book, and nowhere else in the N.T. is Jesus referred to as the Lord of Glory. Moo in his commentary in James believes, “describing Jesus as the Lord of Glory suggests particularly the heavenly sphere to which He has been exalted and from which He will come at the end of history to save and to judge.” p. (see James 5:9)

A person who is in Christ and waiting for the return of Christ in glory should not be showing favoritism in regards to who they accept or reject as being worthy because non of us are worthy and yet we are accepted by Jesus. We are not to make judgments about people based on outward appearances, color of skin, clothing, or dress. Moses reminds the children of Israel that God is not partial, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” Deut. 10:17-18 (See also Lev. 19:15)

See how this is all comes together? We are to care for others because it is the natural result of knowing God. To Love God is to love our fellow man because we are the creations of God. In a very real sense we are the brotherhood of humanity and are all precious in the eyes of Jesus. When we discriminate against the poor we are in reality turning our backs on people who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. To be poor materially means nothing to Jesus because the true poverty that we seek is that each of us is to be poor in Spirit. Since God shows no partiality how can we show partiality? Do we think we judge better than God?

Verse 2-4 (2) For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, (3) and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘have a seat here, please,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘stand there,’ or, ‘sit at my feet,’ (4) have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

These verses give us an example of what James is talking about in verse 1. Here in an assembly of the brethren two people come in to worship. One is rich and the other is poor if we judge by clothing. The man who is well off is ushered into the best seat while the poor man is told to either stand at the back or sit on the ground. The only reason for how these two people are treated is their appearance. James makes it quite clear that when we judge that way we are judging from, “evil thoughts.”

From these three short verses we can see that to discriminate against each other within the body of Christ is to take on the role of judge and our judgments are often from evil motives and thoughts. In other words, we get it wrong more often than not so we need to leave judging to Jesus. Also when we show favoritism we have a divided congregation and that is like Christians who waver under trials and temptations, because it shows a lack of trust in Christ to be the head of the Church. It is very difficult to say we trust God and love Him when we are gabbing on about the person with orange hair in the next pew. We need to remember that we are all sinners and all in need of Jesus and if we discriminate against someone because of how they look we are saying we are better than that person, and that is not true in the eyes of God.

Verse 5 Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

James could well have had the Beatitude in mind when he penned this verse 5 “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” Luke 6:20 James point is clear, God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. I couldn’t help but wonder as I read this verse how sad it is that we North American Christians are not a lot different from non-Christians in our pursuit for material wealth. Yet, it seems God is saying the poor have a deeper connection to Him because they rely upon Him and trust in Him for their daily survival. Maybe, if we thought less about making more and more money and spent more time reflecting upon our spiritual needs we would understand what it means to be poor in spirit.

Remember, there is no merit in being poor, and God is not saying that rich people are bad. He is saying that what is important is that the wealthy should understand what it means to be poor in spirit and the poor person who does not rely upon the grace of God is also in need to be poor in spirit. However, this all being said, there seems to be a special delight by God in showering His blessings upon those who have been rejected and discarded by the world, and are keenly aware of their own inadequacies. (See 1 Cor. 1:26-29 and Luke 1:51-53)

Verse 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court?

The church has dishonored or insulted the poor in favor of the very people who persecute them. James is being blunt stating that you are crazy to treat the people who take your land, enslave you, and persecute you as special while belittling your fellow poor. Remember, the majority of the people that are reading James’ book are poor and persecuted having been scattered throughout the Roman world. (See Amos 4:1 and Ezek. 22:7)

Verse 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the honorable name which was invoked over you?

The rich landowners and merchants carry three strikes against them when it comes to their relationship with the poor. They oppress the people, they drag them into court, and they blaspheme Jesus. We don’t know the form of blasphemy that is being referred to in this verse but it could be Jews criticizing Christian claims about Jesus. Or it could have been non-Christians making fun of the morality and worship practices of Christians. An interesting aspect of this verse is that the blasphemy is over the “honorable name which was invoked over you.” Some commentators believe this is a reference to baptism and the Jews were mocking the idea of being baptized into Jesus.

I know this study was quite long but it sets us up for our next study where we see that the major reason we do not show favoritism nor discriminate is because of the law of love. So far we have not found anything in the book that would contradict Paul or belittle the idea we are saved by grace alone.