James was concerned for his audience to grasp their lofty spiritual status. Though at present they suffered all sorts of trials and felt lowly, they were God’s chosen ones, heirs of God’s promises in Christ, constantly under His care. James employed the Old Testament to orient his readers to their spiritual wealth and call them to faithfulness.
(1) In Jas 1:27, James echoed Deut 24:16-22; Isa 1:17, 23; and Jer 7:3-6, telling his audience that pure religion included caring for orphans and widows. Many of Moses’ commands in Deuteronomy 24-25 concerned the need for Israel to practice justice toward one another and the surrounding nations. The Lord commanded fathers to look out for the needs of the foreign resident, fatherless child, and widow, saying, “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. Therefore I am commanding you to do this” (Deut 24:18). At harvest time, Israel was to leave a portion of the field for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow (Deut 25:19-21). Isaiah exhorted the people of Israel to wash themselves, defending the rights of the fatherless and pleading the case of the widow—lest they resemble rebels and thieves (Isa 1:17, 23). Jeremiah confronted the people of Judah for trusting in the temple of the Lord rather than honoring the Lord by caring for the needs of the fatherless and widow (Jer 7:3-6). James argued that spiritual maturity is displayed by obedience to the word of God (Jas 1:19-2:26). Given the severity of their situation, some in James’s audience might have reacted with anger at the demands of discipleship. He exhorted them that they should humbly receive the word without anger and practice what God commanded them (Jas 1:21-22). Caring for orphans and widows would demonstrate that the audience had taken up the funnel-shaped posture of Christian discipleship, giving away what it received (Jas 1:27). Just as the Lord commanded Israel to do justice to the foreigner, fatherless, and widow because He brought Israel out of Egypt, James commanded that those who had received the implanted and powerful word of salvation needed to care for the vulnerable in their community. This would keep the congregation free from the selfish pleasures of the world (Jas 1:27).
(2) In Jas 2:8-11, James coordinated Lev 19:18 with the sixth and seventh commandments to dissuade his audience from favoring the rich. Moses commanded Israel to be holy because God is holy (Lev 19:2). For Moses, Israel’s holiness involved wholeness. He exhorted God’s people to love their neighbors as themselves (Lev 19:18). Jesus coordinated Moses’ command in Lev 19:18 with Moses’ command in Deut 6:5, which says that Israel should love God with all of their heart, soul, and mind (Matt 22:37-39//Mark 12:30-31//Luke 10:27). Paul wrote that the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself was the foundation of Israel’s corporate life and had direct bearing on how churches should express their faith in Christ (Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14). James called Lev 19:18 the royal law of Scripture, urging his readers to follow it lest they succumb to the temptation to receive face and favor the rich over the poor (Jas 2:8-9). James reminded his readers that it was often the case that the wealthy were not benevolent but oppressed the needy and took them to court (Jas 2:9). Further, James’s audience needed to recall that God had chosen the poor to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom that He promised to the ones that love Him (Jas 2:5). James connected Lev 19:18 with the commands against adultery (Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18) and murder (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17). In James’s reading of the Old Testament, the commands were interwoven; if someone showed favoritism to the rich, it was as if they committed murder. James wanted his readers to walk in integrity, showing mercy to the needy while showing the wealthy no privilege because of their wealth.
(3) In Jas 2:20-26, James called his readers’ attention to the faithfulness of Abraham and Rahab, reinforcing his command that one’s faith should be known through one’s actions. In Gen 15:6, Abraham, childless and aging, believed God’s promise that God would give him descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. When God called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise, Abraham put his faith to work and placed Isaac on the altar (Gen 22:9-10). In James’s interpretation, Abraham was justified by faith in Gen 15:6 and acted upon his faith, perfecting it, in Gen 22:9-10. James argued that Rahab’s faith mirrored Abraham’s faith. At the risk of her own life, Rahab showed her trust in God by welcoming the spies that Joshua sent to scout out Jericho (Josh 2:1-4; 6:15). James had a specific work in mind when he referenced Abraham’s and Rahab’s faith. Faith is dead, James wrote, if one who claims faith sees a brother in need and does not look for ways to help (Jas 2:15-17).