James reminds his readers of a point that is made by other biblical writers, which is that God has chosen to bless some of the poor with spiritual blessings. A verse that says the same thing is the one that Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God’ (1 Cor. 1:25).
The doctrine of election is a mystery. We are not told why God’s elect usually come from among the poor. We can say that they are not chosen because they are poor. God’s electing grace is not based on a person’s status in life. Nor can we say that God has chosen every poor person. There are many poor people who remain very hostile to the gospel all their days. The only suggestion I would make is that in his providence God has arranged for his elect to be born among the poor, to live among the poor, and to be there when the poor hear the gospel. And I suppose this is telling us that our evangelism should be directed towards the poor in a very clear way.
James mentions two blessings that poor and rich Christians have, although here he mentions them in connection with the poor. The first blessing is that they have riches and the second is that they have a kingdom. So he is saying that a poor Christian is truly wealthy in a spiritual way and is asking his readers why such a person should not be treated with the respect that was being shown to the literal rich.
What do we mean by rich in faith? From a spiritual point of view, the person who is poor is the individual who has no faith in God. This means that the presence of such faith makes a person rich in God’s sight. So what James has in mind is a person with genuine faith rather than with great faith. After all, it would be possible for a believer not to have great faith because of a variety of factors, but that would not make him poor as long as he had genuine faith.
James later on will explain what genuine faith is when he writes that faith without works is dead. In the meantime, we can say that genuine faith is one that depends on Jesus alone for salvation and is accompanied by repentance for their sins. Genuine faith is a response to God’s promises of forgiveness. True faith is always a response to a divine promise and is not something that we work up because we imagine something is going to happen. With regard to things that God has not promised, faith shows itself by submitting to God’s providence.
The second blessing that poor believers have is that they are heirs of the kingdom. Clearly James is asking his readers to think about what they will receive when Jesus returns. The Bible has many ways of describing this kingdom and we get spiritual insight when we ask ourselves who is going to be there. James is reminding us that we should honour those who are going to heaven.