If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing well. (NASB)
To recap: in verse one James provides the imperative which governs the first half of the chapter: no partiality! Partiality in the Christian congregation is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ because (a) God has chosen the poor of this world (v.5); (b) the rich who some in the church are favouring are also those oppressing the church and blaspheming the name of Jesus (vv. 6-7); (c) partiality issues from an evil intent and divides the church (v.4). That verses 8-13 continue this theme is evident especially in verse nine where James again directly refers to partiality and labels it as sin. These verses provide additional theological reasons to support his initial imperative.
The two translations of verse 8 are both possible. Ei mentoi (“if, however,” or “if you really”) sets up a conditional statement which is then contrasted with a second similar condition in verse nine. Mentoi appears seven times in the New Testament and in each of the other six, it is translated “however.” If understood in this way, James is probably drawing a contrast with the accusation of verse six, “But you have dishonoured the poor man…” and so exhorting them to a better path. Many translations and commentators, however, prefer the second possibility which sets up the contrast with verse nine in a more thoroughgoing way: “If you really fulfil … but if you show partiality…” Both translations are acceptable and nothing of significance hangs on either one.
The point in question concerns if they “are (really) fulfilling the royal law” (ei mentoi nomon teleite basilikov). Teleite, second person present plural of teleō, means to “accomplish” or “to observe fully.” The verb appears in the present tense suggesting continuous or enduring action, and so calls James’ hearers to observe habitually and completely the law in its entirety. James further identifies this law as royal (basilikon), thus designating it the “king’s” law, or perhaps better in view of his reference in verse five to the kingdom (basileia), the “law of the kingdom.”
It is tempting to apply this phrase “royal law” to the single command James now highlights: “according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (kata tēn graphēn, Agapēseis ton plēsion sou hōs seauton). Understood as such, it may suggest that this is the only command that one need be concerned with. In verses 10-11, however, James goes on to insist that his hearers are accountable for the whole law, thus showing a more complex relation to the law. Some commentators, such as Vlachos (78), suggest that the law here refers to the Mosaic law as a whole. Moo (94) suggests that the royal law refers to the entire will of God for Christians, especially as that will is revealed in the teaching of Jesus. Nevertheless, “James is concerned to show that the ‘law of the kingdom’ does not replace, but takes up within it the demand of God in the Old Testament.” Davids (114) notes that James’ use of nomos rather than entolē (“command”) decisively shows that he intends the whole law. He asks nevertheless, “is it not most natural to see a reference to the whole law as interpreted and handed over to the church in the teaching of Jesus, i.e. the sovereign rule of God’s kingdom?”
The command James cites derives from Leviticus 19:18 (cf. v. 34). Although the verb “love” is in the future tense, it functions imperativally as a command. In their original context in Leviticus, the words “love” and “neighbour” are as broad in meaning as they are in contemporary English, and so resist being limited to a narrow range of activities or persons (Wenham, The Book of Leviticus [NICOT], 269). In the New Testament, the command is identified by Jesus as the second most significant command of the law, after the command to love God with all one’s heart, soul and strength (Mark 12:28-31; cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-6). Jesus’ linking of these two commands was unique in Judaism, and McKnight (208) notes that James, too, links the ideas in this text (2:5, 8). Jesus’ identification of the central significance of this particular command was also shared by Paul who viewed the Leviticus command as a summary and fulfilment of the whole law (Romans 13:9-10; cf. Galatians 5:14).
It appears, then, that James also stands in this broad sweep of New Testament ethics in which love of neighbour came to be seen as the centre and goal of the law. James now resolves the condition with which he began the verse: If you really love your neighbour, you are doing well. “You are doing well” (kalōs poieite), also in the present tense, also has enduring force. This little phrase again suggests that the keeping of the love command fulfils what God requires of his people in terms of ethics. As McKnight (209) says, this becomes “a noble, excellent and proper rule of life for the messianic community.”
This text, therefore, stands alongside a host of other New Testament passages in which love is the sum and substance of the Christian life. This does not mean, however, that the law has no place in the Christian life. James was Torah-observant, as McKnight (207) insists, and, as we shall see, he intended the messianic community to live in accordance with the law. Still, if Davids is correct as I suspect he is, it is the law as interpreted by Jesus and passed onto the church. Thus we see in James a hermeneutic at work, a hermeneutic in all likelihood learnt from Jesus, in which the Old Testament law still plays a role in the life of the Christian community, albeit as mediated in and through the authoritative tradition of Jesus’ life and teaching.