Today we jump back into the book of James. Turn there with me, James chapter 2. We’re going to read verses 1-13 to get started. And we will be taking a few questions at the end of our time together today. So, respond to the text that goes out around 11:10, and if you’re not on our texting service, you can jump on by following the instructions behind me. James 2:1-13.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, 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? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Such a neat text dealing with something that might be a far greater problem in the church than we many of us realize: Showing partiality, or favoritism because someone at least looks like they are better off in the world, and that can mean having more money; or it could mean just having more significance or importance, at least by the world’s standards.
James here speaks of the poor, because judging people based on where they stand in the world, showing that kind of partiality, always comes down on the disadvantaged, especially the poor. Favoritism, prejudice, discrimination; usually when this is happening, people don’t fall on the side of those that don’t have anything to offer, again, at least by the world’s standards. As we look at what James writes about this, those are the other words I want you to have in mind, and there’s a place for these in your notes. Other words for partiality: favoritism, prejudice, and discrimination.
Having these terms accurately describing us, as Christians—doesn’t just go against what God wants us to be doing, as His children. It goes against our very faith, and goes against the very Gospel that has saved us. So to summarize James’ words in these 13 verses, I want us to see three sobering truths of Partiality vs. the Gospel.
Three Sobering Truths of Partiality vs. the Gospel
- Faith in Christ is incompatible with partiality (1-7).
James, right off the bat, just lays out the command that pulls all of these 13 verses together. “Show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” Why? Because they don’t go together; they’re incompatible. And this isn’t just about the poor: the word “partiality” is plural, referring to any kind of sinful favoritism we can possibly show.
James goes into a pointed example here in verses 2-4. If two men walk into the church. One is clearly well off, or least it seems to be so (nice clothes, nice watch, well-kept, maybe he even drove up in a really nice car), and the other is apparently not as well-off, is wearing shabby clothing, maybe his car isn’t as impressive, maybe he even walked here. If these two men come in, and if you treat them differently for these worldly reasons, verse 4 says, “Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
It may seem ridiculous to us that someone would be given a better seat because they looked like they had more money, but it might surprise you that it wasn’t that long ago that some churches in the United States labeled their pews according to amount given per year. No joke! You sat according to how much you gave the church each year! And in the back, or in obscure places, they had pews sometimes actually labeled “free!” It cost no money to sit at those obscure places, INSIDE the church. I assume that is no longer a practice anymore, like anywhere, but apparently it used to be a rather common thing.
Now, look, obviously, we don’t do that here, or anything like it. But think about other ways that we can make distinctions among ourselves based on worldly standards. That can go far beyond simply who has more money than others. Think about intellectual standards. We’d never say this, but is it more meaningful to you to serve and love the people in the room who are generally smarter people?! Is it more meaningful or beneficial to you to serve and love the popular people in this room?! Those well-known or well-liked? We’d never say anything like that, but is it true? Do we treat people differently and respect them more or less based on things the world labels as significant? What a sobering question.
What are we doing when we do this? We’re putting ourselves up as judges, according to verse 4. We become arbiters of truth. There’s 2 problems with setting ourselves up as judges and determiners of status: 1) we’ve totally mistaken our status, as if it’s our place to be the final judges, trusting in our own judgment. 2) we’ve mistaken Jesus’s status! If we’re putting ourselves in that place, we’ve removed Jesus from that place in our lives! Who is Jesus? James says it, and he takes the time to say it in a way that it sticks out and is very clear! The end of verse 1: “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory!” Jesus is Lord, King, “the image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation. Colossians 1:16- “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” Tell me, why in the world do we think we can take his place? He is judge, we are not!
Now, this might sound a little bit like it contradicts what we talked about last week. We looked at Jesus’s words in Matthew 18:15-17, how we are to help each other grow by correcting each other. Paul even says in 1 Corinthians 5, at the end of the chapter, that we’re to judge those inside the church. We are to make judgments, we are to examine each other and help each other see sin that maybe we don’t see, we are to correct, even rebuke each other, in love and always with gentleness, according to Galatians 6:1. So how does that fit James’ words here, this negative reference to putting ourselves up as judges?
That’s an easy thing to clarify. When Jesus tells us to lovingly confront each other when we’re in sin, and when Paul even tells us to judge each other, we’re not judging based on our own standards, or the world’s standards. We’re judging based on God’s standards! We’re helping each other live in freedom and in obedience to God! In James 2, we’re judging, showing partiality, based on things that the world considers significant, not God!
You see, God doesn’t care about money or how much you have of it. He cares what you do with it, no doubt, but he doesn’t consider you any more or less significant based on your money, or your power, or your worldly achievements. That’s James’ exact point in verse 5- “Listen, brothers, 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?”
His point is that to dishonor the poor doesn’t make sense in light of who Jesus chose to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. Think about who he has chosen historically, for the advancement of his gospel! Read about the 12 disciples! Not exactly your most elite group of individuals, by almost any standard! More broadly, simply think about who God has chosen to be his children! Are they all rich? Does God take note of who’s successful, or influential, or powerful, and then choose?! No! He chooses simply out of the pleasure of His will, and he doesn’t choose or show partiality based on what the world considers to be significant, and that’s exactly why we shouldn’t either.
James even makes a worldly argument in verses 6-7, just to show the ridiculousness of this favoritism. He says, even from a merely worldly point of view, these people that you’re treating so well while mistreating others, they’re the very ones dragging you into court, and the very ones that are blaspheming the name of Jesus! And yet you’re treating them so well!
Now, a few clarifications. It’s easy to misunderstand parts of what James is saying because he’s using pretty forceful language to make a strong point. 1st, he’s not talking about all rich people. It’s easy to read this text like James hates rich people, and he doesn’t speak too highly of them here, BUT he does later in this very chapter. He quotes Abraham, clearly in a very positive light, and then talks about Job’s perseverance in chapter 5. Both Abraham and Job were incredibly wealthy individuals. So he doesn’t hate rich people, nor is he saying that all rich people are oppressors, at all.
A 2nd clarification: James is not saying poor people are chosen to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom simply because they’re poor by the world’s standards. He’s simply making the point that God doesn’t choose based on money, or influence! He has chosen physically poor people to be rich in faith, and to advance his gospel! If God doesn’t treat differently based on money, nor should we. Our faith in Christ is incompatible with partiality because Christ Himself shows no partiality.
A 3rd, brief clarification: this doesn’t mean we treat all people the same in every way all the time. Nor does it mean that we pretend like there aren’t differences between us in the church, even worldly differences. If an elderly man comes in and can’t find a seat, I would hope none of you would refuse to give him your seat, because you’d consider that discrimination! Right? “Uh, we’re supposed to be treated the same, and I was here first.” That does not fit what James is saying. We still know there are differences between us; we even still honor those in power, and based on things they do! 1 Peter 2:17- “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” We honor everyone, but we also honor in a special way those who are in power, those who are older, 1 Timothy 5:17 says that “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor.” So, this doesn’t mean that we treat no one with extra honor, even. But it does mean that we never treat them that way based merely on worldly standards, as opposed to God’s standards. The 2nd Sobering Truth of Partiality vs. the Gospel:
- God’s command to love our neighbor is incompatible with partiality. (vv. 8-11).
Not only is partiality incompatible with our faith in Christ, generally, but it goes against a specific command that God has given us, and might I say, a rather important one! Verse 8- “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.” For those of you not as familiar with the New Testament, James is referring back to something we call the Great Commandment.
In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law.” Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
This is not some random command that Jesus gave in passing, though even if it was, it would still be incredibly important. This is part of the answer he gave when asked, “What’s the most important thing!?” James calls this the “royal law,” referring to this being a law that belongs to King Jesus. This is especially important, not only because it is according to the Scripture, which is what James says (it has that authority), but because Jesus Himself placed an incredible emphasis on this particular command.
He says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How do we always treat ourselves? We may not always love ourselves, or even like ourselves. But, generally speaking, we are always attentive to ourselves, aren’t we? Generally speaking, we’re always thinking about what we want and what we need, right? That’s how we are. This is how one writer puts it, I love this:
“When we catch sight of our faces in the mirror first thing in the morning, the word “Ugh” comes spontaneously to the lips; yet at once we take that revolting face to the bathroom, we wash it and tend it and make it as presentable as nature will allow. And so it goes on through the day: loving ourselves means providing loving care and attention….The essence of the royal law is that wherever there is need there is an obligation to extend the sort of love we lavish on ourselves. The essence of partiality is to select the recipients of our care on some ground other than that they are in need.”
What’s the opposite of this kind of LOVE that God has called us to feel and express toward other people? What’s one opposite? Partiality. James says it in Vs. 9- “BUT if you show partiality, you are committing sin and convicted by the law as transgressors.” Partiality is the exact opposite of biblical love. And just in case we’re tempted to say, “Yeah, but it’s just one part of the law; it’s not like I’m breaking all of the law.” In fact, in case we’re tempted to say that with any sin that we want to cling to, James has a word for us. Verses 10-11- “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”
What is James saying here? He’s saying that the law of God, what God has commanded for us in how to live, is one big piece, interdependent and indivisible. Two words worth writing down: interdependent and indivisible. In other words, we cannot pick and choose between the ways that we want to obey God, and the ways that we’re good doing it our way. It doesn’t work like that! It says it right there: to fail in one point means becoming guilty of all of it! The law is like a huge sheet of glass. You throw a brick at a sheet of glass, and the brick itself may only hit one part, but the entire sheet of glass will shatter. It’s one big piece, interdependent and indivisible. But here’s the question: why is the law like this? Why?
Because God created the law as a reflection of his own character. Sometimes we read and think of what God has commanded us to do as just arbitrary things, without any specific purpose except maybe to have something with which to keep us in line. But it’s far more than that. Every command that God gives us to live by, every part of his will for us, it reflects some part of God’s divine nature. You can read like Leviticus 19 and get a really strong picture of this. He often will explicitly give us the relationship between Himself and His law. Even just his broad command, “You shall be holy.” Why? Why should we be holy? “For I the Lord your God am holy.” The law reflects the nature of God.
When we try and say that one part of God’s will for us, one commandment of God isn’t really for us, we’re saying that that one part of his character isn’t relevant for us. It doesn’t really matter. It’s not valuable. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be in a place where I’m saying that about God’s very nature. The truth of the matter is that to love God means to obey Him! Jesus said in John 14:21, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” Part of this obedience is refusing to show partiality, treating all people with the respect and care that Jesus did.
But here’s the question for us: why is it so difficult to treat people as Jesus did, no matter where they are at as far as status in society? Or money? Or popularity? Or intelligence? Why is it difficult to truly love them all? I mean, this is the royal law! It stems directly from the heart of our King Jesus; we should want that be part of who we are, because it’s such a big part of who our King is. So, why do we struggle?
I think it’s a rather simple answer: we are impressed with earthly riches. We’re impressed with worldly significance or popularity. For some of us, it’s celebrity-culture. For others, it’s daydreaming about being able to spend whatever amount of money we want. Still others of us, it’s power, social or political influence. Whatever it is, we’re not just impressed with earthly riches and significance; we’re dazzled by them. We still fantasize about having these worldly things instead of about the new heavens and the new earth or King Jesus on his throne. We’re captivated by something other than Jesus, the Lord of glory. We let the glory of that which is fading away overshadow the glory of that which will never end. In the church, how do we fix this? We must regain an accurate picture of just how big our God is, just how big and how glorious the Lord of glory truly is. We must stop presenting God as a heavenly soccer mom that’s all about us and just cares about us being happy and successful, and realize that the God of the Bible is bigger and more glorious than we can possibly imagine and he has ambitions of his own of which he, inconceivably, wants us to be part.
The only way we’re going to see people as Jesus saw them, see each other as Jesus sees us, the only way is to seek the heart of God. And just to be clear, it’s so obvious in Scripture that Jesus treated and loved all people, but, if anything, was on the side of the poor and the oppressed! If that’s his heart, then it should be ours too. That doesn’t mean we must believe the best way to do this is politically, the best way to see the poor helped is by governmental help and more and more of it. Although you certainly may believe that. But, no matter where you stand on this politically (that’s so secondary), spiritually, it is US, the CHURCH, that should take up the cause for the poor and the oppressed.
This royal law to love others as ourselves, it belongs to our King, hopefully because of that we want to obey it. But it’s also one part of the whole of the law; meaning we MUST obey it. Not to obey is to say that this part of God’s character doesn’t matter; whether or not I’m pursuing reflecting that part of God’s nature doesn’t matter. Let’s not say that. Instead, let’s seek the heart of God, to obey him in every way and actually care for the poor and the disadvantaged. And let’s just be dazzled with the things of the world, and forget what is truly glorious. The 3rd sobering truth of Partiality vs. the Gospel:
- God commands us to speak and act according to the Law of Liberty (vv. 12-13).
Verses 12-13 again: “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Now, before I get into this, I want to take us back briefly. Back to James writing that he who fails at one point in the law has become guilty of all of it! He said that back in verse 10. When we were going through that, did anyone else want to say, “Well, darn.” Anyone else think that might be a cause for worry. That breaking one part of the law means we’ve broken ALL of it!? Because we also know from Scripture that God is a just God, and “he will not let the guilty go unpunished.” That’s Exodus 34:7. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). This might be cause for worry, and it should be!
But here’s the thing: the beauty of this is that it points us to our desperate need for a Savior. I’m pretty sure everyone in here has broken at least one part of God’s commandments. If you’ve been through the 101 class, you know you’ve broken a lot more than one little part, just in going through the 10 Commandments, we quickly realize this, and, again, it points to our desperate need for Jesus. We’re stuck in our sin, we are transgressors of God’s law, THAT’S where we’re at, BUT, what we just read in the last four words of verse 13: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Maybe four of the most beautiful words in the Bible. How so?
God sent his son Jesus to live a pure life, not deserving death because he never became a transgressor of the Law, and yet went to die anyway on our behalf, taking our transgressions upon himself. Isaiah 53:6 says, “We all like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” In Jesus, our sin has been paid for. In Jesus, we no longer are transgressors of the law, we are holy and righteous because of Him and what He did. In Jesus, his death and then his resurrection which gave us LIFE, we are now free from the consequences and the power of sin.
This glorious new life that Jesus gives us is a life of obedience! What he calls there in verse 12, the “law of liberty,” sounds like a contradiction, maybe, to our worldly ears. But it’s not. In today’s western culture, the greatest plea for freedom that we hear and even say ourselves is, “Let me be me.” And yet, everything that people mean when they say “Let me be me” and the freedom that supposedly is represented by that, it only leads to bondage of some kind. We have to know what it truly means to be us, human beings, before we can every know what it truly means to be free.
God has given us that answer: We were made in the image of God. True freedom to BE US is found not in being whoever we want or think we should be, but in being who God made us to be. The reason we obey God, especially in how we treat other people and how we avoid partiality, is because by the world’s standards or anyone’s standards, we would not be partial to God, and yet God freed us from our captivity in Christ. God giving us how he wants us to live in the Bible, giving us the law of liberty, is not slavery. Instead, it marks the end of slavery and the beginning of true freedom.
This law of liberty isn’t a law that we obey to try and earn God’s favor. It’s law we obey because we have God’s favor and have been freed from slavery! I mean, this part of who God is, his tendency to choose as his own and free the lowliest of the low, isn’t just an New Testament idea. Think about the Isrealite slaves in Egypt. Talk about not showing favoritism by the world’s standards. They were slaves, and after God freed the people of Israel from Egypt in cataclysmic fashion, with all the plagues showing his dominance over Egypt and his relentless drive to free his people, after all that, he brings them to Mount Sinai, not to enslave them to the law after freeing them. But to free them with the knowledge of how to live in obedience to Him.
When we live in obedience; when we, like God are not dazzled by worldly success and thus treat everyone with respect and love; when we submit to all of God’s law because it all reflects who our God is; when we show mercy because we’ve been shown mercy (to pull in verse 13 there), when we do this, we’re living like Jesus. This grand truth that mercy triumphs over judgment will be seen in us, as we reflect the nature of our God. We show the world that God is just, that he does have a standard that NONE of us meet, but that in Christ, mercy triumphs over judgment.
Ultimately, why is partiality incompatible with the Gospel. To sum it up: First, because we were all made in the God’s image, no matter where we’re at with social status. That’s a BIG deal. And secondly: If Jesus showed partiality or favoritism by the world’s standard, how many of us in this room would be God’s children today? Maybe a few of us would make the cut, I don’t know. But instead of putting it on us in any way to gain or earn God’s favor, Jesus, the Lord of glory, came to meet us where we are.
Though he was rich; he became poor. Though he was divine, he took our nature upon himself (somehow still being fully divine). Though he was sinless, he took our sin upon himself. Thou he was holy, he took our curse upon himself. Ultimately, 2 Corinthians chapter 4 tells us that he brought to our blinded minds the light of gospel of the glory of Jesus Christ. There is no greater reason to forget about worldly standards for judgment or prejudice, than that while we were yet sinners, rebels, haters of God, Christ died for us.