(Please read James 2:1-13)
The Bible is the greatest of all books; to study it is the noblest of all pursuits; to understand it is the highest of all goals. Our aim in this series of Bible Helps studies based on the New Testament Book of James is to gain additional insights for practical instruction and for spiritual direction. To master any Book of the Bible we must read it continuously and repeatedly for long periods of time. We hope each of our readers is doing that with the Book of James. Be sure now to read the first thirteen verses of the second chapter of James, and keep your Bible open to James 2.
The Book of James is concerned especially with conduct and with behavior. One of the few “theological” concepts which James treats is the doctrine of faith. God (through James) speaks of the testing of faith in chapter 1 (1:3); of the works of faith in chapter 2 (2:18); and of the prayer of faith in chapter 5 (5:15). James indicates in chapter 2 (verse 1) that true faith centers in Jesus Christ and that real faith avoids showing partiality toward persons.
1. Partiality Is Inconsistent With Faith in Christ (2:1-4)
James begins his discussion of partiality by stating a prohibition: “Don’t show favoritism.” Verse 1 says, “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.” A more clear and smooth-reading statement of the thought would be: “My brethren, do not try to combine faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, with acts of partiality toward persons.” To have “respect of persons” is sin (verse 9).
To respect the rich and despise the poor is inconsistent for the Christian, because the Christ whom we serve was Himself so poor that He had no place to lay His head. He came from a despised city (“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”). He grew up in a humble home (Some were embarrassed that He was merely “the carpenter’s son”). He lived in a simple family setting (His parents could only offer turtledoves at His presentation in the Temple). Yet He was “the Lord of glory” (a reverent name for Jesus Christ). The phrase reflects the Hebrew “Shekinah” (the glorious manifestation of God’s presence with His people). Jesus Christ is described as “the brightness of God’s glory” (in Hebrews 1:3). In essence then, James says, “Do not try to combine faith in our wonderful Lord Jesus Christ, with acts of partiality.” It is grossly inconsistent to allow favoritism and discrimination, and at the same time be associated by faith with such an exalted person as the Lord Jesus Christ.
We are given an illustration of the truth in verses 2-3: “For if there come into your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment, and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool . . .”
The Christians were gathered in assembly (perhaps in an old synagogue or in one of the believer’s homes), and a door opens. A well-dressed man enters. The ushers notice his hands loaded with rings (the Greek word is plural), and because he is a man of wealth and status, he is ushered to a good seat and shown great respect. Again the door opens. This time it is a man in shabby clothes. His very appearance indicates that he is a poor man. An usher at the door tells him that he can either stand at some out-of-the-way spot, or he may sit on the floor if he wishes.
Neither of the two visitors was a Christian. Contrast the word “man” (in verse 2) with the word “brother” (verse 15). Non-Christians did sometimes attend Christian assemblies (1 Corinthians 14:22-23). Note that the man with gold rings was not “a brother.” The early Christians did not wear jewelry. They obeyed the inspired apostolic teaching not to adorn the body with gold and pearls and costly array (1 Timothy 2:9), but they did sometimes show wrong attitudes toward other people.
It is true that those of the same trade tend to associate more freely together (for example, a farmer with another farmer)—and that those in a particular age group will tend to have closer ties with others of the same age group. These kinds of groupings are common and acceptable, but to show favoritism on the basis of wealth or race or status in life, is a dangerous thing. The lesson here in James 2 is that just because a man is dressed well, does not mean he should have a special place in our assemblies. Neither should we offer the poor a lesser place.
The partiality shown to the two visiting men (in the illustration given in verses 2-3) indicated a deep hypocrisy. Verse 4 says, “Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?” The Christians were assembled to worship God, but by showing respect to the rich man, they indicated a desire to honor riches. (Jesus said that we cannot serve God and mammon; that is, we cannot worship God and honor riches at the same time).
The phrase (in verse 4) “to become judges of evil thoughts” more literally says “judges with evil thoughts.” (The gender in Greek is genitive of quality). To show favoritism toward the rich is inconsistent with faith in Christ, for He tended to identify more readily with the poor. To look with favor upon the wealthy and to shun the poor—is indeed a very grave sin. We need to learn from this Bible example.
2. Partiality Is Contrary To the Purpose Of God (2:5-7)
An argument against favoritism is given in verse 5: “Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?” The poor are the special objects of God’s concern. Discrimination against the poor is an affront to God, and such conduct defies His will.
Verse 5 does not mean that God’s choice has been limited to the poor and that just because one is poor he is automatically saved. James does not say that all poor people are “rich in faith.” Nor does James exclude the rich from the ranks of the saved. There is no special merit inherent in poverty. Some of our Lord’s faithful followers were well-to-do. But generally speaking, the poor have been more open to the Gospel, and have more readily received its blessings. God loves the poor, and many have become heirs of his kingdom. But James was inspired by God to write to his readers and say, “You have dishonored the poor.”
In sharp contrast to God’s choice of the poor (verse 5), is the way James’ readers had been treating them. Verses 6-7 says, “But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by which ye are called?” Why should the believers cater to the rich, when it is the wealthy (not the poor), who for the most part, are their enemies and persecutors, and who blaspheme God, and who think they can get along without Him? James says, “The rich whom you favor, are the people who drag you into the law courts:”
- It was the rich Sadducees who laid hands on Peter and John (Acts 4:1-3).
- It was “the chief men” of Antioch who stirred up the people to persecute Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:50).
The rich often bring disrepute upon the name of Jesus Christ. They live in luxury; they spend endless money to have everything their hearts desire; they usually are slow to accept the message of the Gospel. James says, “The rich are the ones who are exploiting you, are they not?” It is simply out of keeping with the purpose of God that we show favoritism toward the wealthy of this world. The Lord has a good purpose for all persons—regardless of social status—and we must avoid discriminating against one person and showing favoritism toward another.
3. Partiality Is a Violation of the Royal Law (2:8-13)
For the Christian, one law controls our treatment of all persons—the law of love. It is called the “royal law” because it is the supreme law to which all other laws governing human relationships are subordinate. Verse 8 says, “if ye fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well.”
The “royal law” (Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself), is, in a sense, the king of all laws. It spells out in a few concise words the sum and essence of the whole second table of the Ten Commandments. Paul enumerates many of the Ten Commandments in Romans 13:9, and then says, “And if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” And if we really love our neighbor, we will not do him harm. We will not deprive him of his wife (adultery), nor his life (killing), nor his property (stealing), nor his good name (bearing false witness). To love another—is to fulfill the law—because one who loves is really keeping all the law.
Verse 9 says, “But if ye have respect of persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.” Being partial toward persons is not just a breach of good manners! It is sin. One who is partial toward the rich, stands convicted as a lawbreaker. Yet in many churches today, we find a tendency toward showing leniency toward the prominent. These are often the ones elected to offices and assigned responsibilities. One who is potentially a good financial giver is catered to because of his wealth. He is placed on boards and committees—not because of his spirituality, but because of his ability to give. When our Lord chose men, for the most part, He chose men who were limited in this world’s goods.
In verses 10-11 James explains how an act of favoritism makes a person a lawbreaker. To violate the Law at any one point is not to violate that one commandment only. The Law is essentially one unit, and when one commandment is broken, the entire law of God has been flouted. James says, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, ‘Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.'”
The Jews often looked upon the Mosaic Law as being made up of many detailed requirements, and they believed that strict obedience in one part made up for only partial compliance in another part. James says that such an idea is a false philosophy. One does not have to disobey every law in order to become a lawbreaker. If I steal money from my boss—I’m guilty. I can’t plead “not guilty” just because I have never committed a murder.
Verse 10 does not mean that one sin is as bad as another sin. James is not dealing with the extent and degree of sin, but with its reality. Some sins are obviously more wicked in the sight of God than others are. (The Stoics of the First Century used to say that the theft of a penny was just as bad as killing one’s parents). But obviously, an isolated failure to show kindness is not worthy of the same punishment as is the willful deliberate murder. Those in Thessalonica who refused to work were guilty of disobedience to God—they sinned—but they were simply not to eat. Those in Corinth who practiced gross immorality (living immorally with a step-mother) were to be excommunicated from the church and placed into the realm of Satan. But to break one law makes a person a “lawbreaker”—to show partiality is to break the law of God.
We are instructed in verses 12-13: “So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shown no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.” The “law of liberty” is a reference to the Gospel (as it stands in contrast to the Law of Moses). Through faith in Jesus Christ we are justified (set free from the penalty of sin), and thus one who responds to the Gospel message is freed from slavery to Satan and is liberated from sin’s guilt. And so the Gospel is certainly a law of liberty.
To “show mercy” is to show kindness in excess of what may be rightfully expected of us. Someone has transgressed against us, and we are in a position to get even with that person. What should we do? We should strive to return good for evil. That is mercy.
James says that when we fail to show compassion on our fellow men, we prove ourselves to be utterly destitute of Christian character. And more than that, if we fail to show mercy toward others—no mercy will be shown toward us in the day of judgment. Yet there were some in the early church, who, instead of showing mercy toward the man dressed in shabby clothes, were practicing cruel discrimination.
The point of the first thirteen verses in the second chapter of James, then, is that no distinction must be made between people who are prominent and those who are not so prominent. There is, of course, a place for social differences. There are people who show no desire to rise above their present level. They care nothing for accomplishment or success. They live month after month without any attempt to improve their condition. But social differences—even though they exist (sometimes by people’s own choice)—do not give us a right to show favoritism.
Jesus was anointed to “preach to the poor” (Luke 4:18). He said to His followers, “When thou makest a feast, call the poor” (Luke 14: 13). On another occasion, He said, “Distribute to the poor” (Luke 18: 22). It is not that we should favor the poor and ignore the rich; it is just that when a person has a genuine faith in Jesus Christ, he will show equal love and sympathy toward both!
The world’s standards of values are far different from God’s. The world makes heroes out of people of wealth and fame. The Bible condemns respect of persons.
There are some people without money who are actually rich! One can be rich in family associations, rich in the kinds of friends he has, rich in physical strength, and rich in intellectual gifts. Others who are wealthy (from a human standpoint), are very poor. Sometimes when we go into a rich person’s home, we can feel the tension there. It doesn’t take long to become aware of jealousy and pride and arrogance that exists in such homes. The important thing in our lesson is that we don’t show favoritism to either category of people. God does not condemn persons for being rich; neither does he put a premium on being poor. The rags of the poor man do not draw him toward Heaven, neither do the robes of a rich man draw him toward Hell.
Preachers need to be careful about the matter of favoritism. Not too many preachers are like John the Baptist. He didn’t cut any corners, neither did he play any favorites. He reproved King Herod for his divorce and remarriage, even though it eventually cost him his life. He called the insincere multitudes of his day “a generation of vipers” (Luke 3:7). Daniel Webster often attended a small country church in his home community. When questioned about this practice, Webster said, “The preacher in Washington, D. C. preaches to Daniel Webster the statesman; the preacher back home preaches to Daniel Webster the sinner.” And Mr. Webster was wise enough to appreciate the truth about himself.
May God help all of us to hold an equal regard for men, women, and children—regardless of their social status. May He help us to see each person as a soul for whom Christ died.