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Here, we continue our study in the Epistle of James.
1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Here, James begins a section where he speaks against the sin of favoritism. It is wrong to show favoritism based on external circumstances, whether it is favoritism to the rich or to the poor: "Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly" (Lev. 19:15). James here focusses on the more prevalent case: showing favoritism to someone because of their riches. It is natural for the world to honor the rich and famous, because riches and fame are things for which those of the world strive. As Christians, we should have different values. Therefore, we should esteem individuals for different reasons than the world does. As Paul says, "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view" (II Cor. 5:16).
We should examine ourselves concerning favoritism. Do we favor the worldly wealthy? Are our heroes the great athletes, the rich entrepreneurs, the glamorous actors? Are we not surely guilty of showing favoritism to the worldly wealthy, even at church? Unfortunately, upon examination, I think that most of will indeed find ourselves guilty in this regard. We greet the rich and upstanding, while ignoring the lowly and humble. We admire worldly wealth on the outside, ignoring the presence of God on the inside. We often allow fame to excuse immorality, being more tolerant of the actions of the rich. The excellent of the world should not gain our respect and honor, but the excellent in Christ. Our only consideration of outward adornment should be based on if one is clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
Indeed, Christ Himself is our example in this. He never showed special treatment based on external circumstances, but rather dealt with people based on the condition of their hearts. Even the Pharisees recognized this. At one point, they said to Him: "We know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are" (Matt. 22:16).
In the passage we are studying, James begins by addressing his readers as "My brothers", in order to underscore his point: All believers, whether rich or poor, are our brothers. James goes on to categorize those to whom his exhortation is directed as "believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ". Love toward all, without favoritism, is an evidence and a fruit of true faith in Jesus Christ. Throughout this epistle, James "grounds Christian practice on Christian faith".[Footnote #5] Indeed, the main theme of this epistle is that true faith will result in behavior that reflects that faith. So here, James relates that favoritism is not consistent with being a "believer".
Moreover, by telling "believers" not to show favoritism, he is reminding us that our standing in relation to God is derived from our faith, not our external circumstances. In the things of God, all have an equal advantage. Therefore, just as God does not show favoritism, but allows any and all to come to Him, we are not to show favoritism.
To explain what he means by favoritism, James describes a hypothetical situation, where a rich man and a poor man come into a church meeting. The rich man is "wearing a gold ring and fine clothes". Many people don their jewelry and fine clothes at church, almost to invite special attention. There is a defect with churches that have "dress codes" (even though unwritten), in that those with humble means may feel intimidated to attend amongst the finery. A church should have an atmosphere such that all feel welcome, even the poorest, most wretched sinner.
The rich man is told, "Here's a good seat for you". This was a common practice in the synagogue, to reserve the best seats for the most wealthy. Nowadays, seats in the churches are normally not reserved in such a way; however, are not the elders and deacons of many churches chosen among the parishioners who are the most well-off? Do not the more wealthy receive more dinner invitations from fellow believers? Is not the better dressed newcomer given the better welcome at the church door? Unfortunately, favoritism is alive and well in the modern church.
In the hypothetical, the poor man was told "You stand there" (so as to be ready to serve) or to "Sit on the floor by my feet" (so as to be at a lowly position). In both cases, the result is to exalt the hypothetical speaker above the poor man. Thus, James asks rhetorically: "Have you not discriminated among yourselves?". Discrimination is a damaging sin to the cause of Christendom because of its poor testimony to the world.
Those who show favoritism have "become judges with evil thoughts". In this, they doubly err: They not only are serving in a role to which they were not called (by being a judge), but they also are carrying out that role poorly (by showing partiality). To show favoritism is a sin, as cited above: "Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly" (Lev. 19:15). Thus, it is an "evil thought" that shows respect based on worldly riches.
5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?
James goes on to point out that, most often, it is the "poor in the eyes of the world" that God uses, and it is the rich who are oppressive and who blaspheme the Lord.
James begins by saying, "Listen, my dear brothers". He is calling for his readers to pay special attention because the point that he is making is contrary to many people's understanding. Human understanding would say that it is the rich who are approved by God, because their lives are the most comfortable. However, wealth cannot, in itself, be used to determine approval by God. "Lest riches should be accounted evil in themselves, God sometimes gives them to the righteous; and lest they should be considered as the chief good, he frequently bestows them on the wicked."[Footnote #6]
To illustrate this point, James asks rhetorically: "Has not God chosen those who are poor...?" It is the poor whom God usually chooses to use in mighty ways. "The lion and the eagle are passed by, and the lamb and the dove chosen for sacrifice."[Footnote #7] As Paul writes: "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him" (I Cor. 1:26-29). As stated, the reason God chooses the poor is so that "no one may boast before him". When the rich and well-educated are chosen to do great work, often God does not get the glory. However, when God uses the poor, we can only give the glory to Him for using someone with no apparent outward advantages.
The poor are certainly freer to serve the Lord, free of worldly possessions, ties and responsibilities. When God says, "Pick up and go", they can pick up and go. They can serve the Lord wholly and undistracted. Very few realize the advantage of poverty! The poor of the world, yet in Christ, should glory in their riches. As James pointed out in chapter 1: "The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position" (James 1:9). On the other hand, the rich believer must understand the danger of riches. Our possessions become an obstacle to serving the Lord. The rich of the world should not consider their riches an advantage, but strive all the more to give themselves to the Lord despite their riches.
God's choosing of the poor to serve Him is exemplified by Christ's ministry. Jesus came into the world as a poor man, choosing the poor to be His disciples. God could have chosen Jesus to come into this world as a respected Pharisee, a wealthy merchant, even the emperor of Rome. Instead, God chose Christ to be born in a manger, a humble carpenter, with fishermen as followers. "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (II Cor. 8:9).
It is the poor "in the eyes of the world" that God chooses. However, they are the poor of this world only, not the next. Though their worldly means be short, their benefits in the kingdom of heaven are three-fold (as described in verse 5): 1. They are chosen by God; 2. They are rich in faith; 3. They are heirs of the kingdom. With this in mind, it is difficult to call them poor!
In verse 6, James points out the root of the sin of favoritism, by telling those who show favoritism: "But you have insulted the poor". To show favoritism to the rich and ignore the poor is to insult the poor and, thus, contrary to the command: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). This is the basis for calling favoritism a sin.
James goes on to illustrate the folly of indiscriminantly showing favoritism to the rich by reminding them: "Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?" Historically, the rich are usually the persecutors and oppressors, not because they are more wicked than the poor, but because they have more opportunity to be so. Many who are not rich have the desire to oppress, but do not have the occasion to do so. "And usually when a disposition and an occasion meet together, then sin is drawn forth and discovered. Many have will, but have no power."[Footnote #8]
The rich feel themselves self-made, self-sufficient and secure, so, in the book of Proverbs, Agur prayed: "Give me neither poverty or riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, `Who is the LORD?' " (Prov. 30:8-9). The pride resulting from riches often leads to self-exaltation and, ultimately, blasphemy and atheism. So James states: "Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?" Those who love Christ will hate blasphemy.
Now, we must be careful. It is not only the rich heathen who blaphemes the Lord. Often, rich Christians blaspheme the Lord by their behavior and by their example. Their love for riches is more evident than their love for Christ. To avoid this, we must not trust in our riches but realize that it is God who has given us everything. Just as He has given, so He can choose to take them away, according to His purpose. Thus, we are warned: "Though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them" (Ps. 62:10). And: "Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (I Tim. 6:17).
8If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. 9But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
In this section, James states the importance of keeping the whole law, including the "unimportant" commandments. In fact, James in effect says that there are no "unimportant" commandments. This applies to his discussion concerning favoritism because those who were showing favoritism may have thought that it was an "unimportant" sin.
James begins by stating the law that sums up all of the commandments dealing with man's relationship with man: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (citing Lev. 19:18). He calls this the "royal law". It is a "royal law" because it requires noble behavior, behavior fit for kings. In addition, it is a "royal law" because the benefit for keeping this commandment is a royal place in the kingdom of heaven: "Whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19). Most importantly, it is a "royal law" because it was given by a king, none other than the King of kings. In fact, Jesus Himself designated it as one of the greatest commandments: " `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matt. 22:37-40). One does not lightly break a king's law in the presence of the King.
James points out that this law is "found in Scripture"; thus, James appeals to the authority of the Word of God. This command is, indeed, found many places in Scripture. Originally, the commandment is found in Lev. 19:18. In addition to being described as one of the greatest commandments, as cited above in Matt. 22, this commandment is described as summing up the law: "The commandments, `Do not commit adultery', `Do not murder', `Do not covet', and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: `Love your neighbor as yourself' " (Rom. 13:9; see also Gal. 5:14).
Jesus teaches in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-36) that our neighbors are not just those whom we like. They are not limited to the ones who live nearby; they are not limited to those of the same race, same financial status, same social standing or even same religion. Our neighbors are all those in need, everywhere.
The love of one's neighbor is a test of whether one is truly a Christian. As Jesus said: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). And John teaches: "If anyone says, `I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen" (I John 4:20).
James goes on to state, in no uncertain terms, that favoritism is a sin: "But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers". Although the Word of God exposes favoritism as a sin; our consciences may rationalize it as an attribute. We may say, "Well, I am showing love to my brother (albeit to my rich brother, and albeit at the expense of my poor brother)." However, it is pretended obedience to excuse violation of the law by citing obedience to a "lesser" law.
One may try and say that favoritism is a "small" sin, but James rebuts this by essentially saying that there are no small sins: "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it". Now, James is not saying that all sins are equally bad or equally damaging. Rather, he is saying that breaking one commandment, no matter how "small", puts one in the class of people called "lawbreakers". Disobeying one law causes one to be among the disobedient.
The law of God is a unified whole, pure and perfect in its entirety. "The law is one seamless garment, which is rent if you but rend a part; or a musical harmony, spoiled if there be one discordant note (Tirinus); or a golden chain, whose completeness is broken if you break one link (Gataker). . . If any part of a man be leprous, the whole man is judged a leper. God requires perfect, not partial obedience."[Footnote #9] It is the way of the world to say "I am not as bad as that other guy". The child of God must strive to keep the law in its entirety and not excuse "small" sins by being obedient only to the "big" commandments. The wage of any sin is death. They all result in separation from God, whether the most horrible murder or the smallest oversight.
The realization that all, from the cruelest murderer to the teller of white lies, are in the same class from God's point of view ("lawbreakers"), should cause one to pray that the grace of God be shed on all sinners. So many desire the immediate wrath of God to fall on those whom they consider unrighteous. This is reminiscent of the disciples of Christ who, when the inhabitants of a Samaritan village did not welcome Him, asked Jesus: "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" (Luke 9:54). Jesus' response was to "turn and rebuke them". How quickly we forget our past unrepentant state! We justly deserved (and, indeed, still do!) the full measure of God's punishment. It is hypocrisy to wish judgment on anyone, even the "worst" sinner.
We should pray for the repentance and salvation of sinners, rather than for their judgment. We must realize that, "but for the grace of God, there go we".[Footnote #10] We all have our own weaknesses, thus, as "lawbreakers", we are no better than others. Though you don't steal, you covet; though you don't kill, you hate; though you don't commit adultery, you lust. For the most part, I dare say, it is through the lack of opportunity to commit the "greater" sins that we satisfy ourselves by committing the "lesser" sins.
In addition, the realization that all sinners are classed together as "lawbreakers" should cause us to be sensitive to all commands. The breaking of any law will equally make us a lawbreaker: whether we commit murder, whether we commit adultery, or take a long lunch at work, or cut corners on our taxes. The smallness of the sin is no excuse. Many times the seemingly smallest of sins have brought the greatest consequences: Adam ate a mere "apple" and caused the fall of mankind; Moses struck a rock and was unable to enter the promised land (Num. 20:1-13); Uzzah grabbed the Ark of the Covenant so that it would not fall, and was struck down for his irreverence (II Sam. 6:7). "Every sin is an affront to God's sovereignty, as if his will were not reason enough; and to his wisdom, as if he did not know what were good for men; and to his justice, as if the ways of God were unequal."[Footnote #11]
Moreover, the realization that all sinners are classed together as "lawbreakers" should cause us to turn to God in repentance and confession when we stumble in any way. All sins, no matter how small, need to be dealt with and repented from. We need the cleansing of sin provided by God through confession: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9).
Finally, these verses negate the concept that one can balance one's sins with good works. How can one balance through works the weight of the whole law? Satan often tempts us in this regard, sometimes after the fact, sometimes before. After our good works, Satan will say: "Look at the good you have done this week. You deserve to sin a little now". Before our good works, Satan will say: "If you stumble now, you can make up for it later this week". One cannot, through one's own works, make recompense for violating the whole law, of which, as pointed out here, the smallest sinner is guilty.
As "lawbreakers", we might well cry out, as did Christ's own disciples: "Who then can be saved?" (Matt. 19:25). The answer: None on their own, yet all through Christ. As Jesus answered: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). Through the death of Christ, God did the impossible: He reconciled to Himself sinful man, man who is guilty of breaking His whole law.
12Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!
Here James deals with a danger of being a Christian. We are tempted to sin because we know that our sins are forgiven. To battle this, James exhorts: "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law". Do not treat being forgiven as a license to sin. Satan often uses God's grace in order to tempt us, by saying: "Don't worry. Go ahead and sin. God will forgive you anyway." To withstand this temptation, always have an awareness of the unmitigated judgment that you deserve for your sins.
We who are saved tend to ignore the judgment from which we have been saved, but it is worth reflecting upon. It gives us perspective. It causes us to appreciate the sacrifice of Christ. We need to be in awe of the judgment of God; we should soberly consider God's judgment. Indeed, the judgment is a necessary part of the gospel. Without the judgment, our salvation would be worthless. Thus, through an awareness of the judgment, we will more greatly appreciate and value our salvation.
James says that we are to "speak" and "act" as those who will be judged. We are not merely to act Godly, but we are to control our speech as well. On the other hand, we are not merely to speak as Christians, using Christian terms, but we are to support our Christian "talk" with Godly actions that reflect our faith.
James describes the law that judges as "the law that gives freedom". The Christian has a different view of the law than the non-Christian. To the Christian, the law frees us from the chains of sin. However, to the unbeliever, far from bringing freedom, the law brings death.
James goes on to say that "judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful". Mercy is a necessary fruit in the life of the child of God. To fail to show mercy is to misunderstand the mercy that has been shown you. To misunderstand the mercy that God has shown you is to fail to appreciate the importance of Christ's sacrifice for us. To fail to appreciate the importance of Christ's sacrifice is to reject the gospel. Thus, mercy is a necessary fruit in the life of the child of God.
God's mercy through Christ's sacrifice, when understood by the believer, will result in the believer himself showing mercy. Now, it is not man's mercy that saves him, but God's mercy that "triumphs over judgment". God considers His own mercy as a very important attribute. In fact, when God described Himself to Moses, He emphasized His own mercy: "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" (Ex. 34:6,7). The Lord then went on to describe His righteous judgment. For God, it is always mercy first, then judgment. This can be seen in the two comings of Christ. The first time Christ came in His body to the earth was to save us. When He comes again, He will judge the world. Likewise, in our lives, God, by His Spirit, strives with us so that He may be merciful to us through Jesus Christ. If we reject His mercy, God, true to His righteous nature, will judge us. However, God truly desires that "mercy triumph over judgment".
So, Father, we praise You for the great mercy that You have shown us by sending Your Son to die for our sins. By Your Spirit, help us to appreciate Your great mercy, so that we too may show mercy to those around us. Also, give us a respect for Your law. Help us to realize that any sin, no matter how "small", is detestable in Your sight. Finally, Lord, give us love for all--the rich and the poor, the famous and the insignificant, the strong and the weak--that we may not fall into the sin of favoritism. In the name of Jesus, we ask these things, Amen.
5. Jamieson, Fausset, Brown. Vol. 3, Pt. 3, pg. 586.
6. William Secker, 1660, cited in Spurgeon, A Treasury of David, Vol. 1, p. 41.
7. Manton, A Commentary on James, pg. 193.
8. Manton, A Commentary on James. p. 202.
9. Cited in Jamiesson, Fausset, Brown, vol. III, pt. 3, pg. 587.
10. John Bradford (1510-1555).
11. Manton, A Commentary on James.
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