Practicing the Word

The Christian Standards of Value, James 2:1-13

In this section, James gives his readers a fuller treatment of something he began in 1:9-11:  a proper Christian attitude toward wealth.  “True religion,” an expression James used in chapter 1, he now calls “the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ” (KJV), is defined in how we treat others.  James proceeds to illustrate this by a hypothetical case of partiality practiced in the church.  One man is rich, the other man is poor.  Yet we are all created equal; we brought nothing into this world and we will take nothing out.  We cannot stand before God and boast of our wealth and our great achievements because they came from Him in the first place.  And God does not show partiality:

Acts 10:34
Romans 2:11
Ephesians 6:9
Colossians 3:25
1 Peter 1:17

If God has set the example, we should follow that example.

1.  Avoid favoritism, 2:1-4

The discussion of partiality begins with a warning against showing favoritism.  Literally, the verse is awkward, but it looks like this:

My brothers, do not with respectings of persons have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [Lord] of glory.

In other words, there was a tendency to separate faith from practice and to use one’s faith in an inappropriate way, either to disrespect others or curry the favor of others.

The command, verse 1.  The way this phrase is written in the Greek, the practice of favoritism was already taking place.  The recipients of this letter were already engaged in a wrong behavior.  So, we might word verse one like this:  Stop showing favoritism.   With this verse, we see James showing a touch of class.  First, he addresses them as “brothers,” an affectionate term which puts both the author and the recipients on the same level.  James is no better than they are, although he is their leader and therefore his admonitions should be respected.  Second, he informs them that their behavior was inconsistent with faith in Christ.  Their bad conduct wasn’t just bad manners, but it wasn’t the way a Christian should act.  J.B. Philips in his translation puts it far more graphically:

Don’t ever attempt, my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ!

The illustration, verses 2-4.  A. F. Harper has referred to these verses as a “kind of ethic for church ushers!”  But in the early church, which was a lot less organized than churches of our time, these verses were for everybody in the church.  In the Greek, what James wrote is this:

For it there come into your synagogue a man gold-ringed in splendid clothing, and there come in also a poor one in vile clothing; and you look on him wearing the splendid clothing and say, “You sit well here (in a good place),” and you say to the poor one, “You stand back there, or sit under my footstool,” did you not make a difference among yourselves and become judges of evil thoughts?

Notice the use of the word “synagogue.”  In the very early days of the church, the Christians met in the synagogue buildings.  Even after they had moved out of the Jewish synagogues, many Jewish Christians still referred to their church meeting as a synagogue.  Whether or not these visitors, the wealthy man or the poor man, were Christians or non-Christians is not known, but that is irrelevant to the spiritual truth of the illustration.  The unchristian act of showing favoritism is not only rude, but there is a much deeper spiritual truth which is this:  to show that kind of favoritism is to immediately judge the worth of a man by his outward appearance (Harper).   This is absolutely contrary to the way God looks at man:

But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”  (1 Samuel 16:7)

So for Christians to act contrary to the way God would act is not only to disrespect the person but also to disrespect God.

The wealthy person is given special attention; the Greek word epiblepsete, translated as “show special attention,” is the same word of a father’s plea in Luke 9:38, where it is translated as “beg.”  The picture is of people “falling all over themselves” to speak to the wealthy man first, then begging him to stay and sit in the best seat in the house.

Conversely, the poor man is treated worse than if he had been ignored.  He is told in an abrupt fashion to, perhaps, sit at the back of the room, or on the floor by the footstool.

People who act like this become judges with evil thoughts.   What exactly are those “evil thoughts?”  (1)  That fine clothes are the marks of a fine character and that “vile” clothes are evidence of a vile character; (2)  That wealth is a indicator of a person’s worth; (3)  That financial standing should make a difference in acceptance in the church; and (4)  That worldly social and cultural systems are acceptable to Christ and appropriate to His Church.

2.  The true measurement of a man, 2:5-7

God’s choice of the poor, 2:5, 6a.  James chooses his words vary carefully in this section.  He begins with “Listen,” (NIV) which in the Greek is a little stronger and literally means, “Hang on! Listen up for a minute.”  This indicates clearly how important James thinks his following arguments are.  He is reproving his readers, yet doing so in love, as the consummate pastor he was.

What is particularly interesting is that James does not defend the poor because of their poverty nor does he attack the rich on account of their prosperity.  James’ defense and admonition are based on other things, namely, God’s choice.  However, God’s choice of the poor should not be taken to mean that there is something inherently Godly in poverty.  Not every poor person is spiritual or virtuous.  One reason why God has “chosen the poor” is stated in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29,

God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  (verses 28, 29)

In other words, by God choosing the poor He is sending a signal to the the rich; they cannot rely on their wealth to enter into heaven.

Man’s poor choice of the rich, 2:6b, 7.   To show how out of sync it was for a Christian to favor the rich, James uses examples that apply specifically to the recipients of his letter.  Just as not all poor people are virtuous, not all rich people are scoundrels.  John Calvin’s comments on these verses are helpful.  He wrote that it was odd to honor one’s executioner and at the same time harm one’s friend!   James’ point:  to do that is to act opposite to the way God would act.  It’s not that every rich person is an enemy to the believer, or every poor person their friend.  James is illustrating a deep spiritual truth by using an absurd situation.

3.  Keeping the ‘Royal Law,’ 2:8-11

In this group of verses, 8-13, James makes the readers focus on themselves and their conduct.  Christians should measure their conduct against an impartial standard:  the so-called Royal Law of Scripture.  Any other measurement of our character would not be accurate.  The Royal Law is simple and to-the-point:

Love your neighbor as yourself.

This commandment, from Leviticus 19:18, is referred to as the Royal Law not just because of its “lofty character,” but because it is the supreme law to which all other laws governing human relationships are subordinate (Burdick).  Jesus said that it was sum total of all the all aspects of the Law put together.  The believer who keeps this Royal Law is doing the will of God.  The will of God doesn’t always involve us directly, although one would never know that to hear how some people pray.

Verse 10 needs to be considered because many people read more into it that what it actually says.  Some people, as they read this verse see all sins as being equal.  While, as the old saying goes, “one sin will keep you out of heaven,” not all sins are equal.  What James is saying is best reflected in the words of William Kelly:

Were there true obedience, once claim of God would be as binding as another, violence as hateful to us as corruption.  To offend in one point violates God’s authority and brings us under the guilt of breaking all.

The point Kelly makes, and it is valid, is that James’ point is God’s authority.  Once again, we like to make this verse all about us and our sin but really it is about God and His authority over us.  Regardless of the sin, whether it is the awful sin of adultery or terrible sin of murder or the unbecoming conduct of favoritism, they all violate God’s authority and move us into a position of guilt.  In that sense, all sin is equal.

Verse 11 like the previous verse opens with the explanatory “For,” indicating that James is continuing the explanation.  This verse shows us that although the Law of God has many parts, it is essentially one Law, so to violate just one part is to violate it all.  The Law should be viewed an expression of the character of God.  To violate a part of the Law then is to violate God’s will and to bring reproach down on His perfect character.

When we view the seeming insignificant sin of favoritism in that light, it becomes quite repugnant.

4.  Live in light of God’s judgment, 2:12-13

In order to live in light of God’s judgment we need to understand that when God gave the Law it was not accompanied by a rainbow.  Indeed, lightening, thunder, and a trembling earth combined with the awfulness of God’s voice inaugurated the Law.  The Law implies judgment, so with that in mind, believers are called to live with God’s righteous judgment in view.

The Christian, however, is not under the Law of Moses, but under a much more stringent law:  the law that gives freedom. Of this law Jesus said:

Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (Matthew 22:37, 39)

So, while Christians are thankfully set free from the minute details of the Law of Moses, we are held to, in one sense, a much more stern law.  Mayor’s thoughts on this are enlightening:

It will be a deeper-going judgment than that of man, for it will not stop at particular precepts or even at the outward act, whatever it may be, but will penetrate to the temper and motive.  On the other hand it sweeps away all anxious questioning as to the exact performance of each separate precept.  If there has been in you the true spirit of love to God and love to man, that is accepted as the real fulfillment of the law.

This law, like the Law of Moses, implies judgment.  The judgment will be the judgment that all believers will face.  It is interesting that the unsaved will not be judged, since by their refusal to confess Christ they are already judged.  When they stand before God it will be for the purpose of being sentenced.  The believer will stand before God to be judged, not for entrance into heaven; that is already an accomplished fact.  This judgment will be for how we lived our lives:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.  (2 Corinthians 5:10)

In light of this verse, and what James has written, every believer ought to pray:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

(Psalm 139:23-24)

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