James, Part 2

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Given that the believers to whom James had written his letter were experiencing trials and tribulations, it’s remarkable the next topic he deals with covers problems we would associate with growing, prospering churches.

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. (James 2:2 NIV)

In our day and age of shrinking churches in the midst of a growing secular society, this problem encountered by these early believers seems almost out of place. After all, who would want to be associated with a group of people routinely persecuted? It’s a testimony to the true nature of faith that the churches receiving this letter were growing in spite of their difficulties and attracting members across the social spectrum!

Actually, the first paragraph of James 2 is connected to chapter 1 in two ways. First, James is simply continuing his discussion of “true religion.”

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:26, 27 NIV)

Godly behavior will always express itself in a loving attitude toward those who need God most: those in great spiritual need or physical distress.

And secondly, James returns to a line of thought be began earlier on in the first chapter:

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. (James 1:9 – 11 NIV)

Faith sees all people as equal. Either they are all equally lost – from the murderer to the unsaved wife – or all equally saved – from the wealthy businessman to the poor beggar.

Avoid discrimination

“Discrimination” is not the invention of our politically correct-obsessed culture. It’s been going for as long as man has been living on this earth. James’ big concern is that a congregation of believers should not court the favor of the wealthy for the sake of their wealth. This makes James’ letter as up-to-date as tomorrow’s newspaper, for this problem still persists to this day.   What church, struggling to meet its annual budget, wouldn’t try to attract and hold onto members who have jobs and wealth? James, though, says that’s wrong-headed thinking.

If 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,”… (James 2:3 NIV)

That’s discrimination, or favoritism, in action. These verses show how NOT to be a church usher! The people in James’ homey illustration are probably visitors to the church, not members. And whether these visitors were already saved or not isn’t the point. The great spiritual truth is that favoritism of this sort in the church is always wrong and must be discouraged.

...have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:4 NIV)

It doesn’t get any plainer than that! To treat people with the kind of crass discrimination illustrated is the result of incorrect judging springing from evil thoughts. Christians are called to judge one another, but certainly not like this! Judgment of individuals must never be based on things as shallow as clothing styles or other social distinctions, good or bad.

Christians should seek to treat all members of their church with the same level of respect and consideration. F.F. Bruce offers an interesting take as to why we should –

God bestows His blessings without discrimination. The followers of Jesus are children of God, and they should manifest the family likeness by doing good to all, even to those who deserve the opposite.

Isn’t that the truth?

The Bible never teaches that there is virtue in being poor, although some people seem to think it does. Nor does it teach that the rich are unrighteous on account of their wealth. Here’s how James continues his reasoning about treating rich and poor the same:

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: 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? (James 2:5 NIV)

If you read that the wrong way, it sounds like God has engaged in some discrimination Himself. Or, rather, reverse discrimination by preferring the poor over the so-called rich. But that’s not what James is illustrating here. James is using God’s treatment of the poor as a way to show his readers what impartiality looks like. In choosing the poor to be rich in faith, James isn’t teaching that God chooses some to be poor and others to be rich – it’s amazing what some people read into otherwise simple verses! It’s a matter of historical record that the those who are “poor” seem to be more receptive to the Gospel. Also, as a matter of Biblical fact, there is this great Messianic prophecy –

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners… (Isaiah 61:1 NIV)

How God treated the poor is in contrast to how man favors the rich and snubs the poor. And this made no sense at all given the situation that existed during James’ day –

But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? (James 2:6, 7 NIV)

John Calvin wrote that it was odd for these Christians to honor one’s executioners while hurting their friends! In all likelihood, it was wealthy Jews James had in mind. They were responsible for inflicting trouble on the Christians.

So, for all kinds of reasons, from spiritual reasons to practical ones, it was wrong, not to mention senseless, for these Christians to be favoring the wealthy instead of respecting all people and treating all people the same.

The royal law

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. (James 2:8 NIV)

It all boils down to this very simple principle. And it’s not a new one. It’s found in Leviticus 19:18 –

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (NIV)

We don’t have to figure things out; all we need to do is what this verse tells us to do! That sounds simple, but practicing this kind of agape love cuts against the human grain. It’s not normal to treat others this way. But Christians aren’t called to be normal! John Broger helps us out –

Learning how to love your neighbor requires a willingness to draw on the strength of Jesus Christ as you die to self and live for Him. Living in this manner allows you to practice biblical love for others in spite of adverse circumstances or your feelings to the contrary.

This is called “the royal law” because it is the supreme law that must govern all human relationships and because it was given by God and later by His Son.

But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (James 2:9 NIV)

In showing partiality, a believer is breaking the royal law. It is, in fact, a blatant sin. And it’s a serious one. William Barclay tells how serious a violation it is –

A man may be in every all respects a good man; and yet he may spoil himself by one fault. He may be moral in his action, pure in his speech, meticulous in his devotion. But he may be hard and self-righteous; ridgid and unsympathetic; and, so on, and his goodness is spoiled.

It’s as simple as this: We can’t please God in this life if our conduct violates the royal law. That’s how important it is.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12, 13 NIV)

The beauty of salvation, and the thing that makes it so attractive, is that we are set free and are now governed, not by laws and regulation, but by the law of liberty. However, the law of liberty is a double edged sword. We who enjoy it will be judged by it. The two imperatives are placed at the beginning of the verse because the emphasis is on them: “speak” and “act.” Not only are they in the place of emphasis, but they are present-tense verbs, meaning “speaking and acting” in the proper way should be a way of life, not a one-time deal.  We are to “speak” and “act” always consciously aware that we will be judged accordingly. Even so, and fortunate for us, God is a God of mercy and, therefore, He will show mercy even in judgment. In the words of John Stott:

The Gospel is the good news of mercy to the undeserving. They symbol of the religion of Jesus is the Cross, not the scales.

In light of this admittedly difficult teaching, we can only pray the words of Psalm 139 –

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 NIV)

Work your faith

The Pauline teaching on justification by faith is so powerful, but James makes an equally powerful and compelling argument for the other side of that teaching –

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? (James 2:20 NIV)

In other words, it’s not enough to talk the faith, you must live it – deeds must accompany confession. And the deeds that accompany faith must reflect the moral character of God. It’s more than “What Would Jesus Do,” it’s doing what Jesus did and allowing Him to act through you. Spurgeon –

Faith and works are bound up in the same bundle. He that obeys God trusts God; and he that trusts God obeys God. He that is without faith is without works; and he that is without works is without faith.

That’s pretty uncomplicated. The important bit is what Spurgeon wrote about “trusting God.” Paul understood that was essential, not just for salvation, but also for conduct.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9 – 11 NIV)

Paul referred to the “works of faith” as “fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” And when we live by the Spirit, the Spirit lives through us –

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10 NIV)

Works are supposed to follow faith, and works are the perfect barometer of where our true faith lies. Our good works won’t produce salvation, but if we possess salvation, we will produce good works. We are Christ’s representatives on earth, so we are obligated to live as He did.

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:10 NIV)

Faith without works is dead because faith transforms life. We become “new creations” when we put our trust and faith in Jesus Christ. A new life of faith results.

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