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James 2:1-7: The Royal Law (Part 1)

His name was Bill. He had wild hair, wore a tee-shirt with holes in it, patched jeans and no shoes. That was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He was brilliant, kinda' esoteric and very bright. He became a Christian while attending college. Across the street from the campus was a well-groomed, very conservative church that was trying to develop a ministry to students, but are not sure of how to go about it. One day Bill decided to visit the church. He walked in, totally conspicuous with his bare feet, blue jeans, tee shirt and wild hair. The service had already begun, so Bill started down the aisle looking for a seat. The church was completely full, so he couldn’t find a seat. The people are beginning to look a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything.

Bill continues down the aisle, getting closer and closer to the pulpit, then when he realizes there are no seats, he just sits down on the carpet right in front of the pulpit. Although perfectly acceptable at a college fellowship, trust me, this had never happened at this church.

By now the people are really up-tight, the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. About this time, an elderly deacon was slowly making his way toward Bill. This deacon, in his eighties, has silver hair, a three piece suit and a pocket watch. He was a godly man, very elegant, dignified and very courtly. He walked with a cane and as he started walking toward Bill, everyone was saying to themselves, “You can't blame him for what he going to do. How can you expect a man of his background and culture to understand some college kid on the floor?” It took a long time for him to reach Bill. The church was utterly silent, except for the clicking of the old deacon's cane. All eyes were focused on him. You can't even detect that people are breathing. They are thinking, “The minister can't preach the sermon until the deacon does what he has to do!”

Then they saw this old man drop his cane on the floor, and with great difficulty lower himself and sat down beside Bill, took off his shoes and socks, and worshiped with him so he won't be alone. Everyone choked up with emotion. When the minister gained control he said, “What I'm about to preach you will not remember. What you have seen today you will never forget.” –Source unknown

Verse 1: “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality.”

James 2:1, NLT, “My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?”

Proverbs 24:23, “These things also belong to the wise: It is not good to show partiality in judgment.”

“Partiality” is the Greek word prosopolepsia, meaning, “discrimination, respect of persons.”

In this passage James is addressing professing Christians who treat some people better than others because of their status in life. How sad that even today there are Christians who prefer to fellowship with the wealthy rather than with the poor. Usually, the destitute are forgotten while the rich are favored. Some ministers visit the well-to-do and neglect the poverty-stricken members of their church. They like to visit members who can help them in return. The Bible does not approve this kind of practice.

I heard a story once about a pastor and a deacon visiting the richest man in town. As they approached his mansion, with huge iron gates flanked by great lions on massive pillars, the deacon turned to the pastor and said, “What good news do we have for this guy?”

This verse implies a contradiction between faith and favoritism. It is saying, “How can you claim to have faith if you favor some people over others?” In other words, do not profess your faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and discriminate against the poor. Claiming to be Christian yet not caring for the poor is contradictory to God’s Word. Some People may want to reduce faith to a series of statements that people profess to believe, but for James, faith is what is operative in a person's life. People act on the basis of what they believe to be true. So if people say one thing but do something else, James would say their actual faith is the faith that underlies their actions. People must believe in something if they are to act at all. The question is whether the faith that actually shapes their lives is faith in Jesus Christ or something else.

God does not discriminate, “…but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:10,11).

Colossians 3:11 MSG, “Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.”

The church is made up of people from all different walks of life. In the eyes of the world, some are more important or honored in society than others. Nevertheless, each one stands equally valued by God. We are still all equal at the foot of the cross and equally in need of mercy. Each one of us has been bought by the blood of Jesus; none of us has any merit by which we can earn His mercy. His grace is available to all who receive Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8,9).

Romans 3:21,22, “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference”

Galatians 3:28 MSG, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Verses 2,3: “For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,”’ or, ‘Sit here at my footstool…’”

Verses 2,3 MSG: “If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, ‘Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!’ and either ignore the street person or say, ‘Better sit here in the back row, haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?”

James here draws a picture of two men entering the church. One is well-dressed and his fingers are covered with gold rings. The more ostentatious ancient men wore rings on every finger except the middle one, and they wore as many as 6 on each finger. They even rented rings when they wanted to give an impression of their wealth. Seneca said, “We adorn our fingers with rings and we distribute gems over every joint.’ Clement of Alexandria recommends that a Christian should wear only one ring, and that he should wear it on his little finger. It ought to have on it a religious emblem, such as a dove, a fish or an anchor; and the justification for wearing it is that it might be used as a seal.

“Roman satirists had much to say upon the fops and dandies of their time, with ‘all their fingers laden with rings,’ some…having six on each; and others with heavy gold or light, according to the oppressiveness of the season; no doubt, the fashions set in Rome extended to Jerusalem. ‘Goodly apparel’ (KJV) is, rather, ‘gorgeous—splendid in color or ornament;’ the same two words are translated ‘gay clothing’ (KJV) in the following verse.” –Ellicott, Charles John

The Church was the only place in the ancient world where social distinctions did not exist, but, there must have been social problems in some early churches. In the early days the Church was predominantly poor and humble; and therefore if a rich man was converted and came to the Christian fellowship, there must have been a very real temptation to make a fuss of him and treat him as a special trophy for Christ.

“There must have been a certain initial awkwardness when a master found himself sitting next his slave or when a master arrived at a service in which his slave was actually the leader and the dispenser of the Sacrament. The gap between the slave, who in law was nothing more than a living tool, and the master was so wide as to cause problems of approach on either side.” –Barclay

The Church is to be the one place where all distinctions are wiped out. There can be no distinctions of rank and prestige when people meet in the presence of the King of Glory. There can be no distinctions of wealth or position when we meet in the presence of the supreme holiness of God. In his presence all earthly distinctions are less than the dust and all earthly righteousness is as filthy rags. In the presence of God all believers are one.

“The makeup of the local church should baffle the world. The world should not be able to explain how people of different races, economic and social levels, and age groups can come together in love and harmony. To divide up the church along such lines obliterates the glory of God and His salvation!” –Steven Cole

Abraham Lincoln said, “God must love the common people because he made so many of them.” Christianity has always had a special message for the poor. In Jesus' first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth His claim was: “He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

“The fault of one who when called on to give judgment has respect of the outward circumstances of man and not to their intrinsic merits, and so prefers, as the more worthy, one who is rich, high born, or powerful, to another who does not have these qualities –Thayer

Verse 4: “…have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

Such a distinction is anything but righteous. They were fawning over the rich and treating the poor with contempt because their motives were sinful. They were hoping to receive something from the rich man, if nothing more than his approval. Evil thoughts, wrong motives eventually demonstrate themselves in conduct.

Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.”

What prompts people to show special regard for the rich? Usually the motive is a selfish one. There is lurking in the back of the mind the idea that someday it may be necessary to ask favors from them.

“James then makes his point. By doing this they are making distinctions among themselves and are judging with evil thoughts. They are looking from the point of view of the world, not from the point of view of God. And in the assembly of God’s people that was not to be. Outside the assembly one might be the master and the other a slave. But in the assembly they were both vile sinners, in need of constant mercy.” –Peter Pett

If you pay special attention to the rich, you are judging between the standards of the world and the standards of God. When you do that you have, “shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” (Verse 4). Are you not breaking the commandment of Him who said, ‘Judge not that you be not judged.’” (Matthew 7:1).

Verses 5,6: “Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts?”

“James is not teaching that God chooses all poor men for salvation and passes over all rich men. Rather, it was obvious in the early church that many more poor people had trusted in Christ for salvation, as compared to the rich. There were some rich people (Zaccheus, Nicodemus, Barnabas, Philemon, etc.), but the numbers were slanted toward the poor…As Jesus explained after the encounter with the rich young ruler, it is hard for the wealthy to get into God’s kingdom, because their riches usurp the place that belongs to God alone (Mark 10:17-27) –Steven Cole

This is what forced John Wesley, the founder of Methodism to preach the gospel in the fields and graveyards in 1789, because 18th century England had become so elitist and inhospitable to the common man. Ironically 100 years later, a Methodist man named William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, found himself fighting the same battle in Methodism. He was later kicked out of the Methodists. He went through 14 years of poverty before he started the Salvation Army. As Jesus explained after the encounter with the rich young ruler, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:17-27). It is difficult, but not impossible for the wealthy to get into God’s kingdom, because their riches usurp the place that belongs to God alone.

He asks a question, “Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts?” The wealthy seem to try to take advantage of those who are in dire need. One of my friends who became a millionaire, thought people should give him free products and services just because he was rich. He didn’t need money of the poor person’s property, the rich will foreclose on the poor, or charge unreasonably fees for their use of the property. The rich will pay minimum wage, if he is forced to that will barely pay for his worker’s sustenance. The old adage is very true, “The rich get rich and the poor get poorer.”

“Here's a tale that's shocking, landlord's knocking at the cottage next door,

Butchers, bakers, and milkmen too with accounts overdue.

Landlord's mad and getting madder. Times are bad and gettin’ badder…

There's nothing surer, the rich get rich and the poor get poorer…”

Excerpts from “Ain't We Got Fun” –Gus Kahn and Raymond B. Egan, 1921–

Also, as William Barclay explains: “If a creditor met a debtor on the street, he could seize him by the neck of his robe, nearly throttling him, and literally drag him to the law-courts.” That’s what James is describing here. It is not wealth that James is condemning, but a lack of compassion and understanding on the part of the wealthy towards the poor.

“Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?”

The rich not only oppress the poor and drag them into court (verse 6) but they blaspheme the name of Jesus!

“The rich not only typically oppose Christians, they also typically speak against Christ. This was true in James" world as it is in ours. It is inconsistent to give special honor to those who despise the Lord whom believers love and serve. To blaspheme or slander (Gr. blasphemeo) means to mock deliberately or to speak contemptuously of God. Perhaps those who were blaspheming Christ’s name were unbelieving Jews.” –Thomas Constable

These blasphemers were no doubt Jews, who frequently spoke against Christianity, both in the synagogues and in daily conversation. It is the rich and the powerful who more than any others bring the name of Jesus into disrepute. And they openly blaspheme (use abusive and scurrilous language) against His Name, insulting His Name in public, treating it with contempt, that name ‘by which His people are called’

This verse should really hit home with us. For we often tend to idolize actors, musicians, sport’s heroes, political giants and so on who blaspheme the name of God. Why is it that we at times insist on drooling over someone who is ridiculing and opposing everything that we hold dear? One who insults and ridicules the very God whom we serve?

James’ argument amounts to this, that the practice of honoring the rich for their riches is doubly reprehensible because it involves the meanness of flattering their own oppressors, and the wickedness of reverencing those who blaspheme Christ. It is a servile surrender of their own rights, and base disloyalty to their Lord.

Acts 13:45, “But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming…”

1 Timothy 6:17, 18, “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share.”

Media mogul Ted Turner said, “Christianity is a religion for losers.” Some Christians were very offended by that, but was he right? Listen to what God says about Christians, “Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And He chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 NLT).

“The sin of partiality has persisted in often subtle, but sometimes blatant, ways in evangelical churches as well. For example, one tenet of the church growth movement is called, ‘the homogeneous unit principle.’ It is based on the observation that people like to worship with ‘their own kind.’ Thus, we need to target our outreach programs and build our churches with the aim of reaching similar segments of society. So these folks try to ‘market’ the church to the Baby Boomers or to the Generation Xers, each with their own demographic preferences. I’ve even heard of churches aiming at the up-and-outers, the rich who seem to have everything but God!” –Pastor Steven J. Cole. Flagstaff Christian Fellowship

“When he was a student, the famous Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, considered becoming a Christian. He read the Gospels and was moved by them. It seemed to him that Christianity offered a solution to the caste system that plagued the people of India.

One Sunday, he went to a local church. He had decided to see the pastor and ask for instruction on the way of salvation. But when he entered the church, which consisted of white people, the ushers refused to give him a seat. They told him to go and worship with his own people. He left and never went back ‘If Christians have caste differences also,’ he said, ‘I might as well remain a Hindu.’” –Our Daily Bread, February, 1979

Philippians 2:5-8, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).

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