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James 2:8-13: The Royal Law (Part 2)

As in the previous message, James goes deeper in the issue of partiality, as he argues against any form of discrimination, which is a violation of the “Royal law.” The royal law, according to James is: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8).

In verses 1-7, James encourages his readers not to treat the rich that come to their church better than the poor. It is tempting for people who have nothing and are going through trials to treat others differently. Maybe we envy those who are wealthy and don't seem to be having any trials at all.

Psalm 73:3-5, “For I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, nor are they plagued like other men.”

Or, perhaps we think the rich may have some power to alleviate our pain so we give them better treatment. Maybe we hope to have a share in the so-called glory we think they possess. Whatever the reason, James reminds them that there is only one Lord of glory, Jesus Christ, Himself. He shows them how silly they are to honor the rich when they are the very ones who oppress them! Why should they look for glory or help from these people?

So James begins by summarizing what he wrote in the previous section with this statement: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well…” (Verse 8). It’s not clear why he calls this “the royal law.” He may be referring to it as the “kingly law,” the law belonging to the king, Jesus, or to the kingdom of God. This is the second half of what Jesus quotes when asked what is the greatest commandment. The first half is “Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30).

Verse 8: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well…”

James encourages them to “fulfill” this law. In other words, don't just love some of your neighbors as yourself. Many in the church had been choosing only the rich neighbors to love well. Maybe they were tempted to believe that a partial observance of the law was enough to satisfy the law. James will not let them continue in this thinking. We are to love our neighbors as we ourselves are loved by God. They are also objects of His love.

Who are my neighbors? One of the best remembered of Jesus’ parables is that of the Good Samaritan who stops to help an injured man when no one else would. Less well remembered is the fact that this parable was told to answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” So Jesus gives us this parable:

“There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man. A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’” (Luke 10:30-35 MSG).

Let me bring this up-to-date for you! Here’s a man, going about his daily business, who was brutally mugged, robbed, beaten, left naked, and half-dead in the gutter. Fortunately, a priest came by, but, assuming he was of a different denomination, wrapped his self-righteous robes about him, crossed the street, and ignored this poor man’s cries for help. He didn’t even a call 911! Then the local, liberal protestant pastor showed up, but supposing the injured man to be a hopeless derelict, also avoided him, not wanting any of his affluent parishioners to see. Then an Evangelical Christian came by, his heart of compassion went out to him. He stopped the bleeding as best he could, wrapped his wounds, ignoring the blood that might stain his seats, put him in his own car and took him to find help. Then he paid for his treatment out of his own pocket, even saying, “If there is more cost, I’ll take care of it.” Jesus continues His parable, ‘What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?’ ‘The one who treated him kindly,’ the religion scholar responded. Jesus said, ‘Go and do the same’” (Verses 36,27 MSG).

For Jesus, a neighbor was anyone with whom you came into contact, whether Jew, Gentile, rich, poor, male, female, slave or free. The believer is to show love for anyone within his reach, along with Jesus' command to love our enemies. Jesus says:

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends,[c] how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

I am my neighbor’s Bible; he reads me when we meet.

Today he reads me in my home–Tomorrow, in the street.

He may a relative or friend be; or slight acquaintance be;

He may not even know my name, yet he is reading me.

And pray, who is this neighbor, who reads me day by day,

To learn if I am living right, and walking as I pray?

Oh, he is with me always, to criticize or blame;

So worldly wise in his own eyes, and “Sinner” is his name.

Dear Christian friends and sisters, if we could only know,

How faithfully the world records just what we say and do;

Oh, we would write our record plain, and come in time to see

Our worldly neighbor won to Christ, while reading you and me.

–from the book, Keepers at Home­–

James was addressing the problem of showing partiality to the rich and disregarding the poor, but this applies to any sort of partiality based on external factors: “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin” (2:9). That seems pretty clear! And yet because we all tend to congratulate ourselves for not committing certain “big” sins, while we shrug off our “little” sins as no big deal, this problem of partiality still plagues the church. So James’ teaching here is relevant for our times.

Perfect love does not show partiality. If we are discriminating against people for whatever reason, we are not loving as Christ loved. If that is the case, we are sinning, for we are falling short of God's standard, breaking the two greatest commandments of the Law. And James is going on to show us just how serious it is to violate the Law of God.

“According to the Scripture” is not, “according to the Gospel—the words of Jesus;” but according to the law of Moses: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18).


Matthew 22:36-40, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Romans 13:9, “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Galatians 5:14, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Verse 9: “…but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

If you violate this “royal law,” you are sinning! You are convicted by, the law…the law here is just a single commandment, but the moral law regarding our duties to others, and which, which is summed up in this command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

“Transgressors” in Greek is parabates, meaning, law-breaker. “One who breaks a law, or violates a command; one who violates any known rule or principle” –Dictionary.

Verse 10: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.”

James here guards us against a selective obedience, the sort that will pick and choose which commands of God should be obeyed and which can be safely disregarded.

James goes on to lay down a great principle about the law of God. To break any part of it is to beak it all. The Jew regarded the law as a series of detached injunctions. To keep one was to gain credit; to break one was to incur debt. A man could add up the ones he kept and subtract the ones he broke and so emerge with a credit or a debit balance. There was a Rabbinic saying, “Whoever fulfills only one law, good is appointed to him; his days are prolonged and he will inherit the land.” Again many of the Rabbis held that “the Sabbath weighs against all precepts,” and to keep it was to keep the law. –Adapted and edited rom William Barclay

“He argues that if anyone keeps the entire law (something that no one has ever done, but for sake of argument, he assumes that it is possible), but stumbles in one point, he is guilty of all. In other words, the law is a unity, like a chain. A single broken link breaks the chain. Or, the law is like a mirror or window. A single, small crack means that it is broken.” –Steven Cole

“Our obedience to God’s will cannot be on a selective basis; we cannot choose that part that is to our liking and disregard the rest. God’s will is not fragmentary; the entire law is the expression of His will for His people; it constitutes a grand unity. To break out one corner of a window pane is to become guilty of breaking the whole pane. He who crosses a forbidden boundary at one point or another is guilty of having crossed the boundary." –James Hiebert

Verse 11: “For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”

James illustrated this point with a hypothetical case involving two very severe violations of the law. All sins are not equally serious in that the consequences of some sins are greater than others, but all sins are equally serious in that any sin is a violation of God’s will.

God does not categorize sin. There are no big sins and little sins. For example, homosexuality is a sin against God, (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-28), but it not a greater sin than adultery (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 22:22; Proverbs 6:32; Matthew 5:28).

Whatever the sin, when committed makes you a law-breaker. You can be a good person in every other way, but if you break the law, you’re a lawbreaker. For example, if a man is guilty of murder, when he goes before the court it does not matter if he has been a faithful husband and father, has never had a traffic ticket, has never robbed a bank, or has never beat up his neighbor. All that matters is, did he commit murder? If so, he is guilty of breaking the law.

Verse 12: “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.”

“The law of liberty is the law of God that liberates us now. It is the same as the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) in contrast to the Mosaic Law. As free as we are under the law of Christ, we need to remember that God will judge us (Romans 14:10-13; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). We need to speak and act accordingly, namely, without prejudice toward others.” –Dr. Thomas Constable

The “Law of liberty” is the law of merciful freedom!

Jesus took our judgment on the cross, so how can we be judged by the “law of liberty?” When you stand before God you won't be judged according to your works, because if you’re judged according to your works, you’ll be condemned. But you’re judged according to Christ's work, and you’re accepted according to Christ's work, and you’re declared righteous according to Christ's work. And you enter into the kingdom of heaven because of Christ's work.

“He then applies his words to the Christians who are hearing his letter read to them. They are to recognize this principle and speak and act accordingly, recognizing that their words and their actions are to be judged by means of the perfect law, the law of liberty (James 1:25). But that law is not called the law of liberty because it frees men from the need to obey it and lowers God’s standards. It is called the ‘law of liberty’ because:

•It has been freed by Jesus from all the extra requirements added by man and stands out in all its purity (Mark 7:13). It has thus become a law of liberation.

•It has been amplified and expanded on in order to deal with thoughts as well as actions, freeing men from a dead letter and positively requiring purity of thought.

•It is there to be observed gladly and heartily by all who have been set free from its condemnation and its power to drive men to despair by their whole-hearted response to God and the Lord, Jesus Christ (John 8:34-36; Romans 8:1-16; compare the Psalmist’s joy in the Law in Psalms 119).

•It is the law of all who have been freed from sin and are now His servants (1 Peter 2:16) and sons (Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:4-7).

•It lays bare the way of freedom, for if it is observed fully it makes all men free from sin, and it is the law of freedom because it works hand in hand with God’s work in the heart by which He brings those who respond to Him in obedience to Him and His law so that they are free to fulfill it (Jeremiah 31:31 ff. Hebrews 8:8-12; Philippians 2:13).

•Obedience to it brings men into freedom and blessedness, and gives them fullness of life (Psalms 1:1-3; Psalms 119:1-3; Psalms 119:162-165; Leviticus 18:5).

Thus we too must come to that law and read and study it. For it will show us what it means to be free from sin, and will drive us to call on the strength and power of Christ in order to overcome. And it will convict us of anything in which we go wrong. For studying that Law is ‘coming to the light’, and that will show us the sin from which we need to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus (1 John 1:7-10).” –Peter Pett

As Christians we experience continuous freedom. Jesus said in John 8: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Verse 32). He also said: “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (Verse 34). And, “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (Verse 36). So Jesus has freed us from being a slave to sin, so we obey ‘the law of Christ’, God’s perfect “Law of liberty.”

Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation (Judgment) to hose who are in Christ Jesus.”

John 5:24, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.”

Verse 13: “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

The “law of liberty” implies for us, that if you've received mercy from God, if you've received liberty, freedom from the bondage to sin and condemnation through the mercy and grace of God, how are you going to treat other people? Isn't your heart going to overflow with mercy?

“And if it's not overflowing with mercy, is that an indication that you've never tasted of his mercy? Now, shallow favoritism is sinning against the rule of Christ and the whole law of God, and it's inviting his strictest judgment. A vital faith will lead to our demonstrating mercy in accepting others, especially those who are different from us, those who make us uncomfortable, those who are less fortunate than we are. And it would transform our Christianity, and it would transform our Christian witness if we really began to live this out.” –Adapted from J. Ligon Duncan, 1st Presbyterian Church, Jackson.MS

“Mercy” is God’s love in action! One who loves, gives. “For God so loved…that he gave…” (John 3:16). True believers have been set free by God’s mercy to show mercy to others. Mercy is the distinguishing characteristic of God’s people, the work of faith that has given us God’s mercy is a work of faith that provides abundant testimony of our salvation. Consequently, if no mercy is seen or practiced in the life of a professing believer, there is sufficient reason to suspect his faith.

“The law of liberty is the law which defines our relationship to God and man as love-mastered. To speak and do under that impulse, is to be free indeed. If that law be disobeyed, if no mercy be shown, then judgment based upon that law will show no mercy.” –Morgan

“The law of freedom is not laxity but a strict ethical rule of God, and we shall be judged by our adherence to its supreme principle of brotherly love or mercy, i.e. compassion for the sins and sufferings of our fellows.” –Moffatt

Verses 12-13 MSG: “Talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the rule that sets us free. For if you refuse to act kindly, you can hardly expect to be treated kindly. Kind mercy wins over harsh judgment every time.”

The late Max Cadenhead, when he was pastor of First Baptist Church in Naples, Florida, riveted his congregation one day with a bold confession.

“My message today is on the parable of the Good Samaritan,” Max announced. “Let me start with an illustration. “Remember last year when the Brown’s came forward to join the church?” he asked. Everyone nodded; the Browns were a very influential family. “Well, the same day a young man came forward and gave his life to Christ. I could tell he needed help—and we counseled him.” No one nodded; no one remembered. “We worked with the Brown’s, got them onto committees. They've been wonderful folks,” Cadenhead said to muffled Amen’s. “The young man…well, we lost track…

Until yesterday, that is, as I was preparing today's message on the Good Samaritan. I picked up the paper, and there was that young man's picture. He had shot and killed an elderly woman.”

Chins dropped throughout the congregation, mine included, as the pastor continued. “I never followed up on that young man, so I'm the priest who saw the man in trouble and crossed to the other side of the road. I am a hypocrite.”

More of that kind of sober honesty in the church would be very healthy. For God's kingdom is just the opposite of ours. We go after the rich or the influential, thinking if we can just bag this one or that one, we'll have a real catch for the kingdom. Like the folks profiled by the apostle James, we offer our head tables to the wealthy and well-dressed and reserve the back seats for those we consider unimportant.

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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