Open Arms

| James 2:1-13

Week of September 9, 2018

The Point:  Welcoming others goes beyond a friendly handshake.

Show No Partiality: James 2:1-13.

[1] My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. [2] For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, [3] and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” [4] have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? [5] Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? [6] But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? [7] Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? [8] If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. [9] But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. [10] For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. [11] For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. [12] So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. [13] For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.   [ESV]

“Denying our faith [2:1-7].  Two sorts of glory [2:1-4].  The heart of verses 1-4 is a homely, down-to-earth illustration such as James loves. Into the church meeting come two strangers. That they are strangers is evident from the fact that they do not know where to sit and need one of the members of find them a place. One stranger has all the outward trappings of wealth and gets ushered into a seat, while the other, a poor man, has to stand or, at best, to squat on a stool. And when we ask why this is, it comes down to appearance: the one looks important, the other negligible. It is this matter of appearance which must be stressed if we are to be faithful to James’ teaching and at the same time keep within the balance of Scripture. The Bible is too courteous a book to allow us to lack proper respect for people to whom respect is due. It does not reduce all to a common level in all things or refuse to take note of worldly distinctions; certainly it does not sanction rudeness or unconcern for what people are. It would not be showing partiality, for example, to offer the last remaining seat to an elderly person and to invite a younger person arriving simultaneously to stand or to sit on the floor. The elderly command respect and considerate attention. But it is one thing thus to acknowledge inherent dignity, whether of age or position; it is another thing altogether to be swayed by the mere chance that one possesses worldly advantages such as money and the other does not. James’ illustration is timeless. It speaks as loudly today as when he penned it. The sin of partiality is the sin of judging by accidentals and externals and, as James noted, it always bears down on the poor and disadvantaged. But why is it a sin? James deliberately introduces the idea of the glory of Jesus and compels us to ask why he does so. Why is the notion of glory so important? Glory is shorthand for the personal presence of the Lord in all His goodness and in the fullness of His revealed character. The Lord Jesus Christ is God’s Glory: God Himself come among us in all His goodness and in the full revelation of His person. Verse 4 tells us why it is important for James to introduce the thought of glory at this point in his letter. Verse 4 is a ‘then’ clause drawing out the conclusion that James started with the ‘if’ clause in verse 2. Verse 4 is what follows if the wealthy are favored and if there is discrimination against the poor merely on grounds of worldly advantage. James states his conclusion in the form of a question: have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? The question James poses is whether we put the Lord’s glory first in our scale of values or whether, all the time or from time to time, we allow ourselves rather to be led by the standards of this world as to what is worthy and worthwhile. To depart from this definition of what constitutes true glory is first to set ourselves up as judges, and in passing judgment to allow ourselves to be governed by evil thoughts. We have, in fact, committed a double fault. We have misunderstood our status – as if it were our position to sit in judgment on others; and we have trusted our own judgment – as if, by ourselves, we could make a true and accurate assessment. On the contrary, James teaches by a clear implication that in both status and judgment the Lord Jesus Christ, who is Himself the Glory, must reign supreme. As to how we accept others, we must ask how He would accept them. As to how we appraise others, we must ask how He appraises them. As to how we act towards others, we must ask how He would act towards them. Our values, priorities and activities must ever be governed by the definition of true glory displayed in the person, conduct and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Experience on two levels [2:5-7].  In these verses James makes his own application and draws his own conclusions from his command in verse 1. In doing so he appeals to the experience of his readers on two distinct levels. First, in verses 5-6a, he reminds them of spiritual experience. New life in Christ may trace its conscious and public history back to the moment of decision, of commitment, of accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior. But every conversion has a secret history which the Bible reveals and which owes its origin to God’s choice. God has chosen those who are poor in the world. The nature of the poverty experienced by those on whom the divine choice falls is poverty as the world understands poverty. These are the ones whom God has chosen. Thus to dishonor the poor, as illustrated in verses 2-3, is to contradict the mind of God. Secondly, verses 6b-7, James calls to mind earthly response. He points out that it is in fact the rich who persecute believers, using the forms and façade of legality to do so. And in doing so the rich blaspheme the lovely name of the Lord Jesus, by which they are called. Such a blunt espousal of the cause of the poor and such an unqualified exposure of the rich are very much the cast of James’ mind on the matter. For us the questions must be asked: how are we to understand the words he uses? Is the Lord unconditionally on the side of the poor? Are the rich by nature persecutors and inevitably such? And how are we to understand the mind that lies behind James’ words? Is he calling us to take sides on every social issue on the assumption that the poor man must be right and the rich man wrong? When we examine the evidence both from inside James and more widely in the Bible, we see that James has learnt a teaching technique from the Lord Jesus Himself. In some situations there are indeed two sides to the truth, but one so far outclasses the other that it merits stating as if it alone were the truth. This is what Jesus did when He affirmed that a real love for Himself demanded hating our parents [Luke 14:26]. Does He really call us to hate our parents? Of course not! Yet in saying that the two loves are mutually exclusive He does no violence to the practical truth that our devotion to Him, when it is real, is of necessity in a class by itself. When we apply this formula to what James writes, we see that he is expressing a general rather than an invariable truth. The Lord does not choose only the poor; it is not only the rich who persecute believers and blaspheme the name of Jesus. Yet, in general, this is not only true but overwhelmingly true. It has always been the case that the Lord’s true people are predominantly less well off, the prey for stronger, more ruthless forces, and subject to less than justice from those who know how to manipulate the system. There are three things which Scripture holds together in unity: what the Lord is in Himself, how His nature leads Him to identify with the needy and helpless, and how what He has done for us (the needy and helpless) should constitute a model for us to follow.

Obedient faith [2:8-13].  Realizing that what he has said so far is capable of being pushed to the extreme, James, having made his point, turns to provide the needed corrective. This is why he links verse 8 to verse 7 by the word If. He is turning our attention away from the illustration and directing our attention to a principle: If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture … you are doing well. Another word which links verses 1-7 and 8-13 is partiality. In verse 1 it occurs in the plural in order to express the thought ‘partiality in any shape or form’. This ought to have warned us that the illustration of the poor man [2-4] was not meant to be an exhaustive account of sinful favoritism, but only one example. When the word comes again (this time in the singular) in verse 9 it follows a reference to your neighbor in verse 8. According to the teaching of Jesus a neighbor is anyone who needs my care and attention [Luke 10:25-37], and it would be just as sinful to refuse neighborly concern to the rich simply because he is rich as to dismiss the poor because he is poor. Consequently the if of verse 8 is a real clue to the understanding of the whole section. We might paraphrase: ‘What it all comes to is this: keep the royal law.’ Law and the Christian.  The principle on which James now rests his teaching is this: we have a law to obey. It is a very special law, for it is called the royal law. Also, it is according to the Scripture [8], which means that it carries scriptural authority. This raises a whole series of questions: how can it be scriptural to say that Christians are under the law? Is James bringing us back into a bondage from which Christ liberated us? What place has ‘law’ in the life of the Christian? The first twenty chapters of Exodus are a huge, God-given, visual aid on this subject. The first act of God is to redeem His people [Ex. 6:6]. Then He brings His people to the place where He reveals His law to them [Ex. 20:1ff.]. To put the matter another way: those who have experienced the benefit of the blood of the lamb [Ex. 12:13, 21-23] must come under obedience to the law. God the Redeemer and God the Lawgiver are the same. Grace comes first, then Law follows. This is biblical logic. When people have received the wonders of God’s grace in redemption, will they not, in gratitude, want to know how to live so as to please the God who has poured His grace upon them? The point is of such importance that it is worth stating it over again. In the Bible, the obedience we render to His law is not meritorious obedience but responsive obedience. We obey, not as those who are trying to merit salvation, but as those who have already received salvation and wish to respond by giving their whole lives up to God their Savior. There is a pattern, then, in the ways of God. Redemption by the blood of the lamb leads to responsive obedience – the life-style of the redeemed framed according to the law of the Redeemer. The royal law [2:8-9].  The use of the adjective royal must point to the importance of this law, but beyond that it is not certain quite what James intends. The word royal does consistently have the meaning ‘belonging to the king’. If we accept this meaning here, then the royal law is that which comes to us with some special imprimatur from the King. The case for this is strengthened when we recall that the Lord Jesus Himself took this law and gave it a special dignity within the whole body of biblical law [Mark 12:28-31]. Furthermore, this is the sense which best suits the context in James. He has just said that God has made us heirs of the kingdom [5], and now he enunciates the kingdom-law, the law which in a very special sense belongs to the king within whose realm we are privileged to live. Here, then, is a law which comes to us with all the weight of scriptural authority, but which in particular is marked out as being a special concern of our King, something that is especially suited to Him and which comes to us bearing the royal arms upon it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. How very important the last two words are! They are the key to the whole meaning. If we want to know how we are to love our neighbors, then we must ask a prior question: how do we love ourselves? With concern, care and attention. Loving ourselves means providing loving care and attention. This is the model on which we are to base our relationships to all to whom we owe neighborly duty. Everything conspires today to define love primarily in emotional terms. Scripturally, love is to be defined in caring terms, for the love that is owed to our neighbor is the love we expend upon ourselves. The opposite of the royal law [8], is partiality [9]. They are contrasted as doing well and committing sin. The essence of the royal law is that wherever there is need there is an obligation to extend the sort of love we lavish on ourselves; the essence of partiality is to select the recipients of our care on some ground other than that they are in need. God’s law and God’s character [2:10-11].  James wants to go beyond a special obligation to obey the royal law to establish a universal obligation, an obligation which no one can avoid. He does it in this way: first he insists that the law is one indivisible whole [10]. There is no way in which we can pick and choose between the commandments, because to break one is to break the law. Why is this? James goes on to explain. He does so by turning from the law to the Lawgiver: he who said … also said … [11]. The thing which gives the law its indivisible nature is the character of the God who spoke it. This means that there is nothing arbitrary about the commandments of the law: each one reflects some facet of the divine nature. Neither is there anything unnecessary: if the law is to express the whole nature of the Lawgiver, then each single precept has its place. To take away a precept from the law is to damage the revelation of God which He has given us in His law. To say that one of the commands does not apply to me is to say that there is some aspect of the nature of God which does not matter, as far as I am concerned. The law of liberty [2:12-13].  James has so far taught us two truths about the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. First, because it is the royal law, the law that in a special sense belongs to the king, we would wish to obey it – simply because He would specially desire us to do so. Secondly, because it is a command of the law of God, we must obey it. To dismiss it is to dismiss the facet of the Glory of God which it represents; to leave it to others is to say that it is immaterial whether this part of the Lord’s likeness is seen in me. It comes to us as a revelation of God, and with His authority, therefore we must obey it. But, thirdly, it is part of the law of liberty, and therefore we can obey it. The Lord gave His law to Israel in order to safeguard the liberty which He had achieved for them by bringing them out of Egypt [Ex. 20:2]. The law of God is not a new bondage, but is given to mark the end of the old bondage and the beginning of true freedom. Man is made in the image of God. Our true freedom depends on discovering how we can give expression to our true nature. How can we live so as to be like Him? James answers this crucial question by his startling expression, the law of liberty, bringing together the two things which people think of as opposites, law and liberty. But the law is the nature of God expressed in commandments. When we obey His commands, then we are living like Him. We are in the image of God; the law is in the image of God. When we bring these two together, we are truly free. God’s law describes the life of true freedom; obedience opens the door into the free life. Acts 5:32 says that God gives His Holy Spirit to those who obey Him. In other words, the very act of obeying is a key to power. The law of God does more than describe the life of liberty; obedience liberates. Through the saving work of Christ we have been given by God a heart that matches the requirements of His law. God’s word of truth in all its aspects resides in our new nature, and waits to be triggered off by the precepts of His law. We are called to obey and, because the law corresponds to the wishes and capacities of the new heart, we can. Mercy and judgment [2:13].  Sadly we fail, over and over again, to live the life of obedience, and we are very blameworthy, for at one and the same time we have to admit that ‘Yes, I did disobey’ and ‘No, I did not have to’. It is good for us that James goes on now to speak of mercy. We are in constant need of the mercy of God, and He shows us on what terms we may have it: judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. The Lord Jesus taught that it is the merciful who obtain mercy [Mt. 5:7], and amplified His teaching in the story of the unforgiving servant [Mt. 18:21-35]. It is not that our mercy has purchasing power, but that it has evidential value. Neither Jesus nor James would see our merciful deeds as meritorious acts by which we make ourselves worthy of God’s mercy. If we could make ourselves worthy we would not need mercy! Both teach that, if we are not merciful, we can neither credibly seek nor effectively receive the mercy He offers. The word which links verses 12 and 13 is judged … judgment. Since the law of God is itself a liberating agent, disobedience is without excuse and we have much need of divine mercy. But instead of simply saying that mercy is available, James states the truth about mercy in a way that rounds off his whole argument. The essence of the illustration in verses 2-4 is that a merciful spirit was replaced, on spurious, superficial grounds, by a spirit of partiality, favoring the wealthy. In verse 13 the mercy we need is conditional upon showing mercy, for only the merciful obtain mercy. We need to be careful about the words without mercy. Without mercy is not the same as what we mean by merciless. If we fail to find shelter under divine mercy, then the law takes its absolutely just and equitable course; we get what we deserve. But the presence of a merciful spirit assures us that we can sue for and shelter under mercy. James concludes this verse abruptly: Mercy triumphs over judgment. But what does he mean? The words are not a command or an invitation, but an unqualified statement. In the plan of salvation, justice demands, as what is due, that the sinner should be condemned; mercy pleads that he may be saved – and mercy prevails. In this way, at the end of a very searching section, James brings us a real word of comfort and assurance. Practical and loving James directs us, at the end, away from self-questioning to the one thing that is eternally certain. In the cross of Christ justice was fully done, its claims were fully met and God’s mercy to sinners triumphed in the provision of a complete forgiveness and a full salvation.”  [Motyer, pp. 79-104].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why does James place the discussion of showing partiality in the church in the context of the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory? Why is showing partiality a denial of our faith and our desire to glorify our Lord? What double fault do we commit when we show partiality?
  2. Verses 5-7 present an excellent example of the importance of historical context for interpreting the meaning of a passage. Taken out of the context of Scripture as a whole, these verses would teach that God only chooses the materially poor in the world. But we see from others parts of scripture that this is not true. So what is James teaching us in these verses?
  3. What is the royal law? Why does James contrast it with showing partiality? Why does James write that we are guilty of the whole law if we break the law at any one point? (Consider what we are saying about God when we break one of His laws.)
  4. What place does God’s law have in the life of the Christian according to verses 8-13? How is God’s Law both a law of judgment and a law of liberty? What is the difference between meritorious obedience and responsive obedience? How does understanding the law of liberty help us avoid falling into the trap of meritorious obedience? How does responsive obedience liberate us?

References:

James, Daniel Doriani, REC, P&R Publishing.

The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Message of James, J. A. Motyer, Inter Varsity Press.