Treat Everyone Equally

Lesson Focus:  You will be challenged to reject favoritism and prejudice and to treat all people – regardless of their outward appearance or status in society – with honor and respect.

Don’t Show Favoritism: James 2:1-4.

[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?  [ESV]

[1-4]  James puts before us two sorts of glory and invites a decision as to where our loyalty lies, seeing that they are mutually incompatible. The heart of verses 1-4 is a 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 to 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. 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 James introduces the thought of glory in a discussion on showing partiality. In the structure of the verses, the illustration begins with an if in verse 2. Verse 4 is, therefore, a ‘then’ clause drawing out the conclusion: this is what follows if the wealthy are favored and if there is discrimination against the poor merely on grounds of worldly advantage. They have become judges with evil thoughts. They have allowed themselves to be led by the standards of this world as to what is worthy and worthwhile rather than putting the Lord’s glory first. When we set ourselves up as judges and pass judgment based on wrong reasoning, we have 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.

Honor Those in Need: James 2:5-7.

[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?  [ESV]

[5-7]  In these verses James makes applications and draws conclusions from his message in verses 1-4. First, 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. As James considers God’s mind as revealed in the way He has exercised His choice, it is clear that God has chosen those who are poor in the world. The words in the world are vitally important to James’ meaning. They refer to the nature of the poverty experienced by those on whom the divine choice falls. It is poverty as the world understands poverty. Thus, to dishonor the poor, as illustrated in verses 2-3, is to contradict the mind of God. Secondly, in verses 6b-7, James calls to mind earthly experience. He points out that it is in fact the rich who persecute believers, using the legal courts to do so. 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? The evidence of the rest of the Bible does not support affirmative answers to these questions. Rather we see, from this evidence inside James and more widely in the Bible, 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. If James calls us to live out the life of God by caring for the poor, he is equally determined that we should not be dazzled by the rich, and this too must be borne in mind. It is by no means unusual for a person to have a voice in church affairs related not to his wisdom but to his wealth. Money still does the talking far too loudly in Christian circles, and where and when it does, the glory of Christ departs. There is one further line of teaching in verses 5-7. It is often the case in the Bible that, in dealing with one topic, something else comes in by implication or incidentally. The divine choice brings with it great spiritual riches, and the poor person becomes rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who l0ve him. Worldly wealth pales before the spiritual riches that we gain when we are joined to Christ. There is, first, the wealth that is ours at the foundation of our Christian experience: faith and love. Secondly, James speaks of the rich sphere of blessing into which we have been brought, for we are heirs of the kingdom. James uses kingdom as a summary word for the eternal sphere of blessing into which we have already entered. Entering into the kingdom is entering into the life which Jesus imparts [Mark 9:45,47]; to be in the kingdom is to be saved [Luke 18:25-26]. The kingdom is the rule of Christ in and over believing hearts and brings the present kingdom benefits of righteousness, joy and peace, enjoyed through the Holy Spirit [Rom. 14:17]. Thirdly, there is a personal blessing of high dignity accorded to every believer: we have each been called by that honorable name. The taking of the name speaks of an intimate, personal and permanent relationship with our Lord which far outweighs any material poverty.

Triumph Through Mercy: James 2:8-13.

[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]

[8-11]  Here James is turning our attention away from the illustration in verses 2-4 and directing our attention to a principal: if you really fulfill the royal law … you are doing well. 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, which means that it carries scriptural authority. This raises the question about what place the law has in the life of the Christian? In the Bible, the obedience we render to God’s 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. Those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, long to grow like Him, to be made like unto the Son of God in all things. This is simply saying that His example comes to us with the force of divine law. 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 is used in the New Testament with the meaning of ‘belonging to the king’. If we accept this meaning here, then the royal law is that which comes to us with some special authority 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. 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: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. If we want to know how we are to love our neighbors, then we must ask a prior question: how do we love ourselves? 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 on 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. But all this is very much more easily said than done. The world is full of the needy; we have far more neighbors than we could ever hope to care for. Three things may be offered as guidelines. First, we must each discover from God what is our calling. The world is indeed full of our neighbors, in the sense of people requiring our aid, but the Lord of the harvest is the only one who can direct His work force according to His perfect will. Secondly, we must respect each other’s callings, recognizing that God places His servants where He wants them to serve. Thirdly, we must enter into each other’s calling. We must learn to rejoice in each other’s callings; to marvel at the obedience which takes our brothers and sisters into grim areas at home and overseas, or into the hard task of bringing the gospel to the comfortable. Where we cannot go ourselves, and where we are not called to go, we must stand behind those who are so called. 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. 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. 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. 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. I can get on without it; it is of no particular value. If we view the law as a series of individual commandments, we could assume that disobedience of a particular commandment incurred guilt for that commandment only. But, in fact, the individual commandments are part and parcel of one indivisible whole, because they reflect the will of the one Lawgiver. To violate a commandment is to disobey God Himself and render a person guilty before Him.

[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 should want to obey it in order to please and honor our King. Secondly, because it is a command of the law of God, we must obey it, since He is our Lord. To ignore it is to reject God’s rightful place over our lives. The command comes to us as a revelation of God, and with His authority, therefore we must obey it. But James now adds a third truth. The command to love our neighbor is part of the law of liberty, and therefore we can obey it. By his startling expression, the law of liberty, James brings together the two things which people think of as opposites, law and liberty. God’s law describes the life of true freedom since God created us to joyfully and willingly live in total obedience to His Will for our lives. But our sin removed this life of true freedom from us and placed us in slavery to God’s law, unable and unwilling to obey it. Now, as members of the new covenant, the law of liberty refers to the new covenant promise of the law written on the heart, accompanied by a work of the Spirit enabling obedience to that law. No longer do we need to attempt to obey any aspect of God’s law in our own strength. We now have the Spirit dwelling in our hearts enabling us to both have the desire to obey and the strength to obey God’s commands to us. No longer is God’s law a threatening, confining burden. Now His law is an obligation we discharge in the joyful knowledge that God has both liberated us from the penalty of sin and given us the power to obey His will.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Does partiality play a role in the activity of your church: in the treatment of visitors, in the selection of leaders, etc.? If so, how can you apply James teaching in verse 4 to your situation?

2.         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 a law.)

3.         What place does God’s law have in the life of the Christian according to verses 8-13? 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?


The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

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

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