James is a teacher who is concerned with practicality. He doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with lofty theological principles, though he does address them in his letter. But he spends a great deal of effort to teach us how we are to apply such principles in every day situations.
As a result, James is rather blunt and to the point. If Paul is the general that deals with overall principles and strategies, James is the sergeant who brings them down to the level of the grunt soldier and gets them done. And he doesn’t waste a lot of words doing it either.
From James we learn that true religion is the practice of one’s faith. Faith is analogous to belief. What we believe is the foundation of our faith. But religion is how that faith is applied. One way we practice our religion is by going to church. But of course, our religion is not limited to the church service. Our religion is applied in daily life. What we believe affects how we live.
As we finished up the last chapter, James said that our religion might be in vain if we did not practice certain things in regards to our speech. Our speech then is another means by which we practice our faith. He said if anyone doesn’t bridle his speech, then his religion is worthless. The idea of bridle there is illustrated by putting a bridle on the horse’s head, to control his movements. If we don’t control our speech, then it nullifies our good intentions, and even our good deeds.
James then went on to speak about loving our neighbor as illustrated by orphans and widows. Providing relief to orphans and widows is another example of how we should practice our religion. But as Jesus indicated, anyone who is in need is our neighbor.
Now to elaborate on that law of loving your neighbor, we come to today’s passage. In this passage, James tells us that we must guard against loving others with prejudice, loving those who might reciprocate towards us, or guard against loving those who we feel are attractive to us. But that we should love like God loved us. That love which Christ had towards us is described in Romans 5:8 which says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Christ loved us when we were unloveable. I think many Christians at least subconsciously think that God loves them because somehow they are a lovable person. Talk to the average person for very long about their need for salvation, and they tend to end up saying that they really aren’t a bad person. Oh, they may have messed up somehow, but deep down inside they are not really all that bad.
The fact is, they are self deceived. That’s what James said was the case with the person who didn’t bridle his tongue. He was self deceived. He wasn’t a good person. His whole person was defiled by that little member, the tongue. All kinds of wickedness comes out of the mouth, to the point that all your religion, all your “I’m not such a bad person” is absolutely worthless.
We were saved when we were worthless, sinners, enemies of God, We hated others, we lied, we were jealous, we were angry. Even when we thought we were not so bad and did something good, we actually had evil motives behind our good deeds. But even though there was nothing good in us, Christ loved us, and died for us.
Having bad motives, or wicked ulterior motives, is what James is addressing here in this passage. He says in vs 1, “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with [an attitude of] personal favoritism.” Notice that he addresses this to his brethren. In vs 5 he elaborates on that with “my beloved brethren.” That means he is speaking to fellow Christians, or at least, professing Christians. In vs 2 he gives an illustration about attending church. So we know that he is addressing people who claim to be believers. He is speaking to us who hold onto the faith. But he says we must guard against holding onto our faith, or practicing our faith, or practicing our religion, with an attitude of personal favoritism.
Now the principle, or the law, is that we are to love one another, especially those of the household of faith. And what better place to manifest that love towards the brethren than at church? But James is concerned that we are not loving the way God loves. We are being discriminatory. We choose to love those that we find attractive, those that we think are deserving, and more often than not, our motivation is that we want them to reciprocate in the same way towards us.
Jesus gave what is sometimes called the “golden rule.” It says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or at least that’s the common translation of it. Actually, what Jesus said spoke to this very issue, this selective love that shows favoritism. Jesus said in Luke 6:31-36 “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is [that] to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is [that] to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is [that] to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same [amount.] But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil [men.] Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Jesus said don’t do kindness because you expect a return, don’t limit your love only to those whom you find attractive to you. Don’t show favoritism. But love the way God loves, which is when we are undeserving. Now James is expounding on that principle in this passage. And he likens it to the way we treat others in the church. He gives an illustration of that kind of selective love that shows favoritism in vs2.
Vs2 “For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?”
By the way, the word translated assembly used there can actually mean a synagogue. The synagogue was not the temple, nor did it serve the purpose of a temple, but it was a meeting place for Jews on the Sabbath and other religious holidays where they worshipped God and were taught the word, and for prayer. James has ascribed the characteristics of the synagogue to the church meeting, or the assembly of believers. That’s significant as a template for the church, but I am not going to take the time to expound on that right now, other than to point it out.
The illustration though is one with which most of us are probably familiar. The church assembles. People tend to sit in the same chairs, the same tables, week after week. If someone sits in your spot, you probably wouldn’t say anything out loud, but inwardly you’re probably thinking, “hey, he’s in my seat!” But in any case, it’s evident in most church services when someone new shows up. For one, they don’t know where to sit. Everyone recognizes that they haven’t been here regularly.
James makes the distinction in his illustration that the person who shows up is rich. He says you could tell by the gold ring and the fine clothes. And the church people responded as if he was an honored guest and gave him the choice seat. You know, in the synagogue, as well as in early churches in Europe and in America, there were specially made seats that were up front that were for the wealthy, or for the church elders, or for the nobles or town officials. Many times those people had paid for those special pews to be made. Then the rest of the seating was in a sort of economic order as well, with the higher class people up front, and the commoners in the back.
We don’t have that sort of thing today, for the most part. In fact, nowadays, it would seem that the preferred seating is in the back. But we can understand what James is saying. He’s saying that the church gives preferential treatment to some people based on certain things, such as their attractiveness, or their financial status, or a host of other possible outward signs that they are like us, or that they are what we would like to be, or because we want them to think well of us. We judge by outward appearances, and we love accordingly.
But God doesn’t love like that. Remember the story of how David was anointed to be king by the prophet Samuel. Samuel looked at all David’s brothers, all big, handsome young men, each one capable of being king, at least in appearances. But God said, Samuel, don’t look at the outward appearance, for God looks at the heart.
And so consequently, God tends to call the poor and the weak, and the unattractive, and the unsuccessful to salvation. So Paul says in 1Cor. 1:26-29 “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.”
Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” The principle that Jesus wants to emphasize is that true riches are spiritual riches, to be rich in faith has eternal reward. But too often we look at the physical, instead of the spiritual. James speaks of this principle in vs 5, saying “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world [to be] rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?”
When we surrender our lives to the Lord, we surrender our hold on the world. Jesus said in Luke 16:13 “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” So when we become disciples of Christ, we usually end up poor in the things of this world. Because our purpose in this new life is not to accumulate treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven. But in forsaking the riches of the world we gain riches in heaven, we are rich in faith, and because of our faith, we have an inheritance in the kingdom of God which is far above any riches this world could ever offer.
I really don’t think that is the attitude of the average Christian today though. I’m afraid that the average Christian has not really forsaken anything of this world. Most so called Christians have just attempted to add some Christ to their lives, but He is not the source of a completely new life. If anything, a lot of people expect that adding Christ to their lives will make them more prosperous, more successful, and more wealthy. And there are many false prophets that encourage such a belief by preaching what we is called the prosperity gospel. But the Bible teaches the exact opposite. That we become poor in this world that we might be rich in heaven.
However, I don’t think that God necessarily wants us to take a vow of poverty anymore than I think in light of the earlier passage about holding the tongue, that God wants us to take a vow of silence. But I do think that if Christ is in first place in your life, then the pursuit of wealth or retaining wealth, or admiring wealth, is going to take a back seat. Jesus said it is better to give than to receive. And so if you really believe that, then you spend less energy trying to hold onto money, and more energy trying to use money for the kingdom of God. At the very least, God controls your money, rather than your money controlling you.
But I get the feeling that James doesn’t like rich people very much. He doesn’t admire riches. He sees riches as a hindrance rather than a blessing. The rich young ruler is a good example of that. Jesus told him to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor and come and follow Him. The young man went away sad because he had great riches. We are so conditioned to think that riches are a blessing from God, aren’t we? But in reality, riches can be a hindrance to God. Riches can be an obstacle which keeps us from truly surrendering to the Lord.
But James doesn’t have much pity for rich people. Notice what he says about them in vs 6, “But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?” In honoring the rich man, simply because of his status on earth, they are in effect dishonoring the poor man. But then James seems to generalize and say that the rich are the ones who oppress and take to court those who are saved.
Now I don’t know if James knew of some particular event or incident that he was referring to. But it’s quite possible that his predominately Jewish audience were being oppressed by the Pharisees and the Jewish rulers. These priests and Jewish officials were notoriously rich, and they made their fortunes by taking advantage of the poor. A good example of that is seen in the incident when Jesus went into the temple and drove out the money changers. That was a direct attack by Jesus on the money making business of the high priests. They were taking advantage of the poor, charging them extra for currency exchange that only they could provide and that they required, and then selling them officially clean animals after they told the poor person that his animal did not meet the criteria. They were taking advantage of the poor, and then in many cases, they were the source of persecution against the church. James said they blasphemed the name of Jesus. But yet because of the church’s admiration for riches, they were willing to overlook all that and treat the rich with preference.
But James said this wasn’t just a matter of a mild indiscretion, this was actually a sin, what he called “evil motives.” And so to show that such attitude is a sin, and a grievous sin at that, he turns them to the law. The law defines sin. And the law James chooses to quote is the law of loving your neighbor. He says in vs 8 “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin [and] are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
James refers to it as the royal law; the law of the King, we being His servants. We tend to think of the law as things which we are not supposed to do. But the law James speaks of is a law of what we should do. When Jesus was asked what was the foremost law, He said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
What Jesus indicated there is that if you are guilty of breaking the law of loving your neighbor, then you are guilty of all the law because all the law depends upon these two laws. So James says if you are keeping the second part which is to love your neighbor then you are doing well. But if claim to love your neighbor, but you show favoritism, then you are actually sinning, and guilty of breaking the law. You cannot love your neighbor and show favoritism to the rich, or towards anyone that you find attractive, or hope to find some reciprocation from. If you do so, then you are sinning.
Furthermore, we need to understand that this is the royal law, the King’s edict for the kingdom of God, and that if we are a citizen of that kingdom then we have an obligation to obey the King’s laws. James calls it the law of liberty. But the liberty we have is freedom from sin. The Holy Spirit enables us to keep the law. But still we may choose to do so or not. We are not controlled by sin any longer, and we are supposed to be controlled by the Spirit, but we still may choose to sin. But let there be no mistake, we are not to think lightly of the grace of God and trample underfoot the blood of Jesus so that we think we can sin without impunity, without any consequences. The law was given to us to keep. And when we choose not to keep it, we do so to our own peril. We lose our liberty.
So James is going to go on to teach us how we are to think about the law. He says in vs10 “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one [point,] he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”
The Jews of James day made distinctions concerning the law, that some laws were more important than others. They put the law of the Sabbath, for instance, above other laws as to importance. The same is true of the Catholic Church today. They call some sins moral, and some sins venial, as if there are some sins more serious than others. But notice what James says, he puts the law of loving your neighbor on the same plane as murder and adultery. And he says that if you break the law on one point, then you are guilty of the whole law.
Within the boundaries of God’s perfect law of liberty, we have freedom. My son has several aquariums in our house that have all kinds of fresh and salt water fish. For the fish the water is his natural habitat. And as he stays within that boundary he has liberty and will thrive. But if he leaves that water, then he will suffer. One day my son could not find a particular fish in the aquarium. Finally after a long time of looking, he found the fish on the floor. The fish had jumped out of the aquarium and landed on the floor. The fish left his natural habitat in search of freedom, but found only death. That’s a picture of the law of liberty. The Christian’s natural environment is within the law of God. We have life, we can thrive, we have liberty within the law of God, but if we chose to go outside of it, we lose that liberty.
James says that we are to “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by [the] law of liberty.” That’s not an accommodation to sin that James is giving there. But notice that he says you will be judged according to the law of liberty. And the law of liberty requires that we stay within it’s boundaries.
So he concludes with this summary about judgment. He says in vs 13, “For judgment [will be] merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” Jesus gave a parable once in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness. The parable told the story of a man whom the king forgave a great debt because he cried for mercy. But then the man went out and choked another man who owed him a small sum of money. When the king heard about it, he called the man to court and said, “ You wicked servant, I cancelled all the debt of yours because you begged for mercy. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had towards you? (Matt. 18:32)
The point being that God freely grants us mercy when we ask Him, even when we ask Him again and again and again. So in the same way, God expects us to show mercy to others, again and again. But when we refuse, or neglect to show mercy, then God will withhold mercy from us and instead will judge us according to how we have judged others. Jesus said in Matt. 7:2 “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” That’s pretty scary, when you really examine how you treat others.
But in closing, we are left with a safeguard against such judgment from God. And the safeguard is that mercy triumphs over judgment. If we show mercy then we will be shown mercy. Let us then show mercy towards one another, and love one another without prejudice, that we may be like our heavenly Father who showed mercy to us.