Sunday, February 19, 2023
Lesson Text: James 2:1-12; Time of Action: around 45 A.D.; Place of Action: James writes from Jerusalem
Golden Text: “Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?” (James 2:5).
I. INTRODUCTION. Have you ever noticed that it takes only a couple of seconds to form an impression of a person and twenty years to change that impression? We all tend to quickly take a look, examine our feelings, and come up with an evaluation. Judging and showing partiality are major problems with all people, and especially with believers. Living in God’s kingdom requires that believers make some major adjustments in the way they treat others. Too often we give in to worldly pressure to value people according to wealth and rank. Churches forsake poor neighborhoods, shun persons from unsavory backgrounds, and refuse to condemn sins of greed and injustice. This is why James had to give the instruction found in this week’s lesson.
II. BACKGROUND FOR THE LESSON. The writer of the book of James was Jesus’ half brother (see Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19). Mary’s younger children didn’t believe in Jesus during His earthly life (see John 7:5), but they joined Jesus’ followers after His resurrection (see Acts 1:14). It’s very possible that James was converted by the risen LORD (see I Corinthians 15:3-7). He also became the leader of the Jerusalem church (see Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; Galatians 1:19; 2:9, 12). James wrote to the “twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (see James 1:1). This refers to Christians Jews. After the death of Stephen (see Acts 7:58-60; 8:1-3), the persecution of believers increased and believers in Jerusalem were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Since these early believers in Jesus Christ didn’t have the support of established churches, James wrote to them as a concerned leader, to encourage them in their faith during those difficult times. James began his letter by outlining some general characteristics of the Christian life (see James 1:1-27). In this week’s lesson, James addresses what appears to be a very specific problem among the Jewish Christians living outside the land of Israel, due to the Diaspora or scattering of the Jews. The problem that James was addressing occurred when these believers met in their gatherings or worship services. It was a severe problem—the showing of partiality or favoritism. James’ words in our text seem to be rooted in the laws of Exodus that were against all favoritism in judgment. No one was to be partial toward the poor or against the poor (see Exodus 23:3, 6). Our lesson begins with chapter 2.
III. THE INJUSTICE OF PARTIALITY (James 2:1-4)
A. Faith and partiality (James 2:1). In our first verse, James begins with a startling statement: “My brethren, have not the faith of our LORD Jesus Christ, the LORD of glory, with respect of persons.” This statement was startling because in the Greek this verse reads “My brethren, do not with respect of persons have the faith.” In other words, James was saying that we are not demonstrating “faith” in “our LORD Jesus Christ” if we show “respect of persons” or favoritism. This is the sin that James is condemning. The words “respect of persons” literally means “receiving of faces” or to “look at a person’s face.” The idea is that the focus is on what the person looks like instead of on the person, resulting in an uninformed judgment. To have “respect of persons” really means giving more “respect” to one person than another because of outward appearance alone. When James said “have not the faith of our LORD Jesus Christ,” he was appealing to his readers not to allow their “faith” in “Christ” to be contaminated by acts of favoritism. Such acts are inconsistent with “faith” in “our LORD Jesus Christ,” because He never showed partiality. “Jesus” is also described as “the LORD of glory” because just as God’s “glory” was seen visibly by His people in the tabernacle and the temple, His “glory” was now personified in “Jesus Christ.” This presents us with a question. If “Christ” is our “glory,” why do we “glory” in others? By showing favoritism, we exalt men and take away from Christ.
B. Inequity in the assembly (James 2:2-3).
1. (vs. 2). In this verse James begins to give an illustration of his command in the previous verse. He said “For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment.” James may be giving a hypothetical illustration, but he could also be stating something that had actually happened. James pictured two men who come into the “assembly.” The Greek word translated “assembly” can also be translated “synagogue.” Since these were early Jewish Christians, they may still have been worshipping in synagogues. The two men who enter are no doubt strangers, and the regular worshippers know nothing about them except what they see at that moment. The first one introduced is a man “with a gold ring, in goodly apparel.” The words “with a gold ring” literally mean “a gold fingered man” indicating that he could have had on more than one “ring” to show his status. The “goodly apparel” refers to fine clothes, or clothes that were openly brilliant and splendid. This man had all the marks of being wealthy. Into that same assembly came “also a poor man in vile raiment.” This second man had no money and his “raiment” or clothing was “vile” or disgusting. It’s hard to imagine a greater difference in appearance than these two men.
2. (vs. 3). In this verse, James continues his illustration saying “And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool.” The congregation is faced with a moral test, and they fail it miserably. Quickly sizing up the rich man, someone in the assembly has “respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place.” Based simply on what they see the people give the rich man special attention and lead him to a choice seat. The “poor” man receives no such respect. Someone tells him to “Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool.” The “poor” man is told to “stand” in a certain spot, or “sit” down on the floor. Both options given to the “poor” man are equally degrading. He was given the options to either “stand” in an inconspicuous place where he couldn’t be seen, or “sit” on the floor by the “footstool” of the one speaking to him. It’s noteworthy that the one speaking to the “poor” man not only has a good seat himself, but he has a “footstool” as well. Yet he doesn’t even have the courtesy to let the “poor” man sit on the “footstool!” The “poor” man is unwelcome based on his appearance alone. Note: Imagine two men driving into the church parking lot today. One drives a new luxury car, the other an old rattletrap. Which one would be more likely to get preferential treatment? We tend to usher the people of affluence to the front of the sanctuary, while others are shown a seat in the back. Don’t be deceived. It’s not about what a person has on, or where he or she sits in the sanctuary. What really matters is one’s heart condition (see I Samuel 16:7). When God looks at a person, He sees His own creation and loves each one equally. We must learn to do the same.
C. False judging (James 2:4). James now drives his lesson home by asking a question that expects a positive answer—an answer that will condemn his readers’ actions. So in this verse he asked “Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?” James was saying that when we are “partial” or showing favoritism, we also “become judges of evil thoughts.” In other words, those making distinctions between rich and poor in their midst, have set themselves up as critics who pass judgment on the basis of unjust reasoning—outward appearances. No doubt they reason that the rich can add wealth and prestige to their church, but the poor can’t. As a result, they treat them differently. This is unjust! Jesus receives all people equally, but those whom James is writing to are unwilling to do what Jesus would do. Note: It’s easy for us to see the injustice of what James’ readers were doing. But we are prone to commit the same sin. Wealth is not the only criterion by which modern churches make unjust distinctions. Discrimination is just as often on the basis of education, age, race, nationality, gender, or marital status. God only makes spiritual distinctions, and by these we too must be bound. But all other distinctions have no place in the church.
IV. THE INCONSISTENCY OF PARTIALITY (James 2:5-7)
A. The blessing of the believing poor (James 2:5). In this verse, James says to his readers, “Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?” James called on his readers to “hearken” or to listen and pay attention. Referring to them as “my beloved brethren” assured them of James’ love. With a question that required an affirmative answer, James challenged his readers to think. First, he asked “Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith?” There is some mystery surrounding God’s choice of “the poor,” for Scripture does not teach that He chooses people on the basis of social class. But it is true that a higher number of “poor” people than rich people are believers (see Matthew 19:23-24; I Corinthians 1:26-29). Ironically, the “poor of this world,” meaning those who are “poor” by man’s standards are often “rich in faith” or full of “faith.” Their very poverty drives them to trust God more deeply. The “rich” man has no need to question how his bills will get paid or where he will get his next meal. But the “poor” man has to learn to depend on God. The “poor” man trusts that God will supply his needs. Even though he doesn’t know how or when, he still believes. The “poor” who are “rich in faith” are the ones who have become “heirs of the kingdom which he (God) hath promised to them that love him.” Their “rich faith” is accompanied by pure “love” for their Redeemer, and He honors them with an eternal inheritance (see Luke 6:20-23). We should be mindful that not all “poor” people will gain this inheritance, and not all rich people will miss it. However, the “poor” are more likely to have the “faith” and “love” to enter God’s kingdom, while the “rich” have a tendency to rely on themselves, making it much more difficult to honor God.
B. The behavior of the unbelieving rich (James 2:6-7).
1. (vs. 6). In this verse James argues that partiality is not only unjust, but also illogical. He said “But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?” If James’ readers realized that God chooses “the poor” of this world who are rich in faith, then it wouldn’t make any sense to dishonor “the poor.” This is the meaning of “ye have despised the poor.” It is even more illogical to honor the “rich” because James asked “Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?” This question points out two separate evils or sins. One is social oppression. The word for “oppress” is used in the Old Testament to show the exploitation of “the poor” (see Jeremiah 7:5-7; Amos 4:1-2). The second evil that the “rich” were guilty of was persecution of believers, here described as being brought “before the judgment seats.” How ironic it is that the people being honored in the assembly by believers were the same ones prosecuting them in court for their faith. It may be that some believers hoped that by flattering the “rich,” or those who were persecuting them, they could turn away their opposition. However, such thinking would be unworthy of Jesus Christ, and it is a technique that’s bound to fail.
2. (vs. 7). Here James asks another question to show how illogical it was to honor the rich. He asked “Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?” This question makes it clear that “the rich” people that James’ readers were honoring were unbelievers. They were wealthy Jews who had rejected Jesus and were intent on exterminating His followers. The term “blaspheme” means to slander or “to speak evil of someone.” James said that “the rich” who were being honored were blaspheming, or slandering that “worthy name by the which ye are called.” Of course, that “name” is Jesus, the “name” by which we are all called to be Christians. Since the very One who gave meaning to James’ readers’ faith was being blasphemed, it made no sense to him that they honored those who were doing it. It should make no sense to us either. So why do it?
V. THE INIQUITY OF PARTIALITY (James 2:8-12)
A. The proper interpretation of the law (James 2:8). In this verse James wrote “If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well.” Although many of James’ readers were showing favoritism to the rich just because they were rich, in this verse James indicates that it is also possible that some people honored the rich out of sheer “love” for their “neighbor.” In this case, they would be fulfilling “the royal law according to the scripture.” This is a reference to the latter part of Leviticus 19:18, which is “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” James referred to this part of the “law” as “the royal law.” It might be called this for at least two reasons. First, it was emphasized by Jesus, the King of kings (see Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31). Second, it is a “law” above all others with regard to human relationships. Paul told the Romans that one who loved his “neighbor” was fulfilling the entire “law” relating to one’s fellow man. He wrote that “Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (see Romans 13:10).
B. Transgressors (James 2:9-10).
1. (vs. 9). James goes on to say in this verse “But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.” The phrase “have respect to persons” means to show favoritism. James is saying that if we are “respecters of persons,” or showing favoritism, we “commit sin” because we are “convinced (or convicted) of the law as transgressors.” In other words, we are convicted by the royal “law” of love and become “transgressors” of that “law.” The word “transgressors” refers to lawbreakers, those who deliberately cross over a prescribed boundary. That person knows the boundary, but defies it anyway. In this case, he or she ignores the law’s prohibition against partiality (see Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17; 16:19); so the royal “law” testifies that the person is a “transgressor” or “law” breaker.
2. (vs. 10). In this verse, James forms a conclusion saying “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” The “law” is God’s moral standard. As such, it must be taken as a whole, not in parts. Being very good in one area of morality does not make up for falling short in another area. Someone might argue that showing partiality is only a small breach of the “law.” But James answered saying that even if a person keeps “the whole law” or all of God’s Word, but breaks just “one point, he (or she) is guilty” of breaking all the “law.” Obedience to many “laws” cannot make up for breaking one “law.”
C. Priorities (James 2:11). To further prove his point, in this verse James said “For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.” James declared that the reason why breaking one “law” is the same as breaking them all is because all of it comes from One Lawgiver. To disobey any part of it is to violate His will and reject His lordship. James declared that the One who said “Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill.” Since the same God who forbade “adultery” also forbade murder, if a person commits murder but not “adultery,” he or she is still a “transgressor of the law.” Therefore, whoever commits one sin, but not the other is still guilty, because he or she has crossed the boundaries set by God Himself.
D. The law of liberty (James 2:12). In our final verse James said “So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.” The phrase “So speak ye, and so do” means that our words and our actions should pass the scrutiny of being “judged by the law of liberty.” The “law of liberty” refers to all of God’s Word, especially the gospel message which brings “liberty” or freedom to those who receive Christ (see John 8:32). When believers stand before the judgment seat of Christ, our words and actions will be judged by the Holy Scriptures (see II Corinthians 5:10). Note: “The law” is no longer an external set of rules, but it’s a “law of liberty,” or a “law” that gives freedom. We are free from the external compulsion to keep a set of commands, but we are motivated by faith and love. We are liberated not to sin, but to do God’s will from a pure heart (see John 8:32-36; Romans 6:14-18; Galatians 5:13-14). God will judge us on how we respond to this freedom.
VI. Conclusion. The image of Jesus Christ becomes apparent in a Christian community where everyone is treated with equal respect and compassion. That image becomes hidden in a fellowship where such factors as wealth or poverty affect the way members are treated. As Christians, we should not patronize the rich or discriminate against the poor. In Jesus Christ, believers are on equal footing regardless of such factors as race, culture, and economic status. In this week’s lesson, James teaches that showing partiality on the basis of external appearances is a serious matter to God. He receives all who come to Him through faith in Jesus Christ, both rich and poor. Can we do any less?
***The Sunday School Lesson; The International Sunday School Lesson Curriculum***