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Favoritism vs. Genuine Impartiality

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James 2:1-13

The God of heaven is an absolutely impartial God. Unlike human beings, God does not show favoritism based on external factors like age, race, sex, education level, income, or appearance. Even Christians are prone to judge people based on external factors and treat them in a way that displeases God—the God in whose image they were created. It’s easy for us to categorize and pigeonhole people. Apart from the clear teaching of Scripture, it would be so easy to go on thinking that we’re good Christians even while engaging in the sin of prejudice and social favoritism. But the Bible calls it sin. And like all sin, it must be dealt with as a spiritual problem.

The sin of favoritism—and even racism—is not a modern problem. When Miriam, the sister of Moses, ridiculed the Ethiopian wife of Moses, God became very angry. His punishment for her racial prejudice was that she became leprous—white as snow for seven days. God showed her what it feels like to be an outcast. It was almost as if God was saying to Miriam, “You think you’re better than this Ethiopian woman because your skin is lighter? We’ll see how you like really, really white skin!” And she became a leper [Num. 12].

True believers must deliberately crucify this natural sinful tendency if we want to be associated with Jesus. In Acts 6, the apostles addressed this problem head-on when the Hebrews were neglecting the Hellenist widows in the distribution of food. And James deals with the sin of partiality and favoritism in chapter two of his letter. Let’s consider the first thirteen verses of chapter two. In honor of God and His Word, let’s stand for the reading of these verses.

My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

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5 Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; 9 but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. 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. 12 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. [NKJV]

[Prayer] In these thirteen verses, James presents five principles of genuine impartiality for the Body of Christ to embrace. The major premise of impartiality is stated in verse one with this principle…

I.          Impartiality is the righteous law of the Christian faith (1).

Verse one says: “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality.”

The way Christians deal with the sin of favoritism or partiality is the fourth test in the book of James. He begins by addressing them as “My brethren”, so they are fellow believers who are expected to live according to Christian virtues. The problem was… many of them weren’t. As Christians, we still have to deal with our sinful attitudes and prejudices, especially toward fellow believers who may not look and sound like us. This is all about how we hold the faith with regard to other believers. The emphasis of verse one is on the glory of Jesus Christ. In other words, His glory is bigger than how you were raised or where you now live; this is about Jesus. And if someone wants to look down on a fellow member of the Body of Christ because of external differences, then Jesus has a major problem with that—and they’re going to have to deal with Him. So James gives an example of this principle being violated in verses 2-4…

2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

That leads to the second point…

II.        The way one treats people of low esteem is exemplary of how well one understands the grace of God (2-4).

In life, no matter how low you get, you can always find someone who’s lower than you are; and no matter how high you climb, there’s someone who’s climbed just a bit higher. When we really understand the grace of God, we begin to see social relationships in a new light. The church who first received this letter from James was wrestling with economic distress on the outside and with class warfare on the inside. Most of the converts in this church were Jewish and poor. Their poverty was often directly related to their Christianity; once they became public worshipers of Jesus Christ, many lost their employment and were ostracized from the public square. So they became dependent on each other. But there were also some people in this same church who were better-off financially. They were believers too, but pride and cliquishness was polluting their fellowship. So James addresses a common scenario for his readers.

According to this passage, it was not unlikely for a wealthy citizen (likely an unbeliever) to visit a Christian gathering. The wearing of gold rings was a common practice among the affluent of that day. The word translated “with gold rings” literally means “gold-fingered” because they wore multiple gold rings on each finger. The Roman statesman Seneca wrote: “We adorn our fingers with rings and we distribute gems over every joint.” So, gold rings and shining fabrics were common among the well-to-do in the first century.

In fact, in the Roman Empire, the nobility were easily marked by their clothes and adornments. So much so that when the slave class began to save enough money from their labors, they would go out and buy clothes that made them look like the nobility. It even got to the point where the slave class was crashing wealthy parties in the homes of Roman noblemen – all while wearing designer clothes and nice jewelry. Some of these slaves began to lord it over their fellow guests and acted as if they were more impressive than even the true nobility. But the real nobles could see right through their act. They were pretending to be high class just to gloat (which is never classy). The nobility even gave these pretenders a title that became well-known: they were the sin nobilis, which literally means “without nobility.” And that title became so common that after a while it was abbreviated to “sin nobes” and that same word has even been preserved in our own language in a further abbreviated term: “snob”.

We should notice from these verses that the true Body of Christ is a diverse body. What unites believers in Christ is our faith, not our race, not our native language, not our intelligence, not our economic status—it’s our faith. If there had been no diversity in the first century church, there would have been no favoritism. But there was diversity and that gave rise to favoritism, which is the sinful response to diversity.

What the church cannot accept is diversity in the area of truth. Competing truth claims are cancer to the church. It is God’s truth that unites His people in spite of every external thing that would divide us. If God’s people emphasize their unity on superficial external qualities, they are minimizing the value of their faith in Christ. But when we minimize the external differences among God’s people, it forces us to emphasize and magnify the faith that unites us. So James reminds believers that the way they treat other believers who are different from them shows how well they understand the grace of God. Then he also reminds them that certain rich people have caused them much grief outside the church and that favoritism to earn their approval without faith is in vain. Look at verse five…

5 Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?

Here’s the third principle from verses 5-7…

III.       Favoritism is a two-edged sword that wounds those who attempt to cut others (5-7).

The well-to-do believers who were looking down on the poor in their own community of faith were the same people that wealthy unbelievers were oppressing and suing in the marketplace. So they were behaving in the church just like the wealthy unbelievers were behaving toward them in the world! Isn’t it true that the sins we most despise in others are those we refuse to see in ourselves? We are often guilty of the very offenses we say are most offensive to us in others. Like pride – someone said that pride is the only disease that makes everybody sick except the one who has it.

In James, some Christians have dishonored the poor in their own fellowship to honor the wealthy who are not part of their fellowship. The Bible teaches that God has a special concern for the poor and those who have little influence in this world. Most of the Body of Christ is in this category around the world. As James says, God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom to those who love Him. But the rich people you’re trying so hard to impress are the ones who drag you into religious courts and then blaspheme the name of Christ. In other words, you all have been bloodied by the very sword you used to cut others! Favoritism is a two-edged sword that wounds those who attempt to cut others. Fourth…

IV.       The royal law is an exacting standard which allows no stumbling (8-11).

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; 9 but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. 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.

The royal law says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If you do this, you do well. But by showing partiality, you have just violated the whole law. Under the Mosaic Law, if someone stumbles in just one point, he is guilty of violating the whole law. In the usage of James, the royal law represents the whole substance of God’s revealed Word, as when Jesus said, “On these two commandments (love of God and love of neighbor) hang all the law and the prophets.” The Law tears all of us apart. It runs us through with the sword of God’s righteous judgment and declares us dead. To break any part of this law is to be guilty of the whole law. So that leaves us with a serious problem. But there’s a solution for those who love mercy. Fifth…

V.        The law of liberty is merciful for those who have shown mercy to others (12-13).

12 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

The law of liberty is the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. The gospel frees the repentant sinner from the bondage of sin. One author writes: “The gospel is the law of liberty because it frees those who place their faith in Jesus Christ from the bondage, judgment, and punishment of sin and brings them ultimately to eternal freedom and glory.” Absolutely! Here’s the take-away from what James is telling the church: Be merciful and you will receive mercy.

This is exactly what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” The mercy believers are commanded to show is not a work we produce to earn merit from God; no – this mercy is itself another work of God in the heart of the believing sinner. So every good work we do is only the outworking of God’s grace in our hearts. And the more good we are enabled to do in this life only makes us more and more debtors to the matchless grace of Jesus! Living out the Christian life is not about paying God back to get out of His debt; it’s about going deeper and deeper into His debt by letting Christ produce more and more of His good work in you all the days of your life. The more indebted you are to His grace, the more productive and glorious your life will be.

Let’s pray…

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(c) Charles Kevin Grant

2005

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