James 2:1-7 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?
What would you do if some type of celebrity started attending Grace? What if it were your athletic, musical, or even theological hero? Would you treat them any differently than you treat a “shabbier” looking visitor from town? What if someone exceedingly wealthy or influential began attending our church? Can you picture yourself treating them the same as everyone else? In other words, are you ever tempted to show favoritism to someone or some group of people because of their position of prominence in this world?
Evidently, this is something at least some of James’s readers were struggling with and James wanted to put a stop to it. Because James loved them and wanted them to love one another well, he commanded them, “Show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ…”. To help his readers obey, he also shared six reasons why they must not play favorites. Let’s pray that God would fill us with the kind of love that shows no partiality.
LOVE IN DISCIPLESHIP
The main thrust of this passage is another in James’s growing list of hard things he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to say to his readers. There had already been instruction, correction, exhortation, and rebuke. Some of what he wrote was sure to provide welcome clarity, but some was sure to wound. All of it was surely done in love. To make sure his readers knew that, James continually addressed them with specific terms of endearment, “My brothers” (1) and “My beloved brothers” (5).
I’ve mentioned this before in James (because James has mentioned it before in James), but before we get to the main content of this passage, I want to draw your attention to it once again with a bit more thoroughness and clarity here. Let’s go a little further up and further in, in considering the biblical place of love in Christian ministry.
James knew that the most foundational love-commandment of all had been spoken years earlier by Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
Similarly, Paul wrote, “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). Think about that for a moment. Everything God requires is tied to our love for others!
Jesus went a step further still in proclaiming, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Grace, one of the most significant marks of true discipleship is Jesus-like love flowing out of Jesus’ love.
To this same point, but from another angle, John wrote, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14-16). Again, one of the surest ways to know you are a true disciple of Jesus is love for fellow Christians.
Peter urged, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). You may remember that Peter’s letter was written in a context similar to James’s—to scattered, persecuted Christians. Of all the things he might have charged them with in their suffering, love rose to the top; partly because, Peter wrote, our love for others is a means of sin-fighting grace.
“And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:21). Genuine love for God always produces genuine love for other Christians.
In a great summary command, Paul wrote, “Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16:14).
Finally, recognizing the unparalleled significance of love for followers of Jesus, Paul said to the Philippian church, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9).
When God sets His love upon us, it always produces love; love for the whole world, but especially love for God and for other Christians.
Our world, and even the Church, has gotten a lot of things wrong; a right understanding of love is near the top of that long list. Love is not, as so many would have you believe, affirming whatever someone wants you to affirm about them. Love is not, making someone feel good about themselves. Love is not helping someone to feel special no matter what. And love is not about making yourself feel good in someone else’s presence.
God is love (1 John 4:8) and so our love must conform to the nature of God. Specifically, real, genuine, biblically-defined love (in the sense of the passages I just read and in the sense James loves his readers), is the affectionate pursuit of that which is best for someone—not necessarily what you or they think is best, but that which is truly best. Ultimately, that’s God. God is what’s best for everyone. But loving like that means specific things in specific circumstances. And, as the Philippians’ passage I just read states clearly, knowing what that is requires knowledge and discernment.
Grace, as I hope you know and firmly believe, God’s Word is the only wholly reliable source of love-knowledge and love-discernment. That is, in order to know what it looks like to truly love someone in whatever situation they’re in, we cannot merely look inward (to our own sense of things) and we cannot merely look outward (to someone else’s sense of things). Rather, we must look upward, to the Word of God. Our passage for this morning is one such source of love-wisdom. In it we see one expression of love for hurting, lowly, persecuted Christians.
Therefore, as we continue on to our text, please understand that as tough as it may have been to hear for some, it is truly an expression of love; God’s love and James’s. And in that, please give yourself in new ways to living entirely out of love yourself.
SHOW NO PARTIALITY
Filled with love, and having directed it at his readers once again, James described for them what it meant to love well in their particular circumstances. What were their particular circumstances? In this context the most important thing to note is that many/most of them were in hard places. They would have been driven from their homes, jobs, and in some cases their families. Some would have struggled even to find food, clothing, and shelter. For those reasons, as we can easily imagine, it would have been tempting to give special treatment to the wealthier among them, to those who might help alleviate the suffering their commitment to following Jesus had brought upon them. That is what James was most directly addressing. Specifically, he called them to love one another by showing no partiality toward the rich. Our passage begins with a clear command and then an example.
My brothers, show no partiality… 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?
“Show no partiality”. The word translated “partiality” is an important word. It seems to have been invented by the NT authors. It literally means “receiving face.” The idea is that showing partiality (or favoritism) means judging a person based on their appearance or on what they appear to offer. Again, James’s clear command is that Christian love does not receive (or see) face. Christians are not face-seers. We do not treat people according to what they look like or what they might offer us in our flesh. Christian love is not based on someone’s worth or imagined worth.
Again, it seems that in their trying circumstances, and in some unknown situation (perhaps a worship service or in a matter of church discipline), some of James’s readers were favoring the rich over the poor, and therein failing to love them well. They were not offering that which was best to one another.
Instead of giving rich people a more prominent position or more attention, James’s readers, God’s people, should have remembered the teaching and example of Jesus. “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment,” Jesus said in John 7:24. They should have treated the “parts of the body that we think less honorable [with] greater honor…” as Paul instructed in 1 Corinthians 12:23. They should have heeded James earlier words (1:9-10) and “let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation”.
Contrary to how some have twisted this kind of thing, James is not arguing for a flat morality, where it is wrong to judge others in any sense. It is only to say that we must judge as God judges. We must judge by the right standard. And the right standard is never the wealth or appearance of a person.
This is a good place to ask, “What are some ways you are tempted to show partiality or favoritism?” Are you more likely to show honor to someone of worldly accomplishment or quiet godliness? Are you more likely to invite someone over that seems to have things altogether or someone who looks like they might actually need a meal and a friend? Are you more likely to compliment someone for some kind of earthly success or Christian faithfulness? Are you helping your kids look up to those who live out their faith at cost to themselves or to those who the world looks upon with favor?
James wanted to love his readers by helping them to love one another. And loving one another well in their specific circumstances meant something specific—a refusal to show partiality to the rich. Having stated in the clearest possible terms what love looked like for his readers in their current circumstances, James went on to give six specific reasons why Christians must not show partiality: (1) Because it is part of what it means to hold the faith in Jesus, (2) Because the desire to do so comes from evil thoughts, (3) Because God does not show partiality, (4) it is dishonorable to lowly people, (5) Because it makes no sense, and (6) Because those you are favoring blaspheme God. To help us grow in our impartiality, let’s briefly consider each.
Not Showing Partiality Is Part of What it Means to Have Faith in Jesus (1)
In the very first verse of chapter 2, James laid a rock-solid, unshakable foundation for his command.
1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
James wanted his readers to know that their faith in Jesus was the grounding for his command. Are you holding the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ? If so, you must not show partiality to the rich. Is your hope in the Lord of glory? If so, do not look upon the face of those whom you are called to love, but upon their hearts. Genuine faith always leads to impartiality. God-honoring impartiality only comes from genuine faith.
What this means, Grace, in case it’s not already clear, is that following Jesus and treating people better because they have more to offer you are incompatible. You cannot be characterized by a lack of love in the form of favoritism and be living consistently with Christ’s call on your life.
Along with that, notice the title James gave to Jesus: “Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”. That title is not used anywhere else in the NT. Its exact significance isn’t certain, but it seems clear that James has in mind more than a mere sum of its parts.
Jesus is lord (ruler, king). He is the Christ (messiah, savior). He is the one to whom belongs all glory (honor, praise). But more than offering a simple list of Jesus’ attributes, James seems to be attempting to describe the indescribable majesty of the object of our faith. It’s as if James was saying that given the fact that your faith is in the One who is greater than anyone could ever imagine, given the fact that you have been accepted by the King of kings and Lord of Lords and Glory of glories and Savior of saviors, how could you possibly look up to or down on anyone? When you see yourself rightly in relation to Jesus, which is the essence of saving faith in Jesus, partiality is impossible. Like Jesus’ parable of the debtors, you cannot understand the nature of your forgiveness and treat people according to their outward appearance or offerings. And that leads straight to James’s next reason why his readers must not show partiality.
The Desire to Show Partiality Comes from Evil Thoughts (4)
If seeing ourselves rightly in relation to Jesus is a critical component of saving faith in Jesus, and if seeing ourselves rightly in relation to Jesus is incompatible with showing partiality to others, the only place partiality can come from is something other than faith in Jesus. In fact, James wrote, it comes from evil thoughts.
4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
What does this mean? Simply, it means that the kind of partiality James has in mind almost always comes from one of a small handful of sinful desires.
Sometimes it comes from measuring ourselves horizontally instead of vertically. When we see ourselves in relation to others, we will inevitably look down on those we deem beneath us (financially, athletically, intellectually, aesthetically) and up to those we deep above us. And then we’ll divvy out favoritism accordingly. This is evil.
Sometimes it comes from failure to trust in God. When our trust in God is weak, we’ll look for others to provide for us and show favor to those who can. That is evil.
And sometimes it comes from a failure to treasure Christ as supreme. If our greatest desire is something outside of Christ, we’ll look to things outside of Christ to satisfy our desires and show favoritism to those who can give them to us. This too is evil.
In short, the desire to show partiality does not come from faith in Jesus, it comes from evil desires.
We Must Not Show Partiality Because God Does Not Show Partiality (5)
The next reason James gave for commanding his readers not to show partiality was that God does not show partiality. In Deuteronomy 10:17 we read, “the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.” And in Romans 2:11 Paul plainly and explicitly tells us that “God shows no partiality”. Since love is rooted in God’s nature, it should be no surprise that since God shows no partiality, loving people means refusing to show partiality ourselves.
Think on this for a moment, since God is not a face-seer, He does not decide to set His love upon His people because of how we look or what we have to offer in the world’s eyes. God does not show favor to those who are better looking or stronger or more intelligent or wealthier. That’s James’s point in v.5.
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?
To be as clear as possible, hear this: We must not show favoritism to others (deciding how to treat them based on their appearance or what they appear to be able to give us), because by doing so we are acting contrary to the nature of God. Further, by doing so we are in essence asking God to judge us based on our appearance and offering, and that will end in tragedy. To state the same thing positively, we must not show favoritism to others because God is impartial and because we are God’s people only because of His impartiality toward us.
At the same time, let’s be clear on something else. The fact that God chose those who are poor is not to say that God has some kind of reverse favoritism—favoritism for those the world does not favor, simply because the world does not favor them. It is to say, rather, that God chooses those who know they need God. The first step in trusting in God is knowing you need to trust in God. By God’s grace, the trying physical circumstances of the poor often help them see their spiritual need, while the comfortable circumstances of the rich often mask their spiritual need.
We must not show partiality to others because we are called to love them. Loving them mean giving them what’s best. What’s best is God. And God does not show favoritism in offering Himself to sinners.
Showing Partiality Is Dishonorable to Lowly People (6a)
The fourth reason James gave for why his readers must not show partiality to the rich was because it dishonors the poor brothers and sisters in Christ.
6 But you have dishonored the poor man.
Again, this is tied tightly to the heart of the gospel. To dishonor Christians who are poor in this life because they are poor, is to miss the gospel-fact that the only riches that matter are being kept in heaven for those who love God. The gospel is the good news that we are all equally poor in our sin or rich in grace in Jesus Christ. Christians understand what it means to be rich in much different terms than non-Christians. It is incompatible with the great promise of the inheritance of the saints to treat Christians differently because of the amount of money they have in this life.
Imagine treating a friend with $100 in his pocket with special favor, while looking down on another friend because his pockets are empty except for a $100,000,000 winning lottery ticket. That’s what Christians showing favoritism to the rich at the expense of the poor are doing. They are dishonoring the poor brother by missing their true, far greater wealth in Jesus, while wrongly esteeming the comparably miniscule wealth of those rich in the things of the world.
None of this is to say, of course, that we should fail to love the rich. It is to say, however, that loving them means helping them to know that all the material wealth in the world can do nothing to alleviate their spiritual poverty. Faith in the grace of God through Jesus Christ alone can do that. May God grant us eyes to see things as they truly are, that we might recognize true wealth and poverty when we see them and then act accordingly.
We Must Not Show Partiality Because It Makes No Sense (6b)
The fifth reason James gives is that we must not show partiality to the rich because it makes no sense.
6 Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?
Again, what was happening among James’s readers is plain, even if foolish. Some of the poor were showing favoritism to the rich, even though the rich did nothing but bully and take advantage of them. Rather than use their wealth to bless, they used it to make the poor poorer. But rather than see things for what they were, the poor were falling over themselves to offer greater places of honor to their oppressors. It made no sense.
This was a big deal for the kids in my Jr. High. So many younger, less popular kids would treat the older and more popular kids extra kindly even though they were constantly picking on, mocking, and taking advantage of them. Unfortunately, I was on both ends of this spectrum at different times. Why in the world would wed look up to people who show nothing but contempt to us?
We must not show partiality, James argued, because it makes no sense.
We Must Not Show Partiality Because Those You Are Favoring Are Blaspheming God (7)
Finally, James wanted his readers to know that showing partiality was wrong because beyond being simply irrational, it meant participating in blasphemy. The rich were not merely taking advantage of the poor, they were also mocking God while doing so.
7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
Thomas Manton wrote (James, 153), “Wicked rich men, above all others, are most prone to blasphemy. ‘Because of your wealth your heart has grown proud,’ says Ezekiel 28:5. Riches breed pride, and pride ends in atheism.”
It’s one (bad) thing to flatter those who dishonor you, it’s something else entirely (worse) to flatter those who dishonor God. How often are we overwhelmed with frustration when someone speaks against us, while being entirely unmoved by those who would speak evil words against God? How often do we refuse to partner with those who do us harm, while participating in the schemes of those who are overtly hostile to God? Oh Grace, may God grant us a right view of His glory and everything else in light of that.
It is wrong to look upon the rich with favor especially when their wealth leads them to blaspheme God. Without much thought I imagine we can all think of many, many ways we might be tempted here. Be careful of where you spend your money, which bands you promote, which athletes you cheer for, which intellectuals you buy books from or download podcasts from. Be careful that you are not flattering blasphemers because they offer you something you desire in your flesh. James’s command and reasoning in this (and all the rest) are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote his letter.
James wanted to love his readers by helping them to love one another. And loving one another well in their specific circumstances meant refusing to show partiality to the rich. And the reasons for loving in that way are: (1) Because it is part of what it means to hold the faith in Jesus, (2) Because the desire to do so comes from evil thoughts, (3) Because God does not show partiality, (4) it is dishonorable to lowly people, (5) Because it makes no sense, and (6) Because those you are favoring blaspheme God. May we as a church join God in loving the lowly and esteeming those who are rich in faith. May we do so as an expression of the gospel and in faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.