This is a pretty strong rebuke from James towards the brethren. They weren't to be showing partiality and acting as if that was consistent with the faith of Jesus Christ. There was clearly some partiality being shown in the church and it needed to stop. In the Roman culture, in James day, big gaudy rings were a sign of money and status. The bigger and gaudier the ring the more important you were. In that day you could even rent a ring to make a showing, like if you had a class reunion and wanted to impress everyone.
Deuteronomy 10:17 says......
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe.
Peter agreed with that in Acts 10 he said In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality
Partiality isn't consistent with Christ. It's an indication of spiritual immaturity. It's evidence of people who say one thing and do another. This drives James nuts and he won't let it pass. Rich and poor both were coming into their assembly.
The word 'assembly' in verse 2 is actually the word synagogue. This is the only time in the New Testament that the church is referred to as the synagogue. This confirms that this was early in the life of the church. There weren't a lot of gentile believers in the church yet. Most of the church was made up of Jewish Christians and they were meeting in their synagogues as they had previously done in Judaism. This may account for some of the partiality shown. Those who belonged were welcomed while others weren't. Those in the clique were welcomed, others shunned. Fellow Jews, or those with the money; those with status or the right last name sit here, be comfortable, be served. You gentiles, just grab a seat in the back and try to not disturb the rest of us. The entire culture at that time was one of class; Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, Greek or barbarian and probably more. Don't think it is any different today. We see class warfare constantly; rich & poor; educated & uneducated; status and fame.
James said to show partiality is to become a judge with evil thoughts. When we do this we don't display our relationship with the Lord properly.
Jesus made it very clear to us that riches are an obstacle to the kingdom of God. In fact, He said it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Yet, all things are possible for God. This theme is repeated in the bible. God chose the poor to be rich in faith.
Does this mean God doesn't save the rich? And isn't that partiality? Didn't we just get told not to be partial to people based on worldly values? And how rich is rich anyway. How poor is poor? Well, this isn't about money. This is about values that are often displayed by the attitude toward money. There's not some specific amount of money that somehow crosses your name off the list. We know Jesus died for the sins of all men.
Those referred to as rich in this world are those who are at home in this world. It's those whose values are defined by the culture, by laws, politics, popularity and price tags. They chase after the riches of this world and regardless of how much they accumulate it's not enough to make them happy but it's enough for them to trust in.
The poor in this world are those who don't trust in the value system of the world. The poor of this world know you can never make enough to make you happy. The poor of this world understand the riches of this world have no eternal value. They understand the temptations of fame and success and money are empty promises and have nothing to deliver. Because of this, those poor in the values of this world have more opportunity to trust God.
We are to be among the poor of this world, no matter how much we make, save or accumulate. It's not our highest priority. We need money to function in this world we are passing through. But it's just money.
Calvin wrote regarding God's choice of the poor: "Not indeed alone, but he wished to begin with them, that he might beat down the pride of the rich." The rich weren't excluded but the poor had preference. The poor person who loves the Lord is special in God's eyes.
How is this preference not partiality? God's call goes out to all but the poor were better equipped to receive what was being broadcast. God's call went over the head of the rich who are focused on the cares of this world.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. 27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; 28 and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, 29 that no flesh should glory in His presence.
This is God's way. He has called the poor. And, James said, the brethren were discriminating against these chosen ones and showing partiality to the Brad and Jen of that day.
The rich were guilty of oppressing the poor. They dragged them to court to get more for themselves as they were driven by materialism and greed. They weren't worthy of the attention they were being given by the brethren. James said giving them that preference was blaspheming the name by which they were called. Their actions weren't consistent with the faith they professed and the God they served.
Jesus received us by grace. Not because we dressed right, had money, wore a big ring or were educated. He received us without partiality. If he was partial where would that leave you and I? God can reach the heart of any one, even Brad and Jen. Anyone can be our brother or sister. Hopefully any person seeking Christ would feel equally welcomed when they come to your church.
Now as James scalds a few folks, he anticipates the response of a few people; probably because he'd heard it before. They would say, Hey, we're just loving the rich man. After all he's our neighbor also. And we are to love our neighbor as our self. This is called the royal law because it was given by the King of Kings as the law above all laws, love your neighbor as your self. James just refuses to give them a free pass on this. If you show partiality, it's sin. You've broken the royal law.
These folks had fallen into the trap of thinking some of the laws were more important than others. They cherry picked the ones they would keep and then broke others without a thought. James reminded them that a lawbreaker is a lawbreaker. You can't say, well I'm keeping most of the laws. My good outweighs my bad.
First off, remember James is talking to believers who are already saved from the judgment of their sin. If we trust in Christ, we know He received the punishment we deserve. In the grace that saved us, we have liberty. The question is what we will do with that liberty. The regenerated heart, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has power over sin. As a new person in Christ what we speak and do should be in obedience and out of reverence and of a thankful heart. The Christian demeanor ought to resemble God's demeanor. Not out of legalism for fear of judgment but because we've been shown a great mercy.
Luke records the words of Jesus in chapter 6.
Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you."
While that verse is often used like it is talking about money its really talking about mercy. When we remember that we've escaped judgment then we would clearly respond to others with a similar mercy. If you show no mercy it would be an indication that you don't recognize the mercy shown to you. Therefore, you are under judgment. Mercy triumphs over judgment because mercy is an indication that you've been saved by grace. If you are without mercy James is going to look at you and wonder about your salvation.
James is asking this: What good is your faith if your works aren't consistent with the faith you proclaim. You say you have faith, yet you don't show mercy; you say you have faith, yet you show partiality to the rich. You say your life is defined by your faith but you gossip and slander. You sing songs of faith and read the word of faith but you never do them. What kind of faith is it if you look just like the one who has no faith? What kind of faith is it if you have to tell people what you believe because they can't see it in your life?
We'll try to be careful here because this verse causes many problems. People start thinking you have to work for your faith. Or that we have to add to faith to be saved. Go back to Ephesians 2:8-9 for a good reminder.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.
We are saved by grace alone. Not by works. If you ever get drawn into thinking that you are saved by anything but grace you have to go back to Ephesians 2:8-9. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. In the same way our works don't keep us saved. We didn't earn our salvation and we sure can't pay God back for it.
We know it is grace alone and works have nothing to do with it let's read the next verse from Ephesians 2, verse 10 says this.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
We are saved by grace created for good works; works that God prepared for us beforehand so we could walk in them.
Listen to Titus 3:8
8 This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works.
Titus agrees with Paul, both agree with James.
Remember this early church that James is talking to is mostly Jews. They were used to a faith of works righteousness. They had been under the law. They had to eat certain foods and avoid others. They had to keep the Sabbath. They had all kinds of restrictions. There were 613 laws to remember. When these people were saved by grace suddenly, they were free of the law. This was a freedom they had not experienced. They no longer had this list of works that were required to meet God's righteous requirements. But in their freedom, they over compensated. Suddenly they began to think that works didn't matter at all. In their liberty they were doing their own thing most of which didn't reflect the God that saved them. James, along with Paul and Titus were all fighting the same thing. A real saving faith is accompanied by good works. Good works are the fruit of a saving faith. It only makes sense that a heart that is regenerated by God would respond to God's work in obedience to their calling and place in His Kingdom.
James asks the question: If someone says they have faith but not works can their faith be real? Can that faith that doesn't produce works be a saving faith? James asks this implying the answer is 'NO'! There's a saying that goes: faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone - it has good works with it.
James gives a quick example of faith without works. He speaks of a brother or sister in Christ crosses paths with another believer that is naked and hungry. When only kind words are offered, it is clear the need was identified. Yet this brother did nothing. All they had were religious words, playing a part but lacking the commitment to meet a need. It has an air of selfishness. They won't part with what they have to help someone else. James draws a conclusion from this: anyone that would do that has a dead faith.
A faith that is alive is one that is on the street, in the here and now, working. A faith that is doing nothing is a dead faith that can't save you or help anyone else.
Once again James anticipates an argument. Someone would say, "Hey, you have the gift of works and that's fine for you but I don't, I just have my faith." In our day someone might say, "I say I believe and who are you to question that?" James challenges this person. Show me your faith without works!
How are you going to do that? If you have to tell someone what you believe because they can't witness it you are in trouble. Your faith is only visible by your works. They would respond to James, I believe in God, that's all I need. To that James gives the example of the demons. They have a dead faith. They believe and tremble, yet they aren't saved. There is no saving faith, no living faith, no change of heart. All that is visible in a demon is the absence of good works. James likens the dead faith of the brother to the same belief that a demon has.
Abraham's faith had been credited to him as righteousness long before he was called to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham didn't just believe one day and then go about a life without relationship with the Lord. Abraham was a friend of God. And God called him to offer Isaac. Abraham's faith was on display because he loved and trusted God enough to be totally committed and completely obedient.
Rahab the harlot risked her life to protect the men of God (Joshua 2). Rahab had heard about the God of the Hebrews and how he parted the waters and brought His people out of Egypt. Rahab declared this: Your God, He is the God of heaven above and the God of the earth below. And with that, Jehovah God became her God also. We know that because that belief became visible in her life. She was moved by her belief to the point of risking her life for the men of God before her.
©2012 Doug Ford
©2019 Revised & updated