Sermon preached on James 2:1-7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 02/28/2021 in Novato, CA.
Today’s passage calls us to consider sinful partiality as something that should have no place within Christ’s church. This builds from last chapter which called us to live out God’s Word so that our Christian faith is not merely lip service. James here teaches how there are ways we can discriminate against certain people that would transgress God’s law which demands love for our neighbor. Instead, James would direct us to show righteous honor toward others. As our modern society offers us all sorts of worldly wisdom on the topic of discrimination, we are refreshed today with some Biblical wisdom on the topic. And even more than that, we’ll see that James’ discussion here about sinful partiality ultimately lays before us an even bigger picture of the hope of glory that is ours in Christ Jesus.
Let’s begin then by considering the sin of partiality. I will walk us through the passage and see how James specifically develops this point. We begin verse 1 with the language of “brothers”. Right away that should remind us Christians that while sinful partiality is wrong in general, it is especially problematic when it happens among Christians, because we are “brothers”. We are spiritually family and should especially embrace each other as such.
Verse 1 then goes on to command us to show no partiality as those who hold the Christian faith. The word here for partiality is literally “respecter of persons.” It describes showing respect and favor to someone based primarily on outward appearance. James then gives an illustration of the kind of partiality he has in mind. He imagines a church assembly or gathering. He imagines two different people coming into the church. One looks rich. The other looks poor. Maybe they are visitors or new converts, but don’t overthink it because it’s just an analogy. But he envisions in the analogy how the rich person could be honored and the poor person dishonored. And why is the one honored and the other dishonored? In James’ analogy, it is because the church had been a respecter of persons, in other words, this idea of showing partiality because of outward appearances.
Verse 3 further explains this idea with the language of “if you pay attention”. If you pay attention to rich man over the poor man, you are doing this sinful partiality. This language of paying attention uses a word about sight. Paying attention here means to look at, consider, and care about. What an interesting contrast with last week’s passage that called us to visit widows and orphans because we had said that the Greek there was also a word of looking. James said Christians are to look into and after widows and orphans in their need. It’s a different word here but a similar enough meaning that it contrasts well. And so, if anything we should be paying special attention to the people with needs, like a poor person, because they have needs. But this analogy from James speaks of how the church might instead be tempted to give the special attention to the rich person. James surely is giving this example here because this was a temptation that the church had been facing. We would be wise to recognize that it is a temptation that is still alive and present today – that we could be tempted to give special attention to the people of outward status and means.
Verse 4 goes on to describe this sin as making “distinctions” and becoming “judges”. These are judicial words. They are so legal in nature that some have even wondered if James was envisioning here a lawsuit between believers where the rich is favored over the poor. But, given the language in verse 2 that it describes an assembly, it’s not likely that this is describing an actual judicial case. Rather, it seems James is describing that when the church shows this partiality to people who come into church like this, it’s like they are setting themselves up as a judge over them and casting perverse verdicts. I might translate verse 4 as, “Have you not passed judgment among yourselves, and become judges with evil reasoning?” Here we might remember in the sermon on the mount, Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). I always point out when Jesus says such that he must not be forbidding all judging, because there are so many places in Scripture that tells us as God’s people that we need to make various judgments and decisions of discernment. So then, what Jesus means when he forbids judging is that he forbids sinful judging. There are several things that could qualify as sinful judging, and here is one of them. Favoring one person over another simply because the one is outwardly rich and the other outwardly poor. That’s making a sinful distinction and it has no place in Christ’s church.
So then, in this first point, James says such favoritism or partiality due to external factors is wrong. I hope you can appreciate that this applies beyond just the category of rich versus poor. We see this principle all over the New Testament that Christ brings together people of all sorts into his kingdom. In light of that, we would be wrong to show partiality for such outward differences. For example, the apostle Peter came to understand this with regard to the gospel going out the Gentiles. In Acts 10:34, Peter speaks of this revelation saying, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Likewise, the Apostle Paul gives us several more categories along these lines in Galatians 3:27-28, saying, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This doesn’t mean people stop being male or female, or rich or poor, or Jew or Greek, just because they become a Christian. But it means we all become a spiritual family and we ought not to discriminate against each other because of these outward factors. Unfortunately, the church has struggled with this. Not only did James here feel the need to write about this, but we could think of an example like Acts 6 where the church in Jerusalem neglected helping some of the widows. They didn’t neglect the Hebrew-speaking Christian widows, just the Greek-speaking ones. For whatever reason, they were showing partiality along outward appearances and thus making sinful distinctions. Thankfully, they corrected that.
So then, still today we must be on guard against sinful distinctions and showing partiality when we shouldn’t. Yes, there are times when we need to discriminate, so to speak. We don’t receive non-Christians as members of our church. We hope they come and we receive them as visitors, and we show neighborly love, but we can’t receive them as members in the church until “they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him”. There is a time and a place for a certain form of discrimination. But on the many external and outward factors, we must not show partiality or discriminate. There is no place to discriminate based on someone’s race, age, culture, wealth, social standing, and so much more. We shouldn’t be a church just for white collars or blue collars. We shouldn’t be a church that’s just for a certain type of person or culture or of a certain economic class. We are to be a melting pot in the best sense because that’s the vision of glory we’ve received: that Christ’s kingdom is to be made up of peoples from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
I’d like to turn now in our second point to see how the opposite of this favoritism is to show godly honor. This is implied in verse 6 when it says that such sinful partiality dishonors the poor man. The implication is that we should show proper honor to the poor man, not treat them shamefully and insult them. It may be helpful to know that the Greek word for showing honor is a word of value. You are assigning value to someone when you honor them. That implies that when you disrespect the person and don’t honor them you are devaluing them. Isn’t that the literal thing happening in this example of the rich versus the poor person. You are literally valuing the rich person for his wealth and literally devaluing the poor person because of his poverty.
But God calls us to show honor to others. When we talk about honor, we often think of the different commands to honor those in authority. Scripture says we are supposed to honor God, Revelation 4:11. It also calls us to honor rulers in the civil government, Romans 13:7 and 1 Peter 1:17. Elders and pastors are supposed to be honored, even double honored, 1 Timothy 5:17. Our earthly masters are to be honored, 1 Timothy 6:1. Our parents are to be honored, per the fifth commandment. Many commands in the Bible to honor are directed at our superiors in lift. But then you have a command like 1 Peter 2:17 that says we are supposed to honor everyone. There’s a general sense of worth, respect, dignity, and value that we are to assign to everyone. We are all created in God’s image, whether a Christian or not, whether rich or poor, whether red, brown, yellow, black, or white. This is why we should not dishonor people by treating them shamefully or putting them down. God would have us to show a proper honor to all people, that includes poor people.
We could take this call to honor one step further. We’ve mentioned that God calls us to show special honor in certain circumstances, like people who are in positions of authority. There are other times where we sin if we essentially rob honor from one person to give it to another, like preferring the rich man over the poor man. If anything, we should be inclined to do the opposite. Not because the poor man is more worthy of honor. But because the poor person is in a state of need and we should exercise extra care and concern. This is along the lines of the widow and orphan of last week’s chapter. In fact, that is precisely how God describes his character. He is not one to be swayed by the riches of the wealthy. Rather, he has special concern for the groups like the poor and the orphan and the widow and the sojourner (e.g. Deut 10:17-19, 15:7-11, etc). So, as we look to show honor, we don’t want to take away any normal honor due to people like the rich. But if anything we should error on the side to especially show honor to those in state of great need. Shouldn’t this especially be the case for Christian who has known that charitable character of God in his Son. I remind you of 2 Corinthians 8:9. Speaking of Jesus, it says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Let’s turn lastly in our third point to the even bigger picture of the hope of glory that is ours in Christ Jesus. There are some subtle markers in this passage that direct us to step back and see the bigger picture, that is, the eternal picture of what lies beyond this age. We get a subtle hint of that right at the start in verse 1. It speaks of our faith in Jesus, but notice that it ends up describing Jesus in terms of glory. The literal rendering is what I put in the title of our sermon today, faith in “Our Lord Jesus Christ of Glory.” In almost a strange way the words “of glory” are how this description of Jesus ends. But Jesus is indeed our Lord and Savior of glory! We can think of his glory here and now as he sits exalted in the heavens at the right hand of God, ruling over heaven and earth. And we can think of his glory in future terms of when he will return to usher in his eternal kingdom of glory. Those aspects of glory are interconnected of course. The glory he has already now in the heavens is of the sort of glory he is going to bring us his people to in the age to come in the new creation. Jesus will be ushering us into the glory of the age to come which is so far above and better than anything we’ve known in this age.
Just take that thought for a moment in light of this temptation to show partiality over to the rich person with the gold ring and fine clothing. That rich person might get your attention because he has some glory. To clarify, he has some this-age glory, some earthly glory. Gold rings and fine clothing are glorious when it comes to this world. We might be tempted to be enamored by that worldly glory. But then James reminds us that our Jesus is our Lord and Savior of a far greater glory. We have an interest in that glory!
But this passage points us to our hope of glory not only with that word “glory” in verse 1. It also points it to us in verses 5-6. Verse 5 speaks about how God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. In contrast, he says it’s the rich who’ve oppressed Christians and slandered Christ’s name. So that speaks explicitly in terms of the coming of the kingdom, which is our hope. But notice the way he contrasts rich and poor. In a simple sense he declares hope for the poor and condemnation for the rich. This is actually language the New Testament uses at different points. In Luke’s sermon on the plain in Luke 6, Jesus says blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God, but woe are the rich for they have already received their consolation. Likewise, Mary’s song of the Magnificat in Luke 1 is about how God would use Jesus to fill the hungry with good things but sending away the rich empty. In the words of Jesus, the first would be last, and the last would be first. Scripture paints that the Messiah would bring a mighty reversal that would result in the humbling of the wealthy and powerful of this world and the uplifting of those who are poor and meager in the world’s eyes.
Now I don’t think we should understand that in an overly simplistic sense. It would surely be a misinterpretation to conclude that to be saved you need to be poor and if you have riches you are going to hell. That can’t be the case because Scripture shows examples of rich people who were godly Christians. Rather, there is a general principle here in which God would send his Messiah to come and lift up his people who have been beaten down by the powerful in this world. This level of clarity, can be found, for example, in the servant on the mount when Jesus says not simply “blessed are the poor” but “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Likewise, Jesus goes on to say in that sermon that we must set our heart not on this world’s treasure but on heavenly treasure.
What’s the point? The point is that this passage in James connects with this teaching elsewhere that describes a mighty reversal in the glory of the age to come. It describes how God’s humble meager people will be lifted up while the arrogant and mighty of this world are put down. While the language is often put in terms simply of outward wealth, that’s sort of prophetic shorthand. The more nuanced explanation ultimately looks to the heart. Even here in James it speaks as such when it speaks in verse 5 about the “poor in the world” are those God has chosen to be “rich in faith.” So there the poverty is put in worldly terms and the reversal is put in terms of the heart in speaking of faith.
So then, today’s passage points us beyond the riches of this world and whatever poverty we may have known in it, to the riches and glory of heaven. That is our eternal hope as Christians. We who have come to him poor in spirit are encouraged that ours is the glorious kingdom of heaven. We who have so little wealth of the earth have become inheritors of the riches of heaven! All because Jesus took notice of our need and our poverty and came down to save us and to lift us up and to say to us, “Sit here in this eternal glory.”
Brothers and sisters, I hope you see that to show sinful partiality to the rich of this world betrays our Christian hope. The riches and splendor and wealth we have in Christ is far above all the wealth of this world. What awaits us in glory far surpasses all the treasure of this earth. This then is another way our faith is lived out and demonstrated. To be overly enamored by this world’s wealth is a contradiction to our faith. Our faith delights to see whomever would come unto this treasure here and now by turning to Jesus Christ. And as they do, whether they be rich or poor, male or female, red, brown, yellow, black, or white, let us joyfully embrace them as brethren in our Lord Jesus Christ of Glory. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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