Most families with children experience what some feel is partial treatment bestowed on other members. Older siblings may resent the way everyone seems to adore the latest addition to the group. Grandparents are notorious for singling out one person to lavish with attention and gifts, or at least appear to do that, to the seeming neglect of others. Even as death breaks up the relationships, how to distribute family heirlooms may cause old wounds to fester. Showing partiality can also plague churches, particularly between those financially secure against the less fortunate. That tendency plagued the people to whom James wrote.
It should be obvious that showing partiality disrupts the fellowship (vv. 2-4). Intrusions by unexpected people in worship can be a source of soul searching, as I found out one Sunday night. On a particularly cold night at First Baptist Church, Cottondale, Fla., I was preaching from James 2:3, when a bedraggled man wandered in from US 231 in front of our church, walked all the way down the aisle, turned to his left, sat down on the pew, crossed his arms and went to sleep. His presence caused us, especially me, to judge what we thought of the poor fellow. After the service we at least helped him meet some of his physical needs. Who said God does not have a sense of humor?
However, showing partiality can cause one to overlook one of God’s basic principles (vv. 5-7). James notes that God chose “the poor of this world rich in faith” to be a foundation element of His work. James undoubtedly had in mind the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). At no point does Jesus treat the poor as being automatically entitled to special benefits. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Sinners, whether rich or poor, must be born again. However, the fellowship of believers has no second class citizens.
To show partiality is to violate a fundamental principle of the royal law (vv. 8-11). Jesus defined the royal law as, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” To put the idea of the royal law into perspective, we must remember the encounter between Jesus and “a certain lawyer” about the requirements for obtaining eternal life (Lk. 10:25-28). When Jesus asked him what the law required, he quoted from Leviticus 19:18, that “thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself” (v. 27). James quoted the latter part (v. 28), calling it the royal law. It has our Lord’s stamp of approval, hence, the royal law. James thus elevated the Jewish law into a sublime principle.
We must now follow James to the next fundamental principle, the “law of liberty” (vv. 12-20). To understand his emphasis we go back to John’s Gospel as he described an encounter between Jesus and some Pharisees (8:13) about the works and teachings of Jesus. The Jews compiled 39 categories of such deliberate activities of Sabbath observance including such works as plowing, sowing, reaping, sewing and scores of others. The Pharisees simply could not divest themselves of their traditional rituals and principles. For the few who believed Jesus said, “and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (8:32). Being free to James meant a glorious freedom from the soul-quenching rules of Judaism, which negates the “Law of Liberty.” The problem for James is that one can revel in freedom while neglecting the Royal Law relating to relationships. If so, dead words indicate a dead faith. To him the faith that saves will show evidence in the way one lives.
He illustrates his thesis by appealing to Abraham’s faith (vv. 21-23). He is unquestionably the champion of faith alone as bringing righteousness (v. 23). On the other hand his faith passed the test by what he did years later in being willing to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. What Abraham did brought his faith to full maturity (perfect). Abraham was not justified by his works, but his faith proved its genuineness in his work.
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