This is part 4 in a 7-part series on the book of James. Below is a modified transcript of the audio lesson.
Today we move into lesson two of James 2, the second chapter of James. James begins to talk about some of the problems that were in the early church. Interestingly enough because of human nature, the same problems are in the church today. Let’s remember that James was the half brother of Jesus. He at first did not believe in Jesus but after the resurrection the resurrected Lord appeared to him. This is in 1 Corinthians 15. We don’t know all of the details but he became the pastor of the church at Jerusalem. Now the church in Jerusalem-you’ve heard the term flagship church- oh yeah- the traditional strong base from which all other churches benefited. Because of the persecution of Christians in the 1st century, Christians began to scatter, especially to Antioch. Antioch became one of the main centers of Christianity. They scattered all throughout the Roman Empire. James was writing letters to the Christians to encourage them in their faith. James was probably one of the first books written in New Testament times. The reason we know this is because he was martyred in about 60 or 62 A.D. It obviously had to be written before that but also he doesn’t mention any of the problems that came later on in the early church. For example, the Judaizers believed you had to become a Jew first and then a Christian. It doesn’t mention false teaching or any of those other things that Paul and Peter specifically mention. He also mentions meeting in synagogues so this was before they began meeting in homes. There were no church buildings until the 3rd century. They first started meeting in homes when they were kicked out of the synagogues. They began to be no longer just a minor part of Judaism but a major force.
James is writing this letter as the pastor of the Jerusalem church to encourage these Christians that have been scattered out into Asia Minor and into the world of that day. It was still a transition time for Jewish believers from understanding the law to understanding grace. James is more or less one who bridges that time. He mentions some very specific problems. The one he is specifically famous for is faith versus works. They are not in conflict and there is a very clear way to see that. I think it’s very important that we understand the theme in James. He has some harsh words for the rich later on- he talks about faith without works and how it doesn’t do any good- he talks about our speech. In other words the whole theme of James is this- regardless of our words our actions stand in judgment of our faith. We can have all the right words but our actions and attitudes can be entirely different. There’s got to be harmony between both in order to know that it is true faith.
The theme of this lesson would be James2: 8; “It is good when you truly obey our Lord’s royal command found in Scripture: “Love your neighbor as yourself,”. This is really the essence of everything he’s talking about- love your neighbor as yourself. He begins by introducing the problem of favoritism or discrimination. Was there a teacher’s pet when you were in school? Were any of you the teacher’s pet? You were! I always wanted to be the teacher’s pet! I was one of those children who just blended in. There was always a teacher’s pet. Oh, how nobody likes the teacher’s pet! Why? Because the teacher plays favorites and gives them everything- like running errands, cleaning the chalk board, going to recess early and going to get the ice cream. I know because I never was one of those people! If only it would stay so simple. Unfortunately that attitude grows into very destructive things if it’s not stopped. That is favoritism and discrimination and it really, really sins against the nature of God.
Interestingly enough, favoritism and discrimination were a big problem in the early church in the 1st century. Society was characterized into upper and lower classes back then. We’ve talked quite a bit about Palestine in the Jesus era. You had the Pharisees and the religious leaders in one strata- the wealthy people- and the poor people in the other strata. These classes were very, very distinctive. Jesus was usually challenging those men in the upper classes, the religious men. This was also characteristic of the church in the time of James.
You can tie James to the story in Acts 6 not because he is mentioned but undoubtedly James had observed something happen in the very early days of the early church. When the deacons were chosen-the first committee really- the reason why was to lead out in the daily administration because there was a problem of discrimination. Guess who it was with? The women- the older women! Don’t mess with older women, just don’t! That’s not a good idea! What had happened was that there was dissatisfaction between some of the widows. Now widows generally, when they had no children to support them, would often come to Jerusalem because the church had a large charity there to care for them. There was a large contingency of widows that went into Jerusalem at this time. There were Hellenistic widows-Jewish women who had converted to Christianity- that meant they spoke Greek the common language of the day. Then you had the Hebraic widows. They spoke Aramaic as they did in Palestine proper. You automatically had cultural differences. You had two different nationalities so to speak. The Jews who ran the church in Palestine were Hebraic Jews who spoke Aramaic. The Hellenistic Jews, these women, said when they were passing out the daily distribution of food that they weren’t getting as much as the other women. Can you imagine women saying that? A dispute arose. The men of the church were very, very wise and they prayed. God gave them the plan to pick out seven men from among them full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. These men would serve as deacons. They would take care of the daily ministration of the food and the apostles would then be free to give themselves to the word and to prayer. There’s one of the first patterns we have of church staff or polity-church running a church. Someone would care for the administrative things and then the pastor or preacher would give themselves fully to the word and prayer. It’s interesting that the men that they chose all had Greek names which tells you something about the wisdom of the apostles. They did this as a concession-as a sign of cooperation- with the Greeks.
Undoubtedly James was already aware that the first major conflict of the early church was discrimination and favoritism. It was a problem in that culture as well as this one.
James then begins to set up his case or argument about favoritism. I am reading from the Living New Testament. James 2: 1-13; “My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim that you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people more than others? For instance, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in shabby clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”- well, doesn’t this discrimination show that you are guided by wrong motives? Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? And yet, you insult the poor man! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? Yes, indeed, it is good when you truly obey our Lord’s royal command found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you pay special attention to the rich, you are committing a sin, for you are guilty of breaking that law. And the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as the person who has broken all of God’s laws. For the same God who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” So if you murder someone, you have broken the entire law, even if you do not commit adultery. So whenever you speak, or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law of love, the law that set you free. For there will be no mercy for you if you have not been merciful to others. But if you have been merciful, then God’s mercy toward you will win out over his judgment against you.
How many of you would prefer God’s mercy to win out at our judgment opposed to His judgment? How many? This is good. We should rejoice over this verse. In Christ, God’s mercy triumphed over judgment. We will talk about that in our next lesson in more detail.
James hits them hard about favoritism. He’s setting up his case or argument for faith versus works. His first point in taking on this argument is to say let’s talk about discrimination. We know that God is no respecter of persons. We know we are to love and show mercy and kindness to everyone. Yet he told them that many of them were not doing that. He uses the word that is often translated as the word discrimination or more accurately favoritism. Some of you may wonder why speakers will usually give the meaning in Greek or Hebrew. It’s the original language the New Testament was written in. Often those words are more specific and carry nuances that are a little different than our English language. It often gives us additional insight into the word used. For example, the word for favoritism is a combination of – to accept and face. So favoritism means accepting or rejecting on the basis of someone’s face or appearance. So you look at someone. You don’t bother to know anything about them but you immediately accept or reject them on the basis of their outward appearance, their social status, their race, their ethnicity, their education or whatever it is. You are simply just looking at the outside. Now apparently James had heard some of his church members cotowing down to some of these rich people and giving them preference or preferential treatment. He was saying, as he so often says in other chapters, ‘my brothers these things ought not to be’. This is not consistent with the love of God. Faith and favoritism are inconsistent one with the other.
He gives us a hypothetical situation. Can any of you imagine a hypothetical situation like this? Oh, I can! This is if it came from a church last Sunday. A person who’s dressed nicely, an expensive suit, a nice watch, hair slicked back, a good- looking guy with nice shoes walks into church and behind him is a poorly dressed person. Now let’s be honest. Who is the usher going to give preference to? Well, probably the nicely dressed person as opposed to the poorly dressed person. This is very common. Now in biblical days they were much more obvious about it. The wealthy would be given the front row seats at the synagogue and the poor people would have to stand. James is reminding them here, he’s saying, weren’t you the poor people that used to have to sit on the floor or stand? If you remember, you used to be those people. Now you’re giving preference to the wealthy and doing to others what they had done to you. That is not the right thing to do.
Have any of you ever been to Williamsburg, Virginia? I went to Williamsburg as a child with my parents. My mother loved it. Poor thing though, we made her life miserable! All we wanted to do was to go on the rides. There are no rides at Williamsburg! My poor mother just wanted to do whatever you did there and I always felt so guilty about that- later not then! We were in Williamsburg and I bought her several nice gifts there because I felt so guilty as and adult for what I did to her as a child! While we were there we visited one of the oldest colonial churches in Williamsburg. I think it was built in the 1600”s. I was amazed. I wish you could’ve seen it, the altar, the pulpit and then in the congregational area there were these pews built for families that were like box seats! They had a compartment with a little door where they would walk in and a little thing built up in the middle where your servants would bring hot bricks wrapped in clothes and lay them there during the sermon. They could put their feet on the hot bricks because obviously there was no electricity. All right, these were for the rich people who gave the most money! Yes! Everybody else had to sit in the back on benches with nobody warming their feet! The people would buy the pew as a family and the closer they got to the front - it meant the more money they had given. Did they never read the book of James? I don’t know! It’s just unbelievable for us today to fathom that that’s the way they did church. Obviously it’s part of human nature to do that. He gives us this hypothetical situation where if you give special attention to the rich person but you say to the poor one you can sit on the floor doesn’t this show you are guided by wrong motives. He is saying your motives are wrong. There’s something wrong in your heart. You are discriminating or showing favoritism to someone else. He’s not saying don’t honor the wealthy person- the bible says give honor to whom honor is due. He’s just saying don’t treat them differently. Don’t treat them discriminately.
In verse 9 he adds to your paying special attention to the rich. You’re committing a sin- you are guilty of breaking that law. What law? The law of love is showing consideration and love and thoughtfulness toward every human being. Treat everyone the same and don’t give preferential treatment to those who have money or who have position. Now why do people do that? There’s something in our nature, is there not, that looks at money rather than to depend on God. Oftentimes a community leader comes into the church and we think maybe they’ll help our church or maybe that wealthy person will make a really big offering. I think that plays a big part of it- to look at money and not God. This is what Jesus was saying when he called the Pharisees hypocrites. You say you live by one thing and yet you act another way. That was exactly what was happening with the early church with James. God is no respecter of persons.
We recently went to a Dallas summer musical, Fiddler on the Roof. I loved that show and I’m reminded that discrimination is not politically correct today in our world even though people still do it. In just a few lines this Tevi, who lived in Russia with his family as part of the Jewish minority, was told by the Russian police officer that their village was going to be burned. He calls him nothing but a Jewish dog. I know it’s just a stage play but just to hear those words. Have you had that experience? What is it like to be regarded as a dog? This is a big problem for the church in other parts of the world because of these deep, deep- seated hatreds and discriminations toward other people. It was like that in Jesus’ day too. It is good to be reminded that God is no respecter of persons.
Now verse 5 tells us that God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith. Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the kingdom God promised to those who love Him? And yet you insult them. Let’s talk about the poor for a minute. Jesus said in Matthew 4 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, right? It is those who realize they are spiritually bankrupt on their own. They have nothing to offer God. Those are the ones God can bless. Those are the ones God can use. Those are the ones God can fill. If you don’t have any need for God, then you are on your own. But blessed are the poor in spirit. There is a biblical admonition to remember the poor all through the Old Testament in the giving of the law. There were specific things the Jews were to do in caring for orphans, widows the poor and oppressed. Remember the story of Ruth and Boaz? She and her mother-in-law, Naomi, were destitute and so there was a provision for her to go to a field and collect the grain that was left from collection time. Remember John the Baptist when he wondered- he sent word to Jesus- are you the Christ or shall we look for another? Jesus sent back the word to him and said, ’the poor have the gospel being preached to them’. When Paul left Ephesus the people were crying and hanging on to him as he had said, ‘I’ll never see you again”, you know what he said out of all the things he could’ve said? Remember the poor. There is something about the poor and not showing favoritism that is close to the heart of God. That’s why I think if you want to want to give credibility to a church or ministry, you have to find some way to give to the poor. Nothing gives you credibility like that one. When we moved to Dallas, O.S. and I were blown away by the ministry of Dallas Life Foundation. The way they minister to the poor and homeless is unbelievable. It gives them such credibility because that is what Jesus said to do. In fact when Jesus was preaching His first sermon in Nazareth, He quoted from the scroll Isaiah 61. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to anoint Me to preach the good news to the poor. So there’s something about the poor- those who have nothing- I think that gives them a certain empathy perhaps or inclination toward hearing from God. They don’t have anything else.
James was very, very strong on this point. He also said when you discriminate or show favoritism you are also dishonoring them. You take away their dignity. When you treat them differently and push them to the back of the room, you dishonor them. He was accusing them of taking away their dignity. If you look at the life of Jesus you can see He treated everyone the same. He could go into Jerusalem and minister to the invalid- the poor cripple man at the pool of Bethesda, the bottom of the bottom- and yet He could spend time with Nicodemus who was a ruler of the Jews. On the way to Jericho He could stop and talk to Zacchaeus who was in the top of a sycamore tree watching Him. He was the wealthiest man in Jericho. And yet He could also stop and heal blind Bartimaeus rattling a tin cup. He is our example. He could bring the gospel, the good news, to the rich and to the poor as well. We need to be sure we don’t discriminate against the rich in that way. Everyone has the same opportunity.