The Epistle of James
Christian impartiality is almost a lost virtue today. Respect is shown to persons every day in Christendom. In fact, the sin is so prevalent that one seldom hears a voice raised against it. In the first 13 verses of the second chapter, James presents a graphic homily on the sin of showing respect to persons. The portion may be outlined as follows: The Precept set Forth, verse 1; An Illustration from Life, verses 2-4; Why respect of Persons is Sinful, verses 5-11; and the Conclusion, verses 11-12.
The Precept Stated
The precept, clearly stated in the first verse, is, “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory, with respect of persons.” Those to whom James is writing profess to have faith in Christ, and, since this is true, respect of persons should not be shown. “Hold” is just as fitting a translation of the Greek word as “have,” so we can just as well say, “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ with respect of persons.”
Respect of Persons Defined
“Respect of persons” is the translation of one Greek word, “prosoopoleempsia.” The etymology of this word is highly interesting, for it reveals the true meaning of “respect of persons.” This is a compound word, composed by putting two Greek words together in one. The first of these words is, “prosoopon,” which means, “face, countenance, or the front of anything.” The second part of the word comes from, “lambanoo,” which, in its primary meaning is, “to receive, or take.” From it we get the derived meanings of, “to understand, to comprehend, and to sieze with the mind.” The real meaning of the word, therefore, is “to receive or judge a person’s inner being by his outward appearance.” In other words, you allow only externalities to be the index to a person’s heart.
God never looks on the outward appearance. “For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). That is God’s perogative; man sees the heart by outward appearance. But we should endeavor, as far as possible, to probe beneath the outward appearance to form a true estimate of the heart. Failure to do this is the sin reprimanded in this portion of Scripture.
God Is No Respecter of Persons
Moses commanded certain of the Children of Israel thus: “Ye shall not respect persons in judgment, but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God’s; and the cause that is too hard for you, bring it to me and I will hear it” (Deut. 1:17). One of the lessons Peter learned when he entered the house of Cornelius to bring the gospel message for the first time to the Gentiles, was, “Of a truth, I perceive that God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). This truth is plainly taught in both the Old and New Testaments. Since God is no respecter of persons, it only stands to reason that His people should reflect the same characteristic.
Outward Appearance vs. Inward Reality
When it becomes the duty of one Christian to receive, or to judge another Christian, he should not be satisfied with external appearances only but should search deeply to ascertain his heart relationship to God. True, the Christian should conscientiously attempt to bring into conformity his outward appearance with his inward reality. But this is most difficult to do, nay, it is almost impossible for a human being to do this. A little girl once looked up at her mother, and said, “Mother, I think Jesus was the only one who dared to live His inside out.” That is succinctly put, but it expresses a very nearly universal truth. We deliberately attempt to conceal an inward condition by an outward appearance. One may be going through some deep emotional conflict, but disguise the outward appearance lest others might detect the inward feeling. A boy may feign sickness to stay out of school. A sinner, under deep conviction, may put on a care-free appearance when he meets someone whom he fears may talk to him about his soul. Or a man may pretend to be a Christian to obtain favors which he could not obtain otherwise. Such is the state of things in which we are living, consequently it is impossible to judge one’s heart by outward appearance. The little girl was not too far out of the way, when she said that she thought Jesus was the only one who lived His inside out.
This universal custom makes it extremely difficult to arrive at the true condition of the heart through outward appearances. Those who receive others must, in reliance upon the Holy Spirit, fathom the depths to ascertain the heart condition. Too often this is neglected, and the very ones whom the Lord sends to us are turned away because of some minor externality which may not merit our approval.
Illustration From Life
Having clearly set forth the precept in verse one, the author proceeds to exemplify the precept with an illustration from life. He says, “For if there come into your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and you have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say to him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool; are ye not partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?”
Here come two men into the assembly, one a rich man, in fine clothing, and the other a poor man in threadbare clothing. These two men evidently are visitors and were there perhaps for the first time, and are therefore unknown personally to the usher. As the usher looks intently on the rich man in his fine apparel, he gives him a place of honor in a comfortable seat and position. But to the poor man, he accords a place to stand over against the wall or sit on the floor by his footstool. The usher judged the hearts of these two men by their outward appearance, and James accuses him of showing partiality and judging with evil motives.
This is the illustration James uses from life, and, is it not true that too often partiality is shown by Christians in the assembly today? We cautiously choose the companions with whom we like to sit. We avoid the companionship of some Christians, and seek out that of others. We show favoritism to some preachers who come to the assembly to minister the Word. If one comes whom we highly esteem, we respect him with our presence every time. But when one comes whom we do not esteem so highly, our absence from the meetings becomes very marked. This is also true of the local brethren on whom the responsibility falls to minister the Word. We show our respect by our presence or absence, depending on who speaks. So one might go on mentioning instances where respect of persons is shown, but this is enough to show how respect of persons is shown today. God is no respecter of persons: the rich and poor stand on an equal basis before Him. The highly polished orator rates no higher with God than the one who cannot master oratory, but he preaches the truth as God reveals it to him.
Reception at the Lord’s Supper
The sin of respect of persons often appears in the manner one is received at the Lord’s supper. This feast is for the Lord’s people. Only those living in sin or holding false doctrine cannot be received at the supper of the Lord. Too often the one who receives depends on externalities only. Does he have a letter from a recognized assembly, signed by brethren who are known? Or if he has no letter, and without inquiring as to his true relationship to Christ, he is denied fellowship at the Lord’s supper; this should not be.
Why Respect of Persons is Sinful
Having announced the precept, and given an illustration from life, the author begins to show why respect of persons is sinful. He begins with the poor man — poor in the estimation of the world. He used this poor man in his illustration from life, and shows why this poor man should not have been slighted. Verse five says, “Hearken, my brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He has promised to them that love Him?” God chose the poor, not on the basis that they are poor; they are poor only in the estimation of the world; they are rich in faith. A rich man may become a Christian, and when he does, the world regards him as “that poor man.” God’s call does not depend on human circumstances or on human merit, but those whom he calls are poor in the estimation of the world.
Election is a subject that has always been controversial among Bible teachers. Some take the extreme view that some are elected to be saved while others are elected to be lost. God elects no one to be lost; the whole race is lost without electing them to be lost. The marvel is that God has elected some to be saved. Would you like to know whether you are among the elect? There is one sure way of knowing that. Believe the gospel, and you will find yourself among the elect. Someone has put it like this, The elect are the “whosoever will,” and the non-elect are the “whosoever won’t.” Trust Christ as your Saviour and you will be among the elect. Reject Him and die in your sins, then you will know that you are not among the elect. Election should present no problem to a child of God.
Despising The Poor
James says one thing more about the poor in the 6th verse. He says, “But ye have despised the poor.” He refers again to the illustration from life, where the poor man was given the lowest place in the assembly, and the rich man the place of honor. The poor man, no doubt, was one of God’s elect. He was poor in the estimation of the world, and was not blessed with abundance of this world’s goods, far he could not dress as elegantly as the rich man. But being one of God’s elect, his position before God was of the highest, yet in the assembly he was given the lowest place. “Ye have despised the poor.”
The rich men of this world are mentioned in verses 6 and 7. “Do not the rich oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? Do they not blaspheme that worthy name by which ye are called?” Such is the type of man that was given the highest place in the assembly. This is sin.
The Royal Law
Having denounced the sin of showing respect of persons with unmistakeable candor, James seemingly takes a backward step and rationalizes that the usher might justify his action by claiming he kept the royal law. The royal law says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Taking refuge under this law, the usher might claim that he has treated these two men as he would like to have been treated. James concedes that if this was the case, the usher was doing well, but if he showed respect of persons, he was committing sin, and became a transgressor of the law.
The Broken Law
One does not need to transgress many points of the law to be constituted a transgressor. Infringing but one point of the law, one is guilty of breaking the whole law. To illustrate the point, he says that the same One who said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery, also said, Thou shalt not commit murder.” Now if one did not commit adultery, but did commit murder, he is guilty of breaking the whole law. The law is an entirety; it cannot be divided into ten parts and one be guilty of breaking one tenth of the law. No! If one point is broken, the whole law is broken.
The Law of Liberty
James concludes his homily on Christian impartiality by exhorting those to whom he is writing to so speak and so act as those about to be judged by the law of liberty. The verbs used in the Greek are in the present or continuous tense, which means, “so keep on speaking and keep on acting.” It should become habitual for Christians to speak and act as though they are about to be judged by this law of liberty.
The law of liberty is not the law God gave Moses at Sinai; that law tends to bondage, not liberty. The law of liberty is the perfect law (1:25), and is characterized by liberty. This law produces maturity in the believer, and is the crowning edifice produced by the coordinate working together of the three laws governing the Christian life. (See paper on the GENUINE CHRISTIAN). The law of the Spirit gives life to the sinner; the law of Christ brings the fulfilment of the righteousness of the law; and the perfect law yields maturity, conforming one into the image of Christ. The truth then of Galatians 2:20 is implanted in the Christian, “I have been crucified with Christ, it is now no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (R.V.).