Who is the most important person in this room?
If we were to reserve the front rows for VIP, who would we place there?
If you were to stage photographs to market our church and make it attractive to people, who would you put on that stage?
Interesting questions right?
This morning we are in James chapter 2. Two weeks ago we read James 1:9-11. We saw that there are things more valuable than material wealth: honor and a good reputation, wisdom, godly contentment, faith, time, your soul and friendship with God.
We saw that we should
- Never let the world or things in the world define your identity or your worth. Only God can do that.
- Never look to the world or things in this world to find your identity or give your life worth. Only God can do that.
- Be willing to associate with people of low position.
- Be willing to occupy places of low position.
This morning we will see the theme of poverty and wealth continued in James 2:1-9.
We’re going to break down three principles from this passage today:
- Behavior can’t be separated from belief.
- Prejudice is incompatible with Christian belief.
- Christian belief (and therefore behavior) is excellent.
1. Behavior can’t be separated from belief.
This is really the message of James.
So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.”
Christian belief requires Christian behavior.
Brendan Manning wrote that “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle.”
In his autobiography, Mohandas Gandhi illustrates the reality of that statement.
As a college student he began to read the gospels and was captivated by Jesus. So he decided to attend a nearby church and talk to the pastor about following Jesus. When he walked into the church, the usher refused him a seat and told him he should go worship with his own people. Gandhi left that church and never returned to church.
“If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.”
Let’s look at 3 key words in this verse.
The faith. James is not writing about your personal feelings of faith. It is the faith – an objective, universal truth. The faith is the story of God’s redemptive work in the world culminating in the life, message and work of Jesus. It includes propositional truth statements and moral values that are universal.
The Lord. Jesus is not a good teacher or an influencer offering his ideas at the marketplace. He announced himself as Lord. If we take him at his word, we don’t come to him handling his wares like a shopper at a market. We come to him on our knees.
The glory. Colossians tells us that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory. John tells us that the Word came into the world with glory. The word glory means weight and beauty. Jesus is Lord and he is glorious.
Together, these three words give us a picture of the reality that belief in Jesus requires behavior that is consistent with that belief. When we fail to live consistently with the standards of the faith, James calls that sin or transgression (Verse 9).
Sin means to miss the mark. When an archer aims at a target and the arrow falls short of the target, the archer has “sinned”.
Transgression means to step outside the line. When a wrestler steps outside of the ring on the mat, he has crossed a line and “transgressed.”
The particular sin or transgression James warns us about in this passage is the sin of partiality or prejudice.
2. Prejudice is incompatible with Christian belief.
The word translated ‘partiality’ in the ESV means literally to ‘receive the face’. It’s an interesting phrase that appears to be invented by NT Christians. To receive the face is to make judgments about people based on external appearance.
It is translated partiality in our pew Bible. It is translated as favoritism or prejudice in other translations.
Partiality means “Showing fondness or bias towards someone over another.”
Favoritism is “the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.”
This kind of behavior is incompatible with Christian belief.
James gives us a scenario to illustrate what he is talking about in verses 2-5.
Two men walk into church. A rich man in fine clothes and expensive jewelry. The rich mean is ostentatious. He is successful and important in the eyes of the world.
Then there is a poor man wearing shabby clothes. The word there is the same one used in chapter 1 where we are told to “put away all filthiness”. This man’s clothes are not only old and shabby, they are filthy.
The rich man is taken to the VIP section. The poor man is told to sit at the host’s feet. The poor man is invited to sit on the floor with the Christian’s feet propped up near his face. This is partiality, prejudice and it is sin.
James gives us an example of prejudice or partiality which values the worth of a human life in the unit of dollars.
I think there are three categories of valuing human life that we should be aware of in our world:
Money. Beauty. Ethnicity.
Let me be very clear. You cannot be both a Christian and a racist. You cannot honor Jesus and dishonor your neighbor because of their skin color or their clothing.
Why not? James gives us several reasons:
- It’s incompatible with our place as human beings. (verse 4)
- It’s incompatible with the character and the heart of God. (verse 5)
- It’s incompatible with reason. (verses 6-7)
- It’s incompatible with the royal law. (verse 8)
Behavior cannot be separated from belief. The behavior of prejudice is incompatible with Christian belief. And finally,
3. Christian belief, demonstrated by Christian behavior, is beautiful.
Verse 9 tells us that if we do not show partiality, but instead fulfill the royal law – love your neighbor as yourself, we are doing well. We are acting with excellence.
The royal law is beautiful, isn’t it? How many of our problems would dissolve if we all treated our neighbor as we would like to be treated. It’s profoundly simple.
If I was poor, how would I like to be treated? I would like equal treatment.
If I was unattractive in the eyes of the world, how would I like to be treated? As someone whose worth was not defined by outward appearance.
If I was a minority, how would I like to be treated? With dignity and respect.
It’s simple. And it’s beautiful.
Why does James call it the royal law? It’s royal because it comes down from the King. It’s royal because it’s the king of all laws.
Some of you may be thinking, yes that is so simple. It’s so simple we don’t need Christianity in order to do it. If we were all reasonable and decent human beings, we would live like this naturally.
This seems to be a sensible reaction, until you look at nature.
The writer Annie Dillard wrote a book about her meditations while immersed in nature at a place called Tinker Creek. Dillard describes the experience of watching a frog and considering the vibrancy of it’s life. As she watched the frog, it began to sag and the life began to sap from it’s eyes. Within a matter of seconds the little animal crumpled in a heap of skin. It has been attacked by a giant water bug. The insect had sucked the flesh out of the frog’s skin.
Dillard’s reflections on nature at Tinker Creek reveal a frightening paradox. Nature is filled with violence. When we are disturbed by that violence we reveal a dilemma of the highest order. Which is right? Is the natural order of things natural and good? Or is my sense of justice and concern for the weak and the poor natural and good? Either the natural world is monstrous, or we humans are freaks.
The royal law of Jesus is to love your neighbor as yourself.
The natural law of scientific naturalism is to do whatever it takes to come out on top.
Annie Dillard wasn’t the first to experience the conflict between these two ideals:
“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”
Darwin acknowledges a dilemma in this passage – a conflict between civilization and natural reality. The civilization he refers to was a society built on the foundations of Christian morality. The England he lived in had been radically transformed by Christian leaders like John Wesley, George Whitefield and William Wilberforce. Social reforms protecting the poor and uplifting the oppressed had radically altered English society.
Yet Darwin who was a product of that civilization sought to remove its foundations and replace them with something else entirely.
Charles’ son Leonard sought to leave the constraints of Christian civilization entirely and remake the world in the image of nature.
“My firm conviction is that if wide-spread Eugenic reforms are not adopted during the next hundred years or so, our Western Civilization is inevitably destined to such a slow and gradual decay as that which has been experienced in the past by every great ancient civilization. The size and the importance of the United States throws on you a special responsibility in your endeavours to safeguard the future of our race. Those who are attending your Congress will be aiding in this endeavour, and though you will gain no thanks from your own generation, posterity will, I believe, learn to realize the great dept it owes to all the workers in this field.”
The Christian faith or gospel tells us that we are right to feel horrified by the violence of the natural world. The heart of the Christian message is that the Lord of Lords sacrificed himself for the poorest of the poor.
It’s a beautiful message. It’s beautiful when Christians live it out.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown