Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher and theologian, once said, "The human race in the course of time has taken the liberty of softening and softening Christianity until at last we have contrived to make it exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament" (Attack, 39).
Those who are poor in spirit and neglected in this world can find in Christ a richness of spirit that leads to glory in the world to come.
Not only does Christ reverse our status in this world, but also Christ transforms our standards in this world. James is asking, "Do you realize whom you are honoring?" These believers were honoring those who were oppressing and taking advantage of God's people. They wanted the favor of those who were far from God. Now, I want to be careful not to imply that poverty is equated with righteousness and wealth with wickedness. We're not sure about the exact cultural situation James is addressing, but the point is clear. When we look at a man, we look at the outward appearance—the car he drives, the clothes he wears, the house he lives in, the lifestyle he leads—and we often honor him based on these things. But Scripture turns all of that upside down and tells us to look at men through the lens of the grace of God in Christ. This is key in terms of how we view and treat others. We ought to see everyone through the eyes of Christ. We ought to look at brothers and sisters around us, regardless of wealth or socioeconomic status, as those who, like us, are united to Christ, for Christ lives in them. We also need to see men and women around us who are not Christians as those whom Christ created, as those whom He loves, as those He desires to know Him. Let's put aside the standards of this world and see one another through the eyes of the Word, in relation to Christ.
We are devoted to the law of Christ. In verse 8, James starts speaking about "the royal law prescribed in the Scripture." James is quoting here from Leviticus 19:18 when God says to love your neighbor as yourself. And when he speaks about the law, he's not talking about all the Levitical laws, moral codes, and dietary laws. He's talking about the law understood as the commands of God ultimately fulfilled in Christ and understood in light of Christ. This law is summed up in the two great commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (see Mark 12:28-31; Deut 6:4). The context of this command in Leviticus 19 gives us a pretty strong sense 33of what James is getting at when he cites this Old Testament passage. Verses 15-18 read as follows:
God said in Leviticus 19 to be just and not to show favoritism but instead to love your neighbor as yourself. Likewise Jesus said in the Gospels to love your neighbor as yourself (see Matt 22:39; Mark 12:31).
Then James comes on the scene and says that if you keep this royal law, you are doing right, but if you show favoritism and thus disobey this law, then you are a lawbreaker. James is bringing home the reality that to show favoritism is sin. It is a violation of the law of love, the law of Christ; and when you show favoritism, you are guilty of breaking the law on two fronts.
First, favoritism disrespects man. The word favoritism in the original language of the NT literally means to "receive according to the face," or in other words, to make judgments about people based on external appearance (Moo, James, 102).6 To make such judgments is not in any way to love your neighbor as yourself. James deals with this issue in terms of rich and poor, and appropriately so in light of the context of this passage, but we show favoritism in other ways. Favoritism is present any time we are making judgments about people based on external appearance. This could be according to dress, general physical appearance, color of skin, or a host of other characteristics. As the people of God, we must be on guard against this sin because it is often subtle and almost unnoticed.
Favoritism often shows up, for example, on the basis of ethnicity.7 Imagine walking into a lunchroom by yourself, and you see two tables. 34One table has a group of people ethnically like you, and the other table has a group of people ethnically not like you. What do you instinctively do? You gravitate toward the people who are like you. But why? What is the mental impulse that leads us to make that decision? I don't want to oversimplify this, but it goes something like this, at the speed of thought: One group is not like me, and one group is like me. The group like me is safer, and therefore more comfortable, and more comfortable means there is more to gain. At the speed of thought, you are drawn instinctively toward those who are like you. The opposite thought process goes on when we think of the other table that is not like us. They are not like me and therefore not safe, which means they are not comfortable, and thus I have nothing to gain. James says not to think like this. Don't respond to one another according to the face, according to the outer appearance.
I'm guessing in our day we would embrace the idea that we should not show favoritism, but we have a long way to go in living out this reality. Consider how we talk: People say, "I met a Korean guy the other day," or "I was talking with a Hispanic guy." Why does it matter that he was Korean or Hispanic? Do you usually say, "I met a white guy the other day?" or "I was talking with a black guy?" Why do we feel the need to point out how people are different from us unnecessarily?
Favoritism disrespects man, and ultimately favoritism dishonors God Himself. James tells us that when you break one law, you are guilty of breaking all the law (2:10), and in the process you offend the One who gives the law. To show favoritism toward man is to dishonor God. This is a serious charge, which is what leads James to the next reminder.
We are cognizant of the judgment of Christ. In 2:12-13 James says, "Speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn't shown mercy." Because favoritism is such a serious sin, James immediately takes us to an awareness of divine judgment and reminds us that we will be judged according to our consistency of speech and action.
In short, our words will be judged. In Matthew 12:36-37 Jesus says,
That will make you think twice before texting, posting something on social media, or speaking.
35While words are a reflection of our heart, we shouldn't miss how our works relate to judgment, both for Jesus and for James. According to Scripture, our deeds (or lack thereof) will be judged. You might think, "This doesn't make sense in the New Testament—someone like Paul would never speak like this." However, consider what the apostle Paul says in Romans 2:6-11:
We find a similar idea in 2 Corinthians 5:10, where Paul says, "For we must all appear before the tribunal of Christ, so that each may be repaid for what he has done in the body, whether good or worthless." Like Paul, James is telling us not to play around with favoritism, with our words, or with our actions. We will be judged for how we respond to what God has said is important.
Remember what Jesus Himself said when he was speaking to those who didn't feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or help the poor: "Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!" (Matt 25:41). You will stand before God to give an account for your words, your actions, or your lack of action when it comes to that which God has said is most important—to love your neighbor as yourself. So speak with love and act with love.
Now you might be thinking, "How can I speak and act well enough to be OK before God? I could never do that." And this is where you recognize that you could never do enough to stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and so you subsequently realize that you need Christ's mercy. That leads to our last reminder from James on this point.
We are a reflection of the mercy of Christ. The message of the gospel is that we all need mercy. We need mercy that "triumphs over judgment" (2:13). Praise God that He brings justice and mercy together in the cross, and you and I can be declared right before God based on the righteousness of Jesus Christ. James is saying that when you have experienced that kind of mercy, you clearly know how to show mercy to others. God's mercy in you overflows from you.
36As we have received mercy, so we extend mercy. Just as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, "For if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your heavenly Father will forgive your as well. But if you don't forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing" (Matt 6:14-15). When you are forgiven of your sins, you are compelled to forgive others. As you have received mercy, you extend mercy. But the converse of this truth is particularly humbling and penetrating: if we do not extend mercy, we demonstrate that we have not received mercy. James says that judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful (2:13). This is not saying we need to be merciful to others in order to earn mercy before God. You can't earn mercy; it's mercy because it can't be earned. No, this text is saying you can tell who has received mercy from God by the way they show mercy to others. If mercy is evident in someone's life, then clearly Christ by His mercy is dwelling in them. But if mercy is not evident in them, then there may be reason to wonder whether Christ by His mercy is dwelling in them.
The Manifestation of True and Acceptable Religion
This discussion of showing mercy brings us back to the idea we began with, namely that authentic religion, or faith, must be evident in our actions. If we do not keep a tight rein on our tongue, then our religion is worthless (1:26). If our words and works do not reflect the mercy of God, then we show that we do not have faith in Christ (2:12-13). Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is to look after orphans and widows and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (1:27). If we fail to do these things, then we show that we have not really been transformed by the life-giving mercy of Christ, and our religion is not acceptable before God. Christ produces mercy in His people, which changes the way they act and speak before others. That's the point of this text, for faith always expresses itself through love.
Reflect and Discuss