Love Without Partiality James 2:1–13
It is all too common today to hear Christians disparage doctrine or theology as entirely theoretical, productive only of pride and division, and therefore almost entirely irrelevant to the real issues of life. The cry is for greater emphasis on brotherhood and love and less on truth or orthodoxy. There is in that attitude a false dichotomy, the dangerous notion that believers can live out the “good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” without being “transformed by the renewing of [their minds]” (Rom. 12:1–2). Perhaps nowhere in Scripture is the lie more thoroughly disputed than in the epistle of James. This little “Manual of Christian Conduct” is, of all the books of the New Testament, supremely practical, and yet it breathes hardfisted doctrine in all of its parts.
Clearly, James was writing to believers who were paying dearly for their faith (1:2–4, 12; 5:7–11) and whose response to the heartaches they encountered had been, in many ways, wicked. One of the temptations to which his readers had fallen prey was the sin of partiality. James rightly understood such behavior to be a violation of the “royal law” (2:8)—that fundamental demand of God that believers love with a Spirit-born love, one that has an entirely selfless nature. By definition, such love seeks nothing in return, whether vengeance upon those who are resented or favor from those capable of giving it. Thus, biblical love has no reason to play favorites. This is the thrust of James 2:1–13.
It is not difficult to follow James’ argument in this passage; indeed, it would be difficult to miss his point. He set out to change the way his readers behaved, but he was gripped by the reality that unless he was able to first change the way they thought, any change in behavior would be superficial and transitory. The only way to transform their thinking was to confront them with spiritual realities—doctrine, if you please! Beginning with a clear and stinging rebuke (2:1), James then drove home the indictment with a substantiating illustration that was as real and uncomplicated as a toothache and that must have left many of his original readers squirming and staring at the floor (2:2–4). Because James was a well schooled student of fallen mankind, he drove home the indictment with three simply stated principles of timeless and profound significance (2:5–11) and then drew the passage to a close—and his readers to attention—with a concluding injunction that is at once appropriately sobering and marvelously encouraging (2:12–13).
An Imperative (2:1)
James introduced the passage with a negative command, the force of which is perhaps lost on the modern reader. He approached the issue carefully, however. For the fourth time in the epistle, he addressed his readers as “My brethren” (cp. 1:2, 16, 19); he went on to do so a total of eleven times in the five chapters of the epistle (see 2:5, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 5:10, 12). This form of address effectively reminded the readers that although they were about to receive one heavy-duty “slap upside the head,” it was being administered by one who loved them like a brother. The imperative that follows is as brief as it is stinging: “Stop living out your faith in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ as a respecter of persons!” The grammar suggests strongly that James was demanding that they desist—that they stop doing what they had been doing.
This epistle was written early (as demonstrated, for instance, by James’ use of the Greek term synagogue to denote his readers’ place of worship), and there is every indication that his audience was comprised almost entirely of converted Jews who, appropriately, thought in terms of the Old Testament. Thus, it is telling that James referred to “the glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (lit., our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory, with doxa, or glory, in apposition to the name of the Lord). In the New Testament, doxa becomes the exclusive term by which the marvelous theophanic glory cloud of the Old Testament is remembered. But it is in Jesus that we supremely behold that glory (Jn. 1:14). Thus, James very succinctly reminded his readers that this one in whom they had placed their faith, the Lord Jesus Christ, is in fact the glorious manifestation of God. He is indeed God come in the flesh! For that reason, He has the ability to save and the authority to make commands. Surely anyone who rests in that ability but resists that authority plays both the fool and the ingrate.
The heart of James’ command is found in the reference to respect of persons (NKJV, partiality; NASB, personal favoritism). This is clearly a Hebrew idiom built upon the terminology of a very important passage in the Mosaic Law. In Leviticus 19:15, Jehovah said to His covenant people, “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty, but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor” (italics added). The term translated respect is literally lift the face. It is a dramatic idiom, the picture of lifting the downcast gaze of one who is humbled by poverty and despair. (Compare Genesis 19:21, where the same idiom is used in a positive sense.) The command is clear: The administration of God’s standards must be absolutely impartial. The guilty poor man is not to escape justice because he is pitiable; neither is the wealthy malefactor to be excused because he has the capacity to reward the avaricious judge. It was this principle of rigid impartiality that had been compromised by James’ readers. The term James used in rebuking them demonstrates that he considered their partiality to be a violation of the principle laid down hundreds of years earlier in the law of Moses.
An Indictment (2:2–4)
James reinforced the imperative with an illustration that functions as an indictment—an indictment that is powerful for at least three reasons. First, James constructed a very dramatic illustration: There comes to the assembly a man sporting a gold ring (lit., the gold-fingered man, suggesting the ostentatious display of his expensive jewelry) and wearing fine garments (lit., brilliant, colorful, which in light of the expense of brightly dyed cloth, is also a display of wealth). He is carefully looked upon (epiblepsete, only here and in Lk. 1:48; 9:38) and deferentially invited to take a prominent seat. Then arrives the poor man (beggarly, a mendicant) wearing vile (filthy, impure) clothes. He is told to stand off in an inconspicuous place, or perhaps to sit at the footstool in order to publicly confess his unworthiness. The description is compelling, the contrast complete.
Second, the illustration is powerful because it leaves out virtually no one. The impulse to treat the wealthy with deference and the beggarly with contempt is as universal as it is wicked. It is almost certain that this illustration is not hypothetical. Most likely this sorry scene had actually played itself out many times, and probably James’ readers had all been complicit in the partiality in one way or another—if not in inviting the wealthy man to take the honored seat, then at least in scooting across the floor to avoid sitting near the worshiping beggar. One wonders if, as the public reader got to the end of the description of the contrasting treatment (2:2–3), there might not have arisen a crescendo of whispered protests from the auditors, protests such as “Well, who wouldn’t want to make the wealthy man feel welcome?” or “Can you blame a person for not wanting to have a beggar sitting right next to him?” If so, they had wandered right into James’ trap.
The trap sprang shut in 2:4. The powerful language of that verse is the third element that makes the illustration so effective. Literally, James said, “Don’t you realize that you are making distinctions that have validity only in your own minds [lit., in yourselves] and that those judgments are in fact evil?” Such behavior may have made sense when considered from their own selfish perspectives, but it is wicked before God.
An Interrogation (2:5–11)
The trap had sprung, and now, as they squirmed in unison, James was careful to confront the careless believers with the biblical truths that had the capacity to transform their minds and equip them to live acceptably before God with respect to the issue of impartiality. He presented those truths in the form of three questions, each framed to force the conclusion James wanted them to acknowledge. First, is it not true that God honors the person who is poor in terms of what this world offers and is thus hungry for that which only God can provide? And yet you have displayed contempt for that which God honors (2:5–6a). Again, and in contrast to that, is it not true that the wealthy are often guilty of violence toward believers and blasphemy toward that precious name by which you are called (2:6b–7)?
Then, like a seasoned angler, James set the hook. Jesus—whom James had known first as a remarkable older brother (Mt. 13:55) and now as Savior and Lord (Jas. 1:1; 2:1)—had often demanded explicit decisions of people (Mt. 7:13–14, 2427). It was a very effective strategy in driving people to decisions that they would rather avoid making. James had learned the lesson. In 2:8–9, he demanded that his readers examine themselves according to God’s standards. The mandate to love selflessly, and thus impartially, was characterized as the royal law, the king of laws, the highest and yet the most basic of all virtues and responsibilities. That command was articulated by Moses (Dt. 6:5; Lev. 19:18); it had once been ratified as the sum of Moses’ law by Jesus (Lk. 10:25–28); and on a later occasion the Lord had affirmed that on the command to love God and others “hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:34–40). That was the standard, and they knew that standard well. Thus, in showing partiality, James’ readers had done wickedly. They had not only fallen short of the standard but had deliberately stepped over a known moral boundary (convinced before the law as transgressors, parabatai, those who step across). Lest anyone argue that such a transgression was trifling in comparison with serious crimes like adultery and murder, James asserted that all sin is an offense against the one all-holy Lawgiver, that it was He who spoke the prohibition against both murder and partiality, and that to violate any divinely spoken mandate is to render oneself entirely guilty before that perfectly pure Lawgiver (2:10–11). James drove his readers to honest self-evaluation (“If ye fulfill … ” or “if you have respect of persons … ” v. 8–9) and thus to the confession that they had not honored that royal law, which demands that they love others as they would themselves.
An Injunction (2:12–13)
The answer is obedience. James exhorted his readers to both speak and do that which was demanded of them by the law of liberty, the law that actually set them free (2:12; cp. 1:22). The phrase law of liberty (only here and in 1:25) is remarkably rich. Left to ourselves, we are so bound and deluded by our selfish nature that we perceive God’s law—the moral standards of Scripture as a hideous restraint. We are, however, already desperately bound by sin, and it is only as God works regeneration in any one of us, exciting in us a happy submission to His perfect law, that we can be set at liberty from sin and death. Although it makes no sense to the natural mind, it is believing obedience to God’s law that sets us free. In that blessed sense, God has provided a law of liberty.
Finally, because James understood the strength of selfishness even in yet unglorified believers, he reminded his readers of what the Lord had already taught: that it is the merciful who will receive mercy (Mt. 5:7); that as we forgive others, our heavenly Father will forgive us (Mt. 6:14); and that it is the measure of mercy with which we judge others that determines the measure of mercy with which we are judged (Mt. 7:1–2). In short, the secret to standing triumphant in the day of judgment is to seize every opportunity to show mercy—that is, to love without partiality—in this day. In James’ exultant words, “Mercy rejoiceth against judgment” (2:13).