Why Prejudice is a Serious Sin – James 2:1-13 part 1

15 Sep

Ever had a rude awakening?

Not too long ago I awoke to the sound of one of my daughters singing at the top of her lungs, ‘I may never march in the infantry, I may never ride in the Calvary, but I’m in the Lord’s army.’

A rude awakening.

Now even though I wasn’t incredibly excited to hear it around six on Friday morning, that song does remind us of an important truth. We as believers are involved in a war. And the Bible tells us our conflict is against three great enemies; the flesh, the devil and the world.

In James 1:27, we find James calling on us to avoid being stained by the world. God has not called us to withdraw from the world, but to resist its influence. Jesus Himself prays, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one.” This means God has called us to be holy in an unholy world. That’s not always easy because the world we live in is not neutral towards biblical truth. It’s hostile towards it. And so it’s not content to allow believers to think and live biblically. It wants to influence us. It wants us to think the way it thinks. We have a responsibility to resist its influence. That’s why Paul says, ‘be not conformed to the world…’

So we as believers are involved in a great struggle. We struggle to keep ourselves unstained by worldliness. We don’t want to think the way the world thinks, and we don’t want to live the way the world lives. It’s not always easy, but we struggle. Now if there’s no struggle, we know we’re not believers. Because true believers war against worldliness.

That’s exactly what we see in James 1:27. Remember that in verses 26 and 27 James is giving us three tests to help us evaluate whether or not our religion is real. And this is one of them, look at verse 27, “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Worship that is pure comes from people striving to keep themselves pure, and worship that is false from people who are false.
Now, there’s something interesting about this particular test. It’s a bit different than the first two. When James says that your religion is worthless if you don’t bridle your tongue, and that true religion visits orphans and widows in their distress, it is difficult to wiggle your way out of the conviction. Either you are bridling your tongue or you are visiting orphans and widows in their distress or you are not. These are very specific, black and white tests. But this third test is not nearly as specific, it’s much more general and so there are some who when they read ‘keep yourself unstained by the world,’ may think they pass this test when they don’t because they are unaware of specific ways that they have been stained.

But have no fear. Because as we’ve seen time and time again, James is ever practical. He doesn’t allow you to wiggle your way out of the conviction. Instead he keeps pressing his point home. One of the ways he does that is by providing practical illustrations of the truth he is teaching. 1:2-4, ‘Consider it all joy my brothers when you encounter various trials…’ what’s that look like? 1:9-11, ‘let the poor man glory in his high position and the rich man glory in his low position…’ 1:22, ‘prove yourselves doers of the word and not hearers only…’ what’s it look like to be a hearer only? 1:23,24 ‘a hearer only is like a man who looks in a mirror, goes away and forgets what he looks like…’ Here is the truth, here is what it looks like.

And that’s what he does again for us in chapter 2. Remember when James wrote this letter he didn’t divide it into chapters. That came later. What he writes in 2:1-13 flows out of what he has just written in 1:26,27. He doesn’t stop by simply calling us to keep ourselves pure from worldliness, he continues by giving us a very down to earth example of how worldly thinking so often infects the church. This is one illustration of what worldliness looks like.

We often evaluate people using the world’s standards. We show favoritism. We treat people with prejudice. The world is partial, which means that they make decisions about people on the basis of external factors alone. And when the church shows favoritism you know it’s being stained by the world.

Honestly this issue might not seem all that important to us, but it’s obviously very important to James. So important that he spends thirteen verses arguing against it. And although this particular topic might not be high on our list of issues to discuss, God shows His wisdom by including it here in the book of James, because we find that it is a major problem throughout history.

In fact you could argue that this problem of favoritism is one of the major problems throughout history. Think slavery, think civil rights, think caste system, think Oliver Twist, think the parable of the Good Samaritan, think World War 2, think Hitler, think Aryan nation. All just extreme forms of this very common problem: the sin of partiality, or favoritism, making decisions about people on the basis of external factors alone.

And anytime you see the same problem occurring repeatedly throughout history it should cause you to put your guard up, because you realize, that biblically speaking, the same sin nature that resided in those individuals resides in you.

Man because of his sinful nature is instinctively prejudiced. I remember how this was driven home to me when I went to Latvia for a missions trip. I found as I traveled throughout Latvia that some of the Latvians were incredibly prejudiced against Russians. Now I couldn’t tell the difference between a Latvian and a Russian, but they could. And it finally struck that racism is not about color. If we were all the same color we’d still have problems with racism. Because the problem is deeper than color, it’s in our hearts.

It’s this sin of partiality or favoritism. Making evaluations of people on the basis of the world’s standards, not God’s.

This was a particular problem in the early church. God commanded His people to be impartial, but it was difficult, because the church was the one place in all of society where it wasn’t about social status. Slave, master, rich, poor, male, female, one in Christ. Besides that most everyone in the early church was poor, so if a rich person was converted it would be very easy to get real excited not about his conversion but about what he had to offer the church.

That’s the issue James is addressing here. He’s writing to believers who are suffering. And they are struggling in how they are responding to that suffering. And he’s aware that one of the sins they are going to struggle with in particular is this sin of partiality. Evaluating people the way the world does. And so he presents an air tight argument against favoritism.

He begins with his thesis statement in verse 1: Favoritism and True Faith don’t mix.

“My brethren do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” He addresses these believers with a term of affection, my brothers. Perhaps he does so to soften the blow they are about to receive. I love you and that’s why I am about to rebuke you.

Notice exactly how James puts it. He doesn’t merely say “Don’t show favoritism.” He says, “Don’t hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” This verse is not a suggestion. So it must not be read that way. It’s a command. James is laying down the law. To put it another way – he’s saying – true authentic faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely incompatible with an attitude of favoritism. Favoritism is not merely being discourteous, it’s not just bad manners, it is anti-gospel.

Now in most of our Bibles the term favoritism comes at the end of the verse. In the Greek, it’s right up front for emphasis. Imagine it in bold print, almost like a title for the essay that follows. The word for favoritism is a ‘distinctively Christian word.’ In fact, many scholars suggest that the writers of the New Testament actually coined it. MacArthur explains that “perhaps the reason they had to come up with this new word is because favoritism was such an accepted part of most ancient societies that it was assumed and not even identified as it still is in many cultures today.” It literally means ‘receiving of face’ or ‘lifting of face.’ And it came to be a well-known term denoting the partiality of a judge who made biased judgments based on external circumstances, and more generically of preferring a person because of something you are enamored by.

Here favoritism is in the plural, which means that James is not just talking about an isolated act of favoritism, but instead about a pattern of life and a problem with wide-ranging applications. That means he’s forbidding favoritism of any kind. He’s about to show us one example of favoritism in verses 2-4, preferring the rich, but that is not the only kind of favoritism that’s sinful. Christians must not make a practice out of favoritism and they must not show favoritism in any way.
The grammar of this passage strongly suggests that he’s calling on the church to stop a habit or action that is already in progress. In other words, he’s not merely telling them to not do something in the future. He’s commanding them to stop something they are doing now.

Just because we are believers doesn’t mean we are perfect, and we constantly need to humbly evaluate our lives and our church in the light of God’s Word, to determine whether or not we have slipped into worldly patterns unaware. Wordliness is especially dangerous when it is subtle. It often sneaks into our lives through the back door and instead of showing up in what we wear or what we do, shows up in how we think and what we desire. And that’s what seems to have happened here to these believers. They were going about their religious activities, while thinking the way the world thinks.

James is going to tell us exactly why favoritism is such a serious sin down in verses 5-11; but for now I want you to notice the hint he gives us here in verse 1. He says our faith is in whom? The glorious Lord Jesus Christ. When you say you put your faith in Christ what are you saying? One of the things you are saying is that He is glorious. That He is worthy of exaltation. That He is famous. That He is worthy of our honor. When you show favoritism you are glorying in the wrong person.
These two terms Christ and glory go together. They are inextricably linked. We serve a glorious Savior. Our Savior is exalted far above all. There is no one and nothing here on earth that even compares to Him. When you think awesome, when you think worthy of respect, when you think glory, you need to think Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:8 calls Him the Lord of glory. Colossians 3:4 says that Christ is now in glory. 2 Thessalonians 2:14 explains that glory belongs to Him. 1 Timothy 3:16 says that he was taken up to glory, and Titus 2:13 tells us that when he returns that day will be full of glory. Glory belongs to Jesus Christ. He is the very definition of glory.

True believers shouldn’t be overawed or bedazzled by passing temporary worldly glory because our faith is in someone whose glory far outshines anyone or anything here on this earth, the Lord Jesus Christ. Your faith in the glorious Jesus Christ is incompatible with favoritism because when you show favoritism what are you doing? You are giving glory to man that belongs only to Christ. When you show favoritism you are giving the glory Jesus Christ deserves to some man who doesn’t.

I like how one pastor puts it, “We know the glory of God when we look by faith into the face of Jesus Christ. In any Christian congregation there is only one glory and that belongs to Jehovah Jesus, and we have to make sure that that is so. We have nothing else to offer men and women except Jesus Christ. Isaiah saw him in the temple and we see this same one by faith. All the wealth and fame and power of sinners is less than nothing compared to him. The name of Jesus does not borrow a thing from us – all the glory of men is like the flower of the field, withering and perishing….If a congregation were full of millionaires, and beauty queens, and . . . had the leadership of Mensa men with their IQ’s going through the roof – all that would give no additional glory to Jesus Christ. It would, of course, detract from it. In the presence of his glory all earthly achievements are less than dust. If you reject my Jesus Christ I cannot say to you, “Well, what do you think of these moral guidelines, family counsels, our choir, ideas about government and social action ?” My one task is to persuade you of the Lord’s glory, and if you see that than everything is new. If you don’t see that then our church being full of beautiful people will not help you at all. I cannot discriminate and highlight the wealthy, and tell you where the talent is in the congregation. If you become a Christian all this congregation will be your family. For your brothers and sisters there will be very different kinds of men and women. I have to point you to Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.”

That’s why Favoritism and Faith Don’t Mix. This place is not about the glory of man. It’s about the glory of Christ.

Now you know James. He’s not going to stop with just giving you the principle, or stating his thesis. He’s got to move on and give us an illustration of just exactly what favoritism looks like which we will look at next time…

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