Upon Making Distinctions
brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man
comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and
there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention
to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, "You sit here in a
good place," and you say to the poor man, "You stand over there, or
sit down by my footstool," have you not made distinctions among
yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?
(James 2:1-4 NASB)
Kinds and Types
If you ask the average Christian whether or not his church
makes distinctions between one Christian and another, he'll tell you that we
don't. A few years ago, this lesson would've cited race as an example of the
kinds of distinction the church does make. But let me suggest that we are not
done making distinctions between one Christian and another:
Appearance. It may seem a subtle distinction, but it is still
quite true that those who are charming in face and figure are more likely to be
welcomed. It takes a conscious effort to eliminate such a subtle but prevalent
distinction. If you think not, imagine someone coming in who weighed 300 pounds
and was 5 foot four. Are you likely to talk to them?
Politics. In the author’s church, politics tend to be rather
conservative. Ronald Reagan is revered rather than reviled. Would a liberal be
comfortable in our presence?
Respectability. It's a curious thing; an alcoholic is welcome on
Friday nights at Celebrate Recovery. Perhaps we have it just so that such a
person will feel welcomed. But give some consideration to the reception a
prostitute would receive at our church.
In this passage James tells us that our Lord prohibits such
distinctions from making a difference. How we do this varies with time; why we
do it does not.
Our Glorious Lord
James gives us the reason why we are not to make such
distinctions. He tells us it is "faith in our glorious Lord Jesus
Christ." It's interesting to note that the word used for glory in this
passage is also used in the Septuagint for the Shekinah glory of God. To a Jew
of this time this would be a very serious matter. It is simply that such
distinctions are contrary (and trivial) compared to the glory of God. The point
is somewhat subtle, but perhaps I can use an old joke to make it clear.
Winston Churchill tells a story of a sailor. The sailor is
walking by a canal one day when he notices a small boy splashing about in the
canal, drowning. Thinking quickly, he leaps into the canal and rescues the
young boy. About two weeks later he is walking by the canal again, with a lady
comes up to him. "Are you the man who rescued my son from the canal about
two weeks ago?" The sailor modestly allows as to how he is indeed the
rescuer. "Good. Where's his hat?"
So perhaps you see it: it is our task give glory to Christ.
Fussing about with picayune distinctions does not bring glory to Christ.
Judges with Evil Motives
The Christian is taught to, "judge not". The
specific circumstances of when to judge and when not to judge relate most
commonly the judgment of ourselves versus judgment of others. In attempting to
decide whether or not we judge between two people, we must first remember the
unity of the church. Is such judgment likely to serve and enhance the union of
the church? Note that this is not a judgment for uniformity, but unity. For
example, we might in Christian love intervene in a brother's life to prevent
him (for example) from beating his wife. To do this we must judge him in some
sense. But we do so for the benefit of the unity of the church and the glory of
Christ. If we do it looking down our noses, then we've done it the wrong way.
Restore the sinner gently, in prayer, with love for the glory of Christ.
How do you do that? The rule is simple: the imitation of
Christ. You must ask yourself how Christ would deal with this situation. You
cannot imagine that Christ would allow him to continue beating his wife. But
there is also no precedent for outraged anger; Christ reserved that for the
hypocrites. Think of the gentleness with which Christ dealt with the woman
taken in adultery.
Rich and Poor
my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man.
Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they
not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If, however, you are
fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR
NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF," you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you
are committing sin and are convicted by
the law as transgressors.
(James 2:5-9 NASB)
All the World Is a Stage
Let's suppose you are going to a play. In this play you see
knights in armor, a queen and a king. You don't really think that they recruited
a live king. You know it's an actor. You might not know what the plot is, but
you know that the author has one in mind. The play will proceed just as he
wrote it (we hope). This is what is referred to as "suspension of
disbelief." Your brain goes along with the playwright and assumes that we
are watching a live king.
In Christian thought there is something similar – a
"suspension of belief." When you see someone who is rich, remember
that riches in this world are temporary. You don't really know that that person
is rich. "Call no man happy he dies." You do not know what God has
in store for them. Permit me a brief example: my wife's father went bankrupt at
the age of 95. None of us expected this, since he had been wealthy for many
years. Similarly, we don't know what reward God will give those who are rich in
this world when they arrive at the next. All the world is a stage, and we are
just watching the actors go through their parts, ourselves included. We don't
know the details of the plot, but we know that in the end the good guys win.
Temporal Versus Eternal
It is useful in Christianity to make a distinction between
things which live in time and those things which are eternal. The temporary
things of this world seem very large to us now, but they are nothing compared
to eternity. As a result, we are taught as a working principle that things
temporal should become ended for the use of things eternal. "He is no fool
if he would choose to give the things he cannot keep to buy the things he'll never
lose." So it is that the rich are taught to be rich in good deeds, to be
generous and share, not because money is evil but in this way they lay up for
themselves in heaven riches. The point is, use what you have here to build what
you want there.
There are some things which are both temporal and eternal.
The most important category of these things is people. The human being is
designed to live forever. Therefore, in our relations with each other we should
see each other as eternal beings. For this reason, then, we want to be slow to
anger and quick to forgive. If you like to hold a grudge, remember that you may
have to do so through eternity — which is quite a bit longer than you had mind,
James refers to it as the "royal law." The immediate
reaction we have is that this relates to Christ's authority as King of Kings.
Interestingly, the meaning in the Greek is not nearly so clear. Apparently,
James means several things by this expression:
This phrase can be interpreted as "a law fit to guide a
king." This might be very applicable if we remember that we are to reign
It can also mean a law that a king would choose. In other words,
it is fitting for a king to pick this law and make it the law of his kingdom.
It can also mean that it is the king of laws.
Law of Liberty
whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point,
he has become guilty of all. For He who said, "DO NOT COMMIT
ADULTERY," also said, "DO NOT COMMIT MURDER." Now if you do not
commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the
law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy;
mercy triumphs over judgment.
(James 2:10-13 NASB)
Law in the Early, Jewish Church
The early church in Jerusalem was confronted very quickly
with the problem of instructions for the Gentile Christians. The question was,
does a Gentile have to become a Jew first before he can become a Christian?
They correctly found that the answer was no. But, that left them with the
problem: just what should the Gentile Christian do?
This might not seem like much of a dilemma to you. But
remember: to the Jew there is no such thing as a collection of laws, only
"the law". You'd either kept the whole thing, or you are a complete
sinner. This seemed to the Jewish Christian to be insurmountable. But within
the Old Testament law there obviously lurks a principle. "Do not
kill" is rather absolute; the animal sacrifices at the Temple are of a
different magnitude. So it is that the early church felt its way towards what
James called, "the law of liberty."
Curb the Mind
The distinction is worked out rather gradually over the
first 30 or 40 years of the church. Paul refers to the law as a
"schoolmaster." The idea is that we were instructed by the Old
Testament law, but now we've graduated. So whatever law replaces the Old
Testament law must be therefore superior. One way in which it must be superior
concerns legalism. If you spend your life looking for loopholes in God's law,
something is wrong. But the law of liberty fixes this: the Old Testament law
curbs the hand. The New Testament law curbs the mind.
How can this distinction be maintained? After all, the Jews
had 1500 years of experience in trying to keep the old law. They failed,
frequently. If you now substitute a law of the mind, would that not produce
even worse behavior? Now you see the reason for the giving of the Holy Spirit.
If we are to curb the mind and will of the Christian, we will need the mind and
will of God. That's why the Holy Spirit indwells the Christian.
Judgment and Mercy
James now gives us an example of that new law. It concerns
the yardstick principle: the idea that you are carrying about with you a
yardstick for measuring other people. That yardstick is the one you use to
measure yourself. God is just; therefore, he wants you to have only one
yardstick. You're not supposed to have one for you and one for everybody else.
So what kind of yardstick do we have for ourselves? I don't
know about you, but my yardstick holds that I should have a lot of mercy, I'm
the life of the party and a wonderful friend be around with, and generally
speaking just dancing my way into heaven. God, understanding my weaknesses,
allows me to continue with this yardstick, making gentle corrections as we go.
But the righteous God will insist that I have but one yardstick. He tells me to
be fair; use the same yardstick both on yourself and others. This has the
delightful effect of having a whole bunch of people around me who are wonderful
friends, the life of the party, deserving of mercy. Even in mercy, God is just.
It is a reminder to us: blessed are the merciful, for they
shall obtain mercy. If we want God's mercy triumph over God's judgment for us,
we must permit our mercy to triumph over our judgment for others.