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James (2011)

Law of Liberty

James 2:1-13

Lesson audio

Upon Making Distinctions

My 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

Listen, 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, I suspect.

Golden Rule

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 with Christ.

·         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

For 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.


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