Not only is the mature Christian patient in testing (James 1), but he also practices the truth. This is the theme of James 2. Immature people talk about their beliefs, but the mature person lives his faith. Hearing God’s Word and talking about God’s Word can never substitute for doing God’s Word.
Every believer has some statement of faith or personal expression of what he believes. Most churches have such statements and members are asked to subscribe to the statement and practice it. Most churches also have a “covenant” that they read publicly, often when they observe the Lord’s Supper. Statements of faith and church covenants are good and useful, but they are not substitutes for doing God’s will. As a pastor, I have heard believers read the church covenant, and then come to a business meeting and act in ways completely contrary to the covenant.
James wants to help us practice God’s Word, so he gave us a simple test. He sent two visitors to a church service, a rich man and a poor man; and he watched to see how they were treated. The way we behave toward people indicates what we really believe about God! We cannot—and dare not—separate human relationships from divine fellowship. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen (1 John 4:20).
In this section, James examines four basic Christian doctrines in the light of the way we treat other people.
The Deity of Christ (James 2:1-4)
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Jewish people in that day coveted recognition and honor, and vied with one another for praise. We have this same problem with us today. “Pyramid climbers” are among us, not only in politics, industry, and society, but also in the church. Almost every church has its cliques, and often, new Christians find it difficult to get in. Some church members use their offices to enhance their own images of importance. Many of the believers James wrote to were trying to seize spiritual offices and James had to warn them (James 3:1).
Jesus did not respect persons. Even His enemies admitted, “You aren’t swayed by men because You pay no attention to who they are” (Matt. 22:16). Our Lord did not look at the outward appearance; He looked at the heart. He was not impressed with riches or social status. The poor widow who gave her mite was greater in His eyes than the rich Pharisee who boastfully gave his large donation.
Furthermore, Christ saw the potential in the lives of sinners. In Simon, He saw a rock. In Matthew, the publican, He saw a faithful disciple who would one day write one of the four Gospels. The disciples were amazed to see Jesus talking with the sinful woman at the well of Sychar, but Jesus saw in her an instrument for reaping a great harvest.
We are prone to judge people by their past, not their future. When Saul of Tarsus was converted, the church in Jerusalem was afraid to receive him! It took Barnabas, who believed in Saul’s conversion, to break down the walls (Acts 9:26–28). We are also prone to judge by outward appearance rather than by the inner attitude of the heart. We do not enjoy sitting with certain people in church because they “are not our kind of people.”
Jesus was the Friend of sinners, though He disapproved of their sins. It was not compromise, but compassion, that caused Him to welcome them, and when they trusted Him, forgive them.
Jesus was despised and rejected. This fact was prophesied in Isaiah 53:1–3. He was “the poor man” who was rejected by the self-righteous nation. Unlike the foxes and the birds, He had no home. He grew up in the despised city of Nazareth in a home that knew the feeling of poverty. Had you and I met Him while He was ministering on earth, we would have seen nothing physically or materially that would attract us.
Yet, He is the very glory of God! In the Old Testament, God’s glory dwelled first in the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34–38), and then in the temple (1 Kings 8:10–11). When Jesus came to earth, God’s glory resided in Him (John 1:14). Today, the glory of God dwells in the believer individually (1 Cor. 6:19–20), and the church collectively (Eph. 2:21–22).
The religious experts in Christ’s day judged Him by their human standards and they rejected Him. He came from the wrong city, Nazareth of Galilee. He was not a graduate of their accepted schools. He did not have the official approval of the people in power. He had no wealth. His followers were a nondescript mob, and included publicans and sinners. Yet He was the very glory of God! No wonder Jesus warned the religious leaders, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24).
Sad to say, we often make the same mistakes. When visitors come into our churches, we tend to judge them on what we see outwardly rather than what they are inwardly. Dress, color of skin, fashion, and other superficial things carry more weight than the fruit of the Spirit that may be manifest in their lives. We cater to the rich because we hope to get something out of them and we avoid the poor because they embarrass us. Jesus did not do this and He cannot approve of it.
How do we practice the deity of Christ in our human relationships? It is really quite simple: look at everyone through the eyes of Christ. If the visitor is a Christian, we can accept him because Christ lives in him. If he is not a Christian, we can receive him because Christ died for him. It is Christ who is the link between us and others, and He is a link of love. The basis for relationship with others is the person and work of Jesus Christ. Any other basis is not going to work. Furthermore, God can use even the most unlikely person to bring glory to His name. He used Peter, Zaccheus, John Mark and countless others, and He can even use that poor man whom we might reject.
The Grace of God (James 2:5–7)
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom He promised those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of Him to whom you belong?
The emphasis here is on God’s choosing and this involves the grace of God. If salvation were on the basis of merit, it would not be by grace. Grace implies God’s sovereign choice of those who cannot earn and do not deserve His salvation (Eph. 1:4–7; 2:8–10). God saves us completely on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross, not because of anything we are or have.
God ignores national differences (Acts 10:34). The Jewish believers were shocked when Peter went to the Gentile household of Cornelius, preached to the Gentiles, and even ate with them. The topic of the first church council was, “Must a Gentile become a Jew to become a Christian?” (Acts 15) The answer the Holy Spirit gave them was, “No!” In the sight of God, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile when it comes to condemnation (Rom. 2:6–16) or salvation (Rom. 10:1–13).
God also ignores social differences. Masters and slaves (Eph. 6:9), and rich and poor are alike to Him. James teaches us the grace of God makes the rich man poor because he cannot depend on his wealth; and it makes the poor man rich because he inherits the riches of grace in Christ (James 1:9–11). “The Lord sends poverty and wealth; He humbles and He exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; He seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor” (1 Sam. 2:7–8).
From the human point of view, God chooses the poor instead of the rich. “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:26–27). The poor of this world become rich in faith; as sons of God, they inherit the wealth of the kingdom.
It is possible to be poor in this world and rich in the next, or rich in this world and poor in the next (1 Tim. 6:17–18). Or, you could be poor both in this world and the next, or rich in this world and the next. It all depends on what you do with Christ and the material wealth He has given you. God promises the kingdom to “those that love Him” (James 2:5), not to those who love this world and its riches.
James gave a stern rebuke in James 2:6–7. “When you despise the poor man, you are behaving like the unsaved rich people.” In that day, it was easy for rich persons to exploit the poor, influence decisions at court, and make themselves richer. Unfortunately, we have the same sins being committed today; and these sins blaspheme the very name of Christ. Our Lord was poor and He too was the victim of injustice perpetrated by the wealthy leaders of His day.
The doctrine of God’s grace, if we really believe it, forces us to relate to people on the basis of God’s plan and not on the basis of human merit or social status. A “class church” is not a church that magnifies the grace of God. When He died, Jesus broke down the wall that separated Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11–22). But in His birth and life, Jesus broke down the walls between rich and poor, young and old, educated and uneducated. It is wrong for us to build those walls again; we cannot rebuild them if we believe in the grace of God.
In Part 2, we will examine two more basic Christian doctrines in the light of the way we treat other people.