Respect of persons as another sign of hypocrisy
Toward the end of chapter one in his epistle, James mounted an attack on religious hypocrisy. He put a spotlight on the man whose life does not match his profession and labeled him as self-deceived. To help this wayward soul recover his steps from the path to destruction, James held up to his face the mirror in God’s Word, the only mirror that gives a true likeness of inner character. Then in the man’s image James pointed out some telltale signs of a hypocrite. Plain for all to see was an unruly mouth (v. 25), an indifference to the needy (v. 26), and a fascination with the world (v. 26).
In chapter two, James begins to expand his treatment of each topic introduced in chapter one. He has already identified charity toward the poor as a mark of true religion. Now he discusses one sin that hinders charity, a sin so damaging that he devotes much of this chapter to warning us against it. It is the sin of partiality; that is, the sin of giving preference to people with a higher position in society (v. 1). He refers to partiality as "respect of persons." To shame any reader guilty of this sin, he declares that it is absolutely inconsistent with "the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory." Indeed, it is another telltale sign of hypocrisy.
The title that James assigns our Lord is difficult to translate. The clearest rendering in our language is probably, "our Lord Jesus Christ, [the One] of glory." The exact wording here is highly significant both as a testimony of James's own faith and as a strong argument against partiality. Though he was the human brother of Jesus, he does not hesitate to identify Jesus as the man who is more than just a man. To Him also belongs the divine glory, as John likewise declared (John 1:14). In other words, from Him proceeds that dazzling radiance which God alone possesses as a natural property. Thus, by calling Jesus "the One of glory," James underlines the fundamental equality between Him and the Father, creator of all the lights (Jas. 1:17) manifesting His own nature as light (1 John 1:5). James’s testimony to the glory of Christ is meant not just as a tribute, but also as a rebuke. How can mere mortals, each pitifully inferior to God in all His glory, presume to make distinctions among themselves, as if any of them were significantly better than any other?
A scene which is cause for shame
James continues by illustrating partiality (vv. 2–3). He describes a scene that probably occurred many times in the churches he was addressing. Two men come into a meeting of the church body. The word is actually "synagogue," the name Jewish Christians gave their churches. The first is a rich man "with a gold ring, in goodly apparel." The second is a poor man in "vile raiment." Our English translation greatly diminishes the contrast James intended. Actually, the first man is "gold-fingered" and wears "shining apparel." The meaning is that his fingers are jammed full of gold rings. It was the custom among the Romans to load the left hand with rings as a token of wealth. The man’s apparel is shining probably because it is pure white, without any of the soil that would accumulate through toil or long wear. The poor man’s, however, is contemptibly dirty and ragged. How does the congregation react? With great deference they invite the rich man to sit in a good place, but they do not even offer the poor man a seat. He is told, probably with scant courtesy, to stand in the back or sit off in a corner.
James severely condemns such treatment of the rich and poor (v. 4). He says that when the church makes a distinction between them, they set themselves up as unjust judges, swayed by evil thoughts. What is the evil? Based solely on the appearance of the two men, they are judging the rich man to be better. Indeed, by giving him preference in the body of Christ, they are assuming that Christ sees him as better. But how foolish!
God's love for the poor
James protests by pointing out that insofar as God has any preference, He prefers the poor (v. 5a). Jesus in His teaching emphasized that the poor enjoy the special blessing of God (Luke 6:20). If that blessing is not evident in their outward circumstances, where does it appear? It appears in their very poverty. A life of hardship and deprivation makes them more receptive to the gospel. They can see that this world ultimately cannot satisfy the deepest longings of the heart, so they more eagerly embrace the promise of a better world. Their experience of scrimping and scrounging to survive is fertile ground for faith. From such unpromising meagerness of life arises a faith that James calls rich.
As a further reprimand of their partiality, James points out that good church members are treating people as inferiors who will someday be their equals, for God has chosen the poor to be heirs of the Kingdom (v. 5b). Be careful then not to despise a brother because of his poverty. Consider how embarrassed you will be in heaven to find that he now occupies a splendid mansion next door!
James next exposes the folly in admiring rich people just because they are rich. He wants the churches to understand that whereas human beings are impressed by wealth, God is not. Indeed, many of the rich have made choices that will bring the wrath of God upon their heads. Many use their wealth as a weapon to accrue more wealth through robbery and oppression (v. 6). Who but the wealthy can manipulate the legal system to their own advantage? While they carry out schemes for taking property from the poor, they may protect themselves under a cloak of legality. In a masquerade of true justice, they may hire lawyers to manufacture false charges or bribe judges to secure favorable verdicts.
Another sin common among the rich, especially the rich Jews known to the Jewish churches James was addressing, was to blaspheme the name of Jesus (v. 7). Instead of accepting Him as their Messiah, most of the rich people in Jewish communities had sided against the church Jesus founded.
Throughout this passage, James is trying to deflate the natural human tendency to flatter and honor rich men, a tendency rooted in the greedy hope that they will let their friends enjoy some of their wealth. Such a tendency cannot be tolerated in the church, because the church was designed by God to win and nurture souls, and most of the souls God intends to reach are poor, not rich. Its welcome for the poor must therefore be in no way less enthusiastic than its welcome for the rich.
The royal law
The churches will not fail in their duty if they simply heed the royal law, which, as we said before (lesson 1), is the requirement to love our neighbor as ourselves (v. 8). The term "neighbor" lacks any tags that would justify giving more love to the prosperous than to the poor. The poor have an equal claim on our love. This law is called "royal" perhaps because it is the most suitable rule of life for all heirs of the Kingdom. As such, they are royal. They are kings and priests before God (Rev. 1:6). If they heed the royal law, demanding selfless love, they will acquit themselves like royalty, for they will emulate the Prince of Peace Himself, Christ, who is the God of love (1 John 4:16).
If, on the other hand, the churches show partiality, they will be guilty of sin (v. 9). Not only will they transgress the royal law, but also many lesser regulations intended to enforce impartiality. These are no less prominent in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17; 16:19) than in the New (1 Tim. 5:21; here in James 2 also). Hence, whether from the perspective of law or grace, partiality is wrong. Fundamentally, it is wrong because it is contrary to the very nature of God, who is no respecter of persons (Matt. 5:45; Acts 10:34; Gal. 2:6; Eph. 6:9).
The following questions probe whether you show partiality in your dealings with people in the church.