No Playing Favorites
The test of impartial love–James 2:1-13
Part 1—verses 1-7
All of you have known a Benji Esparza—or maybe you are Benji or were Benji. All the jocks in Jr High pretty much laughed at Benji. He was smaller and thinner than most kids, but he was the only kid who tucked his shirt in his shorts in P.E.–yet he did all his jumping jacks to the max. He’s the one who put maximum effort into all he did. But he was Benji, so we put him in the nerd box and anything he did that might be considered cool was laughed at, since he was in the nerd box.
When he turned in the fastest time on the obstacle course, we blew it off as a nerd anomaly. Until the last day of Jr. High, when they handed out awards–Benji was awarded the physical education award. What? That honor was reserved for a star athlete, not a nerd. And all of us that day were forced to look at Benji in a new way.
Each of you have been put in a box at some point–judged, treated partially, unfairly. Some put you in the rich box because you wear your mom’s jewelry she left you when she died. Others think you’re ignorant, because you don’t talk much as you guard your tongue. You have wild and crazy tats from your past, and they think you are a wild woman. Most of us have wrestled with a form of churchianity, obsessed with externals. Too many are quick to draw conclusions about people solely based on a first impression.
Churchgoers forget 1 Samuel 16:7b, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” We love to put people in boxes and make them live up to our preconceived ideas. Her hair is too short. They’re too skinny. They dress funny. What’s with all the tattoos? That car is too expensive for him. That house is too big for them. She never graduated from high school. He has three PhD’s. They go to public school. They’re homeschooled. They need to be schooled! They’re way too neat. They’re too opinionated.
Regardless, someone will put you in a box–a preconceived idea of who you are, and treat you accordingly. Each one of us in this room have external criteria we filter our perceptions through when it comes to other people. But as Christians, now in union with Christ, with a new nature and indwelt by the Spirit, our external evaluations must change. You and I must look at people through a totally new and clearer lens. We must become no respecter of persons. You and I cannot play favorites. You cannot be partial!
Why? Because your God is not a respecter of persons. If Christ was, He would not have saved you. And because being non-partial is so much a part of His character, those who are His children will strive to live in the same manner. In the Law, God emphasized in Deuteronomy 10:17, “For the Lord your God is … the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe.” At the salvation of the first Gentiles in Acts 10:34 Peter said, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality.”
Proverbs 24:23b adds, “To show partiality in judgment is not good.” To be like our Lord Jesus Christ, you and I cannot be partial. Our love is to be impartial, not selective, not inconsistent. This is now the test of James 2:1 to 13. Open your Bibles to James chapter 2 and follow along in your outline. James has been thinning the ranks of Jewish professors who’ve been scattered around the New Testament world. His direct instruction has assaulted the inauthentic faith wannabes.
With this first letter of the New Testament, James is calling all professors to be possessors. If they do possess Christ, then they will live like a bright light in a dark room and live like tasty seasoning on a bland meal. Your life is to be light and salt. To do that, James calls them to express unique convictions in everyday life. If you are going through a trial, then consider it a joy, knowing God is at work.
If you are being tempted, don’t blame God, but accept full responsibility for your sin and trust God’s character and depend on His salvation to overcome sin. Then make certain you practice living the Word in your life, so your life gives off a fragrance of Christ and not the stink of the world. Chuck Swindoll adds, “People who naively embrace a sit-back-and-watch kind of comfy Christianity will have a hard time with James.”
Now in chapter 2, James wants to shatter the fantasy world of a flimsy faith by burrowing deeply into the quality of your love. James wants to make certain you love fairly. Do you love others equally? Is your love impartial, or do you play favorites? Do you sacrifice for the poor and the wealthy equally? Do you care the same for the tatted and un-tatted, the famous and the unknown, the important and unimportant? If the great Spurgeon walked in here, would you treat him the same as you would me? No, cause he’s dead–but you get the point.
James says, Christians are not to be partial–don’t be prejudiced, don’t play favorites. The English word for prejudice comes from the Latin which emphasizes the prejudgment of someone, causing us to form an opinion before knowing all the facts. To diffuse these tendencies in your life, James writes chapter 2 verses 1 to 13, in order to prove our love–and if His child, to sharpen our love. One of the great tests of the Christian life is love. Love is proven when you’re face to face with the unlovely, the poor, the weak, the difficult, the ignorant, the errant, the political, the abrasive and the one with weird toenail polish.
A true test of your faith is this–do you love the unlovely with the same love you express toward the lovely? Are you impartial in your love? Remember what the apostle John says love looks like when it is impartial. First John 3:16 to 18, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? 18Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”
On the heels of calling Christians to live the Word toward the widow and orphan in verse 27 of chapter 1, James opens chapter 2 with thirteen verses calling for equal love for everyone. Treat every person with the same sacrificial actions. Love people equally–do not become a respecter of persons. Do not be partial. He does so with five major points–we will look at three today and two next week.
These points are a reflection of the author’s intended message to help you track along. They are not forced upon the text but flow out of the text, so you might understand what James intended to teach. And as a master communicator, James first states his principle in verse 1, provides a real-life illustration in verses 2 to 4, then gives the reasons why such partiality is inconsistent with authentic faith.
#1 The INTENSE EXHORTATION Verse 1
Favoritism is a preferential attitude and treatment of a person or group, so James exhorts in verse 1, “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” Claiming to be a born-again follower of the glorious Lord Jesus Christ, while practicing partiality, is contradictory–it is inconsistent, it is sin.
You, Christian, are to be unique in the way you treat others–whether rich or poor, smart or average, pretty or unfortunate, engaging or boring, famous or unknown. The intense exhortation James puts in front of his readers is this–do not play favorites. Theologically, there are reasons why your love should not be partial. Every person alive had to be chosen and called in order to be given salvation and made a child of God.
Every single one falls short of the perfect bullseye of God’s character. Rebels against God’s Law, we were meant to follow, but didn’t. Everyone battles with a sinful bent–like Abrahams lying, or David’s lust. And all will be judged by their deeds. No matter what you look like, how rich you are, what kind of shortcomings you have–no matter your size, race, background, influence, personality, or looks, you are all in the same equally deadly position before God. God looks at us as forgiven or condemned, given life or under eternal death, headed to Heaven or headed to Hell.
Impartiality has to do with looking at others the way God does. Impartiality comes when you see people as saved and unsaved, lost and found, for Christ and against Christ, as beggars who found the Bread of Life and those who are still starving, as those in relationship with Christ and those in religion. When you see others through the lens of this world, then you will see rich and poor, cool and uncool, studs and nerds, jocks and slobs, nice and mean, cheerleader and unfortunates, impressive and average, kind and cruel.
But when you see others through the lens of God’s Word, you see Christian and non-Christian. Impartiality has to do with looking at others with God’s categories or partiality has to do with looking at others with your categories (the world’s), God’s thinking or your thinking, the world’s lens or God’s Word’s lens. So James exhorts in verse 1, “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.”
When you find a special friend and cut yourself off from all other friends . . . when you only hang out with your cool group and never reach out to others . . . when close friends have inside jokes and make others feel left out . . . when you won’t add a girl to your team until forced–you are being partial. Faith in Christ and partiality are incompatible. The command is continual and pointed—”do not be holding.” Don’t claim to be a Christian while at the same time being partial.
James calls them brethren who have sound theology, since they see Christ as glorious, so he is addressing genuine Christians. But something was wrong–their attitude wasn’t right. It didn’t fit their faith. The Greek for personal favoritism is a compound word meaning receiving the face. That’s a great way to describe it. You see a person’s outward appearance–their face. And you receive that image as if it was the real thing.
Yet God says the truth of who they are is found in the heart, not the face. Who you really are is internal, never external. And favoritism can falter in two different ways. By merely looking on the outside, you can miss the fatal character flaws in a person masked by attractive attire, smooth talk and a firm handshake. On the other hand, by merely looking on the outside, you can also too quickly condemn a person based on their outward appearance and miss seeing the Christlike character which drives their life.
James says you must not evaluate on the basis of externals, appearance, which is why James describes his half-brother as, verse 1, “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ”. Here is the God of all heavenly glory, who lived on earth for 33 years in the appearance of just a man. Veiled in human flesh, you could not determine by appearance that Jesus was the God who created this universe and everyone in it.
Our entire faith, our salvation, is resting on the God-man, Christ, who took on our nature, bore our sin, and accepted our curse on the cross while appearing as just a man. This is intentional, friends–James describes Christ as glorious here, to remind us never to be like the religious leaders who judged Christ externally and failed to see who Christ really was. To never be like fallen humanity, who judged Christ as just a man. We must not act like the rejecters, exercising partiality towards others externally. How might this happen? James now gives . . .
#2 The INSIGHTFUL EXAMPLE Verses 2 to 4
Like a window which floods a dark home with light, illustrations bring understanding to our minds. James doesn’t leave his readers with a rule to follow, he gives an eye-opening illustration in verses 2 to 4, “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, 3and 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,’ 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?”
In verse 2, the setting here is the assembly–not the word for church, but synagogue. It means meeting place. In the Early Church, they were just like FBC–meeting wherever and whenever they could on Sundays. But James knew all the Christian Jews reading this letter would be able to picture the seating arrangements of the synagogue. Some churches early on may also have met in synagogues.
So as the Early Church gathers for worship on a Sunday, two men stand out–one is dressed to the nines with fancy jewelry, expensive clothes. People of great wealth in the first century would use a lot of bling, and they loved wearing bedazzled. Rings were common, but a gold ring was not–to impress others in the first century, shops existed where you could rent gold rings. But this man is not renting–he has a gold ring and fine apparel. Fine means glittering and brilliant with ornamentation. The wealthy often had jewels or bright stone-studded garments of silk–bedazzled. Their clothing announced that they were people of great wealth or nobility.
James catches his readers off-guard, because they’d know this was not common. It would be unusual for this type of wealthy individual to attend church. Also attending church today is a poor man in grubby, soiled clothes. No jewels, no silk, no entourage to protect him. Verse 2, the Greek poor is abject poverty. Dirty is vile, filthy, smelly. This is the type of person who only owns one set of clothes–he worked, slept and sweat in only one robe. Just as the wealthy man is described as extremely wealthy, the poor man is described as exceptionally poor.
What does the usher do? He has to make a decision, and in this situation his character shines through. The usher is blinded by the bling. The rich man gets VIP treatment. The usher is giving literal orders or commands—“You sit here, but you stand there.” In a synagogue, there were limited seats, typically along the two long walls. And the very best seats were in the corners. Plus one of the four corners was designated the chief seat. I sat in one, and it was the only place in the synagogue where there was actually a shaved portion of the flat slab of stone that is carved out concave, like a chair, in order for your bottom to be comfortable while sitting on a rock–the chief seat.
The rich man gets a seat, probably a corner seat, but the poor man doesn’t get a seat. No, the poor man has to stand, or sit beside a footstool. Even sitting on a footstool was too good for the poor, stinky man—“On the ground next to my feet.” Now be clear, this illustration is not about being rich or poor. There is nothing wrong with being rich and nothing wrong with being poor. James is talking about bad motives that cause believers to be partial, which is you show preferences to people who have qualities you’re enamored with, and you show disdain for people who have qualities you’re disgusted with. You’re partial.
Why was the poor man treated unkindly, but the rich treated with preferential care? Because, MacArthur states, “There is something built into our fallenness that is partial to people who look nice, smell pleasant and are wealthy. Such partiality is at the heart of the sin that James is exposing.” In verse 4, James announces his verdict–the usher is guilty of discrimination. He made distinctions based on clothing and became a judge with evil motives. Verse 4, “Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?”
To act with partiality is to make distinctions, separations, divisions and discriminations. It is showing favoritism based upon unimportant external criteria—clothing. The Greek word evil, evil motives, means vicious. When you show partiality, you’re being vicious toward people, not loving. What were his motives–the same as yours might be? He was thinking personally, that giving the rich man in a nice seat might win him some personal favor in the future. Or just as wrong, he might have been thinking corporately–that by giving the rich man a special place might lead to a large financial contribution for the church.
James could not be clearer. This kind of prejudice is sin. When you cater to the rich and prominent, and shun the poor and common . . . when you treat anyone with more attention or less, more sacrifice or less, more love or less love. When you discriminate over race, job, fashion, career, position, influence–you are sinning. This not about the usher, it’s about every Christian. But there is a challenge here.
I knew an usher at Grace Church, who stood at the door when a young Jr. High boy walked up with no shoes, a dirty, holey T-shirt and torn blue jeans. Do you know what he did? He said, “Welcome, son,” then loved on him with a little conversation, and told him he had a seat for him. He ushered him up to the front row, handed him a pew bible and went back to the door. Jerry Matte, that Jr. High boy, gave his life to Christ that week and was a part of my ministry for years. There is great power in loving without partiality. But there is a great violation of God’s character, a poor witness and sin when we’re partial.
#3 The INCONSISTENT ERROR Verses 5 to 7
James loves his readers, and he’s very concerned for the truth–so he commands in verse 5, listen, hearken, pay attention to God’s Word, my beloved brethren. What is it, James? To be partial to the rich and turn your back on the poor is massively inconsistent in light of the God’s choice of saving mostly the poor–and in light of the rich, who, more often than not, blaspheme God. Verses 5 to 7, “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? 6But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?”
In verse 5, James says when you show partiality, you’re despising the very ones God most often chooses. The poor here are not the humble, poor in spirit, but those in this world who don’t have the necessities of life. They lack food, clothing and/or housing. They are aware of their great need–they have no one to turn to but the Lord Himself.
Not all the elect are poor–Abraham, Job, Joseph of Arimathea and Zacchaeus were rich. But the Lord has a special affection for the poor and most believers worldwide are poor. Psalm 68:10, “You provided in Your goodness for the poor, O God.” Isaiah 25:1,4, “O Lord…4…You have been a defense for the helpless, A defense for the needy in his distress.” In the law God provided a sacrificial system which would care for the poor, a sabbath year when all the debts of the poor were forgiven–a jubilee year when all the slaves were set free, a share of every harvest, interest free loans, even promised employment for the poor.
God has a special concern for the poor, and that love should be shown toward the poor and those different than us. Why? Speaking of me and maybe you too, 1 Corinthians 1:26,27,29 says, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, … 29so that no man may boast before God.”
In contrast to the world’s appraisal of the poor, James says the poor are, verse 5, rich. Romans 10:12 and 13, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; 13for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Second Corinthians 6:10, “as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing, yet possessing all things.” The poor have little or nothing here, but they have eternal riches forever with Christ.
And verse 5 says they have an inheritance in the Kingdom–that is the sphere of Christ’s rule. All Christians are in the Kingdom under Christ’s rule and are looking forward to being under Christ’s rule, when He physically rules this planet for a thousand years. The poor will inherit the fullness of salvation and the richness of God’s eternal blessing. There are no poor and no outcasts in the Kingdom–and no poor in Heaven. Everyone will be living in the Father’s house, lavished with eternal riches as family.
So James points out in verse 6, “But you have dishonored the poor man”–asking his readers, how can you look down on the poor and treat them and others with partiality? James says you are guilty of despising the very people God had specially chosen. Then next, how can you give preference to the rich? Verses 6b and 7, “Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?”
Not only do they drag you into civil secular court, but also religious courts. Oppress means to tyrannize–to come down on. The rich were the ones who forced believers into court to exploit them through some injustice or inequity. The rich here were literally dragging believers against their will into court. Then verse 7, “Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?”
“By which you have been called” speaks of a personal relationship, maybe describing their public proclamation of faith at their baptism. From that point on they were known by “the fair name”, meaning the beautiful, noble name, known as Christians–meaning Christ’s own, belonging to Christ.
The rich were blaspheming Christ followers–falsely charging them by attacking their faith, seeking to slander Christ and ruin them. Why in the world would you show preference to those who attack Christ and want to harm you? James is reminding believers, you all belong to Jesus Christ—”the fair name”. Don’t ever be partial by dissing or rejecting others like the poor–they are those who recognize their need for a Savior and whom God often chooses for eternal riches. Don’t ever sidle up next to others, like the rich, and give them preferential treatment above others–for they’re the ones who oppress you and slander the glorious name of Jesus.
A Partiality does not mean you can’t have FRIENDS
James is clear and direct–favoritism and partiality toward anyone is sin. James is not speaking of friendships–don’t confuse the two. Not everyone can equally be the friend of every other Christian–though in Heaven we probably will be. There will always be levels of friendship. Jesus Himself demonstrated levels of intimacy with others in His own earthly ministry. There were the multitudes, then the 120 in the upper room, the 70, then the twelve with whom He was most intimate. And even in the twelve, there were the three–Peter, James and John. And of those three, it was John who was the disciple Jesus loved.
Friendships are not what James is addressing here, but loving people selectively on the basis of externals. James is talking about the disease of our society. We love things and use people. But as Christians, we need to love people equally and use things. Friendships can be healthy, especially as they prod you toward becoming like Christ. Friendships can also be unhealthy as they drag you away from intimacy with Christ.
B Partiality is divisive and MAN-centered
If you are the head of the team which is to accomplish a certain popular ministry, but instead of picking the gifted people who could best accomplish that ministry, you only choose people who are popular . . . people with influence–the doctor, lawyer or banker, and not the painter, plumber or mechanic. What happens when you play favorites? That ministry will be done poorly, hurting the church. And the Holy Spirit will be quenched–the fire is dimmed because those with the sovereignly chosen gifts are not used.
Favoritism quenches the Spirit and limits the work of Christ. Think about this–favoritism toward the wealthy creates elitism and favoritism toward the poor creates socialism. Both are sinful and destructive to God’s Church. Christ is our glorious Lord. Christ is the one to whom all our favor must be shown. He is the favored one. To kowtow to men is to put them in the place of Christ.
C Partiality can’t be conquered unless you’re in LOVE with Christ
The only way you can battle sin is to have Christ die for your sin. You must turn from your man-centered sins and surrender to Christ who died for sins. You must believe He is the God-man who lived perfectly, then died as your substitute, then rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven and is coming again. When He saves you, He causes you to want to follow Him with your life, and He empowers you through His Spirit to be able to think differently about people–to love people and not treat people partially with favoritism. You won’t be totally free from sin till Heaven, but you will become able to love others impartially.
Then as a Christian, the more you love Christ, the less you will be tempted to get things from people. The more Christ satisfies your soul and fills you with His love, the more love you will be able to give to others impartially. The more intimate you are with Christ, the less you will need from people. Won’t you rekindle your pursuit of Christ through His Word and prayer? Won’t you light up your desire to be on fire believers who burn with passion for Christ when you are around them?
Won’t you commit yourself to be a vessel for the Spirit to work through as you lovingly serve others? And won’t you pursue reaching out with the love of Christ and the message of Christ to those who desperately need to hear the Gospel? When you are full of love for Christ, you will impartially love others. Let’s pray.