You know them. Oh, you may not know them, but you know their names, you read about them, hear about them, and are aware of who they are. They are powerful. Their presence turns heads. They walk the red carpet, are profiled in Fortune and People magazines, and are the talk of those who envy their TMZ lifestyles. Their wealth is the envy of the everyday man or woman. Their good looks, power, and deep pockets garner favors from those who desire to have a relationship with them. They’re given the private dining rooms at the best restaurants and others pick up the tab. They share photos on Instagram and Facebook from exotic places around the world. They are known for their yachts, Aston Martins, $1,000 bottles of wine, and gourmet foods which have never been tasted by folks like you and me. Money opens doors, creates opportunities, and can convince the wealthy that they are somehow different from everyone else. It’s not always the case, but we all know stories of how this is true.
Larry David has made a fortune from co-creating the hit TV series Seinfeld with his friend Jerry Seinfeld. Mr. David wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but now he has a whole warehouse full of gold spoons. The day he and Jerry signed Seinfeld into syndication Larry made $650 million. He went on to write and star in the HBO hit Curb Your Enthusiasm which continues to make him millions of dollars each year. Larry was married to his wife Laurie for 14 years, but the couple divorced in 2007. Since that time Larry has been dating different women. I read an interview with him this past week in Inc. Online and learned that he’s very aware of why women go out with him. He said,
Every time I’m dating, my friends always say to me: ‘Aren’t you concerned that she’s only going out with you because you have some money and you’re on TV?’ “Why else would she go out with me?” David said. “Of course that’s why she’s going out with me. That’s one of the benefits. That’s why I did this in the first place. What, do you think she has a penchant for old, bald men?” (Chris Matyszczyk, Larry David Explains the True Benefits of Being Rich. Inc. Magazine. February, 7, 2016)
Surely no one is surprised at Larry’s confession. That’s the way of the world. That’s life for those who have money, power, and prestige. That’s the way it is and that’s the way it has always been. It doesn’t matter where in the world you go, you’ll find the same advantages, the same preferential treatment, given to those who are wealthy and powerful.
There is an exception to the norm, a place where wealth and power provide no advantage, and that is in the Body of Christ, in the local church. In the church the focus of every person is to be fixed on the glory and majesty of the Savior and not on any person. The wealth of the richest person in our midst pales in comparison to the “incomparable riches of His grace” (Ephesians 2:7). The power of the most powerful person in the pew is rendered powerless before the One who said, “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). The crowds in stadiums and arenas can cheer the cherished, paparazzi can blind the eyes of the most sought after in our society as they stroll the red carpet, but for those who are in Christ there is only One who is to be adored and worshiped. His name is Jesus.
As we begin our study of James 2 this morning we will learn that though everything I have said is true in theory, it’s not always put into practice. The ways of the world can so easily creep into the Body of Christ. Turn with me to James 2:1-7 and let’s read together.
1 My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3 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,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers: 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? 6 But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? (James 2:1-7 NIVO)
When we study God’s Word we have to always keep in mind that when these letters were written there were no chapters or verses included. This is important when you consider that last week, at the end of James 1, we read that God expects us to “look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27) James rolls straight from that thought into the the command, “don’t show favoritism.”
The question has to be asked, “How do we do that? How do we not cater to one person over another, one group over another? Is it really even possible for us not to follow the same path of preferential treatment that the world has so perfectly perfected?” Those are great questions. No doubt we as followers of Jesus and the church collectively have failed miserably in many ways and this is one of them, but it is not right and it is sin…plain and simple. Preferential treatment may be the way of the world, but it is not the way of Jesus. We are not destined or doomed to succumb to the ways of the world because we have died to our old selves, we’ve been given new life in Christ, and we are to take up our cross and follow Him, not the ways of the world.
The key for you and me is found in verse 1 where James identifies Jesus as the glorious One. Jesus’ name is mentioned only twice in James’ letter. James is intentional in identifying Jesus as the glorious one at this place where he commands those in the church not to give glory, or to show favoritism, to one over another.
I’ve been so excited about having the opportunity to share with you something I’ve learned this week that has overwhelmed me. Take a look at James 2:1 and I want you to focus on the phrase, “don’t show favoritism.” The Greek word, “prosopolepsia” literally means, “to receive the face.” “To receive the face” means to make judgments about people based on external appearances. This Greek word was most likely invented by New Testament writers, but it is based on a phrase from the Hebrew Bible that means, “to lift the face,” or to show partiality. Let me show you an example from the Hebrew Bible. Turn with me to Deuteronomy 10:17-18.
17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. (Deuteronomy 10:17-18 NIVO)
God shows no partiality. He can’t be swayed by power, He accepts no bribes, and He is not impressed by what impresses us. This is the God we serve and He demands that His people emulate His impartiality towards others. In Leviticus 19, God told His people,
15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.’” (Leviticus 19:15 NIVO)
What overwhelmed me this week was James’ pairing the identification of Jesus Christ as the glorious One with our not showing favoritism. What does James intend when he highlights the glory of Jesus? The glory of God is a favorite topic of the Hebrew Bible. The glory of God is the manifestation of God’s presence in all of His holiness, righteousness, mercy, and power. Pastor John Piper defines God’s glory in the following way.
The glory of God is the infinite beauty and greatness of God’s manifold perfections. The infinite beauty—and I am focusing on the manifestation of his character and his worth and his attributes — all of his perfections and greatness are beautiful as they are seen, and there are many of them. That is why I use the word manifold. (Piper, John. What is God’s Glory?)
God’s glory is His presence, the manifestation of His character and His attributes, in all of His beauty. And then we learn from John that…
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NIVO)
The glory of God has come down in the Person of Jesus who has made His dwelling among us. He is in our midst. He is present in our assembly. He is the ever-present King of Glory who is present with us this very morning. Dr. J.A. Motyer writes,
We know the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ only because, though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor (2 Cor. 8:9), and because when we were wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked, he counseled us to buy gold from him that we might become rich, white garments for our nakedness and salve for our eyes that we might see (Rev. 3:17-18). He came right down to where we were, taking our nature upon him (Heb. 2:14), taking our sin upon him (1 Pet. 2:24), taking our curse upon him (Gal. 3:13), bringing to our blinded minds the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). In a word, it was in Christ that God the Father shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). (Motyer, J.A. The Message of James. pg. 85)
Any follower of Jesus who understands His presence, His very presence, any church that can grasp His majesty manifest in their midst, will never look upon the face of any person in awe for He alone is to be praised. The power, wealth, or glory of people is nothing in the face of the glorious One. Here is another truth that will be lived out by those who behold His glory and are aware of His presence, they will see His face in the face of those He has created. From the pauper who doesn’t have two pennies to rub together to the president or king who has the world at their disposal–all have been made in His image and are to be honored, loved, and valued.
The world has no problem honoring the powerful and wealthy. Everyone wants first round draft picks on their team, but James tells us that God chooses the “poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith.” James has already made reference to the leveling power of Jesus in his first chapter when he wrote,
9 The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10 But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. (James 1:9-10 NIVO)
The brother or sister who is in a humble circumstance and the rich alike find themselves on level ground at the foot of the cross. It is interesting isn’t it, how the poor and marginalized found Jesus so attractive. Throughout the history of the Church the poor have always found a home in the gatherings of God’s people.
A man named Celsus was an early critic of Christianity. He was a Greek philosopher who saw the followers of Jesus as a threat to society. He wrote, The True Word, as an attack on Christianity. Fifty years later one of the early Church Fathers, Origen, wrote Contra Celsum, an answer to Celsus’ criticisms of Christianity. In Contra Celsum, Against Celsus, he parrots Celsus’ criticism. Listen to this.
Those who summon people to the other mysteries (other religions) make this preliminary proclamation: “Whoever has pure hands and a wise tongue.” And again, others say: “Whoever is pure from all defilement, and whose soul knows nothing of evil, and who has lived well and righteously.” Such are the preliminary exhortations of those who promise purification from sins. But let us hear what folk these Christians call. “Whosoever is a sinner,” they say, “Whosoever is unwise, whosoever is a child, in a word, whosoever is a wretch, the kingdom of God will receive him.” He asks, “Why on earth this preference for sinners?” (Origen, Contra Celsum)
It is baffling isn’t it? Why would God go to such great lengths to make sure that those who are the castoffs of society, the poor who have no material means to offer, and the losers like the “sinners and tax collectors” should find their home, a place where they belonged, with Jesus? Celsus wasn’t the first to ask, “Why on earth this preference for sinners?” The most religious people of Jesus’ day wondered the same thing in Mark 2:16.
16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (Mark 2:16 NIVO)
Evidently the early church to whom James was writing had already lost sight of those who most often gathered around Jesus while He was ministering in and around the Galilee and Jerusalem. James creates a scenario, which no doubt was actually happening in their gatherings. He says, “Let’s suppose a rich man wearing gold rings and bright, shiny clothes comes into your congregation at the same time a homeless guy wearing raggedy clothes comes through the door. If you take the man who looks like he stepped off the cover of GQ magazine to the front of the sanctuary and tell the homeless guy to sit on the floor at the back where he won’t bother anyone…you’ve acted in an ungodly way.” That’s the way the world seats their guests, but that’s not how we seat people in God’s house. Next, James reminds them, in verse 5,
5 Listen, my dear brothers: 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? (James 2:5 NIVO)
This verse has been the cause of a lot of controversy. When I was in seminary I learned about Liberation Theology, which holds fast to the belief that God sides with the poor against the rich regardless of the faith of either one. That is absurd. If that’s the case what do you do with people like Abraham, Job, Solomon, Joseph of Arimathea, and others who were wealthy and at the same time “rich in faith?” We have to remember James’ audience. These were people who were “scattered among the nations” because of the persecution that had taken place in Jerusalem. We must also remember what Paul wrote to the brothers and sisters in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, he wrote,
26 Brothers, 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. 27 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. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things– and the things that are not– to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NIVO)
Not many were wise, but some were. Not many were influential, but some were. Not many were of noble birth, but some were. We have to keep in mind that James’ audience was mainly poor and marginalized, when we read verse 5, so that we are not led to believe that James meant God chooses the poor to the exclusion of the rich and powerful who know their spiritual poverty. We need to keep the same thing in mind when we read verses 6-7. James writes,
6 But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? (James 2:1-7 NIVO)
Are the rich the only ones who exploit the poor? Are the rich the only ones who take people to court or take advantage of the poor? If you believe that then you are naive. The rich and powerful are not the only ones who exploit the poor, but they have more opportunity to do so and in many cases have perfected the exploitation of the poor. Dr. Motyer writes,
It has always been the case that the Lord’s true people are predominantly less well off, the prey for stronger, more ruthless forces, and subject to less than justice from those who know how to manipulate the system. If we would follow the Lord Jesus then it must be our glory, as it was his, to be incessantly and preponderantly on the side of the poor, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. (Motyer, J.A. The Message of James. pg. 89)
It is difficult for those of us who do not live the day-to-day reality of the poor, those who live on the margins, to understand what James means, but those who were having this letter read to them certainly understood. Dr. Douglas Moo, in his commentary, writes about how wealthy landowners and merchants accumulated more and more land and power which in turn forced large numbers of poor laborers out of their land and as a result they grew even more poor.
James reminds his readers, “Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?” The rich and powerful people of Jesus and James’ day were using their power and money to influence the decisions of the court in their favor. I’m sure glad we no longer have to deal with that issue in our country, aren’t you? Some of the most common practices of the rich and powerful in James’ day, and which still occur in our day, are, forcing people to forfeit their land for late payment and insisting on exorbitant interest rates for their financial help.
I was thinking about this last one this past week. Have you ever noticed how many car lots are located in poor neighborhoods? I have a friend who is in the car business. He is a man after God’s own heart who has helped many friends of mine who would have been forced to go to the used car lot in the neighborhood if it weren’t for his help. I called him this past week and asked him about the car lots in our neighborhood and I got an education. He told me someone from the neighborhood with $500 can go to one of the lots and buy a $3000 car for $6000. They’ll carry the note at 21% interest or more. When the person gets behind on their payments they’ll come and get the car and do the same thing to the next person who comes through the door. And this is just one of the many practices that are acceptable in the world in which we live, but it should never be acceptable for God’s people.
We don’t play favorites. If anything we make personal sacrifices, we disadvantage ourselves in order to help those who are struggling. We identify with the poor and help them in the same way Jesus identified with our impoverished spiritual state and came to our rescue. I perfectly understand how foolish that sounds to most people today, but it makes perfect sense to those who understand what Paul wrote to the folks in Corinth. Read along with me from 1 Corinthians 4:7.
7 For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? (1 Corinthians 4:7 NIVO)
“What makes you different from anyone else?” We are all paupers in the presence of the glory and majesty of the One to whom the angels of heaven bow in worship! Those who have recognized their spiritual poverty, rich and poor alike, and have received an abundance of His grace, we recognize that everything we have has been given to us. We are not owners, we are stewards of all that He has given to us for His glory and the blessing of His people.
The world will continue to play favorites. The rich and powerful will continue to be applauded and adored by the masses, but in God’s family we are all brothers and sisters whose focus is on the glory and majesty of our great Savior. Regardless of what you have or what you lack you are loved, you are welcome, and you belong among the fellowship of God’s people.
You may have driven here in a $100,000 Tesla, are wearing a $2,000 suit, but be in abject poverty when it comes to the things of God. I’m so glad you are here. There’s room for you in the family of God if you will just confess your spiritual poverty and receive the riches of His grace and salvation. You may have walked here this morning because you don’t have a car of your own. You don’t have much of anything to be honest, but my friend I am so glad you are here. You can become rich in faith if you will simply confess your spiritual poverty and receive the riches of His grace and salvation. Won’t you invite Him into your heart?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
December 3, 2017