Some of the most elegant masks I have ever seen are in storefront windows in the alleyways between the “Piazza San Marco” and the “Canal Grande” in the island city of Venice. They are wildly colorful and complex designs – because they have been making sophisticated party masks for centuries. Historians believe it began all the way back in the year 1162, following a loss in war that caused the island city its dominance over several other small maritime city states. The famed “Republica della Serenisima” or “Serene Republic” was displaced in a war by a rival city, and the response of the Venetian masses was extreme overreaction – inaugurating the annual practice of “Carnivale” –a sort of street party like the “Festival of Fools” held each Spring in Paris. The masks for the festival were outrageous, and the behaviors often worse – but the idea was simple: hide behind ornate masks while behaving badly – the masks would conceal the real identity of the wearer anyway. It was about as anonymous as some mistaken moderns considered their rude comments in an internet chat room, hidden under the cloak of a made up “avatar”. Finding someone’s real identity has never been that hard, but people love an illusion of anonymity. The interesting truth of that historical setting is this: we often act differently outside than we are inside. We act differently when people will hold us accountable for our actions than when we think they cannot find out the actions were ours. For some, it is a stark difference. For others, it is a much more slight one. Read the internet. Anonymous comments are seldom the deeply encouraging ones.
It is true that etiquette sometimes demands that mature people don’t say or do what they are thinking. That often isn’t as much hypocrisy, as it is simple tact and decency. At the same time, in some cases it can be a sign of a subtle form of manipulation. We may be trying to GET something from someone else – be it favor, or material reward. This is one example of the grasp of the flesh’s tentacles in our daily life. Our lesson today is about that grip.
Key Principle: When believers treat people better based on their ability to help us or our cause, we show ourselves to be fleshly and manipulative.
Our partiality comes from our immoral and base nature, and is rooted in greed…
When James faced the scattered flock of Jewish believers of the diaspora (dispersion), he knew some of them were deeply confused and badly shaken at the level of conflict they were facing both within and without. He took the time to explain that God DID in fact use WEIGHT TRAINING to build them up – in the form of daily troubles, but never used BAIT TRAINING in the form of dangling temptations to entice lustful responses. The confusion came because the pounding of troubles takes its toll, so he clarified that the TEMPTATIONS we face were NEVER part of God’s training, but rather the enticement of the flesh WITHIN – the old man. He warned the beleaguered believers that temptation grabs hold by highlighting the benefits of sinful behaviors while masking the devastating effects of evil choices in our lives. The truth of the first chapter was this: God uses WEIGHTS to build us up – but never BAIT to pull us down. Temptation is from the flesh, whereas pressure and trouble MAY BE from God. The two must be seen differently, and addressed differently. As he continued writing his letter, James identified another problem that believers face that is an offshoot of the flesh – the problem of manipulative behavior in relationships. The line between our actions and our motivations is often not straight, it is curved. Sometimes it is opaque even to us – we aren’t conscious of WHY we do what we do. Yet, on closer inspection, the motivation to care for some people over others may be more about selfishness than anything else.
Let me explain: deep within us, in our natural fallen state, we are drawn to favor people that we believe will help us accumulate more of the things of the flesh that we have learned to treasure – fortune, fame, power or pleasure. Anyone we assess to have no ability to add to these desired treasures of the flesh can be treated in a less delicate way by us, because our behavior is the outworking of something much more sinister – our manipulative flesh within. We aren’t simply nicer to people who HAVE MORE, but rather people who we assess on some level may be able and willing to ADD MORE TO US… if we can somehow manage to get them to do it. At its base, our treatment of others is often a reflection of our inner greed to have more of someone else’s things or to be lauded more by others.
It is the truth: we hunger for greater public affirmation. We pine for more material goods. We thirst for more sensually delighting pleasures. We long for impact producing power. In the process, we may be tempted to feed the urges of the flesh as we make friends and find new acquaintances. This happens in the business world, in the political world, in the local country club, and sadly – in the local church. When James saw the tendency in the early congregations of Jewish believers, he wrote this by the direction of the Spirit:
James 2:1 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. 2 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, 3 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,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5 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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? 8 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 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. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
An instruction to observe
The passage opens with an instruction – because James is not a “beat around the bush” type of guy. He is a Galilean Jew – and they have been noted as both direct and confrontational. The disciples were not chosen because of their politeness and tact, but because the message of salvation was to be passed to the world from the children of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. It was their destiny. At the same time, they were not the most TACTFUL of vessels when it came to interpersonal relationships. A careful look at the Gospels show some lack of eloquence and subtlety when it came to getting along with each other.
James put it out there in 2:1: “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” He instructed those who held the truth of the Gospel and the submission to the Glorious Savior in their hearts to intentionally SHUT DOWN any inner attitude that was connected to the behavior of favoritism. He didn’t tell them to simply stop acting is out – like a MASK CHANGE. He told them to kill the attitude beneath it!
Evidence to recognize
In order to be effective at addressing a bad attitude, he had to PROVE its existence – because people with behavior masks don’t always realize they are wearing one. He offered a situation as a symptomatic sample in James 2:2: “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, 3 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,”…
The proof of their fleshly attitude was this: they treated congregational visitors differently based on their apparent ability to bring greater wealth and standing to the beaten down community of Jewish believers. When a person of both means and potential generosity visited, they offered them a more prominent seat. When a person with little material means arrived, he was set aside. The issue wasn’t just how they treated people – but WHY they treated them differently. The Spirit of God wanted them to draw a line back to their attitude and its roots in the fallen flesh.
A motivation to expose
The fourth verse draws out in written form the whole of the line between attitude and action in this case: “…have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? It is important that you read the verse carefully to understand the problem properly. In English, it looks like they may have conspired together to treat people partially – but that is not the case. The phrase “distinctions among yourselves” should better be translated: “divided judgments inside yourselves”. The issue wasn’t collusion, it was inner personal attitude. Individuals in the congregation behaved this way because of the power of the flesh playing out within them – and James called them on the behavior.
In order to address both attitude and action, James first argued they had not been well served by their instincts to act in this way. In fact, the flesh was leading them on a path away from God’s way fo doing things. God used the poor to spread the Gospel much more than those of means in the time James was writing. He said: “5 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? Because God had been using the poor to add such strength and reliability to the foundation of the early Messianic community, it only made sense that they should respond by recognizing the potential SPIRITUAL TREASURE found in the person with little MATERIAL TREASURE.
When believers see their work on earth in fleshly terms, they measure the work of a congregation by the number of “people of means”. They rate the effectiveness to reach out by the size and beauty of their physical properties. They use a physical scale for a spiritual dynamic – and that is wholly unreliable. It doesn’t work in congregations, and it doesn’t even work in individuals. God may be doing His mightiest work in the most unassuming packages! Hasn’t God repeatedly surprised us by using people men would not have chosen? Even the most cursory look at Scripture reminds us not to look at the outward appearance to see what God sees and to evaluate what God is doing.
- You would not have chosen a single family to build a huge boat and wait for rain – but God did.
- You would not have chosen an eighty year old ex-con to lead your people out of slavery to redemption – but God did.
- You would not have chosen an unwed young woman to bring forth the Messiah – but God did.
You see, God enjoys choosing the “foolish” things of the world to show the clear working of His power. He delights in using weak physical materials while making them effective by spiritual means. What does that mean? Be careful about the judgments you make about the people around you. Some of the people you meet that appear weakest in flesh around may be the mightiest in spirit. Those in ministry who shy away from the aged believers in favor of the younger and more physically energetic crowd are missing something. For most young people, the flesh is still very strong the things of the spirit are still quite faint. They will grow in time, but youth has both inexperience and distraction to contend with. While the body is still strong and the energy level of the physique seems unlimited – the young find it hard to peer through the veil of the physical world and maintain concentration on the spiritual world. Few are the young ones that can see life clearly: that we are not primarily flesh – but only on the earth for a brief moment in this vestibule of eternity. For more seasoned believers, the flesh has shown itself to be fickle and its power fleeting. They know control is an illusion, and hope cannot be placed in the body. They learn of God in the quiet of the midnight hours. God has drawn close as others have drifted away. It is not always so – but it can be so. Be careful not to judge the might of the heart by the sound of the voice – one is flesh and the other spirit.
Underlying challenges to overcome
When we judge one’s importance based on flesh standards, we dishonor God’s work inside them. We discount their worth to both Him and us – in exchange for another who may not be helpful at all! James continued in 2:6 “But you have dishonored the poor man…” He argues, the man is WORSE OFF because of the engagement with us. Why do we continue to act in such a way? Good question! James outlines three problems that may account for our behavior.
Problem #1: Repetition of failed strategies
Not content with the convicting argument that they harmed the poor man in some way, James continued to assail their choice by noting that it lacked the logic of their own past experiences with wealthy people. In short, people of means had not been good to them in the past. Note James 2:6b: “Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?” This may not be true of wealthy people in YOUR life, but it was true of the people in theirs. When we seek the principle behind such a statement should consider a broader perspective. If our choice in some area of attitude and action has produced bad results in our past, but we keep limping back to that choice – it is a marker that the choice is rooted in the beckoning of the flesh. One of the ways to expose the flesh’s hold on us is to mark carefully the way it drags us back to failed strategies time and again.
Think of some besetting sin. Maybe you are often tempted to lose your temper. Based on the “works of the flesh” list we noted in our last study from Galatians 5, this is a siren temptation of the flesh. The Devil may use anger to get a foothold in our lives (as the letter to the Ephesians notes), but the outbursts of anger are a work of the flesh. Think back: the last time you burst out in anger it left a hole in the wall and a broken place in the heart of your loved one. You felt terribly guilty and had to go back and both confess your sin, and fix your wall. Yet, that same powerful wave of desire will come back. It will promise release of all the pent up frustration (a good feeling) while hiding all the problems that result from that wrong choice. James simply applies the logic to the situation of caring for the wealthy with greater zeal. He asks them to look back. In first century diaspora experience, has that really worked? One good test of whether something is the beckoning of the flesh or the direction of the Spirit is this: Has this produced God honoring results in the past? It is not the ONLY test, but it is A TEST that should be consulted. When something fails that test – stop repeating the behavior or attitude and re-measure the outcome.
Problem #2: The sin rating game
In addition to looking back at the track record of past choices, James introduced the idea that we must not be blinded by minimizing the size of some sinful choices. When we get drawn into “rating” sin in SMALL SINS and BIG SINS, it is another form of justification for flesh pandering. We aren’t thinking the way God thinks. God’s standards are not mottled in a haze of complexity – they are straightforward. We are to treat people as we desire to be treated, just as Jesus taught. In James 2:8 he reminds: “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” That is clear enough – treat people impartially or be guilty of SIN. Yet, he continues: 2:10 “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 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.” James argues that when we allow the sins we think are not as IMPORTANT as other sins – we “rate” sin, and that isn’t God’s plan for us at all.
Before I address the principle involved in SIN RATING, I want to take a moment to correct a commonly held view that I believe is unbiblical. I have heard this verse quoted in any number of settings to suggest that God doesn’t distinguish between types of sin, but has only two classifications – guilty and innocent. The emphasis of that teaching is to make all sin heinous – and that is a good thing. However, that isn’t James’ point in this context. James isn’t arguing that ALL SIN IS EQUAL in weight, but rather that ALL SIN IS SIGNIFICANT TO GOD.
It simply isn’t true to suggest that all sin is equal in its weight before God. There are clear differences in punishments – both temporal and eternal in Scripture. Lost men will all spend eternity – time without time – in Hell. The Bible purports it to be a literal, terrible and cataclysmic reality of those who do not accept the sin payment made on their behalf by the Savior. At the same time, there are degrees of punishment in hell. Jesus told Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum that it will be “better for Sodom and Gomorrah” than for those who rejected Him face to face. The suggestion that Hitler will spend eternity in hell beside the lost little boy that’s major crime was stealing a cookie from the jar is ludicrous and unbiblical. They may both be in hell as an eternal banishment for unpaid sin, but their experience will be quite different from one another. Neither is good, but one is much worse.
James is arguing that all sin is significant to God, and nothing that violates His holiness should be passed over as a slight infraction. There are no “white lies” – only lies. We are people of the TRUTH standing against the Father of Lies. There isn’t room for gray in such exchanges. In the specific context, it is important that we recognize this idea: God LOVES people. God often chooses to USE people mightily in the spiritual realm that are not physically successful in appearance. Because God is doing this, any harm we bring to those people is SIN, and should be taken very seriously. SIN RATING is the sin of minimizing wrong on our part by softening the heinous nature of our wrong choice. It is the reason we have adapted our language to words like “fib” and “affair” from the more startling Biblical terms of LIE and ADULTERY. Believers must soften their heart toward people, but harden their resolve against tolerating sin in their lives. We must remember that one tear on a precious piece of artwork diminishes its value significantly. Our intrinsic value doesn’t change – but our usefulness to God’s holy purpose changes drastically with tolerated sinful practices left to roam freely in our life.
Problem #3: Living the wrong life
James completed the passage with an instruction on treating others well with these words in 2:12 “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”
He closed in on a problem that still besets believers to this day – the problem of living like a slave to sin, when they are no longer bound to do so. Look closely as James reminds us of a very important rule of the believer’s life – what is sometimes called the “Law of Liberty”. We have seen this phrase before in the book, in James 1:25 “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.” Don’t miss that James made note that we would be soon judged on this basis.
Here’s my question: If I am going to be judged soon based on the “Law of Liberty”, what exactly is the “Law of Liberty”? In the time James lived, there were two laws from which he could draw imagery easily. First, the legal system was controlled by Rome – and the manumission laws – standards of setting people free from slavery were ultimately under their control. But beyond Roman law, remember James grew up as a Galilean Jew. When he used the term “The Law” he more often than not was referring to the Mosaic Law of Hebrew life, the familiar Torah lifestyle, and its rabbinic emendations of daily life. They also contained manumission laws – laws to set slaves free.
The slavery we are referring to in the image MUST BE in relation to conduct. Remember the context of the “Law of Liberty” in James is that of DELIBERATE BEHAVIOR CHANGE. In chapter 1 it is a change of behavior when identified, like a man who looks in the mirror and makes changes. In chapter 2 it is a change of behavior regarding partiality. James picked up on a theme from the teaching of Jesus not long before, during His earth mission. It was a major point of contention with Jewish leadership during His ministry, and it was still a point that needed clarification in the Jewish community.
Jesus spoke about the freeing slaves in John 8. The writer records in John 8:31 “So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The Master taught that continuous following in His teaching would set free those previously enslaved. Such a statement was deeply offensive to Jerusalemite Jews who thought themselves FREE AGENTS (as opposed to the Essene community with their determinism) and the reaction of His audience was swift: 8:33 “They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?” How odd. Had they forgotten about BOTH the Egyptian and Babylonian bondages? No! To a Jew, they remained free in their heart to behave as Jews, because their practical distinctives were not broken by their captors – they remained Jews even in captivity. That resistance was one reason that so many LOVED the tales of Daniel and his friends!
Jesus replied with the truth He wanted them to recognize in 8:34 “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. 38 “I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”
Jesus argued that a life of sinful behavior is an enslaved life. In addition, he argued they were temporarily enslaved while a son – an heir of the household – had the power to set a slave free permanently from their bondage. He came to do just that very work. Often in the period, slaves were released with the reading of a will, and the action of releasing of slaves was performed by a son. It was a familiar scene to the hearer. Jesus went on to explain that ONLY those who took His word as a Son seriously would recognize His right to set slaves of the household free. The argument for the rest of John 8 is essentially this – “Will you believe I am Who I say I am? If you do, you will hear the call to freedom and walk after My teaching. If not, you will remain enslaved and follow your family head – the Devil.” It is no surprise the end of the passage zooms in to stones held in the hands of Jewish reactionaries, as they angrily looked for a way to eliminate Jesus.
The point is that Jesus’ law of manumission – of setting slaves free – is rooted in His position as a SON. He read God’s Holy will and disclosed this: The Son’s followers are FREE to please God. They are FREE AGENTS in their behavior, and have been released from the “Adamic bondage” that locked the lost into acts and attitudes that fall short of pleasing God. I am not saying that lost people cannot try to be good. I am saying that every attempt will still fall short. They may make some good choices, but like the Olympic athlete that fails to qualify, they will spend their eternity looking back on the ONE DECISION that kept them from the gold – all other “good” decisions will be forgotten.
We have the JOY of God’s Manumission provision – but saying it that way doesn’t sound very exciting, except for those who have a legal expertise. Here is the exciting truth: we are SET FREE from the bondage of failure before God. We can, and SHOULD be attempting to please HIM! The COMPLETE LAW OF FREEDOM (the term “telion” translated “PERFECT” also means purposed and complete) is a finished a work of God to deliver us from the servitude of enslaving passions and lusts. We don’t have to serve SIN anymore – we can freely CHOOSE behaviors that please God.
Christians are the only ones that are able to behave in a manner pleasing to the Lord. Before I was saved, I had no ability to please God, because I was like a criminal in jail trying to impress a judge that would not even consider my behavior. My classification as a convict forbade consideration of daily acceptable behavior. By the release of the Savior, I am not a convict now – I have been released from the prison of sin, and I am in full view of the Righteous Judge – with the honor of pleasing Him with my choices. Paul said it eloquently in Romans 12:2. He remarked that surrendering my body with its fallen fleshly desires, and being transformed by different thinking than the world around me allows me to seek ways to put a smile on my Father’s face, and please Him. My life can be gratifying to my Creator, a delight to my Savior, a song to His Holy Spirit. I am free to change, and I am free to please Him! What freedom is mine!
Let’s be extremely practical. The transformation of my behavior will take two steps. First, I must recognize the change in my status – simple acknowledgement that this is what the Word of God teaches what we have seen in this lesson. Following that it will take a CHANGE IN GOAL. I have to deliberately, consciously change the goal of my decision making process. In the flesh, the goal is always the same: what will PLEASE ME MORE in the end. Now, my goal is changed to this singular one: what will PLEASE MY HEAVENLY FATHER.
Is your marriage not working out? Thinking that someone else might suit you better? Here is the question: Is that what the Word of God says will please a Father who HATES DIVORCE?
Is your family not making enough money to do the things you dream of? Thinking of changing to another position? Ask yourself this: Will I have greater opportunity to minister eternal values with a different job? Can I please my Father more if I serve Him in a different office or occupation? Think eternally, this month will be over before you know it.
We need to treat people as God sees them, in order to please Him. When believers treat people better based on their ability to help us or our cause, we show ourselves to be fleshly and manipulative. It is time for us to live on the outside, and seek on the inside the pleasing smile of our Father.