Sermon 09-05-21: “How to Fulfill the ‘Royal Law'”

September 15, 2021

Scripture: James 2:1-13

Malcolm Gladwell is a bestselling author, and some of you have probably read his book Outliers. At least one of my kids had to read it for school. Outliers is the book that says you have to practice at something for 10 thousand hours before you become really, really good at it… before you master it. So, for example, the Beatles became the great band that everyone knows them to be today because they spent 10 thousand hours playing live music in the clubs of Hamburg, West Germany, in the early ’60s… long before invading America.

But here’s some bad news… for me, at least: By my rough calculation, yours truly has only spent about 700 hours of my life preaching sermons… so… that explains a lot, doesn’t it?

But I love Gladwell, and I listen to his podcast. In his latest episode, released last week, he talks about a potential medical breakthrough which could revolutionize the way we screen for diseases—including different types of cancer and Covid-19. If implemented, we could get test results instantly—and with far greater accuracy and convenience than any other diagnostic tool or test currently available. Imagine screening for colon cancer, in seconds, without having to fast for 24 hours, without drinking that disgusting prep, without the humiliation of a colonoscopy! Imagine screening schoolchildren for Covid each morning, instantly, before they even enter the school building!

It’s doable! And do you know how we can do this?

By turning to man’s best friend… the humble canine. According to the latest scientific research, you can train a dog to sniff a person’s hand and determine whether they have cancer… or to detect the presence of viruses like Covid. Dogs have an amazing sense of smell. And science proves they can even smell diseases! And like I said, a dog’s nose is more accurate than any human-made tests for these diseases.

So what’s stopping us from using dogs to diagnose diseases? 

According to Gladwell, what’s stopping us is good old-fashioned prejudice! As he says in the podcast, we human beings are biased toward trusting what we can see with our own eyes… which includes what we see under a microscope or read on a computer screen or tablet…

We are biased toward trusting what our eyes tell us…

And we human beings were the same way back when James wrote today’s scripture. He writes, in verse 1, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” The Greek word for showing partiality means trusting in what your eyes tell you… it means judging someone based on superficial appearances…

And some Christians, James says, are even doing this in church… when they gather for worship. For example, when a very wealthy man comes in—dressed in the most expensive fashions, hair perfectly coiffed, wearing ostentatious jewelry and smelling of expensive cologne—people at the church bend over backwards to give that man the best seat in the house. Meanwhile, when a dirty, smelly, shabbily dressed person comes in, they say, “Go sit on the floor way back in the back.” Does this sound far-fetched to us today? It wasn’t so long ago, even in America, when families could rent out church pews—to allow wealthier members to have better seats than poorer people.

Not that we modern-day churchgoers don’t feel as if this particular seat or this pew “belongs to us”—we get attached to where we sit—but at least nobody has to pay to sit there!

So maybe the situation that James describes seems too extreme to us… too remote. After all, I’ve seen this church reach out in love to at least one homeless man who worships with us occasionally. But I know what’s in my own heart. I know how easily and how often I judge people based on superficial things like outward appearances. I know how easily and often I can feel morally superior to others. 

And I suspect I’m not alone.

Where does this impulse to judge others with “evil thoughts,” as James says in verse 4, come from—this impulse to “make distinctions” among people and treat them as less than others? I want this sermon to investigate the underlying sin of partiality, to talk about why it’s a problem, and what the solution is.

So that’s what today’s sermon is about: Where does this problem of partiality comes from, why is it a problem, and what’s the solution?

Let’s start by noticing verse 1: James uses an expression that we find nowhere else in the New Testament. He calls Jesus Christ the “Lord of glory.” The Lord of glory. Well, even if no one else uses it, it’s certainly an accurate title. 

In John’s preface to his gospel, he writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14. And remember during the Transfiguration, when Jesus gives his disciples one brief, unfiltered peek at his glory, we’re told that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light”1—and he shone so brightly his disciples fell on the ground in fear. They couldn’t handle that glory.

Truly, no human being who ever lived was more glorious than Jesus—when he became incarnate on this earth. Yet Jesus’ kind of glory is often very strange by worldly standards. After all, Jesus, the “Lord of glory,” said things like this:

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.2


If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.3

In fact, Jesus also says that the most glorious thing that he does isn’t showing himself to be blindingly bright, as in the Transfiguration. No, the most glorious thing Jesus does is to allow himself to be lifted up on the cross—to submit to dying in the most shameful way imaginable, in order to save us.4

Let’s face it: the glory of Jesus rarely looks like glory the way our world understands it. And this is why, I think, James emphasizes Jesus’ glory. Because he knows we human beings have a glory problem. We all want glory… only… We usually don’t want the kind of glory that Jesus showed us. Instead, we crave the worldly kind… for example, the kind of glory that this very wealthy man in verses 2 and 3 possesses. We want to share in, to bask in, that man’s glory, rather than the very “upside down” kind of glory that Jesus Christ showed us.

My first job out of college was in sales with AT&T. My first year on the job, I was struggling. I didn’t know what I was doing! Of the two dozen or so sales people in the office, I was near the bottom of the list… literally. Because my boss’s boss had this bright idea that he would rank the sales team in terms of how much of our annual sales quota we had “retired”… year-to-date. Put it on a chart for all the world to see! So there was this bar chart on the wall near the corner office. Literally a couple hundred people in the office would walk by that chart every week… and see just how badly I was doing compared to everyone else! I was mortified. I was ashamed. My pride couldn’t take it. 

Finally, I would just avoid going to that corner of the office… so I wouldn’t have to see my name down near the bottom. So I wouldn’t be reminded of what a failure I was. I referred to that chart on the wall as the “Wall of Shame.” I was humiliated.

But that was only my first year… Because my second year, things started heating up for me. I was making some big sales—so much so that my name was at or near the top of the chart… all year long! I was so proud! I was basking in the glory, let me tell you… 

Or at least I would have been basking in the glory… except…my boss’s boss… not long after the year began… he decided to take the chart down! Which meant, people couldn’t see with their own eyes how wonderful I was! I mean, what’s the point of doing great things if no one can see you do it?

Why did I feel this way? 

Because I had a glory problem. Because I craved worldly glory! And I also didn’t want to risk losing glory, either!

Many years ago, I was on a business trip in New Jersey. It just so happened that I had friends who lived not far from there. In fact, one of them worked in New York City. So while I was on this trip, they took me out on the town to show me the big city. We ate at a fancy Italian place in Manhattan. And while we were at the restaurant, someone came in—a shabbily dressed man from off the street—and started serenading us. He was pretty good. And when he was finished singing, he went to each table, hat in hand… so I reached in my wallet and got a couple of bills and dropped them in the hat.

And I immediately regretted it. I received awkward looks from my friends at the table… and from others… either looks of pity that said, “Oh, dear! You must be from out of town”… Or embarrassed looks that said, “Don’t be a chump! Don’t be a sucker! You don’t give money to these people!” My face turned beet red. I felt deeply ashamed of myself!

Why? It was just a couple of bucks, after all. What’s the harm?

The harm was this: I lost face. I looked foolish in front of others. Associating with this poor man diminished my own glory. And I didn’t like it one bit! And even in the streets and parking lots of Toccoa, I’m often willing to help people in need, but before I do, I often glance around to see if anyone’s watching. I feel embarrassed: I feel like other people are judging me. “Look at that sucker! He’s being taken advantage of!”

The problem is, our lust for worldly glory is completely incompatible with fulfilling what James, in verse 8, calls the “royal law”: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Why does James call this the “royal” law? Because according to our one and only king, King Jesus, this is the most important commandment—at least after the commandment to “love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” Jesus said, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”5 The apostle Paul even says that this command, “love your neighbor as yourself,” sums up the entire law. He says, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.”6

In fact, looking down our noses at those we perceive to be “less important” than we are isn’t merely incompatible with this royal law—that’s putting it too mildly. Because notice verse 11: James says, “For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.” 

“Wait. What? Who said anything about ‘murder,’ James? I thought we were talking about showing partiality… favoring the rich over the poor?”

No… we’re talking about murder. Because the apostle James knows full well what his brother Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said,

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.7

What Jesus is saying is, when you’re angry at someone, when you resent someone, when you insult someone, when you treat someone in an insulting way—including looking down your nose at them and treating them as less valuable than others—guess what? You have acted on the same sinful impulse in your heart that leads to the breaking of the sixth commandment, “Do not murder.” And God sees that sin in your heart, and judges you based on what he sees there.

So here we are, James warns, feeling superior, judging this poor, smelly, shabbily dressed man as somehow less than us… as less righteous and less worthy than we are… not to mention the wealthy man to whom we’re showing favor… And all the while, we’re committing “spiritual murder” in our heart!

So who are we to look down on… this man… or any other sinner! Look at what’s in our heart!

Moreover, James says, why should we “look up” to this wealthy man and treat him with special favor? Look at verse 6: “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?” 

James’s point is not that we should now practice “reverse discrimination.”  He’s not saying that we should be prejudiced instead against this rich man rather than this poor man.” Of course not! His point is, despite outward appearances, this rich man has the exact same spiritual problem, the same problem with sin, that everyone else has—poor, rich, or anywhere in between!

In other words, it’s as if James were saying, “Based on the way you judge, based on outward appearances, based on what you see with your eyes, you already think that the poor man has a problem with sin. I’m trying to get you to see that you also have a problem with sin and so does this rich man you’re fawning over. In fact, we’re all in the same boat when it comes to sin!”

If you remember last week, I talked about the need to look into the “mirror of God’s Word” and let it show us who we truly are. In this week’s scripture, James is applying this mirror to a very practical problem—the different ways we treat the rich and the poor in the church of his day. According to the world’s standards, the church’s behavior toward the rich and poor is perfectly justified. We ought to treat the wealthy man better than this poor schlub. After all, it is far more advantageous to us, far more glorious, to make friends with the world’s powerful elites than it is to make friends with poor people. 

But James is saying, no… “Your partiality is a very serious sin. You’re breaking the royal law. You’re committing spiritual murder.” 

Do I really believe this?

One of the wealthiest men in the world is investor Warren Buffett, founder of Berkshire Hathaway—he’s number three behind Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, and just ahead of Mark Zuckerberg. Several years ago, Buffett made headlines announcing his plans to give away 80 percent of his fortune—which at the time totaled $44 billion. Now it’s almost double that. But at the time he explained his generosity like this: “There’s more than one way to go to heaven, but this is a great way.”

I hope you’ve listened to me preach long enough to know that Warren Buffett has a serious spiritual problem… not because of his wealth; but because of his faith. He seems to believe that his good works can earn him eternal life.

But… If Mr. Warren Buffett comes into our congregation one day, with his billions of dollars, which he’s looking to give away to a charitable organization, would I have the courage to tell him—this powerful, important, influential, glory-filled man—that he has a deadly serious spiritual problem, and unless he repents and believes the gospel he will be separated from God for eternity? Or would I say, “Come right this way, Mr. Buffett. Take the best seat in the house. Does this music suit you? Can we do anything to make you more comfortable?” 

Okay, so that’s the underlying problem of partiality… I’ve talked about why it’s a serious sin. But what’s the solution to this problem?

The good news is, Jesus shows us the solution in Luke chapter 7. There, a prominent, well-respected Pharisee named Simon invites Jesus to a dinner party. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but back then, when you had a dinner party, you didn’t close the doors of your house… You opened up the house to the public. So people from outside were free to come inside and observe, if they wanted. And during this dinner party, a woman came in. She was known around town as a prostitute… But she repented and believed in Jesus. She was forgiven. So she begins kissing Jesus’ feet and anointing them with expensive ointment and her own tears—out of gratitude and love. And Simon is indignant that Jesus is allowing this woman to do this to him. Simon thinks, “If Jesus were really a prophet he would know what kind of woman this is, and wouldn’t let her do this!”8

But Jesus knows what Simon is thinking… And he knows what’s in Simon’s heart: Simon is thinking, “This woman is a terrible sinner. But I’m not like her. She doesn’t deserve to be with Jesus. But I do. Because, unlike her, I’m righteous. I’m worthy. I’m valuable.”

So Jesus tells Simon, in so many words, “If you knew the kind of person you are, Simon, you would be treating me the same way this woman is!”

The difference between Simon the Pharisee and this former prostitute was not their degree of sinfulness… Not really. They were both sufficiently sinful to be judged by God, to be condemned by God, and to be sent to hell. No, the difference is that the former prostitute knew she owed a debt to God because of her sins that she could never hope to repay; Simon didn’t know that… And unless or until he figured this out—unless or until he figured out that he’s a sinner who also owed an unpayable debt to God because of his sins—Simon would be unable to comprehend the gospel… unable to truly love Jesus… and of course unable to act graciously toward fellow sinners.

Because after all, Simon built his religion around the idea that there are spiritual “haves” and spiritual “have-nots.” And he has spent his life making sure that he’s one of the “spiritual haves.” He’s spent his life believing that his woman is a spiritual “have-not.” Yet if what Jesus says is true, then he’s been living a lie! He’s wrong!

Which is exactly why Jesus tells him, in Luke 7:47, “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”9

The key to love, according to Jesus—the key to fulfilling what his half-brother James calls the “royal law”—is knowing and remembering and celebrating the great lengths to which God has gone, through his Son Jesus Christ, to forgive us of our sins, to rescue us from our sins, to give us eternal life, to make us part of his family forever.

Sinclair Ferguson is a great Scottish preacher and theologian. In a sermon on today’s scripture, Ferguson describes a friend of his who had recently been named “Scotsman of the year”—or “Scotswoman of the year,” in his friend’s case… She received this recognition because of a rescue mission that she ran with her husband, Hugh. Ferguson said,

It was a mission to prisoners and their families, to down-and-outs, to alcoholics, to drug addicts, to prostitutes, to the needy. And although she was far better known as the public [face of this mission], she always thought much more of her husband than she did of herself. 

I’ve never forgotten her saying to me one day, “You know the thing about Hugh,” her husband… “Hugh can stand next to the worst stench in the universe, coming from a person, and not even flinch.

And if you asked Hugh why that was—did he have a particularly poor breathing apparatus[, were his olfactory organs not working properly]—he would have said, “No, no, no… The reason is this: I know that the Lord Jesus stood next to my own spiritual stench, and he didn’t flinch. And I want to be like him.”10

The main reason we show love and care and hospitality to the poor man in shabby clothing—and to everyone else in desperate need—is because that’s precisely what Jesus did for us. Although our sins should have been far more objectionable to Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, than this poor man’s dirt, odor, and shabby clothes were to these Christians to whom James is writing!

Jesus embraced us in spite of our sins. And he embraces us now in spite of our sins—on one condition: that we confess them and repent.

Indeed, Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another…

  1. Matthew 17:2b ESV
  2. Matthew 20:26b-28 ESV
  3. John 13:14-15 ESV
  4. As he says in John 17 and elsewhere.
  5. Matthew 22:40 ESV
  6. See Romans 13:8-10.
  7. Matthew 5:21-22 ESV
  8. Luke 7:39
  9. Luke 7:47 NLT
  10. Sinclair Ferguson, “No Partiality,” Accessed 2 September 2021.

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