There was an issue lurking amongst the scattered believers who had been cast out of Jerusalem by the first wave of anti-Christian persecution, around 37-39 AD. While they had really believed in Christ, were truly born-again, and were serious about their faith – they were new Christians who still had a lot of progress towards maturity to make! James’ letter was written to help them move forward in the specific areas where they needed to grow.
The area that James hit on in ch2:1-13, was that of financial snobbery – or if you like, preferring the rich! The Christian people in James’ scattered congregation were getting a bad reputation for being impressed with wordly wealth and despising the poor – a reputation that had clearly reached James’ ears back in Jerusalem.
He clearly wasn’t impressed!
Here’s the scenario. The believers are gathering for worship, and two strangers come into the meeting room. They are at opposite ends of the economic spectrum; one is a rich merchant marked out by the symbols of wealth and conspicuous consumption, clothing, jewelry, and an air of confidence wafting around him. The other man shuffles nervously in, embarrassed by his shabby clothes, unwashed hair; looking around nervously to see if he would be mistreated here, just like he is everywhere else.
What James expects of the believers is that they will welcome both of these people equally. James will have remembered that Jesus welcomed rich people like Nicodemus and poor people like the Samaritan woman, with equal grace. And he would have expected the believers to do likewise. Sadly it seems that it had become common practice for the rich and powerful to be given the best seats, plenty of attention and flattery; while the poor were humiliated by being made to sit on the floor like children.
James wrote ch 2:1-13 to deal with this sinful situation. He does this by appealing to their immediate circumstances, before asking them to apply a properly Christian worldview to this scenario. First of all, he points out that favoring the rich was a strange way to react when everyone was aware that many of the rich we severely oppressing God’s people! That was a theme that he would return to later in the letter.
Secondly, and more importantly though – what James wants them to really do is to think the situation through and respond in a fully Christlike way, not merely go along with the cultural norms in their context. Being counter-cultural is hard, and yet that is so often what we are called to be as followers of Jesus. You see, in those days in many parts of the Roman Empire, the formal religious gatherings were a form of consumer-spirituality for the rich. Access to priests, temples sacrifices (and so they assumed the favor of their gods) came at a very high price. In fact religious participation at that level was in itself something of a pricey status symbol which was denied to the poor.
Jesus of course, is totally different to pagan religion. “I have come to preach good news to the poor!” Jesus announces at the outset of his ministry in Luke’s gospel. This would seem nonsensical to many of the Greeks and Romans! For a start, ministry amongst the poor would be harder. The poor couldn’t build huge temples or ministry complexes; or provide lavish lifestyles for their followers. So who would want to minister to them? The answer is Jesus.
The Bible makes it clear that all people (i) bear God’s image and therefore have great value, from the yet-to-be- born to the elderly, without reference to race, sex, language, class, wealth, appearance or any other criteria. (ii) All people are made by God, they exist because He gives life, and (iii) all people are made for God. That means that the purpose and significance of every human life, whether billionaire or minimum-wage earner, is to know, love and glorify God. All people have fallen into sin, all people need Jesus for salvation and each and every one of them, will appear before the judgement seat of Christ. There is a great levelling here in that everyone is equal before God; and God is not impressed by accumulations of wordly wealth. Why would He be..? He has galaxies, beyond galaxies at his command! Anyone who thinks that God would treat someone differently because they own a million dollars simply has not begun to understand the sheer scale of Almighty God!
What James wants his audience to grasp is that what is true in the very presence of God, must be worked out in their context.
An elderly pastor preached a sermon in Dundee, Scotland several years ago which I will never forget. He was frail, and weak, and clearly struggled to stand to speak; but his words were precious. With a trembling hand he pointed to the large symbol at the front of the church, and said, “Friends, let me tell you about the cross”. He began by talking about the two beams that make up a crucifix; the long one which goes into the ground, and the shorter horizontal beam. Starting with the long vertical piece he preached on the “height of the cross”; where heaven touches earth and where sinful people are reconciled to a holy God. From 1 Peter 2:24-5 he explained that “Jesus bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,”[f] but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls”. This, he said was the ‘height’ of the cross.
Then turning to the shorter, horizontal cross-piece, he asked us to consider the ‘width of the cross’. Not only is it effective for people of every tribe, tongue and nation; but it also reconciles them not just to God; but also to one another! There is forgiveness from God (the height of the cross), but there is also reconciliation amongst the people of God (the width of the cross.) That’s why Galatians 3:28-9 says, “26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
So, in conclusion; we must treat everyone equally in the church! We’ve all sinned, and we all need Christ. We need Him more than money, rank, status, health, cars, or consumer spending. If you have all that but don’t have Christ you will lose absolutely everything. If you do know Christ if you are born-again into his family; you must outwork that in the way you treat other people.
So pause, pray and think for a moment and ask yourself who you would find most awkward to bless if they came into your church gathering? Is it a person you hold a grudge against? Is it a group of people you look down on? Is it members of any particular lifestyle or community, or religion? Your job is not to judge them – that’s God’s preserve alone. Your job and mine is to show them the love of Christ, and his beautiful transforming gospel.
I walked into a coffee lounge after the morning service at a church near me, here in Scotland. There I saw a sight which James would have loved. A millionaire who was a church member was serving coffee and joyfully welcoming a homeless man who had come in off the street to church. The millionaire smelled of expensive aftershave, and the homeless man reeked of urine and cigarettes; but yet this Christian man wanted nothing more in that moment than to show him the love of Christ and to welcome him like a long lost brother.
I couldn’t help but imagine James saying, “That’s what I’m talking about!”
Angela Courte MacKenzie is a broadcaster, pianist, vocalist, and worship leader. Her music has traveled all over the world through her Facebook live events and The Power of Praise program as a witness to the glory of God. Angela holds a B.A. degree in music/vocal performance from the University of Central Florida, and a M.A. in apologetics from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Her desire is to awaken hearts to Christ through music, Bible Teachings, blogs, one 2 one chats, the gifts of laughter and simply life in “real time.”
To find out more about Angela visit www.angela.org. To hear her music and other offerings visit her YouTube channel www.youtube.com/angelacourtemackenzieofficial.