The apostle is here reproving a very corrupt practice. He shows how much mischief there is in the sin of prosopolepsia—respect of persons, which seemed to be a very growing evil in the churches of Christ even in those early ages, and which, in these after-times, has sadly corrupted and divided Christian nations and societies. Here we have,
I. A caution against this sin laid down in general: My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons, Jas. 2:1. Observe here, 1. The character of Christians fully implied: they are such as have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ; they embrace it; they receive it; they govern themselves by it; they entertain the doctrine, and submit to the law and government, of Christ; they have it as a trust; they have it as a treasure. 2. How honorably James speaks of Jesus Christ; he calls him the Lord of glory; for he is the brightness of his Father’s glory, and the express image of his person. 3. Christ’s being the Lord of glory should teach us not to respect Christians for any thing so much as their relation and conformity to Christ. You who profess to believe the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the poorest Christian shall partake of equally with the rich, and to which all worldly glory is but vanity, you should not make men’s outward and worldly advantages the measure of your respect. In professing the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, we should not show respect to men, so as to cloud or lessen the glory of our glorious Lord: how ever any may think of it, this is certainly a very heinous sin.
II. We have this sin described and cautioned against, by an instance or example of it (Jas. 2:2, 3): For if there come into your assembly a man with a gold ring, etc. Assembly here is meant of those meetings which were appointed for deciding matters of difference among the members of the church, or for determining when censures should be passed upon any, and what those censures should be; therefore the Greek word here used, synagoge, signifies such an assembly as that in the Jewish synagogues, when they met to do justice. Maimonides says (as I find the passage quoted by Dr. Manton) “That is was expressly provided by the Jews’ constitutions that, when a poor man and a rich plead together, the rich shall not be bidden to sit down and the poor stand, or sit in a worse place, but both sit or both stand alike.” To this the phrases used by the apostle have a most plain reference, and therefore the assembly here spoken of must be some such as the synagogue-assemblies of the Jews were, when they met to hear causes and to execute justice: to these the arbitrations and censures of their Christian assemblies are compared. But we must be careful not to apply what is here said to the common assemblies for worship; for in these certainly there may be appointed different places of persons according to their rank and circumstances, without sin. Those do not understand the apostle who fix his severity here upon this practice; they do not consider the word judges (used in Jas. 2:4), nor what is said of their being convected as transgressors of the law, if they had such a respect of persons as is here spoken of, according to Jas. 2:9. Thus, now put the case: “There comes into your assembly (when of the same nature with some of those at the synagogue) a man that is distinguished by his dress, and who makes a figure, and there comes in also a poor man in vile raiment, and you act partially, and determine wrong, merely because the one makes a better appearance, or is in better circumstances, than the other.” Observe hence, 1. God has his remnant among all sorts of people, among those that wear soft and gay clothing, and among those that wear poor and vile raiment. 2. In matters of religion, rich and poor stand upon a level; no man’s riches set him in the least nearer to God, nor does any man’s poverty set him at a distance from God. With the Most High there is no respect of persons, and therefore in matters of conscience there should be none with us. 3. All undue honouring of worldly greatness and riches should especially be watched against in Christian societies. James does not here encourage rudeness or disorder. Civil respect must be paid, and some difference may be allowed in our carriage towards persons of different ranks; but this respect must never be such as to influence the proceedings of Christian societies in disposing of the offices of the church, or in passing the censures of the church, or in any thing that is purely a matter of religion; here we are to know no man after the flesh. It is the character of a citizen of Zion that in his eyes a vile person is contemned, but he honoureth those that fear the Lord. If a poor man be a good man, we must not value him a whit the less for his poverty; and, if a rich man be a bad man (though he may have both gay clothing and a gay profession), we must not value him any whit the more for his riches. 4. Of what importance it is to take care what rule we go by in judging of men; if we allow ourselves commonly to judge by outward appearance, this will too much influence our spirits and our conduct in religious assemblies. There is many a man, whose wickedness renders him vile and despicable, who yet makes a figure in the world; and, on the other hand, there is many a humble, heavenly, good Christian, who is clothed meanly; but neither should he nor his Christianity be thought the worse of on this account.
III. We have the greatness of this sin set forth, Jas. 2:4, 5. It is great partiality, it is injustice, and it is to set ourselves against God, who has chosen the poor, and will honour and advance them (if good), let who will despise them. 1. In this sin there is shameful partiality: Are you not then partial in yourselves? The question is here put, as what could not fail of being answered by every man’s conscience that would put it seriously to himself. According to the strict rendering of the original, the question is, “Have you not made a difference? And, in that difference, do you not judge by a false rule, and go upon false measures? And does not the charge of a partiality condemned by the law lie fully against you? Does not your own conscience tell you that you are guilty?” Appeals to conscience are of great advantage, when we have to do with such as make a profession, even though they may have fallen into a very corrupt state. 2. This respect of persons is owing to the evil and injustice of the thoughts. As the temper, conduct, and proceedings, are partial, so the heart and thoughts, from which all flows, are evil: “You have become judges of evil thoughts; that is, you are judges according to those unjust estimations and corrupt opinions which you have formed to yourselves. Trace your partiality till you come to those hidden thoughts which accompany and support it, and you will find those to be exceedingly evil. You secretly prefer outward pomp before inward grace, and the things that are seen before those which are not seen.” The deformity of sin is never truly and fully discerned till the evil of our thoughts be disclosed: and it is this which highly aggravates the faults of our tempers and lives—that the imagination of the thoughts of the heart is evil, Gen. 6:5. 3. This respect of persons is a heinous sin, because it is to show ourselves most directly contrary to God (Jas. 2:5): “Hath not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith? etc. But you have despised them, Jas. 2:6. God has made those heirs of a kingdom whom you make of no reputation, and has given very great and glorious promises to those to whom you can hardly give a good word or a respectful look. And is not this a monstrous iniquity in you who pretend to be the children of God and conformed to him? Hearken, my beloved brethren; by all the love I have for you, and all the regards you have to me, I beg you would consider these things. Take notice that many of the poor of this world are the chosen of God. Their being God’s chosen does not prevent their being poor; their being poor does not at all prejudice the evidences of their being chosen. Matt. 11:5; The poor are evangelized.” God designed to recommend his holy religion to men’s esteem and affection, not by the external advantages of gaiety and pomp, but by its intrinsic worth and excellency; and therefore chose the poor of this world. Again, take notice that many poor of the world are rich in faith; thus the poorest may become rich; and this is what they ought to be especially ambitious of. It is expected from those who have wealth and estates that they be rich in good works, because the more they have the more they have to do good with; but it is expected from the poor in the world that they be rich in faith, for the less they have here the more they may, and should, live in the believing expectation of better things in a better world. Take notice further, Believing Christians are rich in title, and in being heirs of a kingdom, though they may be very poor as to present possessions. What is laid out upon them is but little; what is laid up for them is unspeakably rich and great. Note again, Where any are rich in faith, there will be also divine love; faith working by love will be in all the heirs of glory. Note once more, under this head, Heaven is a kingdom, and a kingdom promised to those that love God. We read of the crown promised to those that love God, in the former chapter (Jas. 1:12); we here find there is a kingdom too. And, as the crown is a crown of life, so the kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom. All these things, laid together, show how highly the poor in this world, if rich in faith, are now honoured, and shall hereafter be advanced by God; and consequently how very sinful a thing it was for them to despise the poor. After such considerations as these, the charge is cutting indeed: But you have despised the poor, Jas. 2:6. 4. Respecting persons, in the sense of this place, on account of their riches or outward figure, is shown to be a very great sin, because of the mischiefs which are owing to worldly wealth and greatness, and the folly which there is in Christians’ paying undue regards to those who had so little regard either to their God or them: “Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment-seat? Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by which you are called? Jas. 2:7. Consider how commonly riches are the incentives of vice and mischief, of blasphemy and persecution: consider how many calamities you yourselves sustain, and how great reproaches are thrown upon your religion and your God by men of wealth, and power, and worldly greatness; and this will make your sin appear exceedingly sinful and foolish, in setting up that which tends to pull you down, and to destroy all that you are building up, and to dishonour that worthy name by which you are called.” The name of Christ is a worthy name; it reflects honour, and gives worth to those who wear it.