By Spencer D Gear PhD
James 2:10-13 (NIV),
10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
How do we play favourites in church? So far in James 2 we have learned that some churches do it by being partial to the rich and snubbing the poor.
In my last message, you responded to my question: How do we play favourites in this church? Two of you from the floor of the congregation said:
Some do it by not talking to one another, and
Not being involved in evangelism
I gave you an example of how some churches in Australia, like Corrie ten Boom, have offered sanctuary to asylum seekers. Should we be doing this? Do you think the ten Boom family was wrong in hiding people from the Nazis in Holland during World War 2? Do you think it would be wrong to offer sanctuary in our churches to asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution and are now on Manus Is., Nauru, and in Cambodia?
1. What was James’ first argument against favouritism?
Let’s review it briefly from James 2:5-7:
a. You have demonstrated disgusting favouritism or discrimination towards the poor and the rich (2:5).
You favour the rich and reject the poor.
2. The core reason why we shouldn’t play favourites (2:8)
a. The crux: Love your neighbour as yourself
‘If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right’.
This is God’s law of love of the unlovely, loving your neighbour with God’s kind of sacrificial love.
Now we examine the new verses (vv 10-13):
B. Commit one sin & you break all of the law (v 10).
The NIV reads, ‘For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it’. Simon Kistemaker explains James’ hypothetical, conditional sentence like this: ‘If anyone of you tries to keep the entire law of God, but stumbles in regard to one of the commandments, he is guilty because the whole law condemns him’ (Kistemaker1986:81).
Surely that’s unfair! How can the God of truth, love and compassion be so biased? I’m not making a statement, but asking a question.
Let’s pause a moment to consider which law we are talking about.
1. To which law could James be referring?
(image courtesy ChristArt)
I preached on this in the last sermon on James 2:1-7. It is the ‘royal law’ (v. 8), but there is another dimension to this law in v. 12, ‘the law of liberty’ (ESV, NASB), or ‘the law that gives freedom’ (NIV), ‘the law that sets you free’ (NLT).
We’ll get to the meaning of ‘the law of liberty’ soon. The royal law is ‘the law of love as sovereign over all others (cf. Mt. 22:36-40; Rom. 13:8-9; Gal. 5:14)’. Gal 5:14 states it simply: ‘For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself”’ (NIV).
If this were the law against drink-driving in Qld, it would not make sense to say that if we break that one law then we are guilty of breaking all of Qld laws, including stealing, murder, lying in court, etc.
Is that how it happens with Australian law? What makes a Queenslander a criminal? Does breaking one criminal law mean a person breaks the whole of the criminal law? That doesn’t make sense for me as a Queenslander.
Remember that this is a hypothetical example in James 2:10, ‘whoever keeps … and yet stumbles’.
Notice the first two verbs in this verse, ‘For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point….’
‘Keeps’ and ‘stumbles’ are Greek aorist tenses, which means they happened at a point in time, but that person ‘has become’ (perfect tense) ‘guilty of breaking all of it’ (NIV), ‘accountable for all of it’ (ESV). The perfect tense refers to something that has happened but the person continues to experience the result of what that person has done. So, here the person who stumbles at one point of the law continues to be guilty or accountable for all points of the law. The continuing, abiding result is that that person continues to be guilty.
Remember that James is writing to a Jewish Christian audience and he has already exposed how they favoured the rich and were against the poor. However, he is pointing to this Jewish law that Jesus exposed in Matt 23:23 (NIV),
‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin [i.e. small, flavouring herbs]. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former’.
2. Let’s look at some background information
In the time of James, the Jews distinguished between the more important and the less important laws. They considered that the law of the Sabbath was more important to observe than the one against swearing.
Some Jewish rabbis (not all of them) took the view that ‘in many matters a sin was not a sin, or, in small matters, that a law was not a law, and that even when it was a sin or a law a [person] could run a sort of credit and debit account with God, of good deeds and bad, and so need not try to do more than keep the balance right’ (Adamson 1976:117).
Two leading rabbis were Akiba and Hillel and they believed that ‘to wear phylacteries was to observe the whole Torah’. The Torah consists of the first 5 books of the Bible. That meant for these rabbis that sometimes a law of God was not a law (in Adamson 1976:117).
‘Phylacteries, sometimes called tefillin, are small, square leather boxes containing portions of Scripture worn by Conservative and Orthodox Jews during prayer services. Phylacteries are worn in pairs—one phylactery is strapped on the left arm, and one is strapped to the forehead of Jewish men during weekday morning prayers. The word phylactery comes from a Greek word meaning “safeguard, protection, or amulet”’.
[A set of tefillin (phylacteries) includes the arm-tefillin (left) and the head-tefillin, courtesy Wikipedia]
James is looking at an extreme case where a person claims to keep the whole law of God but stumbles on one point. James is not putting up the case that this actually occurs because if we read James 3:2 (ESV), it states, ‘For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body’.
If a person were ever able to keep the whole law and yet stumble at one point, this one case of stumbling (of sinning) makes this person guilty of transgressing the law in all of its points.
If a stone strikes your car windscreen or house window at one point, the window is shattered. God’s royal law, the law of liberty, is a unit. We’ve discussed this previously; it’s the law of loving your neighbour as yourself. If you violate this law of love at one point, you violate love, the whole of it (Lenski 1966:572).
Yes, there are many commandments in God’s law, but if we transgress one of them, we have sinned against God’s law. The law of God is a unity.
On the human level, we know how this works. Penny has broken her ankle. Has it only affected her ankle? Of course not! She will experience pain and discomfort in other parts of her body because every part of the body is related to the whole. I know this from 5 open heart surgeries and what that means to my inability to walk far without getting out of breath. Running is off my agenda. I have to keep my blood at a certain level of thinness through the use of that horrible drug, warfarin. But it helps to keep me alive.
This also applies to the body of Christ, ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it’ (1 Cor 12:26 NIV).
God created the law; he enforces it; through his law God’s will is put into effect.
James reminds us of the seriousness of sin. We tend to minimise it. James shows us the condemnation of the whole law, the depth to which we need God’s repentance. If we break one of God’s commandments, we sin against the whole law of God.
James explains further, with two examples:
C. Examples (v 11)
In James 2:11, James gives 2 examples from the 10 commandments,
(image courtesy ChristArt)
1. ‘Do not commit adultery’, and
2. ‘Do not murder’.
These are straight from the 10 commandments in Exodus 20:13-14 and Deut 5:17-18, although here they are the opposite way around to the Hebrew. Here James probably follows the LXX.
We can tend to look on the 10 commandments as negative, ‘Thou shalt not….’, but there is a positive aspect to them: When we live within the boundaries of the rules God has set for healthy Christian living, we experience God’s freedom, the law of liberty. We learn this from Psalm 19:7-8 (NIV):
The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
Do you get it? To submit to God’s law, the royal law, the law of liberty, we are submitting to this set of laws:
The law of the Lord is perfect
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy
The precepts of the Lord are right
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes
So, are you an ill-informed evangelical Christian who submits blindly to the myths your parents told you?
Or, are you submitting to the royal law of perfection that is trustworthy, right, radiant and giving light to your eyes and worldview.
The secular world will not understand this light until their eyes are opened by the living God.
Why has James selected the commandments about adultery and murder? They are the first two of the 10 commandments that deal with how to treat one’s neighbour – the very topic James is addressing.
The logic is pretty simple: If a person keeps one commandment but breaks the other, he or she has …
3. Become a lawbreaker.
And God declares that person guilty.
In James 2:11-12, James presents an excellent summary of what he has been trying to say. It is like what he said in James 1:26-27 (NIV):
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
D. How to speak and act (v 12)
How should Christians speak and act? The Greek is ‘so speak and so act’. But, both ‘speak’ and ‘act’ are verbs that are both in the present tense. What does that mean? Continuous or continual action! This is speaking and action as a lifestyle. Keep speaking and keep doing!
We are to do this as people who will be….
1. Judged by the law that gives freedom (law of liberty)
I’m reminded of Heb 4:13 (NIV), ‘Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account’.
We are going to be judged according to ‘the law of liberty’ (ESV), ‘the law that gives freedom’ (NIV), ‘the law that sets you free’ (NLT).
We have already encountered this law in James 1:25 (NIV), ‘But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it–not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it–they will be blessed in what they do’.
Our conclusion there is the same as here. The law of liberty, or the law that gives freedom, is:
It promotes the paradox of the law of liberty. How can a horrible thing called law be a promoter of liberty or freedom? The law of the boundaries of a football field surely does not promote freedom when you have to stay inside those boundaries.
I love the way Alfred Plummer, an expositor from over a century ago, put this:
It is when the law is seen to be perfect that it is found to be the law of liberty. So long as the law is not seen in the beauty of its perfection, it is not loved, and men [and women] either disobey it or obey it by constraint and unwillingly. It is then a law of bondage. But when its perfection is recognized men [and women] long to conform to it; and they obey, not because they must, but because they choose. To do what one likes is freedom, and they like to obey. It is in this way that the moral law of the Gospel becomes “the law of liberty,” not by imposing fewer obligations than the moral law of the Jew or of the Gentile, but by infusing into the hearts of those who welcome it a disposition and a desire to obey.
So, it’s the law of liberty because you want to obey God’s word. You have been set free by redemption in Christ so you desire to obey God’s law. The Scriptures are not burdensome. You love to obey God’s perfect law. Is it easy? Never! Try writing a letter-to-the-editor of your local newspaper in support of traditional marriage and family and you watch the tirade of negativity, even abuse. But I urge you to continue to do it.
2. I thought laws are meant to bring restrictions and not liberty.
A high view of the perfect law is at risk in March 2016. Only this week I read these comments in an article in the Brisbane Times (online), Religious Instruction in Queensland schools is discriminatory (14 March 2016). This article was written by Hugh Harris. His points against religious instruction included:
‘Religious instruction [in public schools] is inherently discriminatory’.
‘I was reassured by the state government Religious Instruction policy statement pledging to “respect the background and beliefs of all students” and not to promote “any particular set of beliefs in preference to another”’.
‘My son came home singing songs about Jesus, and exclaimed how “amazing” it was that “God created the whole world”’.
‘Colouring-in books with pictures of Jesus. Fill in the gaps – “Jesus ___ you”. So much for not promoting “any particular set of beliefs” in “preference to others”.
‘So we opted-out of the program. As a result I joined the Rationalist Society of Australia so I could campaign against religion’s pernicious influence’.
‘The Queensland RI program fails to “respect background and beliefs of all students” because it fails to offer non-belief. This is discriminatory’.
‘Bible-thumpers not only proselytise kids, they organise outreach camps so our children can “meet God” and have “faith in Jesus”. It’s creepy.
We need to put an end to the intolerable incursion of preaching in Queensland schools.
So, the Brisbane Times gave Hugh Harris, a member of the Rationalist Society of Australia, the opportunity to promote his Rationalist views. What does this society believe? Its website listed these beliefs:
It has a ‘10 Point Plan for a Secular Australia’ (The Rationalist Society of Australia):
- A secular, pluralistic and democratic Australia
- Clear separation between religion and the State
- ‘One law for all’, with no recognition of parallel legal systems
- Religious organisations subject to the same laws as other organisations
- Children not to suffer because of the religious views of their parents
- Education to be strictly secular, not promoting any particular religion
- No discrimination on the basis of a person’s sex, sexuality or gender identity
- Freedom of reproductive choice, with no religious interference
- Healthcare available to all regardless of the religious views of the provider
- Guaranteed control over one’s own body, free from religious interference, when facing the end of life.
I ask you: Why is the 10 point plan of the Rationalist Society of Australia not a prescription of the law of liberty, the law that brings freedom? The answer is hinted at in the first line. This society requires that Australia be,
Secular (‘Not connected with religious or spiritual matters’. Oxford dictionaries 2016. s v secular). So God and Jesus are automatically excluded.
Pluralistic (two or more sources of authority);
Democratic (Democracy: ‘A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives’ – Oxford dictionaries 2016. s v democracy).
The biggest issue is that the Christian law of liberty comes through a heart change where a person is redeemed and accepts that ‘The law of the Lord is perfect’. That is not the law of the Rationalist Society of Australia that alleges it can bring liberation through a secular, pluralistic, democratic society.
James makes one final emphasis in this passage:
E. Judgement with or without mercy (v 13)
‘Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment’ (James 1:13 NIV). There will be
1. Judgement without mercy if you have not treated others with mercy
The last judgment will be horrific for those who have not shown mercy. Jesus could not have been more specific. This is what he said according to Matt 25:41-45 (NET Bible):
‘Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels! 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not give you whatever you needed?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.’
This commentary on the James 2:10-13 passage is so obvious. We can’t miss it. This is especially so when we compare this treating others with mercy an the other alternative which Jesus also will state, according to Matt 7:22-23,
22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’ (NET Bible).
What is mercy? It is ‘pity for those in distress’. This is what Hosea 6:6 (NIV) taught, ‘For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings’ (also quoted by Jesus in Matt 9:13; Matt 12:7).
How does James 2:13 conclude?
2. Mercy triumphs over judgement
Where does that leave you and me? Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’ (Matt 5:17 NIV). In the OT, God spoke through Zechariah, the prophet (Zech 7:9 NIV): ‘This is what the LORD Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another”’. The Jews didn’t listen and hardened their hearts.
Let’s tease out a few applications of mercy. Remember the definition of mercy is to ‘show pity to those in distress.’ Since Jesus said we are blessed if we show mercy and then we will be shown mercy by God, how can we in Brisbane in 2016 show mercy to those in distress? Let me get you started:
How many of you are visiting with those from our church who can no longer come to church?
I used to work for Teen Challenge, a drug rehabilitation ministry. Here in Qld, the TC website has plenty of opportunity for volunteers. Could you show mercy by becoming involved? Australian Senator Jacqui Lambi’s son, Dylan, who was addicted to the illicit drug ice, has been to this Qld Teen Challenge drug rehab near Toowoomba.
How many of us could become involved in showing mercy to those in prison?
What about churches providing sanctuary for asylum seekers?
How could you show mercy to those in distress? Any further suggestions?
(image courtesy ChristArt)
What’s the conclusion we reach? Any person who refuses to show mercy to people will experience God’s justice – but without mercy. That’s what Scripture says.
You and I know that no human being can ever claim to receive God’s mercy by doing any kinds of acts of mercy. That would be works. We can’t earn God’s mercy, but it is granted by God when we seek it. Commentator on Edmond Hiebert, put it this way,
‘Mercy does not triumph at the expense of justice; the triumph of mercy is based on the atonement wrought at Calvary…. The practice of mercy toward others is the evidence that God’s grace has produced a transformation in a person. Having himself received God’s mercy, he will be able to stand in the judgment that otherwise would overwhelm him’ (Hiebert 1979:172).
To show favouritism violates God’s royal law, the law that gives freedom, the law of liberty. What ungodly favouritism are we showing in this church?
G. Works consulted
Adamson, J B 1976. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle of James. F F Bruce gen ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Arndt, W F & Gingrich, F W 1957. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (limited edition licensed to Zondervan Publishing House).
Getz, G 1984. Doing Your Part: When You’d Rather Let God Do It All (based on James 2-5). Ventura, California: Regal Books.
Hiebert, D E 1979. The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith. Chicago: Moody Press.
Kistemaker, S J 1986. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of James, Epistles of John, Peter, and Jude. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
Lenski, R C H 1943. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (1943 The Wartburg Press; assigned 1961 to Augsburg Publishing House).
Lenski, R C H 1966. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (1966 Augsburg Publishing House).
May, B 1979. Under His Wing. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press.
Robertson, A T 1933. Word Pictures in the New Testament: The General Epistles and The Revelation of John, vol 6. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press.
Thayer, J H 1885/1962. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti, tr, rev, enl. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
 These 3 were ‘small flavouring herbs of which a family might grow a few…, the latter being like anise seed but larger and used to a greater extent’ (Lenski 1943:908). What is ‘anise seed’? ‘The humble anise plant is native to Middle-East and Mediterranean region; probably originated on the fertile plains of Nile delta in the Egypt.… Anise is a perennial herbal plant; generally, grows up to a height of about 2 feet. It bears white colored umbelliform flowers by July, and harvested by bringing down the whole plant once its seed-heads matured enough on the plant itself. Its seeds then separated from the flower heads by threshing. Anise seeds feature oblong or curved, comma shape, about 3-4 mm long, light brown color and fine stripes over its outer surface. The seeds feature delicately sweet and aromatic bouquet with a distinctive liquorice flavor. Their special fragrance is due to essential oil, anethole in them’. Available at: http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/anise-seed.html (Accessed 14 March 2016).
 Plummer (1907:108).
 Available at: http://www.rationalist.com.au/10-point-plan-for-a-secular-australia/ (Accessed 14 March 2016).
 See: http://teenchallengeqld.org.au/how-to-help/volunteer/ (Accessed 16 March 2016).
 See, ‘Magistrate sends Jacqui Lambie’s son to rehabilitation program’. The Sydney Morning Herald (online), October 26, 2015. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/magistrate-sends-jacqui-lambies-son-to-rehabilitation-program-20151026-gkijlj.html (Accessed 16 March 2016). A more lengthy article is in the Courier-Mail of October 27, 2015 at: http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/crime-and-justice/jacqui-lambies-son-ordered-to-attend-queensland-rehab-ccentre/news-story/269b5a399e909b56e242064ca1023503 (Accessed 16 March 2016).
 This is ‘a translation and adaptation of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Wörtbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen urchristlichen Literatur’ (4th rev & augmented edn 1952) (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:iii).
Copyright © 2016 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 27 August 2016.