There seems to be a deep-seated longing in the human heart for everyone to get along, for division to be conquered, hatred to be halted, preferential treatment and prejudice to be known only in history books, and harmony among all of humanity to usher in a new day which will never end. When breakdowns take place in the social fabric of society and civility is replaced by violence and division, there comes the reminders from our leaders that we are better than “this.” They raise their voices and set out the clarion call for reconciliation, peace, and unity. We’ve heard this repeated theme here at home over and over again, but it’s not an American cultural theme, it’s repeated around the world.
In 2016, Kenyans held a Thanksgiving service in the Afraha Stadium. President Kenyatta spoke to all of those assembled and emphasized the need for peaceful co-existence regardless of tribe or ethnic background. President Kenyatta wanted the people to remember the atrocities that had taken place in 2007 following their election when 1,400 people died in the span of 59 days and another 600,000 people were displaced from their homes. President Kenyatta urged his people to never forget. He said,
We are not here to celebrate but to remember and pray for each other and every single life that was destroyed eight years ago. So profound was our shock at how much we could risk our nation that we renewed our national covenant by promising to change how we lived with one another and we again laid the covenant in the hands of a forgiving God who gives grace to all sinners. (Ndonga, Simon, “Leaders sound clarion call for peace at Afraha stadium.” April 17, 2016)
Shocked! That’s a good word to describe how we feel about our actions and our thoughts at times isn’t it? How could I look at another person and think such a thing? How could I treat another person with such little regard? How could I, and how could you…? And yet we do, don’t we? Well, I think I may have found the answer for us. Prejudice, bias, and preferential treatment are hard-wired into our brains. Let me explain.
In our society we are urged to place our ultimate trust in science. Whatever science tells us is to be accepted as if it were handed down from the gods, with a little “g.” Well, neuroscience has been studying the brain for a long time and what they have discovered is that our brains are hard-wired to draw conclusions about other people in milliseconds. In an article written by Dr. Susan Fiske we learn,
Neuroscience has shown that people can identify another person’s apparent race, gender, and age in a matter of milliseconds. In this blink of an eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates. These knee-jerk reactions do not require conscious bigotry, though they are worsened by it…Years before these neuroscience findings, social psychologists had documented the instant (and unfortunate) associations people make toward “out-groups”—those groups they don’t consider to be their own. Whether they differ by age, ethnicity, religion, or political party, people favor their own groups over others, and they do so automatically. We have always had codes: PLU (people like us), NOKD (not our kind, dear), the ’hood, the Man. Every culture names the “us” and the “not-us.” It appears to be human nature, and many studies have shown how easy it is to provoke this kind of psychological distinction between our “in-groups” and “out-groups.” (Fiske, Susan. “Look Twice.” June 1, 2008)
So, it appears we just can’t help it. Are we destined to show preferential treatment to those who are like us, those we like, and those we think we can benefit us? Are we destined, even in our advanced society of new understandings and increased enlightenment, to construct “us and them” scenarios at every turn? A survey of history would not give us any hope that we’ll experience anything better than what we’ve been experiencing, but I don’t want to consult history this morning, I want to turn to God’s Word. Would you turn to James 2:8-13 with me and let’s read together.
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 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, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do 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! (James 2:8-13 NIVO)
This section of James is a continuation of a study that we began before Christmas. In the opening verse of James 2 we read,
1 My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. (James 2:1 NIVO)
We have to take notice of how James set the bar for us in this verse, “As believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.” James then launches into a scenario of two men coming to visit our church. One man is wearing a gold ring and fine clothes. The other man, a poor man, is wearing shabby clothes. James says that if we usher the wealthy man down to the front of the sanctuary and tell the poor man to sit on the floor back in the corner where he won’t bother anyone–it is evil, ungodly, unlike our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. After having read the first seven verses of James 2 some might conclude that we are to show preferential treatment to the poor, but our Scripture for today shows us there is no room for favoritism or preferential treatment of any person for those who follow our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
In verse 8, James begins by pointing us to the “royal law found in Scripture,” then he quotes it for us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The word, “royal,” comes from the same Greek root word as the word “king” and “kingdom.” This is the law of the King of all kings and the law of His Kingdom. This law is found in the Hebrew Bible, in Leviticus 19:18, where Moses told the people,
18 Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18 NIVO)
Many of you know there were 10 Commandments given to Moses by God while Moses was on Mount Sinai. The Jewish religious leaders thought the 10 Commandments needed some explanation so they gave each one more detail. When they were finished they had come up with 613 laws. The Scripture I read to you from Leviticus 19:18 isn’t part of the 10 Commandments, but Jesus placed special emphasis on it in Matthew 22:36-40 when He was asked by one of the Pharisees,
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40 NIVO)
It has been pointed out by several Bible teachers that the word, “neighbor,” came to mean those who were among your group, your fellow Jews, but this was never God’s intent. The Hebrew word for “neighbor” is used in the Hebrew Bible to describe an Israelite, a Canaanite, an Egyptian, and in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:3, everyone on earth. So when Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” He is reclaiming God’s true intent for how we are to treat one another. This is the law of the King and His Kingdom.
Jesus said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Stop and think about that for a minute. Let’s go back to the Ten Commandments and review for just a minute. The first four have to do with God and how we are to relate to Him. The final six commandments have to do with our relationship with people. They are…
- Honor your father and mother.
- Thou shalt not murder.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, animals, or anything else of your neighbor.
Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Would we want someone to sin against us in any of the ways listed in the commandments? Absolutely not. So does Jesus simply mean that if we refrain from doing harm to our neighbor that we do well? No, He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How do we love our neighbor? That’s a great question. Love is not passive, love is active. To love someone doesn’t mean that we simply do them no harm. Love means we actively care for them, actively seek their best interests, and actively labor with them when life gets messy and tough. Paul wanted the church in Corinth to learn to love one another so he wrote,
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails… 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8; 13 NIVO)
As we read these verses our minds automatically lock in on those we love, those we like, those who we enjoy being with, family members and friends who bring a smile to our face. What about those who drive you crazy? How about those who have hurt you? Think of those you couldn’t care less if you ever saw them again in your life? Can you love them enough to be patient with them, to give God room to work on them? Can you love them enough to be kind, even though they may continue to be hateful towards you? Can you love them enough to refuse to keep a record of the ways they have hurt you? I can answer those questions for you…of course not! We don’t even want to try.
O my friend, but remember, we are believers, we are followers of, our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. He is the King and this is the law of His Kingdom. “Love your neighbor” is not just what our King said, it is what our King did and continues to do. Paul wrote,
10 For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:10-11 NIVO)
Loving our neighbor means loving others in the same way Jesus has loved us. It means bearing with others, all others, in the same way He is patient with us. It means forgiving others to the same degree Jesus has forgiven us. This is the law of the King and His Kingdom. Let’s move along. Let’s read together from James 2:9-11.
9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 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, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (James 2:9-11 NIVO)
These verses are startling to us aren’t they? James is talking about favoritism and then, all of sudden, he jumps straight to talking about committing adultery and murder. That’s a stretch isn’t it? It is very important that we recognize something about ourselves and it is this: we pick and choose which “laws” to keep and which to break thinking that our lawbreaking isn’t really any big deal. “Did you lie?” “Well yes, of course, everyone lies don’t they? It’s not like I killed anyone!” “Have you stolen, taken what is not yours?” “Well, I’m sure I have at some point, maybe even now and then, but it’s not like I’ve taken anything big.” What we fail to recognize is that breaking any law makes us a lawbreaker. The reason this is so important for us to understand is because God’s law, what He requires of us, is not some arbitrary list of rules, but they are an expression of God’s character. We give our heart, mind, and soul to doing all that God says because what He says is an expression of who He is. To pick and choose what we like and what we will dismiss about what God says is to set ourselves up as God and to reject the One True King. Dr. Dan Doriani writes,
The problem is this: If people pick and choose what they obey, then they are very much their own god. All commands are united by this one principle: God gave them…If we obey the laws that seem right to us, then we obey only when a law passes our judgment or suits our purpose. This approach forgets that God gave every law. It enthrones the self. Thus, if we disobey any law, we disobey God. We are not simply disobeying his law; we are rejecting him as Lord and Lawgiver. (Doriani, Dan. James: Reformed Expository Commentary. pg. 73-74.)
I know some of you right now are troubled by all of this talk about God’s law. You say, “We no longer live under the law, we live under grace.” You are right, we do live under grace. It is by grace we have been saved, not by works, not by fulfilling the law, Paul told us so in Ephesians 2:8-9. The law James has in mind is not the Old Testament law with its many requirements, but the commands of Jesus which consist of God’s requirements found in the Old Testament, but reinterpreted to their rightful meaning. I know there is a growing trend in the Body of Christ, among some preachers and Bible teachers, to say that living the Christian life is not so much what we do or fail to do, but the condition of our hearts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15 NIVO) And in Luke 6:46, Jesus said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”
The royal law, or as James writes in James 2:12, the “law that gives freedom,” is exactly the opposite of what I hear so many critics of Christianity say. They say, “Christianity is filled with an endless list of ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do that.’ It seems like God just wants to take all of the fun out of life.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The commands of Jesus are given to enhance our lives, not rob us of life.
I’m reminded of the time in Deuteronomy 27, when Moses instructed the people what they were to do once they arrived in the Promised Land. They were to gather at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. The blessings promised to those who obeyed God would be read from Mount Gerizim and the curses promised to those who were disobedient were read on Mount Ebal in the hearing of all of the people. Every single day, from that day forward, the people had that memory etched on their minds. They could no more forget the promises of God than they could move those two mountains, mountains which still stand in Israel today. You and I have our Mount Gerizim, the “royal law,” the “law that brings freedom,” and we also have our Mount Ebal, the sin of partiality standing before us this morning. Never, never forget this moment. Never forget the law of our King and His Kingdom. Douglas Moo writes,
God’s gracious acceptance of us of us does not end our obligation to obey him; it sets it on a new footing. No longer is God’s law a threatening, confining burden. For the will of God now confronts us as a law of liberty–an obligation we discharge in the joyful knowledge that God has both ‘liberated’ us from the penalty of sin and given us, in his Spirit, the power to obey his will. (Moo, Douglas. The Letter of James. pg. 117).
Jesus’ commands, His teaching, truly does bring freedom. It is only by submitting ourselves, our will, our thoughts and passions to the King that we will find the freedom we are longing for in life. Many today are seeking freedom, but they are seeking it in the wrong way. They say, “I’m going to do what I want.” And they do. They give themselves to what feels good, to what they think will make them happy, but in the end it only ends in bondage. Last of all, turn to James 2:12-13 with me.
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! (James 2:12-13 NIVO)
Both “speak” and “act” in Greek are present tense, that means we are to keep on, to never stop speaking and acting with the full knowledge that we will stand before our King one day. That’s a scary thought isn’t it? Even if I give my full attention to being merciful, totally impartial towards everyone, each and every day for the rest of my life, I’m still going to fall so far short of His mercy lavished upon me. I’m so grateful for His patience with me, His urging to keep speaking and keep acting as He speaks and acts, not just towards me, but even to those who we might not think are deserving of His mercy.
Let me end where we began. I do believe there is a deep longing for unity, harmony, and reconciliation embedded deep, deep in the hearts of people, but outside of living for the King it will never be realized, never be experienced. I want to ask you this morning, “Are you surrendered to the King? Are you living for the King?” Don’t tell me, stop and take a look at your life. Do you show your allegiance to the King by your love for people, all people? If not, then I want to invite you to invite the King to come in and rewire your brain, renew your heart, and revive your soul.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
This post is also available in Spanish