Judging People by Their Appearance

James 2:1


From Faith, Love & Hope: An Exposition of the Epistle of James, AMG Publishers, 1997.

"My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons" (James 2:1).

The second chapter of the epistle of James continues to deal with certain precepts which the born-again Christian ought to live by. We were given several of them in the first chapter, but we need so much more to enable us to live what we believe. The first thirteen verses of this chapter deal with the one general subject of respect of persons, with verse 1 giving us clearly the precept, verses 2- 4 giving us the illustration from life, verses 5-11 giving us the reason why respect of persons is sinful, and finally verses 12 and 13 giving us the conclusion. Now we shall deal with the precept as given by James in verse 1.

Frankly, I have never heard a sermon preached on this passage and on this admonition of the Apostle. This is such a common sin within the portals of the Christian Church that we have learned to condone it without our consciences ever bothering us about it. Whenever James is about to scold the believers of his day, he likes to preface the scolding with a word of love, and that word is, "My brethren." It is as if he wanted to assure them that all these sins he is dealing with in his epistle do not make them cease to be beloved brethren. He admonishes in love; he corrects in affection. The admonition he gives to his brethren never has the effect of making him believe that he is beyond these sins himself "My brethren," he says, "what I am saying to you I am often guilty of myself, so it is actually the instruction of the Holy Spirit which I am bringing to all of us."

Let us not be like that half-witted man who wore a most curious coat. All down the front it was covered with patches of various sizes, mostly large. When asked why the coat was patched in such a remarkable way, he answered that the patches represented the sins of his neighbors. He pointed to each patch, and gave the story of the sin of someone in the village, then went on to another, until he had related the sins of all in the village. On the back of his coat there was a small patch. On being asked what it represented, he said, "That's my own sin, and I cannot see it!"

James is addressing all the community of believers, the community in which there are rich and poor, influential and common people. All of you, he says, remember that we are brethren in Christ Jesus and He is our common denominator. There should be no favoritism in the Christian brotherhood. Our standing within that community is not according to what we possess in material things or fame, but according to the common redemption in Jesus Christ.

What is this sin to which James is calling our attention? In the Greek it is prosōpolēmpsia,rendered "respect of persons" in the English translation. What does that actually mean? This Greek word is a compound made up of the noun prosōpon,which means "face, visage, countenance, the front of anything," and the noun lēmpsia, derived from the verb lambnō, which means "to receive" in its primary sense, but which also means "to apprehend by the senses, to understand, to comprehend, to seize with the mind." Now we can safely arrive at the real meaning of the word. It is understanding, receiving, judging people by what they are in reality. James wants to condemn here the superficial judgment of people by Christians. "My brethren, do not hold to the Christian faith, and at the same time discriminate between different classes of people," is what James would say to us. "Do not be a Christian, and at the same time a hypocrite."

Is this not a common sin in the Christian Church today? We judge people so easily by the clothes they wear, by the words they speak, by their appearance, instead of taking the trouble to find out who they really are, and whether there is any good reason the way they act. There was a man who seemed stingy to everybody around. He would be very scrupulous about how he spent even a nickel or a dime, so that he became the butt of ridicule of all who knew him. Finally, it became known that he had an invalid wife and an invalid child whom he had to care for, and they needed the very last penny that he could save to keep them alive. The criticism of outsiders now turned to admiration for him. Because we are unable to know everything about a man, we cannot possibly judge him rightly.

In the Scriptures we find many statements which declare that God does not judge from the external appearance of a person. Of course, the translation is commonly "respecter of persons." "Ye shall not respect persons in judgment, but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God's: and the cause that is too hard for you, bring it unto me, and I will hear it" (Deut. 1: 17). The first thing Peter said after hearing Cornelius' story was, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34). God never looks at the external, but judges the heart, for He is the only One who can read it.

There is great difficulty in arriving at the precise meaning of this verse. We are not supposed to have the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ with respect to persons. Do you understand it? In order to get at it we must examine the preposition translated "with." In the original Greek it is "in," or paraphrased it would be "in the practice of" The other word is prosōpolēmpsiais,which we have already spoken of as meaning primarily the acceptance of the outside surface for the inner reality. Significantly this word is in the plural, as if to demonstrate that there are any number of ways in which people mistake that which appears for that which is. The faith of Jesus Christ is one. That is the real thing; that is what transforms our lives. Faith dwells not on the outside, but on the inside; it is something that pertains to the heart.

Many times, however, faith has an outward manifestation. The manifestation is not always the true representation of that which is within or that which is supposed to be within, the faith of Jesus Christ. James insists that the outside should agree with the inside; that which is on the face should represent that which is in the heart. Since others have no way of seeing what is in our hearts except through that which they see on our faces, it behooves us to be careful of our facial appearance.

He continues his elaboration on the thesis of being doers of the Word and not hearers only. That in reality is the general theme of the whole epistle. Many of us Christians habitually wear masks on our faces, and we have a variety of kinds to fit each occasion. These are the masks of hypocrisy. We like to appear to be what we are not, and yet at other times we prefer not to appear as we are. Sometimes we like to hide the light of Jesus Christ under a bushel, and at other times, when it is expedient, we let it shine and even sing about it. God detests hypocrisy. James commands us to appear what we are and not to try to fool other people, thus putting to shame the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. This business of saying we are Christians and not acting like Christians is a very serious one.

A sweet little six-year-old girl looked up suddenly at her mother and said, "Mother, I think Jesus was the only one who ever dared to live His inside out!" The little girl had something there. The first lesson of James 2:1 concerns what we do with the faith of Jesus Christ, how we make it appear on the outside; for the people of the world have no other way of judging our faith but by its outward manifestations.

An old man, in reading a well-known hymn which contains the line, "Judge not the Lord by feeble sense," mistook the word "sense" and gave this odd version: "Judge not the Lord by feeble saints." Let us remember that the world can judge the Lord only through the saints He has saved.

But there is another aspect to this verse. Not only are we to be careful that our appearance portrays the faith of Jesus Christ but, since we know how difficult it is to live the inside out, to be careful how we judge others. We should not blame the faith of Jesus Christ as we look upon the faces of others who call themselves Christians. We should not reject the Bible because professing Christians fail to live up to it. We should not reject Christ because of feeble saints, nor judge the faith of Jesus Christ by what we see in the lives of saved, but weak, Christians.

There is one more word that I want to deal with in this verse, over which there has been much difference of opinion among New Testament exegetes. It has been the word "glory". The King James translation connects it with "the Lord," but I am reluctant to accept this solution to the problem. I take it rather to be in opposition to the whole phrase, "of our Lord Jesus Christ," who is Glory. This, in other words, is another name for the Lord. He is called, Word, Life, Way, etc., and now here He is called Glory. He, Jesus Christ, should be the glory of the believer at all times.

In our behavior there is no need to show off, for we reflect the glory of Christ on our faces, and that is enough to attract people-not to us, but to the Savior and to the faith of Him who died for us. And as we look at others of our fellow believers and see nothing extraordinary, nothing glamorous in them, let us remember that within them is the glory of the Son of God. To be satisfied with the glory of Christ in ourselves and in others is indeed to be blessed, and thus will result in blessing to others.

Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009) served as president of AMG International for over 40 years, was the founding editor of Pulpit Helps Magazine (Disciple's predecessor), and authored dozens of exegetical books.

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