Impartial or a “Face Looker”? (Part 2)
Among the major translations of the Bible, the explicit term “respecter of persons” is found only in the KJV and ASV translations. Most people in our culture who have never heard preaching from the KJV would likely not know what that term meant. In last month’s Harvester, we examined the background of “respect of persons” (KJV) in the Old Testament to see how it came from an expression that literally had to do with looking at faces before extending greetings or responding to another person.
In this article, we will examine “respect of persons” in the New Testament and make applications for Christians today. Since God is not a “respecter of persons,” neither should His people be!
God Does Not Have “Respect of Persons”
The New Testament clearly shows that God is impartial. First, God’s character, His very nature, does not show “respect of persons.” When Jewish leadership sent certain of the Pharisees and Herodians to “catch [Jesus] in his words,” they asked, “Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth” (Mk. 12:13-14). The phrase, “thou regardest not the person of men” (ou … blepeis eis prosopon anthropon) literally means “you do not look into [the] face of men.” This is also translated “not partial to any” (NAS95) and “not swayed in appearances” (ESV).” Although these Jewish leaders declared the truth that Jesus was not partial, they certainly did not believe it enough to show it (cf. Jn. 12:42-43).
Second, God’s offer of salvation does not show “respect of persons.” When Peter finally came to the household of Cornelius, the apostle “opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35). “Respecter of persons” here is from the noun (prosopolemptes), which refers to a person who shows favoritism. God, however, does not show favoritism, as evidenced by the fact Cornelius and his household were baptized into Christ (Acts 10:48 cf. Acts 11:17-18).
Third, God’s judgment of how His people live their lives does not show “respect of persons.” Peter wrote, “And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear” (1 Pet. 1:17). The adverb translated “without respect of persons” (aprosopolemptos) simply means impartiality. Because God will impartially judge all people by their works, Christians must live according to His will. “Fear” (phobos) includes reverence and awe, along with a healthy fear of God’s discipline (cf. Acts 5:5, 11; 9:31; 2 Cor. 7:15; Col. 3:22; 1 Pet. 2:17-18). The proper fear of God will result in a transformed life (cf. 2 Cor. 7:1).
God’s People Must Not Have “Respect of Persons”
As discussed in the March 2023 Harvester, God’s being no “respecter of persons” was the basis upon which His people were required to be impartial (Deut. 1:17; 10:17; 16:19; 2 Chr. 19:6-7 cf. Lev. 11:44; 19:2; 20:7). So it is under the New Testament!
First, like God, the Christian’s character is to show no “respect of persons.” James used the term twice in his prelude to the section on faith without works. “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons” (Jas. 2:1). With this verse, James seemed to allude to Deuteronomy 10:17 and Leviticus 19:15. The word translated “respect of persons” is not found in either secular Greek or the LXX [Septuagint],” but is “apparently a creation of the early Christian parenetic [persuasive] tradition to translate the common Hebrew term for favor/favoritism … used in the OT in both a positive [1 Sam. 25:35; Mal. 1:8] and a negative sense, particularly in judicial contexts [Deut. 1:17; Lev. 19:15; Ps. 82:2; Pr. 6:35; 18:5]” (Davids 105-106). This favoritism “based on external considerations is inconsistent with faith in the One who came to break down the barriers of nationality, race, class, gender and religion” (Moo 120). Christians cannot mix faith with prejudice!
James also wrote, “If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin” (Jas. 2:8-9). “Have respect of persons” (prosopolempteo) means to show favoritism; treat one person better than another. This passage contrasts love and partiality. Love is fulfilling the “royal law” whereas showing respect of persons exposes a person as a guilty transgressor. It is impossible to live in harmony with Christ while at the same time showing partiality (cf. Jas. 2:2-7). Peter’s sin in Galatians 2:11-14 shows this truth.
Jude addressed the opposite of this character when he wrote about the ungodly false teachers who had “crept in unawares” (Jude 4, 15). He described them in one instance as “having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage” (Jude 16). The phrase, “having men’s persons in admiration” (thaumazontes prosopa) literally means something like “the ones who marvel at faces.” Other versions translate it “showing respect of persons” (ASV); “flattering people” (NKJ); “showing favoritism” (ESV). The idea of “flattery” is interesting. The word thaumazo, from which “marvel” comes in the literal meaning, can also mean “wonder at” or “marvel in,” which could be construed as a fake expression of wonder or amazement at another from ulterior motives (i.e., “because of advantage”). Either way, this characteristic is the antithesis of God, who “regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward” (Deu. 10:17).
Second, the Christian’s teaching is not to show “respect of persons.” In Galatians 2, Paul was still showing that he did not receive the gospel from man, “but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). It took Paul three years to meet Peter (Gal. 1:18), yet Paul was still preaching before that. Finally, after fourteen years, Paul went to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to show the gospel he preached to the Gentiles was the same gospel Pater and the Jerusalem preachers proclaimed to the Jews (Gal. 2:1-10). In the midst of that discussion, Paul wrote that “these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me” (Gal. 2:6). By this, Paul was saying he even taught those of high reputation, but it did not matter to him because it did not matter to God, who Himself is impartial. The phrase “God accepteth no man’s person” (prosopon ho theos anthropou ou lambanei) literally means “God does not accept the face of man.” Other translations read, “God shows personal favoritism to no man” (NKJ), and “God shows no partiality” (NAS95). Like God, faithful preachers must not allow respect of persons to dictate the ones before whom they proclaim the gospel (cf. Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11)!
Third, the Christian’s interaction with people of different social statuses must show no “respect of persons.” Paul wrote about both slaves and masters and how each should treat the other in their respected relationships. If they violated God’s instruction, they would be punished by the impartial God. Concerning the slaves, Paul said first, “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God” (Col. 3:22). Slaves were to sincerely obey their masters. “According to the flesh” was the sphere of their present, earthly bondage, but spiritually, they belong to Christ (cf. Col. 3:24; Gal. 3:27-29). How Paul told them to act and not act was a reflection of God’s impartiality. “Eyeservice [external service, NAS95]” refers to service rendered merely for the sake of impressing others (Eph. 6:6). The term “menpleasers [people-pleasers, ESV]” refers to one who acts merely to please men (Eph. 6:6). Neither one of these traits reflect God. He is not interested in pleasing others by making it look like He is really concerned, nor does He act just to find favor with people. “Singleness [sincerity, NKJ] of heart” refers to generosity, liberality; sincerity, or single hearted devotion (Rom. 12:8; 2 Cor. 1:12; 8:2; 9:11, 13; 11:3; Eph. 6:5).
Paul also wrote about slaves, “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-24). Slaves were to work as if they were working for the Lord. “Do it heartily” translates a phrase in the Greek text that literally means, “working out of your soul.” They were to give an honest day’s work! “As unto the Lord” means their working should be done with the same attitude and vigor as if they were working for the Lord Himself (cf. Eph. 5:22). Because God is impartial, by so doing, slaves would receive an inheritance from Him (cf. Rev. 20:13).
Additionally, Paul confirmed God’s judgment, “But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons” (Col. 3:25). Slaves who did not work this way for their masters would receive reciprocal punishment, physical and spiritual (cf. Mt. 6:15; Gal. 6:7). The word twice translated “wrong” means to treat unjustly, harm; to do wrong or evil (Acts 25:10-11; 1 Cor. 6:7-8; Phile. 18; Rev. 22:11). The sure judgment that would come was because “there is no respect of persons” in the One judging!
Paul also used “respect of persons” when he wrote concerning slave owners, “And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him” (Eph. 6:9). The “same things” to which Paul referred went back to what he just wrote about the servants. “Masters,” like their servants, are to hold up their part of the relationship “with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Eph. 6:5-7). Both masters and servants were to know that “whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free” (Eph. 6:8). All masters must give an account to the Master who will judge them with perfect impartiality because there is “no respect of persons with him” (Eph. 6:9)!
God is no respecter of persons, for He “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt. 5:45). God “so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). The Hebrews writer declared that Jesus was “made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (Heb. 2:9). Paul affirmed, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Note the terms in these passages: “whosoever” (John 3:16); “every man” (Heb. 2:9); and “every one” (Rom. 1:16). God gave and still offers the most precious gift of all time to anyone who will receive it, regardless of skin color, ethnicity, place of birth and/or upbringing, family status, or outward appearance. Since God is such an impartial giver, His people must always reflect that impartiality and “have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons” (Jas. 2:1).