The following text is the manuscript of the seminars I did for the chapel community at Nellis AFB several years ago on the New Testament letter by James, Jesus’ brother.
1:1-11 Characteristics of Faith
Church tradition holds that the biblical epistle of “James” was written by one of Jesus’ brothers. The story goes this way: Early in Jesus’ ministry we learn that his brothers (James, Joses, Judas, Simon) were not especially supportive of what he was doing. Thirty years of living with an older brother who never treated them badly, who was always patient, gracious and wise beyond anything any other family had to offer, did not predispose them to jump on his bandwagon when it started rolling. Even seeing some of the miracles he did at the beginning—they were with him when he changed water into wine, which caused the disciples to believe in him (John 2:11)—did not convince them. Later in John’s Gospel the brothers scorned his plan for advancing his ministry and John tells us that “not even his brothers were believing in him” (7:5). Fortunately that state was not true of them forever. After the resurrection the brothers were among those waiting in the upper room for the Holy Spirit to give them the power Jesus promised at his ascension (Acts 1:14). Not too long after that, the oldest brother, James became one of the leaders of the Jerusalem congregation. He made one of the most important speeches in the history of the Church in Acts 15, where he publicly recognized the Church’s mission to the Gentiles and set out the policy of not requiring new non-Jewish disciples to take on Jewish distinctives.
James continued to be a leader in the church, showing up again in Act 21 toward the close of Paul’s ministry. During the time of his leadership, one significant event occurred which necessitated the writing of this letter. That event was the persecution which arose against the Church because of Stephen. Around AD 35 the Sadducees and Pharisees both tried to stamp out the Church. When Stephen was stoned, they commissioned Saul to give energy and organization to this effort. Many were jailed and killed, but many more fled Jerusalem(Acts 8), eventually reaching the outlying parts of the Roman Empire. Naturally the Jews who fled moved into Jewish communities wherever they went. However, they were different: They were followers of the Messiah; they spoke of someone who was unknown outside of Israel; they spoke of faith in unfamiliar ways. So they were not well received. Josephus, the Jewish historian, relates that the rich Sadducees oppressed the Church which consisted of many of the poorer people of Israel and the surrounding nations. So the Church needed a word of encouragement and exhortation. The epistle of James is excellently suited to accomplish this task. James seems to be the oldest book of the New Testament. According to tradition the epistle was written around AD 40. Modern scholarship points to the late first century as the date of composition, when a church leader attached James’ reputation to a document he disseminated to needy churches. In either case it is clear that the Christians who received this letter found that it spoke to their circumstances and retained it as a word from their Lord. As we read it today, we find perseverance, prudent living, and the proper perspective on physical wealth to be themes interwoven throughout the letter. Over the next few weeks we’ll look in detail at what God has to say to us through this fascinating document. In other words, the letter is about how to achieve ultimate success as a Christian. Today we’ll consider the introduction, in which James relates how Christians can succeed in their relationship with Christ and one another by understanding the way faith changes the way we look at life:
James 1:1-11 1 James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings. ♦ 2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 keeping in mind that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result: that you be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. ♦ 5 And, if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. ♦ 9 And the brother of humble circumstances is to boast in his high position; 10 and the rich man is to boast in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.
As James introduces us to his message, he outlines the big picture in terms of faith. As James proceeds, he shows us that faith is characterized by three properties that cause us to see life differently. We will discover that faith is constructive in that it transforms the way we view adversity. We will ascertain that faith is certain in that it settles our desire to ask God for help. We will discern that faith is critical in that it helps us distinguish and sort out the subtleties or our conditions as Christians.
Most Special Operations soldiers that I know should love the way James begins his letter, because he speaks to the heart of almost every adventurer—Be delighted when you get a chance to test your skills, because if the test doesn’t kill you, it will make you better. I realize that is a cliché you’ve all heard, but this is what the text says. Many people read verse two and respond, “Right; be glad that I’m undergoing difficulties. Are you kidding?” But Christianity is not for everybody. It’s for SOF warriors, who never give up. It’s for test pilots who push the envelope of every plane they fly. It’s for SOF warriors, and test pilots, and anyone who wants to test his skills by using them, and anyone who wants to learn from the experience of the test. So the SOF warrior Christian, or any Christian who is in any way motivated to excel in the Christian life, should agree whole-heartedly with James and consider every trial as a cause for joy.
As James begins the letter, he doesn’t leave his readers any time to breathe after his opening words. After the formal greeting, the first words from his pen proclaim that we should consider every trial, reckon every trial, as a cause for joy. Trials can be a cause for joy because our faith is a constructive type faith. Note the qualification that James puts on the sentence: Consider it all joy … knowing that the testing of your faith produces perseverance/endurance. It is a constructive faith. If you don’t know that your faith will pass the test, that it will construct a better future, it will be difficult to find any joy in the situation. James isn’t under any illusions. He knows that his readers aren’t always passing the tests. We know that we don’t always pass the tests. But the command is, “Pass the test. Don’t give up. Get back up and try again!” He also knows that when they do, their faith will grow stronger. And, he knows that they will always have trials—some translations use the word “temptation” for what we’re calling trials; this translation draws a picture that is too negative to be helpful here. The basic meaning of the word is to learn the basic nature of something by extensive testing. James just emphasizes the positive side of the equation, so we will all understand that faith can conquer our unrighteous inclinations and grow stronger in the process.
Faith works in this way: Faith promises to trust Christ to make the Father’s promises come true in our lives. When we commit ourselves to trust Christ, we are promising him that we will wait for him, and look for him to work so that all the Father’s promises will come true for us (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:20). Anything that asserts that Jesus has an unwillingness or inability to do so becomes a trial to our faith. Such a trial, such a situation, tempts us to quit, to go after some other source of goodness. When we don’t; when we pass the test, we know that our certainty that Jesus is willing and able to provide for us grows stronger. The various kinds of situations that present such tempting alternatives test different aspects of his promises and our commitment to them. So the more tests we pass, the more well rounded our faith becomes, or as James says, “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” This is good news worth considering. It changes the way we look at adversity. We can succeed in adversity if we view the adversity through the lens of our constructive faith.
In the second introduction paragraph James anticipates the objection that his readers might not know how to conquer a specific trial. There are so many different kinds of trials; how are we going to respond properly, successfully, to all of them? We know it takes wisdom, but when the trial is particularly difficult, we all feel inadequate for the task. If we’re young, or oppressed, or not feeling really good about how well we’re doing, where do we get this wisdom. So James has two words for us regarding this: Firstly, he says that we should ask the ever-willing God for help. He is generous and he knows our weakness. He knows that we forget what we should have learned before. But he does not reproach us. He gives again and again—there’s a good lesson here about dealing with subordinates, but that’s beside the point. What we need to remember is that God is ready to give us the wisdom we need.
The question is Do we really want his help? This is what I think James means when he says we should ask “in faith without any wavering.” He could mean that our faith must be perfect, free of any doubts whatsoever. But that way of understanding doesn’t seem to make sense of the last sentence of this section. Jesus told us that all we need is a mustard-seed-sized faith. How small is mustard-seed faith? It’s just big enough to be called faith. Small faith can grow, as we saw in the last section. So small faith is not perfect faith; it’s enough faith. So we must understand this as “wavering.” This is confirmed by James’ use of the term “double-minded. The “double-minded” person is one who doesn’t know whether or not he truly wants God’s help. The Lord will not give to us if we don’t passionately want him to work for us. We see this throughout the gospels. The woman who came and begged Jesus to heal her daughter was qualified before Jesus helped her. He said, “But you’re a Phoenician; you’re not even Jewish.” She answered, “Even the dogs get the crumbs that fall under the table.” Then Jesus exclaimed, “This is faith!” (Mark 7:26ff.) He sees faith as the passion for him to work. If we’re waffling back and forth, as the sea in the wind, then we don’t have the certain faith the Lord requires. Certain faith is certain that it wants him to work, that he wants him to provide the wisdom that we need. In fact certain faith is certain that it needs him to work to provide what we want in order to conquer the various temptations we face day to day. This warning is good news worth considering
The final consideration James lays out for us is an example of one kind of trial that was very familiar to his readers. We need to remember that James was raised in the same poor neighborhood as Jesus. As a younger brother, he did not get all the educational advantages. So he was not trained in eloquence. Because there is no nice connection between sentences, some commentators have concluded that James just jumps around from thought to thought. But as we go through the letter, you’ll see that there is a flow to it, that he actually develops his major thesis, which is “Hang in there!” This next section opens a discussion that he will return to a couple of times in more detail. For now, it’s important to know that we must consider our faith to be a critical faith. James told us to ask for wisdom in handling trials. Now here is a bit of wisdom from the Lord about conquering a certain type of trial: Critical faith distinguishes the subtleties of our situation so that we get God’s perspective on our lives. God’s perspective is different than the world’s perspective.
Poor Christians must glory in their high position. Rich Christians must glory in their low status. The world sees things differently. It only sees the physical side of life. We call these people “materialists.” They don’t see all of reality. But God sees the whole of reality. So must the believer, regardless of our financial situation. The world sees poor Christians as only that, poor fiscally. But faith distinguishes a different reality. Christians with no money have been exalted into God’s presence by virtue of their union with Jesus Christ. That’s the reality! They are children of the King. They don’t appear now as they will be. None of us do. We don’t have access now to all of the riches of the glory of Christ that will one day be ours when we see him and become like him. That’s the promise. But one day we will be like Jesus our brother. So now we can glory in our exalted position. The world sees rich Christians—and rich people in general—as being exalted. But faith distinguishes a different reality. Faith sees that we are all dust, that we are like the grass which withers and dies, like the beautiful flower that lasts only a short time before it is destroyed. Critical faith will enable both kinds of Christians to distinguish the truth about their lives and to glory in it. The poor must glory in the fact that they will live forever; and they will live forever on the inheritance of a Creator who gives them the riches of the glory of Christ in useful kindness (Ephesians 2:7). And, the rich must glory in the fact that they are finite and temporary. The wonderful truth about faith in Christ is that both groups can glory in these things for the same reason, namely that faith understands that eternal joy rests in the riches of the grace of Christ forever, not in the riches of this world, as pleasant as those may make their lives. Our faith must be a critical faith, not that we are criticizing others, but that we distinguish the nuances of reality, sorting out the subtleties of life, so we understand all of reality and not just part of it.
This is James’ word of encouragement to us today. Constructive faith fights through the temptation to feel sorry, or the temptation to feel smug, about one’s financial circumstances by critically assessing the true nature of the reality God’s certain wisdom opens for our consideration. When we ask for wisdom, we can ask him “How should I see this? What do I need to look at? What do I need to do differently about the way I’m perceiving the world around me, so I can maintain my relationship with Christ and not quit?” Here’s the promise that makes this command a blessing: When we do this our faith will grow. As we keep our faith strong this way, we become more perfect and more complete in our relationship with Christ, gaining everything he has to offer us, both now and forever. … Amen.
1:12-21 Staying Focused Through Trials
Blessed is the man who endures testing; for after having passed the test, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tested, “I am being tested apart from God; for God cannot be tested by evil, and He Himself does not test anyone. Now each one is tested by his own desire as he is carried away and enticed. Then the desire, after conceiving, bears sin; and the sin, after running its course, causes death.” Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. This you know, my beloved brethren. So everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility welcome the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. James 1:12-21
Single-minded, undistracted endurance is James’ aim in this letter. The entire letter is written to secure this one effect. His brother, Jesus, said that the one who endures to the end is the one who will be saved (Matthew 24:13). James remembers this, and he knows that persecution, coupled with a perception of loneliness and emptiness, makes this endurance more difficult than it otherwise would be. James is adamant that the dispersed disciples remain focused in their efforts to love Jesus and that they not be distracted by such issues as whether or not they can be judged successful by the world’s standards, especially financial success. To remain focused—single-minded rather than double-minded—individuals we must keep the truth of God foremost in our minds. Entertaining incorrect ideas about how he operates will not get us through the tests we encounter in our day to day living; it will ruin our faith. To be included in the ranks of those labeled “approved,” our love for, and faith in, the Lord needs to be faith and love informed by truth. Since truth is more beautiful than falsehood, we will be more inclined to align our lives with it if we keep it squarely in front of us. Today we’re going to look at five truths that will keep from being distracted from the beauty of Christ, that will keep us loving Jesus through all the trials we face.
The first truth we need to think about is that eternal life is the result of successfully passing tests. Those who endure trials, who pass the tests, receive the crown of life. In other words, those who love Jesus through every adversity will be rewarded. Again we encounter James’ bluntness. Just as he affirmed the necessity of counting trials as a source of joy, he clearly states that the crown of life only goes to those who love Jesus. None of this Kantian disinterest for James. He tells us that the eternal life Jesus promised goes to those who love him. He doesn’t hide that fact and suggest that we keep it in the back of our minds as a by-product of our relationship with the Lord. He announces its importance by slapping us with the language of blessing: “Blessed/fortunate/happy is the one who endures trial, who passes the test … for that person will receive the crown of life!” Thinking this way is not dishonoring to Jesus. Jesus keeps his promise to those who love him, because loving Jesus is the most appropriate response we can make to him. Jesus will not let his lovers down. As married couples we promise to continue loving our spouses, regardless of how irritating we are to each other. This is why marriage is a bond, so we can be weird inside the boundary of our vows. As the Bride of Christ, none of us loves the Lord, or trusts the Lord, the way we should. But we’re in the relationship with him. He will bring his lovers into an experience of his infinite value. To let his lovers enter a state in which they could not experience his infinite value would imply that he is not worthy of their eternal love. The crown of life goes to those who hold him dearer than anything else they encounter.
When we go through trials we must think correctly about what’s happening to us. We must not think incorrectly about God, nor should we think incorrectly about our own situation. According to James’ introductory remarks, 1:2-11, followers of Jesus will be tested as to our confidence in his ability to provide the best possible future for us. When James indicates the subject of the paragraph beginning in verse 12, he continues to address his readers as those who are being tested, whose faith is being tried. Therefore he reinforces the command to rejoice in trial with the promise that trials now will make us eternally happy. So there is no indication, as he continues into verse 13, that he is thinking in terms of “being enticed to do evil” as the English word “temptation” denotes today. In fact, the Greek verb used here never denotes this idea, either in extra-biblical literature or in other uses in Scripture. Having established that the paragraph which begins in verse 12 refers to the process of enduring trials, we can progress to verse 13, in which James conveys how he wants us to correctly engage with this process. Since there are problems believers encounter in this process, James approaches the solution by telling us what NOT to think as we proceed.
There is some debate about how exactly to delineate the quotation that James wants to negate. Since there are no quotation marks in the original language, the decision must be made on the basis of the content of the sentences. Traditionally, quotation marks have only gone around the sentence, “I am being tested by God.” However, I choose to understand the prohibition to contain all three of the propositions of verse 13, to place at least these three ideas inside the quotation marks. The most compelling reason, among many, is that God does indeed try, does indeed test, his people—In Genesis 22:1 the text clearly says that God tested Abraham; and if someone were in doubt about it, the author of Hebrews in 11:17 reiterates this fact, using the same Greek word as we find here in James. Secondly, it’s clear that God is tested by evil as the first two chapters of Job, as well as the story of the Exodus in Numbers 14:22, demonstrate. And the writer of Hebrews emphasizes the fact that Jesus was tested just as we are (2:17-18; 4:15). This is why he is worth following, that he was tested as we are, yet without sinning. So we must not say that God isn’t tested; we must include this idea as something we do not affirm about God. If we understand the Greek preposition “apo” in its usual sense of “from” instead of “by,” then we get a better picture of what’s on James’ mind, namely that we are not tested apart from God. God is always with us, and he has gone through testing in the person of Jesus Christ. So we must not say things that are not true about God. Paraphrasing the prohibition may help us get at what’s on his mind: “Don’t say God has abandoned me because of incorrect assumptions about God’s nature or actions.”
The second idea James tells us not to affirm is that we can’t succeed when we encounter various trials (1:14-15). “Fortunate are those who endure through trials” (1:12). We can succeed. So we must not say to ourselves, or to others who are engaged in a period of testing that “Each one is tested by his own desire/lust, in that he is drawn away and trapped; then when desire conceives, it produces sin; and when sin’s gestation is complete, it is born as death.” Being tested does not equate with being defeated. If the process of testing were necessarily this inevitable, this destructive, then James would not have opened his letter with the command to rejoice in it, nor would he have pronounced a blessing on those who succeed in loving Jesus throughout the trial. Jesus was tested, but he was neither drawn away nor trapped; nor did he sin and die. If we were to affirm verses 14-15 as truth, then James would not only have been incorrect in his initial commands, he could hardly have concluded this section as he does in verses 16 and following.
God only gives good gifts, including trial. We need to avoid incorrect thoughts about what God does, and we need to foster correct thoughts. God always gives good gifts. We must not be led astray by the current thinking that good gifts only mean financial success. This was the world of James’ day, and it is ours as well. Job fought this battle with his three friends, who all believed that fiscal and physical well-being equated to God’s blessing. We saw in the first section of the letter that the disciples of the dispersion were struggling with the same issue. But Job and James both want us to understand that a trial from God is a good thing. Paul put it like this in Philippians: “To you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake.” God has granted you; God has gifted you with a circumstance in which you can suffer for Christ’s sake. Paul says this is good. And James says this is good. God is not inconsistent or capricious in his dealings with us—there is no variant or shifting shadow. Everything God pours into our lives is good for us, whether we perceive it as pleasure or adversity. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes says we must look at the day of adversity and consider, because it is there for our good. Remember from verse eleven where James affirms that trials we pass lead to fullness: “The trial of your faith, produces endurance … that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Don’t ask God to take away tests, to take away trials. For your faith is more precious than gold, which must be stressed to make it pure. Trials are good gifts.
The next two truths relate to the process of how we became Christians in the first place. Along with being the giver of only good gifts, God made us Christians by the “word of truth.” Nobody becomes a Christian without hearing the gospel. Nobody. Two other places in the New Testament help us see that the term “the word of truth” is equivalent to the content of the Gospel message. James knows that Jesus went about proclaiming the word of the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and he eventually identified himself as the word, the truth, and the life. So it seems correct to say that this phrase was commonly used in the early Church. The problem is that in the promises of the Gospel, the future sounds wonderful. Life in the kingdom will be fantastic. So once we’re in, continuing to experience persecution from those outside the kingdom is disconcertingly painful. But James reminds us that we are only the first fruits. There is more to come. So we must be patient as God unfolds his plan. Patience emerges as being quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. It wasn’t anger that brought us into the righteousness of God, and it won’t accomplish that in anyone else’s life either. The truth is that when we get angry as we experience trial, we hinder our own growth and we hinder the entrance of others into the kingdom. Anger is not a manifestation of faith, patience is. We must not forget.
Continuing to welcome the word of truth that God sowed in our hearts will save our souls. We welcome what is attractive to us, that which we see as being value added. I think this is another way of saying that loving Jesus will result in eternal life; continuing to welcome the truth results in having our souls saved. When we welcomed the truth at the beginning, we confessed that we wanted to live in the light of the truth of Christ until the promises come true. It’s a commitment on our part to keep trusting. To say, “I want to get forgiven today,” but to say the next day, “Since I’m forgiven, I don’t have to do anything else, I don’t need to trust you anymore,” is, according to James, an incorrect understanding of faith. We must continue to welcome the word of the gospel into our hearts. To do this we must turn away from the things to which we were once attracted, what James labels as filthiness and wickedness. Yes, these believers still struggle with hearts that have not been completely purified, just as we do. God caused us to be born again by a living word, but we still have desires that can carry us away and entrap us in death producing sin instead of life producing righteousness. So the truth is we must continue to turn away from what we once loved and humbly embrace the Gospel. We must grab onto the promises of forgiveness and grace every day—delighting in the one through whom they are mediated—and let everything else go. There can be no pride here. Faith in what someone else offers us doesn’t allow for pride. Just as when the doctor tells us to turn away from fat, alcohol and stress to embrace broccoli, water, and exercise; we can only do so by exercising faith in the doctor and his plan, understanding that the way we’ve been going was killing us. Welcoming the “word of truth” shows up as so valuing Jesus that we humbly submit ourselves to following him in the obedience of faith.
James sees more implications of embracing the Gospel, but we’ll get into those in the next message. To conclude these thoughts, I want to reiterate the need to focus our hearts in order to endure trials. The truth is, nothing else matters but loving Jesus, because nothing else will produce for us the crown of life. He must be what we see as more valuable than anything. So put aside incorrect notions about God and all your former self-exalting defense mechanisms, and delight in the goodness of God as displayed in the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
1:21-27 Defeating Self-Deceit
James 1:21-27 21 Therefore, putting away all filthiness and rampant wickedness, with meekness welcome the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 And become doers of the word, and not hearers only who deceive themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and remains, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. 26 If anyone seems to be religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The Chief of Staff of the Army has a saying which you may have heard: “The most dangerous person is the one who confuses enthusiasm with capability,” or some variation of that thought. In this proverb, General Schoomaker drives right to one of our core problems as human beings: we are very easily self-deceived. Not only are we self-deceived, we are very good at convincing others that our deception is reality. One classic example of this is Mike Meyers’ character Austin Powers, the homely, goofy, over-the-top, sixties-era spy who sees himself, and presents himself, as a brilliant undercover agent with massive sex appeal. There is nothing appealing about him, but because he has deceived himself into thinking that he is, he exudes enough energy to convince all the women in the film to passionately crave his companionship. If self-deception normally had such benign results, we wouldn’t worry about it much. But we resonate completely with the Chief’s warning because we’ve seen self-deception become self-destruction. Jeremiah recognized this syndrome and added: “The heart of man is deceitful above all things and incurably sick” (17:9).
Here’s one classic example, but as I rehearse it for you, see if you see yourself in the picture anywhere: In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve deceived themselves into thinking they could actually hide from God. They deceived themselves about being able to escape blame by blaming someone else. They deceived themselves about their ability to cover up their naked inadequacy and project to the world around them an appearance of self-sufficiency. Recognize anyone you know? This has been the history of the human race. Civilization grew and changed as people were more or less able to deceive themselves and others about their ability to control themselves and the world around them, to create and maintain a sense of well-being—”shalom” or “makarios”/happiness. This is the image we want to present to the world around us. This desire to be seen as self-sufficient evolved until finally in the early 19th century Auguste Comte, whose theories of social government strongly influenced both Marx and Hitler, declared that “Man is the measure of all things.”
One area of life in which we seem to have an especially large capacity for self-deceit is religion. We actually believe that we can create our own gods and religious systems that will provide both near and far term satisfaction. We’ve made gods who can be served by human hands, who are dependent on us, and who will reward us for all that we do for them. Even when the Eternal, the God of Heaven and Earth, the Creator, revealed himself to the Jews and told them how best to relate to him and to each other, they twisted his covenant from a doctor’s prescription to an employee’s job description in which they could boast. Self-deception governed this attempt to rewrite God’s word to us. But instead of producing the freedom we thought we’d produce, we put ourselves in bondage. Instead of creating lives of joy, we created lives of insecurity and instability and dissatisfaction. God’s instructions can actually make us free, but only if we approach them honestly. We must ask ourselves the question: Are we stuck in Jeremiah’s “do loop,” or is there hope that we can do this? Yes, there is hope, because God has willed to make us disciples of Jesus by opening our hearts to the truth of the message of the Gospel. This doesn’t take away our ability to deceive ourselves, but it does enable us to overcome this inclination by approaching God’s word the way James exhorts us to do in the passage before us today.
Exhortation #1—Meekly Welcome the Word
Part of responding honestly to the truth God has communicated to us is to meekly welcome it. “Putting away all filthiness and rampant wickedness, with meekness welcome the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Meekness is a quality that allows us to accept instruction. For example, meek people gladly accept God’s word when it tells them that they don’t know everything, and that they can’t, by their own quick wits or fancy footwork, deliver themselves from an angry Creator. Arrogant people, who ignore God’s word, think that they can wallow around in a moral sewer and still be welcome at the banquet of his love. Arrogant people think they can engage in a lifestyle that destroys the fabric of society, and still be embraced as they approach his judgment seat. We must become meek so we put those approaches to life aside and reorder our lives according to the Word’s imperatives of mercy and grace. Meekness allows us to take pleasure in being conduits of God’s grace so that when people receive and appreciate the good that we can give them, they see the God behind the grace and not the human means by which they received it. Jesus said it this way: “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). When we are meek we delight in these transactions of grace and in the Gospel that makes the giving and receiving possible.
Exhortation #2—Remain Close to the Word
If you’ve spent much time in the Church at all, you’ve heard or memorized the phrase, “Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” In James’ argument, this tactic makes sense. He says first, “Welcome the Word,” and then he says, “Oh yeah, don’t just like to listen to it, do it.” Our sinful tendency to delude ourselves makes it entirely possible for believers to love to hear about God’s grace without doing anything about it. We can rationalize knowing all about the love of God without recognizing the accompanying truth that to whom much is given much is required (Luke 12:48). The name for this principle is noblesse oblige, the obligations of nobility. So James calls us back from the double-minded, split personality of hearing without doing, to the integrated, single-minded, focused Christians God wants us to be. To do this he uses a metaphor involving our use of mirrors.
To use the mirror metaphor effectively, we must understand exactly what contrast is being made. The contrast lies with the purpose for the length of time one spends looking. A mirror is only intended to be used for a short time. We use it to check to see if everything is the way we want it; and then we go on our way and don’t think about it anymore. We have other things on our minds, so we forget what we look like—it’s designed this way; we choose to let that bit of data slip from our conscious memories. Spending a short time in front of a mirror is entirely appropriate in the proper context; it’s just not the way we’re supposed to approach the Word of God. We’re not supposed to look at it and then let it slip out of our minds. James exhorts us to avoid this approach to the Word of God. A cursory glance provokes forgetfulness, and forgetfulness prevents obedience, and disobedience precludes happiness. The happiness of liberty (freedom) occurs as we order our lives according to God’s perfect law. God’s law is labeled a “law of freedom” because obeying it keeps us in a state from which we don’t wish to escape. When we obey, and observe the consequences of obedience, we will never sense that we’re trapped; we’re free. When we disobey, the consequences of disobedience leave us feeling trapped, feeling we’re somewhere we really don’t want to be. Obeying God’s law of freedom will never cause us to say, a million years from now, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” Obeying the law of liberty will always allow us to say, “Wow! This is a great place to be.” James began this long paragraph back in verse 12 with the words “Blessed/fortunate/happy is the person who [successfully] endures trials.” Here’s the tie-in. Enduring trials and doing the Word are two sides of the coin of blessing. To obtain God’s blessing, we need to look closely at the law of freedom and “remain,” that is, keep its precepts close to our hearts. We are not intended to stay in front of a mirror; we are intended to stay in front of the Word. When we do, we will successfully overcome the impulse to deceive ourselves.
Exhortation #3—Compare Your Behavior to the Word
After encouraging us with such a wonderful promise, James comes back to give us an example of just how closely we need to be looking at God’s commands. The easiest and the most difficult parts of our lives must come under the sway of his law. The macro elements of life and the micro elements of life all deserve our attention. Keeping ourselves unstained by the world is a large battle, fought on wide fields. The world is all around us, flinging the mud of self-sufficiency and self-glorification at us all the time. It’s so obvious sometimes as to be laughable; but it’s so continuous as to become exhausting. Seeking out those less fortunate and extending grace is so clear from God’s word that we hardly need reminding. It’s big; it’s visible; and it’s episodic. Charity is necessary, but we can’t and don’t do it all the time. A religious person—this is not a dirty word for James—does these things and God is pleased. Remaining in the word will help us keep these expressions of our relationship with God on the front burners of our spiritual lives. But if we do all these well but let our tongues fly uncontrollably, we deceive ourselves if we think our religion has any value. There’s no way we can authentically say our religion has value if we do the big tasks, but our mouths dispense sewage, or shrapnel. In fact, when we speak in ungodly ways, we are at that moment deceiving our hearts about our love for Christ and his Gospel. Jesus said it’s not the mouth that defiles us, but the heart (Matthew 15:18). Since the mouth speaks out of the overflow of the heart (Matthew 12:34), rotten speech means we are deceiving ourselves about our love for Jesus. So we need to compare our behavior to the Word. According to the text an unbridled tongue equates to a self-deceived heart. Self-deception is the real problem. And it manifests itself in ungodly speech.
The Air Force core values, unlike those of the other services, are comprised of more than one word and are presented in a specific order. “Integrity First” is the first core value. This resonates with James’ desire that we be “single-minded.” A single-minded person is a person of integrity. If we have this kind of integrity, we can say authentically that we’re followers of Christ. The only way we can say authentically that we’re followers of Christ is if our behavior compares favorably to his Word. If it doesn’t, then our religion is worthless. If we say we’re religious but we’re trash-talking people around us, what we’re saying about our religion is not true. So to validate our claim to be a religious person, we need to compare our behavior to what the Word teaches. When we do, we’ll be able to hear more accurately what we’re saying. We can ask forgiveness. We can look more closely at the Word, at the promises, at the character of God, so our hearts will be full of its truth. This will keep us from speaking trash to the world around us. It’s only when the large scale behaviors and the ever so private behaviors conform, that we’ll have warrant for thinking that we are on the right track, for saying authentically that we’re followers of Christ.
Remember now as we go, that these exhortations are good news. They are built on the foundational truth that we have been born again by the Word of Truth through the will of God, who is the giver of good. Obedience to the commands is possible because of what God has done, and it’s necessary in order to experience the greater good that God has for us. Blessed indeed are we as we do his perfect freeing will.
2:1-13 Passing the World’s Tests
James 2:1-13 1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for 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 murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
In the preceding paragraph James told his readers to stay focused on the perfect Law of Liberty, so they would be able to endure the trials they faced day to day. James highlights the Law’s liberating nature, because when we obey the law, we always arrive in desirable circumstances. We never reach a place where we sense that we’re trapped. We never arrive at a point in time a million years from now, if we obey the law, at which we look back and wish we’d made a different decision, regretting what we’d done. Being in those circumstances is not being free. Since God’s Law is a law of freedom, James tells us to focus on that Law. This single-minded approach to life according to the Word of God will give us the ability on the negative side to control our anger when things go wrong, especially to control our verbal responses to painful events; and on the positive side to display charity and keep ourselves unstained by the world. As we succeed in this lifestyle, we will be able to validate our claims to be followers of Jesus Christ.
According to James, so far, dealing with the mud of self-reliance and self-glorification is a never-ending battle. In one of his parables Jesus spoke specifically about these kind of difficulties as they come to people who have heard the good news of the Kingdom of God. In the parable of the seed (Matthew 13), some of the seed fell among thorns, which grew up around the seed and choked out its life. Jesus said these thorns equated to the worries of this age and the deceitfulness of riches. James devotes the entire next paragraph of his letter to helping his readers think through a strategy for keeping themselves unstained by the deceitfulness of riches. Now I realize that the specific problem James faced, namely relating to wealthy people who joined their assembly, may not be a problem this congregation experiences. But by paying attention to the concepts this paragraph teaches we will be able to keep our faith from being choked out by other worldly cares as well.
Implications of Faith (1-4)
Human beings are entities who operate by principles of attraction. Scientists have done studies of newborns. These studies demonstrate that newborns are naturally attracted to pretty faces. As soon as they can focus their eyes, babies will respond positively—with smiles especially—to attractive faces, and will turn away from ugly ones. Human beings operate according to principles of attraction. Men and women may have different standards of attraction, but each of the sexes chooses a mate based on some kind of attraction: I remember once in high school when my best friend introduced me to a girl he thought was absolutely gorgeous. After she’d left us, he exclaimed, “Wasn’t she beautiful!” It wasn’t a question. I didn’t think so (but I didn’t tell him that). She wasn’t ugly; I just didn’t find her attractive. Leadership works the same way: Good leaders attract good people to work for them. Good leaders just attract people, because as human beings we enjoy being around other people who create an enjoyable environment for us. Jesus is no exception. Note how his brother appends the attribute of “glorious” to the title “Lord.” In the original language the construction is much stronger. It reads: the faith of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the glory.” He’s not just glorious; he IS The Glory! When we hold to the faith system Jesus teaches, we do so because we’re attracted to his glory. We’re attracted to the kingdom he’s promised to those who love him. We come to him because he’s attractive.
Wealth is attractive as well. Given a choice rational people would rather be wealthy than be poor. Wealth is attractive because it gives the impression that the person who has it has a good present and the promise of a good future. Wealth is especially attractive to people who don’t have it. They imagine that the circumstances of the wealthy are so much better than their own, that they develop strong desires to be in a position to be influenced by those who have wealth. They imagine this because wealthy people tend to be more glorious than poor people—Jed Clampett and family being notable exceptions. Evidently this attraction to the glory of wealth was happening in the churches that received James’ letter. Members of the congregation, attracted to the promises of wealth were courting the rich people who came to their assembly.
So James deals with this by refocusing their attention on the glory of Jesus, telling them that the criteria they’re using to pursue a good future from the hands of the wealthy are really dumb, is foolish, is unwise, because it will not cause us to end up in the place we most desire. He could have just mentioned that faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ, requires us to give up being partial in our evaluations of other people. That would have been enough. But by adding the word “glorious” to the mix he makes the contrast more palpable. He argues that making distinctions among people based on whether or not they have money is stupid. It’s like comparing a vacation to the most beautiful spot on earth with a vacation to the “Empty Quarter” on the Arabian peninsula. This is what he means when he asks the rhetorical question: “Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” It’s a question that demands a “yes!” answer. They did indeed make those kinds of distinctions. The word translated “evil” carries with it the connotation of “worthless, useless, unprofitable, disadvantageous.” In other words, by choosing to go after the perceived glory of wealthy people, they’ve left the true glory of Jesus. This is the way decisions work; when we make a decision to go in one direction, we cut of the rest of the decision tree. The implication of faith in Jesus is that we should look only to him for any sense of well-being and any hope for the future. Faith implies that we would be utterly foolish to get distracted from what is truly attractive.
Applications of Love (5-8)
In James’ mind the implications of faith lead to the applications of love. We find the first application in the word “beloved,” as it applies to his readers. First, he reminds them that they are indeed loved, certainly by Jesus, and by James as well. Secondly, he reminds them that their faith in Jesus involves loving him. Those who are rich in faith love the One who has made them heirs of the Kingdom, and only those whose love for him continues to the end will inherit it. If saving faith is persevering faith, then inheriting love perseveres also. It endures through the trials that test its fidelity. When worldly wealth competes with the glory of the Kingdom and the King, true love for Jesus maintains its connection with the truly secure, truly stable and infinitely satisfying treasure.
Thirdly, James reminds his readers that faith works itself out in love to neighbors. We act stupidly when we chase after the false stability, security and satisfaction offered by those who are wealthy. Worse we dishonor those who don’t have wealth by putting them in the category of useless trash. Both actions come from a desire to use people as means to our ends. Instead we should be trusting Jesus’ promises to work to secure us all the good that we could possibly desire. Neither pursuit of the wealthy nor dishonoring the poor comes from love for Jesus or from confidence in his instructions to us. The freeing law of the Kingdom of God is summarized in one phrase: Love your neighbor as yourself. Both James and Paul (Galatians 5:14) summarize the entire Law with this phrase. As the embodiment of the Law of Freedom, we understand that when we obey this one command, we will never, in a million years, look back and say, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” We won’t feel trapped in the future because we love our neighbor now.
Love for neighbors, as I understand love, means that we view neighbors as valuable and then act in accord with the value we place on them. We see this in our self-love all the time: If we’re poor in some area of our lives, we still hold ourselves as valuable in our own eyes, regardless of the disadvantages we suffer; then we treat ourselves as well as we can based on the value we assign to ourselves. Paul, put it this way, saying, “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church because we are members of his body” (Ephesians 5:29). So James calls us all to apply love to our relationships in the Church, remembering the true value of the one who provides us the Kingdom.
Complications of Judgment
We do well when we are loving our neighbors as ourselves. But if we show partiality, we create complications in our lives that proceed from our making decisions based on inferior criteria to having decisions made about us that shut us off from the mercy we need to survive. In James’ context showing partiality occurred when people in the church looked to the wealthy instead of Jesus to make a positive difference in their lives. But we can show partiality in many ways. Anytime we choose a source of good and joy in our lives that is not connected to the Kingdom of God, we show partiality. Anytime we act toward others in a way not consistent with the Royal Law to love our neighbors as ourselves, we show partiality. Dishonoring people by using them as means to our own ends is showing partiality. We can claim whatever allegiance we want to claim, but if we don’t live by the law of the king, we will be judged by that law. James doesn’t fool around. He is utterly serious. To be consistent with our claim of trusting in Jesus, we must show people the mercy of loving them, especially when they can be of no earthly benefit to us. If we don’t, we’re not enduring the trials of our faith, we’re failing, and we will be judged accordingly. For mercy to triumph over judgment, as we stand before the King’s judgment seat, mercy must triumph over stupid decisions to use people as we work out our faith from day to day. If we speak love and do love, we will receive mercy in the end. For Jesus always honors those who imitate him in the obedience of faith.
Just like the poor who will always be with us, so will the cares of the world and the trials they bring to our faith. If we’re careful to keep in mind the implications of faith, the applications of love, and the complications of judgment laid out for us by James, we will have confidence in the face of trials, and we will be able to endure those trials triumphantly.
2:14-26 Profitable Faith
James 2:14-26 What advantage is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that only one is God; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Remember that James is Jesus’ brother. He grew up in a carpenter’s house. James seems to me to be an engineer. He would have felt very much at home, here at Edwards Air Force Base. James is a guy who likes to know how things work. And he wants to make certain that his readers know as well. So here in the middle of the letter he launches into a theological discussion to teach his readers the true nature of the faith that saves. Until now he’s hinted at the truths he’s going to unpack in this paragraph: We’ve learned that faith must endure and mature with single-minded, laser-like focus (1:2). Persevering faith involves love for the Lord that overcomes our desires for, and reliance on, anything else (1:12; 2:1f). Faith that saves continually looks to God’s communication in the Bible and humbly follows his instructions (1:21f). People who are of the faith of Jesus Christ understand that everything they say and everything they do should cohere with what James calls the Law of Liberty, summarized in the command to love our neighbors as ourselves (2:12). He uses the next paragraph to explain to us the practical value of his insistence that those of us who follow Jesus in the obedience of faith be doers of the Word and not only hearers. He asks and answers the question: What is the benefit? What is the profit? What is the advantage? Doing the Word is profitable because it completes the faith that saves us, and doing the Word is beneficial because it makes a difference through our relationships.
Making Faith Compete
Bottom line up front (BLUF): The faith that works is the faith that saves. But let’s back up. James uses the word “faith” in different ways, to indicate different realities. We know this, not just because we can see these differences, but because he asks, referring to one use of the term, “Can that faith [as opposed to another kind of faith] save him?” He uses the term to indicate the whole of our relationship with God in Christ in at least two senses. He uses it to indicate intellectual assent to the fact of God’s existence, and he uses the term to indicate a committed, motivated confidence in God as a promise giver. Obviously these meanings can overlap to some degree. It is necessary to assent intellectually to God’s primacy of existence, that he is The First. The demons give such assent, but clearly the kind of faith they have doesn’t save them. There is no advantage to having only this kind of faith. So what kind of faith does benefit the believer?
For faith to be beneficial it must be complete. So what completes faith? James’ answer is “action.” If assent to God’s primacy doesn’t move us to act in accord with that primacy, it is useless. Remember the story in Ezekiel when God showed him the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel prophesied to the bones and the bones came together. He prophesied again and they were covered with muscle and skin. But they were still dead. They looked like people. Some would say they were people. But they were dead because the Spirit of God makes people alive, and therefore persons, was not in them. He prophesied again and the Spirit gave them life. So too, faith without works is dead. Ezekiel didn’t say, “See those people!” He recognized that they weren’t yet human, because they weren’t moving, because the Spirit of God had not infused them with life. Action is the proof of life. So just as the Spirit gives life to the body, deeds make faith come alive and deeds prove that it is alive. Until we act faith isn’t quite faith. That may sound weird, but James fights the same language difficulties we do. No matter how vibrant our intellectual-assent-faith may feel—the demons’ “faith” causes them to tremble—real-live faith doesn’t exist until it is proved by deeds that are appropriate for faith. If we claimed to have faith, even if our lives didn’t show it, James would respond, “Prove it! Show me your faith without the works! It’s not possible. Your claim is an empty claim!”
How else do we know that the person who does not exhibit the obedience of faith is making an empty claim? God only responds positively to people whose lives demonstrate the completeness of their faith with appropriate works. In verse 20 we see that the person who doesn’t recognize the uselessness of mere intellectual assent is labeled “foolish.” The word is translated in other places as “vain.” It’s vain/foolish to maintain the conviction that mere intellectual assent will see a positive response from God, because all the evidence of Scripture is that the Lord only rewards faith that produces appropriate deeds. This is the kind of faith that saves every day. For example, God justified Abraham because his faith was completed when he offered up of Isaac. When did this occur in Abraham’s life? Twenty five years after his first act of faith—leaving Haran for Canaan—and fourteen years after another significant act of faith—believing God’s promise to make his descendants numerous—God justifies Abraham for another act of faith. As he does this day after day, God fills up his earlier affirmation of Abraham’s righteous standing (Genesis 15:6). While God dealt with our sin objectively through Christ on the cross, James reminds us that he deals with our sin subjectively, through every deed that completes our confidence in the primacy of God. Thus he reiterates his earlier assertion that the faith that saves is the faith that perseveres in expressing itself daily in all areas of our lives. When we’re doers of the Word, God will reckon this obedience as righteousness, just as he did for Abraham.
Changing the World Through Relationships
In this paragraph we encounter three examples of faith’s completing itself in acts of love. I think it’s appropriate to learn from them about how faith works in the three basic kinds of relationships that occur in our lives.
1. Intrapersonal—2:21-23. We start here with everything we do. So James exhorts us to extend ourselves to become friends of God. Twice in the Old Testament Abraham is called “The Friend of God.” This is the epitaph on Abraham’s tombstone: “The Friend of God.” This should be what we want God to say of us as well. Sometimes the struggle to live out the obedience of faith doesn’t involve anyone else. It doesn’t involve anything but the relationship of God and us. It is simply the battle inside ourselves to trust God’s direction, especially when it seems like he’s taking us along a course that will not lead us to the promised land. By true faith in Jesus’ daily guidance we desire God’s promises enough to let him take away the visible means to those promises because we trust him to create an alternative means. God tests our faith when he asks us to follow his instructions, as he tested Abraham’s. The test involves forcing us to prioritize the value of God’s promises and to choose the most valuable one. God promised Abraham a son and through that son a great posterity that would bless the world. But God also promised to be God to Abraham. So Abraham chose the greater good—an intimate relationship with God, the true source of joy—trusting that God would do all that was necessary—even raise the dead—to make his other promises come true as well. No wonder he was called the “friend of God” (Exodus 33:11; Isaiah 41:8). Is the Lord asking you to choose him over some other good gift that he’s promised. — A while ago a lady was talking with me about her sick husband, whom she loved very much. She asked the question: “Is it wrong to love him more than I love God?” As difficult as it was to say, the only answer I could give was, “Yes, it is.” Remember what James said: It’s those who love Christ, above everything, who receive the crown of life. Everything! Abraham had to choose whom he loved more, his son or God. He demonstrated that he loved God more and trusted him to do what he needed to do in order to fulfill his other promises. We must ask ourselves if God is asking us to choose him over some other good gift that he’s promised. These tests don’t come often, but it’s wise to be ready when they come.
2. Interpersonal—2:15-16. Here we’re thinking about extending grace to those who are in need. The example of a brother or sister suffering from lack of daily necessities probably came from the congregations familiar to the readers. But it’s also representative of all the interpersonal relationships we experience. Every day we interact with people who need something of the grace of God in their lives. We have the opportunity to be the channel of that grace. Faith, working itself out in love (Galatians 5:6), does more than merely say it wants good for these people. Love desires the good for people in need so strongly that it moves out to meet the needs. You know this from your experience in your families. Your love for each other is so strong that you move out to meet each other’s needs. Faith trusts both the commands of Christ to care for others and the promises of Christ to give us enough resources to be able to extend his grace to meet the need. The challenge to give away the grace Jesus has poured into our lives is just as much a trial of faith as facing oppression. We usually know what to do; but when we are in doubt, we can ask for wisdom from God; and he will give that grace as generously as the other graces he’s already given. To apply this in the here and now, look at your lives and ask yourselves who is in need around you, and what grace do you have available to give.
3. Counter-cultural—2:25-26. In these kind of relationships, we’re looking to extend the Kingdom of God into the world. Rahab’s act of faith falls into an entirely different category. We don’t know all the details of her story. We do know that she had heard about Israel’s escape from Egypt and its defeat of several kings on its way to crossing the Jordan(Exodus 2). She knew that God had given the entire land into their hands, and she betrayed her country to get on the winning side. In other words, she feared the Eternal and decided to put her future in his hands, trusting that he could do more to provide for her than the king and walls of Jericho. Rahab’s faith desired what God offered in contrast to what her culture offered, so that she acted in a way designed to extend the kingdom of God into the world. It was an act of love, not just for herself and her family, but for all those who would be blessed by all that the Lord would do through the Israelites in the centuries to come, including the one who became her grandson (Jesus). Our choices may not be so dramatic as hers, but if we mean what we say when we pray “Thy kingdom come,” we will be faced with choices that demand that we put our allegiance to the Kingdom of God on the line. Are you ready to take the action needed to advance the Kingdom? For when the Kingdom advances, God’s grace goes out. These are acts of faith in God, that result in counter-cultural love. Has the Lord sent you any spies that you need to hide?
So let us go from here to be doers of the Word, giving life to our faith through our deeds so we will experience the justifying work of God as our friendship with him grows and grows. Amen.
3:1-12 Overcoming Sin From Our Mouths
James 3:1-12 1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers—knowing that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness—2 for we all stumble in many ways. Whoever does not stumble in what he says is a complete man, indeed able to bridle his whole body. 3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.// 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.// 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
Let’s begin with three series of questions this morning; and as you think of answers to these questions, write them down, especially if you remember more than one. Here we go, the first series: Have any of you ever taught something to a class, only to discover later that what you told them was incorrect? How did you feel when you learned that you were wrong and had given out bad information? Have any of you ever taught somebody in a situation where you were trying to correct something that someone else taught incorrectly in the past? Was it difficult to erase the old message and replace it with new and true information? How did you feel about the person who had preceded you in the instructional process? OK, now for the second series: Have you ever spoken any words you wish you could have recalled, as you can do with email messages in Outlook? Have you ever experienced adverse consequences because of something you said? Did you perceive that the consequences were of much greater significance than seemed appropriate for the seemingly innocuous words you thought you spoke? Let’s go to the third series of questions: Have you ever consciously spoken the desire that another person come to harm? I don’t mean the kind of statement that soldiers must make when issuing orders that will result in the death of enemy forces. I mean the kind of statements that come from our hearts and bear great emotional as well as substantive content; have you ever cursed anyone? Were you ever able to see any of these desires come to being?
This is a fairly thorough inventory of the consequences of our remarks to other people. The questions come from the section of James’ letter that we’re going to consider today. Let’s read that together [READ TEXT]. At first blush this seems to a rather abrupt collection of thoughts. He begins with a command and ends with some rhetorical questions about the nature of reality. So we must be very active readers if we want to keep up with him and think God’s thoughts after him. We must remember that two weeks ago we saw that he ended the first half of chapter two by telling us how important it is to speak and to act as those who will be judged by the Law of Liberty, which is summarized in the phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This kind of speaking and acting should characterize those who are waiting for the final installation of the Kingdom of God which will come to those who love Jesus. In other words, lovers of Jesus love their neighbors as themselves, which moves them to order their words and deeds according to these two loves. Last week, James focused on the works, the deeds, the actions of faith that accord with the heart of someone who wants to be seen as righteous in God’s eyes. That paragraph picked up on the “act” command of 2:12. The section of the letter we’re considering today helps us focus on the “speak” part of that command. If we govern our speech by the Law of Liberty, we will avoid causing the three evil effects James highlights in this text. This is good news. As we go forth from here, we must talk with people every day. So it’s important and helpful for us to know that God has give us words to consider that will keep us from being evil and causing evil effects.
Erroneous Doctrine (3:1-4)
The first evil effect we can avoid is erroneous doctrine. You’re familiar with the phrase, “Ideas have consequences.” We’ve seen this as we’ve dealt with some of our contacts in Iraq. We gave them ideas about the way the world is supposed to operate. We taught them what to expect. When reality failed to conform to the expectations we’d created with our words, they took exception and began to act differently than we desired them to act. In the spiritual realm much more is at stake than maintaining unit cohesion. James says that those who teach in God’s name will be judged by stricter criteria than other people. “To whom much is given, much is required.” So the Lord holds teachers more accountable, because the value of what we say is greater than the value of normal conversation. The value of what teachers say is greater than that of normal conversation. This value exists because our position as teachers gives us power and prestige that normal people in normal conversations don’t have. You can hear something in a normal conversation, and you can take it or leave it. But when someone in a position of authority speaks, you listen with a different set of ears. You tune the tuner of your heart a little finer because you expect, from teachers, truth. So Jesus holds us more responsible. Teachers, by virtue of their position, have a great deal of credibility.
I once tried correcting something my daughter had been incorrectly taught in school, and I learned that it was much more difficult to change her mind about this information than about information she’d gleaned from her friends, because the teacher said it. As good as teachers are, we are not infallible. We make mistakes. When we make mistakes so that our students hear erroneous doctrine, lives are changed. Our words are like the bits we put in horses mouths or like the rudders of great ships. It’s one thing for me as an individual believer to have an idea about what the Word of God means in a certain passage; it’s quite another when I propound that idea to students who trust me to use skills that they don’t have, to impart knowledge they can’t get on their own. So we teachers must know that God holds us accountable. While this will not keep us from stumbling completely, it will serve to make us more diligent in our efforts. If we’re teaching because of our love for the Lord and his people, and because of our confidence that he is the one who’s given us the position and the ability to teach, then, we’ll be very careful to be mature and control the tongues with which we teach, because they have a powerful effect on the lives of the people who hear us. So if you’re a teacher, you need to take this to heart. If you’re not, please pray for those of us who are, so that God keeps us from teaching you error.
The second evil James says we can avoid, will learn to control our tongues is self-glorification. If teachers must be careful about what their tongues declare, each one of us must take similar care of our normal speech. Teachers must work to avoid presenting erroneous doctrine, and the individual must work to avoid self-glorifying speech. James says that although the tongue is small it “boasts of great things.” It is the one member of the body that defiles the entire body with it’s sinful work. Boasting, per se, isn’t the only way our tongues get us in trouble, but there is probably a sense of superiority and self-sufficiency communicated in anything we say that causes us problems. The snide comment we make as we gossip is a form of boasting. Shading the truth as we tell a story about our exploits, so that we appear a little better than we are, or so that we can receive more credit than we’re actually due, is a form of boasting. Steering the conversation so that what and who we know are given prominence is a form of boasting. As you can see, the tendency to self-glorification is deeply rooted in our hearts and widely expressed with our mouths. Half of the “deeds of the flesh” that Paul lists in Galatians 5:19-21 are rooted in some form of boasting.
At its root all boasting in ourselves is lying. So James is very accurate when he designates the pit of hell as the origin of the evil embodied by the human tongue. Jesus said that Satan is a liar and the Father of Lies (John 8:44). He fell because he convinced himself, and then tried to convince the residents of Heaven, that he was more glorious than God. The first trial of faith in the Garden of Eden began with a lie that sparked a desire to boast in the heart of Eve, who told Adam that she thought the fruit was good for making us “wise,” by which she meant even wiser than God. So you can understand why all boasting defiles us. Faith that works itself out in love cannot boast, because it rests completely in the promises that Jesus works to fulfill in our lives day by day. Christians who are striving to live by the Law of Liberty can only defeat the sin in our bodies by making our hearts so happy in the Lord, and in what he promises for us, every day, that our inclination to boast is wholly and fully satisfied as we boast in all that he does in and through us. There is a boasting that’s good. Boasting in ourselves is evil. But boasting in God is good. When we boast in God, we will be in compliance with the biblical injunction “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
The third evil effect of untamed tongues is hypocrisy. The inclination to be hypocritical in our speech is rooted in the restless evil that lies deep in the heart of every human being and seems to be directly connected to our tongues. Before the Lord “brought us forth by the Word of Truth” the only kind of speech we could manage displayed the “deadly poison” that poured out of our unregenerate hearts. The tongue of the unsaved is untamable. Now, though, a different reality is necessary. More importantly, a different reality is possible. Now we can bless the Lord. Now we want to bless the Lord, to use our mouths to speak his praise, to share the joy we have in the fellowship of his Son with him and with others. Most of the deadly poison has been purged. However, there is some of it still left in our systems. So we still see that we use our mouths to degrade and disparage other human beings. But James says we are inconsistent when we do this. Only hypocrites bless God and curse those made in his image. If I asked who here wants to be a hypocrite, I wouldn’t see any hands. No one wants to be hypocritical. What’s the core value? Integrity first! Hypocrites are people without integrity. So James says “these things ought not to be.” The spring is fresh, so all the water should be fresh. The fig tree should only produce figs and the vine grapes. Those who want to live by the Law of Liberty must be aware that the hypocritical use of our mouths must stop.
To help us understand the seriousness of this truth, James reaches back to Genesis. To curse other human beings and to bless the Creator is serious business for James, because men and women represent God on the earth. That’s a large part of what it means to be made in his image. In Genesis 9 God is so serious about the relationship of who he is and how he made us, that he grounds the death penalty on this one identity. Because of the special nature of our relationship with God, we forfeit our lives if we take the life of another human without proper authorization. We are the only ones made to represent him in the world. No other being is made in the image of God. Whether you look at the account of Genesis 1, where we are made at the end of creation, or at the account of Genesis 2, where we are the first of God’s creatures, we are ones God has put at the peak of creation to represent him in the world. So to curse another human insults the One who made us just as much as taking another person’s life. This is why Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that the one who curses another person is guilty enough to go to hell, being in his understanding the moral equivalent of murder. People who live by the Law of Liberty consistently avoid killing their neighbors with bullets or with barbs from their tongues.
So we must refocus our lives according to the command to love our neighbors. We must keep this command in the forefront of our minds. We must do so especially because the ones we love, the ones closest to us, are usually the most irritating—proximity creates friction; and they are the ones who are most likely to hear ungodly words in response to their rubbing us the wrong way. As Christians we have the ability let our regenerate hearts express their love in gracious speech. For in this way we will show mercy to those we would otherwise curse. This mercy of ours will triumph over the judgment we would have made, it will allow us to avoid the errors James pointed out to us, and it will secure for us the mercy of the Lord, all at the same time.
3:13 – 4:10 Wisdom, Righteousness & Peace
James 3:13-4:10 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his [wise] works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast [about being wise] and lie against the truth [of the fact that you aren’t]. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 Indeed, a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. 4:1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your pleasures are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have. You murder and you covet and cannot obtain. You fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your pleasures. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose that the Scripture speaks to no purpose? The spirit he has caused to dwell in us yearns with envy. 6 But he gives greater grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Oppose the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
“Peace” is one of the words commonly associated with Christmas. Although any honest observer would move that adjective to the bottom of the list to be used to describe the climate surrounding the American observance of this season. Peace in Iraqis a state of events we would like to occur, but my son, who’s stationed on the south side of Baghdad, says that’s unlikely any time soon. We want peace. We need peace: world peace, personal peace, peace in the home, peace in the workplace. When James wrote this letter, he described a scene in which peace, which characterized the Lord of the Church, did not entirely characterize the relationships in the churches. In fact, it seems one of his purposes in this letter was to resolve conflict, to create a state of peace among the members of the congregations. We’ve already seen that he’s aware of the effects of personal favoritism, and the effects of wicked speech. Peace was needed, but not what was at hand. But James’ solution was not what we might expect. He did not address the conflict between the members of the congregation directly. Rather, he addressed the conflict inside the members of the congregation. For James understood that when an individual’s heart is not right, that person’s relationships are all wrong as well. The world we live in bears witness to this truth, the world of our homes, the world of in which we are employed. The good news today is that Christians can create an atmosphere of peace around them by applying James’ tactics for winning the war within.
In preparation for applying these tactics, we must understand the commander’s mind, namely that acting according to the wisdom of God makes success possible. If we don’t act in accord with this wisdom, we will fail. Success in trials is evident in a relationship with Jesus, in which we are so convinced that he is better able to provide a joyful future for us than anyone else, that we obey his command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Just as he said in chapter one, wisdom is necessary to make righteous choices during our trials. So we can trust God to give us the wisdom by which we can succeed. Success in this situation is pictured as a harvest of righteousness. I think the implication we are to draw from this image is that wisdom and righteousness are intimately connected, that we can say, “If we will sow wisdom, we will reap righteousness.” (James is not the only one to make this connection. Proverbs is replete with explicit and implicit equations involving wisdom and righteousness.) Because we reap what we sow, to act wisely is, ultimately, to act righteously. So if we act wisely we will generate a large amount of righteousness. “Sowing in peace” describes the way we sow the seed. For righteousness to flourish, wisdom must be planted in a certain way. It must be planted by peaceful people in a peaceful way.
The peaceful manner James has in mind are deeds performed in meekness. The word we translate as A selfish ambition” is used in classical Greek to describe politicians, those who “court distinction, evince a desire to put oneself forward, have a partisan and factious spirit which does not disdain low arts.” This is the opposite of the meekness. Meekness is one of the most important of a Christian’s character traits. A meek Christian’s heart is full of a love for the glory of God, which love causes him to act in a way that points other people toward that glory so they can enjoy it too. Rather than put himself forward as glorious, the meek person wisely remains in the background. This action is righteous, because it’s always right to point people to the grace of God, and it is capable of generating similar responses in those who receive God’s grace through us. Thus we have a harvest of righteousness. Another harvest principle is at work here. Not only do we reap what we sow, we also reap more than we sow. So if we will meekly sow the seed of a wise deed, we will reap a harvest of righteousness.
On the other hand, James wants to avoid an environment in which we find disorder and every worthless practice. Who would want to live in such a community? Most people do not want instability and insignificance to characterize their neighborhoods. When they become this way, those who can, begin to move away. For example, my son says that there is instability in the neighborhood where he works; everyone who can has left. James knows this truth: Hearts fueled by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition destroy communities. They create such havoc because the deeds that come from self-centered, envious heart are designed to support only one person at the expense of everyone around them. This person acts in such a way that he uses people as means to his own ends, regardless of the effects his actions have on himself or on the community. James says such people say they’re wise, but they are not. Thinking he is wise because he has succeeded in accumulating some assets to his advantage, he boasts. But godly wisdom is the ability to foresee and plan what will give one the greatest happiness for the longest time. Think about this: We say God is wise because he foresees and plans what will make him as happy as possible for all of eternity (cf. Proverbs 8:22-30). If we are wise, we will act the same way. But the person against whom James argues boasts about his own wisdom. But his boasting is a lie against the truth that he has not been wise, but a fool. For he has destroyed his world, and he has dishonored God by refusing to call on his name as the creator of the world and the supplier of all our needs. The harvest of the demonic seed of envious self-centeredness is disorder and corruption, not “righteousness and peace and joy” (Romans 14:17).
If we adopt this posture of wisdom as we deal with the situations we face every day, what a different kind of world we would live in. When we meekly demonstrate the righteousness of faith in our lives, we’ll see the same kind of righteousness crop up in the lives of the community in which we live. This will occur as we apply the tactics James lays out in the remainder of the paragraph for winning the war within.
The War Within
Every war, every fight, every quarrel begins in the heart. Fights don’t begin as fights though. They begin with a sense of unrest, a lack of peace, a disturbance of our equilibrium. They begin with an awareness that our pleasure sensors have registered a decrease in the baseline amount of grace we think there ought to be in our lives. The Japanese have a word for this: “Wa.” Sounds funny to us, but the concept is clear: Everyone in the neighborhood has Wa because there is an equilibrium. When a new person moves in, he disturbs this Wa; so he must take gifts to his new neighbors to restore it. Same for a business moving into a new location; it must survey all the other similar businesses in the area to make sure it’s not going to disturb their Wa, their sense of peace and well-being. We don’t have a word for it, but we all know it takes a certain amount of goodness to keep us happy. When our supply runs low, we experience a conflict inside ourselves as we try to figure out how to refill our reservoirs, and what to put in them. The peace is disturbed in us before we disturb the peace around us.
If we were wise, we would overcome the ambition in our hearts to have more and better than anyone else at the expense of everyone else. But we don’t always act wisely, because we don’t always win the battle against sin in our own hearts. The sin isn’t in the sense of need or desire, but in the fear that we won’t get all we need to satisfy our hearts, and in the arrogant perception that we can do a better job at satisfying our hearts than God can; hence our seeing “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.”
The picture we get of the human predicament from James is not pretty. I think it is best summarized in the sentence in verse five: “The spirit he has caused to dwell in us yearns with envy.” This is not a sudden revelation for James. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes 4:4 says something very similar: “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” In other words, the pleasures that wage war inside us are the pleasure we have with the grace we know to be ours, and the pleasure we have with the grace we see in the lives of our neighbors. A wise person understands that the grace God gives each of us is sufficient enough for us to be satisfied and have some left over to give away. The fool, on the other hand, does not comprehend the power and wisdom of God’s disposition of his grace. So he is never satisfied with God’s provision and believes he is better able to meet his needs by taking from his neighbor the grace God gave him. This kind of thinking was at the core—pardon the pun—of Eve’s sin, and played itself out exquisitely when David saw Bathsheba, lusted after the grace God had given Uriah, and murdered him in order to have her, taking away God’s grace from Uriah for himself. These are just two examples of what James means when he says that the “spirit he has caused to dwell in us yearns with envy.” But at a simpler level, envy and arrogance cause the average person to gain new skills in order to pass up his neighbor and have a better looking lawn or drive a bigger car. The interpersonal struggles that arise from our errant thinking process can be grossly evil as in the case of murder, or merely irritating as in the case of office politics.
The first tactic we must employ is to ask God. When we try to obtain better circumstances for ourselves by our own efforts, divorced from God’s provision, we will usually fail; at least we will fail in the attempt to satisfy our hearts, even if we succeed in obtaining physical reality. The reason behind this failure is God. We don’t have because we don’t ask. So Christians must ask. When we want a change in our circumstances, we won’t succeed unless we seek it from his hand. But the prayer must be done properly. We must seek the change for the correct reason. The correct reason to ask for something from the Lord is so that it will enhance our pleasure in him. To ask for something because of the pleasure it gives apart from God is like being an adulteress. An adulteress asks money from her husband to spend it on her sexual partners. In so doing she becomes an enemy of her husband, for she acts in a way that destroys him as a husband. James calls this “friendship with the world.” To see the creation as the source of joy in our lives rather than the Creator is adultery. Not only that, it’s foolish. Scripture warns us about the consequences of proudly acting as though we could supply and satisfy our needs better than God. And Scripture presents astounding promises to us if we’ll humbly look to him for all that we are and have. It says in one succinct line: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Therefore we would do well if we submitted ourselves to God.
Oppose the Devil
Submission to God requires both a negative and a positive effort. The negative effort is that we oppose the devil. Flip Wilson’s immortal words “The Devil made me do it.” do not need to be true of us. That was Geraldine’s excuse for everything; it must not be our excuse for anything. The command in verse seven is more than just a command; it’s a promise. It reads: “Oppose the devil, and he will flee from you.” And it means that we must do this. But it also means that when we do it, the effect will be worth the effort. If we stand up to him, he will back down from us. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. Jesus opposed him three times before he left him—left him until another opportune time arose. Satan’s attacks did not stop in the wilderness, nor did Jesus’ opposition. He had to oppose him over and over again. He had to oppose him to the point of going to the cross (Matthew 16:23). That was his opposition to the work of Satan. So we can be certain that if we oppose him, he will back down. He may come back, but every time he does, he’ll back down. There’s no secret way to do this. James uses the same word for “oppose” in verse six as here in seven. God opposes the proud; we’re to oppose the devil. Part of it involves a mindset of opposition. Become a two year old to the Devil. What’ the one word a two year old uses more than any other? “NO.” If we will resolve ahead of time that we will reject his suggestions and his offers of a good future, we will be ready. We must remind ourselves often that he is a liar and that he does not have our good in mind. We build a mental defense behind which we make our stand. Then in the moment, we say no—aloud if we have to do so. As with any effort, it gets relatively easier the more we attempt it.
Draw Near to God
The positive part of submitting to God has two parts as well. One of the parts involves being sorrowful regarding all the times we proudly stood against him, trying to secure our pleasures on our own, in order to feel self-sufficient and glorious. The tendency to this kind of thinking and acting is still part of us, even after we are born again and have become disciples of Jesus. This double-minded way of acting dirties our hands every time we try to be friends with the world. Sorrow comes as we consider how foolish this is for us and how demeaning it is to our heavenly bridegroom. To the extent that we love Jesus, this godly sorrow moves us to stop being double-minded. Normally, when we feel miserable about something, we take one of two paths. Either we pretend the dilemma that’s causing our misery doesn’t exist; and we go on with life, content to let the cancer of our own personal lie fester in the dark. Or we get rid of the source of the misery so we’ll feel better. James’ recommendation of being miserable about our foolishness is supposed to be the second kind of remedy for our situation. We’re not supposed to stay miserable. He means us to humble ourselves before the God, because God is the one who will lift us up to glorious joy.
The second part of submitting to God involves drawing near to him. Our spirits can yearn with envy as we look at the world around us and think about stuff other people have that we would like. We can begin to believe that we have what it takes to bring grace into our lives to satisfy the yearnings. But God gives a greater grace. God gives greater grace that either you or I can provide for ourselves. He is wiser and more powerful than we. He is sufficiently happy in himself to be able to give grace to anyone who seeks it from him. Way more than we can give ourselves. Therefore Scripture says that he opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, to those who draw near and ask. Prayer is a humble act. We can’t ask if we’re not humble. … Here’s a helpful definition of grace: Grace is the overflow of joy that he has in himself moving out to bring joy to those who draw near to him. Grace, in itself, has nothing to do with sin. God is gracious to sinners, but God is gracious to the righteous also. The focus of grace is on the joy of the one who is gracious: God was gracious to Adam and Eve before they fell. God was gracious to Jesus as a young boy (Luke 2), and Jesus was not sinful in the least. God will be gracious to us in the age to come (Ephesians 2:7) in infinitely kind and useful ways. Grace has to do with God’s love for himself. So he gives a greater grace. And he only gives it to those who humbly draw near to him, submitting themselves to his disposition of his gifts. Draw near to God, James promises, and he will draw near to you. If in no other way, we do this in rightly intentioned prayer, asking from God in order to experience more of his love, so we can enjoy him and his love even more. We draw near by calling on his name as the gracious One, as the holy One—the one of infinite, unexcelled and irreplaceable worth. When we do this, we will be righteous, we will be meek, we will plant seeds of righteousness in the community around us and reap a harvest of peace. If we will single-mindedly focus our attention on him, as James has been advocating all along, he will respond by lifting us up into his joy. What more exalted, peaceful, satisfying place could we wish to be? What better way to create an atmosphere of righteous peace in ourselves and in community?
4:11-17 Overcoming Presumption
James 3:13-4:10 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his [wise] works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast [about being wise] and lie against the truth [of the fact that you aren’t]. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 Indeed, a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
James 4:11-17 11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? 13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
“So speak and so act as those who are judged by the Law of Liberty.” That’s how James concludes the first section of this letter. The summary phrase for that law of liberty is, “Love your neighbor as yourself” becomes the standard by which every action and word must be measured. Everything he’s written since then has developed or illustrated this command in some way:
In 2:14-26 actions that measure up to the Law of Liberty flow from faith and are rewarded with justification.
In 3:1-12 speech that measures up to the Law of Liberty blesses God and the men and women created in his image.
In 3:13-4:10 meekly loving deeds produce a harvest of similar righteous actions, which create intimate fellowship with God and a climate of peace between people.
As we live each day, we will experience situations that try our faith. They will test us to see if we will maintain and manifest our love for Jesus as love for our neighbors; or if we will arrogantly decide to take matters into our own hands, for our own glory, at the expense of the people around us. James wants us to succeed, God wants us to succeed, in these trials. He wants us to pass the tests so we will receive the crown of life and all the benefits of the kingdom of God that come to those who love the King. To the extent that we hold Jesus as valuable in our eyes, we will order our lives according to the instructions he gives us. If we humble ourselves in the presence of the King, he will lift us up along side of him, he will exalt us to be next to him, he will call us brothers and sisters, so that all our desires for pleasure will be fully satisfied in him, because he gives grace to the humble. Two weeks ago we learned that peace is possible when we act with Godly wisdom, and last week we considered the application of that wisdom to how we pursue our desire for the “things” of life. Today, the good news from James is that by applying godly wisdom we can overcome the inclination to presumption.
The first kind of presumption James wants us to avoid is slander. The command “Do not speak evil against” is a command not to make statements about our neighbors that present them in an unflattering way to those who are listening to us. Making negative comments about a person’s character or station in life, especially when they’re not true, is slander. The legal definition of slander in today’s law necessarily incorporates the idea of public lying. But the term James uses seems to carry a broader meaning. James is more concerned about the effect of the words we use than the words themselves. The purpose of slander is to make a person look bad in the eyes of those who hear us. James understands it to be a way of judging a person’s worth in the community, a way of discriminating against a person by advertising his faults for everyone to see. We can even use the truth to slander someone. If we know something negative about a person—something wicked the person has done in the past, some sinful tendency the person struggles with, some detail about the person’s heritage—by casting that information out into the public arena, we can create a negative perception about the individual that distorts the big-picture reality. When we do this in a close-knit community such as the church or a military unit, the effects can be devastating. The demonic wisdom behind this kind of attack rises from “bitter jealousy and self-centered ambition.” It causes “disorder and every evil thing.” This ought to be enough to persuade us not to slander. Understanding this truth should convince us that we don’t want to live in such circumstances. But James is not content with this level of argument.
While the sin against the person is grave, and the effects in the congregation are destructive of the community, James argues in verse 12 against slander by saying that it is presumptive against God. When he follows the statement about God’s being the only Lawgiver/Judge, because of his life and death authorities, with the question: Who are you to judge your neighbor? he means that we have exalted ourselves to the place of God and usurped his authorities. It’s very much like the situation I experienced in one unit I served. Because our tactical units were widely dispersed, we, who had operational control (OPCON) gave another operational unit tactical control (TACON) of our units for specific missions. Problems arose when that unit’s commander decided to reassign tactical control authority over our units to someone else. He did not have the authority to do this because our units were not under his operational control. From God’s point of view this kind of presumption cannot be allowed. We do not have the authority to judge our neighbors; only God does.
How does slandering someone cause this? When we slander someone, we malign the Law of Liberty at the same time. Not obeying the law implies that the law is bad. By publicly flouting the law, we set ourselves above the law. The only person above the law is the lawgiver/judge. —We must understand here, that laws in James’ day were not made by people who are under the law themselves. In those days, the king’s word WAS the law. [Under Israeli law, however, the king was under God’s law (Deuteronomy 17:19-20) but could make his own laws in that context] In our situation, the Constitution sits above the law, which is why many people are angered by the idea of judicial fiat.— In James’ mind the Law of Liberty is the ultimate law and its giver and judge is God, the one who has the authority of life and death. Because of this fact, every human being is equally subservient under the law. He makes the rules and he enforces the rules. Our responsibility is to trust his wise governance so we experience his salvation, rather than the destruction that goes to those who think they know better than God how to run his creation; we are doers of the law and not judges. If we apply godly wisdom to our relationships, the property of reasonableness—which is a property of godly wisdom—will enable these arguments to convince us to speak humbly and to speak kindly of our brothers and sisters, so we will overcome this inclination to presumption.
We don’t make the laws, so we shouldn’t be presumptuous and pretend that we do. Neither do we control the time of our lives. God speaks us into being (Psalm 148:5). He sustains us by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). If he did not continue to command that we BE, we would cease to exist. So we shouldn’t plan for the future as though we had control. The presumption that we are more than a vapor that passes away as we breathe it out will cause us to approach our future differently than James says is wise. James is all for planning. In fact, he is all for living and planning. Note what he says in verse 15: “If the Lord wills, we will live …” This should be the preamble to our planning. We must be before we can plan or execute. Presumption takes living for granted. The humility of godly wisdom remembers Proverbs 3:6—In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. It remembers Job 12:10—In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. It remembers this truth consistently and applies it to all life’s decisions. But just because we live by God’s grace, does not mean we can presume to succeed on our own. We must live and plan by his grace. We should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” The doing is just as much by the grace of God as the living.
But there’s more at stake here than just how we go about our daily lives. James aims again at our tongues, those deadly instruments. He began the paragraph with “Don’t speak against one another.” Now he begins, “Come now, you who say …” It would be foolish and wrong to plan without taking God into account. But the Christians who received this letter were doing more than that. They were boasting about how they were going to do their business. Arrogance in our hearts is bad enough; arrogance out in the open is worse. Why is it so bad? Because God’s reputation is at stake. When we boast of our self-sufficiency, we once again put ourselves in the place of the one who makes us sufficient. Moses warned Israel before they went into the Promised Land: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Eternal, your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). James makes the same warning. It seems to us like such a small thing because we hear such boasting all around us all the time. But this kind of practical atheism is evil at its core because it ignores God. When we ignore God, we imply his non-existence, which is how atheists think. In the Bible God uses the purpose clause, “so that you will know that I am the Eternal” eighty eight times, because the glory of his being is the most precious commodity in the universe. One day the knowledge of the glory of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). That’s a promise, written in stone. He will not allow anyone to take the glory that is due his name. When we boast of how we are going to live and do this or that apart from God, we point people to our glory and away from his. This is why it is evil and why it must not be the way Christians talk. The meekness of wisdom must move us to include God in the way we plan and in the way we talk about planning. Then we can hope, when we talk this way, when we act this way, to see the harvest of righteousness and a climate of peace.
James ends this long section that began back at 2:14 with these words: Therefore whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. They are a fitting conclusion, both today and for this long portion of the letter. If we know what the Law of Liberty says, as explained and described here, but we do not do it, we do not love the Lawgiver and we do not trust him to have our best in mind. If we do not aim at spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all people in the name of Jesus Christ by what we do and what we say each day, we sin. We demonstrate that we have no faith if we live this way. But now, through the efforts of Jesus’ brother James, we have a clearer picture of what’s involved in living by faith. So let us apply this wisdom to our lives and enjoy the saving work of the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
5:1-12 Patience in the Last Days
James 5:1-12 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. 7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You, indeed, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the completed work of the Lord, how the Lord is very deeply moved and merciful. 12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
I want to begin this today by considering three fundamentals of Christianity:
What is faith? In its essence faith is an affection of the heart, rooted in evidence of trustworthiness, and joyfully confident about related promises for a better future (Galatians 2:20). This is a definition of faith, not specifically Christian faith; it’s just the nature of faith as it applies in every part of our lives. This way of conceiving faith forces us to infer that faith is not static in that as long as it exists, a relationship between the believer and the promisor exists, in which the believer’s actions are designed to keep him in a position to obtain the promised benefits. In the language of Hebrews 6:11-12, faith is having such complete assurance that the promises will be kept, that we wait patiently for them to be fulfilled. In God’s view this kind of response to his promises is right (see Genesis 15:6 and Romans 4:16-25, esp. 22-24). So faith grows from being just a sense of assurance to become a promise from our hearts to wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled.
What is the Church’s first task? Its first task is to “make disciples.” In the Great Commission, we find a couple of complementary participles, but there is only one main verb in the imperative mood: Make disciples. But this answer forces another question: What does faith have to do with being a disciple? The discipling relationship begins with a promise: namely, By learning to be like me, you will be better off than you are right now. Again, this is true of all discipleship relationships. It’s true of the relationship between a Staff Sergeant and an Airman, between a Chief and another NCO. Wherever on the job training occurs, we see discipleship taking place, for the senior people are making the promise that their subordinates’ lives will be better if the subordinates will learn from them. Since discipleship begins with a promise, the only suitable response is a commitment to follow the master that flows from faith in the master and from delight in the end result he offers. Being a disciple involves believing the master knows the best way for one to live, and that he will command that lifestyle of those who would become like him and receive what he offers (Matthew 12:49-50, cf. 7:21). So all the obedience rendered by a disciple is faith working itself out in love—which keeps him rightly related to the master. Being a disciple also involves a commitment to finish the process—a commitment of faith, resting on evidence and seeing the future, which promises to persevere until the process is complete (see Luke 5:4-11; Matthew 10:22; Revelation 3:14-22).
What is one of the Church’s secondary tasks? One secondary task is to help disciples persevere until the end. Satan’s primary activity is working to undermine the faith of disciples, so they will quit following Jesus (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5). So we are in the midst of a battle for our souls. We cannot fight it alone; at least we were not intended to fight this way. It’s clear from several narratives and letters that perseverance was meant to be a community project. We give up some things to follow Jesus, but at the same time we receive more resources than we give up. We struggle in our hearts to be holy and that battle is about seeing the promises Jesus guarantees more clearly than ones that Satan offers (Galatians 5; Ephesians 6). We are attacked and deceived by sin in many ways, so that we need each other to encourage each other (Hebrews 3; 10) and to get us back on the right track. Sometimes we enter a state in which we are so weary in our battle against sin that we are ready to give up and throw in the towel. But God foresaw this need in every age, and inspired Jesus’ brother James to help us win the battle.
In chapter 5 James returns to the theme with which he opened his letter, the necessity of maintaining a godly stance in the face of oppression—both from outside (5:1–6)—and from within the church (5:9, cf. 4:11) while the Lord delays his return. Everything in the first six verses of the chapter leads up to, and everything in the next four verses looks back to, the commands of 7 & 8—be patient and strengthen your hearts. This week were going to consider what we can do as individuals and next week we’ll finish our study by thinking together about how to help one another maintain strong hearts, so we’ll persevere to the end.
Considering the Bad Guys
Those who love Jesus will receive the “crown of life” and will be “heirs of the Kingdom” (1:12; 2:5). They are those who are rich in faith, who have every confidence in God and his plan for the redemption of the elect. They may or may not actually have money, but they do not put their trust in what it can do for them. The rich whom James castigates in this passage do not have these joys to anticipate. They can only look forward to misery. It is so certain that he warns them they might as well begin to howl and weep right now. How miserable will they be? Everything on which they have set their hope will be destroyed. Their “riches,” the money itself, will go away. The foundation for their future joy will rot and crumble. When Jesus returns as the Judge, their gold and silver and stocks and bonds will immediately lose their value. All the durable goods from which they would draw their power to order the world around them will fester and rot, so they lose the ability to make things be the way they want them to be. Along with their riches, they will lose their clothes. In the history of humanity, clothes serve a purpose beyond that of protecting us from the elements. When Adam and Eve sinned, they discovered they were naked and then felt ashamed about this fact. They had made the strategic blunder of saying they could order their future better than God. The realization of nakedness was not just physical; they realized they were devoid of the ability they presumed to have. So they decided to cover themselves so they would at least appear competent. So we can see why clothing has taken on such great value, why many actually believe that “clothes make the man” (or woman, as the case may be). We all judge the success or failure of people by the way they dress. We do this because our culture teaches us to present a façade to the world that implies that we can handle it all. So James says that all of their symbols of self-sufficiency and status will no longer portray them as the omni-competent Ubermensch they believe themselves to be. So which would you rather have, money and clothes now—knowing that they will be stripped away so you will be poor and naked for eternity—or Jesus now and the riches of the King for eternity? Don’t give up the faith.
Along with stacking up resources they think will be the guarantee of their future, and robbing their workers to obtain these resources, the rich have made themselves truly repugnant to God by killing the righteous. We have spent the better part of a year removing from power in Iraq people who are perfect examples of these verses. Saddam Hussein and his sons and their officials “lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. [They] fattened [their] hearts in a day of slaughter.” But they are not the only ones. This kind of behavior has gone on for thousands of years. The unrighteous non-believer has always taken advantage of the righteous believer. More than take advantage, they have killed them and used the property of their victims to fatten themselves. The Lord will not allow this to go unpunished. Justice will be dispensed because God’s righteousness is at stake here. The righteous will proceed into the Kingdom as is fitting, for the righteous are righteous in that they fully depend on the Lord their God, thereby conforming themselves to God’s delight in his all sufficiency. So we will be welcomed by the King and the unrighteous will not be welcomed by him. The unrighteous will find out how much God hates the unrighteousness of their rejection of him and all that he offers to those who will entrust their futures to him. As Jesus said, this justice will be swift and sure, and those on whom it falls will be miserable indeed.
So then, patience is the order of the day—patience is necessary while we wait expectantly for Christ to return so we can reap the harvest of righteousness that we have been planting. We must be like the farmers of James’ day who knew that they would only have crops if they waited for both the early and the late rains. Giving up before the crops were ready would be disastrous. Giving up before the Lord returns will cause us to forfeit all the joy that comes when the crops are finally ready and the harvest is in. We can avoid this tragedy by keeping in mind the miseries that will befall everyone who acts like the rich who were tormenting the churches.
But patience must not be passive! It must be more than waiting while we consider the bad future of those who are causing us to suffer. So James repeats the command and tells us what patience looks like while we wait for the Lord to return. The command to “strengthen your hearts” moves us in a positive direction. Soul work is necessary in order to persevere. To make the connection between patience and a strong heart more compelling, James repeats the primary argument from before the commands, namely, that they should remember the judgment of the Lord is near. But he moves on immediately to tell us what is involved in the process of strengthening weary hearts. We can strengthen our hearts for patience by following the directions he lays out in this passage.
Follow the Example of the Old Guys
We all know the value of examples. It helps when we can observe someone else do what we’ve been asked to do. Examples prove that success is possible. If anybody can do it, then anybody can do it! Because Christians need to be able persevere under different kinds of trials, we need different kinds of examples. James gives us two. To show us it can be done, he uses an example of two groups of people who suffered more and endured longer, the prophets and Job.
What should we see when we look at them? What is it about them that gives us enough hope to be patient, longsuffering saints? We need to understand two truths that are found in the differing situations of the examples. The first truth is that God sustained the prophets during adversity administered by people who should have been their friends, even to the point of death. We know from experience that not everyone in the visible Church is a believer. Jesus warned us that this would be the case (Matthew 13:24-49). So we shouldn’t be surprised when hypocrites show up in a congregation, nor should we use this fact as a reason for quitting ourselves. Jesus also mentions several times that the Jewish nation killed the prophets God sent them. He’s only specific about a couple of them:
Matthew 23:34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. 37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!
Here’s an another instance of one of them: 2 Chronicles 24:20 Then the Spirit of God clothed Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, and he stood above the people, and said to them, “Thus says God, ‘Why do you break the commandments of the Eternal, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Eternal, he has forsaken you.’” 21 But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Eternal.
Job’s adversity came from a different source. Job’s adversary was Satan. He charged God with being unrighteous in his dealings with Job, suggesting that Job only loved the gifts of God rather than the giver. So by the will of God through the agency of Satan, Job suffered what our insurance carriers term “acts of God.” As the adversity of Job was different than the prophets, the outcome was also different. This is the second truth: God sustained Job while he used adversity to magnify his own worthiness and to purify Job’s heart of religious pride. The first two chapters of Job proved God was righteous; Job was righteous which proved God was righteous. So the challenge of the Adversary ended. But the rest of the book is about how God used these circumstances to sanctify Job even more. God used this time to cause some religious pride, of which Job was not aware, to rise to the surface, so Job could recognize it and repent. We need to see that God sustained him through this process! One famous line from that profound discourse is “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (13:15). Job was certain of the Lord’s presence in his ordeal: “He knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold” (23:10). Job proves to be a good example because we see that God vindicated Job’s faith by blessing him more abundantly in the end than in the beginning.
So we have two examples to consider as we suffer in the obedience of faith that we render to Christ. Two examples are necessary, because by putting them together James prohibits us from believing the Lord will always restore physical comfort—many of the prophets died, and he encourages us to rest in the fact that he will defeat Satan and bring us to a position of ultimate joy in fellowship with him.
Don’t Try to Wrest Control from God
The prophets and Job survived because of God’s direct action and because their faith enabled them not do some of the things James commands his readers not to do. Before he starts the section on prayerful fellowship in 13–20, which we’ll cover next week, he tells us we must not groan/grumble against one another (in 9) and we must not misuse oaths (in 12). James argues against groaning and swearing in 9–12 by presenting the certainty that judgment will occur for anyone who tries to control the goodness of their circumstances instead of trusting God to do so. The Judge is not just coming; he is near. Grumbling against the brethren sets oneself up as judge against them. We learned why this is so wrong a earlier in the letter (4:11-17). There speaking against a brother or sister in Christ meant we had taken on the role of judge, stealing it away from Christ himself. Grumbling out loud in the congregation here indicates that we believe we are better able to remedy the situation than Jesus is; this isn’t the way a faithful disciple acts. Don’t misunderstand: there is a place for church discipline. Jesus talks about it; Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians. The New Testament gives us ways to bring misbehavior to the attention of the congregation and the leadership of the church so it can be resolved. But that’s not what James was condemning. The people of his congregations seem to have been slandering one another with a view to demeaning their adversaries in the eyes of the rest of the Body. Acting this way indicated that they were not trusting God through the leadership of the church, or any other way, to exercise his prerogatives to right all wrongs. They believed they had the right to do so, at the expense of the health of the church and the destruction of their adversaries.
Swearing an oath is either an attempt to obligate God in our relations with others, or an attempt to define commitments so carefully that we can wiggle out of them with ease. This is worse than grumbling. Eternal life is at stake because this is such as affront to the dignity and majesty of God. It is a direct violation of the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Jesus weighed in against the first use of oaths in the Sermon on the mount: You can’t even change the color of your hair by bargaining with God (5:36). We shouldn’t say, If you’ll do this for me, God; then I’ll do this for you. “God is not served by men’s hands as though he needed anything.” So we do wrong when we try to manipulate him with these kinds of bargains. The other kind of oath Jesus condemns in Matthew 23:16 where he exposes the Pharisees’ practice of defining an oath’s terms so minutely that they could weasel out of it if there were the smallest infraction. So he says that we must let our “Yes” be exactly and simply that, an all-encompassing affirmation, behind which we will stand no matter how disadvantageous it might become as events unfold. We must be clear. We don’t need an infinite amount of wiggle room. We must trust God and be honest in our dealings with others. This practice indicated that they had no faith in God’s ability to rule in the affairs of men.
So how do we conclude? We should take Abraham’s position: The judge of all the world will do right. Our task is to trust him enough to be honest in all that we do and say. We can even say that we should be like the prophets and Job who suffered but did not do so in violation of God’s sovereignty. Groaning and swearing oaths weaken the heart rather than strengthen it. Remembering the promise of Psalm 37:6 that “he will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your judgment as the noonday” when Christ returns, will enable us to hold fast to the Lord instead of taking matters into our own hands. This is the way we achieve and demonstrate our perfect patience in the face of every kind of adversity.
5:13-20 Weak-Kneed Saints on Their Knees
James 5:13-20 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you weak? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is weary, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be restored: The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Remember way back to the beginning of the letter. James tells us that we are to “count it all joy when we encounter various trials” because successfully passing the tests of faith will enable us to continue loving Jesus until the end. He helped us consider this truth in various contexts throughout the letter. As he progressed it became clearer and clearer that how individuals responded to adversity affected not only the individual, but also the community of believers. While the “Royal Law” of “Love Your Neighbors As Yourself” led to James’ injunction to speak and act as those who are judged by this law, most of the subsequent instruction focused on the speak portion of that injunction. Hence the command in 4:11 “Do not speak against one another,” and the command in 5:9 “Do not complain against one another.” James knew the devastating effect of words that do not conform to the Royal Law. Unloving words destroy faith, both the faith of the speakers and the faith of the hearers.
So in the previous section we read about two examples of people who suffered through unloving speech and unloving actions, Job and the Prophets. We need strong hearts to be patient through our suffering. Without strong hearts we may turn to disaffected speech ourselves, even to the point where we try to manipulate God through the abuse of oaths. Worse, we may even entertain the possibility of giving up entirely, of abandoning the truth about the good and happy future Jesus has prepared for those who persevere in loving him.
It’s helpful to consider those who have succeeded. But we may need to do more. James then seems to anticipate the question, “What about those who are so discouraged and disheartened that they consider giving up?” by writing 13–20. I draw this conclusion because he uses the same word for suffering in verse 13 that he used in verse 10 to indicate the suffering of the prophets. So it seems that he is asking: Is anyone of you having an experience similar to the prophets? Or, conversely, is any of you “feeling intensely good”? This sets up the normal ends of the continuum. And the means for strengthening hearts is the same: prayer. One prayer is a petition for help and the other a paean of praise. But both are prayers. But what happens when we’re experiencing so much adversity that we can’t even ask God for help, when we just want to give up and quit? We may look down on those who display this kind of weakness, but fortunately Jesus does not. We know this because just before Peter denied Jesus, his Master told him that he had prayed for him. So confident was he of an answer to this prayer that he gave Peter instructions of what to do when he had recovered from his failure. The point is that though Jesus knew Peter would fail, he did not give up on him. He does not break a bruised reed or snuff a smoldering ember (Isaiah 42:3). Unlike the cadre during selection for Delta Force or during Hell Week of BUDS, Jesus is not trying to weed out the quitters. He doesn’t say, “Get with the program or quit; just ring the bell!” Neither should anyone else in the Church. So when James gets to verse 14 we find the answer to the question of what the weak should do. Prayer is again the answer. But the good news isn’t “Just Pray!” The good news is that when we’re weak, we can regain our strength through the various prayer ministries offered in the community of faith, ministries that don’t require the weak person to pray.
If you’re familiar with this text, you’ve probably already noticed that I used a translation different from the familiar. Because I believe there is a long history of misunderstanding with respect to this text, I need to present a stronger case for why James is aiming at weakness of faith rather than weakness of body as some have asserted. One indication that this was on his mind is that he hasn’t given any clue that he is changing subjects as he moves from 5:1–20, so we should continue to think in terms of longsuffering and strengthening hearts. Thus weakness of heart in the presence of opposition which has been the focus in this paragraph, indeed of the entire letter, seems to be the focus now—rather than weakness of body—a weakness so great that the person can’t pray for himself as James commands in 13, probably because of a sense of guilt over his sin, hence the need for elders, who, in this context are assumed to have hearts strong enough to pray with faith.
Another concern here is the meaning of the Greek word in question here: asthenew. Its root and primary meaning is “ being weak,” which when applied to the body can indicate physical illness. But we are justified in understanding it here as being spiritual weak because of the large number of times other New Testament writers and speakers use it this way; for example:
MARK 14:38 “Keep watching and praying, that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
1 THESSALONIANS 5:14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
ROMANS 6:19 I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.
I chose these verses not just to display their use of this word family, but because they also show the relationship between spiritual weakness, prayer, and fellowship that was commonly made among the leaders of the Church. As James closes this letter, he focuses on fellowship, on how we can succeed in our faith trials together.
But what of the “anointing with oil” that is mentioned here? Does that indicate physical illness is in James’ mind? It might. But anointing with oil was not always done for every illness in those days, usually just for wounds. In this passage no specific malady is mentioned, if he is referring to disease. So the probability that he is thinking of oil as medicinal is not strong. Anointing with oil was usually (in about 95% of the cases in Scripture where the words “anointing” and “oil” occur together) a sign of bestowing the blessing of God on a person. It was used in temple ceremonies. And it was used socially in a couple of ways:
LUKE 7:46 “You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with perfume.”
HEBREWS 1:9 You loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, your God, anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions.
What could be more helpful than to have the elders come, pray and symbolize the outpouring of God’s grace and mercy by anointing with oil, for the purpose of reestablishing someone’s very weak faith? God will answer the prayer with renewed vision of his ultimate triumph—as he did with Job.
James uses another word in verse 15 to describe these people; it can be translated “weary” or “sick.” Its root and primary use is to denote weariness (cf. Hebrews 12:3—Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you who are losing heart might not grow weary in your souls). But we must ask which fits better in this context? If I am correct about the beginning of the chapter, then weariness in the face of opposition is more in view than illness. It also fits better with the meaning of the verb to save. The phrase about forgiveness makes better sense with this construal as well. Someone weak and weary in faith in the face of adversity may very well have sinned in response to that hostility. —James has already indicated that lashing out with our tongues to hurt those who have hurt us, or to hurt others because we are hurt, has actually occurred. The old aphorism, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is rubbish. I’ve seen my teenaged daughter cry, never because someone hurt her physically, always because someone hurt her verbally.—So the promise of forgiveness along with the promise of restoration/deliverance from weariness gives added incentive to go to the elders for their prayer. This is good news: When we’re feeling too weak to pray for our own spiritual survival, we can expect the elders, the ones in the congregation who are strong in faith, to pray for us, and we can expect that God will answer that prayer with forgiveness and the restoration of our faith.
The next level of prayer ministry to which we can turn when we’re weak is another brother or sister in Christ. In verse 16 he says, “Indeed, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.” So when we arrive at the conclusion of this argument and encounter yet another word related to healing, we are not drawn into the medical realm, but are free to stay with the spiritual application of this term, similar to that made in Hebrews 12:13 and 1 Peter 2:24— “pray for one another so that you may be restored.” (See also Matthew 13:15, John 12:40) Now we can see that the command of the preceding verses and this verse are arranged in parallel:
|Call for the elders
Let them pray … in faith
The weary one will be saved, raised up & forgiven
|Confess your sins to one another
The righteous should pray earnestly for this one
Each confessing one will be restored
Using Elijah as an example of a righteous man standing in the face of adversity (the reason for calling attention to his nature’s being like ours) and praying earnestly in accordance with God’s commands, reinforces the picture of church elders as men of faith, who have maintained their faith in the face of opposition. But this command moves us beyond the elders to the fellowship of believers. Elijah is not just an example for the elders, but for everyone. Elijah was a prophet to the ten northern tribes, a prophet to Israel as distinct from Judah. He had to stand against the most wicked king of Israel, Ahab—and his wife Jezebel. This was difficult for him. Even after he saw God defeat the prophets of Baal, he ran into the desert and cried about how tough his life was. So it’s clear from Scripture that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours. It helps all of us in the church aim to be earnest and righteous enough to be certain of answered prayer, which is accomplished by entrusting our future to the Lord—the “right” stance to take. James condescends to those who are just too embarrassed to go to someone in leadership by giving us permission to go to a faithful friend. We are not limited to the organizationally faithful, but are exhorted to go to one another to be encouraged and strengthened.
Sometimes the weak in faith won’t call the elders or come to a member of the fellowship. We must go after them. So we see as James concludes the letter in 5:19-20. James is not introducing some new thought at the last minute. This further strengthens the argument for not construing “sickness” as James’ subject in the preceding verses. Dropping sickness into the middle of James’ letter destroys the continuity of his thought; it is totally foreign to everything else he’s doing in the letter. And it forces these last two verses into the status of logical non sequiturs. Rather, he is making a conclusion to this section and doing it in terms of the issue of truth. We were brought forth by the word of truth in 1:18. Now we are to rescue those who are wandering from that truth. Prayer is not so much in view here, but the parallels are striking: note how saving the wandering one in 20 parallels saving the weary one in 15; and how covering sin in 20 parallels forgiveness in 15 and restoration in 16).
|– Call for the elders- Let them pray … in faith
– The weary one will be saved, raised up & forgiven
|– Confess your sins to one another
– The righteous prays effectively for this one
– Each confessing one will be restored
|– Talk about the truth of God.
– If this persuades the wanderer to return,
– his sins will be covered and he will be saved in the end.
Our lives together, succeed or fall as we live together. People who are weak in the faith and weary of hanging on to the hope of justice, even to the point of trying sinfully to bring it about themselves, need to be returned to the truth by which they first began their relationship to Christ. Perseverance is necessary, and it is possible only in the fellowship of the body of Christ as elders and other members pray and exhort in the light of the promises given in this passage, and as people go looking for those who are wandering. The promises are for restoration of courage and closeness of fellowship with the Lord. Humility, repentance and the prayer of the righteous are the means for experiencing God’s grace in the midst of tough times, especially the dysfunction that occurs in the Church when Christians are in conflict with one another. So if you are strong, seek for ways to restore those who are weak; if you are weak, seek the ministry of those who can help you regain your strength; so all of you can wait patiently and eagerly for the Lord’s return.