There were many instances in the Old Testament when the prophet of God spoke in harsh words of God’s righteous judgement against a foreign nation or king for their rejection of God or injustices.
Many times, the subject of the prophecy wasn’t in fact in earshot of the words of God, but God’s people were. And because of the way God’s word works and always accomplishes that which God intended it to (Isaiah 55:8-11), it didn’t even matter if King Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar or Pharoah could hear God’s word of judgement. Nothing could stop what God had proclaimed against them (Isaiah 43:13).
When God spoke through the prophet against the wickedness of a foreign king, within the earshot of God’s people, they had the opportunity to hear who God is, what God is like & what He will not leave unpunished. And so when they overheard God’s judgements of foreigners, they had an opportunity to reform their ways, adjust their lives & thinking to God’s revealed will.
But what does that have to do with James 5:1-6 though I hear you ask?
Well James is a little like an Old Testament prophet at times, he speaks the truth in agitated and urgent ways, his words cut to the heart, not to hurt but expose our hearts to reform them.
And just like the Old Testament prophets sometimes spoke in terms of judgement towards those, not in the room. Similarly, James here is writing to Christians speaking in judgement to unsaved people who will face the wrath of God for their wicked ways.
I say this because we who are Christ Followers will not face the wrath of God for our sin because Jesus paid for our sin. The believer has no fear of punishment to come – we will regret that we did not respond more wholeheartedly in this life to God’s gift to us but ought not to have any fear of condemnation – Romans 8:1.
But as we listen in to James scathing pronouncement of the judgement of God on those who have not put their faith in Jesus – we can learn about God, we can be sensitised to the things that please and displease our Father in Heaven (Ephesians 5:10). And because we listened in, we can repent if any of these things are still resident in us so that we can change to be more pleasing to God our Father.
So what can we listen in on, to find out what pleases & displeases our Father in James 5:1-6?
1. Humility (vs1) – wealth tends to pride (1 Timothy 6:17). Trust in self. Here James calls for humble contrition & reflection. May we be humble, contrite & thinking about today in light of eternity!
2. Temporary vs eternal, hoarding vs investing (vs2-3) – the things of this life are passing away, are not eternal. Thinking short and not long is foolishness in the extreme. Jesus advised us to store up for ourselves riches in heaven where moth and rust can’t destroy them (Matthew 6:19-24). We are not to hoard wealth for ourselves here on earth; we are not to functionally be putting our trust in our wealth, which is so uncertain but to be ‘rich in good works’, ‘generous & ready to share’ thus investing for ourselves treasure for eternity! (see 1 Timothy 6:17-19).
3. Injustice (vs4&6) – God hates injustice. God always sides with; God will defend the marginalised, the abused & the downtrodden. Wealth = power in this present life and the rich use their power to control people, use their power to use people to enrich themselves further. Here James warns us strongly about such injustices as not paying proper wages to those who work for us – the Lord of hosts hears the cries of injustice from the poor and the righteous (vs6), and He will act on their behalf. So, how are you treating anyone who works for you? The Lord of hosts is watching, sees everything. Does anything need to change?
4. Self-indulgent Comfort (vs5) – the god of this age is comfort. So much of our technology serves our god of comfort and convenience. We live in an age where food is no longer primarily about nutrition but has been turned into art & recreation & entertainment we watch! Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 warns us about living self-indulgently while ignoring the plight of those around us.
In South Africa, these verses are even more relevant than in some other contexts. We have a dark, sad history of injustice and oppression of disempowered people and the lingering legacy of that corrupt system of Apartheid. And we have a continuing story of injustice and corruption with the widespread abuse of power for personal gain at the expense of the poor, that we have witnessed since 1995.
If you are a believer, have you truly repented of the sins of our nation and have you acknowledged how you might have benefitted from that injustice and still benefit today? Do not the cries of the poor in our nation with its excessive levels of inequality come before the Lord of hosts?
Are you using whatever wealth or possessions you might have in such a way that results in much good to others, are you rich in good works, are you generous and ready to share? (1 Timothy 6:18)
If you are, you are godly & you are thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Timothy 6:19).
May I urge you to listen in, to James’ scathing rebuke of rich ungodly wicked people, and in so doing may you and I know more about what matters to our Father who is in heaven, and may we live to please Him in these things.
The things we say to one another have a way of exposing the underlying operating system of our hearts (Matthew 12:34). So, what matters is not just the words we say but why we say them.
Taking James 4:13-17 too literally would lead to one prefacing everything or ending everything you say with “if the Lord wills…” To do so misses the whole point – it’s not about what you say so much as why you say what you say. It’s about the attitude of the heart that is the reason you think and speak as you do.
James 4:13-17 is all about us, setting the dials of our lives on humility, not arrogance. Living with a certain humility that comes from knowing who we are and how temporal and not in control, we are.
Who hasn’t spoken words similar to those in vs13?
- Next year I’m going to study at…
- Next month I’m moving to…
- I’m going to have three children…
- When I am married…
We don’t typically intend to be boastful when we speak like this, and yet if we are not careful these sorts of statements about the future and our future plans are devoid of a sense of;
- Reverence for God (Proverbs 9:10)
- Laying our lives & plans down in submission to God’s will (2 Cor 5:14)
- An awareness of our frailty & our transience (vs14)
- And our inability to control very much of what happens in our lives (vs14)
Jesus taught us to pray; ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done’ (Matthew 6:9-10). This is how to set your life-dial on humility. To pray like this, think like this, live like this. To live surrendered to God, wanting to do His will not boastfully thinking and speaking about the future as if you’re in charge of your life but living your life in reverent worship of Him who is Lord of all.
So, set your life-dial on humility – don’t invite God into your plans for your life, but humbly, daily ask Him to show you His plans for your life.
In vs11-12, James comes back to the topic of the tongue and the way we speak to one another. Here James summarises; “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers & sisters.”
The church is a family, filled with real relationships; fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters in Christ. Those who come to faith in Jesus Christ get enfolded into a set of family relationships – is the language of the New Testament.
As a father of four children, and having been raised in a family of four siblings I know that siblings and families don’t always speak to one another according to the instruction of Ephesians 4:29! But we ought to. We ought to build one another up in love not speak evil destructive words over those God has put in closest proximity to us.
We didn’t choose our earthly siblings, but we are joined together for life. Similarly, we don’t choose our heavenly, but we are joined together for eternity. And our Father, much like any parent, desires that we use our tongues to build one another up and not tear one another down.
God’s Word in the OT denounced things like slander & gossip (see Leviticus 19:16; Psalm 50:20 & Jeremiah 6:28), and such instructions are repeated for the believer in the NT (Romans 1:30; 2 Corinthians 12:20 & 1 Peter 2:1).
So, to ignore God’s revealed will by speaking slander to one another is to rubbish God’s law (vs11) or to place oneself over and above the law setting yourself up as the judge of what is right and wrong.
And that’s not wise, James says; since there is only ‘one lawgiver and judge’ (vs12). So to speak evil/slander against brothers and sisters & or to judge others (Matthew 7:1–5) break’s both God’s law and shows contempt for God who is the only judge.
We are the family of God. Our Father’s will is clear – that we love one another, with our words and our actions. May we all remain vigilant to build one another up and not speak evil against each other, knowing that in the church, the other person is a beloved child of our Father who is in heaven too.
- Do an audit of your week and your conversations – how are you doing?
- Is there anything you need to repent of, make right?
- How can you be more vigilant going forward?
Having urged us not to befriend the world (in the sense of compromising so that we live like the world & or putting our trust in worldly things rather than in God), now James urges us to befriend God.
The God of the Bible is not dispassionate; instead, He is righteously jealous for us, yearning for a relationship with us (vs5). God wants us for Himself; He went to great lengths to send His Son Jesus to die in our place for our sin SO THAT we could be restored to a right relationship with Him, so it is unsurprising to learn that God is jealous for us.
And yet our relationship with God is a strange unequal relationship. He is holy God almighty; we are tiny little people, sinful people. It’s like a friendship where one person always does the giving! They take all the initiative; they are continually blessing their friend, paying for everything, lifting the other friend around, giving, giving, giving. And yet both want the relationship.
Because of who we are, because of our frailty and our failings, for us to stay in relationship with God needs God to be continuously gracious towards us. And that’s precisely what He is and does; God gives more grace, all the time (vs6), God lavishes grace on us. He can handle our need of grace, is even drawn to our need of grace, but is offended by self-reliant pride.
So surrender and receive His loving disposition towards you. Tuck into His care and protection, thank Him for and receive His grace. As you do, you’ll become closer and closer to God, which will enable you to resist your enemy.
I think of the tiny weedy Grade 8 at High School who looks like they belong in Grade 6 still because the testosterone hasn’t kicked in yet. They are vulnerable to bullying by the thugs of the school, a target for abuse and taunting. But they have this massive gentle giant of a Grade 12, the Head Prefect of the school. And he wants to be their friend; if only they would stick close with him, the resident school thug won’t risk coming close because they know the Head Prefect will defend his little friend and they know he is in authority at the school and so can’t compete. That small Grade 8 just needs to say; ‘I need help’ and the Head Prefect will rush to his side to help, and the thug won’t dare come close.
If we would just humble ourselves and call out to God, He will rush to our sides. And with God by our side, who can be against us and succeed (Romans 8:31-32)? We have a promise here, that if we draw near to God, if we stay tucked into our relationship with Him, near Him – then the devil will flee from us, will leave us alone because God is greater and more powerful than him.
So, every day. Draw near to God, reach out to God in prayer and worship, knowing He will respond and come near to You because He loves you and is jealous for you. And with God by your side, you won’t have to fear anything or anyone (read Romans 8:31-39).
James has been at pains to describe in his letter, that true faith/religion;
– Endures through trials of all kinds
– Seeks wisdom for God
– Is not double-minded or sharp-tongued
– Does not just hear the Word of God but acts on it
– Doesn’t show partiality
– But loves people
– Results in lives that are not full of quarrels or jealousy or selfish behaviour but rather lives that are pure and peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy…
Then in James 4:4-5, as believers, we are warned strongly, even rebuked for being unfaithful to God because we have befriended the world. The language used here is severe and thought-provoking indeed – ‘You adulterous people!” Serious stuff this.
But this raises some questions;
How are we guilty of befriending the world and so being adulterous to God?
And how can we reconcile this with God’s love for the world (John 3:16) and God’s mandate for us to reach the world with His love and the message of how His Son loved the world by dying on the cross for our sin to offer us forgiveness?
A) Befriending the world
James is using the language of the Old Testament here, where God speaks to His people through the prophets several times (e.g., Jer. 2:20; 3:6–10; Hos. 1:2) about their unfaithfulness to him being like adultery. They had broken the relationship, had placed their hope and trust in other things, small-g-gods, their ability etc. So may we heed the warning and we not live worldly lives that are characterised by a lack of exclusive trust in God alone & a prioritising of our relationship with God above all else.
B) Are we to love the world or not?
We know that God was so moved by love for the world stuck in its sin and shame that God, the Father, sent God the Son to come and die in our place for our sin. John 3:16 is explicit that God has loved the world & that love for the world was the motivating force behind the incarnation and the cross of Christ. So are we not to love the world too? To be like God.
We are not to love the world in the sense of being unfaithful to God and not trusting Him alone. We are not to love the world in the sense of living with the very same passions and desires that the world has and so find ourselves unfaithful and in compromise. Be we are to love the world in the sense that God has through sending Jesus. We are to love all people because they are like sheep without a shepherd and God is calling them to return to Him, to repent so that they can receive the good news about Jesus and be saved.
God loves you, and I jealously (vs5), God does not want to share you and your affections with anything or anyone else. So give all of yourself in worship to God, be wholehearted and love and worship and trust Him exclusively. Be ruthless with sin and compromise so that it can not be said of you that you are enamoured with the world and what it promises but that you are infatuated with God!
From James 3:1-5 we know that the tongue is like the ‘master’ key to a Holy life. It is the one member of our bodies which has a significant x-factor! It can direct our lives just like a rudder or bridle can a ship or horse – so the tongue is supremely significant.
Even more so, because of its tremendous capacity for destruction and because of it’s resistance to restraint. The tongue in James 3:6-12 is likened to a fire, a spark that can set the whole of our lives on fire and it is compared to an untamable creature, full of deadly poison.
James’ descriptions of our tongue should shake us awake, alert us to the danger of underestimating this little member of the body. Our words, can and do start unholy fires. Untamed, our tongue is ‘a world of unrighteousness’ within us.
So can it be tamed? Humanly speaking, James says; ‘No way!’ “…but no human being can tame the tongue.” (James 3:8) We can tame tigers, falcons & snakes, “but the tongue It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8)
But if the tongue can’t be tamed then what’s the use of warning us about its power for destruction if we can’t do anything to stop it?
James doesn’t say anything more on this question. He may feel that the hint is plain enough. That although we can’t humanly tame the tongue, tame it on our own, he knows that there was a day on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:2–4) there came a different fire from heaven to spark new fires in those gathered and to fill them with the very power they needed to have victory in life!
So, draw on the Holy Spirit’s help. Ask God to fill you again and to change you from the inside out, ask the Holy Spirit to help you get your tongue under the control of His power.
So that you won’t be like those who with their tongues bless God and with the same tongues curse the very men and women God made in his image! Pray for the Holy Spirit’s help in becoming consistent throughout your life, having no hypocrisy or inconsistency but being godly through and through.
Take time now to ask for the help of the Helper of heaven – the Holy Spirit.
Learning to drive a manual shift car one has to learn to coordinate the mind, the feet & the hands. Once you have been driving for a while, you don’t even think about these diverse tasks that need to happen in synchronicity. But during the learning phase, synchronisation is the goal but not always that easy to achieve. Sometimes the engine is getting all the petrol it needs to go forward from the foot, the correct gear has been selected by the hand and head but the clutch hasn’t been released by the other foot, and so much despite their being much in the way of noise and fumes there is no momentum.
Faith and works are a little like the accelerator and the clutch. Having faith without works is like pressing down the accelerator without releasing the clutch.
James uses two examples in our passage from biblical history to show how faith and works are so inextricably intertwined.
The first is the account of Abraham in Genesis 22 when God told him to take Isaac his beloved promised son, and to give him to God as an offering! Hebrews looking back on this moment says; “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Abraham believed God’s goodness & trusted in God’s unseen plan, and so he put his faith into action by placing Isaac on the altar. We know the story, how God intervenes and how the angel of the Lord comes to Abraham to bless him for his act of obedience, his faith in action saying at one point you shall be blessed because; “you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:18) Abraham didn’t just SAY he believed God, his faith; “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22).
The second example is the account of Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho who also believed God and acted on that faith. Rahab turned from faith in the gods of her people, she believed that the God of Israel was the one true God and so acted on her faith and harboured the foreign spies making a deal to save her family.
Abraham the father of faith and Rahab a disreputable foreigner, both joined faith and action. In using these two people as examples, James has linked faith and action in such a way that the point he is making in this passage applies to us all without exception!
Our lives, our actions demonstrate that we truly have believed in God. We put no faith in our actions to save us, but having placed our faith in Jesus alone to save us, our actions that follow show that we genuinely have put our faith in Jesus. Our faith is ‘completed’ by our works in response to our faith (James 2:22).
What does true religion look like? We live in an age in South Africa where there are sadly repeated news stories of people claiming to be ‘Christian leaders’ doing horrific things.
Many people on a survey form would indicate their religion as ‘Christian’, but their lives belie such characterisation. James says that there is such a thing as ‘worthless religion’ (James 1:26). So, what does true religion look like? What should the life of a Christ Follower be like?
James 1:19-27 offers a few answers to these questions. These 6-things should characterise the believer in Jesus:
1. Restraint, doing more listening than speaking (vs19)
2. Self-control, being slow to anger for anger is not godly (vs19-20)
3. Transformed lives (vs21)
4. Obeying God’s word, acting on it rather than merely listening to it or studying it (vs22-25)
5. Caring for the disadvantaged like orphans and widows (vs26)
6. Keeping one’s life unstained from the sin of the world, being Holy (vs27)
James and Jesus’ thoughts concur we are to be those who bear fruit in keeping with our repentance (Matthew 3:8). Those who have truly believed in Jesus can be seen by the fruit of their lives (Matthew 7:30). We don’t earn our way into God’s heart through good works or a transformed life, we come by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.
However, having come to faith, that faith and the love and power of God at work in us produces change from the inside out – that’s true religion. A changed life from a melted heart leading to a faith that’s real and observable both by ourselves and others.
Lord, fill me, fill us again. Make me, make us more and more like You. May, my life, may our lives reflect these transformations and may others be touched by your love in us because we have been touched and transformed by your love for us. Amen.
I love the sense of realism in James. In vs2-4 James challenged and urged us to consider trials “all joy” because we know that the testing of our faith would produce good things in us like steadfastness and growth in godliness.
James knows that the sound advice he has just given is challenging and so in vs5 he encourages the reader to pray to God for wisdom. Such a prayer is humility on display and humility is a vital attitude to hold on to for the Christ Follower.
I like to begin prayer with the simple acknowledgement that my very act of praying is declaring something both to myself and to God – that I need God. After all, if I did not need God, if I had it all covered myself, then I would not be praying. Prayer and humility go hand in hand, and God is drawn to humility (James 4:6) while prayerlessness, on the other hand, is a warning sign of residual pride.
The humble praying person ought to simultaneously have a robust confidence James declares because God is the giving God. God’s nature is to give, and so James states with certainty that God will respond gleefully to any request by you or me for wisdom.
God won’t scold us for hassling Him by asking, God won’t begrudgingly give us as little as possible of the wisdom we need. No, we can pray with confidence because we know that God is the generous giving God and we as His children can, therefore, ask for wisdom in any and every situation with confidence knowing God will provide us with what we need.
Similarly, Jesus promised He would give His disciples the very words and wisdom at the moment we need them (Luke 21:12-15). You and I can have confidence knowing that when we cry out in prayer, God is ever present and eager to answer our humble prayer.
So pray, because you’re realistic about your limitations. Pray because you’re humble, but pray with confidence knowing whom you’re praying to!
Don’t pray hoping God will answer, but pray because you know whom you’re praying to. Your Father who is in heaven, the One who loves you with an everlasting incredible love (1 John 3:1).
James has been described by some as the book of Proverbs in the New Testament. It is a book filled with wisdom. Wisdom concerning how one is to think and act in this present age as a believer in Jesus. An age in which the believer could be described as one being in ‘exile’ – scattered amongst a pagan people and in a world that is not their ultimate home (James 1:1). This challenging context for faith in Jesus Christ is the context for everything in this letter and the context for every believer in Jesus.
Realistic expectations are wise. Climbing into a steel cage with a cage fighter with no expectation of danger or the need to defend oneself – is unwise. Going fishing on the beach and not expecting to smell like bait and fish – is unwise. Being a new parent and expecting to have broken sleep for several years – is wise…
So what is the wise expectation of a Christ Follower in this age?
James says; ‘expect to meet trials of every kind in this age’! That’s a wise expectation. To believe that life and the journey of faith in Jesus in this age will be easy – is unwise. The New Testament is clear that in this age we have an enemy who is bent on undermining our faith, robbing from us & even devouring us. We live in an age where temptations & struggles abound. To have any other expectation leaves one unprepared and prone to wrong conclusions and even a crisis of faith.
So, James prepares us with a realistic expectation in these verses, but then goes beyond mere counseling the Christ Follower to have a reasonable expectation when he writes that we ought to ‘consider’ (NASB) it ‘all joy’ when we encounter such trials! This is more than having a reasonable expectation, this is ‘embrace trials’.
How can this be? Only because we know something.
Knowing the endgame can fortify one to press through incredible hardship or pain. They say it takes two months to climb Mt Everest, two months out of normal life, living in compromised accommodation and discomfort and at an average cost of R600k-R800k! Why do people do it, endure it? Because they know they want the endgame of standing on the peak and being one of just a few who have done so.
James says; ‘you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness’ and he says that steadfastness produces something else in us; ‘that we may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing’ (vs4).
So do you know what James assumes you do?
Is your expectation of life as a Christ Follower a biblical one or unrealistic in some way? And do you believe Scripture, which says that the road to the goal of a complete life that lacks nothing is through suffering and trials?
Trials test the genuineness of our faith. Are you a ‘fair-weather’ believer who believes but only when life is rosy, and God seems to be blessing us and answering all our prayers? Or are we robust believers whose faith under fire results in endurance/perseverance, consistency in our faith whether life is rosy or really hard?
In this present age as exiles, the road following Jesus can be hard and long. The call on us is to remain steadfast when startling, unexpected trials come, and to endure through them and then to go on enduring. We know the destination towards which we are headed, because James tells us – it is that we may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing in our life and faith.
So, wisdom is to arm yourself with a biblical expectation & to arm yourself by knowing that God wastes nothing and that any and every trial you will face has a God-ordained purpose. So be strengthened & remain steadfast when you meet any and every type of trial.
We tend to reach for the eject button, tend to pray for God to remove us from trials. Yet the prayers of Scripture inspire us to pray that we (or those we love)
- might know God’s will in the midst of trials,
- that we might walk in a manner worthy of God in the midst of these trials,
- so that we might be fully pleasing to Him
- and in order that we might bear much fruit
- that we might be strengthened by God’s power in the midst of trials
- so that we would remain steadfast (see the prayer in Colossians 1:9-14).
And when we do this, we become more like Jesus who did the same when he endured the cross scorning its shame because he knew what was the endgame (Hebrews 12:2) and so he was steadfast! May I, may we be like Him.
“Who are you?” I met a church planter in Calgary last year who was planting a church into an area in the city, and his practice was to go to a particular local Starbucks Coffee every day and work there striking up conversations with anyone who frequented the same Starbucks.
His favourite question as he engaged people was to ask them; “So, who are you?” He told me how most people would begin to answer by saying what they did for a living.
But he would cut them short saying; “I didn’t ask you what you DO, I asked you WHO YOU ARE?” At which point many would look quizzically and reply; “Hmmm I’m not sure how to answer that question.” He would then proceed to ask them if they wanted to explore that together with him.
So, WHO ARE YOU? What’s your primary identity?
Our world is filled with people trying to answer that question with all sorts of things ranging from culture, language, family, achievements, careers…
James, the writer of this little book we are reading and meditating on for the next month, answered that question in the following way in James 1:1;
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
Greetings.” – James 1:1 (ESV)
What a way to introduce oneself! A servant or a slave of Jesus, as some translations say, this was James’ primary identity. Is this how you think of yourself? Is this what defines you more than any other thing?
Paul like James uses this phrase “slave of Jesus” to introduce himself to the Roman believers (Romans 1:1). And in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 we read of the reason in the heart of Paul as to why he, like James identifies himself in this way;
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” ( 2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
The Christ Follower is one for whom Jesus died, SO THAT they would ‘no longer live for themselves but for Him’ who died for them. When we believe in Jesus, we don’t add Jesus to the mix of all we do. No, when we put our faith in Jesus, He revolutionises our whole lives and transforms our identity!
When we put our faith in Jesus, we get a new identity; we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:16) whose purpose is now totally orientated around serving God, pleasing God (2 Corinthians 5:9). We are those who have been re-defined by our faith in Jesus; He is our new master, our Lord. We exist to serve His purposes on the planet with our one precious life He has given to us.
Spend a moment thinking about the question; “Who are you?” If you are a Christ Follower, I urge you to ask Jesus to help you see that being a “servant of Jesus” is your identity just like James and Paul and millions of others. And as that truth about your identity becomes clear it will lead you to another question which we can ask every day; “Lord Jesus, what do you want me to do for You today?”
As Jesus speaks to you, obey Him and watch as Jesus leads you into serving Him and others in remarkable ways, knowing that He is faithful and that He will reward those who live their lives in this way.