5. Real Religion Requires Endurance James 5:7-20
Our granddaughter, Taylor, has been anxiously waiting all week to see her other grandparents. They live far away in California and are only able to come to Dallas once or twice a year. Taylor was excited this week because her “Nanny and Papa” were coming to see her on Friday. When Friday arrived, Taylor stationed herself on the window seat, looking out the window for any sign of them. My daughter, Joanna, told us that it was a still couple of hours before they were scheduled to arrive, and so she told Taylor it was going to be quite a while for her to wait there, by the window. Taylor replied, “That’s okay Mom; I’ll just sit here and wait.”
I’m sure that James would have smiled at this, as we did, pleased with the way this child was willing to patiently wait for a very joyful appearance. That, of course, is precisely what James asks us to do – to wait patiently for the return of our Lord:
So be patient, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming (James 5:7a).51
The word “so” (or “therefore” in a number of other translations) indicates that the exhortation of verse 7 is in some way the result of what has been said in the preceding verses. There is a very direct relationship between what comes before verse 7 and what follows, but let me first point out something that has changed significantly – the mood of the text. James 4:1—5:6 has a strong prophetic note, with words of warning concerning future judgment, and a clear call to repentance. The earlier verses were an indictment of those who were misusing their poverty or their wealth as a pretext for sin. But in verse 7, we find James speaking much more tender and assuring words of comfort. Now, he is addressing not the abuser, but the abused.
It is my opinion that the dominant theme of these closing verses is the use of the tongue. It has been a theme in every chapter of this epistle. In chapter 1, James instructs us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (1:19). In chapter 2, James comes down hard on those who are hypocritical with their words – they speak words of comfort and help, but they do nothing to back them up (2:14-16). He draws an analogy between the emptiness of these words of comfort and a profession of faith that has no accompanying works (2:17ff.). In chapter 3, James speaks directly to those whose speech impacts the lives of many – those who desire to be teachers. In chapter 4, we see the abuse of the tongue in the strife within the church (4:1-2), in the way some saints spoke against others behind their backs (4:11-12), and in the vain boasting of some about the future (4:13-17). In chapter 5, James contrasts the words of some in this life with their weeping and wailing in the day of judgment because of their abuse of wealth and of the poor (5:1-6).
When James calls for patient endurance in 5:7-12, he gives two negative commands regarding the tongue: (1) Don’t grumble – verse 9; and, (2) Don’t swear – verse 12. As I understand them, the remaining verses give us examples of the positive use of the tongue. In verses 13-15, the tongue of the sick person calls for the elders of the church, who pray (using their tongues) for the sick. The element of confession of sin is also included as a possibility in verse 15, and confession is then encouraged more generally in verse 16. Confession and prayer are important uses of the tongue. Elijah is used as an example of the effectiveness of prayer (verses 17-18). The final two verses instruct us to reach out to the wayward, seeking to restore them to the way of truth they once knew. Surely this involves the use of the tongue as well.
Let us press on, then, to consider these important concluding words of James to see even more characteristics of real religion.
Taming the Tongue in Difficult Times
7 So be patient, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. Think of how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the ground and is patient for it until it receives the early and late rains. 8 You also be patient and strengthen your hearts, for the Lord’s coming is near. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be judged. See, the judge stands before the gates! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name. 11 Think of how we regard as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and you have seen the Lord’s purpose, that the Lord is full of compassion and merciful. 12 And above all, my brothers and sisters, 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 into judgment.
James calls upon his readers to patiently wait for the coming52 of the Lord. This patience seems to have a two-fold outworking. First, it is the kind of patience that does not seek to retaliate for wrongs committed against us as Christians. We leave the execution of justice to our Lord when He returns to judge His adversaries. Second, patience has a positive element, which works itself out as endurance and perseverance. It means that we do not grow weary in well doing (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13; Hebrews 12:3).
James gives us an example of this kind of patience by using the illustration of the farmer, who patiently waits for the early and late rains, which will produce the precious fruit of the ground (verse 7b). This illustration would be especially forceful with the Jews. Consider this passage in the Book of Deuteronomy:
8 Now pay attention to the whole commandment I am giving you today, so that you may be strong enough to enter and possess the land where you are headed, 9 and that you may enjoy long life in the land the LORD swore to give to your ancestors and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 For the land where you are headed as your possession is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, a land where you sowed seed and which you irrigated by hand53 like a vegetable garden. 11 Rather, the land where you are going as your possession is one of hills and valleys, a land that drinks water from the rains, 12 one the LORD your God looks after. He is constantly attentive to it from the beginning to the end of the year. 13 Now, if you conscientiously attend to my commandment that I am giving you today, that is, to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your mind and being, 14 then, he says, “I will send the rain of your land in its season, the autumn and the spring rains, so that you may gather in your wheat, new wine, and olive oil. 15 I will provide pasturage for your livestock and you yourself will eat until you are satisfied” (Deuteronomy 11:8-15).
This is an incredible passage, and I believe it provides insight into the kind of patience God wants us to exhibit as we wait for our Lord’s return. In Egypt, farming was done very differently from farming in Israel. It is the same difference that we see between rice farming in California and the wheat farming done in Kansas. The difference is between land that is irrigated and land that is watered by rain. God reminded the Israelites that in Egypt farming was facilitated by irrigation from the Nile River. One sees essentially the same thing in California and other places where watering is done by irrigation. There is an irrigation ditch nearby that is filled with water, and all one has to do is to push some dirt with his foot to start the water flowing along a particular trench. Thus, as God said, they watered the land with their foot. That’s how easy it was.
It was too easy for God’s people in Egypt, agriculturally speaking. They could farm without having to exercise faith in God. God wanted His people to learn to trust Him for their daily bread and for their every need. And so He took them to a land that was not watered by irrigation, but by rain. He promised that if His people would abide by His law, He would give them the rains they needed, in their proper time. This meant that the farmer had to work at his farming when there was no hint of rain on the horizon. He had to cultivate his fields to prepare them for his crops. Then he had to plant the seed. All of this seems to have been done before any rains had yet come. The farmer went about his labors, trusting in God to bless his efforts, but not seeing the rain while he worked. Then, having done what he could, the farmer had to patiently wait for the rains God had promised. The first rains came early to cause the seed to grow, and then more time passed. Finally, the latter rains came to bring the crop to maturity. Farming in Israel required working and waiting on God.
These displaced Jews are not farmers in the land of Israel, but James exhorts them to practice the same kind of patience. As God promised to provide the necessary rains at their proper time, our Lord promised to return, also at the proper time. No doubt the farmers’ faith was tested if the rains did not come as quickly as they would have liked. In the same way, we might wish that our Lord’s return would come sooner, too. But we must trust in Him and continue to obey His Word. We must trust that when He comes He will judge the wicked and reward the righteous.
Notice how James skillfully portrays the coming of our Lord in a way that emphasizes its imminence. In verse 7, he speaks of the Lord’s return generally, in the future. In verse 8, he speaks of the Lord’s return as “near.” In verse 9, James tells us He is “at the door.” His return is near, and we should be greatly encouraged by this. We should “strengthen our hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (verse 8). This is a very pointed contrast to verse 5. Let me put the two verses in juxtaposition:
You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter (verse 5).
Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (verse 8).
What a difference there is between the Christian’s relationship to the second coming and that of the wicked. The wicked fatten their hearts for the day of slaughter. They are like a turkey, happily eating grain as Thanksgiving Day draws near. The fatter he gets, the more eager its owners are to eat him. This, by the way, is virtually what happened to the Jews in Jerusalem when the Romans sacked the city in 70 A.D. When the Roman soldiers took the city, the poor were conspicuous by their bony frames and tattered clothing. The Roman solders did not take nearly as much interest in them. But they knew that many of the Jews were rich, and so they found and tortured the plump, well-dressed Jews to force them to reveal where their wealth was hidden.
James now gives two negative commands related to the use of the tongue. Two specific forms of speech are forbidden: (1) grumbling; and, (2) swearing. Note that each prohibition contains a the threat of judgment if the warning is not heeded:
9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be judged. See, the judge stands before the gates! (emphasis mine)
12 And above all, my brothers and sisters, 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 into judgment. (emphasis mine)
The first prohibition is against grumbling. Why would James choose to focus on this particular use of the tongue? Notice that it is grumbling against one another (verse 9). James has already forbidden speaking against one another in James 4:11-12. Grumbling is virtually the same thing. Not only is doing so an act of arrogance, of playing God (4:11-12), it is a sin against brotherly love and Christian unity. We know from Israel’s grumbling against Moses that their grumbling against God’s leadership was really grumbling against God (Numbers 14:2, 11, 22-29). It is hard to eagerly await the return of the same God against whom you are grumbling. Speaking against one another brings judgment, and the Judge is “at the door” (verse 8).
James calls our attention to two examples of the kind of patience he is encouraging. First, he reminds his Jewish readers about their heroes, the prophets. These were men who spoke God’s truth to a sinful generation and paid a high price for doing so. They were ignored, rejected, abused, and even killed because of their words. The Jews looked upon them as heroes, and rightly so. James is therefore saying something like this: “Look, you honor the prophets and regard them as heroes, precisely because they endured in the midst of adversity; you should imitate them by persevering under trial.”
Second, James calls our attention to Job, who suffered greatly at the hand of God (ultimately), of Satan (directly), of his wife, and even of his friends. I think we would all agree that Job’s friends were unjustly accusing Job of unconfessed sins of which he was not guilty. When Job sought to defend himself, they criticized him more severely. Job suffered much and his responses to his affliction were not always what they should have been. Nevertheless, Job did not abandon his faith in God. He may have wanted God to explain what was going on, but Job did not cease to trust in his God.
James seems to be calling our attention to the outcome of Job’s sufferings. First, God vindicated Job as a righteous man. He also rebuked Job’s friends for being wrong. It was they who had not spoken rightly of God (see Job 42:7-9). Then God restored Job and granted him even greater prosperity than he had before his testing began (Job 42:10ff.). Job endured in the midst of adversity, and God both vindicated and blessed him, at the proper time. Though God may have appeared to be harsh during Job’s afflictions, He proved Himself to be “full of compassion and merciful” (James 5:11).
The second prohibition is against swearing:
And above all, my brothers and sisters, 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 into judgment (verse 12).
There are some who believe that it is cursing that James had in mind here. After all, Job’s wife urged him to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). While some Christians may be tempted to curse and swear when in great adversity, I don’t think this is what James has in mind in our text. His words closely resemble our Lord’s words in Matthew 5:
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not take oaths at all—not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37).
The issue here seems to be that of telling the truth. We can see from Matthew 23:16-22 that legalistic Jews (the scribes and Pharisees were the culprits here) had developed some very specialized oaths. The purpose of these technical oaths was to appear to be promising something that they had no intention of fulfilling. One could swear by the temple and feel no obligation to keep his oath, but if he swore by the gold of the temple he was obligated (Matthew 23:16-17). This kind of oath taking was hypocrisy because it gave the appearance of a most solemn promise, but the reality was that the oath taker had no intention of keeping his promise. Jesus (and thus James as well) forbade this kind of technical oath taking. In reality, Christians should not ever need to take an oath. Our word should be our bond. When we say, “Yes” we should mean yes. Others should not need some further affirmation of truthfulness than our words themselves.
James employs the words, “above all” (verse 12) to indicate that this is the most important thing he has to say about the use of the tongue. I believe that James is saying, “The most important thing I have to say about the use of the tongue is that it must speak the truth, so much so that oath-taking would be unnecessary.” There are many cruel and wicked things that can be said with the tongue, but the most dangerous is falsehood. Our Lord is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). If we cannot be believed, then we have cast a shadow on the truth of the gospel. Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). He also said, “Set them apart in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Paul said, “The purpose of this is to no longer be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who with craftiness carry out their deceitful schemes. But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head” (Ephesians 4:14-15). A little later he writes, “Therefore, having laid aside falsehood, each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25). First and foremost, we must be people of truth. That is what James is saying as well. There is no place for falsehood in the faith. This may help us to see why God dealt so severely with Ananias and Sapphira for lying (see Acts 5:1-11).
The Proper Use of the Tongue
13 Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up—and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain and there was no rain on the land for three years and six months! 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land sprouted with a harvest. 19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone turns him back, 20 he should know that the one who turns a sinner back from his wandering path will save that person’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
In the preceding verses, James has given two negative commands regarding the use of the tongue – they should not grumble, and they should not take oaths designed to be broken. Now, James turns to the positive use of the tongue. In verse 13, the tongue should be employed in prayer and praises to God. In verses 14-15, the one who is weak and without strength should call for the elders, who will pray for him. In verses 16-18, James gives a more general exhortation to confess our sins to one another and to pray for one another (using Elijah as an example of the power of prayer). In verses 19 and 20, James concludes his epistle with the finest use of the tongue – restoring one who has strayed from the truth.
The first positive use of the tongue is found in the context of adversity. The “suffering” James refers to is a general term for affliction. This term is found only two other times in the New Testament, and their occurrence is highlighted below:
8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David; such is my gospel, 9 for which I suffer hardship to the point of imprisonment as a criminal, but God’s message is not imprisoned!
(2 Timothy 2:8-9, emphasis mine).
You, however, be self-controlled in all things, endure hardship, do an evangelist’s work, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:5, emphasis mine).
This same term is used one time in the Greek translation (the Septuagint) of the Old Testament:
The LORD said, “You have compassion for the plant, something that you have not worked over nor made to grow, a thing that lasted a night and perished after a night (Jonah 4:10, emphasis mine).
The natural response to adversity is often expressed in inappropriate speech, but this is contrary to the example set by our Lord:
18 Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the perverse. 19 For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. 21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He Himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may leave sin behind and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25; see also Romans 12:17-21).
When adversity comes our way, we need divine wisdom (see James 3:13-18), and we are to pray to God, knowing He will give it to us without reprimanding us (James 1:5-8). Adversity should draw us toward God, and prayer should be our first response to our trials. In response to our prayers, He will give wisdom, strength, and peace of heart and mind (see Philippians 4:6-78).
If one is in good spirits, then he should “sing praises.” James has said that, “All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, . . .” (James 1:17a). This being the case, praise is the appropriate response. Here, James sees our praise being expressed in song. Surely this can be seen in the Book of Psalms. In fact, the Book of Psalms is a pattern for our response to adversity, or to prosperity. We have psalms of lament and petition, and we also have psalms of praise. It is evident that James sees music as contributing greatly to our communication with God. Music somehow engages and expresses what is in the soul. In the Old Testament, it would seem that men composed songs which they sang in private, but it would also seem that there was the expectation that these would be sung publicly in worship as well.
Verses 14 and 15 seem to refer to a special circumstance. As I currently understand these verses, they refer to a situation in which a person is very sick and in a weakened condition. They have little strength to do anything; perhaps they have only enough strength to verbalize their desire for a visit by the elders of the church. When summoned, the elders come to the bedside of that person to pray for them. The possibility that sin has been committed and is a contributing factor in the illness is raised, with the assurance that if confession is made, those sins will be forgiven.
James mentions anointing with oil, and there are different opinions as to what role this oil plays. In ancient times, oil was actually employed as a healing agent (see Luke 10:34). I think that many would simply look upon the oil as symbolic, whether of the Holy Spirit, or of the healing process for which they are praying. In our church, the elders have prayed for a number of people over the years. At times we have used oil, and at times we have not. It is our feeling that it is not necessarily required, but it is still my personal preference to use it, unless circumstances would prevent it. We have always raised the question as to whether or not the ailing person is aware of some unconfessed sin, that might be related to the illness. We then pray that if it is God’s will, the sick person might be healed. We believe that God may heal the person physically, but we do not dare to presume that He must. (James has just cautioned us about presuming upon the future – James 4:13-17.) We believe that affliction can be a test of one’s faith, and even a means to our growth (see Psalm 73; James 1:2-4).
We need to be careful not to assume that healing is a thing of the past, but we must also be careful not to presume that God must heal because we ask. It is our conviction that God has never been obliged to heal, but that in His grace He does sometimes grant physical healing. In my experience of over 30 years of ministry I have seen several miraculous interventions of God. And, I have seen other instances where God did not heal, but He did give great peace and a wonderful testimony.
I should add that this is the text Roman Catholicism uses to justify the practice of the ritual of extreme unction, an act whereby one is supposedly prepared for death. This most certainly does not fit our text, which looks for the sick person’s recovery, not his demise. William Barclay has a good comment regarding the practice of extreme unction:
“For many centuries the Church consistently used anointing as a means of healing the sick. In fact it is important to note that the sacrament of unction, or anointing, was in the early centuries always designed as a means of cure, and not as a preparation for death as it now is in the Roman Catholic Church. It was not until A.D. 852 that this sacrament did, in fact, become the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, administered to prepare for death.”54
Verses 16-18 expand upon the instruction of verses 14-15 in a more general way. In verses 14 and 15, James was speaking of a more specialized case, where someone weakened by their illness would need to call upon the elders for prayer and recovery, and possibly for confession of sins. James now makes this a more general instruction. He calls upon the saints to “confess your sins one to another and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (verse 16).
This verse has been greatly abused. It is the basis, for example, of the Roman Catholic doctrine of auricular confession to a priest. Martin Luther is said to have very quickly brushed this away with the words,
“A strange confessor! His name is “One another.”
Quite obviously there is a substantial difference between “one another” and “a priest,” or even “the preacher.”
James is not requiring every believer to publicly confess his sins to the entire church. There may be specific instances where this may be required, as in the case of church discipline.55 But we know from texts like Matthew 18:15-20 that sin is best dealt with privately. I believe that James is urging those who have sinned against a brother to privately confess their sin to the one they have offended and to seek their forgiveness and reconciliation, just as our Lord taught:
21 “You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell. 23 So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift. 25 Reach agreement quickly with your accuser while on the way to court, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not at all get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:21-26).
The inference of James 5:16 is that there will be some sickness that is the result of unconfessed sin related to relationships – sin against a brother or sister in the body of Christ. The first step to healing is confession and reconciliation. This may be the reason that Jesus first forgave the paralytic of his sins, and then healed him (Matthew 9:1-8). Those who were healed were instructed to sin no more (John 5:14; 8:11).
If I understand James correctly, he is not saying that confession heals us, but that prayer does. He uses the example of Elijah to emphasize the fact that the prayer of a righteous man has great effectiveness. Elijah was a man of like passions, a man like us. He was not perfect, as a study of his life makes clear. His prayer to resign from his ministry and from life itself was rejected by God, who told him to go back to work (1 Kings 19). But his prayers to stop the rains and to start them were acts of obedience on his part, and God answered them.
Note the fact that the word “prayer” is singular, not plural, and so is the word “man.” Here, James is not emphasizing the need for persistence in prayer, though our Lord did so (Luke 18:1-8), along with His apostles (Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 1:4; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 1 Timothy 5:5; 2 Timothy 1:3). We should surely be persistent in prayer, but that is not the point here. James is saying that one prayer, prayed by one person, can be exceedingly powerful. It is not confession that accomplishes great things, so that the more we confess, the more miracles God will perform on our behalf. It is not even the number of prayers that we pray, as though the quantity of our prayers moves God. It is the heathen who vainly repeat their prayers (Matthew 6:7).
I believe two things are in view here. First, unreconciled relationships hinder prayer:
Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as the weaker partners and show them honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life. In this way nothing will hinder your prayers (1 Peter 3:7).
Second, I believe that James is stressing righteousness. James is not saying that many saints should be praying, or that one man is praying many prayers; he is stressing the fact that the one man who is praying his one prayer is righteous. Confession of sin is important, then, because it heals relationships and because it is essential for righteousness.
I need to pause to be sure that I am not misunderstood. I do believe that we should persevere in prayer, until God has made His answer clear to us (see 2 Corinthians 12:8-10). I do believe that it is good for many saints to join in prayer over important matters. But I am strongly opposed to the current trend of thought that states or implies that the number of prayers offered or the number of those praying is what moves God. God delights in the prayers of His people, but prayer is not a work of man that moves God to action due to the volume or intensity of our efforts. We do not need a “moral majority” to move God. We do not need to amass sufficient “prayer power” to see God’s hand. One elderly widow, privately praying in her closet, may effectively bring about great intervention from God. Let us have concerts of prayer, but let us not think that God is moved by mere numbers.
The last two verses of chapter 5 serve as the conclusion to this epistle. Some feel that it is a rather abrupt ending. I would prefer to believe that in many ways it captures the spirit of the entire epistle. From chapter 1 on to the end of the epistle James has spoken about our use of the tongue. Allow me to briefly review:
Chapter 1: In verse 13, some were inclined to say that the source of their temptation (and sin) was God. James forbids this. In verse 19, James tells us to be “slow to speak.” In verse 26, he writes that if one thinks he is religious but fails to control his tongue, he is deceiving his heart and his religion is futile.
Chapter 2: The prejudice of the “usher” is shown by what he says to the rich man, in contrast to his words to the poor man (verses 2-3). Then, in verses 14-19, deals with hypocrisy, which is often a discrepancy between our words and our works. A man who merely speaks words of blessing is a hypocrite. It does the man who is hungry and in need of clothing no good to merely pronounce a blessing on him about food and clothing.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3 is almost all about one’s words. James specifically addresses those who wish to be teachers, warning them of the power of the tongue for evil, and of the stricter judgment teachers will consequently receive. The last verses of chapter 3 (13-18) contrast the way godly wisdom works, as opposed to the empty talk of worldly wisdom.
Chapter 4: In chapter 4, we find much more about words. Conflicts and quarrels (verse 1) usually begin with verbal warfare. If the lips reveal what is true of the heart, then the grief, mourning and weeping of verse 9 reveal a truly repentant heart, while laughter would be inappropriate. The arrogance that is the opposite of true Christian humility is reflected in our words, first in speaking against one another (verses 11-12), and also in speaking arrogantly about future success (verses 13-17).
Chapter 5: Up to verse 19, James has said a good deal about the tongue. In verse 1, James refers to the weeping and wailing of hell. The unused, hoarded wealth of the rich testifies against them, as do the cries of their unpaid (or underpaid) workers (verses 2-4). The righteous exhibit their righteousness by their words – by what they don’t speak, as well as by what they say. The righteous do not grumble (verse 9), nor do they take oaths that are not according to truth (verse 12). The tongue of the righteous should call out to God in prayer in adversity, and in praise in times of blessing (verse 13). The tongue of the one weakened by sickness or sin should call for the elders of the church, so that they might pray, and he might be healed (verses 14-15). The saints should confess their sins against each other, which will facilitate their prayers for one another. Elijah’s prayer was effective, because he was a righteous man (verses 17-18).
The seeking and practice of wisdom is evident by our words and our works. True religion reflects the heart of the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to “seek and to save those who are lost” (Luke 19:10). True religion does not turn against a wayward brother (unless required, after the full process of discipline has been carried out – see Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5); true religion seeks to restore a wayward brother (see also 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; Galatians 6:1-22; Thessalonians 3:14-15; 2 Timothy 2:23-26; 1 John 5:16-17; Jude 22-23).
The words of James 5:20 might be misinterpreted. It is apparent that the one whose soul is saved from death is the wayward one. But whose “multitude of sins” are covered? It is surely not the sins of the one seeking to restore the wayward one; it is the sins of the wayward one that is in view. And just who is this one who has “wandered from the truth”? I am inclined to think that the words of James are general enough that he may be speaking of both the saved who have departed from the truth, as well as the lost. We know from James 2:19 that one could believe the truth in an academic way and yet not really be saved. We seem to see the same thing in the two soils that fail to produce fruit (see Mark 4:5-7, 16-19). Peter and the writer to the Hebrews also raise this possibility:56
1 So get rid of all evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. 2 And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation, 3 if you have experienced the Lord’s kindness (1 Peter 2:1-3).
7 For the ground that has soaked up the rain that frequently falls on it and yields useful vegetation for those who tend it receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is useless and about to be cursed; its fate is to be burned. 9 But in your case, dear friends, even though we speak like this, we are convinced of better things relating to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name, in having served and continuing to serve the saints. 11 But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises (Hebrews 6:7-12; see also 1 John 2:19; 2 John 9).57
What greater words can be spoken than those that seek to turn a sinner to Christ? What greater work is there on earth than the saving of men’s souls? If we have been left here to carry out the work of our Lord, then surely seeking to save sinners is the highest work of all.
Notice how James has changed the focus from the beginning verses of chapter 1 to the closing verses of chapter 5. In the midst of our adversities, our focus initially tends to be on ourselves. James exhorts us to joyfully endure our afflictions and to pray for wisdom. He calls upon us to act in a way that is consistent with true religion. In the closing verses of chapter 1, James says that true religion seeks to assist the helpless and needy, the orphans and widows. In the closing verses of chapter 5, the focus is on others and their need for repentance. The greatest need of all is for the sinner to turn to Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life. The greatest need for the saint is to be walking in the Spirit and waiting for the return of the Savior, standing apart from the corruption of the world.
The fruit of the righteous is like a tree producing life,
and the one who wins souls is wise (Proverbs 11:30).
As I conclude this message and this short series on the Book of James, I have but one question to ask you: “Is your religion real?” That is, is your religion genuine? Will it save you? That is what the Book of James is about. It is addressed to a group of people (the Jews) who were very religious, but their words were often more pious than their works (hypocrisy). The malady is common among professing Christians today. Paul warned us about the appearance of religious faith without the reality of it:
1 But understand this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2 For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, savage, opposed to what is good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, loving pleasure rather than loving God. 5 They will maintain the outward appearance of religion but will have repudiated its power. So avoid people like these (2 Timothy 3:1-5, emphasis mine).
I must ask you, my friend, do you truly possess that which you profess? I am not seeking to create doubt in the minds of those who truly believe, but I do wish to challenge the false confidence of anyone who may never have come to faith in Christ for salvation. They make a profession of faith, but James gives us a test as to the reality of that profession in their practice. If James has caused you to see that your profession of faith is empty, then cling to Christ and His work on the cross for your salvation. Trust in Him for the forgiveness of your sins and the assurance of eternal life.
9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 10 just as it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one,
11 there is no one who understands,
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves,
they deceive with their tongues,
the poison of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16 ruin and misery are in their paths,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed— 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him as a satisfaction for sin by his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness (Romans 3:9-26).
17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away—look, what is new has come! 18 And all these things are from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us. We plead with you on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God!” 21 God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
4 But “when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).
9 If we accept the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, because this is the testimony of God that he has testified concerning his Son. 10 (The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has testified concerning his Son.) 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son does not have this eternal life (1 John 5:9-12).
If you are truly a Christian, then I must ask you how you measure up to the standard James holds out for the Christian? Do your works add credence to your words? Do you practice what you profess? Not one of us should come away from this book feeling comfortable and complacent. All of us should be challenged to practice true religion on a daily basis. I pray that by God’s grace we shall.
51 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
52 “This particular word used for coming in this verse, parousia, is used also by Peter, Paul, and John, and by Jesus Himself with reference to His appearing in glory. It was current among the Greeks to describe the official visits of a monarch to a city within his dominions. On such state occasions the royal ‘presence’ (for that is the literal meaning of the word) was such that none could fail to recognize the Sovereign for what in fact he was. By the use of this word in the New Testament for the second coming of Christ, that second coming is contrasted with His first. As the babe of Bethlehem, the carpenter of Nazareth, the Son of Man with nowhere to lay His head, despised and rejected of men, Christ came, so to speak, incognito. It was only veiled in flesh that His Godhead could be seen during His earthly life, and then only with the eyes of faith. But His appearance on the clouds of heaven will be such that He will be conspicuous, without any possibility of doubt, as the Judge of mankind, as the Lord from heaven, who will gather His elect together, and summon those already living in union with Him to be with Him for ever and share with Him His eternal glory.” R.V. G. Tasker, The General Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), pp. 117-118)
53 Literally, with your foot.
54 William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), p. 130.
55 Public repentance may be called for when a leader has been publicly rebuked for his sin (see 1 Timothy 5:19-20).
56 There are texts like John 2:23-24 and 6:66 which could be understood to refer to those who superficially believed in Jesus, but not as true believers.
57 I confess, I deliberately left off the earlier verses in chapter 6, since my intention here is not to raise questions, but to illustrate that some who profess to be saved may not necessarily be saved. Knowing that Jesus died on the cross for sinners is not the same as trusting in Christ’s atoning work for my sins.
Related Topics: Sanctification