Real Religion Requires Repentance James 4:1—5:6
Unfortunately, some of the evils James enumerates in the first 3 verses of chapter 4 are the kinds of wrongdoing we have almost come to expect among saints: conflicts, quarrels, and envy. But it seems as though James is going a bit far when he adds “murder” to the list, not just in verse 2, but also later on in chapter 5, verse 6.
This list of evils reads a great deal like the front page of our daily newspaper. I reviewed the newspapers for this past week and found one article describing the murder of a 38 year-old man who was deaf and probably mute as well. It seems that a 14 year-old boy shot this man because he did not understand that he was being told to hand over his money – which was only enough change to pay for his bus ride home. Within hours of this tragic murder, an 80 year-old woman was abducted while making a quick trip to the store. A young man kidnapped the woman and later killed her, so that he could drive her car and purchase some gifts for his friends with her credit card.
In our text, James seems to be saying that things were so bad that professing Christians were behaving similarly. How could this be? A quick reading of the Book of 1 Corinthians would answer this question. In 1 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul speaks of a sin in the church that shocked the pagan Corinthians. In chapter 1 of James, the reader is told not to blame God for his sin, or for his temptation. James tells us that temptation comes from within, and that good and perfect gifts come from above (James 1:13-17). Now, in James chapter 4, he will give us additional details on the source of our sins.
The Source of Strife, and Its Cure
The Malady and Its Primary Cause
1 Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you? 2 You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask; 3 you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions.36
The fact that there is conflict among the saints to whom James is writing should come as no surprise to us. We find the disciples arguing among themselves in the Gospels about who was the greatest (e.g., Mark 9:33-34; Luke 9:46; 22:24). We find divisions and even lawsuits among the Corinthian saints (1 Corinthians 1:11-12; 6:1-6). Even the wonderful church at Philippi had two women who were at odds with each other (Philippians 4:1-3). The difference here is that James tells us this conflict even led to murder (4:2; see also 5:6). Doesn’t this description seem inaccurate, or at least exaggerated? There are those who would say that James is using hyperbole (a fancy term for exaggeration), and that he employed the term in some metaphorical sense. I think he meant us to understand the term literally, and that he used it to shock us in order to get our attention. He says this to make the point that the conflict he speaks of is a very serious matter indeed. I believe there are two reasons why James included murder here as a sin that was possible among those to whom he wrote.
First, we must reluctantly admit that there is no sin of which the saint is incapable. We need only look at people in the Bible to see this. Moses took the life of an Egyptian, because he was mistreating a Hebrew (Exodus 2:11-12). David committed adultery and attempted to cover it up by murdering Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah (2 Samuel 11:14-25). If we think that we are incapable of any other sin, we deceive ourselves.
Second, James is speaking about the path of sin, and where it inevitably leads. In Proverbs 1, the “two paths” are described: (1) the path of folly, which leads to death (see 1:8-12, 16-19, 32) and, (2) the path of wisdom, which leads to life (1:20-23, 33). To pursue the desires of the flesh places one on the road to death and destruction:
15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness (Romans 6:15-18).
5 For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. 6 For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. . . 12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh 13 (for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live (Romans 8:5-8, 12-13).
I think the consequences of being on the path of sin is especially clear in our Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:
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).
In this text, Jesus takes up the teaching of the Law concerning the sin of murder. There were many who dealt with this law legalistically. That is, they assumed that when the law forbade murder, that was as far as it went. The same approach was taken with regard to adultery and divorce (Matthew 5:27-32). Jesus put this matter in a very different light. To Him, murder is not only a terrible sin, it is the fruit of unholy anger.
Jesus traces the source of the sin of murder back to an angry spirit. He calls attention to an angry attitude toward others which causes one to view others as worthless, folks whom the world would be better off without. Now don’t pretend to be so pious that you don’t know what this is like. It’s the attitude that you and I have toward someone who cuts in front of us on the freeway, or runs a red light. We say to ourselves, “You idiot!” When we look upon someone else as worthless, then by inference we imply that the world would be very well off without them. What a rationale this is for murder. That is why Jesus forbids us to have this kind of anger toward others. We are to be reconciled to our enemy quickly, before our differences escalate any further. Murder, then, is the fruit of unresolved anger and hostility. This means that any of us, if we became angry enough, is capable of murder. James is not being as hypothetical as we might wish to think.
The reason why Christians have quarrels and conflicts is because they have allowed their fleshly desires – their “pleasures” – to dominate their lives. These “pleasures” wage war within each of us – within our bodies. They also result in conflicts and strife with one another in the body of Christ. The opposite effect happens when we “mortify the flesh,” when we daily die to self. Those who “put off the old man” put the interests of others ahead of their own. They become servants, rather than striving to be masters. They promote unity within the body of Christ. This is a central theme in the Book of Philippians, especially chapter 2.
The church at Corinth is a tragic illustration of the self-seeking James warns us about in our text. They had divisions among them, which resulted in some Christians taking other Christians to court (1:10-17; 6:1-11). Pleasure seeking dominated the lives of many of the saints. One man was living boldly in open sin (1 Corinthians 5). Others were also guilty of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). And some were so tempted by a good meal that they were willing to participate in heathen worship to eat “meat sacrificed to idols” (1 Corinthians 8-10). Paul exemplifies the servant leader, who sets aside his right to be supported, for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9). He stresses the need for self-control, for bringing our body into submission, rather than allowing it to dominate us (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). And then he cites case after case from Israel’s history to show that Israel’s failures were often the result of pursuing fleshly pleasures (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). If all this were not bad enough, pleasure seeking had corrupted the most sacred gathering of all – the meeting of the saints to remember our Lord’s death at the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:17ff.). Those who came early refused to wait for those who had to arrive later (this would be the poor). These early-comers stuffed themselves with food and drink, so that their “worship” looked a great deal like the pagan worship ceremonies some saints were willing to attend. The Corinthians were also self-indulgent in their participation in the church meeting. Many were not concerned with edifying others, but rather with the showing off of their own gifts and wisdom. No wonder James looks upon pleasure seeking with great disdain.
As I read verses 1-3, the focus is upon those who do not possess the “pleasures” they desire, and so they become willing to act in a sinful manner to obtain what they want. They “desire and do not have;” they “murder and envy,” but they are still not able to obtain what they desire. These people are the have-nots, who want much and sin much to obtain, but they are still not successful. James tells them that they do not have what they want because they have not prayed for it. They have sought blessings from everyone but God. But even if they had prayed, they would not have obtained what they sought because they would ask wrongly. God does not give us what we request simply to satisfy our fleshly lusts. He meets all of our true needs, but He does not cater to our every whim. The pursuit of fleshly lusts is the pursuit of vanity, and in this pursuit, we always come up short. God desires for us to be content in our circumstances (Philippians 4:11-13) and to learn endurance (James 1:2-4). That which we most need is wisdom, not wealth (James 1:5-8). God wants us to “be perfect, not deficient in anything” (1:4), but this has much more to do with our character than with our earthly possessions.
A Contributing Factor
4 Adulterers, do you not know that friendship with the world means hostility towards God? So whoever decides to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy. 5 Or do you think the scripture means nothing when it says, “The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning”?
Our struggle is not just with the flesh – our inner cravings and desires – it is with the world and with Satan as well. In verses 4 and 5, James rebukes his readers for their worldliness – their improper attachment to the world, with its values and desires. We will either stand with our Lord, and find the world against us, or we will stand with the world against our Lord:
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too” (John 15:18-20).
14 “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them, because they do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them safe from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17:14-16).
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him, 16 because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions) is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever (1 John 2:15-17).
James cannot state his warning more forcefully. He calls those who have become friends with the world “adulterers” (verse 4). In the Old Testament, Israel is represented as the bride of God, so that when the Israelites turn from God to idols, they are accused of harlotry (see Exodus 34:15-16; Deuteronomy 31:16; Isaiah 54:5; Jeremiah 3:20; Hosea 9:1). Similar imagery is employed for the church in the New Testament (see Matthew 16:4; 2 Corinthians 11:1-2; Ephesians 5:24-28; Revelation 19:7; 21:9).
Verse 5 is somewhat problematic because it is cited as a Scripture quotation, and yet we do not find any verse in Scripture that is exactly like it. We can certainly say that this quotation captures the sense of the Old Testament Scriptures. God is frequently pictured as a jealous God, who is provoked to jealousy when His people turn from Him (Deuteronomy 32:6, 21; Exodus 20:5; 34:14; Zechariah 8:2). God has placed His Spirit within us, and He desires fellowship with us. When we become friends with the world, it deeply grieves the Spirit of God within.
The Remedy: Repentance
6 But he gives greater grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud,37 but he gives grace to the humble.”38 7 So submit to God. But resist 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 make your hearts pure, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn, and weep. Turn your laughter into mourning and your joy into despair. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.
The question which immediately comes to mind in relation to verse 6 is this: “Why does God give “greater grace,” and for what reason?” There are various explanations, but it would seem to me that the “greater grace” referred to here is the additional grace God extends to those who are His wayward children. Lost sinners experience God’s initial saving grace when He draws them to Himself in salvation. But having become His children, we still are “prone to wander,” and we sometimes stray from Him. It is great grace that draws us to Him in salvation; it is greater grace that woos us back to Him when we stray. For those who are in despair at the fact that they have “messed up,” James gives these encouraging words, “but he gives greater grace.”
When we humble ourselves in repentance, He pours out even “greater grace” upon us, drawing us back into fellowship and communion with Him. When we have come to see that we have become too friendly with the world, we need but to humbly submit ourselves to God, and at the same time resist the devil, who will then flee from us. The devil does not dare to harm us when we have drawn near to God. As we draw near to God, we will discover that we become much more aware of His presence in our lives.
The word “repentance” is not found in our text, but the concept is certainly here. James is telling us what repentance looks like. It begins with a deep sense of humility, which includes the absence of human pride. It manifests itself in a hatred of sin and in the putting off of sin. It involves a cleansing of our hearts and our hands (that is our innermost motivations and our deeds). The wavering double-mindedness we once exhibited disappears, and a single-minded devotion to knowing and serving God takes its place. Repentance involves a godly sorrow:
10 For sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret, but worldly sadness brings about death. 11 For see what this very thing, this sadness as God intended, has produced in you: what eagerness, what defense of yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what deep concern, what punishment! In everything you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
James rightly calls for those who are repentant to “grieve, mourn, and weep” (verse 9). There is no place for a smile when one is repentant.
Years ago I taught sixth grade in a public school. I loved teaching, and I loved those kids, but I did use a paddle occasionally (it was really legal then). I used the paddle sparingly, and it only came out on rare occasions when it was obviously necessary. I purposed that while I would give only one swat, it would be painful enough that the student would not come back to class with a smile or a smirk on his face. One day, the principle called a student out of class because of some discipline problem. A few minutes later, that same student returned to class, with a big grin on his face. One of my students made a very profound observation. He said, “Look at him; he’s gone to the principal’s office, and yet he’s got a smile on his face.” The inference was that no one who was taken out of class to be disciplined should come back grinning. I agree, and so does James. There is great joy in serving our Lord, and even times for levity, but not when one is repenting of sin. I know that there are those who teach that one merely has to admit to having sinned, and that forgiveness is then virtually automatic. I believe that in order for repentance to be genuine, it must be accompanied by sorrow.
James once again calls for humility in conjunction with repentance in verse 10. When we humble ourselves before God, He is the one who will exalt us. This is most certainly “greater grace.”
As we prepare to move on, let me simply call your attention to the fact that these words from the pen of James are strong words. In fact, this call for saints to repent sounds a great deal like other instances where unbelievers are called to repent for salvation (for example, Luke 3:7-17). God takes all sin seriously. Those who are on the path of sin are on the path that leads to death. One can hardly take sin too seriously:
6 “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! It is necessary that stumbling blocks come, but woe to the person through whom they come. 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into fiery hell” (Matthew 18:6-9).39
First Example of Arrogance
11 Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge. 12 But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge—the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor?
It is possible that some may read the words of James in 4:1-10 and feel that somehow they have not been indicted. If so, James sets out to give us other examples of pride in our life, which calls for humble repentance. The first example is found in verses 11 and 12; the second is in verses 13-17. In verses 11 and 12, James indicts us for being arrogant when we speak against one another. James has already said much about our speech. We are to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (1:19). In chapter 3, James has warned that we should be reluctant to speak as a teacher. Now, he is telling us that we should be slow to speak against a brother.
What does James mean by “speaking against” someone? Barclay says, “Usually this term means to slander someone when he is not there to defend himself.”40 R. V. G. Tasker adds, “In the process of backbiting, James seems to suggest, the slanderer is in fact passing judgment.”41
It is very important that we understand what James is and is not saying here. He is not forbidding us to confront those who are sinning with their sin. There are too many texts that make it clear that we are our brother’s keeper.
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever they ask, my Father in heaven will do it for them. 20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20).
1 Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness. Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too. 2 Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).42
James forbids us to speak against our brethren behind their backs; he does not condemn us for confronting them for sin face to face. James does not forbid us to confront a brother or sister when they have clearly violated the Word of God. Those who are quick to say, “Judge not. . .” are those who do not want to be under the scrutiny of others. But we are responsible for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our task is not to judge others where only God can judge. God alone can judge the motives and intentions of men, and so we should not be judging here (see 1 Corinthians 4:2-5). Our task is to rebuke others in those areas where God had clearly identified their actions as sin.
It is also wrong to judge our brothers and sisters in matters that are not addressed in Scripture.43 When we go beyond the Scriptures (see 1 Corinthians 4:6), we are treading on very thin ice indeed. James tells us that when our standards are not clearly biblical standards, we are actually passing judgment on the law. We are placing ourselves above the law, rather than under it. We are saying, in effect, “God’s law did not go far enough here, so I will inject my own values and views. When we go beyond the law, we judge the law, and we once again find ourselves “playing God.” I would understand that in almost every indictment the Jews made against our Lord, it was based upon their expansion of the law (i.e., their traditions), and not the law itself.
James’ argument, then, goes something like this: It is wrong to speak against a brother or sister because it is judging them. Judging is God’s business, not ours. When we judge our brother or our sister, we “play God.” We “play God” by judging His Word, when we set ourselves over Him who is both the author and the interpreter of the law. God alone is the lawgiver, and He alone has the power to save or to destroy. When we judge our neighbor, we completely lose sight of our proper place in God’s scheme of things. Setting ourselves over others, and over the law, is exceedingly arrogant. How many of us can avoid the condemnation of this sin?
A Second Example of Arrogance: Presuming Future Success
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” 14 You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes. 15 You ought to say instead, “If the Lord is willing, then we will live and do this or that.” 16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin.
What James says here is not new. The Bible forbids us to boast about the future, as though we can control it, or even predict it:
Do not boast about tomorrow; for you do not know what a day may bring forth (Proverbs 27:1).
16 He then told them a parable: “The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant crop, 17 so he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).
How easy it is to make assumptions about the future. The hypothetical example James gives us is the kind that would be made by those who have experienced success in business. The illustration makes a number of false assumptions:
First, this fellow assumes that he will be alive in the future. One split second of time could change that. It might be a car accident, or a bolt of lightning, or a heart attack, but life can suddenly cease. Such was the case with the rich fool in Luke 12.
Second, he assumes that he will be in a certain place at a certain time. I live in Dallas, Texas, in the 21st century, and I know better than to assume I will be anywhere at a particular time. I may encounter a traffic jam on Central Expressway. I may very well experience a delayed or cancelled flight on my journey to a more distant place. How could anyone in the ancient world possible assume that they would be in a particular place at a particular time? This is sheer presumption.
Third, he assumes that he will start a successful business and make a profit within a specified period of time. Starting a business is a very high-risk venture. This fellow presumes that he will start a business in a distant place, and that the business will succeed, and that he will be making a profit within a year. This is absolutely amazing. No businessman I know of would talk with this degree of confidence, unless he was trying to convince his banker to give him a loan. This is nothing less than pure arrogance.
James rebukes anyone who would be so arrogant as to presume upon the future. He reminds us of the brevity and uncertainty of life. Life is a very delicate thing, just a puff of smoke, just a vapor:
1 I decided, “I will watch what I say
and make sure I do not sin with my tongue.
will put a muzzle over my mouth while in the presence of an evil man.”
2 I was stone silent;
I held back the urge to speak.
My frustration grew; 3 my anxiety intensified.
As I thought about it, I became impatient.
Finally I spoke these words:
4 “O LORD, help me understand my mortality
and the brevity of life!
Let me realize how quickly my life will pass!
5 Look, you make my days short-lived,
and my life span is nothing from your perspective.
Surely all people, even those who seem secure, are nothing but vapor.
6 Surely people go through life as mere ghosts.
Surely they accumulate worthless wealth
without knowing who will eventually haul it away.”
7 But now, O sovereign Master, upon what am I relying?
You are my only hope!
8 Deliver me from all my sins of rebellion!
Do not make me the object of fools’ insults!
9 I am silent and cannot open my mouth
because of what you have done.
10 Please stop wounding me!
You have almost beaten me to death!
11 You severely discipline people for their sins;
like a moth you slowly devour their strength.
Surely all people are a mere vapor. (Selah) (Psalm 39:1-11, emphasis mine)
1 The LORD, my protector, deserves praise—
the one who trains my hands for battle,
and my fingers for war,
2 who loves me and is my stronghold,
my refuge and my deliverer,
my shield and the one in whom I take shelter,
who makes nations submit to me.
3 O LORD, “Of what importance is the human race, that you should notice them
Of what importance is mankind, that you should be concerned about them?
4 People are like a vapor,
their days like a shadow that disappears.
5 O LORD, make the sky sink and come down!
Touch the mountains and make them smolder!
6 Hurl lightning bolts and scatter them!
Shoot your arrows and rout them!
7 Reach down from above!
Grab me and rescue me from the surging water,
from the power of foreign
8 who speak lies,
and make false promises.
9 O God, I will sing a new song to you!
Accompanied by a ten-stringed instrument, I will sing praises to you,
10 the one who delivers kings,
and rescued David his servant from a deadly sword.
11 Grab me and rescue me from the power of foreigners,
who speak lies,
and make false promises.
12 Then our sons will be like plants,
that quickly grow to full size.
Our daughters will be like corner pillars,
carved like those in a palace.
13 Our storehouses will be full,
providing all kinds of food.
Our sheep will multiply by the thousands
and fill our pastures.
14 Our cattle will be weighted down with produce.
No one will break through our walls,
and there will be no terrified cries in our city squares.
15 How happy are the people who experience these things!
How happy are the people whose God is the LORD! (Psalm 144 emphasis mine)44
As I read the words of James 4:15, I am reminded of the words of the song, which go something like this: “I know not what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.” We can say, with great confidence, that if the Lord is willing, we shall do this or that. But what a difference there is in the two perspectives James is contrasting. The arrogant fool assumes that he is “the master of his fate, and the captain of his soul.” He assumes that he controls his destiny. The Christian knows that God controls the future, and that what God wills will happen. It is not, “What will be, will be,” as though no one is in control. It is not, “What I will, will be.” It is, rather, “What God wills, will be.” Thus we should always speak of the future in terms of whether it is God’s will or not. We see the right mindset exemplified by Daniel’s three friends:
13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in a fit of rage demanded that they bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego before him. So they brought them before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you don’t serve my gods and that you don’t worship the golden statue that I erected?” 15 Now if you are ready, when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, trigon, harp, pipes, and all kinds of music, you must bow down and worship the statue that I had made. If you don’t worship it, you will immediately be thrown into the middle of the furnace of blazing fire. Now, who is that god who can rescue you from my power?” 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied to King Nebuchadnezzar, “We do not need to give you a reply concerning this. 17 If our God whom we are serving exists, he is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he will deliver us, O king, from your power as well. 18 But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we don’t serve your gods, and we will not worship the golden statue that you have erected” (Daniel 3:13-18, emphasis mine).
James does not want us to miss the fact that anyone who boasts about the future does so out of arrogance. It is arrogance that is at the heart of all disobedience. Humility, on the other hand, is at the heart of all repentance and obedience. Boasting about the future is arrogant, James tells us, and it is evil. Here is one more sin for which repentance is required.
It is the last verse of this paragraph that I find most interesting. Why would James end this paragraph on arrogance with regard to the future with this warning?
So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin (verse 17).
I believe there is a very close connection between verses 13-16 and verse 17. If I am arrogant enough to believe that I will be very successful in a short period of time, then this may become my excuse for not doing now what I know I should do. I see that a poor family in the church needs help, and I have the money to meet their need. But I convince myself that if I invest this money in my “certain” business venture, then I will have much more money to give, next year. There are ministries that need my help, but I salve my conscience by thinking that if I invest my time in my new business, then I will have much more time and money in the future. It is a pious excuse for my disobedience, something at which the Jews in James’ day (and we today) are highly skilled (see Mark 7:1-13).
By the way, notice that this “business” sounds purely hypothetical – it does not even exist. It is the business that I am sure I can succeed at, but have not yet begun to do. I am reminded of the proverb that says,
Wisdom is before the discerning person,
but the eyes of a fool run to the end of the earth (Proverbs 17:24).
My confidence concerning my success in the future may very well be my excuse for failing to do my duties in the present. Future (presumed) prosperity becomes my excuse for procrastination. On the other hand, if I realize that my life is but a vapor, and that I am here for a very short time, I am prompted not to hesitate to do the good that is before me to do, without delay.
A Future Certainty – Judgment Day
1 Come now, you rich! Weep and cry aloud over the miseries that are coming on you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your clothing has become moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be a witness against you. It will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have hoarded treasure! 4 Look, the pay you have held back from the workers who mowed your fields cries out against you, and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived indulgently and luxuriously on the earth. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person, although he does not resist you.
The foolish and arrogant45 presume things about the future that they should not. James has just rebuked them in 4:13-17. His first words in verse 13 are, “Come now. . . .” Now James will turn to that which is certain in the future, and once again he begins with the words, “Come now. . .” (5:1).
False teaching often deals with the future:
Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:12)
16 But avoid profane chatter, because those occupied with it will stray further and further into ungodliness, 17 and their message will spread its infection like gangrene. Hymenaeus and Philetus are in this group. 18 They have strayed from the truth by saying that the resurrection has already occurred, and they are undermining some people’s faith (2 Timothy 2:16-18).
3 Above all, understand this: in the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges 4 and saying, “Where is his promised coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately suppress this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water. 6 Through these things the world existing at that time was destroyed when it was deluged with water. 7 But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, by being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:3-7).
False teaching seeks to distort the truth about the future because our view of the future has so much to do with the present. Over and over again, we find the New Testament writers focusing on the future as the motivation for godliness in the present:
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes, the heavens will disappear with a horrific noise, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze, and the earth and every deed done on it will be laid bare. 11 Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, 12 while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God? Because of this day, the heavens will be burned up and dissolve, and the heavenly bodies will melt away in a blaze! 13 But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides (2 Peter 3:10-13).
2 Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is. 3 And everyone who has this hope focused on him purifies himself, just as Jesus is pure (1 John 3:2-3; see also Romans 8:18-25; 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:11; Philippians 1:21; 3:10-21; 1 Thessalonians 4:13—5:11; Titus 2:11-13; Hebrews 11:10, 13-16).
James now calls our attention to a future event that is certain. This future certainty has both negative and positive dimensions. We shall deal with the negative dimensions in this lesson, and the more positive aspects in the last lesson.
James 4:1-3 seems to address the disenfranchised, those who desire, but do not possess. The danger for them is that they will sin in order to obtain the things their desires crave. In James 5:1-6, just the opposite is true. These verses focus on the rich who have succumbed to the temptations of the rich. The rich and the poor were first addressed in chapter 1, verses 9-11. The rich were not rebuked for being wealthy, nor were they instructed to give all their wealth away. They were warned not to become proud and arrogant about their wealth. They were to glory in their humiliation, well aware that they, like the grass, will pass away (1:10). In other words, the rich were reminded that their life is but a vapor, which briefly appears and then vanishes (4:14). We see, then, that it is not being rich that is a sin, but rather gaining and using wealth in a sinful way. Tasker writes,
“Neither here nor elsewhere in the New Testament are the rich denounced merely for being rich, but rather for yielding so readily to the temptations to which the rich are especially prone.”46
The sinful rich are warned that both they and their wealth will all too quickly pass away, and that their hoarded wealth will not do them any good beyond the grave. James tells us why the wicked rich are condemned.
First, they have obtained their wealth by means of injustice. Specifically, they have increased their profits by refusing to pay their laborers in a fair and timely fashion, and these people are the ones whose efforts have produced the riches the wealthy enjoy (James 5:4). The cries of the oppressed workers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.47 The Old Testament law was very clear on this matter,48 and those who are indicted appear to have knowingly brushed God’s Word aside (remember that these were Jews to whom James was writing). The rich have power to help or to harm, while the poor are powerless. These rich folks have abused their power by oppressing the powerless. This evil has become almost standard practice by large corporations and companies, who purposely delay paying their bills for 90 days or more. They do it simply because they can get away with it, and because it is profitable to do so. Let those who would obtain their wealth wrongly remember that the Lord hears the cries of the oppressed.
The one who oppresses the poor to gain his own increase and the one who gives to the rich—both end up only in poverty (Proverbs 22:16).
4 Wealth does not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from mortal danger. 5 The righteousness of the blameless will make straight their way, but the wicked person will fall by his own wickedness. 6 The righteousness of the upright will deliver them, but the faithless ones will be captured by their desires. 7 When a wicked person dies, his expectation perishes, and the hope of his strength perishes. 8 The righteous person is delivered out of trouble, and the wicked turns up in his stead (Proverbs 11:4-6).
The one who trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf (Proverbs 11:28).
The wealth of a rich person is like a strong city, and it is like a high wall in his imagination (Proverbs 18:11).
Second, the wicked rich have used their wealth wrongly, only to indulge their own desires (James 5:5). James began chapter 4 with a warning against the obsession of satisfying one’s passions. The rich have far more capacity to do this than the poor. While it is not wrong to enjoy the good things of this life (1 Timothy 4:4-5; 6:17), riches are a stewardship, and the wealthy are encouraged to be “rich in good deeds” (1 Timothy 6:18). Those whom James indicts are only using their wealth in a self-indulgent way, and thus they are abusing their stewardship.
Third, the wicked rich have used the power of their wealth to condemn and to kill the righteous person who does not resist them (James 5:6). We are certainly reminded of the story of Ahab and Jezebel, and Naboth, whose field Ahab desired (see 1 Kings 21). Ahab and Jezebel were able to use their wealth and power to have Naboth falsely charged and then executed. Some see this as an indictment against those wealthy Jewish leaders who brought about the death of our Lord (see Isaiah 53:7; Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; 1 Peter 2:23; 3:18). While the wrongful execution of our Lord is certainly one example of the misuse of wealth and power, I believe James means it to be understood more broadly, for the wealthy may oppress godly saints knowing they will not resist:
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).
The judgment that awaits the wicked rich is graphically described. First of all, the wealth that they have accumulated will not endure, but will perish. Wealth, we are told, was measured in several forms. Their agricultural wealth – like that of corn or grain – would rot. Second, their elegant clothing, which was also a form of wealth,49 would become moth-eaten. Third, their silver and gold would rust. Here was surely the most durable form of wealth, but James tells his readers that it will not accompany us beyond this life.
Notice that in each case the wealth that perishes does so by virtue of being hoarded and not being put to good use. Grain would not have rotted in the hands of the poor. It rotted in warehouses, where it was hoarded. Moths do not attack clothing on our bodies; they attack clothing that is left in storage unused, and the same goes for rust. Things that are left idle and unused rust, not things that are put to use. It is the hoarding of wealth that is evil, when there are needs that it could have met. The picture is one of a stockpile of unused wealth, all of which is now worthless by virtue of non-use. It is this stockpile that testifies against the wealthy in the day of judgment, evidence that they did not use their wealth to minister to the needs of others. How different things would have been had these goods become converted to treasure laid up in heaven:
19 “Do not accumulate for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But accumulate for yourself treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
If we are correct in concluding that the Book of James was written quite early, then it was written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. At least a partial fulfillment of these words can be seen in the sacking of Jerusalem, for we are told that when the Romans stormed the city, the Roman soldiers knew that many of the Jews were wealthy. The people who were poorly clothed and skinny were somewhat overlooked by the soldiers, but those who were “fat and sassy” were tortured, because the look of wealth was apparent.
These words from James cannot be any more strongly stated. Barclay comments on the words “weep and cry aloud”:
The vividness of the picture is increased by the word which James uses for to wail. It is the verb ololuzein, which is onomatopoetic and carries its meaning in its very sound. It means even more than to wail, it means to shriek, and in the Authorized Version is often translated to howl; and it depicts the frantic terror of those on whom the judgment of God has come (Isaiah 13:6; 14:31; 15:2, 3; 16:7; 23:1, 14; 65:14; Amos 8:3). We might well say that it is the word which describes those undergoing the tortures of the damned.50
The words of our text are the strongest in this epistle, and they are surely intended to give us pause for thought. Very few churches are free of strife of some sort, and James tells us where a great deal of it comes from. When we contend with others we would like to believe that we are “contending for the faith” or “standing up for what is right.” That is always a possibility, but it is not one that James bothers to mention. He tells us that wherever there is strife and contention, there you will find people who are driven by their fleshly desires. Personal, self-seeking ambition is at the root of much strife. When we are so intent to get ahead that we are willing to sacrifice principle and relationships, then we will surely be the cause of strife. When we “take up our cross” and become humble servants, we promote peace and harmony.
Often the self-seeking of which we are guilty is that which we have learned from the world. As much as at any other time in history, the world is hell-bent on seeking personal pleasure, and the church is afflicted with the same malady. The problem is that there is too much of the world in the church, and there is too much of the world in us. James says that this calls for humble repentance, that turns from the world to our Lord, and that resists the devil. True repentance will be marked by humility, and by genuine grief and sorrow at the immensity of our sin.
We are often guilty of playing God, which is the height of human arrogance. We do so when we speak against others in a way that makes us judges, in a way that puts our standards above the Word of God, and in a way that speaks against others behind their backs, so that they cannot defend themselves and cannot be encouraged to seek restoration. We also play God when we speak confidently of the future, when God alone is in control of the future. We need to be reminded that our life on this earth is brief and fragile. Fortunately, our life is in the hands of Him who gave us life. The uncertainty of the future should prompt us to do the good we can do now, and not put it off until later. Presumption about the future promotes procrastination. Grasping the brevity and uncertainty of life should prompt us to do the good we can do today, without delay.
Our text has a great deal to say to us about wealth. I believe it is safe to say that in comparison to the rest of the world, we are all wealthy. We ought to be very careful how we obtain wealth, how we use it, and not to abuse the power that it gives us. Wealth that is horded will testify against us in the day of judgment, and we most surely cannot take our wealth with us. We can “lay up treasure in heaven,” but we cannot store up lasting treasure on earth.
James speaks with great severity in our text, almost as though he were speaking to those who were not saved. The fact is that some of his readers probably were not saved. He was writing a general epistle, and there must have been a number of unbelievers who encountered it. If you have never repented of your sin and received the gift of salvation through trusting in the sacrificial death our Jesus Christ, now is the time to do so. No one’s future is more precarious and frightening than the one who is outside of faith in Christ. And if you have received Christ in the past but have come to walk the path of disobedience, this is the time for repentance.
36 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.
37 William Barclay says that pride “shuts itself off from God for three reasons. (i) It does not know its own need. It so admires itself that it recognized no need to be supplied. (ii) It cherishes its own independence. It will be beholden to no man and not even to God. (iii) It does not recognize its own sin. It is occupied with thinking of its own goodness and never realizes that it has any sin from which it needs to be saved.” William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), pp. 105-106.
38 See Proverbs 3:34.
39 I want to be very clear here that I am not saying one can lose their salvation by sinning. What I am saying is that when one chooses to walk the path of sin, they need to understand where that path is leading. This should serve as strong motivation to get off the wrong path.
40 Barclay, p. 111.
41 R. V. G. Tasker, The General Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), p. 99.
42 We must not overlook the final verses of James’ epistle, James 5:19-20.
43 Personal convictions would be just one example of this (see Romans 14:1—15:16).
44 While my primary purpose in citing these psalms is to show that the brevity of life is emphasized in the Bible, I find it most interesting to compare both of these psalms in their entirety to the teaching of the Book of James. Many of the themes James takes up are themes found in these two psalms. One almost gets the impression that James was having his devotions in these psalms the day he wrote his epistle.
45 Actually, arrogance and foolishness are closely related; see Proverbs 12:15; 14:16.
46 Tasker, The General Epistle of James, p. 109.
47 “This expression ‘God of sabaoth’ is one of the most majestic of all the titles of God in the Old Testament, drawing attention, as it does, to His sovereign omnipotence. The Hebrew word is found transliterated, instead of being translated, only twice in the New Testament, in this passage where the language echoes Is. v. 9, and in Rom. ix. 29 where it occurs in a direct quotation from Is. i. 9. . . . The use of the expression here in James emphasizes the truth that, though the poor and the oppressed appear to have no champions on earth, they have as their helper and avenger none other than the Lord God omnipotent.” Tasker, p. 113.
48 See Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Proverbs 3:27-28; Jeremiah 22:13; Malachi 3:5.
49 See Genesis 45:22; Joshua 7:21; Judges 14:12; 2 Kings 5:5, 22.
50 William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, p. 115.