As the church lives now in the twenty-first century world, the preacher of the Gospel could find no more pertinent message for his people than the Epistle of James. The Epistle of James is one of the first pieces of New Testament literature given to the church. James, the blood brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, was the pastor of the church at Jerusalem and commanded an incredible following. As Dr. W. A. Criswell has said “to hear and read what James has to say about the Christian faith is an open door into the light of Heaven.”O.S. Hawkins, Getting Down to Brass Tacks (Neptune, N. J.: Loizeaux Publishers 1993), 9. It is the most practical New Testament epistle. It is as relevant to the issues of our culture as the morning newspaper.
James addresses this letter “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1). In the language of the New Testament, the word for “scattered” is diaspora. From it we get the English word “dispersed” or “dispersion.” Those who were dispersed were scattered like seed. After Steven was killed outside the gate of the old city of Jerusalem, the Christians were scattered ( diaspora) through out the Roman world (Acts 8:1-3). God permitted this test of the Jerusalem church for a purpose. Had there been no diaspora, the Christians would have stayed in Jerusalem and the growth of the church would have been stymied. Instead, in one generation the Gospel spread throughout the known world-all the way to the confines of Rome itself.
James wrote his letter to Christian Jews scattered outside Palestine. He wrote to those who had been dispersed, to those who had to leave their homes, their jobs, and their property. However, in a very real sense he was writing to us too. There is a sense in which all Christians are in the diaspora. We are living as exiles from our eternal heavenly home. Thus, the letter of James is directly from God to us, for behind the hand of James is the hand of God (2 Timothy 3:16).
James wrote his letter to those under persecution and those engaging a complex and contrary culture in order to teach them how to deal with the stress and pressure of difficult trials. He was writing to women who were at their wits end. Their children were screaming and crying and trying to adjust to new surroundings. He was writing to men who had lost their jobs and their sense of dignity. The people who would read his letter were literally hanging by a thread. Persecution had driven them from their homes. They were wrestling with how to live out what they believed.
Consequently, James was extremely practical and even at times polemic. Christians today also face pressure and stress. We too can learn from James how to react to certain circumstances.
James addresses thirteen themes in his epistle which are timeless. These thirteen themes provide a perfect preaching opportunity over a three-month period to address thirteen of the issues that are prevalent in our culture today. The burden of James’s message is that we should become “doers of the Word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22, KJV). James was more of a “hands on practitioner” than a theologian. He got his hands dirty. He calls upon the church in every age to practice what it preaches. He calls upon us in our day to not simply hear the Word of God, but to “do it.” His was the original theme- “JUST DO IT.”
The purpose of this article is to lead the preacher to see James in a thematic way in order to address thirteen prevalent issues in our culture today. Suggested sermon titles and outlines are in bold print.
Stress: Five Fascinating Facts
Stress has become the buzzword of our society. In some ways it has even become the scapegoat, the excuse of modern man. James writes his letter to Christians who have been dispersed during the first century. His first words to them were about how to deal with stress and pressure in the places where they lived. The recipients of his letter were facing very difficult trials. Therefore, James sought to show them, and us, that stress is not necessarily a foe, but when understood and dealt with biblically, it can become a friend. James begins his letter by pointing to five fascinating facts that can turn stress from a foe to a friend.
Stress Is Predictable (James 1:1-2)
James 1:2 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when ever you face trials of many kinds.” The verse does not say “if” we face trials of many kinds, it says “when.” James’s point is obvious-stress is predictable. It is inevitable, inescapable, and unavoidable. We all have it. Some of us have learned to deal with it, some of us have not.
“Trials” (peirasmos) are predictable. We all face them. Christians encounter two basic types of trials. Trials of correction come our way when we are out of the will of God, and he allows a trial to come our way to correct our paths (ask Jonah, the runaway prophet). Trials of perfection, on the other hand, come to us when we are in the will of God, and he is about the business of perfecting our faith. The disciples on the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a storm were where God told them to be and were doing what he told them to do.
Stress is predictable. Paul said these trials were “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Once we realize that stress is indeed predictable, we can move on and learn to deal with it.
Stress Is Problematic (James 1:2)
Just because these trials are predictable does not mean they should be dealt with lightly. Stress can be problematic. Stress not only happens, it also hurts. James tells us to consider it joy when we “face trials of many kinds” (poikilos). The word means many-colored or varied. James knew that trials were not all alike. Some are job related, some are financial, some are domestic, some result from fear of failure. The point is we are faced with trials of all sorts of colors and stripes. Some trials are natural, coming from accidents, sickness, disappointments, or painful circumstances. Other trials are supernatural. Although these stressful trials are problematic, there is hope. We should take comfort in the fact that the stress of trials is transitory (1 Peter 1:6). Stress is predictable and problematic.
Stress Is Paradoxical (James 1:2-4)
James said we should consider it pure “joy” when we face these trials of many kinds. Could this be a misprint? We generally count it all joy when we avoid trials and tribulations. Talk about a paradox! James’s admonition seems diametrically opposed to the way we would naturally look at difficulties.
James says “consider” (hegeomai) it pure joy. The word means, “to think ahead, forward.” The tense of the verb indicates that James was signaling the fact that the trial was not joy in itself but what came afterwards was. Job was “thinking ahead” when he said, “he knows the way that I take, when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Job did not consider losing his health a joy, but he did look forward to the joy that would follow his trial.
Jesus himself looked beyond his own suffering. Hebrews 12:2 reminds us that “for the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross.”
Yes, the stress of trials is paradoxical. James said that we should consider it joy because it is used to bring us to spiritual maturity (James 1:3-4). Stress does not have to be our foe; it can be our friend.
Stress Is Purposeful (James 1:3-8)
Stress produces purity. One purpose of stress is to lead us to purity. James reminds us that “the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” “Testing” (dokimion) can also be translated “purging.” The obvious word picture conveys a precious metal being heated until it is liquid and its impurities rise to the top and are scraped off. James reminds us that our trials are for a purpose, and one of those purposes is to produce purity in our lives.
Stress produces perseverance. James said the testing of our faith develops “perseverance” (hupomeno). This particular word comes from a preposition meaning “under” and a verb that means, “to stand fast.” James is saying the testing of our faith develops the staying power that will help us stand up under other tests. 2 Corinthians 1:6 translates the same word as “patient endurance.” Stress is purposeful. It produces purity and perseverance in life.
Stress produces perfection. Another purpose of stress is to lead us to perfection. “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4). The word “mature” (teleion) means to end, to carry work to its end, to become full-grown. A student goes to school to earn a diploma and along the way may fail a few tests and even confuse a few historical facts, but all
that is incidental to finishing the course, walking across the stage, and receiving the diploma on graduation day. Our goal in Christian living is spiritual maturity, and trials produce perfection in our lives.
Stress produces prayer. Another benefit of stressful trials is that they drive us to pray. James 1:5 puts it like this: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God.” The greatest need of modern man is wisdom (sophia). James says God gives a supernatural ability to discern-what we call the gift of wisdom-to those who ask for it. It is God’s gift to us. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts. Wisdom is the ability to deal with facts and use them in practical ways. Stress is not only predictable and problematic, it is purposeful. It produces purity, perseverance, perfection, and prayer in our lives.
Stress Is Profitable (James 1:9-12)
James 1:9-12 describes three men: the man with poverty, the man with plenty, and the man with pressure. The trials God allows have a way of bringing us all to one level. As a pastor for many years, I have been with those in poverty, I have been with those in plenty, and I have been with those under pressure. I have seen how stress and trials have become profitable for those who have learned to deal with them.
James 1:9 says, “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.” The world may think that such a person is not worth much, but God says he is worth very much. Here is a mystery of the Christian life: the last shall be first and the low shall be made high. James 1:10-11 says, “The one who is rich should take pride in his low position because he will pass away like a wild flower.” The Gospel has a leveling effect. In Jericho, Jesus and His disciples met two men on the same day. One was impoverished, and the other had plenty. To Bartimaeus, the poverty-stricken, blind beggar on the roadside, he said, “rise” (Mark 10:49). To Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector who had climbed the tree, Jesus said, “Come down” (Luke 19:5). Do you see the obvious parallel to James 1:9-10?
James 1:12 reminds us that stress is profitable not only for those in poverty and those in plenty, but for those under pressure. “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
Stress is the menace of modern man. Remember that it is predictable. It is a question of when, not if. Stress is also problematic; if we do not deal with it, it can be destructive. Stress is also paradoxical. We can count it as joy because we know that the final, eternal outcome will be glorious. Stress is also purposeful. God is testing us, putting us through the furnace so that we might come out as pure gold. Finally, James reminds us that stress is profitable. We can think ahead to the crown of life “that God has promised to those who love Him.”
Relativism: The Religion of Modern Man
In our day of cultural relativism, morality seems to be a forgotten word in our generation. Few people speak of temptation. A growing number of people believe there are no moral absolutes, and consequently, they have little or no restraints. Moral scandals are surfacing in every field of endeavor.
In such a moral climate, James’s words about temptation are appropriate. His caution echoes through the corridors of time to the door of the twenty-first century: “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers” (James 1:16). In his discussion of relativism, James addresses three important points: the cause of temptation, the course of temptation, and the caution of temptation.
The Cause of Temptation (James 1:13-14)
What is the cause, the source, the origin of temptation that comes our way? Most of us would quickly say it comes from without. To the contrary, James says, “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me…for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (James 1:13). James impresses upon his hearers that temptation comes from two places: an internal source and an external force.
Temptation has an internal source. “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:14). This “evil desire” is often translated “lust” in many English translations. When this internal source of desire attaches itself to an evil object, it draws us out and away from our place of security. In the words of James, we are “dragged away.” When there is no evil desire, there is no temptation. The internal source draws us away and causes us to want to play outside God’s boundaries.
Temptation has an external force. In the internal source is desire, the external force is deception. James says that once desire becomes evil it causes us to be “enticed” (James 1:14). The word “enticed” (deleazo) means “being baited or deceived.Spiros Zodhiates, The Work of Faith (Chattanooga: AMG, 1981), 69. It carries with it the word picture of being “hooked.” It is the very thing that happens in fishing when the worm looks so delicious the fish swallows it, only to find out that a hook was deceitfully hidden inside the worm, and he is “dragged away.” Many are hooked by the world’s allurements in the same way.
The cause of temptation is not found in the externals. It is not found in God, in the devil, or in circumstances. James said that each of us is tempted when, “by his own evil desires, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:14).
The Course of Temptation (James 1:15)
It is imperative for us as believers not simply to examine the cause of temptation but to examine its course-where it leads us. James cautions us to look down the road to see where sin ends: in defeat and in death.
Temptation is like a weed that grows unchecked and destroys. A weed has three parts: a root, a shoot, and a fruit. The progression is obvious. It is the same with temptation. The root of temptation is a selfish desire. The shoot of temptation is a sinful decision. The fruit of temptation is sure defeat. James 1:15 puts it this way: “Then, after desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.” This law of Scripture is just as certain as the law of gravity.
The Caution of Temptation (James 1:16-17)
James concludes his words about relativism in temptation with a flashing yellow caution light: “Don’t be deceived”(James 1:16). James cautions us to not be deceived about sin. He cautions us to not be deceived about the Savior. He writes that “Every good and perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). Finally, James cautions us not to be deceived about salvation. This gift of salvation comes “from above.” It is supernatural. Jesus called it the new birth.
As believers we can overcome temptation with God’s help. Paul put it this way, “No temptation seizes you except what is common to man. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
The Credibility Crisis
James now turns our attention to the issue of true religion. Western Christianity is facing a credibility crisis. Our world’s longing to see true religion. There is much counterfeit Christianity on the market today. As new age movements gather momentum and woo the younger generations through their public media and public education, it is imperative that the true church rises up and makes a difference in our world. True or “pure” religion is the focus of James 1:18-27.
True Religion Involves Knowing Christ (James 1:18)
Some Bible readers believe James held to a theology opposite that of Paul’s. Some even say James promotes a works salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before James ever talks about works, he makes sure we know that salvation is in Christ alone. In James 1:18 he speaks of salvation’s origin, its operation, and its outcome. “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.”
True Religion Involves Sowing Consistency (James 1:19-25)
Consistency in our lives manifests itself in two ways: in our talk and in our walk. If we are to present the world with a true picture of Christ, then we must not only know him, we must also be consistent in our talk and in our walk. James 1:19-21 reveals to us the importance of what we say and how we listen. James 1:22-25 impresses upon us the importance of not just being but doing. Blessing does not come by simply hearing great biblical truths. It is not the hearing but the doing that produces blessing. James says, “He will be blessed in what he does.”
True Religion Involves Showing Character (James 1:26-27)
James 1:26 says, “If anyone considers himself religious….” Many people consider themselves to be religious today. How are genuine Christians different? True believers not only know Christ and show consistency, they also show character. Christian character is evidenced in three ways according to James. There is the evidence of our conversation (James 1:26). There is the evidence of our concern (James 1:27). There is the evidence of our conduct (James 1:27). One of the great issues facing the church as we live now in the third millennium is the credibility crisis. Are we credible? The world is watching and waiting to see if we are truly for real. Our Lord ended the greatest sermon ever preached (The Sermon on the Mount) with a message about the importance of doing what the Word of God says. Jesus reveals that the wise builder is a picture of someone who “hears these words of mine and puts them to practice” (Matthew 7:24).
The closing years of the twentieth century saw major changes sweep across our world. In the former Soviet Union, Jews who had been discriminated against for scores of years were freed in growing numbers to immigrate to Israel. The Berlin Wall crumbled. Eastern Europe taught us that no one could be suppressed and discriminated against indefinitely. In South Africa change continues to be in the wind. We in America must remember that we are only one generation removed from racial segregation ourselves. Yet, in the Middle East discrimination is at an all-time high, and in the United States there is still so much discrimination between black and white and Jew and Gentile. Ironically, one of the targeted groups of discrimination today is conservative Christianity. Anti-Christian bigotry is accelerating at a rapid pace.
As the church lives in the third millennium, we must not avoid the issue of discrimination from without or the discrimination from within. One would think that after two thousand years of church history James 2:1-13 would be irrelevant. Unfortunately, these verses are still extremely poignant.
One of my fondest childhood memories was a trip to the circus as a small boy. I was particularly intrigued by a clown act in which one of the clowns, who seemed to stand eight feet tall, was really standing upon stilts. The skit ended when another clown knocked him off of his feet. He was found to be standing on two false legs. I tell this story to make a point. Discrimination stands on two false legs that need to be knocked out from under it. One false leg is prejudice and the other is presumption.
The False Leg of Prejudice (James 2:1-7)
James begins by showing he is firmly opposed to prejudice. He says “don’t show favoritism” (James 2:1). He illustrates this truth in verses three and four and then moves on to an accusation in verse five- “Listen my dear brothers, you have insulted the poor” (James 2:5-6). James was accusing his readers of giving rich people places of honor while pushing back into the corner the very people among whom Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry. It is a strong accusation and not a simple insinuation. The vile sin of discrimination stands upon a false leg of prejudice.
The False Leg of Presumption (James 2:8-13)
Those who discriminate are also presumptuous. They presume upon three things. Presumption number one: discrimination is not sin (James 2:9). Presumption number two: discrimination is not significant (James 2:10-11). Presumption number three: discrimination is not serious (James 2:12-13). James is quick to point out in these verses that prejudice is a sin, that it is significant, and that it is indeed serious.
However, James 2:13 says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Merciful people have no fear of judgment. The one who shows mercy in this life is not afraid of that day when he will stand before the Great Judge who knows the secrets of all men’s hearts. Yes, mercy does indeed triumph over judgment.
The Ethical Effect
We live in a day when in many cities the church is losing its place of respect and influence. While many church members are quick to say they are people of faith, the world shouts back with the haunting question of James 2:16, “What good is it?” Because the church has lost its voice in so many communities, our whole nation is involved in an ethical effect.
The conflict between faith and works is age old. The whole argument originated in the issue addressed in James 2:14-26. The ethical effect, that is faith without fruit, is the burden of James 2:14-26. James reveals to us that a faith without fruit is false, futile, and fatal.
A Faith Without Fruit Is a False Faith (James 2:14-17)
James asked, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (James 2:14). Note carefully that James is not speaking about a man who has faith but a man who “claims to have faith.” Then he asked, “Can such faith save him?” True saving faith will never be “by itself.”
Lawyers and judges will be quick to tell you that in a trial they cannot deal with hearsay. They look for evidence-hard cold facts. The key to understanding this paragraph of James is to know that James is not talking about a faith with works but a faith that works!
A Faith Without Fruit Is a Futile Faith (James 2:18-19)
James says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18). At first James 2:18 appears to contradict Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28 when he says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” In reality, they are complimenting one another, not contradicting one another. When we examine these statements in context we find that James and Paul arrived at the same point from different perspectives. They said the same things but with a different emphasis. For example, when Paul spoke of works, he was referring to the works of the law such as observing the Sabbath and offering required sacrifices. However, when James spoke of works, he was referring to the fruit of our faith, which is obedience that issues out of love. Paul was hitting hard at men and women who try to be saved by keeping the law instead of trusting Jesus alone for salvation. James, on the other hand, was concerned with a people who confused mere intellectual assent with true saving faith which ultimately produces fruit.
A Faith Without Fruit Is a Fatal Faith (James 2:20-26)
A faith without fruit is not simply false and futile, it is fatal. In the words of James 2:26, it is “dead.” There are no vital signs-no pulse rate, no heartbeat-there is only fatal silence. James 2:20 also says that such faith is “useless.”
Many church members today have no faith and no works. Some gather to say creeds and talk about faith and positive thinking but have no ongoing ministries to meet people’s needs. Others have works without faith. Their approach is motivated by simply social or humanistic values. Biblical Christianity is shown in the ethical effect. It is not a faith with works; it is a faith that works!
Words as Well as Works
There is a new phenomenon capturing American culture today. Radio and television talk shows dominate the media. We are a nation of talkers. What comes out of our mouths is so vitally important that James devoted twelve entire verses in the middle of his letter to the subject. Having just dealt with the relationship of faith and works, James now deals with the relationship of faith and words. Our words reveal what is actually hidden in our hearts. Thus, the apostle admonishes us to “take note of this; everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
Words are powerful. Self-esteem and self-confidence are often learned or lost in a parent’s words when we are children. Our Lord himself considered careless speech to be a very serious matter (Matthew 12:36-37). Thus, James makes three statements about the tongue in James 3:1-12, and he gives two illustrations for each statement.
Controlled Speech Is Directive (James 3:1-5)
Controlled speech, like a bridle on a horse or a rudder on a ship, is directive. It sets us on course and gives us direction in life. A horse left to itself will never accomplish anything for anyone. But a bridled horse under its master’s control can be useful for all sorts of purposes.
Contentious Speech Is Destructive (James 3:5-8)
Having spoken about the potential of the tongue for good, the tongue also has a potential for evil. Controlled speech is directive, but contentious speech is destructive. James illustrates the point with fire (James 3:5-6) and poi son (James 3:8) to support his case. Like a serpent’s poison, the venom of an untamed tongue can kill reputations that have been years in the making.
Conflicting Speech Is Deceptive (James 3:9-12)
The American Indians used the term “a forked tongue” to describe conflicting, deceptive speech. James 3:9-12 addresses the same issue. James describes a man who praises the Lord for all he has done for him and in the next breath curses his neighbor. James says that in doing this the man is deceiving himself. Conflicting speech is deceptive, and according to James 3:10, “this should not be!” In this age of human achievement, our ingenuity has reached heights it never dreamed of even a few years ago. We have split the atom and done incredible things with computers. We have been to the moon and back. We have developed spy satellites that can read a newspaper in someone’s hand on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Yet, we have never been able to tame ourselves. No matter how hard man tries, he has difficulty taming the tongue. Education cannot do it. Turning over a new leaf cannot do it. Only a supernatural transformation can do it. Only Christ can enable us to control ourselves and cause our words to be constructive, honest, and loving.
Knowledge is exploding in our day. Textbooks and encyclopedias are behind the times almost as soon as they come off the printing press. We can travel farther and higher and faster than anyone before us. The computer age continues to advance at such a pace that technology becomes outdated with each passing month. However, in the midst of this explosion of knowledge, wisdom is practically non-existent. Many people’s lives are in shambles. Position, power, and prosperity have not brought peace and purpose. In our modern world, where so many homes are disintegrating, so many hopes are smashed, and so many dreams are dashed, we need wisdom above all else.
The world’s wisdom is rooted in the secular, the sensual, and the satanic. In the words of James 3:15, “Such wisdom does not come down from Heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” Never have people needed wisdom more than today, and so few of us know where to find it. In this paragraph of James’s epistle, he examines both kinds of wisdom-the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of the Word-and he teaches us how to apply the wisdom of the Word to our everyday lives.
The Wisdom of the World
James informs us that this type of wisdom has its origin in the secular. It is “earthly.” Its origin is in the sensual. It is unspiritual. James goes so far as to say it is “of the devil” (James 3:15).
The wisdom of the world results in “envy.” Simply defined, envy is the displeasure we take in another’s good fortune. Another result of applying the wisdom of the world to our lives is “selfish ambition.” Disorder is the third result of applying the wisdom of the world to our lives (James 3:16).
We do not have to teach our children the wisdom of the world. They are born with it. We are all born with the propensity for envy, partisanship, confusion, and perversion.
The wisdom of the world is inherited through our sin nature. Many are in difficult times today because they made major decisions on the basis of the wisdom of this world.
The Wisdom of the Word (James 3:17-18)
This godly wisdom (sophia) is the keen ability to discern the Lord’s hand in human circumstances and apply heavenly judgment to these earthly situations. The wisdom of the Word “comes from heaven” (James 3:17). As Solomon said, “The Lord gives wisdom” (Proverbs 2:6).
When we apply the wisdom of the Word to our lives, the first result is purity (James 3:17). The Greek word for “pure” here is hagnos and implies spiritual integrity.Fritz Rienecker, A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 735. The wisdom of the Word produces right relationships in the upward expression (peace with God), in the inward expression (peace with ourselves), and in the outward expression (peace with others). It also produces patience (James 3:17). Likewise, it produces productivity. James 3:17 reminds us that godly wisdom is full of good fruit.
Each of us must choose between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of the Word. The former finds its origin in the secular, the sensual, the satanic; the latter finds its origin in Heaven. One results in envy, partisanship, confusion, and perversion. The other results in purity, peace, patience, productivity, and prudence.
War and Peace
“What causes fights and quarrels among you” (James 4:1)? Our current world situation makes James’s opening question as relevant in our day as in any previous generation. War has been a part of every era of human history. No civilization has been immune to it. In the early days of the twenty-first century, many of the conflicts around the world have their roots firmly embedded in centuries of ethnic hatred and hostility that are finally reaching the boiling point. The Bible tells us that in the last days there will be an escalation of wars eventually culminating in a final climactic battle, Armageddon.
War is real. Some of us are at war with ourselves, as our flesh wars with the Spirit. Others of us are at war in our homes. Some of us are even at war with God. What causes these fights and quarrels? We who are living on the brink of an apocalyptic war should heed the words of James. He reveals that war has its symptoms, its sources, and its solutions.
War Has Its Symptoms (James 4:1-3)
There is a vast difference between symptoms and sources. The believers to whom James is writing were engaged in a personal war of words. Their words were an external symptom, not the cause of the fighting itself. “Brothers, do not slander one another” (James 4:11). James reveals that the real problem is within, so he astutely asks a second question: “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you” (James 4:1)?
All war finds its origin in selfish desire. It is the selfish desire within that causes war with others. This is true whether we are speaking of Adolph Hitler, Sadam Hussein, or anyone else.
War Has Its Sources (James 4:4-6)
James reveals to us that the source of war is not found in our relationship with others nor even in our relationship with ourselves. The source of war is found in our rebellious relationship with God. James called this conflict between God and man a “battle within” (James 4:1). He goes on to say, “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
James asks a poignant question in verse four- “Don’t you know?” I do not believe he is speaking softly here. I think he is shouting and pounding his pulpit! He was expressing surprise and shock because those who had claimed to know Christ for years had committed spiritual adultery. He goes on to remind us that God gives us strength and grace to resist the temptation to do what we know is wrong. James 4:6 says: “But he gives us more grace.”
War Has Its Solutions (James 4:7-12)
God has given us the solution to war in the Lord Jesus Christ. Whether a cosmic conflict or a family fight, there is but one true and eternal solution to war. There will never be peace without the Prince of Peace. This sounds simplistic, but it is true. History continues to testify to wars and rumors of more wars, but one day Christ will come again and usher in a millennium of peace when swords will be beaten into plow shears, and the lion will lie down with the lamb.
James concludes his discussion on war with a series of verbs, all of which are in the imperative. These commands are five steps towards peace. James’s pathway to peace is found in these verbs: submit, resist, come near, wash, and humble yourselves.
War and peace are two of the great issues facing the church as we live in the twenty-first century and look toward the coming holocaust. Wars will continue to escalate as we head toward Armageddon. We need to remember, however, that God has not abdicated his throne. He is at work in history, and biblical prophecy underscores his presence in modern events. Our God is the God of history, and in the midst of this cosmic chaos, he calls us to be peace makers. We know the solution to war. We have the message of hope and the message of peace, and we must keep telling the story.
Roots of Recession: The Arrogance of the Age
Recession! Those words send chills up the business man’s back. In this paragraph of his letter, James is less interested in economic recession than in the spiritual recession plaguing many homes and hearts. The roots of spiritual recession are the same as the roots of economic recession. According to James 4:13-17, the roots of recession are three-fold: foolish presumptions, forgotten perspectives, and forsaken priorities.
Foolish Presumptions (James 4:13)
The man described in James 4:13 lives as if tomorrow will never come. He is obsessed with making money. Materialism is his master. The world’s wealth is his only concern. His entire life is motivated by money and greed. He is a picture of a successful baby boomer. He is not bad. There is nothing to indicate he is either unethical or unprofessional. He plans ahead and is self-confident, goal-oriented, and profit-motivated. However, he lives life as a practical atheist with no consideration of God in his planning. He is the epitome of the “I can do it on my own” philosophy. This man in James 4:13 is a microcosm of western mentality. He presumes upon the when- “today or tomorrow.” He presumes upon the where- “I’ll go to this city.” He presumes upon the what- “I’ll carry on business.” Finally, he presumes upon the why- “To make money.”
In the arrogance of our age, many of us presume we can grow in Christ when we want to, where we want to, and how we want to. These are but foolish presumptions.
Forgotten Perspectives (James 4:14)
James reminds us that life has its uncertainties. He asked, “What is your life?” Forgetting the proper perspectives on life and death and life after death, many of us live from year to year when we ought to be living from day to day. James also reminds us that life has its certainties. He goes on to say that life is “a vapor” that appears for a little while then vanishes. Economic and spiritual recessions are both rooted in foolish presumptions and forgotten perspectives.
Forsaken Priorities (James 4:15-17)
James 4:15 is calling us to put our priorities in order. Some of us have forsaken the priorities of God’s will and God’s way in our lives. God wants us to know his will and to walk in it. James reminds us that we “ought to say if it be the Lord’s will” (James 4:15). Forsaken priorities also involve God’s way. James 4:17 says, “Anyone, then who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” Those of us who know what we ought to do and willfully refuse to do it are people with forsaken priorities. We must guard against the arrogance of our age and avoid foolish presumptions, forgotten perspectives, and forsaken priorities.
Your Money Talks…What Does it Say?
“Now listen, you rich people” (James 5:1). With these five words, James begins the next para graph of his letter. There are basically two reactions to this paragraph. Those who are without money somehow feel they are more spiritual than those who have money. Well, they are not. On the other hand, those who have money somehow feel as if they have to be defensive. Well, they do not. These verses apply to everyone, for being “rich” is relative. Compared to the rest of the world, almost everyone reading this theological journal is very rich. No matter how much we have, someone else has more. No matter how little we have, someone else has less. The words in James 5:1-6 are for each of us.
Our money talks. In fact, it says volumes about what we really think is important. How we deal with our money is a reflection of our spiritual health. Thus, James deals with how we get it, how we guard it, and how we give it.
How We Get It (James 5:1, 4, 6)
The issue of how we get our wealth is so vitally important that the thought pervades the first paragraph of James 5. When writing this passage, James had in mind a man who received his money through exploitation and expropriation. Our money talks. What is it saying about how we got it? If we have obtained our wealth through means of exploitation, our “gold and silver” will testify against us.
How We Guard It (James 5:1-3)
How we guard our money is also revealing. The man James had in mind “horded” his wealth (James 5:3). Guarded wealth promises joy but only brings misery. When we begin to love money, it ceases to bless us and begins to curse us. We think that just a little more money will make us happy, but that is a deception. The parable of the rich fool illustrates the deceitfulness of guarded wealth (Luke 12:21). Guarded wealth is deceitful, decadent, and deceptive (James 5:2-3). There is nothing wrong with money, but money that is guarded will never spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
How We Give It (James 5:5)
Our money talks primarily about how we give it. Some people give their money to themselves in self-indulgence while others give it to the Lord to advance His kingdom. The man James has in mind gave his ill-gotten gains to him self. It is not what we guard but what we give that makes us rich. When we guard earthly treasure, it rots, ruins, and rusts. And one day it will stand up to testify against us. Money talks. Does it say, “Get me any way you can? Guard me and hold me tight? Keep me? Clutch me?” Or does your money say, “Spend me on yourself and no one else?” If so, it has become our master. Money talks and gives glory to God when it says, “Give me away to others in the service of Jesus Christ.”
“Be patient …until the Lord’s coming” (James 5:7). Instead of being patient, there are many today who are presumptuous. There are always those who try to forecast or pinpoint the Lord’s parousia. Every major world event brings a new wave of preachers crying that the sky is falling. This is one reason preachers lose so much creditability in the eyes of the world. James 5:7-12 deals with what we are to do until the Lord’s coming.
Look up…Be Calm (James 5:7)
Predictions of Christ’s return are nothing new. They were occurring a few years after the resurrection. So James admonishes his readers to “be patient.”
Look in…Be Clean (James 5:8-9)
When we are in a waiting period, it is easy to become irritated and frustrated. Some of us turn to holding grudges or murmuring or grumbling. There is also potential within us to become bitter and resentful. During these times we should “stand firm” (James 5:8). The Greek word translated “stand firm” (sterizo) is in the active voice and means “to prop,”Zodhiates, The Patience of Hope (Chattanooga: AMG 1981), 89. to strengthen your being. James says, “Don’t grumble against each other” (James 5:9). Until the Lord returns we must stay calm and stand firm against sin.
Look Back…Be Challenged (James 5:10-11)
James calls on us to look up, look in, and look back to those who have gone before us. Their example should be a challenge. James said to take the prophets as examples of patience (James 5:10). They too were looking for the Lord. Remembering those who have gone before us is always a challenge.
Having used the prophets as examples of patience in suffering, James reminds us about the perseverance of Job (James 5:11). What are we to do until the Lord’s parousia? James admonishes us to look up and be calm, look in and be clean, look back and be challenged.
Look Forward…Be Consistent (James 5:12)
We are also to look forward and be consistent. Our lives should match our lips, and our walk should match our talk. James 5:12 says, “Do not swear.” James was not so much talking about profanity here as he was talking about taking oaths. In James’s day, oaths were used so frequently that they had lost their significance. James 5:12 reminds us of one of the instructions our Lord gave on a grassy hillside in Galilee when he said,
Do not swear at all: Neither by Heaven for it is God’s throne; or by earth, for it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your yes be yes and your no, no; any thing beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:34-37).
Jesus was saying in effect, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” We are to be consistent while we look forward to the parousia.
The Church in Touch with a Hurting World
It is amazing in the way that James’s letter is as relevant today as it was to a first-century world. He addresses all the major issues the church is facing now. In the previous paragraph he calls on the church to be in touch with a hurting world. We live in a world where people are hurting. We must go into the world with a message of hope. As the church touches a hurting world, James addresses the issue of its situation, its solution, and its secret.
The Situation (James 5:13-15)
Life is filled with pressure and pleasure. There are mountaintops and valleys, sunshine and rain, happiness and heartache. James 5:13-15 mentions three types of situations in which people find themselves. There are people with pressure (James 5:13), there are people with pleasure (James 5:13), there are people with pain (James 5:14-15).
The Solution (James 5:16)
James points us to a horizontal solution and a vertical solution. The horizontal solution is to “confess your sins to each other.” James does not mean we are to go around confessing all our sins to others. We are privileged to go straight to God through the Lord Jesus Christ with our sins. However, there are times when, to be right with God, we must be right with each other. That is, to be right vertically, we must be right horizontally. James goes on to deal with a vertical solution when he reminds us we are to “pray for each other.” The tense of these verbs in James 5:16 is the present imperative.R.C. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle of Hebrews and the Epistle of James (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966), 522. In other words, confession and prayer are not once and for all actions as an aorist tense would indicate. James was saying in effect, “Make a practice of agreeing with and praying for one another. Don’t wait until the need arises. Always do it.”
The Secret (James 5:16-18)
The word James uses for prayer (deesis) in James 5:16 is a word that means “a humble begging or a plea or petition.” It is the most humble word for prayer in Greek. This prayer is neither to order God to do this or that, nor claiming this or that. It suggests the picture of a needy man with his head bowed in humility asking for help. Humble prayer is approached with integrity. It is the “prayer of the righteous man” (James 5:16). It is asked with intensity. It is “powerful” (James 5:16). It is answered with immensity. “It is effective” (James 5:16). It “avails much.” As we live in the third millennium, may God help us to be righteous so we can touch a hurting world.
Restoration (James 5:19-20)
A beautiful antique table graces the entrance way to our home. We acquired it back in 1972 at an auction of an old farmhouse in Hobart, Oklahoma. Chickens had roosted on it, and greasy tools had lain on it. It was ugly, and no one even bid on it. We took it to a man in Hobart who loved to restore old furniture. He stripped the table down and restored it to its beauty. Today, over a quarter century later, it is still one of our most cherished possessions.
God is in the restoration business too. The remarkable thing about him is that he uses us to help bring restoration to people who have been placed in the barn, beaten up by life’s circumstances, knocked around, and finally put over to the side.
James closes his letter with the recurring theme of the second chance. He reminds us of the possibility of our falling and the responsibility of our calling.
The Possibility of Our Falling (James 5:19)
James 5:19 says it is possible to “wander from the truth.” Today more and more people say that doctrine does not matter. However, what we believe determines how we behave. While it is impossible for a believer to “fall from grace,” it is possible for a believer to wander away from the place of sound doctrine or truth. When one of us wanders away from doctrine, we eventually wander away from duty. When we wander from belief our behavior soon follows.
The Responsibility of Our Calling (James 5:19-20)
James says, “Someone should bring him back” (James 5:19). This is the responsibility of our calling. In our zeal to win the lost, we sometimes forget we are also to win the saved. We have the responsibility, according to James 5:19-20, to “bring them back” (repentance), “save them from death” (resuscitation), “cover over a multitude of sins” (restoration).
With this call stated succinctly in James 5:19-20, the letter ends. The ending is quite a contrast to the way Paul concluded his letters. For example, he closed the second Corinthian letter with these words:
Finally brothers, goodbye. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints send their greetings. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellow ship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:11-14).
James’s ending is also in considerable contrast to the way Peter concludes his letters: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen” (2 Peter 3:18). James concludes his epistle rather abruptly because he was a practical man. He says, “he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). He told us what we are to do and then said in effect, “Now get on with it!”