The Coming of the Lord, part 3

James began this epistle with an exhortation concerning prayer (1.5) and in the middle gave a word about prayer (4.2-3). He now closes this epistle with a final word about prayer (5.13-18). Needless to say, this epistle is saturated with prayer. Fitting that James would write concerning prayer so often. History tells us that James was on his bare knees so often praying for the church that his knees became hard and callous, without sensation and like the knees of a camel. James will mention prayer seven (7) times in these six (6) verses. He will use three different words for prayer.

James 5.13-20

13Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.

14Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

15And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

16Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.

18Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

19My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back,

20let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

In the short span of six (6) verses James will mention prayer seven (7) times using three (3) different words (or derivatives of them): proseuchomai (v.13, 14, 17, 18), euche (v. 15, 16a), and deesis (v.16b). There are not many versions which recognize the use of different words for prayer. The subtle distinctions will be identified and connected with the context.

Counsel concerning Supplication (13-16a)

Seasons for Prayer (13). When should we pray? James gives a two very time for God’s people to offer up prayers. First, when a fellow Christian is experiencing trouble it is a good time to pray (13a). “Is anyone among you (pl.) suffering?” Are there any brothers or sisters who are suffering any kind of distress or trouble? This is the same word Paul will use years later near the end of his life concerning his imprisonment (2 Timothy 2.9). Contextually, no doubt these Christians were experiencing all kinds of affliction from their rich masters (5.4-6). The common theme of patience in perseverance in this epistle also seems to point to the fact that these saints have come up against many hardships. So James points his readers back to God – cast the pain and burden upon the Lord. His primarily Jewish audience would no doubt already have an idea of praying when distress comes upon their fellow countrymen. When one was afflicted with leprosy and declared among the people “Unclean, Unclean” in keeping with the ordinance, the rabbi taught that his fellow countrymen were to pray to God on his behalf. Now as fellow countrymen of the heavenly territory, when anyone among them experiences distress and disaster, James says, “let him keep on praying.” In other words, don’t stop praying! In the midst of trials is the prime time to pray.

Second, when a fellow Christian is experiencing triumph is a good time to pray (13b). “Is anyone cheerful?” James asks. The cheerfulness mentioned here is quite general. This is a Christian who is glad, of good cheer, and joyful. Here is a state altogether free from trouble and affliction. If this is the present station of life for a Christian, James emphatically commands them “sing!” This is the force of the present imperative. Further, the root of this imperative is psallo, a word notorious for debate among theologians and church members. The debate centers on one crucial point: Is the instrument of music inherent in the word? Without doubt the Greek word was associated with playing a stringed instrument. Etymologically this is the case because at its most basic definition psallo means to pluck (as one would do with a bow or harp). So Aristotle and Plutarch understood and used the word. Even when the Septuagint was written (3rd century BC), the word was still somewhat connected with the idea of playing a stringed instrument. However, by the time we come to the first century, the word has evolved to a point to where the instrument of music is not inherent. Rather, psallo (with the fellow members of the word group humons and psalmos) means simply to sing unaccompanied by musical instruments. Indeed, James’ primarily Jewish audience would identify that the instrument of music belonged to the shadow of the old covenant out of which they came. But now, since they have obtained the reality found in Christ and the new covenant, those things have passed away. Therefore, sing with the voice a song of praise to God. One writer calls praise “the highest form of prayer” (Pulpit Commentary 70). James and Paul once more agree: whether in trouble or triumph, pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5.17; cf. Ephesians 6.18).

Reasons for Prayer (14-16a). Why should we pray? Or more precisely why should elders of the church pray? When there are spiritually weak members of the body. Those who are spiritually weak (perhaps in faith due to sin) are commanded by an elder to call upon the elders of the church. A plurality of elders implies that more than one of the presbytery shows up at the house of the spiritually weak, not just one of them and not the preacher. These men pray “over him,” probably indicating the laying on of hands. The laying on of hands would be necessary for anointing this person with oil, a symbol of consecration (Exodus 40.15; Numbers 3.3) and possibly the Holy Spirit.   This anointing takes place “in the name of the Lord,” that is by His authority.

It should be noted that a shift takes place in verse 15. Previously, the word translated prayer was from proseuchomai, which is the typical word for prayer in the New Testament for prayers of all kinds. In verse 15, though, James uses a word used on three times in the New Testament, though it ha sa rich history. Euche was the most comprehensive term for the invocation of deity. Thus, in the Septuagint it is regularly used to translate the word for “vow.” Indeed, the other two times this word is used in the New Testament (Acts 18.18; 21.23) it is translated as “vow.” Therefore, what we should understand about euche is that it carries the notion of the vow and that the meaning of vow is more common than prayer. There is a dedicatory aspect to this word. So it is this “vow of faith” which “saves” (or resotres) the soul of this weak Christian. So while the elders of the church offer prayer over this weak Christian, a consecrating vow is made by this weak Christian who is seeking spiritual strength. Also, this person arises from prayer to a life of active devotion to God (cf. Romans 13.11; Ephesians 5.14). And if, in this moment of spiritual weakness, this brother has sinned, there is the hope of forgiveness of those sins.

Confession of Sins (16-18)

Exhortation to Acknowledge Sin (16). “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.” In light of the foregoing, that Christians are to pray in times of trouble and triumph and that Christians are to call for the spiritually mature to help in times of spiritual weakness, James commands confession (a public declaration or agreement) and prayer for spiritual healing of the disease of sin. Once more the pastoral heart of James is on display as he recognizes the human condition and how prone even Christians are to sin. So the habitual practice of every Christian to his fellow brethren should be to speak the same word as God about sin (confession), then speak a saving to God for sin (prayer). There seems even to be an indication that public confession to fellow brethren (Gk. exomologeo) should follow the private meeting with the elders of the church. The word used here for prayer carries with it the idea of desire. In this case the desire would be to have spiritually strength and fortitude in the future when faced with weakness. And when sin is committed, the desire for healing from the wounds of sin is expressed in prayer.

The latter part of verse 16 gives still another good reason to pray in conjunction with confession of sin and the spiritual healing bestowed to those who desire such. Just five densely packed words in the Greek translates to: “A righteous person’s supplication has great strength when energized.” Once more the word for prayer is different (deesis), this time indicating an expression of personal need. It is sometimes rendered “supplication” (so reads the margin of NASB). It carries the idea of lacking and being in need so that what is asked for is asked with urgency and pleading. The strength of supplication is that it is energized (Gk. energoumene). There is remarkable power in prayer since the power in back of prayer is God Himself. Prayer is more than just a wholesome spiritual discipline; prayer rouses God to act on behalf of His people. And this power is not reserved for the elites of the faith; “righteous person” is a term used to denote one who is completely committed to God and sincerely seeking to do His will.

One writer (Stulac) sums up what James is saying in the following: “In your trials, you don’t need the power gained by money or favoritism or selfishness or fighting or swearing; use the power of prayer, for which you need righteousness. Commit yourself to doing what is right without compromise; then you may rely on God in prayer for all your needs.”

Example of Appealing Spiritedly (17-18). To demonstrate the truth of the maxim at the end of verse 16, James calls upon a well known example of a righteous man who tapped into the power of God through prayer: Elijah. First, his nature was like ours. In other words, he was human. Literally, he suffered just like us. No doubt James is appealing to the sensitivities of his suffering brethren by calling their attention to a co-sufferer and his prayer life. He felt pain just as they do. Specifically, it would seem he felt the most over sin among his people Israel. What James wants his reads to know is that this kind of powerful prayer is not just for a select few elite saints; it is available for all who sincerely follow God. Nevertheless, “he prayed fervently” or “earnestly” (NASB). James, writing to a primarily Jewish audience, borrows a Hebrew idiom and literally says, “in prayer he prayed.” It is similar construction to what we read with Jesus at the Passover meal with His disciples (Luke 22.15): “in desire I desired this Passover…” John Gill says this is “a praying, not merely externally, or formally, and with the lip only, but with the Spirit, and with the understanding, and with the heart engaged in it, with inwrought prayer. The prophet prayed with much earnestness, with great vehemence and intenseness of Spirit…it was constant, and importune, and was continued till he has an answer.” For what did Elijah pray? It’s deeper than just Elijah asking for no rain for three and a half years (a figure with agrees with our Lord, Luke 4.25) and then praying for rain at the end of the drought. Elijah prays fervently for the judgment of God upon the land of Israel which is manifested in drought (Deut 28.22-24). God promised to bring the curse of drought if His people were faithless in regards to the covenant. Once the judgment of God accomplished its purpose and the people repented, that was when Elijah, no doubt with equal fervency, prayed for the Lord to open the flood gates of the heavens so that the land could bear fruit.

Conversion of Sinners (19-20)

In a final word to his brothers, James connects this illustration with what he has just said about confessing sins and what he now says about the erring person. It should be noted that James for granted that it is possible for a child of God to wander from the truth. In other words, the possibility of apostasy is very real. In fact, Coffman says, “That a Christian can err from the truth is not merely a possibility, but a frequent occurrence.” When it comes to a spiritually weak person veering from God’s truth into the devil’s lies, perhaps God’s people should be praying for God to execute some kind of judgment in time before it is eternally too late. Even as Elijah prayed for God to send the curse of drought on the land in conjunction with the faithlessness of the people of Israel, so too should Christians pray for God to send spiritual drought into the life of one who, having known the truth, has turned from it. Further, when that judgment has executed its purpose (i.e. repentance), then we should pray for God to rain down blessing in the life of the restored person. Even as Elijah prayed for God to remove the curse, likewise Christians unite to beseech God to send forth blessing into the life of the returning brother. Is this not what James is referring to in the conclusion of this letter about those who wander from the truth? They incur the judgment of God and we agree with God to blight their life with spiritual drought to rouse them from spiritual slumber before it is everlasting too late. Should the sinner respond and turn back to God, two results occur: 1) salvation of their soul and 2) the pardon of sins from God. Then, even as the land bore fruit following the drought, so too the returning sinner (who is now called brother) can bear fruit inasmuch as they are engrafted into the Vine (John 15.5). James, who has the Old Testament Scriptures running through his veins, aptly concludes his epistle alluding to Scripture (cf. Proverbs 10.12).

The Coming of the Lord, part 2

James shifts focus in verses 7ff. The previous section was directed toward the rich of the world who are not Christians. The rest of the epistle is addressed to “my brothers” (v.12, 19) or simply “brothers” (v.7, 9, 10). As is characteristic of this epistle, the pastoral heart of James is evident as he exhorts and encourages his brethren to patience (7-12) and prayer (13-20).

James 5.7-12

7Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.

8You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

9Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.

10As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

11Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

12But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

Concerning Grit (7-8)

Exhortation (7a). “Therefore” points us back to the preceding context about the mistreatment from the rich and the miseries in store for them. Since all these things “are coming” upon them, that is, since judgment is coming for the rich from the Lord of Hosts, God’s people (“brothers”) must “be patient.” Brave perseverance is what James is calling his brethren to. The word itself (Gk. makrothumesate) carries the idea of having a “big thermometer” – in other words, withstand the heat of persecution when it comes. Why be patient? The Lord is coming and he will bring deliverance to the righteous.

The Lord is coming to execute judgment upon the wicked also. We, in the religious realm, often speak of the “coming of the Lord” as though it is a one time event. Indeed, Robertson in his commentary notes that what is in view here is the second coming of Christ. On the contrary, Scriptures often speak of the coming of the Lord and you can read about the many times God has come in judgment (Psa 22.19, on enemies; Psa 50.3; Isa 13.9, on Babylon; Isa 19.1, against Egypt; Isa 26.21, inhabitants of the earth (not final judgment); Jer. 4.13, against his people Judah and specifically Jerusalem; et al.). Here is another instance of God coming in judgment on the wickedness of man in history. Granted, the word used here (Gk. parousias) can be used in connection with the final coming of Christ. Jesus Himself used it to speak of judgment coming in history upon wicked men, specifically upon Jerusalem (see Matthew 24.3, 27, 37, 39). Perhaps James has this same coming judgment in mind (i.e. AD 70). James saying that the coming of the Lord is “at hand” or “near” (v.8b) only works to support the idea that this judgment coming would happen soon, even during the lives of those first century readers of this letter.

Example (7b-8a). James points his readers to a very common and relevant example of patience from the agrarian culture. The farmer plants his seed and “waits for the precious fruit of the earth.” Expectation and anticipation are coupled in this example of the farmer. Time must pass before the crop which is useful to beast and man can be reaped following the early and late rains. Although “rains” is not in the text, the implication is heavy that what are in view are the rainy seasons in late Autumn and early Spring (Moo 168). In the farmer is an example of patience. The seed of divine judgment has been planted. These Christians are waiting for the harvest of deliverance to come from the Lord. In the same way the farmer is patient for his crops, “You also, be patient.”

Encouragement (8b). With the pastoral care of a shepherd James offers another word of encouragement. “Establish your hearts” while you wait for “the coming of the Lord” which is “at hand.” These Christians are to firmly ground their faith in anticipation of the coming judgment. Earlier James addressed the man wavering in faith who prays and how this individual is “unstable in all his ways” (1.8). Here is the opposite of this unstable one. A heart that is established is a stable heart, strengthened by grace (Hebrews 13.9). Since the Lord’s coming is so near, these Christians need to firmly adhere to the faith. Adam Clarke captures the nearness factor perfectly when he writes, “He is already on his way to destroy this wicked people, to raze their city and temple, and to destroy their polity for ever; and this judgment will soon take place.”

Concerning Grumbling (9-11)

Exhortation (9). A cleaver way of understanding the imperative in verse 9 is as follows: Do not grudge that you be not judged. If grudge takes its archaic meaning of “murmuring” then this captures the thrust of James’ exhortation to his brethren. The connection of this command to the preceding context seems to be that grumbling because of unjust circumstances is the opposite of patient endurance of trials and mistreatment. The question is why these Christians were grumbling (or complaining) against one another? Perhaps after a long day of injustice from the rich, they would come home to friends and family or come into the assembly and take out their frustration on those around them. Another idea is that these brethren were complaining to their brethren about how bad they were mistreated. Or maybe these Christians were blaming each other for their persecution. Whatever the reason, these Christians were complaining and grumbling against (lit. finding fault with) one another and James has to say cut it out.

Why stop your complaining? “So that you may not be judged.” The judgment of God is at hand and very near, so near in fact that James says “The Judge is standing at the door.” Whether the “standing” is a perfect or imperfect tense verb can be debated by scholars, but the fact of a very real and immanent judgment from the Judge is undeniable. There is no doubt that James is very deliberate in the language he uses to exhort his brethren. It conjures up images of Israel murmuring in the wilderness and alludes to the question of Abraham: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18.25). If that were not enough, perhaps a verse of the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 is alluded to also. God knew His people would grumble against Him in the wilderness and “the time when their foot shall slip” was going to come (verse 35). Therefore Moses says, “The Lord (i.e. YHWH) will judge his people” (32.36, NIV). Over and over God is pictured as Judge of those who grumble. How much more will He judge those who grumble against their own brethren?

Examples (10-11). Two examples of patience are used by James to further strengthen his case and to encourage his brethren to cease and desist in grumbling against one another. These examples are intended to be instructive, like a copy used for imitation. First, he points to the prophets who endured suffering (physical pain and hardship) yet were patient (same word as verse 7, 8). They spoke “in the name of” (Gk. en to onomati) the Lord and were mistreated. Perhaps a contrast is painted here: these Christians are maltreated over their work in the world but the prophets were maltreated over their work in the Word. Yet the prophets did not grumble but entrusted their souls to their faithful God. They remained steadfast in their faith and mission. James reminds his brethren of what he has already written about earlier in the epistle (1.12; see also Daniel 12.12) about the beatitude of the steadfast. Those remaining steadfast enjoy the bliss of God.

Second, James points his readers to Job. Like the prophets he remained steadfast during severe trials. Up to this point, James has spoken of “patience” (Gk. makrothumia). Now he writes concerning the “steadfastness” (Gk. hupomone) of Job. There are those who find subtle differences between these terms. Lenski says the former is patience when people abuse us and the latter is brave perseverance under things which distress us. Moo says the former is long-suffering with a loving attitude toward others and the latter is a strong and determined attitude with which we face difficulty. Perhaps there is a difference but it would seem James uses them somewhat interchangeably, almost as synonyms. Nevertheless, Job presents an interesting case for steadfastness. Did he not grumble against God concerning his affliction? While he did complain, Job never renounced God nor abandoned his faith. He clung to God and continued in hope.

No doubt this was a familiar example for James says, “You have heard.” Not only that, James says, “You have seen the purpose of the Lord.” Seen here is used in the sense that God has shown it through His revealed word. The “purpose” (or end) of the Lord has to do with how he dealt with Job, that is with compassion and mercy. Most commentators point to the end of Job (42.12-13) where the property and family Job lost is restored to him and long life is granted to him. “Certainly, James does not mean that patience in suffering will always be rewarded by material prosperity; too many examples , the Old Testament (Jeremiah!) and the New, prove this wrong” (Moo 172). Rather he seeks by this allusion to the Old Testament character Job to encourage and assure his readers “the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (see Exodus 34.6; Psalm 103.8).

Concerning Giving Your Word (12)

Verse 12 is clearly a restatement or at least an allusion of the teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5.33-37). James reminds his readers of what Jesus has said which seems to indicate that this teaching (if not the passage itself) was evidently present to James’ thoughts. Coming out of Judaism which taught “a man might swear with his lips, and annul in his heart; and then the oath was not binding” (see Clarke concerning Rabbi Akiba), these Christians were perhaps a bit hasty in their oath taking. So prevalent was swearing in the Jewish culture (and the Oriental culture in general) that Aben Ezra says, “Men swear daily countless times, and then swear that they have not sworn!” (Pulpit Commentary 70) Though Jesus’ teaching was available, either these Christians were lax in keeping His word or had not been instructed concerning oaths. Perhaps like Peter the night Jesus was betrayed these Christians had relapsed into behavior of their former life (see Matthew 26.72, 74). James leaves them without excuse. The oath taking usually involved invocation of a divine being or in this case invoking heaven or earth or some other oath to execute judgment upon a person if the statement or obligation made were not true or kept. James says not to do this. Burton Coffman notes, “It was a common sin of that day to punctuate ordinary conversation with all kinds of imprecations and oaths used as a device for establishing credibility.” Instead, Christians should be so truthful that when they say “yes” or when they say “no” there is no need for an oath or swearing or “pinky promise” – Christians keep their word. To fail to keep your word is to fall under the judgment of the Judge.

How this fits in context is difficult. Adam Clarke is outright in saying he cannot figure out why this is here and prefers to think of it as separate and final advice for James’ readers. Robertson likewise states there is no connection to the preceding context. That this verse is connected with the previous context of attitude, behavior, and demeanor of those looking forward to the coming of the Lord is certain – “above all” coupled with de (Eng. but or and) indicates this.[1] Since swearing or making oaths is so foreign to the enduring and patient Christian, it is “above all” to be avoided, especially in light of the Lord’s teaching. Just because a Christian has turned to the one true and only God does not give him/her the right to invoke God in oaths and somehow strengthen your word. It doesn’t work that way. Rather, because a Christian has trusted in the only true and living God, he should speak truth to all, especially in light of the coming of the Lord.


[1] There are those who see pro tanton de as introductory of the end of the epistle, similar to Paul’s “finally” (Gk. loipon) in his epistles or Peter’s “above all” (Gk. pro tanton) in 1 Peter 4.8.

The Coming of the Lord, part 1

Rich people are getting a bad rap these days. Some of it is self-inflicted; some of it not. Recently, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney expanded the gap between himself and the “common man” by explaining that his wife and he drive a mustang, truck, and a couple Cadillacs. There is much made of the wealthy 1% and just how much Uncle Sam should take from them to give to the other 99% (if any should be taken at all!). On and on the rhetoric goes.

It should be noted that riches, money in and of itself has no character. It is amoral. Thus, when bad people have money it’s bad and when good people have money it’s good. Money derives its character from those who possess it. Nevertheless, Scripture does caution rich Christians to be careful because money can have an evil influence (see 1 Timothy 6.10, 17-19).

It should also be noted that “rich” is a relative term. If someone were to ask “Are you rich?” how would you respond? Or “who do you think is rich?” One might answer “Bill Gates” or “Carlos Slim” (Telecom billionaire who is now the richest man on the planet). However, when we consider that Americans make up the richest 5% of people on all of planet earth we begin to realize how rich we really are. Or when we consider that nearly 50% of the world’s population lives on $2 a day…who’s rich now? This should make the words of James come alive and penetrate deeply into our very souls.

James 5

James 5.1-6 (ESV)

1Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.

2Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.

3Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.

4Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

6You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

One writer says that this section (v.1-6) “might almost be a leaf torn out of the Old Testament” because it resembles the prophets so much. It is rife with Old Testament allusions and quotes. It is soaked with the regulations of the Law, especially as regards the relationship between owner and servant and how wages are to be paid.

The Doom of the Rich (1-3)

Who are these rich ones? Are these rich Christians or just rich people in general? Contextually, it would seem these are rich people who are not Christians. First, they are juxtaposed with “the righteous person” (v.6). Second, James does not return to speaking to his “brothers” until verse 7. Third, James has already spoken of rich people who are not Christians and yet find their way into the “assembly” (lit. synagogue) when these Christians meet (2.6). Finally, there is not a call to repentance or amending of ways; rather, all that remains is judgment. This would seem to indicate that “you rich” is a general term referring to those plutocrats outside of the Body of Christ. It should be noted that the rich here are not condemned simply because they are rich; it is because of their 1) refusal to obey the gospel and 2) harsh and oppressive treatment of the righteous that they are condemned. Hence, not all rich people are addressed here, but a specific group known to James and his readers. So why address the rich in a letter written to the church? Conversion! To convert his brethren from envying the rich and their wealth. To convert his brethren from a shaken mind to a solid mind concerning their suffering and endure it. To convert those rich who frequent the assembly from time to time who are not Christians.

These rich ones are to “weep and wail” (NIV). Literally they are to weep wailing. Lenski translates this as “sob while howling.” What is in view is not only the shedding of tears and not simply loud howling, but tears and shrieking. It bears some similarities to 4.9 but there it referred more to exhortation and here it refers more to condemnation. These are common terms for the reaction when the Lord comes in judgment on the wicked (e.g. Isaiah 10.10; 13.6; et al). The reason they are to weep wailing are the “impending miseries” (NAB). Some commentators will point to the destruction of Jerusalem for the coming miseries and even point to select passages in Josephus for confirmation. However, rich and poor alike suffered intensely in AD 70 so perhaps something else is in view. John Gill sees here “eternal miseries, or the torments of hell.” Possibly. Others point to the context and verses 2-3 as the miseries which are prophesied. This seems to be in keeping with the meaning of the word “miseries” (lit. hardship resulting in wretchedness). James describes three miseries coming upon the rich. They are present as three “prophetic perfects” (Pulpit Commentary) or three “present perfects” (Coffman) indicating that they are of such a certainty that if they are not already in the process of happening, they most certainly will be.

Rotted Riches. “Your wealth has rotted” (Lexham Bible). Those things which you possess which make you rich are a decaying dead body. All the fields and flocks. All the grain and grass. The wine and the wheat. The oil and the olive. Supplies stored up in storehouses. All of it has been and stands putrefied.

Moth-eaten Mantle. “Your garments are moth-eaten” (ESV). Those splendid and gorgeous garments which are bought and sold for so much and laid up for show or future use are full of holes and useless.

Corroded Coins. “Your gold and silver have corroded.” All those precious metals which have been hoarded away in some secret place are collecting dust and rust as they lie unused.

An obvious paradox should be pointed out: rich people tend to take care of their storehouses so that supplies do not rot; they tend to take care of their clothes very well or even wear silk; and gold and silver never rust in the hands of rich people. So what are we to make of this? Lenski explains: “The whole passage is exalted and is worded in Hebraic parallelism. When James says that gold and silver rust he becomes purposely paradoxical when his words are understood literally; hence the real meaning of the metaphor strikes the mind forcibly.”[1]

The putrefying supplies, the moth-eaten clothes, and the tarnished coins all rise up as witnesses against the rich. “Their corrosion” is literally their poison, as like that of an asp or other venomous creature. Hence, these rich people stand infected and dying from the venom of riches. These riches are not being put to use and they witness to this by their constantly being stored up. Like the venom of a deadly creature if left untreated the flesh will decay, turn black, and rot, so too the rich will have their flesh eaten by a consuming fire. Certain doom awaits the unrepentant rich person.

Immediately a connection can be made from James to his half-brother Jesus and his teaching on riches (cf. Matthew 6.20, 21). The moths which eat and rust which corrodes are themes which Jesus used to describe the fleeting nature of earthly wealth. Yet He pointed His disciples heavenward where those things cannot happen to the treasures of heaven. Further, the storing up of treasure is wrong because it reveals the priorities of the one storing them. Having faith in God and not wealth, clothes, or coins will enable one to properly view those possessions given by God. Finally, storing up treasures is wrong because it deprives those in need of what they need. When wealth could be used to feed the hungry, they lie unused and rotting in barns. When clothing could have been used to clothe the naked, they lie unused and moth-eaten. When gold and silver could have been used to buy what is needful for those in need, they lie unused and corroding in a closet.

James lays a final strike against the rich when he says that they “have laid up treasure in the last days.” Scholars debate what exactly it is that the rich are treasuring up (Greek word from which we get our English word “thesaurus”). The ESV seems to indicate that treasure is still in mind. John Gill seems to confirm this. In the Vulgate text, what is being “treasured up” is wrath. Other scholars point to the preceding object, which is fire. Hence the rich are storing up fire “in the last days.” Nevertheless, the lesson is clear: they have been storing up the wrong things. They should have been storing up treasure in heaven. But now, “in [the] last days,” in the days following Jesus’ earthly ministry and which precede his final coming, they have/are stored/storing the wrong things. Let every (American) Christian learn the message of James to the rich and share, not hoard, our wealth.

The Sin of the Rich (4-6)

Why is all this to befall the rich? Wherefore are these miseries to come upon the rich? What is their sin? James does not leave us or his readers in the dark concerning the judgment of God. Even in their negligence with sharing their wealth, they have been busy in sin. Sin is the cause of the impending doom.

Heartless Injustice. What is described in verse 4 was all too real for those first century Jewish Christians. Even a parable of Jesus captures the daily struggle of hired workers laboring in a field owned by a wealthy person (Matthew 20.1-16). The laborers expected their pay at the end of the day. Apparently, James’ audience has been experiencing fraud from the land owners of the area. Wages were not paid. This was something the rich land owners had done and continued to do in spite of the fact that this was something forbidden under the Law (Deuteronomy 24.14-15; Leviticus 19.13). Now the laborers are crying out (for vengeance) unto God against these land owners. Specifically, James uses a familiar and frequently used term for God found in the Old Testament – the Lord of Hosts (cf. Isaiah 5.9). He is the Lord of the armies of heaven who stand ready to lead his army into battle against the oppressive rich. The imagery here also mimics that of the people of Israel in Egyptian captivity when they cried unto the Lord and He heard them (Exodus 3.7).

Lavish Luxury. Not only do these rich land owners continue to withhold wages from their laborers, but apparently whatever funds would have been paid for work they use for their own “luxury” and “self-indulgence.” These terms taken together point to a soft life given to pleasure. Self-indulgent is a term applied to the people of Sodom (Ezekiel 16.49). This puts into perspective the nature and character of these rich people – they are on par with the people of Sodom. They are pampered and deny themselves no pleasure. Older versions of the Bible use the word “wanton” (KJV). Through all this lascivious living, they grow fat, like an ox or sheep, for “the day of slaughter,” yet another Old Testament allusion (see Jeremiah 12.3). Their doom and destruction is certain.

Murderous Cruelty. The final indictment from James is perhaps the most shocking. The rich “have condemned and murdered the righteous.” How to understand this phrase is the question. Some see Jesus here. He is “the righteous [one]” and James pictures Him the same as John does in his epistle (1 John 2.1). Indeed, it could be argued that the rich of Jesus’ day (Pharisees, Pilate) condemned and murdered Him. Still others see not only Jesus but Stephen as well who was martyred after his sermon (Acts 7). There are those who even see James, the one who is writing this epistle who will himself be martyred (according to tradition, James the half-brother of Jesus was cast down from the pinnacle of the temple and then his head was smashed by a blacksmith’s hammer). Contextually, it would seem that what is in view is that those laborers who cried out against the landowner were silenced permanently and no doubt by fraud. The rich condemn and murder “the righteous man.” Even in the face of the murderous assaults of the rich, the poor man does not resist or withstand the rich man. That is to say that these righteous ones had no one to plead their cause before the court. Like Paul years later, no one came to stand by them save the Lord (2 Timothy 4.16-17).

In light of the severe cruelty, the lavish and lascivious luxury, and the heartless injustice, these rich have stored up the wrath of God for themselves. This should teach man that God is always mindful of the little guy, the ones who cannot take care of themselves, who are poor and in need. God is not ignorant of their suffering and He will issue recompense against those who perpetrate acts such as these against them. As Christians, we must be sure to always do good and help those in need. As Christians, when the godless come against us we must let the Lord be our Justifier.


[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James (Columbus, O.: Lutheran book concern, 1938). 647.

See You Tomorrow

“See you tomorrow.” “See you next week.” “See you next time.” We say these things so effortlessly and (sometimes) thoughtlessly. We take for granted that we will be alive to see so-and-so tomorrow, next week, next time. Someone has said, “Man proposes, but God disposes.” James addresses the thoughtlessness of first century Christians who assumed too much. Since they made such a grand assumption, they became arrogant and over-confident in self. This section of Scripture “prohibits an arrogant, boastful attitude that neglects to take into account the transitoriness of this life” (Moo 153). James’ typical style is to ask pointed questions. In honor of that, the following outline is presented in question format.

James 4.13-17 (ESV)

13Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—

14yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.

15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

16As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

17So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

What are you saying? (13-14a)

Verse 13 opens in a rather abrupt fashion. First, James begins “come now” which was a “popular” form of address in Greek literature and prose. Second, “you who say” combined with “come now” gives this a rather curt feel. Third, whereas James has addressed his readers as “brothers” throughout this letter (even while in the midst of correcting them, 4.11), here James omits that title with simply “the ones saying.” All this combines into a rather brusque transition. No doubt his readers recognized this; it was designed to arrest their attention.

Based on what these people are saying, it would seem they may be considered at least in part with the rich whom James will address in 5.1ff. These are people who plan to engage in extensive travel for the purpose of carrying on business in order to “make a profit.” This seems to indicate they are at least well off. But James does not condemn their wealth or even their ability to get gain – what is condemned is a haughty and prideful attitude. They do not even know “what tomorrow will bring” and yet they are boasting over what their plans. James is critical of the relative ease in which they leave God in the rear view mirror as they venture forward in life. This world is transitory and insufficient in and of itself. To make plans with only this realm in mind is a crucial mistake. One must always live and act in a manner which demonstrates that life is ordered around the unseen spiritual realm, especially God. Surely James is directing the attention of his readers to a familiar passage of the Old Testament to emphasis this (see Proverbs 27.1).

What is your life? (14b)

Here is James’ pointed question directed squarely at the heart of his readers: what is your life? The answer depends upon which version of the Bible you read. The NASB says it is a “vapor;” the ESV says it is a “mist;” the NET says it is a “puff of smoke.” It seems best to understand this as a vapor or mist caused by steam. Truly the emphasis is on the brevity of the existence of the misty vapor: it is here for a moment and then disappears. The Scriptures are rife with this principle. Indeed, it is all over the Old Testament (2 Sam 14.14; 1 Chron 29.15; Job 7.16; 8.9; Psa 78.33; 102.11; 144.3-4). All of this should have been familiar to this Jewish audience to which James writes and yet they are in need of reminder. “Illness, accidental death, or the return of Christ could cut short our lives just as quickly as the morning sun dissipates the mist or as a shift of wind direction blows away smoke” (Moo 155).

What should you say? (15-16)

Yet again the shepherd heart of James comes to the forefront as he instructs the flock concerning what they ought to say in view of the transient nature of this present realm. Instead of saying what you’re saying, say this – “If the Lord wills…” Typically, especially today, this verse and phrase is boiled down to be somewhat of a charm or magical (mystical) formula. “Lord willing,” we say. However, when James instructs these Christians (and all Christians across time and space), it is significant. Even heathens of antiquity invoked this formulaic phrase. So we must rescue these words from such base usage. Several times this phrase is used by Paul (Acts 18.21; 1 Cor 4.19; 16.7). Our life and our every moment is dependant upon One – the Lord God. If it please Him that we even live another day then we will do thus and such. But only if He permits.

Contrast this with what these arrogant boasters have been saying and we see just how theologically blinded these poor brethren had become. These Christians believed that things continue on as from the beginning which is not Christian thinking (see 2 Pet 3.4). The fact is they had no basis whatsoever for feeling so assured of living into tomorrow. They boasted in this false and baseless pride. Typical of James, he pulls no punches – this kind of bragging is evil! Purely wicked and from the devil, the evil one. To boast in the Lord is a good thing; to boast in self is sinful.
What should you do? (17)

“Therefore” is how verse 17 starts indicating that this principle is clearly connected with the preceding instruction. Here and contextually James has made known “the right thing to do” (“You who say…ought to say…”) and failure to do it “is sin.” So just do it! That is, acknowledge the providential care and continued sustenance of the Lord God. Cease and desist in living as though you are guaranteed tomorrow or even the strength to do what you have planned tomorrow. Depend upon God for all future plans. Deo volente.

Nevertheless, commentators and scholars are in near agreement that this phrase was a principle which was in circulation among Christians. In fact, some suggest that in back of this Christian principle are the words of Jesus from Luke 12.47: “that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.” How often we know the right thing to do and not do it!

Lenski on this verse presents a brief discussion about of the doctrine of probabilism, a Jesuit doctrine which essentially says that if one can find any cause for doubt concerning the moral law, then it is acceptable to follow one’s inclinations. Lenski wraps up the argument: “Not to do when one knows is not sin as long as one can on at least some father’s say-so or on some apparent ground cast some doubt on what one knows one should do. How many Protestants follow the same principle in order to justify their own sins of omission or of commission!”[1]

Brothers, this is sin. And there can be no excuse making. Ignorance is not an excuse. There is no, “yeah, but…” James is clear and emphatic. The principle is clear and emphatic. Herein is the sin of omission:

“It is not only sinful to do wrong; it is also sinful to lose an opportunity of doing good. God means us not only to be harmless, but also to be useful; not only to be innocent, but to be followers of that which is good. How miserable is the satisfied acquiescence in the thought, ‘I never did anybody any harm’ – a thought which is falsely used as a consolation at many a death-bed.The slothful servant who hid the talent in a napkin did no wrong with it, but nevertheless he was condemned. He failed to do good. So God claims from all of us, not merely that we should ‘cease to do evil,’ but also that we should ‘learn to do well;’ for ‘to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin’” (Pulpit Commentary 58).


[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James (Columbus, O.: Lutheran book concern, 1938). 643.

Punch at the Potluck

People fight all the time. Turn on the TV and one will hear about the latest fight between a celebrity couple. Tune into the news and one will hear about violence all over. When people get upset they usually settle it with hostility. What happens when that hostility finds its way into the church? Although it is difficult to pinpoint all the details, it seems evident that the saints to whom James wrote were coming to blows regularly. Imagine that – here are people who are to pursue peace and reap a “harvest of righteousness” that is “sown in peace by those who make peace” (3.18). Yet among these brethren who should have been peaceable, “fights” and “quarrels” were breaking out, possibly in the assembly (2.2). Two thousand down the stream of time we might look down upon our brethren. But how many church league softball fistfights have broken out or, worse, were instigated by our hands? Into this calamity, quarreling, and fisticuffs, James speaks a better word, indeed, the Word of God

James 4:1–12 (ESV)

1What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this that your passions are at war within you?

2You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.

3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

4You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

5Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

6But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

9Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.

10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

11Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

12There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

Dissatisfaction with the World (1-6)

James identifies on key root to the problem in the church: personal passions. The fruit of this problem is all the quarrelsomeness and worldliness. Until we are thoroughly fed up with the world and worldliness, we will not find satisfaction with God. Notice how the world makes us unsatisfied as a people.

At war with one another (1-2a). Adam Clarke dives into the contemporary culture of these first century Christians to discuss the various insurrections the Jews led against Rome and says these are the wars and fights here mentioned. However, James is not writing to Jews as a whole, but to those Jews who have come to Christ and become “brothers” in Him. No, the “quarrels” (Lit. open warfare) and “fights” (Lit. serious conflict whether physical or not) which James here addresses are happening in the church among brethren! He asks a question: what causes the warring and fighting in the church? He answers his own question with a rhetorical question: isn’t the root of these battles hedonism? James says “passions” (or “pleasures” or “desires”; Gk. hedone from which we get our English “hedonism”) which are internally causing strife and disquieting the soul are the source of the tumult in the church. All the external strife in the church is the result of the internal conflict of personal passion for what one does not have.

James cuts even further explaining that they wish for something they do not have, in and of itself not necessarily a bad thing until, frustrated by failure to get the thing desired, “you murder.” Kept in context of Christian brethren apparently coveting what another brother has, it would seem when James speaks of “murder” in this context it is somewhat akin to what the apostle John would write decades later. Failure to obtain what another brother has produces resentment, distain, and full blown hatred. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer,” says John (1 John 3.15). So James brings these Christians face-to-face with who they have become and it is far short of the character of Christ. They are covetous and when frustrated by not obtaining what they covet, fights and quarrels (same words as v.1) break out among brethren. A modern-day illustration might be something like a church league softball game in which both teams desire to win. How often these friendly exhibitions turn into a fistfight!

At war with ourselves (2b-3). James next turns his readers inward as he forces them to examine their prayer life. All this external strife cause by internal desires can and does wreak havoc upon one’s prayer life. “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Clearly, there is an allusion to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matt 7.7). What James means here is not that God would grant them the wishes of their sinful covetousness. Rather, what is in view is the fact that these Christians are not praying. Their conversation with the Father in heaven is non-existent at this point.

In addition, there would no doubt be those who would object to James and say “We did ask!” So James tells them that when they do hit their knees and actually do voice their desires to God, what they ask for is not given “because you ask wrongly,” seeking to use what is received on hedonism (same word as v.1). Their asking is incorrect and improper. Their desires are self-seeking when they should be seeking to glorify God with what He bestows and blesses them. Prayer is powerful and effective, but only for the righteous who would seek to ask rightly. Even Christians can turn prayer into a gross form of idolatry, merely using God to get what you want.

At war with One (4-6). Finally James brings us up close and personal with the One whom we are at war if we seek satisfaction from the world: God Himself. While not calling them idolatrous, because they have so perverted prayer and battled their brethren, he calls them “adulteresses.” James reaches into the Old Testament for this figure. The Jewish community in the Old Testament was personified as an adulteress when in unfaithfulness they abandoned God (Cf. Hosea). Spiritual adultery has taken place in the church of Christ: these Christians were covetous (which is idolatry, Eph 5.5; Col 3.5), had perverted and polluted prayer, and had fallen in love with the world. James sugarcoats nothing. He is not soft. So appealing to their sensibilities, emotions, and faith, with great urgency he rebukes his brethren and calls them to repentance. They’ve not yet launched into full blown apostasy, but given their present course if they remain on it disaster looms. James portrays their present relationship with God as a woman who turns away from her husband in order to follow after other lovers. In this case, they abandon Christ, lover of their souls and lover of His church, for their love of worldliness. So speaking in generalities, James asks yet another rhetorical question: don’t you know that friendship with the world will produce and promote enmity (or hostility) with God? Of course they knew this! To fall in love with the world will take a Christian right back to where they started before they came to Christ and His church – an enemy of God (cf. Rom 5.10). You are no longer a part of the family of faith of which Abraham is patriarch and God is our friend.

But James does not stop there. He appeals to Scripture to drive his point home further. Master of the rhetorical question, James asks two more questions. First, do you think the Scriptures speak in vain? What a powerful question which must be answered by every man and woman who bears the name of Christ. If the Scriptures speak in vain, they are void and without power. If the Scriptures speak in vain, they are powerless to communicate the word of God and deliver us from worldliness. What a potent question! A negative answer is assumed by James – of course the Scriptures do not speak in vain! So when the Scriptures speak, especially in regards to worldliness, covetousness, and quarrelsomeness, there is purpose and power. Second, does the (Holy) Spirit which He (God) has made to dwell in us intensely desire jealousy? Again, a negative answer is anticipated – of course not! God’s Spirit in us does not produce or promote the feelings of ill-will toward the brethren because of some advantage they might possess, be it real or imaginary. Quite the contrary, God’s Spirit produces and promotes love, peace, goodness, and self-control (all fruit of the Spirit, see Gal 5.22-23). Therefore, the jealousy, covetousness, and strife among the members of the body are evidence that they have ceased to walk by the Spirit and are not walking according to the flesh.

All the more reason grace is needed. “Moreover He gives more grace.” God or the Holy Spirit? Yes. God through the Holy Spirit bestows grace into the life of the Christian. This is what friendship with God means for the Christian. Would they forfeit this or would they repent? And repentance is the reason more or greater grace is needed. Once more James appeals to Scripture, this time quoting Proverbs 3.34. Those proud ones who refuse to repent and turn from wicked ways are opposed by God. That is He stands in battle against them. But those individuals and congregations who will humbly repent of past failure to walk in the way of the Lord, putting away quarrelsomeness, worldliness, and prayerlessness, are the recipients of the gift of God’s unmerited favor.

Satisfaction in God (7-12)

Having brought his readers face-to-face with the pollution in their hearts, he goes off. James rolls out a litany of commands to his brothers, being quite frank in his evaluation of who they are (“sinners” and “double-minded”) and in his instruction of what they should do. In these verses is the solution for the human heart.

Submit (7a). “Therefore,” since you are guilty of the preceding indictments, submit yourselves to God. Adam Clarke says this means to “continue to bow to all his decisions, and to all his dispensations.” The reason is because all of his decisions and ways for obtaining His favor are good and beneficial for us. Literally James is calling his brethren to come under the control of God. They’ve been living for themselves and their passions and pleasures and the result has been disaster. But coming under the control of God brings grace.

Resist (7b). Submit to God “but resist the devil.” The devil wants us to harbor and manifest jealousy, worldliness, quarrels, and the like. The church is never more in line with the purposes of Satan than when she is demonstrating these. Hence, James exhorts the church to not only psychologically oppose the devil but to match the thoughts with appropriate actions and behaviors. No doubt James has in mind the episode in the life of Christ when He resisted the devil (see Matt 4.1-11; Luke 4.1-13). The devil fled from Jesus when Jesus resisted his advances. So too Christians, following in the footsteps of Christ, are to oppose his schemes and when we do the devil will move along.

Draw Near (8a). For too long these Christians have withdrawn from their God. Now James implores them to once more draw near to Him. If Christians would find the grace of God, they must approach the God of all grace. Even as the prodigal who arose and went “drew nigh” unto the father’s house, so James exhorts these prodigals to arise, go the father, and draw nigh unto Him. There is a promise attached to this command: when we draw near to God, He, like the prodigal’s father, “will draw near” to us. Not may or might; He will and therein lies the promise.

Cleanse (8b). James knows his audience well. They are “sinners” and as such they need cleansing. Indeed, only the clean-handed and pure of heart will dwell on the high, holy hill of God (Psa 24.4). No doubt James has this passage in mind as he writes this and the next exhortation. Washing or cleansing the hands was a ceremonial sign of purity and innocence. James wants his brethren to likewise determine to be pure and innocent before God. Sin has marred their walk. But now their conduct will be changed and different before God.

Purify (8c). Again, James shows he knows to whom he speaks. These brothers are “double-minded” (lit. two-souled, see 1.8), wavering between love for the world and love for God. But “no man can serve two masters.” So to purify the heart is to cease in wavering between the two. Love for the world, all jealousy and quarreling must be removed from the heart. They were to be done with their own base desires. What would be left is pure love for God, pure desires for His desires, and love for the brethren. From this and the previous imperative, both outward and inward purification are vital. What good is a clean inward man without corresponding action? What good is a clean cup if the inside of the vessel is rotten? Clean hands and pure hearts are both vital.

Mourn (9). James issues four (4) imperatives in a single verse which quantify the language of repentance. The first part of this verse can be translated “be sorrowful even mourn even weep” with an effect in which each of these commands builds on the next. First, James exhorts his brethren to feel bad. They need feel bad about what they have become (adulterous). Second, he tells them to feel sad. They should be grieved and mourn over their present condition. Third, feeling bad and sad about their circumstances these feelings should break forth in weeping and wailing. The emphasis of this command is upon the noise made. Thus, James fourthly demands that their laughter, a joyful expression and noise, should be turned into mourning accompanied by weeping, a sorrowful expression and noise. Do not be glad at the present situation but be sad. When God’s people adulterate their relationship with Him, this is not a time for gladness but for sadness and sorrow. This sorrow should drive us to repentance.

Humble (10). Building upon the previous four commands, part of repentance is humiliation. So James commands his brethren to humble themselves before the Lord. Adam Clarke points out the relationship of verse 7 with submission to God and verse 10 with humiliation before God. He says “submission to God’s authority will precede humiliation of soul.” Indeed, some ancient manuscripts begin verse 10 with “therefore.” Further, no doubt James is appealing also to the teachings of his half-brother Jesus (cf. Matthew 18.4; 23.12). These Christians had a haughty and proud spirit before God and therefore needed to make themselves low and once more view themselves in perspective to God. They are continually in the presence (i.e. in His sight) of Him who alone should be exalted and lifted up. It is God alone who exalts men from their lowly estate. Thomas a Kempis says,

“It is the humble man whom God protects and liberates; it is the humble whom He loves and consoles. To the humble He turns and upon them bestows great grace, that after their humiliation He may raise them up to glory. He reveals His secrets to the humble, and with kind invitation bids them come to Him. Thus, the humble man enjoys peace in the midst of many vexations, because his trust is in God, not in the world. Hence, you must not think that you have made any progress until you look upon yourself as inferior to all others.”[1]

Do not Speak Against (11-12). The final imperative in this litany of commands is a relational one. It would seem that much back-biting and gossip is happening among these Christians. Brother slanders brother and therefore James must tell them to cease and desist in this. False reports, false charges, discredit and disesteeming are all in view here. In addition, James will include judging into this discussion. Here are brethren passing judgment on one another and speaking evil about one another to other brothers! James highlights the severity of this sin by pointing out that speaking evil and judging a brother is tantamount to speaking evil and judging the law.

The question is asked: what law – the Law of Moses or the law of liberty (i.e. Christ)? It should be immediately noted that there is no definite article before the word “law” in the original language. Hence James speaks of simply “law” not “the law.” Further, it must be noted that James exposes this sin in a striking manner – showing its relation to “law” and law’s relation to God (as Lawgiver). Many scholars will say that this is the “law of Christ” (i.e. Coffman, Gibson, Alford, Lenski, Plumptre, Luther, Barnes, et al). However, it should be noted that James has already spoken of “royal law” previously in this epistle and when he did he appealed to “the Scripture,” namely “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19.18). It just seems that James in similar appeals to that same “royal law” here. Specifically, he seems to have in mind the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20.16). So by speaking evil against a brother in Christ, one is not a doer of the law, but is in fact a law breaker. Further, one sits as judge over the law (and the contrast is emphatic by the word used for “but”).

On top of all this, James shows that by passing judgment upon the brethren one sets himself up as superior to God Almighty who is the one who determines and dictates law as well as sits in judgment upon those who would break His law. So James closes with a rhetorical question: who are you? The assumed answer is that compared to the supreme Lawgiver of the galaxy and judge of this universe, I am no one and therefore have no right to pass judgment upon my neighbor (i.e. brother). And so we see the necessity of humility before God Almighty. If we properly view ourselves and one another in relation to God, then we have no right to slander our brother.

It is necessary to point out that all of these imperatives are spoken not merely to individuals but to the congregation as a whole. In other words, these are things we are to do together in community. The church collectively submits to God, resists the devil, draws ever nearer to God, cleanses their hands, purifies their hearts, mourns over past failures (sin), and walks in humility. In addition, it should be noted that the previous imperatives are aorist tense verbs (snapshot or once-for-all) whereas in verse a shift takes place and James uses a present tense imperative. This leads some scholars to believe that James has shifted somewhat in subject matter while still tackling the obvious problem of brotherly hostility.


[1] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996). 63-64.

Watch Your Mouth! part 3

James has explained about the importance of the tongue (v.1-2) and has provided several dynamic illustrations to communicate the truth about the tongue (v.3-12). Now James will give instruction about wise use of the tongue. Still working in the context of teachers (v.1), James will address the difference between earthly wisdom and ethereal wisdom.

James 3.13-18 (ESV)
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.
15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.
16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Earthly Wisdom (v.13-16)

James begins by asking a very pointed question: Who is wise and intelligent in the church to which he is writing? Every reader or hearer of this epistle should have asked “Am I wise and intelligent; do I lack wisdom?” Wisdom here is pertaining to the tongue and the ability to bridle and restrain it by the power of God. Connected with this is the idea of intelligence or understanding which is the knowledge that an expert would have, in this case an expert teacher. Anyone like that “among you,” James asks. He then tells them how the wise and understanding can be identified – “By his good conduct.” The wise and intelligent teacher’s conduct will be a manifestation of the works of wisdom done in meekness. This kind of good behavior the wise man will put it on display daily. Meekness is not weakness; rather, meekness is strength under control. It is a mild and calm disposition which exercises patience and self-restraint. These are all marks of true or heavenly wisdom. False wisdom would be none of these.

One great Old Testament illustration of “the meekness of wisdom” is Moses. Scripture tells us that he was “very meek, more than all people who were on the face of earth” (Numbers 12.3). Here is one of the meekest men to ever live and yet when he comes off the mountain with the Ten Commandments and finds the people engaged in gross idolatry, his “anger burned hot” and he ground the golden calf into fine powder, dumped it in the water, and made the people of Israel drink it (Exodus 32.19-20). Is that wisdom’s meekness? One commentator put it this way: “Moses was very meek in his own cause, but as hot as fire in the cause of God” (Pulpit Commentary 50).

The greatest illustration of “the meekness of wisdom” is the Lord Jesus Christ. Here is the wisdom of God incarnate, come from heaven to dwell with man. He says of Himself, “I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11.29). Yet we find Him on more than one occasion turning over tables and driving out money changers from the temple (John 2.13-19; Matthew 21.12-16). Is that wisdom’s meekness? With Jesus as with Moses, the answer is yes. The teachers of James’ day who were in the church to which he writes were hot as fire for their own cause and very meek for the cause of God. They had it all wrong and so James’ admonition is that if teachers are not going to display true meekness of wisdom in their daily life, then they are not wise and understanding and ought not to be teachers.

The Substance of Earthly Wisdom (v.14). We get a glimpse of the heart of the teacher who is displaying earthly wisdom. In the heart of the worldly wise is “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.” First, the word for jealousy (Gk. zealon) is the word from which we get the English words “zeal,” “zealot,” and “zealous.” While not always a bad thing, coupled with bitterness or resentment it is an ugly thing. It is a conceited, contemptuous, contentious spirit which is unkind. Second, the idea of selfish ambition is rooted in the practice of electioneering or running for office. One wants to get as many votes as possible so he is put forward and seeks to win men over to his party. Here is what the unwise teacher does – he seeks to win people over to his party and is therefore divisive and factious. Unity is not his goal which puts him diametrically opposed to Christ who desires for His people to be united (John 17.20-21). This is an unhealthy desire to be preeminent and first. James says that if that is what is “in your hearts,” they should not boast against and lie against the truth. It seems James may be making a point about how these unqualified teachers were treating the truth and distorting it to their own destruction. James could be read as telling his brothers to not despise even (by) lying against the truth. In other words, the truth does not fit their agenda to promote themselves so they hate it and seek to degrade it (as though they could) and part of that process is to lie against and speak falsely toward the truth (or Truth, i.e. Jesus Christ). This is the nature of these teachers.

The Source of Earthly Wisdom (v.15). But what is at the root of lying against the truth? The origin of this kind of earthly wisdom is not from the mind or heart of men. While it may take up residence there, earthly wisdom originates in the pit of hell. Every good and perfect gift is from above (cf. 1.17) but this earthly wisdom is not from above. It is first earthly. It takes its origin from this world. Go to any non-Christian and you can find this wisdom. Even the heathen possesses this so-called wisdom. It is next unspiritual. Some translations say “sensual.” The idea is that it originates in the physical realm, even in the flesh. The spiritual realm did not birth this worldly wisdom; man did. It is then demonic. Here we have the final true source of this earthly wisdom. Even as the tongue is set on fire by hell (v.6), so the heart of these teachers is aflame because of this wisdom. This wisdom is demon-like, not God-like or Christ-like. “These three adjectives correspond to our three great spiritual enemies. Earthly wisdom has its origin in the world; natural wisdom, in the flesh; demoniacal wisdom, in the devil” (Pulpit Commentary 51). True wisdom comes from God (Proverbs 2.6) and clearly based upon the description of James the wisdom these teachers have is not from the Lord.

The Side-effects of Earthly Wisdom (v.16). James spells out the consequences of such wisdom from such teachers. “There will be disorder and every vile practice.” These are not marks of a healthy church. Instead, these are traits of a dying church which is a synagogue of Satan (cf. Revelation 2.9; 3.9). Riotous rebellion to the authority is a result of earthly wisdom taught in the church. It begins by unsettling the hearts and minds of Christians. Unsettled Christians will lead to tumult and turmoil in the congregation. Eventually, this tumultuousness gives way to full blown abandonment of the faith and every vile practice. Wickedness slips in unchecked even to the point that the church becomes offensive to the world because she allows activity that even pagans would not permit (cf. 1 Corinthians 5.1). Moo says, “Where the hearts of individual Christians are wrong, an unlimited variety of sins will be found also” (134).

Ethereal Wisdom (v.17-18)

James has shown that the teachers about whom he is writing are not only a danger doctrinally but also stand morally and motivationally wrong. What is needed is wisdom which comes from above. Not a base, earthly, rationalistic, physical, even devilish wisdom. True wisdom from God must be and is greater than that. The origin of true wisdom is God. “The LORD gives wisdom” said Solomon (Proverb 2.6). James has instructed his readers that if they lack wisdom, pray (1.5). God hears that prayer and gives liberally. True wisdom from the ethereal realms will produce Christian character. True wisdom also brings peace.

Holiness (v.17). To demonstrate that God’s wisdom will promote a holy life, James gives seven (7) characteristics of wisdom from above. First, wisdom from above is (indeed) pure. The Greek word (hagne) for pure has the same root as the word for holy (hagios). This is moral and ethical purity. This stands in stark contrast with earthly wisdom. The pure wisdom from God is free from everything earthly, carnal, unspiritual, and demonic. Second, God’s wisdom is peaceable. It seeks peace among men and peace between men and God. It loves and brings peace. Next this wisdom is gentle (NIV “considerate”). This is forbearance and courteousness. It is equitable, mild, and fair. Also, this wisdom is open to reason (NASB “reasonable”). This means it is willing to listen and ready to obey. It should be noted this is the only time this word appears in the New Testament. In addition, this ethereal wisdom is full of mercy and good fruit. Mercy has been called “practical help” (see A. T. Robertson on this verse in Word Pictures of the New Testament). This wisdom has mercy in abundance and is constantly engaged in helping those afflicted ones. Further, this wisdom is full of good fruits. No doubt this is in connection with the mercy aspect. John Gill says this is “compassion and beneficence to the poor; feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the widows and fatherless in their affliction; and doing all other good works and duties, both with respect to God and man, as fruits of grace, and of the Spirit.” The wisdom from above is impartial (NASB “without wavering”). God does not show partiality (Luke 20.21; Romans 2.11) and therefore His wisdom would not either. It is free from prejudice and never divided. Note also that this is the only time this word is used in the New Testament. Finally, God’s wisdom is sincere (KJV “without hypocrisy”). It is genuine in character and “never wears a mask” (Lenski). It should go without saying that those who possess this ethereal wisdom will likewise possess these qualities.

Harvest (v.18).  As mentioned, the true wisdom of God will produce peace. Man’s earthly wisdom produces strife, tumult, and chaos. Therefore, God’s heavenly wisdom is needed for that alone can cause strife to stop, turn tumult into tranquility, and cause chaos to cease. The notable absence of peace among these brothers was also a tell-tale sign that wisdom from above was likewise absent. The “harvest of righteousness” or “fruit of righteousness” does appear elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Proverbs 11.30; Amos 6.12; Philippians 1.11). Here James seems to have in mind the beatitude from his half-brother’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5.9). This harvest of righteousness is contrasted with “every vile practice” and seems to sum-up all the qualities listed in verse 17. All this righteous fruit will belong to those what pursue peace by sowing in the atmosphere of peace they promote.

Watch Your Mouth! part 2

Having addressed the importance of the tongue, James will now graphically illustrate this principle utilizing several common objects familiar to his readers and even to us. Several of these illustrations can also be found in philosophical writings before the first century (Aristotle, Sophocles, etc.). James will seemingly borrow and baptize these Hellenistic thoughts to suit his purposes in showing the nature of the tongue. If nothing else, these are common and familiar objects for his readers. Nevertheless, these serve to illustrate the importance of the tongue for the believer, especially in how it pertains to the teaching ministry of the church.

James 3.3-12

3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.
4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,
8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?
12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

The Power of the Tongue to Direct (3-5a)

James begins with two illustrations which show the tongue’s ability to direct the life of an individual. First, he points his readers to bits which are put into the mouths of horses to “guide their whole bodies.” This sentence begins with “if”(ESV) but is really a statement used to indicate the assumption of some truth. Hence, a reading like “now since…” seems suitable. James is reminding his readers of something they already knew to be true. In fact, James is building on a theme he’s established earlier in this letter (1.26) and which he just made mention of one verse previous (v.2). To bridle the tongue was a common illustration of the time and even centuries before it was used by Plato and Sophocles (Pulpit Commentary 42). Wild horses seem to be untamable. But when broken with bit and bridle firmly in place, he is able to be kept in submission. By using a bit which the animal bites he is under control. So the person who “bites” his tongue, holding his peace, controlling his mouth will use his tongue correctly. Connecting this with the context, the teacher who keeps mastery over his spoken words will not only guide his own body, but will also guide his students in the way they should go. With a horse we guide them from one place to another. Perhaps we guide them from low ground to high ground. So the teacher who uses his tongue rightly will guide himself and his students to the higher ground of maturity. With a horse we would steer them on the path in which they should walk. So a teacher who controls his speech will guide himself and his students in the path of righteousness.

Second, James illustrates the power of the tongue to direct with a ship’s rudder. On clear display is the smallness of the object which directs the larger vessel. As James points out, ships are very large and bulky. Maybe not necessarily an ocean liner, but this is comparative to the very small rudder. It is this least or very small part which is able to steer the much larger ship. This was a common illustration used centuries before by philosophers like Aristotle and Philo (Moo 122).This does not necessarily suggest that James borrowed from these sources or even knew of them, but simply is a testament to the fact of their commonality and prevalence in that culture. That ships are steered by rudders is a basic fact known by most societies. As the pilot directs the ship wherever he wants or needs for the ship to go, he steers the vessel by means of the rudder. Even though strong winds might drive the vessel forward, it is the rudder which directs its course. Again, this illustrates the power of the small tongue to direct the course of a man. The influence of the tongue is great even though it is a small member of the body. In terms of the context of the teacher, the tongue is able to guide a congregation into spiritual health or spiritual harm by what is spoken. No wonder teachers fall under greater judgment!

Before James continues with his illustrations, he first makes a point of application. Just as the bit and the rudder are small parts or members of a much larger body which have a great influence upon the object they direct, so the tongue is a small member of the body of a man but it makes great boasts which has great impact upon the direction of a man. Literally, the word for “boast” means to lift high the neck. This is unusually great confidence in someone or something. Lenski points out that usage of this phrase (“boasts of great things”) is categorically evil when used in other literature but here it is meant only as the possibility of evil.

There are a couple application points to pick up from James here. First, it should be understood that just as bit or rudder controls the course of a horse or ship, so the tongue can control the course of an individual’s life. The “mature man” will learn to control (“bridle”) his tongue and subject the rest of his body. But when the tongue is out of control, it tends to be in the mouth of a person who is undisciplined. Second, even as a bit or rudder can determine the destiny of a horse or ship, so the tongue of a teacher can determine the destiny of a congregation of the Lord’s church. A mature congregation of the Lord’s people will be mark by teachers whose words are controlled and directed (even held captive) by the Spirit infused and inspired word of God. Immature churches are marked by teachers who failed to have their mouth bound by and captive to the God’s word. May teachers in the Lord’s church have their tongues trained by the word of God so that they might direct the congregation to maturity in Christ Jesus.

The Power of the Tongue to Destroy (5b-8)

James transitions now from the power of the tongue to direct to the power of the tongue to destroy. The disproportionate size of the tongue to the destruction caused is graphically demonstrated by the following two illustrations: fire and animals. The previous two illustrations showed that restraint and control could be exercised over the vessel in which the small part was. But now the uncontrolled and unrestrained nature of the tongue is put on clear display through these two illustrations.

Recently, in Arizona, the Wallow fire made national news as millions of acres were set ablaze. Authorities narrowed the origin of the fire to a campground where two men had stayed and had failed to extinguish their campfire fully. They face a severe penalty for this negligence including being banned from national forests for life. We are all aware of the Smokey the Bear commercials warning that “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Some forest fires can be traced to a single cigarette butt. But forest fires are not a modern occurrence; indeed, ancient philosophers frequently refer to ancient forest fires (Virgil, Homer). This pours right into James’ next statement that the tongue is a fire and seems to be the force in back of his saying, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” One might point to a similar statement that is found in the extra-biblical work Ecclesiasticus 11.32: “Of a spark of fire a heap of coals is kindled.”

With a powerful metaphor, James drills the point home even further: “The tongue is a fire.” This is so because it is “set on fire by hell” (Gk ghenna). As a fire, the tongue sets ablaze the “entire course of life” (lit. wheel of birth). This phrase is meant to picture life as a wheel which begins rolling at birth and ceases to roll at death. Using that familiar imagery, James communicates the idea that the tongue sets ablaze not only one life but ignites everything it encounters and rolls over. No wonder James calls the tongue “a world of unrighteousness.” This could be understood in a couple of ways. First, we sometimes say that someone is in a world of trouble or in for a world of hurt, meaning there is a whole bunch of trouble or hurt coming their way. Second, Jesus talked about the “unrighteous wealth” of His day (Luke 16.11). Perhaps James, borrowing a page from his older half-brother, speaks of the unrighteous world in a similar manner. Either way, the tongue has been set in our bodies and though small has the ability to stain our whole body.

James goes even further by adding yet another illustration. Wild animals (lions, tigers, bears, etc.), birds (from the sparrow to the birds of prey), reptiles (including snakes; think snake charmers), and marine animals (think Shamu) are all different examples of the animal kingdom over which man exercises dominion. Further, there seems to be a reference made to Genesis 9.2. All of these various creatures are tamed (present tense) and have been tamed (perfect tense) by mankind. The contrast is therefore quite striking that while man can tame these creatures, his tongue is out of control. “No human being can tame the tongue.” It is not possible for man to get control of his own tongue. Man can boast great things of taming every species of animal under the heavens, but he cannot boast of taming his own tongue. But here is the theological connection for James – man cannot tame the tongue, but God can! Only God can take what is unstable and base (“restless evil”), full of venomous poison ready to kill and bring it under control and continued restraint. Just as man can charm a venomous cobra, God can tame the venomous tongue. Even as man can train a deadly lion, so God can tame the wild tongue. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” says the wise man Solomon (Proverbs 18.21). No doubt this is something James has in mind when penning these words describing the deadly nature of the tongue.

The Power of the Tongue to Delight (9-12)

James continues his discourse on the dialect by presenting a perplexing paradox. This is something that is familiar to his style (see ch.1). Building upon what he just said about the tongue (the restless or unstable member of the body loaded with poison) and now addressing his readers for the first since verse 1, James zeroes in on what seems to have been a very real issue in the church to which he is writing. The members of the church would show up at the synagogue on Sunday and offer praise to God. Their tongues would bless the Lord and Father no doubt with the highest praise. But then, when the services were over and they went back into the “real world,” they would curse their fellow man. They are seeking for evil to happen to others and vocalize those bad intentions and wishes. In fact, the curse was not just a denunciation of the person but it was the desire to see a person cut off from the presence of God and endure eternal punishment. Some even speculate that these Christians were invoking a curse in the name of the cross! How much more un-Christ-like can one be! So the paradox is quite perplexing – “We bless God for the cross; and then we curse men in the name of the cross” (Pulpit Commentary 50).

Further, James identifies the theological connection – these people that these Christians curse and wish for them to go to hell are the creation of God and bear His likeness. Moo says, “What makes cursing particularly heinous is that the one whom we pronounce damned has been made in God’s image” (128). Even those whom we might curse are important to God. So the greatness of the sin is revealed in the nature of those on whom cursing is pronounced. James sums up the paradox succinctly: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” One of these is natural, the other unnatural. One of these is Christian, the other anti-Christian. Once more with pastoral care and guidance and yet with emphasis and force James admonishes his brethren. “My brothers, these things ought not be so.” Literally, it is neither morally right nor appropriate for these things to keep on happening.

Two more illustrations enter the discussion: fountains and fig trees. The main idea is that fountains and fig trees must produce those things which are beneficial. These are illustrative of man’s proper conduct when it comes to his dialect. Allowing garbage talk to issue forth out the mouth is like a spring producing salt water or like a fig tree bearing olives. These are incongruous. The questions are presented as rhetorical and a negative answer is expected. Of course these things are not so. That is not what these were created for; hence, that is not what man was created for. Instead of salty language from the spring of the mouth, fresh and refreshing water should issue forth. Blessing, especially the Father, is what man’s mouth was made for. Cursing is the antithesis of that creation.