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.

Holding the Faith, part 1

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech at the Lincoln monument in Washington, D.C. which resonates even to today. “I have a dream…” Luther would exclaim and then proceed to describe his dream for America at large. One aspect of that dream was that his children would not be judged based on race and skin color but that they would be judged “by the content of their character.”

James, half-brother of Jesus and historically the bishop of Jerusalem, has a dream for the church in the first century which resonates even to the church of the present-day. James’ dream is of a church which does not judge a person because of their riches, rank, or race, but that all Christians would show no partiality toward one another. The Lord Jesus Christ did not show partiality (Luke 20.21) and those who hold their faith in Him will do likewise. Indeed, this is a divine attribute which God calls His people to walk in. James’ Jewish readers would no doubt know Leviticus 19.15: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.” There is a principle in the word of God of which James reminds his brethren.

James 2.1-7 (ESV)

1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,
3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,”
4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?
6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?
7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

Once more, James regards his readers as his “brothers.” What is communicated is a sense of family and partnership. “We are in this together.” This, too, is a habitual title used by James for his fellow countrymen and fellow Christians. By physical and spiritual heritage, they are brothers. Once more the shepherd heart of James is seen and he works to correct his brethren’s wrong thinking and practice. James will use “partiality” or “favoritism” (HCSB, NASB, NIV, lit. “receiving the face”) to seemingly tie together the faith one professes and the works which he/she does which we read about towards the end of this chapter. But first, James calls upon his brethren to cease and desist in making distinctions and showing preferential treatment to individuals based on external circumstance – wealth, social class, rank, and/or race.

The Principle (v.1): The focus is on faith in Christ and holding fast that faith. In fact, the imperative in this verse is not “show no partiality” but “hold the faith.” This faith’s object is “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (NASB). James here attributes the same Shekinah glory of YHWH God to Jesus. So once more, as was seen in 1.1, James puts Jesus on par with God Almighty. In fact, one scholar says this construction is similar to when Jesus said the He is “the way, the truth, the life.” Hence, James sees the Lord Jesus Christ as simply “the Glory.” Based on the foregoing section which dealt with “pure and undefiled” religion before God, James no doubt is speaking of the Christian religion. Part of the Christian faith is imitating and mimicking the Lord. As He showed no partiality while on earth, so His followers (disciples) show no partiality among men. James now develops this idea with a series of questions for his readers.

Question 1: Haven’t you made gross distinctions? (v.2-4) He begins with a hypothetical situation. Perhaps, though, it was not as hypothetical for these Christians as for us. This may have been something James had seen far too often take place in the synagogue (Gk sunagogen). He had been in far too many meetings with his brethren and had seen this far too often (v.6-7 seems to indicate this is really going on). Here enters a rich man – he has a gold ring on his finger (lit. gold-fingered) and with splendid (lit. bright) clothing all of which indicates his opulence. Then here enters the poor man – no ring and in shabby (lit. filthy) clothes. Both of these men, visitors the same, walk into the synagogue to hear the Law read, to worship, to pray. But how they are treated is very different.

The rich man is given special attention and looked upon with favor. He is given the proverbial “best seat in the house.” This might have been seat near the front, by the rostrum, or even on an elevated place draw great attention to him. The poor man, on the other hand, is treated poorly: he is not offered even a chair but told either “stand over there” or “sit at my feet.” This is degrading and disgraceful! More than that, these Christians have “become judges with evil thoughts.” This is not godly or Christ-like. These evil thoughts have lead to unjust distinctions among men. James’ question is rhetorical then: of course you have done this! Thus, truly Christian behavior must flow from a wholly Christian heart and mind.

Question 2: Hasn’t God made a choice? (v.5) Again, the pathos of James bleeds from the pages of Scripture as he pleads with his “beloved brethren” to “listen!” He then reveals a principle or truth which his readers should have been very familiar with: “has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom”? Again, a rhetorical question: yes, He has. The “poor in the world” seem to be those people who are destitute, without wealth. They stand juxtaposed to the “rich in the world.” By worldly standards, they are poor; before God, they are “rich in faith” which is invaluable and far superior to any worldly good. In addition, they are heirs of the kingdom. Their inheritance is the rule and reign of God in their lives and forever more. This reign of God is a sure promise from God. If anyone loves Him, they become heirs of the rule of God in their lives.

It would seem that this is a reminder to the readers. Perhaps they were a church composed of the poor who had responded to the gospel. So the rebuke is somewhat striking: what if God treated you the way you treat others? Further, there is a blessing attached with the impoverished. Jesus in the sermon on the plain said, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs in the kingdom of God” (Luke 6.20). It is the poor who have the gospel preached to them during the earthly ministry of Jesus (see Matt 11.5). There seems to be a predisposition toward faith in God and Christ if you have not the wealth of the world. My mother says, “When you give a man who has everything Jesus, you’ve given him nothing; when you give a man who has nothing Jesus, you’ve given him everything.” So, why the distinction, brethren? Why are you keeping them from the kingdom when God has made their journey easier or shorter than the rich?

Question 3: Aren’t the rich oppressing you? (v.6) Besides all this, James reminds his brethren of the reality of the situation and the irony of it all. The rich are oppressing these Jewish Christians and putting them in dire straights. The rich are dragging these Jewish Christians off to court to bring slanderous accusations against them. So these are the people they honored while they dishonored and treated shamefully the poor.

Question 4: Aren’t the rich opposing Christ? (v.7) And if personal oppression were not enough, James reminds his brothers that the rich are also speaking evil (i.e. blaspheming) against the name of honor, that is, the name of Jesus. So these Christian slandering, Christ swearing rich people are the very same people these individuals these Jewish Christians were treating honorably all the while the poor fellow is treated shamefully. I believe it is important to note that James is not necessarily condemning the good treatment of the rich. Christians are commanded to “turn the other cheek” when slapped (see Matt 5.39). However, James is using that action to condemn the shameful treatment shown to the poor by his brethren. That is the injustice James seeks to rectify. How are you going to treat those who hate the kingdom better than those who are not far from the kingdom? If you are going to treat the rich well, in likewise manner, treat also the poor well. After all they are elected by God to be rich in faith and enter the kingdom.

The Widow’s Mite

Every Sunday, the church is privileged to worship our God. One of the acts in which we engage in during worship is giving. That is, many members will give money during the allotted time of worship service. Some are able to give a lot of money, others less. Unfortunately, some do not give. The money collected is used for a variety of reasons including local evangelism, missionary support, and maintanence of the building.

It is interesting to note that this practice of the church has Jewish roots. Under the Law, Jews gave the tithe, a tenth, to the Lord. Even before the Law, Abraham gave a tenth of his spoils to Melchizedek. Giving has been a something that God has approved of, even commanded of his people since the beginning; Cain and Abel offered sacrfices to God. In Luke 21.1-4, Luke records the account of when a poor widow (a picture of true poverty in the first century) showed up at the treasury of the temple to make an offering.

Now Mark sets the stage for us when he records that Jesus was sitting “opposite the treasury” (Mark 12.41); perhaps he is tired from the exertion that went along with his four round heavyweight bout with the Pharisees and scribes. So he is able to see everyone coming in to make their offerings. Now there were 13 offering boxes (ESV) or trumpets (called that for their shape) which were labeled so you knew where your money was going when you gave. In this scene, Luke makes the striking contrast between the rich and poor. The rich people are coming up with their offerings and dropping it down into the mouth of the offering box. Perhaps the large sums of money make a lot of noice as they clatter into the offering box.

But then a poor (lit. lacking the essential means of livelihood) widow, one who is in dire circumstances (for a widow had basically not means of income) comes forward with her offering. She gives “two small copper coins” (ESV) or “two mites” (KJV, ASV). It was the smallest of the current currency. It was a very small, thin coin worth less than a penny today. Clink clink. I wonder if she was embarassed, if her face was flush with color because she had to follow those who were rich and whose great amount of money had great noice when dropped into the offering boxes.

Jesus shows why there was no need for her to be embarassed. He says she has put in more than everyone else, more than the each rich person who came to make an offering. The force of the words cannot be stressed. Literally Jesus says she gave “more than all” – her offering was greater than all of those rich before her combined. Wow! Why? Jesus explains: “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (v.4, ESV). It was not about size but significance. This was all she had to live on (and it wasn’t much). What’s incredible to me is that she had two of these coins, implying she could have kept one. But to hold back would make the gift no different than those of the rich. This action of giving both mites is an action demonstrating her total reliance upon God. It was a true sacrifice to give all she had. The rich before had their bank accounts to fall back on; this widow, when she commits to give those two coins to the Lord, has nothing.

It should be noted that Jesus does not make her rich. A lot of televangelists will tell you that God wants you rich and if you give a lot of money, God will make you rich. Jesus does not miraculously give this widow riches. He does not command the rich to give her money. He does not tell his disciples to give her money. As far as we she know, she died a poor widow. But that’s the point! Luke is rife with warnings for the rich (Luke 16.14-15; 16.19ff; 18.24; 20.46-47, et al). Indeed, one of the greatest sermons ever preached (but not nearly as well known as the Sermon on the Mount) is recorded by Luke and the first blessing is for the poor (Luke 6.20b). Why? Because you cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6.24) and those who are rich must take special care lest they trust in their money, in this world, rather than God. This widow represents a disposition which is always looking toward God for deliverance and sustenance.

One final word: “As for the rich of this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” – 1 Timothy 6.17-19. I ask you: who are the rich today, the rich of this present age? Are they the people in Washington? Are they the movie stars of Hollywood? Or is rich just another word for those who have more than their “daily bread”?

Sermon on the Plain, part 5

Jesus finishes his blessings and proceeds to pronounce woe upon certain groups. For those of you unaware of what woe is, it is similar to someone saying “how dreadful.” It is something that is horrific, a state of hardship or distress. And so when surely when his audience heard these words of Jesus in Luke 6.24:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort”

no doubt they did a double-take. “Jesus, are you serious? Those who are rich are the ones who have it rough?” That’s right, because they have already received their comfort. Whereas the one who is utterly dependant upon God because they acknowledge they are in need. The rich are predisposed to have the view that they are not in need. There is nothing they need. Hence, they are in comfort. In fact, most rich people are tormented because of their wealth. Therefore, the woe is well said: it is a horrific thing to be rich and is a state of hardship. As one commentator wrote about this verse: “When all that anyone has is worldly weath he is poor indeed.”

Perhaps Jesus’ audience consisted of rich people, however, this statement was not to his disciples present for they were poor. It was not uncommon for John the Baptists application points to come from those present and certainly Jesus would have done the same (and did the same on some occassions).

How does this reach us today? Well, certainly there is nothing wrong with being wealthy: Scripture says Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all wealthy men. Rather, when wealth becomes your focus, your love, it is time to refocus and reevaluate. Our dependance is not on stuff or things, but rests solely upon Jesus Christ and his sacrifice.