The epistle of James is at times one of the more scathing letters written to the Church of Jesus Christ. There are several rebukes and admonitions, which are germane to Christians living in the United States and other westernized nations. Let us consider a passage with both rebuke and admonition, which illustrates this point.
James 5:1-6 (NKJV) Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.
We must remember that these scathing words were first written to Christians, who were living with a perversion of the gospel. This perversion is remarkably like the elements and produced moral and material circumstances of today’s prosperity gospel. This false gospel was so pervasive that the readers of the epistle of James were showing partiality towards those who would come to fellowship, who were rich (James 2). The poorer brethren were shuffled to the periphery.
It has always been the call of God’s kingdom for those who “have” to give selflessly to those who do not “have” (Acts 4:32-37). The presence or lack of this compassion truly reveals the quality of our life for Christ (Matthew 25:31-46; Acts 5:1-11). From what we read in verses 1-5, we understand that the hearers of this letter, were shutting up the bowels of compassion, mercy, and brotherly love; hence they had backslidden into the dangerous position of having dead faith (James 2:26) or worse.
James then calls them out for murder (vs. 6). This of course does not mean they were knifing or stabbing each other with swords, but that they were assassinating one another with words. This diagnosis calls us back to our Savior’s words in Matthew 5:21-22, where He equates the assassination of a person’s character with words, as akin to physically taking their life “for the power of death and life are in the tongue” [Proverbs 18:21]). The entirety of James 3 and the beginning of chapter 4 deal with this egregious practice and its pervasiveness in the church the epistle was written to.
Let’s be honest, these very same things represent a large swath of the church in America, where portions of the prosperity gospel have been sown throughout most evangelical denominations (a discussion of another time); whether Pentecostal, Baptist, Non-Denominational, Liturgical or Main-line Protestant.
Additionally, the urge to respect persons who have and can improve our situation is also sown throughout our humanity, therefore we must be on guard. Although this tendency is innate in all humanity (born in sin), it rises in a Christian’s heart from a lack of trust in God; from being antsy or anxious about the future. In this state, when what we seek does not quell the anxiety about what is around the corner, we are tinder boxes soaked in gasoline; ready to explode into character assassination.
This is often the case (as was with those who first heard this message) in the Church in America, from an individual perspective, as well as a corporate one. This is part of American cultural DNA, where we are socialized to think we need more than we have (This must be denied for Christ). Once stimulated these thoughts lead to us seeking to have just a little more, for the sake of feeling more solid for what may come.
In this we forget, He has promised to provide what we need (Matthew 6:24-33; Philippians 4:19). Subsequently, we grow more anxious, as we are pulled to anticipate the “what if’s” around the corner. We believe these “what ifs” to be adversarial and inevitable. Therefore, we become fixated on them, rather than on Jesus Christ the Author and Finisher of our faith. In this condition James offers a stiff admonition (mild rebuke or firm warning) in love.
James 5:7-11 (NKJV) Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.
Through James, the Holy Spirit is calling them (and us) to refocus on what is fundamental concerning our faith. The word of God gives us 2 commands with three examples, to reveal how we avoid having our fixation pulled from hope into hopelessness, which leads to the sinful behavior in the first six verses.
“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord”. Here we see they had ceased from gaining hope, confidence, and patient endurance, from looking for the blessed hope, the great and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, the lord Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-14).
Where had their attention fallen to? In focusing on the “what ifs” to come, they looked like cheap substitutes. They were driven by their anxiety over having what was material. They had tried to look around the corner to avoid “what ifs” so much, that they were not paying workers, were looking to fellowship with the rich, (whether saved or not, to advance their purpose and quell their fears) and had shut off compassion to the brethren most in need.
This is a problem for Christians in America. Gone are the days, where filled with the Spirit, we minister the gospel and refuse to worry about the material, as we trust where He calls He will provide. We constantly court donors (church people) to give more and more. Rather than pray, we seek to finance buildings and programs which will bring in more people (potential donors) to pay our pastoral salaries and buildings and properties cost. This is a far cry from Holy Spirit produced faith and love of the early church in Acts 4:32-37, where those who owned property sold it (giving all the money) for those in the body of Christ who were most in need.
What James’ readers were falling into, is a problem for us as well. In our anxiety we justify working ourselves to death, voiding ourselves of fellowship to make a buck, and missing intimacy with Christ in the word and prayer. Remember that Matthew 6:24-33 is an admonition from Jesus to all disciples, not to get programed to live beyond the day at hand, and what is needed. When we do, worry and anxiety pull our minds around the corner, to see the “what ifs”, rather than trusting Him and looking for His return. This is when we run the risk of producing “dead faith”.
In addition to the command to be “patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord”, we are given the admonition to consider the example of a farmer, who plants his field, then in trust waits for the former and latter rain, to do what only God can; make the crops grow. Happily, the farmer, fertilizes, weeds, and works the field, but he must wait on the rain, which is the purview of God. In the first admonition, James’ readers are commanded to “be patient” wait on God for what you need rather than stockpiling, worrying, and looking for ways to produce what may not be needed at all.
How are we to exercise patience, waiting faithfully no matter what circumstances arise? “Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand”. This means to anchor your heart to your Holy Spirit born desire for Christ’s return. Faith and hope, fixated on Jesus’ soon return, is the very element which produces godliness (Titus 2:11-14; II Peter 3:1-13) and relieves the pain from the trials of our life (I Thessalonians 4:13-17). If our gaze shifts from the Author and Finisher of our faith, the subsequent anxiety will lead to impiety and ungodly behavior, like is described in the first 6 verses of James 5.
In our next post we see why this ungodly behavior was so pervasive in the fellowship James epistle is written to and is often far too pervasive in our fellowship.