This is part two of the letter of James. Chapter three deals with speech and conflict. Becoming a teacher was one way to improve social status in the early church. This honor would compensate for the shame imposed upon Christians as social outsiders. But, the conspicuous role of teachers symbolizes the power of human speech to benefit or harm the church. The interesting thing about James is that he does not give the warning of judgement to others without applying it to himself. Teachers will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and be judged more strictly than others. Their greater influence translates into greater responsibility. Judgement here most likely translates into greater responsibility that does not refer to separation from God. Instead it suggests a thorough judgement of teachers before Christ. Leadership imposes responsibility. James’s primary concern is with the speech of church members as they influence many relationships. He used the examples of first a tiny bit in a horses mouth that moves the horse any direction the rider wants. Then there is the ships rudder. Again this is a very small part of a ship but by moving it the entire ship can and does change directions. The tongue is a small part of the body but it can make great speeches. And a tiny spark can set a whole forest on fire. How well we know that living in the western part of the country.
An uncontrolled tongue can defile the whole body or whole person. And the tongue acts as the agent of the whole unrighteous world opposed to God. James tells us the tongue can set our whole lives on fire because it is set on fire by Gehenna, or hell, itself. Gehenna is the place of eternal punishment which is in contrast to hades, the place of the dead. This reference to hell points to the evil one himself as the source of evil speech. But we know his native tongue is lies, and accusations. James reminds us that many different kinds of animals can be trained or subdued but the sinful nature that inspires evil words is beyond our control. Only the work of the Holy Spirit within us can bring this destructive force under control. The tongue has an astonishing capacity for committing evil and if it’s evil is motivated by hell it cannot be tamed by human effort. Being full of poison may be a reference to the serpent in the garden of Eden who is identified as the evil one. James pointed out the irony of the tongue. We use it both to give God thanks and praise and to curse those who are made in His image. This is the worst thing because because it is a curse on God Himself. James had more examples. Pouring salt water into fresh water makes salt water. Mixing bad fruit with good fruit makes a bushel of rotten fruit. And, mixing the contradictory speech of blessing and cursing will only produce negative results. There were some springs in the upper sources of the Jordan River that did produce both fresh water and bitter water. These springs could not support a town. And if a person’s speech mixes foul with sweet, it would not build up the community. The solution for the problem of controlling our tongues is to seek divine wisdom. The person who possesses godly wisdom will show it with works, not just words. That means believers should be slow to speak. The wisdom that comes from God is not mere intellectual skill or the collection of information. It means practical insight and spiritual understanding that expresses itself in moral uprightness. The truth is wisdom cannot be associated with jealousy and selfish ambition. Only in humility can we receive God’s true word. The wisdom that is earthly is not part of God’s good creation. It is the opposite of heavenly wisdom because it excludes God. It is not spiritual because it does not acknowledge or respond to God’s Spirit. It is demonic since it comes from the evil one who is the ultimate source of destructive wisdom. James used an agricultural picture to emphasize the benefits of living by the wisdom from above. Those who plant seeds of peace in relationships will enjoy a luxuriant harvest of righteousness in those relationships.
There was conflict from selfish prayer and James questioned what was the cause of the quarrels and fights among these people. The quarrels and fights can literally be translated wars and fights. James used military imagery to declare that their own evil desires at war within them were the immediate cause of the battles among church members. And he used the word translated evil desires, here translated pleasures, to bracket the entire paragraph and indicate the source of conflict and unanswered prayer. This conflict within us is between our sinful desires for pleasure and the desire for God’s will, an attitude the Holy Spirit has placed within us. The source of conflict among believers is often material things. James attributes fighting, murder, and war to materialism. He also warned believers to not lust after things of the world. Killing was the extreme outcome of their attitudes. Some of James’s readers may have been part of the Zealot movement and they engaged in murder to benefit their cause. Hostile attitudes and violent methods do not provide satisfaction. Verse four does not speak of God’s attitude toward the believer but of the believers attitude towards God. The difference between the world and God is so vast that as we move towards the world we alienate ourselves from God. The world considers sin pleasurable and acceptable but the world has lost its awareness of sin and that means sin has become a habit. We are living in a time right now where the evil one doesn’t even hide anymore and the world still cannot see him.
In verses 4-10 James explained the causes of conflict: love for the world, divides loyalties, and arrogant criticism. And he gave exhortations that will rectify these causes and lead to peace. James used prophetic imagery because his readers were seeking what friendship with the world could give them. That was social acceptance, prestige, and wealth. Divided loyalty towards God is like adultery against ones spouse. In the ancient world friend was used as a title for special and exclusive relationships. Both Moses and Abraham were called friends of God. The world consists of society that is opposed to God and His kingdom. The world is guided by earthly wisdom, not heavenly and is characterized by evil desires, fighting, and killing. James most likely didn’t have a specific Old Testament scripture in mind here but instead is speaking in concepts. The jealous yearning here is God’s jealousy for His people, a concept that is prevalent in the Old Testament. Friendship with the world would likely provoke God’s jealousy for His people. James quoted Proverbs 3:34 to prove his point about the proud. God resists the proud but those who submit to divine wisdom will receive the necessary grace from God to put into practice the kind of life James described in 3:13-18. On the other hand, those who elevate themselves will face a formidable foe. God Himself will fight against their plans because they are not on His side. He calls us to humble ourselves before God. There are two commands in verse seven. First we are to submit to God by abandoning our selfish pride. That involves putting on the whole armor of God. Second we are called to resist any temptation that the evil one throws our way. Then the evil one will flee because we will belong to the army of the One true living God. Coming close to God is the language of friendship and loyalty. When we draw close to Him He draws close to us. Washing our hands is the language of ceremonial cleansing, commonly found in the Old Testament. This cleansing is applied to the inner purity of one’s actions and intentions. But, when a believer who has fallen into sin responds to God’s call for repentance they should place laughter and joy aside to reflect on their sin with genuine sorrow. In verse nine the laughter almost seems to point to the loud revelry of pleasure loving people. They immerse themselves in a celebration of their sins in an effort to forget God’s judgement. But a Christian should never laugh at sin. However, Christian sorrow leads to repentance; repentance leads to forgiveness; and forgiveness leads to true joy over one’s reconciliation with God. To those who humble themselves before Him, God gives honor in place of the shame of their persecution and oppression.
James also gave warnings against judging others. Verses 11-12 reflect on Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37. The exhortation for peace in the Christian community requires that Christians not slander each other. Slandering one’s neighbor is the same as slandering God’s law because the law prohibits slander and demands love for one’s neighbor. There is one lawgiver. God is the ultimate judge and the One who will take vengeance on those who practice evil. He also gave warnings about self confidence. Itinerant merchants depended on personal assertiveness as a solution to their poverty and low social status. James urged greater recognition of God’s Providence and warned against arrogantly planning events which one cannot really control. The problem is not the plan or the concept. The problem is leaving God out of the plan. We are reminded that we are like mist or vapor. We are here for a short while and then we are gone, just like mist and vapor. The Lord has authority over life and death. We might boast about what God has done but we cannot boast about our own arrogant plans. That assumes that God has no claim or authority over our lives then. Verse 17 is probably the verse that James wanted his readers to recognize. It’s source is unknown but it is consistent with the teachings of scripture. James says it is a sin to doubt whether an action is right and to then go ahead and do it. It is also a sin to know what is right and then not do it.
James begins chapter five with a warning to the rich. He denounces the rich for their greed and arrogant oppression of the poor. He warns them to repent while they can because if they don’t they will face terrible troubles on the day of judgement. The wealth and fine clothes are so excessive that they deteriorate from lack of use. Their destruction is also a sign of the anticipated judgement. Material wealth, represented by gold and silver, is worthless in the face of God’s judgement. In fact it will testify against them because it was unjustly gotten and wickedly used. These rich people were exploitive landowners. Like those in 2:6 who dragged Christians into court, they were exploiting day laborers whose work it was to harvest their fields. Their cries reached the ears of the Lord. God hears the prayers of the oppressed. Even while the laborers are still suffering, the Lord has heard. In fact the cries have reached the ears of heavens armies. This title emphasizes God’s power to act when the oppressed can’t. James pictured the wealthy like animals being readied for slaughter. They spent their years on earth in luxury. Every desire was satisfied. The wealthy had fattened themselves with delicacies and decadence. They were fattened like they were getting ready for market, for the day of slaughter. They had even killed the innocent people like the oppressed laborers. They had much to answer for and their judgement would be harsh.
James final exhortations were regarding patience and endurance. Being patient was the ultimate resolution for the poor in their economic pressures and for their unjust treatment by the wicked rich. Even though the poor have been marginalized and oppressed, they must not give up or strike out at their oppressors. At the Lord’s return the faithful will receive their final reward. James warned that the judge is standing at the door. The coming of Christ is imminent. James referenced the prophets of long ago who are examples of patient suffering. And they could do that because they knew there was more to come, and it would be wonderful. He named in particular Job. Job was a man of great endurance. He remained faithful to the Lord throughout his trials and tribulations, despite his complaints of not understanding what he had done wrong. James is not forbidding any believer from taking a oath in court or invoking God as a witness to some significant statement. Because the churches were having such severe verbal conflicts James called upon them to avoid the pitfalls of deceitful oaths by not using any at all. To swear an oath in the name of the Lord was to call upon Him to enforce the oath. When people swore by heaven or earth they were either feigning reverence while avoiding the use of the divine name, or they were being deceitful with clever verbiage. James was prohibiting the ancient practice of appealing to a variety of different objects to confirm the veracity of their statements. This practice was dangerously close to idolatry because it implied that such objects contained spirits. The warning in these verses is also a reminder for us to watch what we say. We should not use God’s name in a reckless manner and we should be careful to speak the truth.
The elders of the church were responsible for the well being of a local assembly of Christians. Elders were selected because of their relative age and qualifications as Christian leaders. At this early stage of the development of the Christian church the term church was apparently a non technical term meaning congregation or assembly. The act of anointing with oil symbolized divine blessings and healing. A prayer offered in faith will heal the sick. This proverb is generally a true statement, subject to the will of God. Only prayers that embody true faith will be answered affirmatively by the Lord, and faith for a particular healing is a gift that comes from God. If we have committed any sins we will be forgiven. James suggests that some illnesses might be caused by sin, and it is important that the sin also be confessed and forgiven. We known that prayer is the most powerful weapon in the world because the answers come from the Lord and it is to Him that we go in prayer. James’ example of faithful prayer comes from Elijah who prayed earnestly that no rain would fall and then three and a half years later he prayed for rain. His earnest prayers were answered. Three and a half is half of seven, which symbolizes a period of judgement.
Verses 19-20 end the letter as a bookend, counterbalancing the exhortation to endurance. James ends by encouraging and almost challenging the believers that bringing back a believer who has wandered from the faith means saving that person from sure and certain death. And this isn’t just physical death but eternal death which is the punishment for departing from the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ. If the sinful person listens and repents, eternal punishment will be averted.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W