James Chapter 5
As has been seen in chapter 4, James has been outlining the difficulties that arise from believers being controlled by the flesh as opposed to the Spirit, particularly the fact that the control of the flesh will prevent proper spiritual development. As he concludes that chapter, he warns against the dangers of a materialistic spirit that invests in temporal things for the sole purpose of self-gain, and without proper thought of the nearness of eternity or the will of God. In the final chapter of his letter, James initially continues his treatment of the love of material riches, and its effect on testimony, before again developing one of the other great themes in the book - the treatment of other believers. The chapter may be divided as follows:
Verses 1-6: Poverty and Riches
In this section James attacks the unrighteous rich. He teaches that their sin will not go unjudged, despite their apparent power on earth. They are not judged for being rich, but for the way they have behaved as rich people on earth. He teaches that they should be mourning uncontrollably because of the inevitable consequences of their sin: divine judgment will undoubtedly come upon them (v 1). Their lives, having been consumed by riches, will be blighted, as their material riches are already (v 2). Those rusted riches, using James’s metaphor, will be a continual witness against them as they experience the fire of divine wrath (v 3). The nature of their sin was that they had spent “last days” accumulating treasure. It is surely sad if the professing people of God spend the final days before the Lord comes accumulating wealth rather than using it for the work of the Lord. The context here involves lack of support for the needy, particularly among the believers. Need still exists, at home and abroad. The hoarding of wealth for wealth’s sake is a dangerous business if the needs of the saints are not met when ability has been given to do so. It seems that the accumulation of wealth in this chapter involved defrauding those who were not in a position to vindicate their own rights (v 4). The rich appear to have been farmers who, having hired labour, fraudulently refused to make payment to those whom they had employed. Such business practices are still seen in the world. They ought not to be evident among believers! Perhaps a reader is in a situation where they are treated unjustly by a master (see Col 3.22-25). It is comforting to note that the Lord of Hosts (a title which reflects the majesty and glory of His character) hears and sees the true position (v 4). A day of vindication will come!
The rich are then further criticised for living self-indulgent lives (v 5) while other believers are being killed. It is sobering to reflect that, as saints are putting life and limb on the line for Christ today, it is possible for us to live in a materialistic, self-centred fashion. Finally, some of the rich (ponder the enormity of the fact that such were found among the professing people of God) had actually been involved in killing innocent people who had not harmed them in any way. The thrust of the message seems to be that, just as riches are corruptible, the heaping of riches is also liable to corruption. Saints who have much materially must be very careful.
Verses 7-12: Patience and Recompense
Given their suffering, and the apparent cruelty of the rich, it is perhaps understandable that the saints did not know where to turn. James therefore moves toward closing his letter by pointing them to the return of the Lord. He exhorts them to be patient, not simply for the sake of being stoical but, rather, because the hardness of day will soon give way to the presence of the Lord! He uses the example of the farmer who is willing to see the crop grow, and pass through the whole cycle of development, until the day comes when it bears fruit. This seems to be a wonderful picture of the saint waiting patiently until God’s purpose is worked out in the last soul being saved in the day of grace, and the Lord returning. The saints were to centre and settle their hearts on the Lord returning, when their temporal difficulties would give way to eternal joy (see 2 Cor 4.17). It is implicit in the text that they believed the coming of the Lord was imminent!
These articles have emphasised time and again the importance that James placed on relationships between believers. Verse 9 makes the point again, particularly associated with the return of the Lord. Saints ought not to be murmuring when the Judge, who will divinely assess, is pictured standing at the door, ready to return! Some of the saints then, as today, would find the waiting hard. James encourages them in verses 10 and 11 to consider the examples of the Old Testament prophets, who displayed patience, in extreme circumstances, over many years. He particularly encourages them with the example of Job; a man who lost material possessions, reputation and family, yet remained faithful to God, seeing things in an eternal light. However, in the end, there is a sense in which God restored more than Job had lost, and James shows that patient waiting will be worthwhile, in light of the pity and mercy of God that will be experienced throughout eternity.
Much has been written about verse 12, but the possible backdrop is the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5.33. There the Pharisees sought to validate their word by invoking an oath, implicitly calling some judgment upon them if they spoke not the truth. In fact, they often swore by inanimate objects that were powerless to judge them and, therefore, some felt that they could carelessly break their oath. James cautions against that practice. As believers wait for the return of the Lord they ought to be marked by truthfulness. Their reputation should be such that there is no need for an oath to confirm that what they are saying is truth; all their speech should be so. He closes the verse by warning of the danger of hypocrisy, seen in believers who profess to be those who are declared righteous, yet their word cannot be expected to be truthful. It is a sad indictment upon saints if ‘yes’ does not mean ‘yes’, and ‘no’ does not mean ‘no’.
Verses 13-20: Prayer and Righteousness
In the final section of the chapter James deals with prayer in various ways. First he discusses a man who is sick, and for whom the elders of the assembly pray. Their believing prayer causes the man to be cured (vv 13-15). These are hard verses. It does not seem an adequate answer to say that these are simply ‘transitional verses’ yet, factually, not every sick believer who prays in faith is healed. Reading the context (particularly verse 16), the clue to the exposition seems to be the type of illness. It appears to have a spiritual cause. It may also, although one cannot be sure, have a spiritual element (in verse 15 the idea of sickness may include mental exhaustion). It must be accepted that, in every case of illness, God is able to heal, but it seems that God healed in a particular way on this occasion. The saints are then encouraged in prayer, both in confession and in supplication for each other. Elijah is given as an example of fervency in prayer, and in prayer being answered. It is wonderful to reflect upon the fact that God still answers prayer!
Finally, James closes his challenging letter by turning back to the great theme of exercising care toward our brethren. Verse 20 encourages the people of God in the worthy work of preserving spiritual life by guiding saints back from a wasted life. Such wise guides, with the ability to draw alongside (cf Gal 6.1) and provide appropriate guidance, are badly needed amongst the people of God today. The Book of James is therefore basic, but vital, on many levels. May its teaching provide a challenge in the day in which the reader is called to serve.