“Do 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. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”James 4:11-12
Danger from Unrestrained Desire
At the beginning of chapter 4, James wrote that unrestrained desire is the chief cause of quarrels and fights. Unrestrained desire is the source of many evil words and actions. Desires, if not controlled, become passions driving behavior. Desire to acquire things tends to make people covetous. Covetousness leads to seeing people as tools to help get what is desired. If person is not useful in satisfying desires, the inclination is to let that relationship die on the vine. Even relationship with God is disturbed by unrestrained desire. It is easy to become convinced that following Christ is no hindrance to pursuing worldly desires.
Danger in Speaking Evil About Other Believers
Having warned us of the danger inherent in an unbridled tongue, James cautions believers to not speak evil against other believers. Slander and, in general, doing things that defame the character of other believers is a direct attack on relationships within the family of God. Common examples include passing on rumors or lying. If we know something bad claimed about a person even if we know for certain that it is true, we should go to that person only and see what we can do to help. Otherwise, say nothing to anyone else unless legal testimony is required. Recognize other Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ, joint heirs of salvation. All were dead in trespasses and sins. All were saved by the same precious blood even though all deserved God’s wrath. How do we dare defame a fellow believer, one for whom Christ died?
James says, regard other Christians as neighbors under the royal law. Refusing to obey the law sets one above the law, acting as a judge of the law rather than a doer of the law. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge. The law reflects the nature of God. To devalue the law is to devalue the Lawgiver. Who are we to judge our neighbor? We know our sin and unworthiness before God. But for God’s grace, we would yet be dead in sins. How can we turn to criticize and judge another believer?
“Come 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”— 14 yet 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. 15 Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”James 4:13-17
The Arrogance of Presumption
This issue is obviously important to James. What root problem is he thinking of? Does he believe planning ahead is wrong? Does he think commercial activity to make a profit is wrong? No! Planning ahead is a necessary life activity. It’s the only way to avoid living a disorderly, life. Commercial activity making a profit is a necessary activity and is quite OK when carried out in integrity, honesty, and an intention to help and not harm.
So what is the real problem? James uses his comments on planning ahead to accomplish some goal as a way to illustrate the serious problem of falling into a way of thinking that habitually ignores “the sovereignty of God.” Declaring in advance the result of a planned activity is a presumptuous act which assumes we are in total control of our life. What we choose to do will happen as we will it to happen, and when we intend it to happen.
James reminds that such presumptuous statements are arrogant boasting and evil because they ignore the truth of God’s sovereignty. God is in control, not us. Plans must be tentative, and their outcomes are always uncertain. Our lives are like a mist. We have no clue what tomorrow will bring, not even whether or not we will live to see tomorrow. We are ignorant of the future, we are frail, here today and gone tomorrow, and we are totally dependent on God. Believers are to be constantly on guard against ill-conceived presumptuousness. It not only leads to sins of commission, but can cause sins of omission (knowing the good and not doing it).
In planning ahead it is proper to say, “this is what I plan to do, if the Lord wills.” BUT, the thing that is important is not saying the words “if the Lord wills.” These words are merely to remind us and those who hear us that God is sovereign. The important thing is our attitude be one recognizing and acting on the truth of God’s sovereignty, and that we live in His grace and mercy.
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your 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. 4 Behold, 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. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.”James 5:1-6
Danger in Misusing Wealth
In this passage James points out the problematic destiny of rich unbelievers who abuse others to obtain riches, or in the way they have inappropriately used those riches or both. Covetousness of things is a threat to everyone, believers and unbelievers, rich and poor alike. These verses seem to be particularly aimed at describing people who are rich in material things but poor spiritually, people who do not live a godly life. Everyone can abuse the use of physical things. James’ message of warning applies to anyone who actually abuses the use of physical things, and that includes the rich, those who yearn to be rich, and the poor.
James begins with a general rebuke to wealthy people who abuse the use of their wealth. He follows with four specific points. Covetousness can lead to hoarding (an unwarranted degree of storing things up for the future), perhaps even storing of large amounts of food when a neighbor is hungry and in great need. James reminds his readers that hoarded wealth loses value. Food spoils, clothes get moth eaten, and metals rust. This is not a condemnation of prudent saving but of undue accumulation. Elsewhere in Scripture, believers are told to provide for their family. Provision requires prudent use of God-given resources including appropriate saving. Hoarding is inappropriate saving and accumulation.
Covetousness can lead to dishonesty, as when a laborer is hired and then his wages or a portion thereof are inappropriately withheld. It can also lead to excessive self-indulgence, living on earth in luxury beyond reason. Finally, it can cause a two-faced mistreatment of the innocent who happen to get in the way of something passionately coveted.
Whether rich or poor in worldly things, believers are to fix their hope on the Lord and be rich in good works. Excessive focus on self leads to all kinds of problems. Strive to please God.
“Be 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. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, 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.12 But 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.”James 5:7-12
The Patience of Hope
Be patient until Jesus comes again. Farmers invest in planting a crop and cultivating it, while waiting patiently for the harvest, knowing that the rains must come at the right times and other factors beyond their control must be right.
Patience in suffering is driven by hope. The prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord often suffered for their ministry. Their example shows us the value of patience. With wisdom from above, believers face and endure the tests and temptations of life with wisdom from above. As they do, they grow in faith and maturity of character. Hope grounded in the promises of Christ will keep believers on course.
Believers are to be obedient to the guidance of God’s Word, and when tested to display constancy. Our hope is in the Lord whose return is “at hand.”
Times of stress cause people to be impatient. Impatience shows up in their speech. They tend to exaggerate their situation and grumble and complain against both circumstances and other people. Believers should not! Believers are to keep their speech simple, accurate, and truthful. God is full of compassion and mercy for those who persevere. A believer’s attitude is to constantly be that of honesty – honesty so transparent they need only say yes or no, never needing to bolster an answer with an oath or other proof. A believer should be believed because people know he can be trusted to tell the truth.
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is 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. 15 And 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. 16 Therefore, 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. 17 Elijah 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”James 5:13-18
The Prayer of Faith
James has given us examples of abuses of speech, but speech can and should be used for high purposes like preaching or teaching or just talking about the Word of God. A critical proper use of speech is to confess sins and pray.
To correctly understand the lesson found in these verses, some foundational truths should be kept in mind.
(1.) The distinction between original and personal sin. Original sin refers to the sin nature we inherited from Adam (Romans 5:12). Personal sin is the daily, moment by moment, disobedience so familiar to each of us. It arises from our fallen nature (Romans 7:14-23). Original sin is the root, personal sin is the fruit.
(2.) Original sin brought spiritual and physical sickness and death to the human race (Romans 5:12).
(3.) Scripture shows us there can be a direct connection between personal sin and sickness. Recall the sin of David with Bathsheba which David refused for a time to acknowledge. In Psalm 32:3-4 David reveals the physical suffering he experienced while refusing to acknowledge his sin. After rebuke from the prophet Nathan, David confessed and repented. The story is in 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12, but Psalm 32 is David’s personal journal of that period of his life. (4.) Scripture shows there may be no relationship between personal sin and sickness. An example is provided by the account in John 9:2b-3 of Jesus’ response to His disciples when they asked who sinned to cause the blindness of a man they were just passing.
(5.) As we see in Scripture, it is not God’s will that everyone be healed. Paul had the gift of supernatural healing (see Acts 20:7-12; 28:7-9). Yet he left Trophimus sick in Miletus (2Timothy 4:20). Epaphroditus almost died while ministering to Paul (Philippians 2:25-27). Timothy, Paul’s spiritual son, had a stomach problem and frequent ailments (1Timothy 5:23). Paul asked God three times to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” but God said, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 2:9b).
Keeping these thoughts in mind, what does James say in the current passage? He says, are you in trouble? Then, pray! Are you happy? Then, sing songs of praise! The common denominator of prayer and praise is “glad acceptance of the will of God.” In praise, we say to God, your will is good, perfect, and acceptable; I rejoice in what you have done for me. In times of trouble, we try to pray as our Lord prayed in Gethsemane – “Not my will, but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). So in both prayer and praise we say – Thy will be done.
In addition to the “physical ministry of the deacons”, there is to be a continuing ministry to the sick in the local church. This ministry is vested in the elders, not in a specific “faith healer”. The sick person must desire this ministry and call the elders. There is a spiritual dimension of healing in addition to the physical healing of the body. “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven”. When the elders come at the invitation of the sick, they anoint with oil in the name of the Lord. Only God can heal. The ministry of the elders is to pray subject to God’s requirements that govern prayer. In particular, “Thy will be done.” Notice that the prayer of faith James mentions is the prayer of the Elders. The faith of the sick person is demonstrated in their calling the Elders.
James says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” This appears to refer to healing the spirit. There is to be no prying curiosity on the part of the listener. There is to be no confession by the sick without the determination to be healed. Confession means striving, with God’s help, to rid oneself of the sin confessed. Where the motives are right, this mutual ministry of praying friends is a powerful and gracious thing which God honors.
James illustrates the power of prayer through the example of Elijah. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” Elijah was a man of like nature to us, with frailties like our own. Yet, his prayer led to supernatural withholding of rain and later when he asked for relief, the rains came again. Such prayer from a faithful human agent brings a supernatural result.
James closes his letter expresses his concern that believers be concerned about the spiritual condition of other believers. The Christian church is to be a fellowship of mutual, loving concern. Each person is to act toward others as God in Christ has acted toward them. If someone is wandering from the truth, then out of care for the wanderer’s soul, we are to run and help.
James 5:19-20: Mutual Concern
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”