Last week, Pastor Tom preached about the danger of being a friend to the world. Friendship with the world is a close cousin to selfish desires. One is a chicken and the other an egg. James 4 tells us that one byproduct of our selfish desires and friendships with the fallen cosmos is conflict. In James 5, we see that another byproduct is suffering. We also see how Christians ought to respond to suffering.
Suffering is everywhere. It seems like a lot of recent news has been bad news. Just glancing through the front page of the New York Times’s website on my phone yesterday, I saw headlines about corrupt politicians, cyberattacks, coronavirus, vaccine shortages, oxygen shortages, a young girl killed by a police officer, Bill Gates’s divorce, Russian aggression against Ukraine, a bombing outside an Afghan school, the NCAA refusing to pay athletes, and a new national park in Mozambique. (I included that last one because it was the first piece of good news I saw. It was also the very last headline.)
As you read those headlines, you might notice that there are two kinds of suffering: One kind comes inevitably with living in a sin-soaked cosmos. The other is directly caused by a person’s sinfulness. James 5 deals especially with that second kind.
The passage we’ll be looking at this morning, James 5:11, has two distinct but related parts. That means that, this morning, I’ll be preaching one sermon with two parts. But as we move through the passage, pay attention to how the two sections are related. In one sentence, here is my summary of the passage and of my sermon:
Because our God is just and patient, the wicked should fear and the faithful should hope.
The first section of our passage is James 5:1-6:
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 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. 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. You have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.”
The first question we should ask after reading this passage is this: Who was James writing to? Who were the rich? Were they Christians or unbelievers?
There isn’t a consensus on the question, but I believe that James was speaking primarily to those outside the church in these verses. We know from James 1:9-11 that it is, in fact, possible to be rich and a Christian. But In James 2:5-7, there is a clear contrast between believers and the rich who had oppressed them. Because of the strength of language that James used in chapter 5, it seems more likely to me that he was writing to those outside the church.
Even though, in this section, James was speaking to wealthy non-believers, this letter as a whole was written to scattered believers, James’s brothers and sisters in Christ. Even when addressing those outside the church, James had an eye on Christians. Because it is possible to be rich and faithful, believers need to hear James’s warnings.
Three Dangers of Wealth
There are three dangers of wealth that James condemned and warned against in these verses. These are three dangers to which believers and non-believers alike are susceptible.
First, James condemned and warned against hoarding in verses 2 and 3: “Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 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.”
The imagery used by James is that of riches on a witness stand, testifying against their possessors. The wealth that has been collected by the rich bears testimony against them.
It may be surprising to see that hoarding is neither innocent nor victimless. Daniel Doriani, who has written a helpful commentary on the book of James, writes: “Hoarding is a culpable abuse of wealth.” It is culpable, or liable to condemnation and judgment, because it is impossible to exercise generosity while hoarding money or time. It is also culpable because hoarding tends to be obsessed with “what if” scenarios. Hoarding says, “I need a fully-stocked pantry in my basement as well as in my kitchen, just in case,” or, “I need a full year’s salary in savings or in the market, just in case.”
The language that James used to condemn hoarding is almost identical to the language used by Jesus in Matthew 6:19-21.
Second, James condemned and warned against oppression in verse 4: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you.”
This is probably less surprising than his condemnation of hoarding. The temptation here is to be so consumed with the pursuit of wealth that we treat others as means to our ends.
James’s condemnation of oppression is nothing new. God has always had strong words against oppression. The Old Testament prophets, and especially Amos, condemned those who “trampled the poor in the dust.” Amos 5:11-12 show us God’s concern for the poor and condemnation of those who oppression them.
Third, James condemned and warned against false hope in verse 5: “You have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.”
There is irony here in the picture of the rich fattening their own hearts for slaughter. They failed to realize that no wealth can delay or assuage the coming judgment. No amount of money or quantity of things can appease God’s wrath against our sin. In Luke 12:15-21, Jesus warned against the same false hope that riches can lure us into.
We’ve seen three dangers of wealth that James condemned and warned against. We could ask: What’s the big deal? Why did James use such harsh language in his warnings against these sins? An answer can be seen in verse 6. James wrote, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.” In this verse, we see that abuse of wealth is the opposite of the gospel.
We could ask, “Who is the righteous person that James mentions?” This is another question that there isn’t a clear consensus on. James could have been referring to a specific case that would have been well-known to his readers. He could have been referring to a general principle. He could also possibly have been referring to Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate righteous person and who did not resist those who condemned and murdered him.
The answer to the question, in the end, is not terribly important. What James was communicating remains the same: Those who abuse wealth essentially repeat the sins of those who condemned Christ.
The gospel stands in stark contrast to the three dangers of wealth that James warned against. According to the gospel, Jesus did not hoard his wealth but poured himself out in unthinkable generosity. Instead of oppressing those with less power, Jesus came as a humble servant who washed the feet of his followers. Instead of luring his disciples into false hope, Jesus gives eternal security to all who find refuge in his death and resurrection.
2 Corinthians 8:9 makes this contrast especially clear: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
A new section of the passage begins with verse 7. This section is organically related to the first but is distinct. As we read it, pay attention to the common threads that tie these two sections together.
“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. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 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.”
The shift that occurs in verse 7 has to do with James’s audience: he is now speaking to his beloved brothers and sisters.
Three Commands for Christians
In this section, James commanded Christians to demonstrate three responses to suffering.
First, James commanded Christians to be patient. “Be patient, therefore brothers. . . . You also, be patient” (5:7-8).
The command to be patient is passive: it waits. James made this passivity clear in his illustration of a farmer waiting for his crops to produce a harvest. (See verse 7.)
Second, James commanded his readers to establish their hearts (verse 8). This strengthening or establishing something is more active than patience. This is the same verb used by Luke when he wrote that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” If patience can be compared to a farmer, this command can be compared to soldier.
Third, James commanded his brothers to remain steadfast (verse 11). This could also be translated as, “persevere.” Instead of a farmer or solider, this is the determination of a marathon runner.
Life at the End
In James 5:1-11, James was painting a portrait, and maybe you’ve noticed that, running through this entire passage, is a very important background. Go back and read through all eleven verses, and try to see what I mean. Without this background, none of James’s warnings or commands carry the weight that they should. Here is what lies behind all of James’s words, and what we need to see in order to understand what he is writing:
These are the last days.
Throughout this passage, James used terms like, “last days,” “day of slaughter,” “Lord’s coming,” and “Judge at the door.” His assumption, and something we need to grasp as readers, was that the Lord is returning, and that his return could happen at any moment.
In the Old Testament, the prophets often warned about the day of the Lord—a day of justice/retribution. This day would be a day on which the Lord would come to earth and set everything right. The wicked would finally be punished and the righteous would finally be vindicated. (See Malachi 3:1-2.)
In the New Testament, we are told that the last days, or the end of the age, began with Christ. (See Matthew 24 and 25.)
This might surprise some people. With the global pandemic and everything else that’s been happening, I know that a lot of people have been asking the question, “What if these are the end times?”
They are. We are living in the last days, but they didn’t begin in March 2020. They began 2000 years ago when the Son of God came in the flesh to suffer for the sins of his people and to inaugurate a new and eternal kingdom. The church has been living in the last days, imperfectly but definitely, for 2000 years.
Additionally, James wanted his readers to understand that our God is the Lord of Hosts.
The phrase, “Lord of Hosts,” is only used twice in New Testament. The only other time is when Paul quoted Isaiah. This title for God emphasizes his power and judgment.
Here is how Thomas Manton, an old English Puritan, described the significance of the term: “Now the Lord is called the. . . Lord of hosts, because all his creatures are ranked in such an order, that they are always ready to serve and accomplish his will. The note is, that the Lord is a Lord of Hosts, commander in chief of all the creatures, angels, men, thunders, lightnings, storms, showers, lions, fevers, &c.”
Third, James wanted his readers to remember that our God is compassionate and merciful. The words he used here literally mean “many-boweled” and “full of visceral compassion.” This is the kind of gut-wrenching love that a father feels when he sees his baby in the hospital for the first time. This is the kind of love that would compel a parent to put their life at stake for the safety of their child. This is not at all a weak, sentimental kind of feeling. This compassion and mercy is vigorous and deeply felt. James was not describing a Precious Moments watercolor painted in pastels but a granite monument.
It is also significant that, when describing God, James reaches back into the Old Testament & the Gospels for his vocabulary.
Here is the main idea of this passage and of this sermon in one sentence: Because our God is just and patient, the wicked should fear and the faithful should hope.
Here are four quick applications for us today:
- Be steeped in the Old Testament and Gospels. James assumes that you’ve read the prophets and the book of Job. He is using language taken directly from the Gospels. If you really want to understand what he is saying, and to grasp the richness of his letter, you have to be familiar with these parts of the Bible.
- Rejoice in your humiliation (look back at James 1:10). This is essential for those who would be both wealthy and faithful. When you lose wealth through your own generosity or through circumstances outside of your control, rejoice. When you. Lose your wealth, in some small way you actually begin to resemble your Lord who made himself poor for your sake.
- Be patient without grumbling. Impatience in suffering often leads to complaint. James specifically warns his readers not to grumble against one another. How foolish for Christians to complain about their brothers and sisters in Christ because of suffering brought about by those outside the church!
- Last, Think often about the Lord’s return. The world will not stop shouting the bad news, and we need to hear the bad news sometimes. We need to have our eyes open to corruption and injustice. But over all of the talk about politics and pandemics and police, we ought to stretch the banner of this good news.
The Nicene Creed, one of Christianity’s oldest confessions of faith, ends with these words: “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
Are those things you really look for?
Another helpful confession of faith, the Westminster Confession, ends with these words. Take the time to read them and reflect on them this week: “God hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons, that have lived upon earth, shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.
“The end of God’s appointing this day, is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fulness of joy and refreshing which shall come from the presence of the Lord: but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.
“As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin, and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity: so will he have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.”