There are only two people prominent enough in the early church to simply call themselves “James.” The first would be the brother of John and the other was the Lord’s half-brother. The first James was martyred too early (AD 44) to have written this letter. It is commonly agreed that the author was Jesus’ half – brother. He wrote the letter to believers (Jewish Christians) who had to flee Jerusalem following the persecution that followed Stephen’s martyrdom. This is another reason why it is logical to assume that the author is Jesus’ half-brother (who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem).
THE CHRISTIAN AND TRIALS (Read James 1:1-12)
- THERE IS A REALITY WE MUST FACE
James is a realist and when he writes to believers about the trials of life he does not say if you face trials. Rather he says whenever you face trials of many kinds. As long as we remain in this world we will face pressures of many kinds (John 16:33; Acts 14:22). This is a given in the Christian life. In vrs 2 James speaks of facing _trials of many kinds. The Greek word for many kinds is poikilos which means many colours. When you drive through the Karoo after the first rains you will see flowers with thousands of colours. In the same way the nature of the trials we must face are of very different kinds. Any given day some trial awaits us. We should be prepared so that we do not needlessly cry out; “What is this? Why is this happening to me?”
- THERE IS A REASON WE MUST GRASP
God has a purpose in allowing trials to come our way. In vrs 3 we read because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete. This word tested in vrs 3 is an interesting word. It is dokimion and is a word that was used for assessing the purity of metal. In bible times if gold, silver or other precious metals were to be removed from ore a furnace with high temperatures was required. In 1 Peter 1:7 we read; so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. This is the perspective that Job cultivated in the midst of his trials. In Job 23:10 he said; but he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. In Isaiah 48:10 God could say of his people I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. The furnace of trials are used by God to remove all the impurities from our lives so that our faith might be all the brighter and glorious. Silversmiths in ancient times knew that the refining process was over and all the impurities gone when they could look into the furnace and see their reflection on the surface. So it is with us. Like a refiner, God takes considerable care in removing all the impurities from our lives. What is He waiting for? His desire is to ultimately see his own image in us and he will patiently sit at the furnace of our lives until His image reflects back at Him. As 2 Corinthians 3:18 says and we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. Our Lord’s desire according to vrs 4 is that we be mature and complete not lacking anything. The only pathway to that end is the furnace of trials. The missionary, Hudson Taylor was no stranger to trials. He buried his wife Maria and four of their children in Shanghai. He also buried his second wife, Jennie. When he spoke about trials he did not speak as an ivory tower theologian. He had lived in the crucible and had been refined by its purifying fire. This is what he said; “trials afford God a platform for his working in our lives. Without them I would never know how kind, how powerful, how gracious he is” He could discern God’s loving purpose in the trials of life. This is what James wants us to grasp.
- THERE IS A RESPONSE WE MUST CULTIVATE
In vrs 2 James teaches us to consider it pure joy my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds. James is not advocating a spiritual form of masochism. “O goody I am sick. Give me more. I am in financial straits. Give me more.” The Christian is not a psychological oddity. We do according to Peter experience grief in trials (1 Peter 1:6) and this would be foolish to deny. Why can we be joyful in trials? As Hebrews 12:11 says no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. How then can we consider it pure joy . The opening words of vrs 3 supply us with the answer. It is because we know something to be true. We have grasped the reason for trials. Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its course so that you may be mature and complete. We can respond to trials with joy if we have grasped God’s reason for allowing them in our lives in the first place. The apostle Paul says the same thing in Romans 5:3, 4 we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character and character hope. To cultivate this mind-set requires wisdom. This is why in vrs 5 James says; if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. Warren Wiersbe tells the story of a church member who was going through trials. She had suffered a stroke, her husband had gone blind and then he had to be taken to hospital where they were sure he would die. Wiersbe saw this lady one day at church and assured her that he was praying for her. “What are you asking God to do?” she replied. “I’m asking God to help you and strengthen you” came the rather cliched reply. “I appreciate that”, she said, “but pray about one more thing. Pray that I will have the wisdom not to waste all of this.” In vrs 9-12 James supplies a practical test to illustrate how heavenly wisdom can be brought to bear on the trial of wealth and poverty. The wealthy are cautioned against confidence in wealth and the poor are encouraged to prize the riches of being called a child of God. How can you apply heavenly wisdom to your trials?
When we come to James 1:13 we could be forgiven for thinking that James is changing subjects. He has finished talking about trials. Now he wants to speak about temptations. I want you to know that this is not the case.
THE SOURCE AND COURSE OF TEMPTATION (James 1:13-18)
You see the Greek word translated “trials” in vrs 2 is exactly the same word that is found in vrs 13. But now it is translated temptation in the NIV. When you stop to think about it temptations and trials are inseparably linked. All trials have in them an element of temptation and all temptations have in them an element of trial. Every difficult circumstance that enters a believer’s life can either strengthen him if he obeys God or become an opportunity to evil if the believer chooses to doubt God. Here is a person at work. They are having a difficult time with their boss. They feel that their efforts are not appreciated. They are undergoing a trial. How do they respond to that trial? Well the sinful nature immediately protests. “If my boss does not appreciate the work I do I will not go the extra mile. My work will be the bare minimum. And I will let everyone know what I think of my boss.” However this person could remind themselves of God’s word; whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men. Therefore they will work just as well as before. They also realise that the scriptures forbid dissension and so they restrain their tongues. This path leads to maturity in Christ and fullness of life. Can you see that every trial is a temptation and every temptation contains an element of trial? In testing us, God is aiming at our development. In tempting us Satan is aiming at our ultimate disgrace.
- THE SOURCE OF TEMPTATION (Vrs 13,14)
In vrs 13 we read; When tempted no one should say, God is tempting me. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. Since God is absolutely holy he cannot be tempted and since he is absolutely good He will not deliberately entice us or trip us up. If God is not to blame for our temptations who is? The next place we look is other people. In Genesis 3 Adam blamed Eve for his predicament and Eve blamed the serpent. There is no doubt that Satan and his demons contribute very powerfully to temptation but James does not say anything about this. He puts the responsibility where it ultimately resides. In vrs 14 he says; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desires, he is dragged away and enticed. No power on earth, Satan included, can make you want to be wicked. You have to want it for yourself. Our own sinful hearts that have been corrupted by the fall. As Jeremiah 17:9 says; the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. At the end of the day we succumb to temptation and sin because we want to.
THE COURSE OF TEMPTATION (Vrs 14, 15)
This is outlined for us in vrs 14, 15. The Greek word for dragged away in vrs 14 is a hunting term. It was used of the process used to lure a wild animal out of its place of safety into the open where it could be captured or shot. The Greek word for enticed is a fishing term and was used to describe a fish that was attracted to some bait, changing its course, closing its mouth on the juicy bait only to find itself dangling from the concealed hook. There are at least four stages in the course that temptation takes. The first stage is when the bait is dropped. Trout fishermen have a number of flies in his box. Each of them is attractive and designed to lure trout to take a bite. The really good fly fishers know which fly to use. Now I want to suggest to you this morning that the devil is a master fisherman. We have already seen that we are ultimately responsible for succumbing to temptation. We sin because we want to but the enemy of our souls knows our particular weakness and he knows what bait to drop before us. Some of us are vulnerable with our attitude to money, others are weak in the sexual area, or likely to twist the truth to get us out of a tight spot, or have a problem with pride. Satan is a fisherman who knows his fish and the flies he dangles before us are calculated to appeal to our evil desires. And he is always at it. As some of the old preachers used to say; “even on the brink of Jordan I find Satan nibbling at my heels.” The second stage in the course of temptation is found in vrs 14. Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Our inner desire is attracted to the bait that is offered. Our evil desires are aroused and we want to sin. We are dragged out from our place of security and we start to swim around the bait getting closer and closer. There is one name for those who linger to try and reason with temptation: VICTIM!! The third stage in the course of temptation is found in vrs 15; then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin. We sin when having flirted with the bait long enough we move in and take a bite. It is at this point that the will joins the desire in yielding to the temptation. Temptation gives way to actual sin. The fourth stage in this course that temptation takes is – death. Sin results in tragic consequences. We end up dangling from a hook and in the frying pan. Then after desire has conceived it gives birth to sin and sin when it is full grown gives birth to death. Once the process is set in motion, it takes over. If we entertain those desires which conceive sin, we have admitted death and disintegration into our experience. We have seen that there are four steps in this process. At which step are we to intervening action. There is not much we can do about step 1. Martin Luther once said; “you can’t stop the birds flying over your head, but you can stop them nesting in your hair.” Our intervention must come at step 2. In 1 Timothy 6:10, 11 Paul gives his young lieutenant Timothy the following counsel. Some people eager for money, have wondered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all of this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.
At the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II she was presented with a bible and the person who gave it to her said; “this is the most precious thing that this world affords.” True! But for many Christians the bible remains a closed book.
THE CHRISTIAN AND THE WORD OF GOD (James 1:19-25)
The puritan preacher William Gurnall once said; “the Christian is bred by the word and he must be fed by the word.” It is by God’s Word that the Christian life begins. This is the consistent testimony of Scripture. In James 1:18 we read. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. The same truth is taught in 1 Peter 1:23. The Word of God also has a vital role to play in our ongoing growth.
- THE NEED TO RECEIVE GOD’S WORD
In vrs 21 we are instructed to humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. If a child of God is to grow to maturity in Christ he or she will need a regular intake of God’s Word. In 1 Peter 2:2 we are reminded; like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk. so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. Any new parent will know the strain of sleep deprivation. It is not long before you are wakened by the shrill cry from the cot. Not great fun! And yet – viewed from another perspective that cry is healthy. It tells you that the child is growing and hopefully once it’s tummy is filled after a feed it will go back to sleep again. Peter says that it is the same with the Word of God. One of my clearest memories of my son, Daniel as a toddler is of a time when I went to answer the telephone and in my absence he got hold of one of my bible’s and started to shred the pages and stuff them into his mouth. When I returned naturally I was horrified. Immediately I thought of Jeremiah 15:16 when your words came, I ate them: they were my joy and my heart’s delight. Job tells us in 23:12; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. If you go for a day without food you experience pains in your stomach. Job says it should be the same with our spiritual food. If we go for any length of time without spiritual nourishment our spirits should start to growl. This is what James is saying in vrs 21. He compares the Word to seed and our hearts to soil. Any gardener knows that soil needs to be prepared before seed is planted. It is the same with the believer and the seed of God’s word. How can we prepare the soil of our hearts so that the implanted word germinates, grows and become fruitful? Well there are a lot of weeds that need to be removed. We are to get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent. The Greek word for moral filth was used in the ancient Greek world as a medical term for “wax in the ears.” Sin in the life of the child of God is like wax that deafens him\her to the teaching of the Word of God. Peter says the same thing in 1 Peter 2 therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation. Sin clogs up our spiritual ears to God’s voice. Having cleared away the spiritual weeds from the soil in our hearts we could do with some fertilizer to stimulate the growth of the implanted seed. The fertilizer which James identifies is humility. You may have heard the oft quoted cliché. God’s word says it, I believe it, that settles it. This is not quite true. It should read like this. God’s word says it and that settles it regardless of whether I like it or not. That is humility.
- THE NEED TO OBEY GOD’S WORD (vrs 22-25)
James compares a man with a mirror to a believer with the word of God. Here is this man who has just woken up and looked at his face in the mirror and then he goes away and immediately forgets what he has just seen. He forgets that his hair was standing out at a ridiculous angle. He forgets that there was this huge blob of shaving foam on his neck. He forgets to run a flannel over his dirty face and cannot understand the strange stares that he receives at work. We can do the same with the bible. We come to it in a hurry. Then we bow our heads for a brief prayer and then it’s off into the busyness of another day without one more thought given to the passage that we have just read. According to vrs 22 a person who reads the bible but fails to obey it is deceived. In vrs 25,26 we are pointed to a better way. Firstly, we are told the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues to do this . . . will be blessed in what he does. The Greek word translated intently is used in 1 Peter 1:12 to speak about the attitude that the angels display in reflecting upon our salvation. They long to look into these things. The second thing that ought to characterise our approach to God’s word is obedience. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law and continues to do this not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does. Notice that we are not said to be blessed in proportion to the amount of bible knowledge that we accumulate. We are blessed to the degree that that we live in obedience to that which we are reading. It is no coincidence that in these verses our Lord likens the Word to a mirror. The bible is a spiritual mirror in which we see ourselves as we really are and the Lord as He really is. As we expose ourselves to the mirror of the Word we see not only the beauty of our Lord and of the salvation he provides but our own personal shortcomings. But it is what we do next that matters. When our consciences are moved by a sermon, or by our daily reading of Scripture we should commit ourselves to doing something about it and then we will be blessed. The problem with many of us Christians is that the Word of God merely arouses our curiosity but it does not change our lives.
TRUE AND FALSE RELIGION (James 1:26, 27)
Most people, Christian and non-Christian are uncomfortable with this word religion. For some people the word religion conjures up images of priests in ecclesiastical robes, and bells and smells. Some Christians who have got this kind of dead formality in mind seem overly anxious to let it be known; “I am not religious.” But according to James there is such a thing as pure religion and it is nothing less than the way that God wants you to live. What does true godliness look like.
- A CONTROLLED TONGUE
The first mark of a Christian is a controlled tongue. In vrs 26 James could not be more blunt; if anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. The words that we speak and the manner in which speak them give others a clear pointer as to the true state of our hearts. Jesus himself said so in Matthew 12:24; for out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil out of the evil stored up in him. Think of the many ways we can major in corrupt speech. Gossip (Proverbs 18:8), flattery (Proverbs 29:5), argumentativeness (Proverbs 17:14), lying (Proverbs 26:28) and slander (Ephesians 4:31). A failure to control our tongues reveals a lack of grace in our hearts. In James 3 we will have a more comprehensive look at the way in which we use our tongues. In Proverbs 18:21 Solomon says; the tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. A tongue controlled by the speaker is indicative of a heart controlled by the Saviour. It is as serious as that.
- A CARING MINISTRY
In vrs 27 we read; religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the orphans and widows in their distress. Of course in doing this we are really mimicking God Himself. In Psalm 68:5 our heavenly Father is described as a Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows. In Micah 6:8 we are told he has showed you, O man what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Mercy was a quality that was in short supply in the Roman empire. They gloried in justice, courage, discipline and power. They looked down on mercy. It was not uncommon to take children and expose them outside the city gates. We have a record of a second century letter from a man called Aristides to the Emperor Hadrian. He describes his fellow Christians as follows; “They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they give freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother.” They exercised caring ministries. They practiced what James would call religion that is pure and faultless.
- A CONSECRATED LIFE
Notice what James says in vrs 27; religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this . . . to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. Holiness of life is one of the distinguishing marks of the Christian. In 1 Peter 1:15 we are given the reason for our need to pursue holiness. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy. In Colossians 3:1, 2 we are exhorted to set our hearts and our minds on things above, where Christ is seated. If we are serious about this Paul says in vrs 5 that we will crucify whatever belongs to our old sinful natures. JC Ryle once wrote an excellent article entitled; Suppose an unholy person were to go to heaven. He argues as follows. “Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment would you feel there? If in this life we prefer the company of the worldly minded and the ungodly, we will have a problem in heaven. Because there are no such people there. If we find the company of Christians on earth to be boring and too serious, again you will have a problem. There is no other company in heaven. If you find the Lord’s day to be a burden and merely to be endured, you have a problem. Heaven is a never ending Sabbath which you would not possibly enjoy. Then Ryle says this; “heaven will be a miserable place to an unholy person.” Do you see now why Hebrews 12:14 says without holiness no man shall see the Lord. We need to cultivate an appetite for heaven here. The puritan Preacher William Gurnall once said; “Say not that thou hast royal blood in thy veins, and art born of God, except thou canst prove thy pedigree by daring to be holy.”
THE DANGER OF FAVOURITISM (James 2:1-9)
In this passage James pictures a church meeting. Two strangers arrive. One is clearly wealthy. He is dressed in fine clothes and has gold rings. The Greek word means gold fingered. He had a gem on every joint in his hand! The other man was just as plainly poor. His clothes were shabby. Now the attitude of the door stewards was shameful. Their eyes lit up when they saw the rich man and they carefully escorted him to a prominent seat. They treated him like royalty. The poor man was seen as an embarrassment. He was told; sit on the floor by my feet. The Greek word for favouritism literally means to receive the face. There are three reasons why their display of favouritism was wrong.
- IT IS OPPOSED TO THE EXAMPLE OF CHRIST
In vrs 1 we read as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favouritism. Why does James emphasise Christ’s glory? Christ’s deity did not distance himself from men. In Philippians 2:6, 7 we are told that Jesus; who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. Christ chose to live among men without favouritism. He was totally unaffected by a man’s financial resources or social standing. He identified freely with the least and the worst. In Luke 20:21 we see that even Jesus’ critics had to admit; teacher we know that you do not show partiality (also see Matthew 22:16). When we discriminate people based on race, social standing or educational qualifications we fail to walk in Jesus’s footsteps. The puritan preacher Thomas Manton once said; “He that prizeth the person of Christ, prizeth all his relatives.”
- IT IS OPPOSED TO THE ATTITUDE OF GOD
In vrs 5 we read; listen, my dear brothers: has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. In vrs 6 he says is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? Of course James is not expressing an absolute law here. It is not only the rich who persecute believers and blaspheme the name of Jesus. The Lord does not only choose the poor. Later in this letter he will refer to two men in the OT, Abraham and Job, both of whom were exceedingly wealthy and both were called by God. But the statement in vrs 5 is generally true. In Acts 10 Peter’s vision of a sheet lowered from heaven containing all kinds of unclean animals is interpreted, I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. If God does not show favouritism then we should refrain from it ourselves.
- IT IS OPPOSED TO THE ROYAL LAW
What is the “royal law.” In vrs 8 James unravels it; love your neighbour as yourself. Why is this the royal law? Because Jesus said so. In Matthew 22:34 we are told that on one occasion a Pharisee asked Jesus a question; Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it; love your neighbour as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. In other words Jesus likens the entire Law to two coat hangers from which the rest dangle. The first hanger deals with our relationship to God (the first four commandments). The second hanger deals with our relationship to one another (the last six commandments). When James identifies the command “love your neighbour as yourself” as the royal law he does so because it perfectly summarises the way that God wants us to behave towards our fellow man. If you really keep the royal law . . . you are doing right. But the situation that James has painted for us in the opening verses is a striking example of not obeying the royal law because people were making distinctions between rich and poor people. They were picking and choosing those whom they would favour. Whenever we do this we are guilty of breaking the royal law. What does the royal law “love your neighbour as yourself” look like in practice. In Leviticus 19:15 we read do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly. Biblical love demands that we treat people the same regardless of who they are or what they have or to which social grouping they belong to.
FAITH THAT WORKS (JAMES 2:14-26)
In our passage this morning James distinguishes between a faith that is living and a faith that is dead. It is very important as we read these verses that we understand that James is not contradicting the apostle Paul. Paul consistently taught that we are justified by faith alone. James is not saying we are justified by faith and works. The mathematics of religious legalists is; Faith + Works = Salvation. James is simply saying Faith = Salvation + Works. The legalist sees works as the root of our salvation whereas James says that works are simply the fruit of salvation. Our reading this morning shows that a faith that is living will prove itself in a Godward as well as man-ward direction.
- DEAD FAITH (Vrs 14-19)
First of all in vrs 14-19 we are told that dead faith is ineffectual in both a Godward and man-ward direction. Firstly, dead faith is ineffectual in a man-ward direction. It has no compassion for others. This is the clear thrust of vrs 15-17. Here is someone who claims to be a believer. They visit a fellow believer who is in dire straits who has no food for their bellies and no clothes for their backs. What do they do about it? Although they see the need they do nothing. All they offer are pious words; go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed. Pious words will not keep a needy person’s back warm or satisfy their growling tummies. As vrs 17 says faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. James is not saying that a person with good deeds is saved. He is saying that the person without them is not saved, no matter how loudly they protest. Secondly, according to vrs 18-20 faith that is dead is ineffectual in a Godward direction. It has no communion with God. In vrs 19 James addresses an imaginary person; you believe that there is one God. This was the basic article of the Jewish faith, the Shema. It is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:4 Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Every Jew could recite this. In vrs 19 James says; good! even the demons believe that – and shudder. Even demons believe the Shema. This is a startling statement but it has a great deal of biblical warrant (Mark 1:24; 3:11). There are no atheists in hell. Even demons believe but that “faith” does nothing for them except lead them to hate God and His people. If James were writing to us today, he could say; “You can quote the Apostle’s Creed. Good! But even the demons believe that. Such faith does not lead them to love and serve God.” In vrs 18 James introduces us to a foolish conversation. But someone will say, you have faith; I have deeds. “You might be concerned about doctrinal truth, but I don’t mind what a person believes. I am a practical person. Surely we are both right.” NO! James says they are both wrong. “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” John Blanchard uses the following helpful illustration. Imagine two people arguing over faith and works as they were being rowed across a river. The oarsmen who was a Christian asked if he could join the conversation. Given permission, he said; “let us assume that one of these oars is faith and the other one is deeds.” We will take out the deeds oar and just use the faith oar.” The boat went around in circles. After a while the man said; “Perhaps we have got the wrong oar. Let us take the faith oar in and put the deeds oar out.” The result of course was the same. They still went around in circles. Finally, he put both oars in together and the boat made straight for the shore. Biblical Christianity has precisely this kind of balance. Only the person with faith and deeds working in perfect harmony is heading in the right direction.
- LIVING FAITH (Vrs 20-26)
Dead faith is ineffectual in both a man-ward and Godward direction. It has no compassion for others and does not lead to real communion with God. Living faith on the other hand is altogether different. Firstly, it is effectual in a Godward direction because it does lead to real communion with God. To illustrate his point James directs us to Abraham and Rahab. Thirty years before the incident at Mount Moriah we are told that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” His faith oar was already in the water. Now in advanced old age God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This must have devastated him. Nevertheless, his trust in God was such that he obeyed. Is it any surprise then that according to vrs 23 God called Abraham his friend? Living faith is effectual in a Godward direction. But secondly, living faith is effectual in a man-ward direction. Some people might object to James’ first choice of Abraham as being unfair. “After all he was a great patriarch. We expect such faith from him.” James goes to the bottom of the social barrel and choses a prostitute to prove the same point. The spies Joshua had sent to survey Jericho were trapped in the city. Rahab at great personal risk hid them amidst the flax in her roof. In Joshua 2 it is clear that she had already come to faith in the God of Israel. She told the spies; “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” Her faith oar was already in the water. Her actions in assisting the Israelite spies proved that her faith was genuine. In vrs 15 people with dead faith have no compassion for those around. All they offer is pious words. Rahab however when confronted with human need does not offer mere words. Her faith was practical and at considerable risk she hid the spies and helped them avoid capture. when the coast was clear she sent them in the opposite direction to the soldiers. In Galatians 5:6 Paul says; “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Over the centuries Christians have consistently demonstrated their grasp of this truth by being at the forefront of social reform movements.
A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH (JAMES 3:1-12)
The phrase “weapons of mass destruction” has become a common saying. The scriptures teach us that we all have a weapon of mass destruction. Our tongues! In Proverbs 18:21 we read; the tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. In Proverbs 6 Solomon gives us a list of seven things that the Lord hates. Three of these are connected with the tongue. In vrs 2 of our text James confidently assures us; if anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. Such a person does not exist. James can confidently assert in vrs 7; all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can control the tongue. The puritan preacher Thomas Manton was surely right when he said; “Most of a man’s sins are in his words.”
- THE TONGUE IS CAPABLE OF TERRIBLE INJURY
The tongue has the power of death. In vrs 5 we read; consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. Runaway fires can wreak havoc before being brought under control. In vrs 6 our tongues are likened to a runaway fire. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. There is only one thing worse than a runaway fire and that is a runaway fire that is driven by powerful winds. In vrs 6 we are introduced to our arch enemy who works the bellows in hell to inflame the destructive potential of our tongues. Think of some sparks which Satan can fan into furious falem.
i) Gossip. In Proverbs 26:22 Solomon says that the words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.
ii) Flattery. In Proverbs 29:5 we read; whoever flatters his neighbour is spreading a net for his feet. What is the difference between gossip and flattery? Gossip is saying something behind someone’s back that you would not say to their face whereas flattery is saying something to someone’s face that you would not say behind their back. Flattery is false praise. It is either not deserved by the recipient or not really meant by the speaker.
iii) Quarrels. In Proverbs 17:14 Solomon says; starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.
iv) Lying. In Proverbs 26:28 Solomon says; a lying tongue hates those it hurts.
There are other sparks, reckless words (Prov 12:18); slander (Prov 10:18) and subtle innuendo. All are destructive.
- THE TONGUE IS CAPABLE OF TREMENDOUS INFLUENCE
In vrs 3, 4 two pictures are used to describe the influence of the tongue. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. The tongue is a small part of the body. It can be used destructively but when controlled by the speaker it has the potential for great influence. The tongues of Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill are good examples of this. On one side of the English Channel a megalomaniac whipped up an entire nation into a frenzy of hate. I am told that for every word in Hitler’s book Mein Kampf 125 lives were lost. The tongue has the power of death. But the tongue also has the power of life. On the other side of the channel Churchill rallied the spirits of a nation to what was their “finest hour.”
i) What finer use could be found for our tongues than to sing God’s praise. As vrs 9, 10 of our text tells us, the tongue can be used to praise our Lord and Saviour.
ii) Our tongues can also be used to share the gospel and turn people from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to the kingdom of God. We would do well to make Paul’s prayer in Colossians 4:3, 6 our own and pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains . . . Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
iii) We need to learn to speak less. In Proverbs 10:19 we are told when words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. Later in Proverbs 17:27 Solomon assures us a man of knowledge uses words with restraint.
iv) We need to learn to master the art of gentle words. In Proverbs 15:1 and 25:15 we learn that soft words turns away wrath and can break a bone (a hard heart).
v) Carefully craft your words. In Proverbs 25:11 we are told a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
In vrs 12 James concludes his discussion on the tongue by pointing to creation in vrs 12. Fig trees don’t bear olives and grapevines do not bear figs. Salt water and fresh water cannot flow from the same spring. In the same way a tongue that is not increasingly coming under the control of the speaker is indicative of a heart that is not controlled by the Saviour.
TWO KINDS OF WISDOM (James 3:13-18)
When pastors gather, we often speak about some of the books that have been of particular blessing to us. We jokingly say; “whatever it takes. Sell your house, sell your car, sell the shirt of your back but get this book.” Well in Proverbs 4:7 Solomon has something of the same idea in mind when he says; “wisdom is supreme; therefore, get wisdom.” In Proverbs 3:14 he says; “she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her” We think of wisdom in purely intellectual terms. But biblically speaking a person can be extremely clever and be a fool. Conversely a person can be intellectually dull intellectually and yet be wise. The true test of wisdom is works and not words. This is what James teaches us in vrs 13; “who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life and by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
- DEVILISH WISDOM
The first kind of wisdom that is outlined for us in vrs 15 is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. It is devilish wisdom. In John 8 Jesus had an altercation with the Pharisees. They very proudly said, Abraham is our father. Jesus saw that they were jealous of his growing popularity. This is characteristic of devilish wisdom and Jesus said you belong to your father, the devil. Police called to a crime scene will look for fingerprints. The fingerprints of devilish wisdom are found in vrs 14. But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts. We have to ask ourselves – do we harbour bitter feelings towards others? Do we possess a resentful spirit? If so, James exhorts us at the end of vrs 14 do not boast about it or deny the truth. What are the consequences of devilish wisdom? The answer is found in vrs 16; for where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. One of the words that came out of WWII was SNAFU (situation normal all fouled up). I am told that the Pentagon have scrapped that word for another – FUBB (fouled up beyond belief). Wherever you see evidence of devilish wisdom you will see a set of circumstances that are fouled up beyond belief.
- HEAVENLY WISDOM
In vrs 17 James goes on to describe heavenly wisdom. What are its fingerprints? The wisdom that comes down from heaven is described in eight words.
i) Pure. Remember the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount; blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.
ii) Peace Loving. Jesus commends such people as well in the Sermon on the Mount; blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God. Wisdom is peaceable. It never unnecessarily starts quarrels or strife.
iii) Considerate or gentle.
iv) Submissive or open to reason. It is a most annoying thing to find someone who is so obstinately entrenched in their own opinion that they refuse to listen to an alternative view.
v) Full of mercy and good fruits. A Christian is someone who is acutely aware of the depths of mercy that God has showered on them. It follows quite naturally that we are eager to display similar mercy to others.
vi) Impartial. In highlighting this quality, James is underlining an earlier point (2:1) that Christians should not show favouritism.
vii) Sincere. The Greek really means without hypocrisy. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, used to tell the story of how he sent a telegram to each of twelve friends, all mean of apparent virtue and position in society. The message read; “fly at once, all is discovered.” Within twenty-four hours, all twelve had left the country. Many people, Christians included are not what they seem to be. The results of devilish wisdom are disorder and every evil practice. Heavenly wisdom according to vrs 18 leads to better results. Peacemakers who sow in peace will raise a harvest of righteousness. James likens our actions to seed which when they fall into the ground are not lost. They grow up again and we may eat the fruits thereof in time to come. If we want a pleasant harvest, we must ensure that we sow good seed. Those who sow the qualities of vrs 17 will harvest righteousness – an increasing likeness to our Lord.
HOW NOT TO BE A TWO-FACED CHRISTIAN (James 4:4-10)
From time to time we will refer to someone as “two faced.” What do we mean by this? We mean that the person in mind acts in a certain way when around one set of people and then acts in an entirely different way when in the company of a different group of people. According to our passage it is possible to be two faced with God. In vrs 8 we see that James is addressing double minded people. The Greek word that is used here literally means “having two souls.” They find themselves constantly torn in their affections between God and the world. In John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progress he calls the character with this problem, Mr facing both ways. That is what they are. They are two faced, two souled. One foot in God’s kingdom but the other firmly entrenched in the world. They are spiritual chameleons who take on the colour of their environment. It is bad enough being two faced with people but as we shall see it is downright dangerous to be so with God. The biblical word for a two-faced person is “worldly.”
- THERE IS A PERIL THAT WE MUST AVOID (vrs 4, 5)
In vrs 4 we are told, friendship with the world is hatred towards God. Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. What is friendship with the world? In 1 John 2 we are given a perfect description. Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world, the cravings of sinful man, the lust of the eyes and the boasting of what he has and does comes not from the Father but from the world. Of course, the author of pleasure is God, not the devil. In 1 Timothy 6:18 we are told that He richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. What the devil does is to skilfully pervert that which God created. As CS Lewis so correctly observes in his book The Screwtape Letters, which is a series of letters written by a senior devil to a junior devil. He writes, “never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same it is his invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees which he has forbidden.” This has application to food, humour, money, sex and leisure pursuits. When we run the gauntlet of worldliness, we become enemies of God. James calls it spiritual adultery. In vrs 5 we read; or do you think Scripture says without reason that the Spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely. If we choose to worship at the various shrines of the world we will justifiably arouse his jealous anger. He will move to avenge the broken relationship. That is why worldliness is so perilous for the believer.
- THERE IS A PRESCRIPTION THAT WE MUST FOLLOW (vrs 7-10)
This is outlined in vrs 7-10. At first glance this seems to be a rather random selection of unconnected thoughts. Nothing could be further from the truth. They give us God’s prescription against worldliness. Firstly, in vrs 7, 8 we are to resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. There are two views which we as Christians ought to covet more than any other; one is the devil’s back and the other is God’s face. James promises us that we can enjoy both. We were born a child of the devil and an enemy of God. At conversion we became children of God and enemies of the devil. Secondly, we must commit ourselves to personal holiness. In vrs 8 James instructs us, wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you who are double minded. In Psalm 24, David poses the question; “who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” John Wesley used to say; “give me a hundred men who fear nothing but God and sin and I will turn England upside down.” As Christians we do not want to flirt with the world and arouse the jealous anger of our Lord. How can we run the gauntlet of a hostile world without becoming overly friendly with it? In vrs 6 we are reminded “but he gives us more grace.” He gives us the grace to draw near to Him and to commit ourselves to personal holiness. There is a story about an artist who submitted a painting of the Niagara falls to an exhibition but forgot to give it a title. The organisers chose three words; “More to follow.” Those surging waters have poured down for thousands of years and have been harnessed to bring power and light to multitudes. There is always more to follow. So it is with the grace of God. Millions of people have drawn from it over the centuries but there is still more to follow. Ask Him for grace to draw near to Him and resist the devil. Ask Him to aid you as you pursue holiness of life.
DEO VOLENTE (James 4:13-17)
A Time magazine a few years ago suggested that if wars are fought today over oil we will be waging war over water in the not too distant future. Scripture speaks of another precious resource which we often squander and abuse. Time. Someone once placed an advert which read as follows; “Lost, yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward offered, for they are gone forever.” In this passage James speaks about two ways of planning for the future. Two approaches to time.
- THE ATTITUDE OF THE GODLESS
James has a businessman in mind. The first century was a period of great commercial activity. But notice the arrogant speech of these businessmen. A literal translation of the Greek text would be as follows. “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, we will spend a year there, we will carry on business and we will make money.” We will, we will, we will. After exploring possible business opportunities, they had the plan, the place, the period, the programme and the purpose all worked out. The idea that their lives may be cut short before the end of the year, or that there might be an economic recession or that some other factor might upset the apple cart never entered their heads. Their attitude was one of boastful arrogance. What was their fundamental law? Did their sin lie in forward planning? No! Elsewhere in the scriptures such forethought is commended. In Proverbs 6 for instance God commends the ant, for storing its provisions in the summer that will see it through the lean winter months. Did their error lie in wanting to make a profit? No businessman in his right mind works to make a loss. In Proverbs 10:4 we are told; “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.” These businessmen’s error was not that forward planning or financial gain had too big a place in their lives but that God had no place at all. One phrase could sum up their existence – life with God left out. Thomas a’ Kempis once said; “Man proposes, but God disposes.” What did he mean? Proverbs 19:21 explains; “many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” We can plan but ultimately God’s purpose prevails. Therefore, we should plan but we must plan prayerfully. The rich fool in Luke 12:13-21 made the same mistake. It is said that when Napoleon Bonaparte was considering invading Russia, a friend tried to dissuade him by quoting a’ Kempis’ words “Man proposes but God disposes.” Napoleon’s arrogant reply was, “I dispose as well as propose.” The Russian campaign marked the beginning of Napoleon’s downfall. Man proposes but God disposes. In Proverbs 27:1 this is what Solomon has to say; “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”
- THE ATTITUDE OF THE GODLY
In vrs 14 James continues, why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, if it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that. In these verses we can see two basic godly perspectives with respect to time and the future. Firstly, the godly person acknowledges the brevity of life. What is your life? You are like a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. The scriptures make use of a number of pictures to drive home the point that life is short. A shadow (1 Chronicles 29:15), a breath (Job 7:7) and smoke (Psalm 102:3). They all testify to the shortness of life. The godly person recognizes this and is determined to invest as much as he possibly can for eternity into each day. Secondly, the godly person acknowledges the providential control of God. We have already noticed the boastful arrogance of the imaginary businessmen in vrs 13. We will do this, and we will do that. The godly person acknowledges that God is in ultimate control. If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that. This is how Jesus taught us to pray in Matthew 6:10 and he practiced what he preached in the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:39. My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will. The apostle Paul told the church at Ephesus in Acts 18:21 I will come back if it is God’s will. He demonstrated the same submission in his prayers (1 Corinthians 4:19, but I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing; Romans 1:10, I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you). Paul realised he had to preface his plans with DV (Deo Volente, God willing). We dare not make any plans in any other spirit.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY (James 5:1-6)
In these verses James addresses rich landowners. He accuses them of three things but of course his accusations apply equally well to all of us.
- ACCUSES THEM OF HOARDING (vrs 1-3)
Someone once asked the American billionaire, Rockerfeller; “how many millions does it take to satisfy a man?” His reply was – “the next one.” This accurately reflects the person that James has in mind. Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. James is pointing us to the foolishness of hoarding. What is the point of stockpiling corn and grain only for it to rot in the barns? What is the point of accumulating precious garments if the only creatures to benefit from them are moths? Of what value will a heap of rusty metal be to us on the day of judgment? James supplies us with a chilling prospect that on the day of judgment whatever wealth we have hoarded will fill the dual role of our accuser and executioner. What makes hoarding all the more serious is that it was taking place in the “last days” (the entire period between Christ’s first and second coming Acts 2:17; Hebrews 1:1). Money that should be released for the extension of his kingdom was being stockpiled. In 1 Timothy 6:18, 19 the rich are commanded; “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age.”
- ACCUSES THEM OF EXPLOITATION (vrs 4)
“Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” These workers were living a hand to mouth existence. A day without wages meant a day without food. But what makes the crime of these landowners doubly horrendous is that they were doing this at harvest time when their barns were full and their winepresses overflowing. In Deuteronomy 24:14, 15 the Lord laid down clear guidelines for the payment of wages. Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy . . . pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. These landowners were disregarding the law. God’s word says that the cries of the workers will reach His ears and He will plunder those who plunder the poor (Proverbs 22:23).
- ACCUSES THEM OF SELF-INDULGENCE (vrs 5)
In vrs 5 he says; “you have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourself in the day of slaughter.” What is the difference between a hoarder and a self-indulgent person? A hoarder saves everything he can for a rainy day. The self-indulgent person spends his hard-earned cash but spends it upon himself. There is a story that Jesus told which highlights the dangers of self-indulgence. In vrs 6 of our text James says that the self-indulgent person is merely fattening himself for the day of slaughter. This is a very descriptive phrase. When farmers want to sell a beast for slaughter they will first fatten them up by placing them in rich pastures. There they eat and grow fatter by the hour oblivious to the fact that each hour brings the butchers knife closer. A well-fed beast makes itself fat for the knife. Only thin beasts will be spared. James sees the self-indulgent rich as living for this life only and forgetting that a day of slaughter is fast approaching.
LIVE LOOKING UP!! (James 5:7-12)
The Christian social reformer of the 19th century, the Earl of Shaftesbury embossed all his envelopes with the Greek text of Revelation 22:20 Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. He would frequently say; “Why do we not plead for it every time we hear the clock strike. He lived each day looking up. The puritan preacher John Trapp used to say; “This is pinned as a badge to the sleeve of every true believer, that he looks for and longs for Christ’s coming in judgment.” As Christians we long for the day of our Lord’s return. It is mentioned four times in these verses. How should that Day challenge the way that we live?
- IT CHALLENGES THE REALITY OF OUR FELLOWSHIP (vrs 7-9)
Does this surprise you? I am sure you expected me to say that the person who is living looking up will be drawing up detailed charts of the end times and seeking to interpret world events in the light of some obscure text in Ezekiel or Daniel. The evidence of a believer who is truly longing for Christ’s coming is thoroughly practical. In vrs 7 we are instructed to be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. The Greek word for patience literally is “long tempered”. It is our response to difficult people. In vrs 7 James uses an agricultural metaphor. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. In the same way we need to learn to be long tempered with difficult people. We see this in vrs 8, 9, you too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! In our dealings with our fellow believers we ought to act as if the Judge was already standing at the door. We need to be long tempered.
- IT CHALLENGES THE RESILIENCE OF OUR PERSEVERANCE (vrs 10,11)
If patience is applied to difficult people what does James mean by saying in vrs 11, as you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. We need to display patience with difficult people and perseverance in difficult circumstances. We have already encountered this word perseverance a number of times in this letter (1:2, 12). The Greek word means, to bear up under. A blacksmith would take a piece of metal and fire it and then place it on the anvil and beat it into shape with a hammer. The metal bore up under the hammer. Something good was coming out of God’s forge. The first recipients of this letter were going through a hard time. In chapter 2:7 we saw that Christ’s name was being slandered by the wealthy and that the rich were dragging believers into court. They were being persecuted. By way of encouragement James pointed them to the example of the prophets and Job who serve as examples of the kind of perseverance required of all believers as we wait for the Lord’s return. In Job 1 & 2 we are given a great insight into Job’s perseverance in the midst of financial reversals and the loss of loved ones. In 1:21, 22 he simply said, naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away! May the name of the Lord be praised. Then he lost his own health but in 13:15 could still say, though he slay me, yet will I hope in him. His perseverance is an example to us all.
- IT CHALLENGES THE RELIABILITY OF OUR WORD (vrs 12)
Our Lord’s soon return also challenges us in the area of our speech. Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be “Yes”, and your “No”, “no”, or else you will be condemned. We have already seen from chapter 3 that James has much to say about the tongue. He has not finished yet. Remember when we were children and wanted to make sure that others could trust our word. We would say, “I swear on the bible” or “I cross my heart and hope to die stick a needle in my eye.” Of course, if we really did not mean what we said we would cross our fingers behind our back. Well believe it or not the Pharisees had their own formula. In Matthew 23 we see that if they swore by the temple then this was not binding but if they swore by the gold of the temple then they couldn’t squirm out of it. Or else if they swore by the altar that did not matter but if they swore by the sacrifice on the altar then they were bound. Jesus rebuked them and insisted that we not swear at all. A Christian should be well known as a person of their word. We must say what we mean and mean what we say. How reliable is our word? Are we quite good at promising certain things only to never do them, to meet people at a certain time but never pitch up? If we are truly living looking up we will increasingly strive to be people of our word.
Someone once asked John Wesley what he would do if he knew his Lord would return at that time the next day. He said, “I would go to bed and go to sleep; wake up in the morning and go on with my work, for I would want Him to find me doing what he had appointed.” And what would the Lord have us be doing? Among these tasks would be long temperedness with difficult people, perseverance through trials and being people who keep our word.
A MODEL FOR EFFECTIVE PRAYER (James 5:13-18)
Photographers have a whole series of lenses which they use depending on what they want to accomplish. If they want a panoramic perspective, they will use the wide-angle lens. If they want detail, they will use a zoom lens. In this passage of scripture, we see evidence of both a wide-angle lens as well as a zoom lens. This morning I plan to use the wide-angle lens and look at Elijah as a model for effective prayer. Tomorrow we will take the zoom lens out and examine what James has to say about healing in particular. There is a long-standing tradition that James was called “camel knees” because his knees had become hardened and calloused through the amount of time he spent in prayer. As we read this letter, we discern the importance he attaches to prayer. In 1:5 he invites those who lack wisdom to pray to the God who gives generously. In 4:3 he says that the reason that we do not receive from the hand of God is because we do not ask in prayer. And now he concludes this letter with a more detailed examination of this subject of prayer. He calls on us to pray in all the seasons of our life – whether in trouble or joy. Then he directs us to Elijah as a model for effective prayer. What do we learn from Elijah?
- THE INTENSITY OF THE ASKING
In vrs 17,18 we read “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” How did pray? Earnestly. With great intensity. One of the great secrets for effective praying is to pray according to God’s will. To scour the word of God to find His good and perfect will and then channel our prayers in that direction. Elijah knew what God’s will was. In 1 Kings 17:1 he approached Ahab, the king of Israel with a message from God. “There will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Then God sent His prophet into hiding. According to our passage James gave himself to earnest prayer and the heavens were stopped up. A severe drought followed. After three years at the beginning of 1 Kings 18:1 God tells Elijah to present himself before Ahab; “And I will send rain on the land.” Elijah knew what God’s will was? Elijah tells Ahab in 18:41, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” But did Elijah join in the celebrations? No! He climbed to the top of Mt Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees and prayed. What lesson does Elijah teach us? When we are clear as to what God’s will is, we are to go to our prayer chambers and the prayer meetings of the church and put our face in our hands and pray to the God of heaven with the same intensity Elijah displayed on Carmel. Jim Elliot, that missionary who along with three compatriots was martyred in the jungles of Ecuador in the 1950’s once wrote the following in his diary; “Cold prayers, like cold suitors, are seldom effective in their aims.” A feature of the early church prayer meetings was their fervency (Acts 12:5, Colossians 4:12). The secret to effective praying is to pray according to God’s will. Is it right to pray for an unsaved family member or friend? Yes! God does not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:8). Is it God’s will for His word to spread rapidly and be honoured (2 Thessalonians 3:1)? Is it God’s will for His kingdom to advance? Does God desire to be glorified in His church? Yes! Then where are our modern equivalents of the kind of prayer meeting that met in John Mark’s house in Acts 12?
- THE INTEGRITY OF THE ASKER
From vrs 16 we see; “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” At this point many of us are tempted to throw up our hands in resignation. “What good is it then for me to pray. I am not righteous at all.” James anticipates this and therefore directs us to Elijah of whom it is said in vrs 17; “Elijah was a man just like us.” He was a prophet, but he was not perfect. He was a normal human being. He had the same flesh and blood that we have. He had the same moods and frailties that we have. He could rise to the heights of faith as he did when confronting the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel. But he could also give way to fear and run for his life, as he did when threatened by that evil woman Jezebel. He was just like us. Not perfect but righteous. And therein lies the secret to confident praying. In 1 John 3:21 we read; “if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.” In Psalm 66:18 the psalmist says, “If I had cherished sin in my heart the Lord would not have listened.” If we love our sin and lovingly cling to it, fondle it, pet it and refuse to part with it our prayers may well bounce off the ceiling.
- THE IMMENSITY OF THE ANSWER
The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. The scriptures are full of examples of the power of God unleashed through prayer. We will confine ourselves to Elijah’s experience. In 1 Kings 17 when Elijah prayed for the dead son of a widow in Zarephath God restored the boy’s life to him. Then in 1 Kings 18, Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel and in response to the confident prayers of Elijah God sent fire from heaven. Our text says that in response to Elijah’s prayers, God shut the heavens for three years. And then in response to God’s leading Elijah prayed for the heavens to open and the rain fell once more. William Temple once said; “I find that when I pray, co-incidences happen and that when I stop praying the coincidences stop happening.” It was Archimedes who once said, “give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” Well the scriptures supply us with just such a place. Our prayer closets. In Revelation 8 we are given a glimpse into heaven and are shown just how effective our prayers are. “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” And what becomes of those prayers. As if in response to those prayers the angel takes the censer fills it with fire from the altar, the same altar on which the prayers of the saints are offered and hurled it to the earth. What else can this mean but that the prayers of God’s people play a necessary role in ushering in God’s judgments. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
HEALING (James 5:14-16)
Yesterday I said that in this we see evidence of both a wide-angle lens and a zoom lens. We used the wide-angle lens yesterday to look at Elijah as a model for effective praying. This morning we take the zoom lens out of our camera bags and focus on one particular aspect of prayer. Praying for the sick. In the OT God chooses to reveal Himself with a number of names. One of those names is Jehovah Rophe, the Lord who heals. Praise God for that.
- THE SICK PERSON AND HIS REQUEST
“Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church.” There are two different Greek words used to describe this sick person. The first one found in vrs 14 is astheneo, and literally means, without strength. The second Greek word which is found in vrs 15 is kamno, which means the weary, worn out one. Weariness of mind often accompanies a lingering illness. The person that James has in mind here is not suffering from a minor ailment such as a headache or an attack of indigestion or a bout of flu or a pulled back muscle. Annoying though these ailments are they do not provide sufficient warrant to call the elders out. The person in our text then is suffering from a prolonged ailment. What is such a person to do? Such a person is encouraged to call the elders of the church. Notice two important things in this regard. Firstly, who is responsible for the calling? The sick person! Secondly, who is the sick person to summons? The elders of their church. There is no warrant in scripture for people running around with bottles of oil in their pockets and anointing all the sick they come across and praying for them. What should the sick person do while they wait for the elders? They should be examining their own souls. In vrs 15 we go on to read, “if he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” Not every sickness is the due to sin in the sufferer’s life (John 9:2, 3). However, some sickness is due to sin (1 Corinthians 11:30).
- THE ELDERS AND THEIR MINISTRY
When the elders arrive at the home of the sick person what are they to do? Two things are specified. Firstly, the elders would want to enquire after the sufferer’s spiritual health before they address their physical health. As the sufferer searched his/her heart were they made aware of certain sin? Secondly, the elders are to anoint with oil. What is the significance of the oil? Oil was commonly used as a medicine (Isaiah 1:6). In the parable of the Good Samaritan we are told that the Samaritan bound the wounds of the person who was mugged on his way to Jericho and poured oil and wine on them (Luke 10:34). Part of the elders’ ministry to the sick person then will be to ascertain whether they have sought proper medical care. But oil also has a spiritual significance. The anointing is a spiritual act with a symbolic significance. It is a way of directing everyone’s faith to the power of the Holy Spirit.
- THE PRAYER OF FAITH AND ITS OUTCOME
In vrs 15 we go on to read, “and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.” We find this phrase perplexing because James does not say that the prayer offered in faith may make the sick person well but will do so. Two Christians call for the elders of the church. They are prayed over and anointed with oil. One never recovers but the other is healed. Why? Must we conclude that there was something defective about the praying? Could it be possible that the elders did not pray long enough or loudly enough? Is it possible that they did not muster enough faith in their praying? NO! As believers we have to bow before the sovereign will and purpose of God. In 1 John 5:14 we are clearly taught, “this is the confidence we have in approaching God; that if we ask for anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him” (cf Matthew 6:10; Luke 22:42). When the elders arrive at the home of the sick person they will pray acknowledging that God is Jehovah Rophe, the Lord who heals, and they will earnestly ask him to stretch out his powerful arm to heal the sick person. It is however altogether possible that at times the Lord will give a strong sense of assurance that, that which is prayed for will indeed come to pass. JI Packer testifies to praying for a friend who had cancer. He was going in for surgery the next day. He prayed for his friend’s healing and upon going home still in an attitude of prayer was overcome with an overwhelming conviction that the prayer had been heard and that he need not continue. The next day the operation revealed no trace of cancer. This is the prayer of faith. JI Packer only testifies to two such occurrences throughout his ministry. It is comparatively rare. John Piper says
you might find yourself drawn to pray for one person with remarkable, expectant faith and see that person healed, but then pray for others and not experience that same gift. This is what is meant by the prayer of faith.
RECLAIMING THE WANDERER (James 5:19, 20)
Our text this morning instructs us as to our responsibility toward our fellow believers. Here is this brother or sister. They start to wander from the truth. They have started to stray from the paths of righteousness. They need someone to love them enough to bring them back again.
- THERE IS A DANGER THAT WE MUST AVOID
“My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth.” James is not addressing this remark to people outside of the church. Instead, he is pointing out a very real danger for a Christian. It is all too possible for a member of a church to gradually start to wander from the truth. The picture here is not of someone who has taken a sudden U-Turn or dramatically rushed into sin. He is speaking about a wandering, a gentle straying, a subtle loosening of one’s doctrinal or moral moorings. Backsliding never begins with a loud bang. It always begins quietly and slowly. This wandering from the truth takes many different forms. Firstly, it is possible to wander doctrinally. In 1 Timothy 1:19, Paul reminds Timothy of two men, Hymenaeus and Alexander, who refused to hold on to sound doctrine and ended up shipwrecking themselves spiritually. In 2 Timothy 2:17, 18, Paul refers to two men, Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. Secondly, it is possible to wander morally. We need look no further for a biblical example of this than King David and Bathsheba. But it is not only in the sexual area that people wander. In 1 Timothy 6:10 we are told, “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Thirdly, it is possible to wander in our Christian service. In Galatians 6:9 Paul encourages us; “Let us not become weary in doing good.” He would not have said this if it were not a distinct possibility. We can easily become discouraged in our church work. In 1 Corinthians 15:58 we are reminded to, “always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” It is always a sad thing to hear about people who used to be such hard workers in the church slowly grow cold and wander. None of us is so advanced in the Christian life, so prominent in church affairs, that we are beyond the reach of Satan. A dying saint once said, even on the brink of Jordan I find Satan nibbling at my heels.
- THERE IS A DUTY THAT WE MUST EMBRACE
What is our responsibility towards a wandering brother? In 1 John 5:16 we are told, if anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray. This ought always to be our first port of call. But is that all that is required from us? No. James closes his letter with these words. “My brothers if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner away from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” The responsibility for restoring those who wander is placed fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the entire fellowship. We must love our spiritual family enough to be concerned about what we perceive to be a gradual wandering. Our marching orders are clearly spelled out in Galatians 6:1, Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. The Greek word for restore is used as a medical term for setting a fractured or dislocated bone. It is used in Mark 1:19 of the disciples mending their nets. Here then is a believer who has strayed. He needs someone to love him enough to reset that bone. He needs someone to love him enough to repair his nets and make him productive again. Proverbs 27:6 says wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. David wandered into sexual immorality. Fortunately, he had a Nathan who was courageous enough to pursue him and lovingly confront him. It literally saved David from death. As a result, he could write Psalm 51 and say, against you and you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. David’s broken bone was repaired, and his broken nets were mended. He was restored to usefulness. There are many wanderer’s today? Are we loving enough to be a Nathan and go after them with the goal of restoring them?