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An Overview of James Chapter 5: Maturity and Trust

James has focused his entire letter on Christian maturity — both in our faithfulness to God and in our conduct toward others. It’s not enough to just call ourselves Christ followers; we must be continually striving to grow closer to Him in our behavior, our morality, and our internal attitudes. Now James concludes his letter, and he does so by talking about where we place our trust in this life. This is very much a continuation of the thoughts James shares in chapter 4.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1 – 6: Do Not Trust Wealth

Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You stored up treasure in the last days! Look! The pay that you withheld from the workers who reaped your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived luxuriously on the land and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned — you have murdered — the righteous man; he does not resist you.

James is exceedingly clear: you and I should not put our hope in our worldly possessions. He goes so far as to condemn those who amass their wealth at the expense of practicing mercy and justice. He uses prophetic language to get his point across.

  • Their silver and gold corrodes, probably from stagnating in storage for too long rather than being used by those to whom they owe wages.
  • The corroded silver and gold testify against and will consume them.
  • Withheld pay cries out.
  • The workers’ cries reach the ears of God.

James goes as far as to say that these wealthy individuals who seek ways to cheat their workers and withhold pay are guilty of murder. We live in a culture where such behavior is written off as “just doing business” or “looking after our shareholders.” This is not right. If we’re privileged enough where others rely on us for their livelihood, we should never engage in such practices. If we’re not in that position (as most of us will not be), we should never condone or justify this kind of greed. God believes it more important that we look after the needs of others than our luxuries.

Verses 7 – 12: Trust Instead In God

Therefore, brothers, be patient until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth and is patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near. Brothers, do not complain about one another, so that you will not be judged. Look, the judge stands at the door!

Brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name as an example of suffering and patience. See, we count as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome from the Lord. The Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

Now above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. Your “yes” must be “yes,” and your “no” must be “no,” so that you won’t fall under judgment.

James contrasts the impatience and callousness that can come from trusting in our wealth with the patience and strength that comes with trusting in the Lord. He puts this patience in context of a farmer who has to keep a long-term view of their work, knowing that a lack of patience could result in a ruined crop. Our trust in God encourages us to be patient with Him as well as with one another.

Take people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Job as examples of this kind of patience and trust. Their examples testify to us that our patient faith can endure anything through the Father. These people should be role models to us, not simply icons of faith. We should look at they way they endured their trials, at the ways they overcame discouragement and outright persecution, and resolve to do the same.

Then we get to the “above all” statement. This is the summation of everything James has written so far regarding our mature faith. Putting God’s word into action, showing generosity, overcoming prejudice, taming our tongues, growing in humility, and putting our trust where it belongs — all of this boils down to a very simple principle: be honest.

  • If we are honest with our perspective about suffering, we will understand that pains of this life are temporary and look past them to God’s greater purpose for us.
  • If we are honest with God’s word, then we will put it into practice when it demands change in our lives.
  • If we are honest with the example Jesus has left us, then we will put others before self, discard prejudice and discrimination, and seek mercy before secular judgments.
  • If we are honest with ourselves, we will be mindful of the ways we use our words, tempering our language even when incensed or frustrated.
  • If we are honest about our place in Creation, we will be humble before God and put His will before our own.
  • If we are honest in humility, then we will place our trust in the Creator rather than the perishable things He has created.

Verses 13 – 20: Trusting In Prayer

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will restore him to health; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours; yet he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit.

My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.

Finally, James sums up his book with an encouragement to pray. This is where we put our trust and patience into action. Do we trust in God? Then we will trust in the power of prayer. Here, the mature Christian finds peace and fulfillment. Here, we give everything over to God.

James ends with this: those who are mature in Christ, be ready to help restore those who have gone astray. With every point of maturity in this letter, the opposite can occur. We should always be willing to help each other along our journeys and restore one another when necessary. The mature Christian does not write off another Christian over secular differences or spiritual struggles. The mature Christian seeks to heal and restore.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • You can’t read James 5 and come away with the thought that Jesus and His apostles would be OK when we shrug at someone struggling to make ends meet with their full-time job to say, “Then get a second job.”
  • It’s interesting that James inserts a comment about complaining about one another in his section about being patient with God. My takeaway is that being patient with each other is part of being patient with God. “As you have done to the least of these…”
  • James makes it clear that basic honesty is the ultimate litmus test for true Christianity. If we follow public figures who claim a Christian faith, but they can’t pass the test of basic honesty, we’re following the wrong people.
  • We do find examples in other letters of withdrawing fellowship from those who have fallen away. In each of those cases, however, the withdrawn individual caused major damage to the local congregation involved. Withdrawal should never be a default course of action.

If the attribution is correct, James would have written this letter before the events of Acts 12. He would have been writing to Christians who had heard and received the gospel news and were now ready to put that gospel into action. Putting Christ on in baptism is just the beginning of our Christian journey. We should always let God’s word refine and perfect us. Let’s be honest with where we are in our assessments of where we are as followers of Christ, and let’s put James words into action, growing closer to our Savior day by day.

a page from the book of James

An Overview of James Chapter 4: Maturity in Humility

In his writings to help Christians grow in maturity, James has already covered topics like our speech, our prejudices, putting faith into action, and the attitude with which we face challenges and trials. The key to growing in all of these ways comes in chapter 4 — humbling ourselves. If we can learn to prefer others and God over self in all things, then we have the foundation we need to be more mature Christians.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1 – 11: Rejecting Prideful Behavior

What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.

James asserts that the enmity Christians have with others is rooted in selfish pride. Do you have problems controlling your tongue as in chapter 3? Pride is to blame. Do your prejudices affect how you treat others as in chapter 2? Pride is to blame. Are you in continual conflict with those around you? Pride is to blame.

Let’s break this down:

  • What was the last argument you engaged in online?
  • What current events have caused you to lash out at others?
  • What physical differences lead you distrust or mistreat others?
  • What secular differences between you and other Christians damage the time you spend together?

In all of these cases, pride is at the root of the problem. When we define ourselves by the pride we have in our country, in our symbols, in our institutions, in our race, in our rights, in our politics, in our anything more than our relationship with each other and with God — that’s when we have enmity among one another.

In this section, James says his readers are guilty of behaving from fundamentally wrong motives. They are acting toward each other in bad faith. He says they seek both to fulfill their evil desires and to have friendship with the world, thereby rejecting their spiritual yearning for God. Instead, it’s in our humility that we can draw near to God.

  • When I seek the approval of my professional peers more than my spiritual relationship with you, then I am seeking friendship with the world.
  • When I let my political allegiances affect how I view scripture and other Christians, then I am seeking friendship with the world.
  • When I am willing to justify and forgive something in a person I agree with on secular matters but hold you who have a different view to a harsher standard, I am friends with he world.

No matter how I justify myself or rationalize that I’m fighting for some greater good, such behavior rejects God.

Therefore, submit to God. But resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, double-minded people! Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.

James also makes the case that we have to reject pride and embrace humility to resist the Devil. Pride and godliness cannot exist hand-in-hand, nor can godly humility and sin. If we can just set aside our pride — all of our pride, self-righteousness, and self-justification — then and only then can we mature. Then we can draw close to God. Then we can let go of our constant criticisms of others and judgmental attitudes. Our foundation is humility.

Verses 13 – 17: His Will First

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring — what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes.

Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.

This passage is not a requirement to precede every plan with the words, “If the Lord wills.” Remember the context. James is talking about being humble before God, and being humble means avoiding presumptuous behavior. In his illustration, James portrays a traveling merchant planning out their travel for future markets. There is nothing wrong with planning, but James warns against presuming our futures.

We all know that our lives can make unexpected turns at any moment, but few of us live like we’re aware of it. James wants us to remember God’s hand in our lives. Instead of presuming to plan our lives around our own ambitions, we should humbly seek after a life that will glorify God.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • “So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.” It seems almost a random statement in context, but James is making a point here. We let our pride sometimes obscure what is good. (“Who is my neighbor?”) He makes it clear, as a summation to his words about humble living, that we must be humble enough to pursue goodness.
  • “But who are you to judge your neighbor?” This statement has to be kept in the larger context of apostolic writing and Jesus’s teachings. James is clearly talking about unnecessary and mean spirited criticisms here, not exercising righteous judgment to overcome sin (John 7:24).
  • It’s hard to read things like this and think that God is OK with the secular battles we Christians become embroiled in at times, especially when we get caught up in dishonesty and character assassination as a result. It’s only our own pridefulness that justifies such behavior.

James 5 will speak about maturity in the context of where we place our trust.

a page from the book of James

An Overview of James Chapter 3: Maturity in Speech

In his letter, James covers ways we can mature as Christians. The first two chapters cover growth through trials, by knowledge of God’s word, by putting that knowledge into action, and by letting go of worldly prejudices. Chapter 3 adds another layer to our Christian maturity by talking about how we use our words in how we teach and in how we generally speak to or about others. The quality and contents of our speech reveals how much we have let godly wisdom truly mature in us.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1 – 2: A Warning to Teachers

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body.

Between his warnings against prejudice and about speech, James sandwiches a small admonition that we should be cautious about teaching. We understand from passages like Matthew 28:19 – 20 that we are all called to teach. Sharing the gospel is part of how we show love to the world. Here, I believe James is talking about those who take this role on more formally. These days we might call them preachers or ministers — those people who make a profession of teaching God’s word and, in turn, receive respect and a certain amount of authority based on their position.

James says to be cautious about taking on that role, for we all have faults that can undermine the message. In the previous chapter, James talked about the way prejudice can undermine God’s message, and he’s about to launch into an exploration of the way we use our words. In the formal role of teacher, both of these will be tested often. Maturity is a key quality for those who would be the face of the gospel.

Verses 3 – 12: The Power of the Tongue

Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

James minces no words when he describes the power of the tongue. Nothing else has destroyed marriages, ruined friendships, and launched wars like the tongue. Yet it is also capable of great good. As powerful as the tongue can be to produce harm, we must also realize that the opposite is true. Through it we can accomplish great good. We must be mindful of Christ’s words in Matthew 15:18: “But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart…”

Today, we could also say that what comes out of our keyboards comes from the heart. I’ve known Christians who would be perfectly kind and respectful to my face but would only interact with me online to insult and attack me. This is not how we are supposed to behave. When we let online anonymity lull us into a sense of safety to the point where we become harsh and abusive with what we post, then we have let our words become a raging fire and a world of unrighteousness. We should hold our online interactions to every bit as a high standard as we do our spoken conversations.

We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?

We need to understand that the way we use our words with each other affects the nature of our praise to God. God no more accepts words of love and devotion from a mouth full of insults and hatred than we would accept drinking water from a polluted spring.

Verses 13 – 18: Living True Wisdom

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.

James uses wisdom as a segue between his thoughts on our words and teachings about humility in chapter 4. Are you mature in your wisdom? Then it will show in your conduct, your gentleness, and your mercy. These qualities will be evidenced by your lack of prejudice, by how you use your speech, and in the humility you show toward others and God. Make no mistake: an uncontrolled tongues is a sign of foolishness in God’s eyes.

In any given situation, are our words gentle? Are they full of mercy? Do they resist prejudice? Do they encourage peace? If they do, then our words reveal a heart full of our Savior’s goodness.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • I acknowledge that Jesus, Paul, and Peter did, on occasion, use strong words. However, a handful of isolated events over the course of multi-year ministries do not give us an excuse to ignore passages like this and delve into abusive language on a regular basis.
  • One of the best ways we can prevent ourselves from trying to praise God with an unclean mouth is to simply stop listening to others who act this way. I’m not talking about movies with bad language here; I’m talking about radio, television, and online personalities who frequently devolve into yelling messages of hatred and anger. Their bad company can corrupt your good intentions.

James 4 will speak about maturity in the context of humility.

a page from the book of James

An Overview of James Chapter 2: Maturity in Unprejudiced Grace

James 2 continues the theme of maturity presented at the beginning of the book. When James opens his letter, he challenges his readers to view trials as opportunities to grow rather than obstacles to lament. He asserts that every trial we overcome helps us mature as Christians. Enduring them makes our faith and relationship with our Savior all the stronger. This maturity leads us to put our faith into action, and James says we are blessed when we look into the perfect law of liberty and then do what we find there.

This theme transitions directly into the thoughts of James 2. When we put our faith into action, we will lose all prejudice and learn to treat others with grace and fairness regardless of any worldly differences that might otherwise separate us.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1 – 13: Letting Go of Prejudice

My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

The Sin of Discrimination

The first way we put our faith into action is by letting go of our prejudices. Most translations read “favoritism” in verse 1, but what James describes comes down to prejudice. In this book, James uses economic status as the basis for prejudice, but we could replace this with any form of discrimination, and it would work just as well. A Latino man versus a white man, a homeless mom versus a business person, a gay person versus a straight person, a pacifist versus a veteran, a Democrat versus a Republican — if we make one person in any of these pairings feel less welcome in our congregations, then we are showing the exact prejudice that James describes.

This is not to say we never deal with sin. This is not to say we never teach about difficult or controversial topics. But anyone should feel welcome and cared for among Christians. How can we ever hope to bring people to Christ if we discriminate against  them? When we do so, we betray the righteous judgment Christ says we ought to exercise in John 7:24, and we become judges with evil thoughts, pushing people away from salvation based on our own fears and mistrust. James does not mince words here. In verse 9, he says that we commit sin when we discriminate. This is not a matter of opinion. It is not a matter of politics or cultural preservation. It is sin.

The Cure for Prejudice

The cure is in verse 8 — love your neighbor as yourself. Verse 13 says mercy triumphs over judgment. If we start with love and mercy as a foundation, then it’s easier to let go of our prejudices. When we see each other as God sees us — as souls in need of His grace — then we can be gracious to each other and look past whatever differences that may otherwise come between us. This takes effort, however.

  1. We have to admit to our prejudices. I cannot make any progress if I am unwilling to admit that I have indeed discriminated at times. If someone accuses me of being racist, my initial temptation is to dig my heels in and deny it. But I have to objectively look at the facts. This may begin by simply asking the other person what I did wrong. If I am unwilling to self-examine, then I am like the person in James 1 who looks in the mirror and forgets their face. I have to be brutally honest with myself.
  2. We have to unlearn our prejudices. We all have learned prejudices. Once we acknowledge them, then we can correct our course. We can talk to others to see how we can do better. We can get to know those we’re tempted to fear or distrust. We may also have to turn away from TV, internet, and radio personalities who fuel and reinforce prejudice. I cannot say I am trying to overcome lust while keeping a folder of porn sites to visit; nor can I overcome racism while listening to influences that fuel hatred and fear. I have to unlearn the old to learn a better way.

Paul addresses this issue in the context of baptized believers in Galatians 3:27 – 29; in contrast, James applies the principle more broadly. Still, I wonder how Galatians would look different if updated for today’s challenges.

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no American or foreigner, citizen or immigrant, patriot or protestor; male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.

Verses 14 – 26: Faith in Action

James bookends his thoughts on discrimination with putting our faith in action. Essentially, he’s saying, “Learn God’s word and do it. Actively resist discrimination. Put your faith into action.” If that doesn’t emphasize the importance of overcoming our prejudices, I don’t know what does. This is one of the works that shows we have a faith in Jesus Christ, and James makes it clear that faith and action are symbiotic.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.

Faith and Action

James uses a simple illustration to show how faith and action work hand-in-hand — providing for those in need. If I see someone in need, and I just give the traditional thoughts and prayers platitude, what good have I done that person? Yes, I should pray for that person, and then I should put my faith into action and provide for that person as well. In this illustration, prayer without giving is empty, but prayer with benevolence shows God’s grace to one who needs it. I become an instrument of His love.

In the following verses, James issues a challenge. Show your faith by doing nothing. How will you ever do that? Instead, our humble, obedient, and gracious works testify to our faith in God. From worshiping God the way He wants to be praised, to teaching those we can about salvation in Christ, to showing love and grace to those around us; we show our faith through action.

Two Examples of Faith

  1. Abraham. First, James talks about the faith of Abraham in offering Isaac in Genesis 22. Abraham already had a relationship with God. Abraham had already shown his faith in numerous ways. What more could he have to prove? The truth is that we are never done working for our God, and faithful living can prove difficult at times. Still, we push forward, faithful and obedient to the God who loves us and saves us.
  2. Rahab. In contrast, Rahab knew little of God when the spies came to Jericho in Joshua 2. She had heard of God’s help to Israel, and she believed God would help them conquer her city as well, so she helped shelter the spies. In turn, Rahab survives the conquest of Jericho and even ends up in Christ’s lineage.

In choosing these two examples, James shows how our faithful action can honor God regardless of where we are in our relationship with Him. Abraham had an established and long relationship with God. Rahab, in contrast, was a prostitute from an idolatrous background. Both pleased God with their works, for those works demonstrated their faith. Faith comes alive when we act on it.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • James 2:13 recalls the parable of the unforgiving slave in Matthew 18:21 – 35. The king showed mercy to his slave, but the slave was unwilling to show that same mercy to another slave. We are all equal in our humility before the Father. Let’s not think so highly of ourselves that we deny the mercy we hope to gain.
  • James 2:5 – 7 feels extraordinarily contemporary. We see an unrighteous person who has had great success in this world, and we rally around them despite their obvious sinfulness. Sometimes we even defend their right to mistreat their workers or unfairly game the system, and it just makes no sense from a Christian perspective.
  • James is among the books Martin Luther challenges as canonical. (Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation were the others.) “In a word, [James] wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task in spirit, thought, and words. He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture.” (Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, 1522.) Luther’s main point of contention is chapter 2:14 – 26.

James 3 will bring us more insights into maturing our faith, focusing primarily on our speech and then touching on wisdom as a cornerstone for our spiritual growth.