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David Guzik :: Study Guide for James 5

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How a Living Faith Lives

A. A rebuke of the ungodly rich.

1. (Jas 5:1-3) The rich and the illusion of wealth.

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days.

a. Come now, you rich: James has developed the idea of the need for complete dependence on God. He now naturally rebukes those most likely to live independently from God: the rich.

b. Weep and howl: In the style of an Old Testament prophet, James tells the rich to mourn in consideration of their destiny (the miseries that are coming upon you). In the life to come, their riches will be revealed as corrupted, moth-eaten and corroded.

i. James probably refers to the destruction of three kinds of wealth. Stores of food are corrupted (rotted), garments are moth-eaten, and gold and silver are corroded. Each one of them comes to nothing in their own way.

c. Will be a witness against you: The corruptible nature of their riches will witness against them. On the day of judgment, it will be revealed that they have lived their lives in the arrogant independence James previously condemned, heaping up earthly treasure in the last days, when they should have been heaping up treasure in heaven (Luke 18:22).

2. (Jas 5:4-6) The sins of the rich are condemned.

Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.

a. They have withheld the wages of their laborers. They have lived indulgently without regard for others (as the man in Jesus' story about the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31). They have condemned and murdered from their position of power.

i. While Jesus counted some rich among His followers (such as Zaccheus, Joseph of Armithea, and Barnabas), we are compelled to observe that riches do present an additional (and significant) obstacle to the kingdom (Matthew 19:23-24), and that the pursuit of riches is a motivation for every conceivable sin (1 Timothy 6:10).

b. The term Lord of Sabaoth in James 5:4 should not be confused with the term Lord of the Sabbath. It is a translation of the idea behind the Hebrew term Lord of Hosts (compare Romans 9:29 with Isaiah 1:9), which means "the Lord of armies," especially heavenly and angelic armies. It describes God as the warrior, the commander-in-chief of all heavenly armies.

c. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you: Often, those who are poor and without power in this world have little recourse to justice. But their cries are heard by God, who guarantees, ultimately, to right every wrong and answer every injustice.

B. A call for patient endurance in light of the coming judgment.

1. (Jas 5:7-8) Imitate the patient endurance of the farmer.

Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

a. Therefore be patient, brethren: James brought the issue of the ultimate judgment before us in his remarks about the ungodly rich and their destiny. Now he calls Christians (especially those enduring hardship) to patiently endure until the coming of the Lord.

b. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently: A farmer does not give up when his crop does not come to harvest immediately. He keeps on working even when the crop cannot be seen at all. Even so Christians must work hard and exercise patient endurance even when the harvest day seems far away.

c. Until it receives the early and latter rain: The pictures of the early and latter rain should be taken literally as James intends. He refers to the early rains (coming in late October or early November) which were essential to soften the ground for plowing, and to the latter rains (coming in late April or May) which were essential to the maturing of the crops shortly before harvest. There is no allegorical picture of an "early" and a "latter" outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church.

i. The Bible does explain that there will be a significant outpouring of the Holy Spirit in these last days (Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:17-18); but this passage from James doesn't seem to be relevant to that outpouring.

d. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand: The soon return of Jesus requires that we have established hearts, hearts that are rooted in Jesus and His eternal resolution of all things.

e. For the coming of the Lord is at hand: There is a real sense in which the coming of the Lord wasat hand in the days of James as well as our own day today. One might say that since the Ascension of Jesus, history has been brought to the brink of consummation and now runs parallel along side the edge of the brink, with the coming of the Lord … at hand.

2. (Jas 5:9) Practicing patient endurance among God's people.

Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!

a. Do not grumble against one another: Times of hardship can cause us to be less than loving with our Christian brothers and sisters. James reminds us that we cannot become grumblers and complainers in our hardship - lest we be condemned even in our hardship.

b. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! Jesus comes as a Judge, not only to judge the world, but also to assess the faithfulness of Christians (2 Corinthians 5:10). In light of this, we cannot allow hardship to make us unloving towards each other.

3. (Jas 5:10-11) Following examples of patient endurance.

My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord; that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

a. Take the prophets … as an example of suffering and patience: James reminds us that the prophets of the Old Testament endured hardship, yet practiced patient endurance. We can take them as examples.

i. Jeremiah stands out as someone who endured mistreatment with patience. He was put in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:2), thrown into prison (Jeremiah 32:2), and lowered into miry dungeon (Jeremiah 28:6), yet he persisted in his ministry.

b. You have heard of the perseverance of Job: We are reminded of Job as an example of patient endurance. His story shows both the necessity of a constant trust through times of calamity, and God's compassionate and merciful resolution of seasons of hardship.

c. That the Lord is very compassionate and merciful: The compassion and mercy of God may seem far away in times of trial. But examples like Job encourage us to be those who, by our patient endurance, see the goodness of God in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13-14).

4. (Jas 5:12) An exhortation in light of the coming judgment before Jesus.

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your "Yes," be "Yes," and your "No," "No," lest you fall into judgment.

a. Do not swear: The Jews of James' time made distinctions between "binding oaths" and "non-binding oaths." Oaths that did not include the name of God were considered non-binding, and to use such oaths was a way of "crossing your fingers" behind your back when telling a lie. It is these kinds of oaths that James condemns.

i. The Bible does not forbid the swearing of all oaths, only against the swearing of deceptive, unwise, or flippant oaths. On occasion, God Himself swears oaths (Luke 1:73, Hebrews 3:11, Hebrews 6:13).

b. Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath: James again echoes the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:34-37). The need to swear or make oaths, beyond a simple and clear yes or no betrays the weakness of your word. It demonstrates that there is not enough weight in your own character to confirm your words.

c. Lest you fall into judgment: This lack of character will be exposed at the judgment seat of Christ. This motivates us all the more to prepare for that judgment by our speaking with integrity.

C. Exhortations for Christian care for one another.

1. (Jas 5:13-14) How to meet needs arising among Christians.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

a. The suffering need to pray, the cheerful should sing psalms of praise to God, and the sick should call for the elders of the church, asking them to pray for their need.

i. James has the same advice for both the suffering one and the cheerful one: take it all to the Lord. In fact, the two commands could be reversed: sufferers should sing also, and the cheerful should also pray.

ii. James clearly puts the initiative on the person in need: let him call. The hesitancy of people to ask for or to seek prayer from the leadership of the church in such circumstances is a true mystery.

b. Let them pray over him: James also says that the elders of the church, as they pray, should anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord. This anointing with oil has been interpreted as either seeking the best medical attention possible for the afflicted (oil massages were considered medicinal), or as an emblem of the Holy Spirit's presence and power.

i. Anointing the sick with oil is also mentioned in Mark 6:13. Luke 10:34 mentions the application of oil in a medicinal sense.

ii. The Roman Catholic Church mutated this command to anoint the sick into the "sacrament" of Extreme Unction, administered to someone to prepare them for death. Something James intended to heal was made into a preparation for death!

2. (Jas 5:15-16) God's answer to the prayers of His people.

And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

a. And the prayer of faith with save the sick: Many have wondered if James "guarantees" healing here for the sick who are prayed for in faith. Some have interpreted the idea behind save the sick as not specifically being healing, and raise him up as being a reference to ultimate resurrection. The reference to sins being forgiven adding to the idea that James is considering a spiritual work and healing, not necessarily a physical healing.

b. Yet, the context of the statement demands that James does not exclude physical healing as an answer to prayer, though he does seem to mean something broader than only a physical healing. We should pray for others in faith, expecting that God will heal them, then leave the matter in God's hands.

i. Clearly, God does not grant immediate healing for every prayer of faith, and the reasons are hidden in the heart and mind of God. Still, many are not healed simply because there is no prayer of faith offered. The best approach in praying for the sick is to pray with humble confidence that they will be healed, unless God clearly and powerfully makes it clear that this is not His will. Having prayed, we simply leave the matter to God.

ii. Often we do not pray the prayer of faith out of concern for God's reputation if there should be no healing. We should remember that God is big enough to handle His own reputation.

c. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed: James reminds us that mutual confession and prayer brings healing, both physically and spiritually. These free us from the heavy burdens (physically and spiritually) of unresolved sin, and removes hindrances to the work of the Holy Spirit.

i. To one another: Confession to another in the body of Christ is essential, because sin will demand to have us to itself, isolated from all others. Confession breaks the power of secret sin. Yet, confession need not be made to a "priest" or any imagined mediator; we simply confess to one another as appropriate. Confession is good, but must be made with discretion. An unwise confession of sin can be the cause of more sin.

ii. Sin should especially be confessed where physical healing is necessary. It is possible - though by no means always the case - that a person's sickness is the direct result of some sin that has not been dealt with, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 11:30.

iii. Hiebert on confess: "The root form means literally to say the same thing; hence, it means that in confession sin we agree to identify it by its true name and admit that it is sin."

iv. The one who hears the confession should have the proper response: loving, intercessory prayer, and not human wisdom, gossiping, or "sharing" the need with others.

d. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much: In writing about the need for prayer for the suffering, for the sick, and for the sinning, James points to the effective nature of prayer - when it is fervent and offered by a righteous man.

i. Much of our prayer is not effective simply because it is not fervent. It is offered with a lukewarm attitude that virtually asks God to care about something that we care little about. Effective prayer must be fervent, not because we must emotionally persuade a reluctant God, but because we must gain God's heart by being fervent for the things He is fervent for.

ii. Additionally, effective prayer is offered by a righteous man. This is someone one who recognizes the grounds of his righteousness reside in Jesus, and whose personal walk is generally consistent with the righteousness that he has in Jesus.

3. (Jas 5:17-18) Elijah as an example of answered prayer.

Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.

a. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours: Elijah is a model of earnest prayer that was answered by God. His effectiveness in prayer extended even to the weather! Yet, this shows that Elijah's heart was in tune with God's. He prayed for the rain to stop and start only because he sensed it was in the heart of God in His dealings with Israel.

b. Prayed earnestly is literally prayed with prayer. To truly pray, by definition, is to pray earnestly.

c. If Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, then we can be men with the power of prayer like him.

4. (Jas 5:19-20) Helping a sinning brother.

Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

a. If anyone among you wanders from the truth: Having introduced the topics of sin and confession, James reminds us of the need to confront those who have wandered from the truth. Wanders from the truth is a good picture. Most people don't wander deliberately - it just sort of happens. Nonetheless, it still gets them off track and possibly in danger.

b. He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins: There is a blessing for the one who loves his brother enough to confront him, and who turns him from the error of his way. He has saved that soul from death and covered a multitude of sins.

c. James concludes with this because this is exactly what he has endeavored to do through this challenging letter - to confront those who have wandered from a living faith, endeavoring to save their souls from death, by demanding that they not only hear the word, but do it, because a living faith will have its proof.

© 2007 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission


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