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The Blue Letter Bible

David Guzik :: Study Guide for James 5

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The Life of a Living Faith

A. A rebuke of the ungodly rich.

1. (James 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 had developed the idea of the need for complete dependence on God. He now naturally rebuked those most likely to live independently from God — the rich.

i. While Jesus counted some rich persons 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). It is also true that the pursuit of riches is a motivation for every conceivable sin (1 Timothy 6:10).

ii. “He speaks to them not simply as rich (for riches and grace sometimes may go together) but as wicked, not only wallowing in wealth, but abusing it to pride, luxury, oppression, and cruelty.” (Poole)

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.

ii. “More than that, James adds, with a Dantesque touch of horror, the rust will devour (or corrode) your flesh like fire, you are so bound up with your greedy gains; your wealth perishes and you perish with it and by it, eaten away in burning pain.” (Moffatt)

iii. “Better weep here, where there are wiping handkerchiefs in the hand of Christ, than to have your eyes whipped out in hell. Better howl with men than yell with devils.” (Trapp)

c. Will be a witness against you: The corruptible nature of the wealth of the rich 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).

i. In the last days: “The doom is depicted in highly coloured Jewish phrases, and the same immediate prospect of the End is held out as a threat to the rich and as a consolation to the oppressed poor.” (Moffatt)

2. (James 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. The wages of the laborers… you kept back by fraud: They had withheld the wages of their laborers. They lived indulgently without regard for others (as the man in Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31). They had condemned and murdered from their position of power.

i. “Deferring payment is a sort of defrauding, as it bereaves the creditor of the benefit of improvement; and so they are taxed here with injustice, as well as covetousness, in that they lived upon other men’s labours, and starved the poor to enrich themselves.” (Poole)

b. The cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth: The title Lord of Sabaoth in James 5:4 should not be confused with the similar title Lord of the Sabbath (used in Mark 2:28 and Luke 6:5). Instead 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 in the sense of heavenly and angelic armies. It describes God as the warrior, the commander-in-chief of all heavenly armies.

i. The use of this title was meant to give these unjust each a sober warning. The cries of the people they had oppressed had come to the ears of the God who commands heavenly armies; the God of might and power and judgment.

ii. “The primary reference is to Yahweh as the God of hosts or the armies of Israel and later the hosts of heaven. The rabbis rarely use the title, but Exodus 3:6 connects it with Yahweh’s war against injustice.” (Adamson)

iii. This is “a frequent appellation of God in the Old Testament; and signifies his uncontrollable power, and the infinitely numerous means he has for governing the world, and defending his followers, and punishing the wicked.” (Clarke)

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 satisfaction from justice. Yet God hears their cries, and He is the one who guarantees to ultimately right every wrong and answer every injustice.

i. Condemned… you have murdered the just: “Take it either properly, or metaphorically of usurers and extortioners, that not only rob, but ravish the poor that are fallen into their nets.” (Trapp)

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

1. (James 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.

i. “James stirs no class-feeling, e.g. of labourers against their unjust employers; leave the wealthy oppressors to God’s imminent vengeance on their cruelty.” (Moffatt)

ii. “Sometimes, indeed, the very hope of the coming of the Lord has seemed to increase impatience rather than patience… Oh, to be patient in fellowship with God!” (Morgan)

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.

i. As James instructs us, we are to wait upon God and not lose heart. “A man to whom it is given to wait for a reward keeps up his courage, and when he has to wait, he says, ‘It is no more than I expected. I never reckoned that I was to slay my enemy at the first blow. I never imagined that I was to capture the city as soon as ever I had digged the first trench; I reckoned upon waiting, and now that is come, I find that God gives me the grace to fight on and wrestle on, till the victory shall come.’ And patience saves a man from a great deal of haste and folly.” (Spurgeon)

ii. When we think about it, the waiting and need for endurance we have in the Christian life is very much like the waiting of the farmer.

  • He waits with a reasonable hope and expectation of reward.
  • He waits a long time.
  • He waits working all the while.
  • He waits depending on things out of his own power; with his eye on the heavens.
  • He waits despite changing circumstances and many uncertainties.
  • He waits encouraged by the value of the harvest.
  • He waits encouraged by the work and harvest of others.
  • He waits because he really has no other option.
  • He waits because it does no good to give up.
  • He waits aware of how the seasons work.
  • He waits because as time goes on, it becomes more important and not less to do so.

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) that 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 here 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 the last days (Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:17-18); but this passage from James doesn’t seem to be relevant to that outpouring.

ii. Instead, the sense here is more as Moffatt explains: “The farmer had to wait for this rainfall twice in the year; but although he could do nothing to bring it, he did not lose heart, provided that he was obeying the will of his God.”

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.

i. “When God shall give you a rich return for all you have done for him, you will blush to think you ever doubted; you will be ashamed to think you ever grew weary in his service. You shall have your reward. Not tomorrow, so wait: not the next day perhaps, so be patient. You may be full of doubts one day, your joys sink low. It may be rough windy weather with you in your spirit. You may even doubt whether you are the Lord’s, but if you have rested in the name of Jesus, if by the grace of God you are what you are, if he is all your salvation, and all your desire, — have patience; have patience, for the reward will surely come in God’s good time.” (Spurgeon)

e. For the coming of the Lord is at hand: There is a real sense in which the coming of the Lord was at hand in the days of James as well as in 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. (James 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. (James 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. Among these prophets, Jeremiah is one example of 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 38:6). Yet he persisted in his ministry.

ii. “As much as God honoured and loved them, yet they were not exempted from afflictions, but were maligned, traduced, and persecuted by men, 1 Kings 18:13; 19:14; 2 Kings 6:31; Amos 7:10; Hebrews 11; and therefore when they suffered such hard things, it is no shame for you to suffer the like, Matthew 5:12.” (Poole)

b. You have heard of the perseverance of Job: James essentially tells us three things about Job and why he is a significant example for the suffering Christian.

i. First we see the perseverance of Job. Passages such as Job 1:20-22 show us the tremendous perseverance of this afflicted man, who refused to curse God despite his severe and mysterious suffering.

ii. We see also the end intended by the Lord, speaking of the ultimate goal and purpose of God in allowing the suffering to come upon Job. Perhaps the greatest end intended by the Lord was to use Job as a lesson to angelic beings, even as God promises to use the church (Ephesians 3:10-11). When we understand that God has a good purpose, even painful things are put into different perspective. “If a man were to attack me with a knife I would resist him with all my strength, and count it a tragedy if he succeeded. Yet if a surgeon comes to me with a knife, I welcome both him and the knife; let him cut me open, even wider than the knife-attacker, because I know his purpose is good and necessary.” (Spurgeon)

iii. We see further that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful. This is not immediately apparent in the story of Job; we can quickly think that God was cruel to Job. Yet upon consideration, we can see that God was indeed very compassionate and merciful.

  • God was very compassionate and merciful to Job because He only allowed suffering for a very good reason.
  • God was very compassionate and merciful to Job because He restricted what Satan could do against Job.
  • God was very compassionate and merciful to Job because He sustained Him with His unseen hand through all his suffering.
  • God was very compassionate and merciful to Job because in the whole process God used Satan himself. At the end of it all, God had accomplished something wonderful: To make Job a better and more blessed man than ever. Remember that as good as Job was at the beginning of the book, he was a better man at the end of it. He was better in character, humbler, and more blessed than before.

iv. “And when we come to look all Job’s life through, we see that the Lord in mercy brought him out of it all with unspeakable advantage. He who tested with one hand supported with the other. Whatever Satan’s end might be in tempting the patriarch, God had an end which covered and compassed that of the destroyer, and that end was answered all along the line, from the first loss which happened among the oxen to the last taunt of his three accusers.” (Spurgeon)

v. That the Lord is very compassionate: “I wish we could all read the original Greek; for this word, ‘The Lord is very pitiful,’ is a specially remarkable one. It means literally that the Lord hath ‘many bowels,’ or a great heart, and so it indicates great tenderness.” (Spurgeon)

4. (James 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: Many Jewish people in the time James wrote 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 condemned.

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 (such as in Luke 1:73, Hebrews 3:11, and Hebrews 6:13).

ii. “All swearing is not forbidden, any more than Matthew 5:34; (for oaths are made use of by holy men in both the Old and New Testament, Genesis 21:23, 24; 24:3; 26:28; 1 Kings 17:1-2; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 1:20; and the use of an oath is permitted and approved of by God himself, Psalm 15:4; Hebrews 6:16) but such oaths are false, rash, vain, without just cause, or customary and frequent in ordinary discourse.” (Poole)

b. Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath: James again echoed 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 one’s word. It demonstrates that there is not enough weight in one’s own character to confirm their 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.

i. This admonition may seem out of context to us. Yet, “Probably James jotted it down as an after-thought, to emphasize the warning of James 5:9; in excitement or irritation there was a temptation to curse and swear violently and profanely.” (Moffatt)

C. Exhortations for Christians to care for one another.

1. (James 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. Is anyone among you suffering? 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. Instead of complaining (as in the previous verse), the sufferer should pray. “Instead of murmuring against one another (James 5:9), or complaining peevishly, or breaking out into curses, pray to God.” (Moffatt)

ii. 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.

iii. “Elsewhere in the N.T. the word to sing praise refers to public worship, and always, if the usage in classical Greek and Greek O.T. be decisive, to songs with a musical accompaniment.” (Moffatt)

iv. James clearly set 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 said 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. “The efficacy of olive oil as a medical agent was well known.” (Hiebert) According to Burdick, the word for anoint here is not the usual one used in the New Testament, but has more of a medicinal meaning to it.

ii. “Oil was and is frequently used in the east as a means of cure in very dangerous diseases; and in Egypt it is often used in the cure of the plague. Even in Europe it has been tried with great success in the cure of dropsy. And pure olive oil is excellent for recent wounds and bruises; and I have seen it tried in this way with the best effects… St. James desires them to use natural means while looking to God for an especial blessing. And no wise man would direct otherwise.” (Clarke)

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

2. (James 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 will save the sick: Many have wondered if James guarantees healing here for the sick who are prayed for in faith. Some interpret this as a reference to ultimate resurrection. The reference to sins being forgiven adds to the idea that James is considering a spiritual work and healing, not necessarily a physical healing.

i. 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.

ii. 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.

iii. 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.

b. 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. Confession can 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. Clarke observes that if this passage actually refers to the Roman Catholic practice of the confessional, then the priest should likewise confess his sins to the people. He also adds: “There is no instance in auricular confession where the penitent and the priest pray together for pardon; but here the people are commanded to pray for each other that they may be healed.” (Clarke)

iii. Noting from the context, 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.

iv. 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.”

v. “Now, in the primitive church this was openly done as a rule, before the congregation. The earliest manual of the church practice prescribes: ‘you must confess your sins in church, and not betake yourself to prayer with a bad conscience’ (Didache iv.).” (Moffatt)

vi. The great conviction of sin and subsequent confession of sin is common during times of spiritual awakening. There is really nothing unusual about confession during Revival. Finney — a great apostle of Revival — urged it and described it. In the North China revivals under Jonathan Goforth, confession was almost invariably the prelude to blessing; one writer describing the significant Korean revivals associated with Goforth wrote: “We may have our theories of the desirability or undesirability of public confession of sin. I have had mine, but I know that when the Spirit of God falls upon guilty souls, there will be confession, and no power on earth can stop it.” (from Calling to Remembrance by William Newton Blair)

vii. Public confession of sin has the potential for great good or bad. Some guiding principles can help.

  • Confession should be made to the one sinned against. “Most Christians display a preference for confession in secret before God, even concerning matters which involve other people. To confess to God seems to them to be the easiest way out. If offenders were really conscious of the presence of God, even secret confession of private sin would have a good effect. Alas, most offenders merely commune with themselves instead of making contact with God, who refuses their prayers under certain conditions. In the words of our Lord, it is clear that sin involving another person should be confessed to that person.” (Orr)
  • Confession should often be public. James 5:16 illustrates this principle. A.T. Robertson, the great Greek scholar, says that in James 5:16 the odd tense of the Greek verb confess in this verse implies group confession rather than private confession. It is confession “ones to others” not “one to one other.”
  • Public confession must be discrete. Often the confession needs to be no more than what is necessary to enlist prayer. It can be enough to say publicly, “Pray for me, I need victory over my besetting sin.” It would be wrong to go into more detail, but saying this much is important. It keeps us from being “let’s pretend Christians” who act as if everything is fine when it isn’t. “Almost all sexual transgressions are either secret or private and should be so confessed. A burden too great to bear may be shared with a pastor or doctor or a friend of the same sex. Scripture discourages even the naming of immorality among believers, and declares that it is a shame even to speak of things done in secret by the immoral.” (Orr)
  • Distinguish between secret sins and those which directly affect others. Orr gives a good principle: “If you sin secretly, confess secretly, admitting publicly that you need the victory but keeping details to yourself. If you sin openly confess openly to remove stumbling blocks from those whom you have hindered. If you have sinned spiritually (prayerlessness, lovelessness, and unbelief as well as their offspring, criticism, etc.) then confess to the church that you have been a hindrance.” (J. Edwin Orr)
  • Confession is often made to people, but before God. At the same time, we notice that James says confess your trespasses to one another. One of the interesting things about confession of sin as I have noticed it in the writings of J. Edwin Orr is that the confessions are almost always addressed to people, not to God. It isn’t that you confess your sin to God and others merely hear. You confess your sin before others and ask them to pray for you to get it right before God.
  • Confession should be appropriately specific. When open confession of sin is appropriate — more than the public stating of spiritual need, but confessing open sin or sin against the church — it must be specific. “If I made any mistakes I’m sorry” is no confession of sin at all. You sinned specifically, so confess specifically. “It costs nothing for a church member to admit in a prayer meeting: ‘I am not what I ought to be.’ It costs no more to say: ‘I ought to be a better Christian.’ It costs something to say: ‘I have been a trouble-maker in this church.’ It costs something to say: ‘I have had bitterness of heart towards certain leaders, to whom I shall definitely apologise.’” (Orr, Full Surrender)
  • Confession should be thorough. “Some confessions are not thorough. They are too general. They are not made to the persons concerned. They neglect completely the necessary restitution. Or they make no provision for a different course of conduct in which the sin is forsaken. They are endeavours for psychological relief.” (Orr)
  • Confession must have honesty and integrity. If we confess with no real intention of battling the sin, our confession isn’t thorough and it mocks God. The story is told of an Irishman who confessed to his priest that he had stolen two bags of potatoes. The priest had heard the gossip around town and said to the man, “Mike, I heard it was only one bag of potatoes stolen from the market.” The Irishman replied, “That’s true Father, but it was so easy that I plan on taking another tomorrow night.” By all means, avoid phony confession — confession without true brokenness or sorrow. If it isn’t deeply real, it isn’t any good.
  • One need not fear that public confession of sin will inevitably get out of hand. Orr tells of a time when a woman was overwrought by deep sorrow for sin and became hysterical. He saw the danger immediately and told her, “Quiet, sister. Turn your eyes on Jesus.” She did and the danger of extreme emotion was avoided.
  • Those who hear a confession of sin also have a great responsibility. Those who hear the confession should have the proper response: loving, intercessory prayer, and not human wisdom, gossiping, or “sharing” the need with others.

viii. According to Moffatt, the English Prayer Book, before the communion service, the minister is to give this invitation: “Come to me or to some other discreet and learned minister of God’s Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution.” There can be great value to opening one’s grief.

ix. Real, deep, genuine confession of sin has been a feature of every genuine awakening or revival in the past 250 years. But it isn’t anything new, as demonstrated by the revival in Ephesus recorded in Acts 19:17-20. It says, many who believed came confessing and telling their deeds. This was Christians getting right with God, and open confession was part of it.

c. 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. The idea of fervent in this context is strong. “It might be rendered literally: ‘Very strong is the supplication of a righteous man, energizing.’” (Meyer)

ii. “When such a power of prayer is granted, faith should be immediately called into exercise, that the blessing may be given: the spirit of prayer is the proof that the power of God is present to heal. Long prayers give no particular evidence of Divine inspiration.” (Clarke)

iii. 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.

iv. Additionally, effective prayer is offered by a righteous man. This is someone 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.

v. Avails much: “It was so with John Knox, whose prayers were more dreaded by Mary of Scots than the armies of Philip.” (Meyer)

3. (James 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: Literally, this is prayed with prayer. To truly pray, by definition, is to pray earnestly.

i. “He prayed with prayer; a Hebraism for, he prayed fervently.” (Clarke)

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

4. (James 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.

i. “Read the verse and you will see that it was that of a backslider from the visible church of God. The words, ‘If any of you,’ must refer to a professed Christian.” (Spurgeon)

b. And someone turns him back: This shows us that God uses human instruments in turning sinners back from the errors of their ways. God does not need to use such human instruments, and sometimes He does not. The Apostle Paul — or rather, Saul of Tarsus — was not converted through any human instrument, save perhaps the prayers of the dying martyr Stephen for him. Yet no one preached to him, but Jesus decided to meet him directly.

i. One reason God uses human instruments is because it brings Him more glory than if He were to do His work by Himself. In this way God is like a skilled workman who makes incredible things using the worst of tools. After the same pattern, God uses earthen vessels to be containers of His glory.

ii. “Most persons have been convinced by the pious conversation of sisters, by the holy example of mothers, by the minister, by the Sabbath-school, or by the reading of tracts or perusing Scripture. Let us not therefore believe that God will often work without instruments; let us not sit down silently and say, ‘God will do his own work.’ It is quite true he will; but then he does his work by using his children as instruments.” (Spurgeon)

iii. Along this line, can we not say that when we refuse to make ourselves available to God’s service — weak and failing as we are — we in fact rob Him of some of His glory? He can glorify Himself through a weak vessel like you; you should let Him do it.

iv. “It may not appear so brilliant a thing to bring back a backslider as to reclaim a harlot or a drunkard, but in the sight of God it is no small miracle of grace, and to the instrument who has performed it shall yield no small comfort. Seek ye, then, my brethren, those who were of us but have gone from us; seek ye those who linger still in the congregation but have disgraced the church, and are put away from us, and rightly so, because we cannot countenance their uncleanness; seek them with prayers, and tears, and entreaties, if peradventure God may grant them repentance that they may be saved.” (Spurgeon)

c. 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.

i. This speaks powerfully of the restoration that is possible for those who have sinned. “I know of men of good standing in the gospel ministry, who, ten years ago, fell into sin; and that is thrown in our teeth to this very day. Do you speak of them? You are at once informed, ‘Why, ten years ago they did so-and-so.’ Brethren, Christian men ought to be ashamed of themselves for taking notice of such things so long afterwards. True, we may use more caution in our dealings; but to reproach a fallen brother for what he did so long ago, is contrary to the spirit of John, who went after Peter, three days after he had denied his Master with oaths and curses.” (Spurgeon)

ii. 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.

iii. “So the homily ends — abruptly, even more abruptly than the First Epistle of John, without any closing word of farewell to the readers, abruptly but not ineffectively. The Wisdom writings on which it is modeled end as suddenly.” (Moffatt)

©2018 David Guzik — No distribution beyond personal use without permission


  1. Adamson, James B. "The Epistle of James" (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1976)
  2. Clarke, Adam "Clarke's Commentary: The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments with a Commentary and Critical Notes" Volume 6 (Romans-Revelation) (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1832)
  3. Hiebert, D. Edmond "The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith" (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1979)
  4. Meyer, F.B. "Our Daily Homily: Matthew-Revelation" Volume 5 (Westwood, New Jersey: Revell, 1966)
  5. Moffatt, James "The Bible" (James Moffatt Translation) (San Francisco, California: Kregel Classics, 1994)
  6. Morgan, G. Campbell "Searchlights from the Word" (New York: Revell, 1926)
  7. Orr, J. Edwin "Full Surrender" (London: Marshall, Morgan, & Scott, 1951)
  8. Poole, Matthew "A Commentary on the Holy Bible" Volume 3 (Matthew-Revelation) (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1969)
  9. Spurgeon, Charles Haddon "The New Park Street Pulpit" Volumes 1-6 and "The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit" Volumes 7-63 (Pasadena, Texas: Pilgrim Publications, 1990)
  10. Trapp, John "A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments" Volume 5 (Matthew to Revelation) (Eureka, California: Tanski Publications, 1997)

Updated: August 2022

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