Although it has often been said that money can’t buy happiness, here is how one successful multi-millionaire chose to respond to that ancient maxim…
“I learned quite some time ago that the poets were correct: money can’t buy happiness. But what it can buy, I also learned, are many of the things that make me happy. As soon as I started making a lot of money, I started spending it. I built one of the finest art collections in California, including paintings by van Gogh, Matisse, Miro, Modigliani, Picasso, sculptures by Rodin and Henry Moore.
I had three Rolls-Royces, including one formerly owned by Queen Elizabeth, whose chauffeur came with it. My wife and I bought and refurbished the oldest mansion in Beverly Hills, located on six acres directly behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. We had tennis courts and a screening room. The house was furnished with Lord Nelson mirrors, a Marie Antoinette footbath, a lapis lazuli desk set that had once belonged to the Czarina Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, a Hungarian chess set studded with opals and garnets. We had our own Chinese chef. A second house in Palm Springs. An airplane.
We had just about every type of expensive toy available, but did it make me happy? You’re **** right it made me happy.” (1)
So it seems clear that these possessions (along with the amount of prestige that surely accompanied them) afforded this gentleman with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. Unfortunately, this same author passed away a few years following the publication of these memoirs having presumably failed to heed another poetic observation: “You can’t take it with you when you go.”
For those who feel little or no obligation to use their resources with a view towards eternity, the opening verses of James chapter five provide us with a critical evaluation that is powerful enough to catch the attention of anyone may be engaged in a self-absorbed pursuit of accumulated wealth. In a sense, a person who possesses such resources carries a fiduciary responsibility (2) to his or her Creator- and as we’ll see, the misuse of such assets carries a heavy penalty.
In seeking to prepare us for the rhetorical onslaught that is soon to follow here in James chapter five, one commentator issues the following warning: “In one of the most searching and piercing sections of his Letter, James now launches into a denunciation of the sins of the rich. The words fall like hammer-blows, blunt and unsparing. In fact, the denunciation is so strong that these verses are seldom preached on.” (3)
(1) Gene Klein, First Down And A Billion: The Funny Business of Pro Football
(2) Fiduciary duty: “A legal obligation of one party to act in the best interest of another. The obligated party is typically a fiduciary, that is, someone entrusted with the care of money or property. Also called fiduciary obligation.” BusinessDictionary.com http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/fiduciary-duty.html
(3) Believer’s Bible Commentary, William MacDonald, Edited by Arthur Farstad, IX The Rich And Their Coming Remorse (pg. 2239) Thomas Nelson Publishers
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you!” (James 5:1).
The opening verse of James chapter five serves to focus our attention with a phrase that has been variously translated as, “Look here…” (NLT), “Pay attention…” (GW), and even, “Hey…” (Voice). The subject is a group of individuals that James collectively identifies as “you rich people” (NIV).
Now before we continue, we should pause to consider the group of people that our author is about to address. One source identifies these individuals as those who were “wealthy (and) abounding in material resources.” (1) But before we immediately rush to condemn the affluent, we should note that the Scriptures also identify a number of God-honoring individuals who were rich in financial and material wealth as well.
For instance, Abraham was a man of substantial wealth yet he was called a friend of God. Job was also identified as a God-honoring man of wealth and God even doubled his assets following his period of trial. The Old Testament book of Ruth provides us with the example of a man named Boaz, a wealthy man who served as Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer.
In the New Testament, we have the example of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-58) as well as Zacchaeus, a wealthy individual who clearly received Jesus’ approval for the manner in which he decided to handle his finances (Luke 19:2-10).
In light of this, we can say that financial and/or material riches alone do not explain the reason for the miseries that were about the befall the wealthy as mentioned here in James chapter five- the real concern involves the internal mindset that governs the use of such resources.
You see, a person who seeks to generate (or maintain) a great amount of wealth is someone who is likely to make choices that are consistent with goal. Unfortunately, this may lead to any number of inappropriate decisions- and as we’re told in 1 Timothy 6:10, “…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
This explains the difference between the wealthy, God-honoring people mentioned above and those whom James will go on to address here in chapter five. The money itself is not evil- it’s what we do with it that can make it that way.
As one source observes, “Many God-fearing souls have been wealthy, from the days of Job and Abraham until the present day; and the frequent New Testament warnings relative to riches must always be understood as reference to wealth held without regard for the kingdom of God” (2)
Unfortunately, there’s a price to pay for living a self-indulgent lifestyle and we’ll begin to find an itemized list of those costs next.
(1) G4145 Plousios Thayer’s Greek Definitions
(2) Coffman, James Burton, Commentary on James 5:1 Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/view.cgi?bk=58&ch=5 Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
“Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten” (James 5:2).
What sort of wealth is prone to corruption? Well, in the largely agrarian Israeli economy of the first century, the primary answer was likely to be food. Then, as today, food that was unused or unpreserved had a tendency to spoil very quickly. So this verse begins by painting a word-picture of those who chose to allow these kinds of surplus resources to rot away rather than use them to provide assistance to others who were in need.
The same idea applies to the second portion of James 5:2: “…moths have eaten your clothes” (NIV). Since moths were unlikely to devour someone’s clothes while he or she was in the act of wearing them, this illustration depicts the image of a person who has elected to hide God’s generous provision in a closet rather than putting such blessings to use on behalf of others.
“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” (James 5:3).
There were very few secure places available to store financial or material valuables in the days of the first century. Because of this, it was not uncommon for someone to wrap his or her money in a cloth and bury it in a secret location. In fact, Jesus referenced this very practice in His parable of the hidden treasure.
Of course, any object that is subject to long-term storage underground is likely to suffer from decay and the same is true for precious metals such as silver and gold. Although these metals are not prone to rust, they will certainly become tarnished if left unused in this manner.
So this passage can be understood to refer to various forms of wealth that had been hoarded but not invested and subsequently became worthless through lack of use. This evidence testified to the fact that these individuals possessed such resources but chose not to put them to work. How different things might have been if these people had chosen to follow Jesus’ counsel from Matthew 6:19-21…
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (NIV).
“Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be a witness against you. It will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have hoarded treasure!” (James 5:3 NET).
“The best things in life are free
But you can give them to the birds and bees
I want money
(That’s what I want)” (1)
There is certainly a great deal of truth to the old saying that tells us that the best things in life are free. But even something free must originate somewhere- and the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes tells us exactly where the “best things in life” come from: “The best thing we can do is eat and drink and enjoy what we have earned. And yet, I realized that even this comes from God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 GNB).
This reality is something that the lyricists who authored the song excerpt quoted above seem to have missed. You see, the ability to enjoy any good thing in life comes from God. However, the act of building a surplus of wealth with little or no respect for the God who is the ultimate Provider of such wealth is foolishness (see Deuteronomy 8:18). In fact, Jesus once used the example of three investors (two wise and one foolish) in Luke 19:12-27 to illustrate this concept.
James 5:3 also allows us to highlight an important portion of Scripture referenced earlier in chapter one…
“Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
While a person who understands the temporal nature of wealth might be tempted to hoard his or her possessions, we would do better to view ourselves as managers or stewards of those resources that God provides. The person who assumes the attitude of a caretaker in managing his or her God-given resources in a manner that honors Him can look forward to a good return on those investments- and in the words of Acts 20:35, “…’It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”
The chilling alternative is found here in James 5:3: “You thought you were piling up wealth. What you’ve piled up is judgment” (MSG).
(1) Barrett Strong, Money (That’s What I Want) (J. Bradford & B. Gordy)
“Your gold and silver have become worthless. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This treasure you have accumulated will stand as evidence against you on the day of judgment” (James 5:3 NLT).
“But man cannot cover what God would reveal…
And coming events cast their shadows before” (1)
For the original readers of James’ epistle, the day of judgment referenced in this passage may have arrived sooner than they expected, for this passage not only served as a warning; it also represented a prophetic statement to some degree as well.
You see, the letter of James was authored approximately 10-15 years prior to a catastrophic first-century event: the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army. Beginning in AD 69 and continuing on into AD 70, the Roman general Titus marched upon the city of Jerusalem along with four Roman legions -an army of 30,000 soldiers- with a mandate to eliminate the remaining pockets of resistance against the Roman Empire in that area.
The Romans attacked the city of Jerusalem for five months and during this time, the Roman army decimated the city and completely destroyed the Temple along with every other major structure within the city. Over one million men, women, and children are reported to have lost their lives in this military action.
So what did this mean for the rich and self-absorbed members of Jerusalem’s upper-class; the very same type of people that James sought to address here in chapter five? Well, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem resulted in financial insolvency for most (if not all) of these affluent individuals, for the riches they had accumulated were subsequently lost or confiscated by the victorious Romans. For many others, it resulted in the loss of their lives.
Those who failed to heed James’ warning might have responded differently if they had realized the horrific act of destruction that was about to overtake them in little more than a decade. This historic example serves to remind us of the importance of seizing the opportunities we possess to invest the God-given talents, skills, and resources that He has given us today. As Jesus Himself once said….
“If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities. And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven? And if you are not faithful with other people’s things, why should you be trusted with things of your own? (Luke 10-12 NLT).
(1) Thomas Campbell, Lochiel’s Warning (1802)
“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” (James 5:4).
Having addressed the attitudes of those who elected to hoard their resources rather than invest them in a manner that honored God, James next turned to an unethical business practice that characterized such individuals as well: “For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you” (NLT).
So it appears that these fraudulent business practices had become such an established means of doing business for these individuals that James had to forcefully direct their attention to their unethical nature by saying, “See” (BBE), “Listen” (CJB), or “Behold” (RV).
The act of withholding a laborer’s wages was attractive to an unscrupulous landowner for two reasons. First, it allowed an employer to retain his or her financial assets for as long as possible. Next, it provided an incentive for a worker to continue laboring in a particular field, for he or she would have to agree to return for another day’s work in order to receive payment for the work that had already been performed. This was especially important during the peak harvesting season when other landowners competed for a limited pool of workers from among the available labor force.
The problem was that this practice violated a Scriptural principle established in Leviticus 19:13: “You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning.” Since a laborer typically depended upon a daily wage, a day without payment might mean that there was nothing available to eat for a hungry family the next day.
Unfortunately, it seems that these wealthy landowners held little respect for the Scriptures or the potential impact of this practice upon the economically disadvantaged. In view of the fact that these individuals were not sufficiently motivated by a sense of respect for God’s Word, James was left to resort to a more ominous form of motivation: “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (NIV).
Because these business owners had taken advantage of those who were powerless to compel them to pay for the work they had done, James sought to remind them that these laborers had an all-powerful Defender- One who possessed the ability to enforce justice for these oppressed workers.
“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” (James 5:4-5).
Virtually everyone (including those who possess little knowledge of the Scriptures) has heard of the ancient towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 18:20-21 we’re told, “…the LORD said, ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.'” So what could have generated an outcry so great that it figuratively reached to heaven?
Well, the sin that is most closely associated with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah involves an attempt by the men of that area to sexually assault God’s angelic messengers (see Genesis 19:1-11). However, the book of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel provides us with another (and perhaps lesser-known) perspective on this question…
“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
So the internal qualities of arrogance, gluttony, self-absorption, injustice, and conceit (along with the abhorrent behavior that characterized the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah) were the contributing factors that eventually led to the destruction of those cities (see Genesis 19:12-29). These were many of the same types of qualities that James denunciated here within the opening verses of chapter five.
Like cattle that are unaware that the day of slaughter is rapidly approaching, the arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned of every generation face a similar kind of judgment. But the damage inflicted by this type of mindset goes far beyond these negative personal qualities…
“You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you” (James 5:6).
As one source observes, “This refers to the financial and judicial exploitation of widows, orphans, strangers, the poor, and the socially powerless and outcast.” (1) Whether that exploitation takes the direct form of an unfair labor practice or a subtle abuse of the judicial system at the expense of the innocent, the effective result is the unlawful killing (or murder) of those who are unable to fight back.
(1) Dr Bob Utley, James 5 (5:6) http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL11/VOL11_05.html
“You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you” (James 5:6).
As mentioned earlier, the opening verses of James chapter five serves to address those individuals who had elected to hoard their wealth rather than put such assets to use in a God-honoring manner. To make matters worse, it appears that many of these same people worked to increase their personal wealth at the expense of their employees by withholding wages that had been rightfully earned.
So it wasn’t enough for these wealthy individuals to build their own financial portfolios; they were compelled to increase their wealth even further by refusing to pay what they owed. Thus, they serve to characterize those who use their power and influence in an inappropriate manner against the disadvantaged.
The passage quoted above also goes on to tell us that these individuals sought to pursue a self-indulgent life of luxury. So having defrauded their employees out of the money they should have received, we now discover where those resources went- they were diverted to the pursuit of a lavish and opulent lifestyle, at least in part.
Unfortunately, James 5:6 then continues with a revelation of something even worse: “You have condemned and murdered innocent people, who couldn’t even fight back (CEV). The use of the word “condemned” in this passage suggests that these individuals twisted justice in a manner that made the innocent appear to be guilty.
This is a reality that all too many are familiar with today. You see, the concept of justice may not always reflect what is fair, right, or impartial, for things like “guilt” and “innocence” are not always determined by the facts at hand but by those who can afford to hire the best lawyers.
So the catalog of sins that James lists in the opening verses of this chapter -the accumulation and hoarding of monetary wealth, the refusal to pay wages that were rightfully earned, the pursuit of a self-indulgent lifestyle, and the condemnation of those who were innocent- are all characteristics that reveal an arrogant, presumptuous mindset that holds little concern for others who are similarly fashioned in God’s image.
But as James reminded us earlier in verse four, these things have not escaped God’s attention- and we would do well to heed this warning in examining our own business practices today.
“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” (James 5:7).
As we move towards the end of this Epistle, James 5:7 finds our author returning once again to the subject of patience as touched upon earlier in chapter one: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-3).
To help communicate the importance of this idea here in chapter five, James turned to a number of illustrative elements that were sure to be familiar to anyone living in a first-century agricultural society. For instance, every farmer knows that there is a period of time when there is no apparent growth or activity once a crop has been planted. Yet even though the farmer expends a great deal of effort with no immediate return, that reality does not serve as a source of discouragement.
You see, the farmer must exercise patience in order to obtain the best results- and once the unseen germination process is complete, the farmer will begin to see the positive effect of his or her effort. This reminds us that good things may sometimes grow unseen; and just as a farmer cannot perceive the growth and activity that takes place below the surface, so it may also be with God’s work in our lives and the lives of others.
This word-picture also serves to cast light upon an important spiritual truth: patient endurance through the challenges and difficulties of this life serves to prepare us for the next. As one commentator has observed, “Christians… should view current trials and hardships as a preparation process that helps conform them to the image of Christ.” (1) As we’ll see, this concept does not only apply to the circumstances we encounter but to our relationships with others as well.
In a similar manner, a God-honoring man or woman who must live with the variety of injustices that James details here in chapter five can look forward to a time when God will right every wrong, both seen and unseen- and as James will go on to remind us in the following verses, the day that marks that time may not be far away.
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2596). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
“Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:9)
In addressing the subject of slander and defamation among Christians, James 4:11 tells us, “My brothers and sisters, do not assault each other with criticism. If you decide your job is to accuse and judge another believer, then you are a self-appointed critic and judge of the law; if so, then you are no longer a doer of the law and subject to its rule; you stand over it as a judge” (Voice).
Here now in James 5:9, our author will narrow that focus considerably as he turns his attention to the kind of internal defamation that one might keep to himself. You see, the word translated “grumble” in this passage means “to sigh, murmur, (or) pray inaudibly.” (1) Another source defines this idea as “…the unexpressed feeling of bitterness or the smothered resentment that may express itself in a groan or a sigh.” (2)
So a person who renders an inappropriate judgment is not necessarily safe just because he or she has chosen not to share that opinion with others. That would include those judgments that may be made “under one’s breath” so to speak.
Like a boiling pot that simmers over, our difficulties and frustrations with others may result in a kind of internal “trial” that judges those individuals for the wrongs (real or imagined) that have been committed against us. We each serve as our own judge, prosecutor, and jury in these internal courtrooms and not surprisingly, the “defendant” is usually found guilty and is subsequently sentenced to whatever punishment we deem to be appropriate.
Nevertheless, we should remember that Jesus is seated in the gallery of these internal courtrooms and He sees such proceedings just as clearly as if we were seated in a human court of law. Consider this quote from Jesus Himself…
“…What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean'” (Mark 7:20-23 NIV).
Notice that the acts of murder, slander, and malice originate from within– and if those qualities characterize our internal opinions of others (and especially other brothers and sisters in Christ), then we will give an account for it. As Jesus was also quoted as saying, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).
(1) G4727 stenazo Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries
(2) Donald W. Burdick, “James,” in Hebrews-Revelation, vol. 12 of The Expositors Bible Commentary, p. 162; Wessel, p. 1429. quoted in Constable, Thomas. DD. “Commentary on James 5” “Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable” [James 5:9] “http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/print.cgi?bk=58&ch=3&vs=1“. 2016.
“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” (James 5:10-11).
Having counseled his readers to adopt an attitude of patience toward other Christians, James will now turn to some examples to illustrate his point by referring to “….the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name” (NET). The examples forged by these Biblical leaders serve to illustrate what it means to persevere through difficult times and help to demonstrate what God can do in the midst of a challenging circumstance.
For instance, consider the experiences of the following prophets and other prominent Biblical characters…
Elijah: This prophet was once forced to flee for his life (1 Kings 18:20-19:18).
Joseph: Was thrown into a well and left for dead by the members of his family (Genesis 37:17-28). He was later imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit (Genesis 39:1-20) and forgotten for more than two years (40:23, 41:1).
Job: A God-honoring man who suffered the loss of his finances, children, and physical health for no discernable reason (Job 1-2).
Isaiah: Tradition holds that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah was sawn in two for his dedication to God and His Word.
John the Baptist: Was beheaded for telling a king that he was wrong to marry his sister-in-law (Mark 6:17-29).
Jeremiah: Was lowered into a cistern where he sank into the mud in retaliation for proclaiming God’s message (Jeremiah 38:1-13).
Peter: Is believed to have been crucified upside down during the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Nero.
Stephen: The first martyr of the Christian church, Stephen was stoned to death for preaching about Jesus (Acts 7).
Paul: Was shipwrecked, whipped, and thrown into prison multiple times throughout his ministry. Church tradition tells us that Paul was put to death by beheading.
Each of these men maintained their faith in God despite their difficult circumstances. In speaking of Job’s example, one commentator says, “Job suffered much and his responses to his affliction were not always what they should have been. Nevertheless, Job did not abandon his faith in God. He may have wanted God to explain what was going on, but Job did not cease to trust in his God.” (1)
So whenever we are in the midst of a challenging circumstance, we can bring these examples to mind along with the words of James 5:11: “…we can see how the Lord’s plan finally ended in good, for he is full of tenderness and mercy” (TLB).
(1) Bob Deffinbaugh, The Tests of True Religion: A Study of the Book of James, 5. Real Religion Requires Endurance James 5:7-20 https://bible.org/book/export/html/6265
The concept of “swearing” is one that carries two distinct meanings. The first involves the use of profanity and the other relates to the act of making a serious promise or vow. It is this second definition that James addresses in chapter five, verse twelve…
“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” (James 5:12).
Although people are often heard to swear in casual conversations, the truth is that this form of speech is much more serious than many realize. You see, the the act of swearing equates to the act of taking an oath when used in this context. This is why witnesses are placed “under oath” and swear to tell the truth when giving testimony in court. It is also why government officials, law enforcement officers, and other formal authorities are “sworn into” their various ranks of service.
So the term, “I swear,” refers to a sworn declaration even if it is used in meaningless way. Those who object to this interpretation may wish to consider something that Jesus once said to the religious leadership of His day…
“Blind guides! Woe upon you! For your rule is that to swear ‘By God’s Temple’ means nothing– you can break that oath, but to swear ‘By the gold in the Temple’ is binding! Blind fools! Which is greater, the gold, or the Temple that sanctifies the gold?
And you say that to take an oath ‘By the altar’ can be broken, but to swear ‘By the gifts on the altar’ is binding! Blind! For which is greater, the gift on the altar, or the altar itself that sanctifies the gift? When you swear ‘By the altar’ you are swearing by it and everything on it, and when you swear ‘By the Temple’ you are swearing by it and by God who lives in it. And when you swear ‘By heavens’ you are swearing by the Throne of God and by God himself” (Matthew 23:16-22 TLB).
In fact, Jesus actually served as the source of the counsel found here in James 5:12…
“But I tell you, Do not swear at all… Just let your ‘Yes’ be a simple ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ a simple ‘No’; anything more than this has its origin in evil” (Matthew 5:33, 37 CJB).
Remember that a person who is known for consistently telling the truth is someone who can be trusted- and such a person will generally have no need to affirm his or her word by swearing to it.
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms” (James 5:13).
The final eight verses of James’ epistle brings us to the end of this letter in much the same way as it began- with a series of admonitions.
In a manner befitting a good leader, James begins this section by not only identifying a problem but offering a solution as well: “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray” (NIV). This serves to encourage us to approach God in the midst of our difficulties to ask for His wisdom, guidance, and direction in facing the challenges we may encounter.
In like manner, we should also respond to the blessings and benefits we receive from God with an expression of thanks, praise, and appreciation: “Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises” (NET). This passage provides us with an important reminder- when God answers our prayers, we should always remember to thank Him for His response. In fact, Jesus once had an experience that illustrated the importance of expressing our appreciation for the blessings we have received…
“As Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he went along the border between Samaria and Galilee. He was going into a village when he was met by ten men suffering from a dreaded skin disease. They stood at a distance and shouted, ‘Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!’ Jesus saw them and said to them, ‘Go and let the priests examine you.’
On the way they were made clean. When one of them saw that he was healed, he came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. The man was a Samaritan. Jesus spoke up, ‘There were ten who were healed; where are the other nine? Why is this foreigner the only one who came back to give thanks to God?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Get up and go; your faith has made you well'” (Luke 17:11-19 GNB).
Notice that Jesus acknowledged the person who thanked Him as well as those who didn’t- and He wondered why those others failed to show their appreciation for the work that God had done in their lives.
This reminds us that God notices when we fail to thank Him for the things that He has done just as we might look for an expression of appreciation from those we have helped. When God answers our prayers, we shouldn’t neglect to thank Him for His answers.
“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. 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” (James 5:14-15).
The counsel found here in James 5:14-15 is largely built on the premise that Christians do not receive immunity from the physical afflictions of life. While it is true that a God-honoring man or woman may often escape the physical consequences that are sometimes associated with a decision to reject God’s standards, the Scriptures also identify a number of faithful people who suffered from various illnesses (see 2 Timothy 4:20, Philippians 2:26-27, and 1 Timothy 5:23 for a few examples).
We should also recognize the fact that our physical afflictions may not necessarily be the result of sinful behavior. For instance, Jesus once rejected the idea that an act of sin resulted in the existence of a birth defect (John 9:1-3). Nevertheless, the Scriptures also contain a number of instances where a sinful action or attitude directly led to a physical malady or even death (see Numbers 12:1-16 and Acts 12:21-23).
Perhaps the most striking example of this reality can be found in New Testament book of 1 Corinthians where the Apostle Paul refers to those who received communion in an unworthy manner. This led Paul to observe, “That is why many of you are weak and sick, and some have even died” (1 Corinthians 11:30 NLT [see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34])
Finally, we should not neglect the possibility of malevolent spiritual activity with regard to the physical ailments we experience. Although it is customary for many to dismiss the idea of a spiritual world beyond our senses, the Scriptures clearly assert the existence of a demonic realm and the fact that such beings have been responsible for inflicting serious physical harm upon humanity.
For example, the Scriptures tell us that demonic beings have been responsible for causing or contributing to such maladies as…
- Blindness and the inability to speak (Matthew 12:22)
- Deafness (Mark 9:25)
- Physical deformity (Luke 13:10-17)
- Mental instability (Mark 5:1-5)
- Seizures (Mark 1:26)
- Self-destructive behavior (Mark 9:20-22)
This does not mean that demonic activity is behind every sickness, disease, or physical disorder we may experience. However, it would be a mistake to assume that such demonic affliction does not exist at all. We should be aware of the Bible’s clear teaching regarding the existence of demonic activity and the physical ailments that such entities have inflicted upon humanity.
“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15 NIV).
In considering the proper application of these verses, we should first note the order of responsibility: “He should call the elders of the church…” In other words, the person who is suffering from the affliction is the one who is responsible for seeking out Pastoral care if he or she was able to do so. So instead of waiting for the elders of the church to take the initiative, this passage tells us that the initial responsibility behind this call to prayer is incumbent upon the person who is physically ill.
However, one source provides us with another perspective to consider, one that focuses primarily upon the spiritual (rather than physical) needs of the individual in question: “Some understand the word sick in James 5:14 to refer to spiritual, not physical, weakness and the different word translated sick in James 5:15 to mean “weary” (these meanings are legitimate). Thus the discouraged person will be restored to spiritual vigor by the elders’ prayer and anointing.” (1)
In a similar manner, the reference to anointing with oil can also be understood in different ways. For instance, plant oils were widely used in the ancient world to help soothe various wounds; in fact, Jesus referenced this type of usage in His parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37). Without the availability of modern medical remedies, oil may have represented the best medicinal treatment available at that time.
Nevertheless, the act of anointing someone with oil is more importantly associated with God’s presence. This concept finds its origin in a number of Scriptures including 1 Samuel 16:13, 2 Kings 9:6, and most notably in Psalm 23:5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (NIV).
Finally, we should note that such anointing was to take place “…in the name of the Lord.” This served to emphasize the fact that God was responsible for the act of healing those who were ill; the oil (as well as those who attended the sick) were simply the instruments through which God worked for the benefit of the afflicted.
(1) Ryrie, Charles Caldwell, Ryrie Study Notes James 5:14-15 © 1986, 1995 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Database © 2004 WORDsearch Corp.
“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” (James 5:16).
The idea behind “confession” as found within this passage refers to the act of coming into agreement with God over the fact that we have done something wrong. When a Christian confesses his or her sin, God forgives that person on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross, for as we are told in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
This portion of Scripture also speaks to the need to “…confess your sins to each other and pray for each other” (NIV). Since it is sometimes difficult to recognize our own faults and weaknesses, the benefit of receiving input from God-honoring men and women who will pray for us can often be a valuable aid to our personal growth in Christ. As we’re also reminded in Proverbs 1:5, “a wise person will listen and continue to learn, and an understanding person will gain direction” (GW).
Nevertheless, it is important to choose such confidants very carefully. You see, there are often differing levels of spiritual maturity among other Christians, and some may fail to recognize the need for discretion, wisdom, perception, and discernment in discussing the personal shortcomings we may share. If we elect to confess our sins to others in an indiscriminate manner, its possible that such information may eventually find its way to those for whom it was not intended.
Because of this, it usually more prudent to discuss our faults with those who are spiritually mature and demonstrate the ability to offer sound Biblical counsel. A mature, trustworthy, Biblically-grounded person who will pray for us and hold us accountable is someone who is often in the best position to fulfill this responsibility to “…pray for each other so that you will be healed” (GW).
A person who serves as an official church minister (such as a member of the Pastoral clergy or someone in a similar leadership position) is often the best choice to serve in this capacity. But regardless of who may be involved in such conversations, it would be wise to keep the following counsel from Galatians 6:1 in mind…
“Dear brothers, if a Christian is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help him back onto the right path, remembering that next time it might be one of you who is in the wrong” (TLB).
“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” (James 5:17-18).
It may sometimes be easy to think that the great men and women of the Bible were spiritual giants who faced the challenges and difficulties of life with an unshakable degree of faith and trust in God. But if we take time to examine the Scriptures closely, we will find that many of the most prominent and God-honoring Biblical personalities were people who had a number of significant failings.
For instance, we have the experience of the great prophet Elijah as found within the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, the very same portion of Scripture that James references here in chapter five. In 1 Kings 17:1, we’re told that Elijah approached a faithless and dishonorable king named Ahab with a prophetic announcement: “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (NIV)
So there was no rain in the land from that point forward, just as Elijah said. In the following chapter we then go on to read this…
“For three years no rain fell in Samaria, and there was almost nothing to eat anywhere. The Lord said to Elijah, ‘Go and meet with King Ahab. I will soon make it rain’ …Elijah climbed back to the top of Mount Carmel. Then he stooped down with his face almost to the ground and said to his servant, ‘Look toward the sea.’ The servant left. And when he came back, he said, ‘I looked, but I didn’t see anything.’ Elijah told him to look seven more times
After the seventh time the servant replied, ‘I see a small cloud coming this way. But it’s no bigger than a fist.’ Elijah told him, ‘Tell Ahab to get his chariot ready and start home now. Otherwise, the rain will stop him.” A few minutes later, it got very cloudy and windy, and rain started pouring down…” (1 Kings 18:1-2, 42-45 CEV).
We’ll see why Elijah may have been selected to illustrate this passage within the book of James (and why we are reminded that this great prophet of God “…was a man, no different from us” [Voice] ) next.
“Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain and there was no rain on the land for three years and six months! Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land sprouted with a harvest” (James 5:17-18 NET).
In 1 Kings 18:1 we read how God spoke to the prophet Elijah and instructed him to meet with a king named Ahab. God also revealed that He would bring an end to an extended period of drought that had plagued the land after that meeting had taken place. So Elijah went to see Ahab and following a subsequent altercation with a large group of false prophets, he responded to God’s message by “…cast(ing) himself down upon the earth” (1 Kings 18:42 KJV)
This response indicates that Elijah assumed an attitude of great humility and reverence before the Lord. We’re also told that Elijah sought God with such persistency regarding this promise that he directed his servant to look for this anticipated rainfall seven times before it finally arrived (1 Kings 18:43-46)
In this manner, Elijah served as a living embodiment of James 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (NIV). Nevertheless, James also made certain to remind us that this great Old Testament prophet “…was a man, no different from us” (Voice). In other words, Elijah was someone who was subject to the same human frailties and weaknesses as anyone else.
You see, even though Elijah experienced a number of triumphs and successes, the Scriptures also tell us that he eventually reached a point where he felt that the pressures upon him were too great to bear: “Elijah walked a whole day into the wilderness. He stopped and sat down in the shade of a tree and wished he would die. ‘It’s too much, LORD,’ he prayed. ‘Take away my life; I might as well be dead!'” (1 Kings 19:4 GNB).
The Apostle Paul also went through a similar period as well…
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death…” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9a NIV).
So much like the prophet Elijah, Paul reached a point where he felt as if he just couldn’t go any further. For those who can identify with these great men of God in this regard, James offers the encouraging reminder that “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous one avails much” (MKJV).
“…The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:16-18 ESV).
The example of the Old Testament prophet Elijah should serve as a source of encouragement for anyone who may feel as if his or her prayers seem to carry little effect. As one commentator points out…
“(James) uses the example of Elijah to emphasize the fact that the prayer of a righteous man has great effectiveness. Elijah was a man of like passions, a man like us. He was not perfect, as a study of his life makes clear. His prayer to resign from his ministry and from life itself was rejected by God, who told him to go back to work (1 Kings 19). But his prayers to stop the rains and to start them were acts of obedience on his part, and God answered them” (1)
Unfortunately, the sad reality is that the act of prayer is sometimes looked upon as a kind of last resort or something to try in a desperate situation when everything else has failed. However, this kind of attitude is certainly not reflective of Jesus’ life and ministry, for the Scriptures tell us that Jesus often spend a considerable amount of time in prayer.
For instance, consider the following examples from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life…
“Now it was in those days that Jesus went to a mountain to pray, and he spent the whole night in prayer to God” (Luke 5:16 ISV).
“…after He had dismissed the multitudes, (Jesus) went up into the hills by Himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23 AMPC).
“Then Jesus got up early in the morning when it was still very dark, departed, and went out to a deserted place, and there he spent time in prayer” (Mark 1:35 NET).
While James tells us that the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective, this presumes that we are praying to begin with. Those who follow Jesus’ good example in this regard can look forward to the benefits that are detailed for us in Proverbs 2: 6-8…
“All wisdom comes from the LORD, and so do common sense and understanding. God gives helpful advice to everyone who obeys him and protects all of those who live as they should. God sees that justice is done, and he watches over everyone who is faithful to him” (CEV).
(1) Bob Deffinbaugh, Real Religion Requires Endurance James 5:7-20 https://bible.org/book/export/html/1706
“My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
James now brings his epistle to a close by saying, “…if any followers have wandered away from the truth, you should try to lead them back. If you turn sinners from the wrong way, you will save them from death, and many of their sins will be forgiven” (CEV).
To illustrate the importance of this idea, let’s take the example of a Christian who no longer reads the Scriptures or attends church regularly. Perhaps this person has come to depend entirely upon the video teachings, audio messages, and/or materials of a particular organization or leader without verifying such information against the Scriptures. As a result, his or her spiritual beliefs have been reshaped into something that no longer represents genuine Biblical truth.
Or perhaps someone has experienced a difficult encounter with a church leader or another member of the church that has affected his or her spiritual viewpoint in a negative or unscriptural way. Or it may be that someone has been exposed to the questionable doctrine of an online source or “subject matter expert” in areas such as the end times, prosperity theology, spiritual gifting, or any number of other topics.
A person in any of these situations may not have intended to wander away from the truth; it’s something that often happens gradually (and sometimes imperceptibly) over time. We can avoid these types of dangers by following the path of spiritual growth found in the New Testament book of Acts by regularly engaging in prayer, Bible study, communion, and church attendance (see Acts 2:42)
Finally, one source provides us with some wise counsel to keep in mind whenever we encounter those who have departed from the truth…
“Clearly this person who has wandered from the truth is a believer who has fallen into sin—one who is no longer living a life consistent with his or her beliefs. Christians disagree over whether or not it is possible for people to lose their salvation, but all agree that those who fall away from their faith are in serious trouble and need to repent. James urges Christians to help backsliders return to God.
By taking the initiative, praying for the person, and acting in love, we can meet the person where he or she is and bring him or her back to God and his forgiveness.” (1)
(1) Life Application Study Bible [James 5:19-20] Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved.