A Bible Lesson on James 4 and 5

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This lesson is a whirlwind trip through the last two chapters of James. James has been talking about selfish ambition, self-promotion, and worldly wisdom as antithetical to the wisdom of God that sees all of life, the pleasant and the unpleasant, as from the gracious hand of God and patiently lets God do His work growing us up into lovely mature beings. One of the things that self-centeredness produces is constant conflict.

James 4:1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?

James is talking to you and me. This isn’t about international politics, it’s about you and me and the people we deal with daily.

2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.

It really just doesn’t wash when I try to blame bad relationships with others on them and pretend that my hands are clean. This is strong language, but it is the same kind of language Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount. Speak dismissively to another person, call him or her a fool, and we stand in danger of the fire of hell. At the heart of arrogant speech and action is self-centeredness that gives away a mind that is not satisfied with God’s generous provision. And that is worldliness.

3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Discontent and covetousness is rebellion against God. We can’t live lives promoting ourselves and genuinely be His. It’s just not possible. It’s our natural state, but it is enmity with Him. Wretched beings that we are, who will help us?

5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Thanks be to God!   There is grace for all circumstances. This is not a “get out of jail free” card that would allow us to continue at war with Him, but rather grace to stifle our selfishness!

7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

If there is grace available, we have no excuse if we do not avail ourselves of it. That means submitting ourselves to God. But notice that grace is also not some kind of magic that wins the battle with our selfishness for us without any effort on our parts. No, look at the verbs in verses 7-10. Resist, draw near, cleanse, purify, be wretched, mourn, weep, humble yourselves. This is agonizing warfare.

8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Purify your hearts you double-minded. We’ve seen before how little James thinks of a supposed faith that is not consistent, that wants to play both sides of the street. There is no being two-faced with God. He will not have it. We’re either wholly His or we are not His.

9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.

10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

An arrogant self-concerned self-promoting attitude gives itself liberty to demean others.

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

“Do not speak evil” would be better rendered “Do not denigrate” or “Do not defame.” It doesn’t say “Do not falsely defame.” It just says “Do not defame.” James in 2:8 has reminded us of the royal law, the King’s law, that we are to love our neighbors. To denigrate another made in the image of God is to make the royal law out to be wrong. We set ourselves up as being above it, as if it doesn’t apply to us, as if we’re right and it’s not. That makes us little “gods.” WRONG because

12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

This is not about being gullible or failing to address sin. It is about an arrogant, unloving, condescending, dismissive attitude and manner. All of us stand at the foot of the cross. How do I decide that I’m above you?

Arrogant self-centeredness shows itself in how it thinks about and talks about tomorrow.

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”–

14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.

This isn’t about not ever planning for anything. It is about presumption. It’s about a way of thinking that doesn’t consider God’s absolute sovereignty over His world and acts as if we small creatures were somehow in charge and independent of Him. It’s about an attitude that doesn’t live in light of eternity. Independent of God, we aren’t even a mist. We have no existence.

15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

We’ve all heard this said in a mindless, rote, almost superstitious kind of way. But James isn’t giving us a little jingle to add to our daily speech. He’s telling us to soberly and quietly in all things be humble about our planning and living.

16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

James isn’t telling us anything new here. What he has been saying about an arrogant self-centered attitude is the plain teaching of Scripture from beginning to end. And he’s told us again. We know what is right. Will we follow through and obey and humble ourselves? To fail to do so is obviously sin.

James now addresses again a hardness of heart toward one’s neighbors and its relationship to wealth.

Jamess 5:1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.

2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.

3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.

There is this sickening picture of one hoarding up stuff, somehow thinking it’s of value, when all it does is harm the one who gathers it. Tolkien got it somewhat right with the twisted picture of Gollum corrupted by the ring. But it’s not the wealth itself. It’s how it is acquired, the hoarding of it, the arrogance it produces, the indifference towards others it invites, the temptation to crookedness that it promotes.

4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

You have lived in self-indulgence. What we have is God’s held as stewards. It’s not ours in the first place. To figure that we are free to use it as we please is complete foolishness and evil. Misappropriation of funds held in trust in a business context is a big deal. This is far, far more serious.

6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

Some that James is writing to those who have had it rough, particularly at the hands of unscrupulous wealthy people. James tells them to hang on. In doing so, he returns again to the opening injunction of the letter, to count it all joy.

7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.

8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

Again, we don’t live for this life only (or even primarily). We live for eternity and look for the coming of the Lord.

9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.

10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James is concerned that we keep on in every twist and turn of life in humble dependence upon our coming Lord.

12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.

Our speech to fellow humans should be modest/spare. And whether what we experience is painful or pleasant, in all of it, we should be talking with our Father. We are to be in fellowship with Him, praying for help, thanking Him for the good things in life.

14 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.

15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

Pray for one another. We don’t need a specialist or human priest. We are to pray for each other. The “righteous person” is certainly not so in the sense of being individually perfect in conduct, but rather in the sense of being in right standing with God, counted as righteous by faith in Christ, by humble dependence upon God.

17 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.

The rendering “fervently” is maybe not so helpful. It is literally “with prayer he prayed.” It’s “he just prayed.” He prayed and nothing more! Praying was precisely what he did! Elijah was like you and me, not completely unwavering. But he prayed and God answered!

18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back,

20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

James wants Christian people to care for one another. And the praying and gentle correction that we render one another can be the difference between heaven and hell, not because we have anything in ourselves, but by the work of God in and through us.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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