James 5 Commentary

vv.1-6: “James now turns to the wealthy outside the church. These people are not only failing the test of having wealth, but they are also the source of some of the pressure on the church as they take advantage of poor Christians, either because they are poor or because they are Christians, or both. For them James does not have an appeal; he has condemnation. Like the OT prophets he announces their doom.

“If the Christian should live in anticipated joy, rejoicing despite testing because of the reward that is coming (1:2), the rich should live in anticipated wailing, for their judgment is just as sure as the reward is for the Christians. James looks at their wealth from the perspective of the future and sees their great stores of possessions rotted or corroded. If he were writing today, he might have added something about inflation. He is simply applying Jesus’ words of Mt. 6:19: worldly wealth is at best temporary.

“But is is not just that they will not have their wealth in eternity. The ‘corrosion’ of their wealth is evidence that they did not need it. It will eat your flesh like fire in that, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable in Lk. 16:19–31, they will be cast into the fire of hell because of their failure to obey God and share. They have stored up wealth for ‘a rainy day’, but these are the last days. The end of the age came in Jesus. Now the final judgment has been announced. It is time to put treasure in heaven, not store it on earth.

“Far from giving, these people have done even worse in that they have failed to pay the workmen who harvested their fields. It may be that they wanted to wait until grain prices rose or that they did not feel the workmen had done a good enough job. The OT says that workmen are to be paid each evening (Lv. 19:13; Dt. 24:14–15), but even in the OT employers found ways to avoid this rule (Je. 22:13; Mal. 3:5). This was certainly being done according to the law of the land, so no human judge would hear the complaints of the workers. The workers, however, appealed to heaven, and the heavenly judge heard their cry. The term Lord Almighty reminds the readers of Is. 5:9 and the action that God took against the wealthy there. God does not hear and then do nothing; he hears and acts with awesome power.

“Returning to the theme of Lk. 16:19–31, James comments on the luxury of the wealthy. For them, each day was like a day of slaughter (or feasting), for in places without refrigeration one eats one’s fill of fresh meat whenever an animal is slaughtered, since the rest will have to be dried or salted to be preserved. Underneath the picture is James’s dark implication that ‘the day of slaughter’ is their day of slaughter, God’s day of slaughtering his enemies (Is. 30:33; 34:5–8).

“Again James make a final comment. These rich have condemned and murdered innocent men (or the righteous). He is not speaking of literal murder, for the Greek term translated ‘condemned’ indicates that the courts are involved. Nor does he mean that the righteous were executed. He is probably thinking of lawsuits in which the rich took away the wages or land of the poor. Left without adequate resources, the poor Christians starved or, weakened by poor food, died of diseases. James point out that the poor were not opposing the rich. There was no cause for this action by the rich. Another, and probably better, interpretation is ‘and do they not oppose you?’ These victims of the rich oppressors may be dead, but like the souls of the martyrs in Rev. 6:10, they are now in the very presence of God calling out for justice. That justice will not be long-delayed.”[1]

vv.7-11: “The Christians are being oppressed by the rich. What are they to do? They could act on God’s behalf and bring his justice by force of arms if necessary but James has already said that human anger does not produce God’s righteousness (1:20). The Christians are instead to be patient or ‘endure patiently’ until Christ returns. This is the same virtue which is called ‘perseverance’ in 1:2–3. Let that virtue mature in you, is what James is saying. Farmers, of course, have to have this virtue. In Israel they waited for the autumn rains before planting and then had to wait and hope that the spring rains would come and bring the grain to maturity before harvest.

“Christian waiting is not waiting for something, but for someone. Twice James mentions the Lord’s coming and once says the Judge is standing at the door. The NT frequently refers to Christ’s return as ‘near’ (Rom. 13:12; Heb. 10:25; 1 Pet. 4:7). While most of the writers probably expected this to happen within their lifetime, it is a tension that is always ‘in the air’, for no-one knows when it will be, next second or next century (Mk. 13:32).

“The theme of the tongue is picked up again and summarized. The real issue is that they are not to grumble against each other. If they do, ignoring the instructions in 4:11–12, they will receive what they give (2:13). Referring to Christ as the Judge is an ominous warning, especially if he is standing at the door.

“The prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord, namely the OT prophets, also suffered at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Yet now kings such as Ahab and Manasseh are forgotten or reviled, while prophets such as Elijah and Isaiah are honoured on earth (and even more so in heaven; cf. Mt. 5:11–12). There was in the case of the prophets something worth enduring for. The example of Job, not a prophet, but a righteous man, is tacked on to this. In the OT story Job is not very patient, for he complains a lot, but in the Jewish stories that were circulating in James’s day, Job is represented as a perfect example of patient endurance. In fact, one of these stories The Testament of Job, uses perseverance as the theme for the whole book. James’s readers would have recognized the story.

“The point is that God has not forgotten the Christians James is writing to. He cites Pss. 103:8 or 111:4, noting God’s compassion and mercy. God is not trying to make life hard for his believers, but is instead showing his mercy in assisting them to develop character and put their investments in heaven, where they will last forever.”[2]

v.12: “The summary is finished. In a Greek letter one would now expect an oath certifying that what had been said in the letter was true. Instead James quotes Jesus (Mt. 5:33–37) and argues that Christians ought not to take oaths. It is not that the oath is in itself wrong, but that it divides speech into two levels. Some statements are sworn to and thus must be true, while others are just normal speech and may not be. Jesus said that people would be judged for every word (Mt. 12:36). All words are to be true. Everything is to be open and honest. Since God hears all words, it should be for the Christian as if all statements were an oath sworn before God.”[3]

vv.13-18: “The next topic in the conclusion of a Greek letter was normally to wish, by the gods, that the recipients would be in good health. James does something better. He reminds the Christians of the provision God has made for their healing. This is not new teaching to his readers, but a reminder of standard Christian practice.

“Like all Christian teachers, James divides the evil a person may experience into two categories. The first includes the term ‘suffer’ and means those unpleasant experiences that come from outside, either the hardships experienced in spreading the gospel or persecution by evil people. These are what James has been discussing under the heading of ‘tests’ or ‘trials’ and has concluded in 5:7–11. Those suffering in this way should pray, not necessarily for deliverance, but for the ability to endure patiently. Those who are having a good life should also pray, but their prayer should be songs of praise. This leaves the second group of people experiencing evil, the sick.

“The sick are to call the elders of the church. When a person is so ill that he or she cannot go to church, they want the people with the most faith in the church to come and pray. Normally, when the illness is not major, the rule is ‘pray for each other’. The elders will act just like the disciples in Mk. 6:13 who must have learned it from Jesus, and anoint the sick person with oil as they pray, so their prayer is not only heard, but physically felt. The important fact is that the prayer is to the Lord and the anointing is done in the name of the Lord. It is the Lord, not the power of the prayer or the oil, who will raise him up. And that is just how James promises that the Lord will respond to the prayer offered in faith. This is not a ‘hope so’ or ‘maybe’ prayer, but a prayer which shows secure confidence that God will heal because the elders have first listened to God and have received this confidence in their hearts. It is close to Paul’s gift of faith in 1 Cor. 12:9. Such prayers take time; they are not a quick ritual or routine.

“James discusses the connection that sometimes exists between sickness and sin. All sickness does not have to do with sin (Jn. 9:3), but sin can cause sickness (1 Cor. 11:30). If sin is involved, then this root needs to be dealt with before moving on to the fruit of the root, the sickness itself. James assures his readers that such sins will be forgiven. God will not withhold forgiveness to prolong the sickness. In fact, James argues that it would be better to take care of sin before it causes severe illness. Confess your sins to each other. No elder is needed for this as each believer is a priest. There is value in confessing sin out loud and receiving from another believer the assurance that it is forgiven.

“It may be that a reader of the letter will say, ‘That is fine for elders, but I am just an ordinary Christian. How can I pray for anyone’s healing? How can I hear their confessions?’ Yet as believers we are righteous, so our prayers are powerful and effective. Elijah, James notes, was also an ordinary man but, like the believers here, he had an extraordinary God who heard and answered prayer. Elijah was an important figure, not only in the OT, but also in Jewish legends. In those legends he is often associated with prayer. That is why even though prayer for rain is not mentioned explicitly in 1 Ki. 17:1 or 18:16–46, James, along with the Jews of his day, assumes that it was involved.”[4]

vv.19-20: “James closes by stating exactly why he has written this letter. The principle he states is the one he is following. Some of his readers had indeed wandered from the truth, as we have seen from the problems in the church. This phrase is used for serious departures from the faith (cf. Is. 9:16), not an occasional slip into sin. If it happens to a believer, someone should bring them back, as the ‘spiritual’ are supposed to do in Gal. 6:1. Rather than condemnation, restoration is the goal. And that is what James hopes will happen.

“Such restoration has a wonderful result. It is not just that a sinner is turned from the error of his way and so there is less sin in the world, but that the person is also saved from death, meaning eternal death (1 Jn. 5:16–17; Jude 22–23), although physical death could, of course, also result (Acts 5:1–11). A multitude of sins are covered over. Pr. 10:12, quoted in 1 Pet. 4:8, says that ‘love covers over all wrongs’ or ‘love covers a multitude of sins’. By ‘cover’ these authors presumably mean ‘atone for’, since a frequent OT image is that of the blood of an offering ‘covering’ sin. The opposite of love is hatred which spreads rumours and stirs up strife. For James love acts through bringing the person as gently as possible back to repentance. That repentance will be accepted by God, who will forgive the sins. Then the forgiven person can continue on the right way, rejoicing in their tests, for they know that their reward is coming.”[5]

[1] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 5:1–6). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[2] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 5:7–11). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[3] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 5:12). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[4] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 5:13–18). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[5] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 5:19–20). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

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