56. Recovering Sinners

Meditations in James: 56: Recovering the Wanderer

Jas 5:19,20    My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins

Someone in the past has said that the church is the only army that shoots its injured!  Having watched the church over quite a number of years, it does seem that there is this tendency that writes off, or ‘shoots’ those who fall. The only thing is, that when Jesus said, This is my command: Love each other,” (Jn 15:17), he didn’t add, “only when you are all doing all right!”  Paul, in his letter to the Galatians said, Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” (Gal 6:1). Note the word, restore. Yes, there are times, when there is no repentance, when it is right to bring spiritual discipline (see 1 Cor 5),  but we need to constantly remember that Jesus died for sinners and is there for us when we fail (1 Jn 2:1), desiring to draw us back into a good place with God.

Now why, I wonder, does James finish his letter on this note?  Is it perhaps that he is aware that he has spoken a lot about having a right relationship with the Lord and he has almost given ammunition to the ‘Pharisees’ among us to pick up on some of what he has said and use it like the Law to point fingers at those who appear less spiritual. This is the point, isn’t it, that living in the world as we do, we are prone to drift. Hence he says, if one of you should wander from the truth. It is easy to get distracted living in this Fallen World, and drift off the path. These are a whole range of things that James has covered, that indicate this possibility. So James is picking up on the possibility that his readers may be left pointing fingers at those who don’t quite measure up. It’s interesting that he seems to assume that the response will be and someone should bring him back but perhaps that is his gentle way of nudging his readers into that position.  The fact that he then continues, Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins seems to indicate that he is having to remind or encourage them into doing that.

It’s as if he is saying, “Look, isn’t it much better that you should reach out to those who are drifting and draw them back. If they are left to themselves they could completely drift away to the worst possible end. If you draw them back you’ll be recovering them and their past failures will be just that, in the past!” Although there are times in this letter when James appears right in your face over particular issues, as he comes to the end of it, the real concern of the pastor comes out, grace abounding.

When we consider, as we have done all the way through, that this is a letter to the church that is now dispersed into the world these are word specifically for this situation. The final closing words of this pastor-teacher are basically, “Keep it together guys, pick up those who are falling, hold together and be there for one another.”  That in a nutshell, is what the corporate Christian life is all about – God is there for you; you be there for one another.  It may appear an abrupt ending when we first see these words, but when we consider the context and all that has gone before, we see they are words of concern for the church to be the church. Where else do you find a group of people who are not driven by discipline (army corps), competition (MP’s and companies), or legalistic rule-keeping requirements or cultural expectations (some world religions)? Within the church, the motivation is the love of God that has been experienced and the presence of God who is love (1 Jn 4:8). Love is the motivating and energising force that we know. May our lives reflect the heart the James shares as he closes this letter.

55. Example of Elijah

Meditations in James: 55: The Example of Elijah

Jas 5:17,18 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

Most of us can look back and see people who, if they weren’t quite role models for us, were certainly people who impacted our lives (for good or bad) in some way. Perhaps we took them for granted, but nevertheless they still made an impression upon us. They might have been a family member or they might have been a friend or a teacher or a leader of some kind. It is natural to look at other people and be touched by their good example, especially. Many Christians come across a character in the Bible who seems to stand out to them and impress them in some particular way. We learn, not only by direct teaching, but also by example.

James uses just such an example to help us focus even more on what he has been saying. Do you remember back in chapter four he called us to side with God against the world?  He called us to live lives submitted to God, lives lived out in the light of our relationship with God. Yes, it was our relationship with the Lord that he went on to talk more about, until in recent verses he comes to talk about prayer as a natural expression of that relationship. In trouble? Pray! Happy? Pray! Sick? Pray! Guilty? Pray! Oh yes, as we’ve said previously, prayer is the classic expression of faith, of this relationship with the Lord being lived out.

But now he wants us to also realise the impact of prayer, the power of prayer, the importance and significance of prayer, and to do that he uses Elijah as an example. Now he’s aware that because Elijah was a great prophet who was remembered for doing great things, we might consider Elijah was right out of our league and therefore not identify with him. Hence he starts off, Elijah was a man just like us.” Yes, he did do some great things, but in many ways he was a very ordinary sort of person. Read Elijah’s story some time (1 Kings 17 on) and you’ll see that he really did have feet of clay sometimes, a very ordinary man. But He prayed. Elijah had a relationship with the Lord and it was that which made him stand out for some of the things the Lord enabled him to do.

But more than that, He prayed earnestly. As he came to God, he obviously caught something of God’s heart, and prayed it some more. As he prayed he found he was getting an assurance from the Lord about what he was praying so, He prayed earnestly that it would not rain. Now when we look up his story we don’t find that part recorded. All we find is, Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘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.” (1 Kings 17:1). Because he was so sure that he had heard God, he conveyed it to Ahab the king. Now if you’re like me, I guess that at that point, he is really praying! Once you step out in faith on what God has said, you really want to be justified and see it happen!

Well, he prayed and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Was it Elijah making it not rain for that time? No, it was the Lord, but Elijah shared in it in as much as he shared in the Lord’s heart and was the messenger to convey it to those on the earth who would be affected by it.  Then James tells us,Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain. Again we are not told in the Kings accounts exactly what he said. What we find is, And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.” (1 Kings 18:41,42). Still in the Spirit, following his episode with the prophets of Baal, Elijah turns to Ahab and finds himself basically saying, “OK, now it will rain, now the land has been cleansed of this apostasy.” What is this climbing to the top of Carmel and bending face down and puting his face between his knees? He is praying, and he carried on praying earnestly, for the same reason as before, until the signs of rain came, followed very rapidly by the rain itself.

Now did you see something in that? If we are right in our assessment of how things happened with Elijah, he had a relationship with the Lord in which, as he prayed, the Lord conveyed His heart to Elijah. All that it needed was for Elijah to respond, which he did, which then provided an even greater motivation to pray. In all this it was God taking the opportunity of the relationship He had with Elijah, to make His will known on earth before He acted. Both times He wanted to do something, and used Elijah to convey it. Both times, as James says, it was as Elijah prayed that he caught the sense of God’s will and was able to declare it. Prayer is the doorway to heaven whereby we catch the will of God and are able to express it on the earth. As we express what God has conveyed to us, He then does it and people realise that it is indeed an act of God and He is glorified.

This is why James wants us to maintain this relationship with the Lord, rejecting the world’s advances, so that we can become instruments to bring glory to God. Isn’t that wonderful! Let’s be that!

54. Confession

Meditations in James: 54: The Place of Confession

Jas 5:15,16 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. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

Confession, in some parts of the church, has sometimes been turned into a ritual. If you “go along to confession” it becomes a ritual, something that is done because it is expected of you and it makes you feel better for a minute of two.  True confession comes out of a broken and contrite heart. In Scripture, probably the greatest example of confession comes in Psalm 51, where the heading tells us that David wrote this after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sin over Bathsheba. It starts out, Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” (v.1,2) Confession comes to God with an awareness of needing God’s mercy, for having offended God. There is an awareness of needing to be cleansed and forgiven.

Look how he continues:For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight(v.3,4). David realized that all sin is against God and that it is evil! When the Holy Spirit convicts, this is what follows. Later he goes on, Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” (v.10,11) Real confession is concerned to be cleansed from the sin and reinstated in right relationship with the Lord (where the sin will not be repeated!)

Having heard a number of people on counseling situations, confessing to the Lord their sins, I have to say that rarely is there whole-hearted, unrestrained pouring out of sorrow to God for those sins. Mostly we have a great deal of difficulty in genuinely facing what we’ve done and genuinely saying, “That was wrong, that was evil, and it affronted God.” but that is real confession!

James’ references to confession flow in the context of healing and after the words we considered yesterday he says,If he has sinned, he will be forgiven”. Suddenly forgiveness and healing are linked. Not every sickness is linked to sin, but some is. Sometimes our sin has caused or made us vulnerable to the sickness, and so for the healing to flow, the sin has to be dealt with first. There is a very strong principle here which accounts, we suspect, for why there is so much illness in the world today. Having said this, James realizes that this needs further explanation.

He continues, Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. There can be no other explanation for what he says other that what we have said in the above paragraph. There is a divine order here: sin – sickness – confession – prayer – healing. It is interesting to note that TWO things are needed: confession AND prayer, confession by the sick person and prayer for healing by the elder. An Old Testament example of this is,Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls so they could have children again,” (Gen 20:17) after Abimelech had had dealings with God. He confessed but God required His representative, Abram, to pray for him. The prayer of the elder adds significance to what is happening and he acts as God’s representative to declare forgiveness and healing.

In the New Testament the classic example of this is Jesus and the man let down through the roof. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said,Friend, your sins are forgiven.” (Lk 5:20). The man’s willingness to come to Jesus was equivalent to his confession but before he is healed, Jesus pronounces forgiveness. Jesus knew there was a sin and forgiveness issue here and so dealt with it. He subsequently brings the healing: He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (v.24). There is a clear link between the sickness and the need for forgiveness followed by healing.

We should note, however, that this is not always the case as John shows us in his Gospel. As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.(Jn 9:1-3) Sin was not the issue behind this man’s blindness. He was just part of the Fallen World, and so Jesus simply brought healing without the need of confession and forgiveness.

James concludes,The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. The righteous elder praying for a sick member of his flock, is in the position of God’s representative and, as long as he is a righteous man, he is therefore in the position to bring prayer to bear that has a powerful impact – to bring healing.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions to ask, that arises out of these verses, is do we have an open and submissive and humble heart that is willing to seek out its spiritual leadership and confess, when we become aware of our sin? Such confession is an indication of a heart that is indeed open, submissive and humble, and that is the challenge, because that is the sort of heart we are all supposed to have.

53. Prayer and Healing

Meditations in James: 53: Praying out Sickness

Jas 5:13-15    Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him 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.

There is one particular facet of the Christian faith that is so simple and yet so profound, and which goes to the very heart of belief and behaviour. It is that the Christian life is divinely supernatural.  What we mean by that is that our faith, our belief and our behaviour, if it is the faith etc. displayed in the pages of the New Testament, is to be saturated with the life of God. We are what we are because of God, we think what we think because of God and, finally and almost most importantly, we live lives that are guided and empowered by God. In other words we are people who are humanly impossible – but God enabled – and we do things that are humanly impossible – but are God enabled.  Nowhere is this divinely supernatural element more evidenced in us than in prayer.

James has just been exhorting us, as we saw yesterday, to live simple straight forward lives of transparent honest and integrity. He now peppers our consciousness with a variety of expressions of life involving prayer, as the most simple and straight forward way of expressing our relationship with the Lord. For James, prayer is a divinely supernatural activity that should be at the heart of our lives. He’s talked a lot in this letter about living in a world full of difficulties and so it is natural as he talks about prayer to ask, Is any one of you in trouble? because he almost expects that. Things do go wrong in this Fallen World, so he knows at any one point of time some of us will be struggling with difficulties of living in this world. What to do about it? He should pray. How simple, how obvious, but how often do we not think to do that?  Whether it is over such mundane things as a headache, or of losing or misplacing something, or of learning something new that seems difficult, is our natural first response to turn to the Lord and ask for His help?

We said this was both simple and profound. We said this was all about living divinely supernatural lives. We’re not going to pray unless we believe God will answer and do something to bring change – well, we might pray from superstitious belief or from legalistic ‘I ought’ motivations – but it is the belief that God is our loving heavenly Father who loves to do things for His children that brings the best motivation to pray.

But it’s not only when things go badly that we should pray; it’s also when they go well. Is anyone happy? asks James. We are happy when things are going well, when our horizon is not blighted by difficulties. Don’t only pray when things are going badly, implies James, but also let the joy that is in your heart when things are going well rise up in songs of praise directed to God. Sing praise to God. Songs are an expression of a joyful heart, so let your heart be released and let songs come forth that praise God for the good things He has done for you. Let this be your expression of thankfulness.

Is any one of you sick? asks James next, casting around to think of times when prayer should be the most natural of responses. It’s difficult to pray when you are feeling ill; it’s not a time when faith rises and you feel strong and good in Christ. Perhaps that’s why Jesus healed so many people, because he knew that sickness blights our relationship with the Lord and makes us focus on ourselves. No, James understood all this, which is why he knows we need help when we are sick. When you’re sick it’s difficult to see past the symptoms but the least we can do is call for help. The elders of the church are the leaders God has called into being (well they ought to be) to carry His authority and to exercise His power in such cases. So call for the elders and ask them to pray for you.

He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. There is the order of things. YOU call for the elders. YOU know when you need them. It’s not for them to come until faith in you accepts your position and is ready to receive their input. When they come they should do what the saints of old did as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit coming to enable, they should anoint with oil. This is simply a faith sign, a visible help to faith that conveys an important truth. It is the coming of God by His Spirit that will bring healing, not anything magical. Note the phrase, in the name of the Lord. It is as they come aware that they are simply God’s representatives, seeking His guidance and direction and power. As they come like this, they come in a right attitude and are open for that divinely supernatural leading.

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. How simply it is said. It WILL make the sick person well.  What is the ‘it’ we’ve just referred to? The prayer offered in faith. Remember faith comes from hearing God, and so this prayer is a prayer that is energized by hearing God’s word and believing it. These elders have heard God speak into them His truth about healing and they know He wants to bring it. They pray in response to that, and therefore because they pray in line with His will, He comes and answers and brings healing.

The Lord will raise him up. Have you been cast down by sickness? Then call for your church leaders and ask them to pray for you according to what James says, and the Lord will lift you up. It may be as He heals you instantly or it may be as He starts you on a path of healing, but in whatever way it is, you will find yourself being lifted up.

There is more to come about this in the following verses, but for the moment there is plenty here to stir our hearts and minds into faith. Go back over these things. Check them out, one by one. Pray, or seek prayer. It is the doorway to this life that is divinely supernatural. Be blessed in it!

52. Be Simple

Meditations in James: 52: Be Simple & Straight Forward

Jas 5:12 Above all, my brothers, do not swear–not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the practice of children crossing their fingers behind their backs to annul the promise they are making to other children, but that’s rather like what was happening in James’ time. Put in its most simple form, it is people excusing themselves from promises they have made. Children, especially, are good at using words to tie up friendships or try to bring honour to an agreement. Ah, that is what is at the heart of the whole problem of agreement; it is trying to bring honour to it. When someone swears an oath on a Bible in the witness box in a courtroom, the court are trying to make that person feel there is a solemnity in that oath-taking that will ensure they honour the court and tell the truth. People ‘swear’ by their mother’s grave, or goodness knows what, to try and give the other person a sense that they will honour their promise, or to reassure them that they are speaking the truth. Ensuring an agreement is honoured, or convincing others that you are speaking the truth, is sometimes difficult if your credibility or integrity is at stake. It’s a very important area of life.

It was to counter this dubious trend at that time that James wrote this verse. There had come a practice of distinguishing between oaths that were binding and those which were not. If God’s name was invoked, that made it binding, but otherwise oaths were not considered binding. Also oaths were used a great deal which also tended to undermine their trustworthiness. The whole point of an oath is that it is solemnising something that is special, something rare. The oath makes it special, the oath makes it something that everyone should feel MUST be kept. If an oath was used all the time, that would completely demean the use and value of oaths.

Oaths are all about validating the truth, but the truth should not need to be validated. If we are Christians we should, above all other people, be concerned to live in the truth and speak only the truth. This may limit our lives but it is what is required. Now this is such a simple yet profound thing that we need to repeat it again and again until we really do take in the significance of what is being said. The truth should not need to be validated by us, only on special occasions where there is a particularly significant or serious matter at hand, where we wish to convey to all onlookers that we are utterly, one hundred per cent, serious with no possibility whatsoever of doubt creeping in over our sincerity.

The writer to the Hebrews (Heb 6:13,14) cited God’s promise to Abraham (in Gen 22:17) which he considered an oath. A promise by God is the most serious of promises because God NEVER lies (Num 23:19), therefore if He resorts to a promise, it is a most serious thing. If He promises to do something that is the equivalent of taking an oath in His own name. Jesus clearly felt himself under a similar responsibility before the charge of the high priest: The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied.” (Mt 26:63,64).  Paul involved God as his witness on rare occasions when he wanted to convince his readers: God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times” (Rom 1:9,10). Oaths should, therefore, be used very rarely, to ensure they keep their sense of seriousness, and they should also only ever be used to create that sense of utter seriousness, to confirm a promise in the eyes of the onlookers in such a measure that there can be no doubt about the integrity of the person making the oath.

Now James starts this verse with  “Above all.” Now remember that in this chapter he has been warning against unrighteous rich people who cause trouble for the poorer Christians or warning against the tendency to let riches bring you into unrighteousness. He has counseled his readers to be patient as they wait for God to come and sort out either the unrighteous rich or the struggle of the individual with sin and temptation. He has called them to be patient as they wait for the Lord to come and do this.

So what he is now saying is, while you are waiting for all of these things to be resolved, ensure that over all of that, you ensure that you keep your lives simple and truthful, avoiding the deceitful tactics that the rich (implied by context) and others use. YOU remain truthful and in simple honesty, having an integrity that ensures you don’t have to keep bolstering up your appearance by lots of oaths or other techniques to justify your position and integrity. May it be so for us today!

51. More on Patience

Meditations in James: 51:  More on Patience & Perseverance

Jas 5:10,11    Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

The temptation to give up is sometimes a very strong temptation. We have a poster which includes some of the following lines: “People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centred. Love them anyway….. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway…. People really need help but may attack you if you help them. Help people anyway….. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you’ve got ANYWAY.”  Whoever originally wrote those words knew that sometimes life in this world is tough but we have to decide to keep on anyway. To give up is to let Sin and Satan win. To give up is to be trampled on and to lose wonderful possibilities of a better tomorrow.   When we’re tired, feeling jaded, worn out, and the enemy seems to jeer at us, he’s trying to get us to give up. It’s a strong temptation, but Paul wrote: No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it. (1 Cor 10:13 Message version) The words of that verse tell us a) our temptation is common to life, b) God won’t let you be pushed further  than you can cope with and c) He’ll be there to help you.

James has just said, You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near (v.8), the ‘too’ referring to the example of the farmers he had just spoken about as having to wait patiently for their harvests. In the face of unrighteous people or, even, of having to struggle with our own unrighteous attitudes or behaviour and sometimes failing, the temptation to just give up is often strong. Hence we need these words of encouragement: be patient and stand firm and now these words about the prophets. Look what James says.

“Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” The subject of his concern is having patience, waiting for God, or God’s grace, to turn up when we are suffering. If you want an example of how this worked out, he implies, look at the Old Testament prophets. He goes on,As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered.” In the teaching of the day, the prophets were revered for their loyalty and faithfulness to the Lord. Despite the opposition they received, they hung on in.  The reality is that despite what was thrown at them, they survived and were triumphant.

You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about.” James then cites the particular example of Job who persevered in the face of lots of bad things happening to him.  Yes, the enemy afflicted him but the end of the story was God blessing him and restoring him to what he had known previously – in fact twice as prosperous as he had been before! (Job 42:10).

“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.The fact that tough things happen in this world, doesn’t detract from the truth about God’s character. He is still full of compassion and mercy. He is still a God who feels for His people and is moved by the plight of His people.  Remember Moses’ first encounter with the Lord: The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.” (Ex 3:7,8). Compassion is a heart moved by plight. God doesn’t stand afar off when we are going through tough times. No, He is right there and He feels and understands all we are going through and is there working to bring good through it (Rom 8:28). More than that He doesn’t assess every situation and say, “Oh well, they deserve it!” and leave us to it. No, He knows our frailty and despite our stupidity, so often, He comes and rescues us. It is an act of pure mercy. Not deserved but nevertheless given.

Yes, James knows that living in this world brings both opposition from other people and opposition from sin that we struggle with. He knows that we struggle with the temptation to give up, and so he encourages us to persevere, patiently waiting for the Lord to turn up and intervene. He cites working illustrations – farmers – and spiritual illustrations – Old Testament prophets. Having to wait and be patient is a familiar thing, a normal and natural thing in this Fallen World.  So his word comes: hang on! But it’s more than that; it is, hang on – because God WILL turn up, as surely as harvest does and as surely as He did for His prophets of old. So look up and look around. The Lord is coming for you in your situation!

50. God, the Judge

Meditations in James: 50: God is the Judge

Jas 5:9    Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

On the basis of this verse and what I have observed over many years as a Christian, I suspect that there is a lot of judging going on in the church – by God! Now because the Gospel of grace is preached in the church, Christians sometimes think it doesn’t matter what they say or do, because they will be forgiven by God through the work of Christ on the Cross. Well this is a big subject that needs a variety of answers.

The first answer is that God’s salvation is for all who repent and put their lives into God’s hands. Now implied within that is that they surrender to Him and are obedient to His word and to His Spirit as they ‘follow Jesus’.  Is it possible for salvation to be lost?  I believe on the basis of such verses as Ezek 18:24 and Heb 6:4-6 (as well as many other incidental verses) it is, but not by occasional lapses but by purposeful apostasy.

The second thing to note is about the question of whether a Christian can ‘get away with’ sin.  Paul taught that we have died to sin and should therefore no longer sin (Rom 6:1,2). Sin, for the Christian, should ever only be the occasional lapse when we are tripped up by the enemy. John wrote, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 2:1,2) i.e. we shouldn’t sin but if there is a lapse, Jesus will be there for us.

But supposing we accept a particular behaviour that we tolerate because we think it is all right – such as grumbling against others – but which isn’t!  Does God just sit back and let us ‘get away with it’?  Well, remember that His purpose is to change us into the likeness of Jesus (2 Cor 3:18).  He is not going to put that purpose aside because we have decided we like doing this particular thing.  Oh no, He will take action to deal with that in us.  The writer to the Hebrews understood this: My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Heb 12:5,6). Later he wrote,No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (v.11). No, if you tolerate unrighteousness in your life, then along the way you will encounter circumstances that the Hebrews’ writer refers to as ‘hardship’ – Endure hardship as discipline.” (v.7). Will you lose your salvation? No! Will you incur God’s discipline? Yes!

We say all this, of course, in the light of our verse in James today.  God will discipline me for grumbling, you ask?  Again the writer to the Hebrews points us back to the Old Testament when he says, we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast. So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert (Heb 3:6-8).  There he was referring back to the time when Israel ‘grumbled’ in the desert and were judged for it.  Many of them died (Num 11:1-3).  Miriam and Aaron grumbled against Moses and Miriam was left leprous (Num 12:1-15).  Because the people grumbled against going into the land, the Lord forbad that generation form entering (Num 14:26-29).  Grumbling in each of these instances was complaining about the leadership of the people. That’s where grumbling occurs, when God’s people are negative about their leaders, and this is also grumbling against God (because they are His representatives.

So it is that James realizes the severity of grumbling and warns the church against it. Yet he doesn’t spell out the negative consequences of disunity in a church, he simply reminds us that we are accountable to God: you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” i.e. God is watching and He will not let this go.  He will see it, know exactly what it is – sin – and will come and deal with it.

We have already commented recently on Paul’s warnings over Communion but it applies again here: For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.” (1 Cor 11:29-32).  The Corinthians were being casual about how they came to God and were abusing one another. Because they would not heed the Spirit of God within them, the Lord had simply taken a number of them to heaven to be with Him.  He wouldn’t let them carry on there on the earth in the church.

When a couple named Ananias and Sapphira decided to lie and appear more holy than they were, the Lord used them as an example to the rest of the church and took them to heaven. That doesn’t mean they lost their eternal salvation but it does mean they were taken out of His plans here on earth.

There are serious issues here, and perhaps they may be summed up as, don’t be casual about sin, for you will be answerable to God and the very least He will do is discipline you here and now in your present circumstances. We would prefer not to think about the alternative, as we value our lives here on earth. What does this verse say? God holds us accountable. Think about it.

49. Be Patient

Meditations in James: 49 : Be patient, stand firm

Jas 5:7,8   Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.

There is a general principle in life: looking forward to the future helps us cope with the present. People working in offices, factories, or wherever else it may be, know this. They look forward to that two week holiday that they have booked and the thought of the time away helps them through the tiredness of daily routine until that time of escape comes. Perhaps they even look forward to the weekend, to help them through Friday. It is also a Scriptural principle. The writer to the Hebrew wrote: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2). Jesus coped with the Cross knowing it was the necessary way forward that would result in him being restored to the glory of heaven, and an even greater glory now he had achieved the purpose of God to bring salvation to the world.  Faith is all about believing in the outcome of what God says. For example, By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world.” (Heb 11:7)  Noah believed God when He told him to build an ark to escape the coming flood. He worked on the basis of what was to come.  Speaking about the various things Abraham did, the writer to the Hebrews said, For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Heb 11:10). In other words Abraham stepped out in obedience to God in the belief that the Lord would lead him to a place a permanence, of security. He was motivated by that sense of something yet to come in the future.

Now we have commented previously on the use of the word ‘then’ and James uses it again here: “Be patient then…”.   It is a word that links the present with the past, with what James is now saying with what he has just been saying. There are two ways we could interpret this. The first is to consider, as we mentioned briefly two days ago, the possibility that the rich are in fact those who have been persecuting the poorer Christians and making life difficult for them – so they would be looking for a future escape from their present plight. The second is to view the past paragraph as applying to Christians who fail in this present world but need to persevere in getting it right, because the Lord is about to come. Both may be true.

James is saying, cope with all these things, triumph and overcome in all these things, because the Lord is coming. The problem about that is that we don’t know when. That’s why James then gives us an illustration of patience – See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. Farmers learn that patience is an essential commodity; you have to be patient and wait for the plants to grow, the seasons to pass and harvest to come. In the same way, James implies, we need to be patient in waiting for the Lord to come.

Now at this point we run into a difficulty.  We find that James has a high expectation of the Lord’s immanent return: the Lord’s coming is near. It seems that the early church had a very high expectation that the Lord’s return would be in their time. The New Testament clearly testifies to this: The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.” (Rom 13:12) and let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb 10:25) and The end of all things is near(1 Pet 4:7) andHe who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” (Rev 22:20). Now we could try and explain this with,With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Pet 3:8) but the more likely answer, we suggest, is that when prophetic people exercise their ministries (and the New Testament writers were each being prophetic when they wrote like this), it is as if in their spirits they are transported forward to the time of fulfillment and so it seems, when they later think about it, as if it is very close.

Now there are three ways that Jesus can ‘return’ or come into your experience in a tangible way. The first is when you die, and at that point you come face to face with him. Of course we never know when that will be. It could be tomorrow or next year.  The second way is when the Lord comes in revival. This is simply when God turns up in great power, as has been seen many times in church history of the past two thousand years, and when that happens it is like you are face to face with the power and presence of the Lord. The third is when Jesus will return at the end of time, a time when he will clearly be visible (see Acts 1:11, 1 Thess 4:16 [note, ‘loud shout’], 2 Thes 1:7) and when the whole earth will be brought face to face with him (Rev 19). The message behind each of these possibilities is, make sure you are ready to face the Lord when he comes. Yes, James’ encouragement is in respect of holding on until the Lord comes, but his coming is also a time of accounting, and therefore if anything we have considered in the past two meditations applies to us, then we need to do something about it. As Jesus said, When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8). That applies to each of us.

48. Unjust Employment

Meditations in James: 48 : Unjust Employment

Jas 5:4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.

One of the things we have sought to draw out again and again in these meditations is the truth that spirituality, if it is real, will have practical outworkings. In other words, faith is expressed in a godly and righteous lifestyle, and more often than not this is about how we respond to or deal with other people. Now rich people get rich because they have the ability to get poorer people to work for little (by comparison) and to get other people to pay larger sums of money so that profit is made. That is a simple economic assessment. Profit is made because the entrepreneur sells his products for more than it costs him to make them. None of us would argue with this, because without a profit no producer is going to make the goods we use in modern life. God isn’t against modern goods, but if their manufacture involves keeping the poor, poor then He has, we believe, an issue with those manufacturers who exploit the poor.

God’s intentions in these issues are clear in that they are revealed in the Law that He gave Moses. We find, Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.” (Lev 19:13). In other words, when you hire a man on a daily basis to work for you, don’t delay paying him at the end of the day. Such a man hiring himself out for daily work is not likely to be well off and so he needs the money straight away to buy provisions for his family. To withhold his money is to deprive his family unfairly. Similarly, Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deut 24:14,15).

There the Law was quite specific. Whether it was an Israelite or a foreigner, ensure you pay the man working for you promptly. Failure to do that is sin, and you have an issue with the Lord. Perhaps a modern equivalent to this is modern large companies holding back money owed to smaller companies or individuals, a fairly regular and unrighteous practice. Not only did the Law speak against this sort of thing, but the prophets also denounced it: Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor.” (Jer 22:13) and So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Mal 3:5). The practice of holding back wages that have been earned is clearly injustice and is unacceptable in God’s sight.

Now James picks on this subject because, as we’ve said several times previously, he either has heard about this injustice, or he knows that this is how the rich employer so often works, so that he denounces it and is saying by implication that this must not happen when Christians are involved. The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you is a prophetic way of saying simply that this injustice is crying out to be deal with. There he says it is the wages that are still in the coffers of the rich that should have been paid out to the poor worker that is crying out to God. But then he goes further: The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. Those who are being exploited cry out in their anguish and frustration, and God hears their cries. When there is injustice, it is like that thing cries out to God and draws God’s attention to it. It needs dealing with.

God is concerned for the poor. God is concerned for justice and it is no excuse to say, “Well, everyone does it.”  That is no excuse; it is still wrong! If the employer is a Christian that is doubly bad for they should know better. How can you say you love your neighbour (Lev 19:18,  Mt 22:39) is you are exploiting him. If you are a Christian and you are involved in these practices in any way, you are involved in something that the Lord speaks strongly against.

We conclude as we started, with a reminder that spirituality always has practical outworkings if it is really spiritual, because God is concerned about the very way we live. We may appear very spiritual, reading the Bible, praying publicly, and worshipping on a Sunday, but if the weekday life involves doing something that the Lord is against, all that apparent spirituality is meaningless. Check out your working days!

47. Accountability

Meditations in James: 47 : Accountability for the Rich

Jas 5:1-3 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

There are commentators who maintain that these verses cannot apply to Christians because of the harshness of them, but elsewhere in this ‘letter’ the references have been to those in the church, and one has to ask the question, if this was to unbelievers, when could they possibly have it read to them?  For a third time in these recent meditations we will suggest that either James knows specific people or churches  where there are people like this, or that he is giving a general warning – in this case to the rich – because he knows the general tendency or the characteristics that so often go with the situation. We will assume the latter, although it is also interesting to view these first six verses as a cry against the rich, when very few Christians were rich. It thus becomes a cry against those who oppress the Christians. However, we will consider it as a cry to include Christians.

Remember two main things that we have picked up in this letter. First, that James is speaking to those of the church who have been dispersed or spread out across the world and who are no longer under the close comfort, direction and protection of the original church at Jerusalem. Second, his fear, and therefore his warnings, is directed against the tendency of Christians to become assimilated into the world.  Again, as we look at these verses, we must comment that although they obviously applied to Christians in the first century, they apply even more to us living in the West at the beginning of the twenty first century, which is a time of unparalleled affluence.

We also need to remember a general principle that comes out of the Bible. God is not against material prosperity, but is against reliance upon it that draws people away from Him. When we observe the wisdom that God gave Solomon, we see that much of that wisdom was used to make the country prosperous and him richer than anyone else in the world. In Solomon’s case it wasn’t the riches themselves that drew Solomon away, but the multitude of foreign wives he had. We also find many references in Scripture to God’s desire to prosper us, and it is clear that that includes materially as well as spiritually.

No, the big concern is what effect riches have upon us.  Jesus taught, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Mt 6:24). If you make money your master, if it is the thing you focus your life upon, then you will find it impossible to maintain a healthy relationship with the Lord. When James now speaks like and Old Testament prophet, it is simply to create a picture that warns any Christian who might fall into the trap, living out in the world, of being seduced by money and possessions. Remember Jesus’ teaching that followed that reference above: seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6:33)  The ‘all these things” are material provisions. Possessions are not to rule us; we are to rule over them. Our focus is not to be possessions, but on doing God’s will. When we do that, then God provides the possessions.

With all that in mind, we are then ready to consider what James actually says here. Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Now this may be a general warning or it may be a prophetic insight that for them, at that time, there was coming a time of upheaval when riches would mean nothing. Especially for those who rely upon riches, such a time is a time of misery. When we push ourselves financially, and then go into times of recession, these are especially difficult times. The wise Christian never puts their life into a position where recession wipes away their assets or puts them in jeopardy.

See what more he says: Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. James envisages the effect of simply storing up material possessions and not using them. The builder of bigger barns in Jesus’ parable (Lk 12:16-21) couldn’t use his barns and his wealth because he died unexpectedly. The warning here is that if you just leave wealth to store up you won’t be able to use it because of the danger of it deteriorating. How many have stored away expensive pictures or furniture only to find them attacked by woodworm or mildew.  Possessions, of whatever sort, are not for hoarding, but for using. What is even worse about this, is that there is a world in need that we could be helping with our surplus. It is right to make provision for family and the future but if it goes beyond reasonable provision, we have to be careful that we are not putting ourselves beyond God’s protection when it comes to all that affluence.

Finally he says, Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” When all our plans to stock up, fail because the stock market fails or our possessions are stolen or they literally rot, our human plans of self-sufficiency are shown to be folly, and they testify against us. Moreover we feel really upset about what has happened. The phrase, they eat your flesh like fire is a graphic prophetic form of picture that shows the anguish we feel when this sort of thing happens. If you spilt petrol on you and it caught fire, the encroaching flames would eat at your flesh causing immense pain. When all your stored riches come to nothing, the anguish is the same if you have placed all your reliance upon them.

This is the warning James is bringing us, in his desire to draw us back from the ways of the world. Go down the same path they go down, is what he is implying, and you risk suffering the same anguish that they will suffer. The warning is against relying upon riches, against relying upon money and possessions. The warning is for drawing us back into a closer relationship with the Lord, where we make Him and His will our central focus, and money and possessions are merely icing on the cake. A salutary warning for many in the day in which we live!