Epistle of James 5 – Faith Conquers Dangers and Difficulties

Pasi Hujanen
Taisto Sokka

Wealth Is a Good Servant but a Terrible Lord – James 5:1–6

This passage is a serious reminder and a warning about the position of wealth in our lives. Wealth and riches can easily become too important so that they dictate the way of our lives and choices.

The prophets of the Old Testament continuously rebuked the rich. Perhaps the strongest preacher of this topic was Amos (for example Amos 4:1–11). But the background of James’ message is more likely found in the teachings of Jesus of the dangers of riches, for example Matt 6:19–21.

There is one especially dangerous side to being rich: It binds the person to himself. A rich person believes that he is living comfortably supported by his wealth and sometimes even to the extent of trying to forget about death (Luke 12:15–21; tonight!). Being rich leads easily into a mindset of subconsciously imagining life to continue forever. In that mindset there is no Heaven where to strive to and no Hell to try to avoid. Heaven for the rich is staying rich in this life – “Heaven on Earth”. But that understanding of ”Heaven” is not real and the people striving for it will perish.

Did James not know that corrosion does not affect gold or silver (verse 3)? Probably yes, but it is more likely that James refers to patina (a thin layer of oxidation on a metal), which is often a sign of not being in use for an extensive period. The gold and silver of the rich has been stored away for a long time, so their shine has dimmed. Instead of storing them away, they should have been used to help the poor. Likewise, the clothes of the rich have been unused and therefore become moth-eaten (verse 2), when they should have been given to the naked (Matt 25:36, 43).

Verse 4 gives a clear picture that richness had, and still has, a strong connection to greed. You want something that belongs to another. This awful evil cries out to heaven, which is a call for God to come and judge the evildoer (ref. Mal 3:5).

Can a Christian Be Rich?

In the 1970’s there was a Christian businessman who was “the richest in Finland” according to tax records. A news reporter asked him: Can a Christian be the richest in Finland? He responded that he is by no means the richest, but he had only reported more income that year than any other.

So, can a Christian be rich? St. Luke records that at least some of the disciples of Jesus were wealthy, for they provided for Jesus from their wealth (Luke 8:3). Being rich is not a sin itself but rather a blessing of God (Proverbs 22:4). The problem of richness lies on what it is used for and what does it lead to. Easily, the rich will be like the rich man in the Bible: His riches had blinded him from seeing the poor Lazarus or even eternal life (Luke 16:19–31).

But how then should a Christian, the Church, or a Christian association take care of their finances? Luther taught that even if the last day comes tomorrow, today he would plant an apple tree. When Jesus has anointed with an expensive oil before he died, he did not rebuke that person, but thanked her (Matt 26:6–13).

Money has its place in the ministry of God’s kingdom. Without money missionaries would have to return to their homeland, churches would be without heating, and so on.

Money must be a servant, not a lord. It is good to prepare for the future, and therefore, everything should not be used for today. But what is then the “oxidizing of gold” and what is investing wisely for the future? Determining between the two can be difficult. It is important that we pray for the financial situation of all Christian churches and associations.

Patience Will Be Rewarded in Time – James 5:7–11

At times you might hear the claim: “The return of Jesus Christ is spoken of very rarely in the New Testament. It is not so important.” But it has been counted that a total of 300 places in the New Testament speak about the return of Jesus, which is about once in every chapter (there are 260 chapters in the NT all together). St. Paul also spoke about the return of Jesus in his speech in the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17:30–31). Apparently, the return of Jesus was a very essential theme in the preaching of the Early Church.

The Jews waited upon the day of the Lord, which would be a day of happiness for the Jews, but a day of agony and judgement for the gentiles. Also, the Christian waiting for the return of Jesus has this division between those who welcome it with joy and those who will tremble for their judgement.

But did James make a mistake when he was waiting for Jesus to return soon (verse 8)? St. Peter responds to a similar question in his letter (2 Peter 3:8–9): God does not postpone the return of Jesus without a reason, but he does it because of grace. We must be reminded that God and man have a very different perception of time.

Therefore, we should not get caught up in human reasoning, but rather be like a farmer who sows and waits for the nature to do what is expected and hoped for, to yield crops. In the same way a Christian should just wait upon the promises of God and their fulfilment. A farmer cannot quicken the crops to ripen, and so a Christian should also submit under the timing of God. A Christian does not even know when the crop will be ripe, only God knows it (Matt 24:36; see also the warning of Jesus in Luke 12:41–48).

Translating the verse 7 is problematic since James only speaks of the “early” and “late”. Translators have done two kinds of “additions” to interpret the text: they have explained the expression as “early and late rains” (perhaps of fall and spring) or “early and late harvest”.

Both interpretations are possible, since harvest was gathered in spring and fall in Israel (though the harvest of the fall was not grain as in Egypt, but fruit). The rain seasons were in October during the fall and around March and April in the spring. Both harvests are mentioned in Deut 11:14 which can be the background to the words of James.

Another example of patience is given to us through the prophets of the Old Testament (see Heb 11:32–38) and Job. Especially from Job we see that although his trials were overwhelming, all became well in the end (Job 42:8–17). All is well that ends well.

Verse 9 is a reminder that those who judge will be judged themselves (ref. Matt 7:2).

It should be noticed that in verse 11 James speaks of God as “compassionate and merciful”. To this picture it is very difficult to fit the theological interpretation of James requiring absolute holiness in life (as some might think).

Can a Christian Swear an Oath? – James 5:12

Many interpret this verse and Matt 5:33–37 so that a Christian should not swear any kind of oath. Very close to the words of St. James is also 2 Cor 1:17–20.

But Jesus and James do not speak about a public oath, for example being truthful in the official court, but they wanted to forbid private swears. The Jews of that time were known to swear many oaths. They swore by God to make him as a backup to their deeds. This swearing is not right.

The Old Testament requires to swear an oath in particular situations (Ex 22:11). Jeremiah speaks about swearing falsely (Jer 5:2; 7:9), so there must be swearing correctly as well. In fact, some of St. Paul’s letters include swearing (for example Gal 1:20; 2 Cor 1:23).

In conclusion, there is a correct public oath. But the kind of reassuring of your speech by swearing in the name of the Lord is disgracing his name.

About Prayer – James 5:13–18

As we continue to this passage, it is important to know that St. James was exemplary in praying. His personal righteousness was the reason that the Jews let him lead the church of Jerusalem for so long. Early Christian tradition has recorder that James prayed so earnestly that his knees became like the knees of a camel.

From the verses 14–15 the Roman Catholic Church has interpreted the Sacrament of Anointing of the sick (also known as Extreme Unction). But James is not speaking about the salvation of the person’s soul, but of the healing of the body (although the original Greek verb can have both meanings).

Anointing with oil was used to heal the sick already in the Old Testament (Isa. 1:6). Also, the disciples of Jesus used it as part of healing the sick (Mark 6:13; Luke 10:34). It is still noteworthy, that James keeps underlining the importance of prayer. A person is healed above all by prayer, not by anointing.

Some claim that modern medicine has replaced the spiritual gift of healing and praying for the sick. It is indeed true that the development of medicine has been one of the greatest gifts from God to mankind. But still, medicine still cannot cure every disease. We cannot restrict the work of God in healing the sick and think that modern medicine is enough for us!

Psalm 50:15 is said to be the ”phone number” of God. “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” God must call many to him through difficulties of life. Difficulties are a part of Christian life, and they are by no means a sign of abandonment from God.

Again, James takes an example from the Old Testament. Elijah prayed strongly though he was just an ordinary human. Through prayer he had victory over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 17–18).

Christians Cannot Be Bystanders – James 5:19–20

”Wandering from the truth” can mean either mistakes in doctrine or in moral life. Both can break the connection from man to God.

To return a lost one back on the right path is not only the duty of spiritual workers, but a duty of every Christian. St. Paul speaks in Gal 6:1 about restoration. In ancient medicine this Greek word meant to return a member of the body back to its correct position. This is exactly what Paul refers to. The Christian must be returned where he belongs to – under the will of God.

Verse 20 (also Proverbs 10:12 and 1 Peter 4:10) says that love covers a multitude of sins. Some have therefore concluded that sins can be redeemed by good deeds. This would sound much like the doctrine of Islam: the relation of your good and evil deeds determine your fate. But it can be understood in a different way. Love does not “count” the amount of sin. Jesus does not love only those who love him back, but Jesus loves especially those who do not deserve his love.