In James 5:1-12, Jesus’ brother outlines why we should not envy the rich, which is something we are prone to do. Many people have thought at some point in their lives, “If I just had more money, all my problems would be solved.” It’s not true—you would just have a whole different set of problems! James instructs us not to envy the rich, since earthly wealth is transitory in nature (vv. 2-3). As Christians, we should have a longer view of life than the world (unbelievers). If you believe that this life is all there is, that there is no God and no afterlife, then it makes sense to invest your time, talents, and treasure to maximize your happiness, and promote your own personal peace and affluence. If, on the other hand, the Bible is true, and there is a God who has communicated not only his love for us, but his desires and expectations, then we should invest our time, talents, and treasure in such a way that advances those goals that are dear to God’s heart. James presents a second reason we should not envy the rich: God will judge the unrighteous rich, those wealthy persons who ignore God, live for this life only, and/or have gained their wealth unjustly. “Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire” (v. 3). This is a picture of judgment. James is saying that the very things which define wealth for the unrighteous in this life will be used as evidence against them when they stand before God in the next.
In observing the rich, James found several areas of violation. First, they were guilty of hoarding their riches (v. 3). The first and foundational principle of Christian stewardship is the understanding that God is the owner of all we possess. We are simply his stewards. In a sense, we are to God what the bank is to us. We manage God’s money; we don’t own it! God graciously allows us to use a portion of his wealth to provide for our needs and those of our families. However, he wants us to direct a portion of our incomes to further his purposes in the world. Further, James tells us that not only were the rich of his day guilty of selfishly hoarding their wealth, they were also guilty of withholding wages from those to whom they were due (v. 4). They were living a selfish lifestyle (v. 5). In other words, they had used money which rightly belonged to others to finance a soft life for themselves. Finally, James says that the rich were taking advantage of the righteous (v. 6). It appears that the rich were using the legal system to take what they wanted. And when the legal system didn’t work, some were willing to take even more extreme measures (James speaks of innocent men being murdered).
As you can imagine, James’ Christian readers struggled with how to respond to the rich. On the one hand, they struggled with envy. At times it seemed as though it paid to be dishonest, and they too were tempted to compromise their integrity to get a larger slice of the pie. But they also struggled with bitterness and the desire to get even with those who had exploited them. James addresses these issues in verses 7-12. James’ advice is four-fold, and is given in the form of four commands.
The first is that we are to patiently await Christ’s return (v. 7). Farmers don’t plant seeds one day and expect to harvest a crop the next. They patiently wait for the crop to mature. In a similar way, we must patiently await Christ’s return, at which time the unrighteous will be judged and the righteous will be rewarded. For the Christian, this life is mostly about sowing seeds and then cultivating them. It is not so much about reaping rewards. That comes in the next life.
The second command is to stand firm (v. 8). Literally the Greek text says “to strengthen your heart.” When we have patiently refused to retaliate against a wrong suffered, the next tendency of the flesh is to become discouraged and overcome by self-pity. In the face of such discouragement, James encourages us to take strength in the knowledge that Jesus will return soon. Then we will be comforted, and the unjust will be punished.
Third, James tells us not to complain or grumble (v. 9). At times, we grumble against those who have absolutely nothing to do with the problem…like our friends or family. James says, “Don’t do that! Don’t take injustices perpetrated against you out on others. Otherwise you too will be judged for treating others unjustly.”
The last command is found in verse 12: do not swear. James is not talking about using profanity, but rather using God’s name or substitutes for it, to guarantee the truthfulness of what we say. For those of you who have been through tough times you know how easy it is to say things we don’t mean, and to want to make bargains with God that we can’t keep. We’ll swear on a stack of Bibles that if God will just deliver us from this circumstance we will do such and so. James says,
Application / Challenge
- Ask God to give you contentment as you patiently await Christ’s return.
- When you find yourself discontented determine not to:
- focus on the situation, or you’ll become angry
- focus on yourself or you’ll become filled with self-pity
- focus on someone to blame, or you’ll begin complaining
- focus on the present, or you’ll miss what God is trying to achieve in your life