Who Is Your Best Friend?
Explore the Bible Series
August 23, 2009
Background Passage: James 4:1-17
Lesson Passage: James 4:1-17
James Chapter Four does not so much describe friendship with God as it lists the marks of those who love the world, the enemies of God (See v. 4). We cannot know the historical circumstances that provoked this strident chapter, but something had alarmed James. It seems safe to conclude that libertarian teachers had deeply divided the churches, and James wrote to counteract the problems that arose in the wake of these false doctrines: church disputes, lust for power, prayerlessness, pride, evil speech, and boastful presumption. James did not paint a pretty picture. These churches were in crisis, and only a radical change of direction could salvage the witness and peace of these congregations.
Like a concerned parent, James scolded his readers for their sinful indiscretions. Frankly, the chapter contains few positive elements: rather, it focuses on a series of sharp negative commands. Love stirred the author’s heart, and he could no longer forebear the destructive tendencies of his friends. Of course, he risked losing their affection and allegiance, but his personal self-interest took a backseat to his compassionate concern for their spiritual wellbeing. Passive non-involvement would not serve the best interests of these beloved friends; so, with apostolic boldness, James wrote this sharp, corrective chapter.
Modern readers should read and interpret this chapter carefully. Some years ago, my wife recounted to me that a woman had announced to a Bible study group that God had given this woman a ministry of correction in the church. She was, so she claimed, set apart with a special spiritual gift to challenge and correct other Christians. Understandably, my wife found this woman’s words highly offensive. The Epistle of James makes clear the dangers of a judgmental, arrogant spirit (See 3:1-17 and 4:11-12), and God’s people must avoid this dangerous practice and the conceit that fuels judgment of one’s fellow man. When circumstances call for correction, the Lord’s people should proceed with great caution and humility. Humble confrontation characterizes this entire chapter.
The theme of this chapter relates to the dangers of worldliness. In this context, James used the word “world” to describe humankind in hostile opposition to God. James warned his readers of the dangers of worldly thinking and attitudes. He did not, of course, call his readers to remain in remote detachment from their fellowmen; nor did he encourage a cloistered, separatistic life. Instead, he enjoined his readers to engage the world with a mindset fixed on godly principles.
Dr. Curtis Vaughan divided this chapter into three uneven sections:
1. Choosing pleasure as the chief end of life (vv. 1-10)
2. Harsh criticism of fellow Christians (vv. 11-12)
3. Arrogant disregard of God (vv. 13-17)
I. The Dangers of Self-Gratification (vv. 1-10)
A. Self-gratification, the source of church discord (vv. 1-2): James wrote to churches rife with discord. How did this disharmony arise among God’s people? James claimed that disputes came from ungodly passions. Men are carried away by their lust for power, influence, prestige, and pleasure, and these passions promote a combative attitude among the Lord’s people. This lust for power and influence leads to murder (See Matthew 5:21-26) and covetousness (an unruly desire for power or wealth).
B. Self-gratification eviscerates prayer (v. 3): Arrogance and lust may, at times, take the outward form of piety and prayer. James did not question that these wayward men might pray, but he concluded that they asked for unworthy things in an unworthy manner (or for an unworthy motive). Their prayers had become an affront to God.
C. Self-gratification reveals a worldly heart (vv. 4-6): The word “adulteress” is meant figuratively to expose the unsavory nature of worldliness. The worldly person gives himself (or herself) to her “lover” as a mistress yields to her partner in sexual misconduct. To thus embrace the world makes one an enemy of God. Verse Five is notoriously difficult to translate and interpret. Generally, it seems to mean that the Holy Spirit yearns jealously for the holiness and fidelity of God’s people, a fidelity that issues in humility. God promises grace to the humble (See Proverbs 3:34).
D. The remedy for self-gratification (vv. 7-10): James followed with several commands to counteract the impulses of self-gratification.
1. “submit to God” (v. 7a): Bring your will and desires under the lordship of Christ.
2. “resist the Devil” (v. 7b): Submission to God involves a renunciation of all authority and claims of Satan. “Resist” means to steadfastly defy temptation, and it denotes a radical, internal transformation from a life once dominated by sin, to a life characterized by submission to God.
3. “draw near to God” (v. 8a): As the ancient Jewish priests drew near to the presence of God (in the Tabernacle and Temple); so, by the blood of a sacrifice (the death of the Lord Jesus), believers may draw near to the Lord of Hosts. Most importantly, James promised that god would draw near to those who seek him.
4. “cleanse your hands…” (v. 8b): Again, the ancient priesthood washed themselves before ministry in the Tabernacle. Cleansing the hands symbolized the purification of the whole man, especially the heart.
5. “Lament, mourn, and weep” (v. 9): These commandments suggest a deep attitude of repentance. No godly person can take sin lightly; instead, this mournful attitude grasps the seriousness of disobedience to God.
6. “humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord” (v. 10): The list of commands comes full cycle. James began with submission to God and ends with a call to humility before the Lord. This command is attended by a promise, “… and he will lift you up.”
II. Self-Gratification and Personal Relationships (vv. 11-12): Self-centeredness often demeans others, and apparently James detected this tendency among his readers.
A. A simple command given, “Do not speak evil of one another” (v. 11a): This phrase forbids slander, gossip, and backbiting.
B. Two reasons to obey the command (vv. 11b-12)
1. “one who speaks against… and judges his brother, judges the law…”: The law tells us to love our neighbors, and, if we refuse to obey the law, we dishonor the law itself.
2. “there is one lawgiver”: Disregard of the law dishonors the lawgiver.
III. Self-Gratification and Sinful Presumption About the Future (vv. 13-17): This section, dealing with the sinful presumption of the rich, probably extends through James 5:6. Note that James made no effort to qualify or restrain his denouncement of the rich. The ancient Hebrews lived according to the agricultural cycle; however, by the First Century, commerce and urbanization drew many people into the merchandizing and banking. This new manner of life often brought significant wealth for some, and, with the prosperity, came a desire for greater profits. Ambitious plans for business expansion sometimes included elaborate schemes to create new markets in other urban centers. James raised concern about the temptations that might attend this kind of life.
A. A hypothetical example (v.13): Like the scenario above, James anticipated that some of the churches might find attractive the restless world of commercial enterprise (See the insightful remarks by Curtis Vaughan). Worldly men have great confidence in their business prowess, and they become absorbed with profits and elaborate commercial schemes. In doing so, they demonstrate their foolish disregard for the providence of God.
B. A better way (vv. 14-15): James did not condemn all commercial planning; rather, he forbade his readers to presume on the sovereign prerogative of the Lord. Here, I think, is the heart of the passage. These hypothetical businessmen assumed that they could make their plans based on life remaining consistent and unchanged. They presumed on the future, but God insists on being Lord over the future. At some level, for instance, unsecured debt seems to violate the principle lesson of this passage. We do not know what tomorrow holds, and we cannot presume that life will simply continue in predictable ways. Our lives, James claimed, are like a vapor, here one moment and gone the next.
C. The motive for such presumption (vv. 16-17): Men presume on the future because of their arrogance. They boast in their abilities to predict the future and increase their profits through speculative schemes, but James concluded that such boasting is evil.