How to Live with Confidence

Explore the Bible Series

August 30, 2009


Background Passage: James 5:1-20

Lesson Passage: James 5:1-20




Chapter Five is divided oddly.  In my judgment, the editors that divided the Bible into chapters should have included 5:1-6 in the Fourth Chapter.  These verses continue the warning to the rich and powerful; then, James 5:7-20 consider the implications of the Lord’s return. 


This epistle echoes the tone of several of the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Amos, Micah).  James raised grave concerns concerning the dangers of riches.  One looks in vain for qualifying statements that might soften the author’s diatribe against the affluent, but the tenor remains sharp and strident.  James 1:10 may imply that there were some wealthy members of these congregations, but the tone of the epistle indicates that James’s greatest concern centered on those who may have enjoyed only nominal attachments to the churches.  Their oppressive lives will ultimately meet with utter ruin: garments will turn to rags, and gold and silver will rust.  James had no patience with people who had accumulated the world’s wealth by tyrannizing the poor and helpless.


Beginning in verse seven, James contrasted the judgment of the rich to the future blessedness of the saints.  The rest of the chapter should be interpreted in light of the Second Advent and the Great Day of Judgment.  With the Lord’s Return in mind, James issued several essential directives for his readers, directives that serve as a fitting conclusion to this epistle.


  1. Be patient (vv. 7-8): As in the letters of Paul, James emphasized the importance of patience and steadfastness during seasons of suffering. 
  2. Do not grumble (vv. 9-11): As an adjunct to the admonition to remain patient, James encouraged his readers to avoid grumbling, especially as it related to relationships with other believers.  This relatively gentle reminder builds on the sharper observations in James 4:1-12.
  3. Do not swear (v. 12): This directive does not forbid all oaths (for instance, in a court of law); rather, it corrects the bad habit of hedging the truth by swearing in God’s name.  In effect. James echoed the concerns of the Third Commandment.
  4. Pray (vv. 13-15): James mentioned a number of life-situations (suffering, cheerfulness, sickness) and encouraged his readers to meet these circumstances with prayer. 
  5. Confess your sins (vv. 16-20): As an addendum to his observations on prayer, James directed his friends to confess their sins to one another. 



Lesson Outline:


I.                   The Impending Judgment of the Rich (vv. 1-6)

A.    The misery of the rich (vv. 1-3)

1.      the expression of their misery (v1): “Weep and howl” reflect the utter despair of those under the condemnation of God.  In this case, the weeping and mourning do not denote repentance; rather, these words depict the wretchedness of the wicked.  James said these miseries would surely come upon the oppressors.

2.      the loss attending their misery (vv. 2-3): The rich value certain things: extravagant garments, gold, and silver; and, the things they have so profoundly treasured will prove rotten and worthless.  What a tragedy.  In the end, all the precious possessions of the rich will turn to dust, and they will see the utter vanity of their lives.  The words translated “rotted… moth-eaten… rusted” appear in the perfect tense; that is. These terms depict the judgment as already under way, a judgment that would not only consume their wealth but would also destroy them.  When the rich should have prepared themselves to face God, they, instead, they neglected their souls and accumulated a treasure house of misery.

B.     The charges against the rich (vv. 4-6)

1.      injustice (v. 4): By fraud, the land owners had cheated the laborers out of their wages.  Perhaps they had promised to pay the workers a certain amount; then, the employers defrauded the workers of their justly-earned wage.  In other cases, the rich may have refused to pay their workers at all.  These practices, of course, fly in the face of the clear teachings of the Law (See Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14-15).  What can be more unjust than for a society to tolerate this kind of evil?  A man’s (or woman’s) sweat is precious, and the bend of his back sacred.  Should not those who produce the wealth share in its benefits?

2.      extravagance (v.5): While laborers struggled to survive, the rich lived in extravagant luxury: sated, spoiled, and idle.  Like fatted calves, the rich awaited the day of slaughter.

3.      violent cruelty (v. 6): The greed of the wealthy knows no boundary.  Whatever (or whoever) stands in the way of further accumulation of wealth, the rich will, by any means necessary, remove the obstacle.  Money means more than men.  The oppressive class thinks little of destroying the poor and helpless. 


II.                The Return of the Lord (vv. 7-20): God’s people live in patient, faithful anticipation of the Return of Jesus.  Unlike the oppressive rich class, believers await their treasures, wealth laid up, for the faithful, in heaven. James concluded the letter with a series of commandments.

A.    “Be patient” (vv. 7-8): Christians must bear patiently the oppressive actions of the rich and powerful.  “Therefore” ties this commandment to the previous statements about the wealthy.  “Patient” does not mean that Christians should remain passive and silent in the face of sinful oppression; rather, it suggests that such suffering is not unusual for believers.  James used the example of a farmer to re-enforce his ideas about patience.  Awareness of the Lord’s Return will help Christians to remain steadfast in the presence of hardship.

B.     “Do not grumble against one another” (v. 9-11): It is natural for troubled people to complain against their tormentors; however, James warned against the danger of such murmuring.  Job and the prophets experienced  persecution, but they also managed to avoid bitter resentment toward their oppressors.  Despite their severe trials, these godly people left judgment in the hands of God.

C.     “Do not swear” (v. 13): This command does not refer to various religious or legal oaths a Christian may take; rather, this verse forbids the misuse of God’s name.  Believers must adhere to the highest standards of truthfulness, refusing to hide behind frivolous use of God’s honor.  Perhaps a study of Matthew 12:34-37 will yield great benefit in understanding the point James made here.

D.    “Let him pray” (vv. 14-18): Prayer plays a critical role in enduring hardship.  James highlighted several occasions when the believer must especially turn to prayer.

1.      “Is any among you suffering? Let him pray” (v. 13a): James used a general term to describe any type of affliction.  “Pray” translates a present tense and denotes a continual action, “let him keep praying.” 

2.      “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms” (v. 13b): Prayer should attend every season of the believer’s life, times of sorrow and times of joy.  The Psalms give expression to the greatest joys of life, and Christians should borrow the eloquence of the psalmists to exalt the Lord.

3.      “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church” (vv. 14-20): Some problems demand corporate prayer and the special ministry of seasoned Christians.  The Greek word used here denotes an incapacitating, serious illness (literally, to be without strength), an illness that might render the sufferer incapable of going to the elders.  These church leaders were to pray over the sick and anoint them with oil.  Vaughan suggests that this anointing may reflect the special spiritual gifts given to the apostolic church.  The unconditional nature of this promise proves problematic.  Of course, not every sick person receives healing, but perhaps the verse should be interpreted with a clear awareness of submission to the sovereign will of God.  Notice that James tied together the ideas of healing and forgiveness of sins.  The confession of sin (v. 16) expands on the statement concerning the sick person, in verse fifteen.  The ill person should confess his sin to the elders as a part of the healing and anointing.  James concluded this section by evoking the illustration of faithful Elijah, who through earnest supplication, controlled the rain (See I Kings 17).  Though this Old Testament prophet suffered from the same infirmities as all believers, his prayers had great power.  Turning a man from his sins saves the sinner from death (may refer to saving from physical consequences of sin) and covers a multitude of sins (mercifully hides sins from the sight of God).