Living in the Church Family
Sunday School Lesson for August 31, 2003
Background Passage: James 5:1-20
Focal Teaching Passage: James 5:7-18
Exhortations to Patience (5:7-12)
As James brought his epistle to a conclusion, his focus was upon the display of godly wisdom through the manifestation of patient endurance. His basic exhortation was for his brethren to "be patient" until the time of "the coming of the Lord" (v. 7). As the context indicates (v. 9), the specific arena where such patience should be on display is that of personal relationships with others in the faith-community. Here, patience may be defined as, "the art of enduring someone whose conduct is incompatible with that of others and sometimes even oppressive" [Kistemaker, 164]. Thus, the word represents a form of self-control that prevents one from retaliating against another for wrongs suffered. As verse 9 suggests, it is possible, if not likely, for complaints and relational fractures to arise within the fellowship, especially when the church is experiencing difficulties. It is in this circumstance that the members desperately need the virtue of longsuffering.
In order to press his point home to his readers, James provided three illustrations of the kind of patience needed in the body:
- The farmer (v. 7): Like the farmer who "waits for the precious produce of the soil," believers are to trust in God rather than take matters into their own hands. The ancient farmer depended upon the "early and later rains," and in this way was fully at the mercy of God and His provisions. Therefore, his "faith in the reliability of God acted as a restraining and controlling influence during what might otherwise have been a time of acute and enervating anxiety" [Tasker, 119]. Patience, then, is an attitude of the heart that looks expectantly toward the future and trusts totally in God’s providential care.
- The Old Testament prophets (v. 10): Despite intense "suffering," rejection by their countrymen, and even death, the God-called prophets of Israel spoke Yahweh’s truth to men. Quite often, they died before ever seeing the reform or revival for which they had so patiently waited, prayed for, and hoped in. The point, however, is that these men remained faithful to God and their divine commission regardless of the circumstances that confronted them.
- Job (v. 11): James’ final illustration is the popular story of the suffering and "endurance" of Job. The word "endurance," a different word than ‘"patience" employed above, signals that Job manifested a "determination to endure what whatever might fall into his lot without losing faith in God. He believed even when he could not understand" [Tasker, 123].
The kind of patience called for by James should be practiced with four things in mind:
- First, the power to live in this way is a divine gift (v. 8). It comes from the Holy Spirit who provides self-control for the believer (Gal. 5:22). With the unshakable confidence that the Spirit will enable the believer to be obedient to God, the humble follower of Christ can "strengthen" his own heart.
- Secondly, giving in to the temptation to grumble, complain, and attack others verbally will lead to judgment. Note how James flatly warned his brethren about the danger of being "judged" (v. 9). This may suggest that one who disrupts the fellowship by the misuse of the tongue can become a worthy recipient of church discipline, and even censure or excommunication if there is not repentance.
- Thirdly, Christ’s coming and the termination of human history are ever near. The "Judge " Himself is "standing right at the door" (v. 9). This knowledge of the certainty of Christ’s return should motivate the Christian to be patient when suffering unjustly. In this way, then, the certainty of the Second Advent is both a "warning as well as a consolation" for the church [Tasker, 121].
- Finally, the Christian should keep in mind that, as Job discovered, "the Lord is full of compassion and merciful"(v. 11). In other words, since God has displayed such profound mercy and grace toward sinners, those who have been redeemed should be the first to patently endure the maltreatment of others. It is also significant that compassion and mercy are "the primary attributes of God in His covenant with Israel" [Richardson, 227]. Consequently, it is these very character traits that trials and tribulations—and even the mistreatment of others—effectively build into the hearts of God’s children.
As a final exhortation to his bothers and sisters regarding their inter-personal relationships, James exhorted them to refrain from swearing "either by heaven or earth or with any other oath." Again, the context makes it clear that James’ restriction of oath taking does not relate to court situations or other legal matters, but to the way one responds to accusations from another believer. Tasker’s explanation is helpful:
What James is denouncing is the levity which the name of God, or some substitute for the name of God used to satisfy Pharisaic scruples, tended to be uttered when men’s minds were disordered by impatience, and self-control was abandoned .
It is also important to compare the words of James with those of our Lord in Matthew 5:34-37. It is apparent that James virtually quoted Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. Both passages command simplicity in speech, characterized by one’s commitment to "let your yes be yes and your no, no." Negatively, the imperative forbids exaggeration, truth twisting, and double-speak which aims to hide the real truth. Those who have been saved by the God of all truth should themselves be people of truth and honesty. If believers are not truthful, they will "fall under judgment" and their testimony for Christ will be spoiled.
Instructions About Prayer (5:13-18)
In this section James addressed the issue of prayer in the body for specific needs that might arise. In short, he called for prayer on all occasions and in all circumstances. The habit of continual intercession is "one of the most obvious features which differentiates a Christian from other people" [Tasker, 126], and when engaged in faithfully, becomes the "antidote for falling into the temptation of grumbling against another believer" [Richardson, 230].
In this section two situations are contrasted with each other, both of which require the response of fervent prayer. The one who is "suffering" in some way as well as the one who is "cheerful" should both be people of faithful and persistent supplication and humble worship—"let him sing praises" (v. 13). There are rich blessings as well as serious spiritual dangers associated with either condition, and the help of God is needed in order to bear them responsibly.
In the case of physically ill members, James supplied a pattern for prayerful action:
- First, the ill believer should "call for the elders of the church" (v. 14). James placed the responsibility for communicating the need for healing prayer on the sick person himself. He should summon the pastor(s) and other recognized church leaders to his side for the purpose of intercession.
- Secondly, the "elders" are to "pray over him" while "anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord" (v. 14). There are at least two themes associated with the use of "oil" in such a setting. First, in biblical times oil was believed to possess some value as a crude medicine. Secondly, oil was often indicative of the presence and power of God’s Spirit. While the oil possessed no power in itself, its use tangibly displayed a trust in the power and presence of the Lord who is fully able to deliver His children from all their diseases.
- Thirdly, the suffering member and the elders are to trust in God’s power and sovereign will, knowing that "the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick" (v. 15). James reminded his readers that God sometimes glorifies His name through the full restoration and healing of those who are ill. While this does not guarantee that His will is always for healing, it does teach that He responds to the prayers of His people when they pray with full trust and confidence in Him.
- Finally, James assured his readers that any sins committed by the sickly member would be "forgiven" (v. 15). This is not to suggest the notion that all illnesses are directly traceable to specific sins (see John 9:1-3), but only that the prayer for physical healing would also include an emphasis upon the spiritual well being of the individual. That is, the concern of the elders for the sick brother or sister would be comprehensive, touching not only their physical status, but also their relationship to God.
James’ dramatic emphasis upon prayer continues here with additional exhortations:
- The members of the body were summoned to "confess your sins to one another" (v. 16). To engage in open dialog about one’s spiritual struggles with obedience and faithful Christian living provides strength, assurance, and comfort to all. By means of such an exercise, believers have the opportunity to function as a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). As one believer hears the confession of another, each can be pointed to the sufficiency of the cross and the grace of God. We might say that through mutual confession Christians may preach the gospel to each other.
- Members of the body must also "pray for one another" (v. 16). Along with confession comes the ministry of mutual prayer. This would include both formal and informal times of joint intercession for the needs within the body of Christ. Tasker observes that through confession of sin the members are not only comforted and mutually encouraged, but come to experience "the great power of intercessory prayer, which only brethren who are reconciled to one another can offer with fervor and sincerity" .
- The result of such effectual praying will be seen as many are "healed" (v. 16). Certainly James meant to include all forms of healing here—that is, both physical and spiritual as well. The point is that mutual confession of sins and faithful intercession will have a dramatic effect upon the health of the church.
- The confidence to engage in such persistent intercession comes from the history of God’s dealings with others who have prayed in faith. Most notable is the story of "Elijah," who, through earnest prayer, moved God’s hand to restrain the "rain" on one occasion (v. 17), and on another, to open the sky and water the earth (v. 18). The point is that the "effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much" (v. 16). So in other words, those who have been declared "righteous" by faith in Jesus Christ should expect that God will both hear and answer their fervent prayers according to His will and for His glory.
Major Themes for Reflection and Application
One: Hurry up and wait! Patience with others in the body of Christ, even in the face of mistreatment, is a grand virtue. How does one develop this kind patience?
Two: The blessings of endurance—In verse 11 James says that those who have practiced endurance have been "blessed." Can you list some of the blessings of endurance and patience?
Three: Confession and prayer—Think about how you can encourage your church family to conform to the model presented in verses 13-16.