V. Pride, Patience, and Prayer (James 5:1-20)


V. Pride, Patience, and Prayer (5:1-20)

5:1 At the heart of pride is often a love for money—that is, materialism. James isn’t condemning money itself. Some of God’s servants were wealthy (e.g., Abraham, Job), and money was not their problem. Condemned here is a mindset that turns gold into a god. James addressed riches previously (1:10-11; 2:1-4), but in 5:1-6, he rebukes the rich people among his readers whose hearts were devoted to materialism. Theirs is a sin that transcends time. If you live in modern America, you are tempted to be a materialist.

5:2-6 First, he warns the rich that wealth and possessions will pass away. They’re unreliable. Riches can come to nothing in a day; expensive clothes become moth food (5:2). Then he reminds them that stored up treasure won’t profit them in the last days (5:3). Remember the rich young ruler of Matthew 19:16-22? Remember Jesus’s story of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31)? Clutching riches can cost you eternity. Materialism (when the physical and financial take precedence over the spiritual and the eternal) has a high price tag. Finally, he condemns the rich for how they treated others—especially those who worked for them. God greatly condemns economic injustice in the workplace. They withheld pay from their workers while they themselves lived luxuriously and indulged (5:4-5). They had murdered the righteous, which probably means they hated (murdered in their hearts; see 4:2) those less fortunate than they.

The key is to recall Jesus’s teaching, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth. . . . But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:19-21). The stuff of earth is tied to earth. But that which is tied to eternity will have eternal repercussions.

5:7-9 To believers who are suffering, James says, Be patient until the Lord’s coming (5:7). He isn’t referring to Christ’s return to rapture the church. He’s exhorting them to be patient until the Lord comes to intervene in their historical circumstances. The problem is that many people don’t know how to exercise patience. They equate patience with twiddling their thumbs. But that’s not biblical patience.

James illustrates the concept using the farmer. When a farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, he doesn’t sit on his porch in a rocker. He daily cares for his crops. He is responsible to be busy while he “waits.” Nevertheless, he must exercise patience until the early and the late rains come (5:7). The farmer must fulfill his responsibilities on earth. That’s a necessity—yet it’s not enough. He knows he’s dependent on heaven to send rain.

Similarly, Christians who need deliverance must be patient . . . strengthen [their] hearts and not complain about one another (5:8-9). They must act responsibly and faithfully in history. Only heaven can bring rain. But have you fulfilled your responsibility as you wait for it?

5:10-11 James points to the Old Testament prophets as an example of suffering and patience. They endured unjust treatment for speaking in the Lord’s name (5:10). What was the outcome? They were blessed. More specifically, James considers the example of Job’s endurance. Few believers have suffered anything close to what Job did. He lost his wealth, his health, and—worst of all—his children. Yet in spite of missteps along the way, Job didn’t turn away from God. He knew only the Lord could deliver him. At the end of his trial, the Lord proved himself to be compassionate and merciful (5:11).

5:12 James isn’t implying that all oaths are bad. He is urging believers to be truth-tellers. Give a simple yes or no because if you have to swear to convince someone that you’re sincere, you have a reliability problem.

5:13 If you want to gauge your spiritual life, look at the thermostat setting on your prayer life. Your knee-jerk reaction to suffering should be to pray. Likewise, if life is smooth and you are cheerful, you should sing praises (5:13). These responses acknowledge that affliction and blessing both come from the Lord, who works through them to accomplish his purposes.

5:14 In these verses, James addresses one who is sick. The Greek word from which this is translated can mean “weak.” Thus, it can refer to any kind of weakness, physical or otherwise. Those beaten down and struggling to pray, then, can seek help from the elders—the male spiritual leadership of the church. The oil would have been used for soothing or grooming the body (5:14; see Matt 6:17; Luke 10:34).

5:15 We must be careful here. The verse cannot be saying that every physical sickness will be healed. That would suggest we would never die. The application is wider. The elders were to express the love of Jesus tangibly through prayer, encouragement, and refreshment. The idea is that the church should have practical ministry in place to aid members who are weak. The prayer offered in faith will provide divine encouragement in the mist of problems (5:15).

5:16-18 Suffering and sickness do not necessarily result from sin. Job, for instance, was afflicted though he didn’t sin (Job 1). Moreover, Jesus made it clear that a person can be stricken with an illness or condition that has no connection to wrongdoing (John 9:1-3). On the other hand, a sinful lifestyle can result in weakness and suffering. Therefore, if needed, confess your sins to a trusted, spiritually mature believer (5:16). If you will deal with your sin, you will see God work in your life.

God will do extraordinary things with an ordinary person who is righteous (walks with him by faith) and makes an energized prayer (5:16). Elijah not only prayed earnestly but persistently (see 1 Kgs 18:42-44), and God worked miraculously in response (5:17-18). Elijah was a human being like us (5:17), yet he knew he had a God who is sovereign and expects his people to pray to him. Do you?

5:19-20 As he closes, James reminds us that the church should be a spiritual hospital where believers are involved in each other’s lives. One who strays from the truth from among the brothers and sisters is a backslider (5:19). He is not progressing in the faith but regressing. He has deviated from the right path. The most famous example of this is Peter, who denied his Lord (see Matt 26:69-75).

These verses are not so much about the backslider, though, as they are about those around him. Some believers aid the spiritual regression of fellow Christians by assuming it’s none of their business. But if your child darted into the street in front of a car, would you say it’s none of your business? Of course not! Though many believers fail to comprehend their responsibility to the family of faith, your Christianity is real when you see a brother in Christ backsliding and act in love. You cannot be a passive Christian.

The one who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death (5:20). James is referring to a believer, so he’s not talking about losing salvation. “Death” can have two meanings. First, it may mean untimely physical death. The New Testament describes instances in which Christians died early. Sometimes God takes a straying and unrepentant believer home (see 1 Cor 11:30). It can also refer metaphorically to the deterioration in circumstances because the intimate presence of God is no longer operating in a person’s life.

God says you and I have the power to interpose ourselves into a situation and intercept straying Christians on the road to spiritual misery. By doing so, we cover a multitude of sins (5:20). James alludes here to Proverbs 10:12, which says, “Love covers all offenses.” There may have been a vast number of decisions and choices that led a particular backslider astray. But with the sacrificial love of Christ, James says believers can be used of God to provide a covering for past sins and lead an erring brother to restoration. May we do so.