PATIENCE, PROMISES AND PRAYER
We have seen the epistle of James as the practical epistle. He has been providing a picture of shirtsleeve Christianity.
As our passage opens, James has been focusing on the sins and the eventual condemnation of the rich. Now he turns to those whom the rich have been oppressing. What is to be their reaction? How are they to handle the oppression of the rich? The answer is in one word -- PATIENCE.
CHRISTIANS ARE TO BE PEOPLE OF PATIENCE
1. The Necessity of Patience: Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains (James 5:7).
This passage begins with a command. It is a command to be patient. The Greek word here translated “patient” is rare in ancient Greek. There is a reason for this. Patience was not considered to be a virtue by the Greeks. They admired the man who was able to retaliate against an injustice and who wrought vengeance upon his enemies. You have only to look at their folk tales and their legends to see examples of this attitude.
When James tells believers to “be patient,” you would have expected him to use the present tense -- that is, “be continually patient.” But he does not. Instead he uses the aorist tense. He calls men to be patient in a point in time: “Be patient NOW!”
Why does he say it this way? I’m not really sure. Maybe it is because these believers were going through some special hardships at that particular time that would require an immediate patience. Or perhaps it is because I can only be patient for today because I do not know what tomorrow will bring.
On the other hand, there is a time limit attached to this command to be patient. You are to be patient until the coming of the Lord (5:7). We are not called to be patient forever. Not even the Lord will be patient forever. There is coming a time when His patience will end. It will be at His coming.
This tells me something about the Christian view of patience. Christian patience has a goal in sight. This is seen by the illustration that James provides.
Behold, the farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains (James 5:7b).
The farmer pictured here is not the common day-laborer. This is the landowner. He is the man who has his life invested in the fruit of his labors. He gets up each morning and he goes out and he plows the ground and he plants the seen and he pulls out the weeds and he cultivates and he fertilizes.
And then he waits. And he waits. And he waits some more. For a long time, nothing happens. The fruit will not come until a long time has passed.
First the early rains will come, ushering in a series of thunderstorms in October and November. They result in softening the hard baked soil and making it fertile.
The latter rains come in April and May, accompanied by the warmer temperatures. These help to ripen and to mature the fruit, increasing the yield.
This was a familiar picture to the Jewish people. The Old Testament used the early and latter rains as a picture of the blessings of God upon the nation (Jeremiah 3:3; Hosea 6:3; Joel 2:23; Zechariah 10:1).
There is a lesson here. Perhaps you are going through one of those “dry seasons” - one of those times when things just don’t seem to be going your way. There is a message of hope for you. The rains are on their way.
2. The Reward of Patience: You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not complain, brethren, against one another, that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door. (James 5:8-9).
There are a string of commands given by James and each of them continues in this same aorist tense, each with the idea, “Do it NOW!” There is an urgency to his tone as he says, “Be patient now. Strengthen your hearts and do it right now.”
How do you master the quality of patience? It is by going to the source. The source is given in this passage. The source of patience is in its eventual reward.
The coming of the Lord is at hand. It is imminent. It could take place at any moment. As Christians, we need to live in the light of the return of Christ. In doing so, there are two possible extremes to which we can go:
The first extreme is the one which views the return of Christ as being so close that it makes no plans for the future.
When I was in college, I sat under some Bible teachers who predicted that Christ must certainly come within the next five to ten years (this was in the early 1970's). The implication was that the time was short so that you should only plan for short term ministry.
The same sort of thinking in the early church evidently led some people to quitting their jobs and running up their credit cards (compare 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 with 3:10-12).
The other extreme is to think that the Lord’s coming is so far in the future that it has no impact in my life. After a while, I forget that He is coming at all.
3. An Example of Patience: As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord's dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful. (James 5:10-11).
The stories of the Old Testament fathers are stories of patience. Why do I say that? It is because they all looked forward to the coming of the Lord, but none of them say it in their day.
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth (Hebrews 11:13).
Abraham was given a promise of a seed that would fill the entire earth. Did he live to see that promise fulfilled in his lifetime? No! He died without seeing the fulfillment.
And yet, the story of Abraham is not a story of failure. We don’t look back at Abraham and say, “That poor fool! Waiting all those years for nothing!” Instead we consider Abraham to have been greatly blessed by God.
James says in verse 11, We count those blessed who endured. The phrase translated “we count those blessed” is a transliteration of a single Greek word: makarizomen. It is from the same root as that which Jesus uses in the Beatitudes when He says, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the gentle...” We can translate it as “happy.” James is saying, “We see those Old Testament saints as being happy because they endured.”
This is significant because endurance is not normally considered to be a very happy quality. Endurance tends to be a bit monotonous. It describes the daily grind. I like the way Shuck Swindol puts it -- the problem with daily life is that it is so daily.
How can enduring people be counted as being happy? It is because there is a worthy goal that is to be obtained as a result of this endurance. There is coming a day when we shall be done with enduring and when we can hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” And in those times when you wonder whether you are being good enough or faithful enough, you remember the message of the gospel that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.
CHRISTIANS ARE TO BE PEOPLE OF PROMISE
But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment. James 5:12).
One of the areas in which Christians are called to endure is in the keeping of their word. When they say a thing, it is to be true. And because of they, they ought not to try to bind their word and make it extra special by means of an oath.
This can best be understood when compared to its parallel passage in Matthew’s account of the sermon on the Mount. You will recall that I have suggested that this entire epistle is a commentary on that sermon and visa versa. That is especially seen in this passage.
Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.”
But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; and anything beyond these is of evil. (Matthew 5:33-37).
I want you to notice right at the outset that this has nothing to do with profanity or strong expletives. I’m not saying that it is alright to curse; I am only saying that this is not the passage that deals with that particular issue. This passage deals with the making of promises. The Old Testament gave some very strict regulations concerning the making of oaths in the name of the Lord.
And you shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:12).
The rabbis of Jesus’ day had taken this passage and twisted it to make a legal loophole. They said that if you took an oath by God’s name it was binding, but if you took an oath by something that was merely close to God, it was not binding.
When we speak of an oath, we normally refer to an especially emphatic promise. But an oath in the ancient world was much more than that. An oath called for the destruction of the thing on which it was sworn if the oath was broken. Thus if you swore by the name of God, you were wishing the destruction of God if that oath were broken and, since God cannot be destroyed and is able to destroy anyone that seeks to destroy Him, you were effectively calling His judgment down upon yourself.
Likewise, if you swore on the life of your children, then you were wishing and even praying for the death of your children if that oath were not fulfilled.
An oath is nothing less than a curse that you placed upon the thing by which you swore. If the conditions of the oath were not fulfilled, then you were calling for that curse to come into effect.
This is what the epistle of the Hebrews is describing when it tells us that when God made His promise to Abraham and “He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself” (Hebrews 6:13). The implication is that if God did not keep His promise to Abraham, then God would cease to exist.
There were those who had taken these practices of oath-taking and twisted them as a legal form of lying. They would say, “I don’t have to keep my promise to you because I only swore by the throne of God and not by God Himself.”
However James does not speak concerning such a practice. He does not merely say that Christians should keep their oaths. He goes much further than that. He says that Christians should not make an oath in the first place.
Why is this? Why shouldn’t Christians swear with an oath? I believe that is it because it implies that a simple “yes” or “no” is not enough. When you swear to make yourself sound credible, you are saying something about yourself. In the words of Shakespear, “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”
The problem with Christianity today is that there is a credibility gap. The world has seen Christians who lie, cheat and steal. It is no wonder that they do not believe us! The solution is not to strengthen our oaths. The solution is to present a life before the world that is true.
CHRISTIANS ARE TO BE PEOPLE OF PRAYER
According to church tradition, James had a nickname among the believers of the early church. He was known as “Old Camel Knees.” Have you ever seen the knees of a camel? The look like old sacks of baggy flesh. I know that most men’s legs are not worth a second look. That is why you rarely see me wear a pair of shorts. But the knees of James were worthy of mention. They reflected his prayer life.
Why was James known for his prayer life? What was it that motivated James to pray? I believe that it was because he had seen that prayer really changes things.
· James had been with the disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem following the ascension of the Lord. During those days they devoted themselves to prayer. The result of that time of prayer was a great pouring out of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
· James had been there in the early days of the Jerusalem church as they met daily to pray together.
· James had been there that night after Peter was imprisoned and the church gathered in the home of John Mark for a midnight prayer meeting. He remembered the knock at the door and a young girl running in with the news that their prayers had been answered and that Peter had been miraculously released.
There is a lesson here. It is that the reason we do not pray more is that we do not really believe that prayer works. If we believed more, we would also pray more.
Prayer is not a natural thing. Society teaches us to be independent. Prayer, on the other hand, teaches us the lesson of dependency on God.
1. We are to Practice Prayer in all of the Circumstances of Life:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. (James 5:13-16a).
In the preceding verses, James warned against swearing - a negative use of the tongue. Now he turns to the subject of prayer - a positive use of the tongue.
James begins this section by asking three questions. He has been doing this same sort of thing all throughout this short epistle (2:5-7; 2:14-16; 2:20-21; 2:25; 3:13; 4:1; 4:4-5; 4:14). These questions are diagnostic in nature.
Is anyone suffering?
Is anyone cheerful?
Is anyone sick?
These three states summarize all of the experiences of life. At any one time, you can probably place yourself into at least one of these three categories.
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray (5:13).
Are you going through difficult times? There is something here for you. There is One to whom you can go. He is One who also went through hard times. You can go to Him because He knows what it is like to experience hardship.
Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises (5:13).
It is not wrong to be cheerful. Some people seem to think that it is wrong for a Christian to crack a smile. But we have a God who laughs. Our prayers should not be limited to when we are in trouble. We need to pray in the good times as well as in the bad times.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord (5:14).
Sometimes it is not enough to merely pray ourselves. There are times when the urgency of prayer is so great that we are told to call the leaders of the church to join with us in prayer.
This passage is used by the Roman Catholic priests for the phenomena of “extreme unction” in which a priest goes to a dying person and performs certain last rites that are supposed to result in the saving of his soul. But this passage does not refer to priests. It speaks of elders -- the Greek term is presbuteroi, the term from which we get “Presbyterians” (this doesn’t mean that Baptists can ignore this passage).
The elders are to come at the request of the sick believer and they are to pray over him as they anoint him with oil. This brings up an interesting question. What is the significance of this anointing?
The first thing that you need to know is that this is not the usual word for “anointing.” When we normally see the word “anointing,” it is translated from the Greek word criw from which we derive our word “Christ.” But this is a different word. This is the aorist active participle of aleifw. With this one exception, it is a word that is found only in the gospels and it is always used of the physical act of anointing (Matthew 6:17; Mark 6:13; 16:1; Luke 7:36; 7:46; John 11:2; 12:3).
This is very different from criw which is used of spiritual anointings (Luke 4:18; Acts 4:27; 10:38; 2 Corinthians 1:21; Hebrews 1:9). In these instances it is the Lord who is always seen as the One performing the anointings.
It is for this reason that some scholars have taught that this anointing is medical in nature and that these elders are described as applying whatever medicinal cures are available for the ailment. But I do not think so. I’m not saying that medicine is wrong; it is just not what James is describing.
Anointing in the Scriptures almost always has a symbolic meaning. Even when it is a physical anointing, it has spiritual implications behind it. It is a symbol of the work of the Holy Spirit. I believe that to be the case here as seen in verse 15: ...and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.
We are told that when the elders of the church come and pray over the one who is sick, there will generally be two results:
• The Lord will raise him up.
• His sins will be forgiven.
There are three different circumstances of life that James has described -- the one who is suffering, the one who is cheerful and the one who is sick. In all three instances, James gives the same perscription. It is that you are to PRAY. This is a perscription for everyone.
2. We are Motivated by the Power of Prayer: The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much (James 5:16b).
A more literal translation of this passage would read: “There is much accomplished in the WORKING of a righteous man’s request.” James has already described a faith that works. Now he speaks of a prayer that works.
Prayer really works. That sounds rather basic, but if we ever come to terms with the implications of that truth, our spiritual lives will be revolutionized.
When you pray for rain, do you bring an umbrella? Do you live in the light of your own prayers? Or do you think of answered prayer as only being within the realm of experience of certain “super saints” that are beyond your experience? James has some good news for you.
3. We are Encouraged by an Example of Prayer.
Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the sky poured rain, and the earth produced its fruit. (James 5:17-18).
Why did Elijah pray for a thing like this? It is a bit like praying for the Stock Market to crash. Why would anyone ask for a thing like this? It was because Elijah had read of the promises of God in the Old Testament.
In the days of Moses, God told the people of Israel that if they did not continue to be faithful to Him, if they turned away to worship false gods, then He would judge them by stopping the rain from watering their land.
Beware, lest your hearts be deceived and you turn away and serve other gods and worship them. 17 Or the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit; and you will perish quickly from the good land which the LORD is giving you. (Deuteronomy 11:16-17).
The Lord had given His people a land flowing with milk and honey; a land of hills and valleys that drank “water from the rain of heaven” (Deuteronomy 11:11). It was a land that had two rainy seasons; both early and latter rains.
But in the days of Elijah, the people of Israel did exactly that against which they had been warned. They turned away from the Lord to worship other gods until the worship of Baal had become more popular than the worship of Yahweh.
As a result, Elijah prayed that the promise of God’s judgment would be fulfilled against an unrepentant people.
There is a lesson here. It is a lesson about how we ought to pray. We need to pray in accordance with the promises of God.
A CONCLUDING PRINCIPLE
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20).
There has been some thought given as to whether these last two verses are to be connected only with the preceding section on prayer or whether they summarize the entire message of the book of James.
I want to suggest that, while they do relate in a special sense to the one who has received the intercessory prayer of the elders, that they have a much wider application to the entire message of this epistle and to all who have a ministry of restoration with regard to the teachings found in these chapters.
James is a diagnostic book. You can look at the epistle of James and you can look at someone’s life and when you see areas that do not match, you have a basis upon which to proceed with this ministry of restoration.
1. The Process of Restoration: ...if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back (5:19).
This passage begins with a conditional clause. It is an “if/then” clause. The first part of this clause presents the situation of one who has wandered from the faith and is then turned back.
He might have been guilty of double-mindedness.
Perhaps he had faith without works.
Or maybe he was embroiled in quarrels and conflicts.
He might have been rich and proud, or he could have been poor and impatient.
Whatever the case, this was one who has been counted as “my brethren,” but then he strayed from the truth. The important point is not that he left the truth. The important point is that he came back. That is what a Christian is. He is one who, even when he leaves, he comes back.
This is important for you to know. You need to know that when you have fallen into sin, there is a place of forgiveness and restoration.
2. The Results of Restoration: He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins (5:20).
This is the language of the Old Testament sacrifice. When the blood of the sacrificial animal was sprinkled upon the altar, it was said to be a covering -- an atonement -- for sins.
We have a sacrifice that is much better than any that was made in the Old Testament. We have a sacrifice that was made once and for all. The death of Christ served to cover a multitude of sins. When you come to the cross, you find a salvation from death and a covering for all sins. And it is at that point that you are able to reach out an invite another to find the same salvation.