James 4 – The Humble Dependence of a True Faith
A. The humble character of a living faith.
1. (1-3) Reasons for strife in the Christian community.
Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.
a. Where do wars and fights come from among you? James accurately described strife among Christians with the terms wars and fights. Often the battles that happen among Christians are bitter and severe.
i. “He does not mean that they war within a man – although that is also true – but that they set men warring against each other.” (Barclay)
b. Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? The source of wars and fights among Christians is always the same. There is some root of carnality, an internal war within the believer regarding the lusts of the flesh. No two believers who are both walking in the Spirit of God towards each other can live with wars and fights among themselves.
i. “James seems to be bothered more by the selfish spirit and bitterness of the quarrels than by the rights and wrongs of the various viewpoints.” (Moo)
ii. Almost all who have such a critical and contentious attitude claim they are prompted and supported by the Spirit of God. James makes it clear that this contentious manner comes from your desires. “It is self-evident that the Spirit of God does not create desire which issues in envying.” (Morgan)
c. Your desires for pleasure that war in your members: The types of desires that lead to conflict are described. Covetousness leads to conflict (you lust and do not have). Anger and animosity lead to hatred and conflict (murder).
i. Again James looked back to the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus also used murder to express more than actual killing, but also as an inward condition of heart, shown outwardly by anger (Matthew 5:21-22).
ii. “The word kill [murder] is startling and meant to startle; James sought to force his readers to realize the depth of the evil in their bitter hatred toward others.” (Hiebert)
d. Yet you do not have: This points to the futility of this life lived for the desires for pleasure. Not only is it a life of conflict, but it is also a fundamentally unsatisfied life.
i. “The whole history of mankind shows the failure of evil lustings to obtain their object.” (Spurgeon)
ii. This is the tragic irony of the life lived after worldly and fleshly desires; it never reaches the goal it gives everything for. This fundamental dissatisfaction is not because of a lack of effort: “If the lusters fail, it is not because they did not set to work to gain their ends; for according to their nature they used the most practical means within their reach, and used them eagerly, too.” (Spurgeon)
iii. This helps us to rationally understand the folly of living life after the lusts of the world and our animal appetites. You are tempted to fulfill a sinful desire because you think (or hope) that it may be satisfied, but it will never be satisfied. Why not accept your lack of such satisfaction now, instead of after much painful and harmful sin?
e. Yet you do not have because you do not ask: The reason these destructive desires exist among Christians is because they do not seek God for their needs (you do not ask). James reminds us here of the great power of prayer, and why one may live unnecessarily as a spiritual pauper, simply because they do not pray, or do not ask when they pray.
i. We might state it as a virtual spiritual law: that God does not give unless we ask. If we possess little of God and His Kingdom, almost certainly we have asked little. “Remember this text: Jehovah says to his own Son, ‘Ask of me and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.’ If the royal and divine Son of God cannot be exempted from the rule of asking that he may have, you and I cannot expect the rule to be relaxed in our favor. Why should it be?” (Spurgeon)
ii. “If you may have everything by asking, and nothing without asking, I beg you to see how absolutely vital prayer is, and I beseech you to abound in it. . . . Do you know, brothers, what great things are to be had for the asking? Have you ever thought of it? Does it not stimulate you to pray fervently? All heaven lies before the grasp of the asking man; all the promises of God are rich and inexhaustible, and their fulfillment is to be had by prayer.” (Spurgeon)
f. You ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures: After dealing with the problem of no prayer, now James addressed the problem of selfish prayer. These ones, when they did ask, they asked God with purely selfish motives.
i. We must remember that the purpose of prayer is not to persuade a reluctant God to do our bidding. The purpose of prayer is to align our will with His, and in partnership with Him, to ask Him to accomplish His will on this earth (Matthew 6:10).
ii. “When a man so prays he asks God to be his servant, and gratify his desires; nay, worse than that, he wants God to join him in the service of his lusts. He will gratify his lusts, and God shall come and help him to do it. Such prayer is blasphemous, but a large quantity of it is offered, and it must be one of the most God-provoking things that heaven ever beholds.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Spend is the same verb used to describe the wasteful spending of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:14. Destructive desires persist, even if we pray, because our prayers may be self-centered and self-indulgent.
2. (4-5) A rebuke of compromise and covetousness among Christians.
Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?
a. Adulterers and adulteresses: This is a rebuke presented in Old Testament vocabulary. God spoke this way in the Old Testament when His people were attracted to some form of idolatry (Jeremiah 3:8-9, Ezekiel 6:9, Ezekiel 16:32, Ezekiel 23:37, and Hosea 3:1). As James saw it here, their covetousness was idolatry (Colossians 3:5) and friendship with the world.
i. Better ancient Greek manuscripts only say you adulteresses. “He uses the feminine form deliberately, for one turn of special contempt and scorn in the ancient world was to call a community or group by some feminine equivalent.” (Moffatt)
ii. The addition of adulterers was probably from an early scribe who thought James meant literal sexual adultery and didn’t want to exclude men from the rebuke. But James used the phrase you adulteresses to give a specific spiritual picture. According to this picture, God is the “husband” and we are His “wife” (as in Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 54:5, Jeremiah 3:20, and Exodus 34:15-16).
iii. “The Jews, because of their covenant with God, are represented as being espoused to him; and hence, their idolatry, and their iniquity in general, are represented under the notion of adultery.” (Clarke)
iv. “You have your hearts full of harlotry . . . this vile strumpet the world, that lays forth her two breasts of profit and pleasure, and ensnareth many; for the which she must be burnt, as a whore, by the fire of the last day.” (Trapp)
b. Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? James recognizes that we cannot both be friends of this world system in rebellion against God, and friends of God at the same time (Matthew 6:24). Even the desire to be a friend (wants to be a friend) of the world makes that one an enemy of God.
i. “Such friendship with the world means that one is on a footing of hostility towards God, for it defies His will and despises His purpose; disguise it as one may, it is an implicit challenge to God.” (Moffatt)
ii. The strong statements James made here remind us that all was not beautiful in the early church. They had plenty of carnality and worldliness to deal with. While the New Testament church is a clear pattern for us, we should not over-romanticize the spiritual character of early Christians.
c. The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously: The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit has a jealous yearning for our friendship with God. The Spirit will convict the Christian who lives in compromise.
i. This phrase is a little hard to accurately translate. Is it God jealously yearning for the devotion of our spirit which He put within us, or is it the Spirit within us jealously yearning for the full devotion of our heart? Either way, the sense is much the same.
ii. “He went so far as to speak of them as adulterers and adulteresses; and then adopting a gentler, pleading tone, he says, ‘You are grieving the Holy Spirit who has come to dwell within you, who yearns with a jealous envy to possess your entire nature for Himself.'” (Meyer)
iii. James agrees with the many passages in the Old Testament that tell us God is a jealous God (Deuteronomy 32:16 and 32:21; Exodus 20:5 and 34:14; Zechariah 8:2). “The idea is that God loves men with such a passion that he cannot bear any other love within the hearts of men.” (Barclay)
iv. Think of the inner pain and torture inside the person who is betrayed by an unfaithful spouse; who must reckon with the truth, I am faithful to them, but they are not faithful to me. This is what the Spirit of God feels regarding our world-loving hearts.
d. The Scripture says: One cannot find this exact quote (“The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously“) in any specific Old Testament verse. James seemed to present an idea that is alluded to in several passages without quoting any specific passage.
i. “More probably is the view that James was not citing a particular passage but summarizing the truth expressed in several Old Testament passages.” (Hiebert)
ii. Or it may be that James 4:5 speaks in two independent sentences, and that the words of Scripture quoted refer to what was said in James 4:4.
3. (6-10) The solutions for strife: in humility, get right with God.
But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
a. But He gives more grace: The same Holy Spirit convicting us of our compromise will also grant us the grace to serve God as we should. This wonderful statement – but He gives more grace – stands in strong contrast to the previous words.
i. “Note that contrast; note it always. Observe how weak we are, how strong he is; how proud we are, how condescending he is; how erring we are, and how infallible he is; how changing we are, and how immutable he is; how provoking we are, and how forgiving he is. Observe how in us there is only ill, and how in him there is only good. Yet our ill but draws his goodness forth, and still he blesseth. Oh! What a rich contrast!” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Sin seeks to enter, grace shuts the door; sin tries to get the mastery, but grace, which is stronger than sin, resists, and will not permit it. Sin gets us down at times, and puts its foot on our neck; grace comes to the rescue . . . Sin comes up like Noah’s flood, but grace rides over the tops of the mountains like the ark.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “Do you suffer from spiritual poverty? It is your own fault, for he giveth more grace. If you have not got it, it is not because it is not to be had, but because you have not gone for it.” (Spurgeon)
b. God resists the proud: At the same time, James reminds us that this grace only comes to the humble. Grace and pride are eternal enemies. Pride demands that God bless me in light of my merits, whether real or imagined. But grace will not deal with me on the basis of anything in me – good or bad – but only on the basis of who God is.
i. James used a powerful word in the phrase, resists the proud: “Sets himself in battle array against him.” (Clarke) “God resisteth the proud, ‘setteth himself in battle-array against such,’ above all other sorts of sinner, as invaders of his territories, and foragers or plunderers of his chief treasures.” (Trapp)
c. But gives grace to the humble: It isn’t as if our humility earns the grace of God. Humility merely puts us in a position to receive the gift He freely gives.
d. Therefore submit to God: In light of the grace offered to the humble, there is only one thing to do: submit to God. This means to order yourself under God, to surrender to Him as a conquering King, and start receiving the benefits of His reign.
i. It is a wonder that the world does not submit to God. “I have heard much of the rights of man: but it were well also to consider the rights of God, which are the first, highest, surest, and most solemn rights in the universe, and lie at the base of all other rights. . . . Alas, great God, how art thou a stranger even in the world which thou hast thyself made! Thy creatures, who could not see if thou hadst not given them eyes, look everywhere except to thee. Creatures who could not think if thou hadst not given them minds, think of all things except thee; and beings who could not live if thou didst not keep them in being, forget thee utterly, or if they remember thine existence, and see thy power, are foolhardy enough to become thy foes!” (Spurgeon)
ii. “If he were a tyrant it might be courageous to resist, but since he is a Father it is ungrateful to rebel.” (Spurgeon) Instead, Spurgeon (in another sermon) suggested reasons why we should submit to God:
· We should submit to God because He created us.
· We should submit to God because His rule is good for us.
· We should submit to God because all resistance to Him is futile.
· We should submit to God because such submission is absolutely necessary to salvation.
· We should submit to God because it is the only way to have peace with God.
iii. “I desire to whisper one little truth in your ear, and I pray that it may startle you: You are submitting even now. You say, ‘Not I; am lord of myself.’ I know you think so, but all the while you are submitting to the devil. The verse before us hints at this. ‘Submit yourselves unto God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’ If you do not submit to God you never will resist the devil, and you will remain constantly under his tyrannical power. Which shall be your master, God or devil, for one of these must? No man is without a master.” (Spurgeon)
e. Resist the devil and he will flee from you: To solve the problems of carnality and the strife it causes, we must also resist the devil. This means to stand against devil’s deceptions and his efforts to intimidate. As we resist the devil, we are promised that he will flee from you.
i. Significantly, James does not recommend that demons should be cast out of believers by a third party. Instead, James simply challenges individual Christians to deal with Satan as a conquered foe who can and must be personally resisted. “He who, in the terrible name of Jesus, opposes even the devil himself is sure to have speedy and glorious conquest. He flees from that name, and from his conquering blood.” (Clarke)
ii. Resist comes from two Greek words: stand and against. James tells us to stand against the devil. Satan can be set running by the resistance of the lowliest believer who comes in the authority of what Jesus did on the cross.
iii. “Resist, by faith, and the rest of the spiritual armour, Ephesians 6:13, 14, etc. Or, resist i.e. comply not with his motions and temptations.” (Poole)
iv. “And he will flee from you; as to that particular assault in which you resist him; and though he return again, and tempt you again, yet you still resisting, he will still be overcome; ye are never conquered so long as you do not consent.” (Poole)
v. A famous ancient Christian writer named Hermas wrote, “The devil can wrestle against the Christian, but he cannot pin him.” (Cited in Barclay)
f. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you: The call to draw near to God is both an invitation and a promise. It is no good to submit to God’s authority and to resist the devil’s attack and then fail to draw near to God. We have it as a promise: God will draw near to us as we draw near to Him.
i. “When a soul sets out to seek God, God sets out to meet that soul; so that while we are drawing near to him, he is drawing near to us.” (Clarke)
ii. What does it mean to draw near to God? Spurgeon considered a few ways:
· It means to draw near in worship, praise, and in prayer.
· It means to draw near by asking counsel of God.
· It means to draw near in enjoying communion with God.
· It means to draw near in the general course and tenor of your life.
iii. In one way, this text illustrates the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant. In the old covenant, God told Moses to not come any closer to the burning bush and take off his shoes. Under the new covenant, God says to the sinner: “Draw near to Me and I will draw near to you.” Now the ground between God and the sinner has been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus, and we can come close to God on the basis of that blood.
iv. This also shows what God wants to do for the sinner. It doesn’t say, “Draw near to God and He will save you” or “Draw near to God and He will forgive you,” though both of those are true. But what God really wants is to be near man; to have a close relationship and fellowship with the individual.
v. From the rest of the chapter we see the results of drawing near to God:
· Drawing near to God helps us to resist the devil.
· Drawing near to God helps us to become pure.
· Drawing near to God helps us to sorrow for sin.
· Drawing near to God helps us to speak well of other people.
· Drawing near to God helps us to think of eternal things.
g. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! As we draw near to God, we will be convicted of our sin. So we lament and mourn and weep as appropriate under the conviction of sin, and we are compelled to find cleansing at the cross.
i. “The word used for sinner is hamartolos, which means the hardened sinner, the man whose sin is obvious and notorious.” (Barclay)
ii. In using terms like lament and mourn and weep, “James speaks in terms of the Hebrew prophets’ language about the anguish of repentance.” (Moffatt)
h. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up: As we come as sinners before the holy God (not as self righteous religionists, as Jesus explained in Luke 18:10-14), we appropriately humble ourselves before Him. Then He will lift us up, because God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble, and grace – the unmerited favor of God – always lifts us up.
i. In this passage James has powerfully described both the duty and the blessing of repentance.
4. (11-12) The solutions for strife: get right with other people.
Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?
a. Do not speak evil of one another: Humbling ourselves and getting right with God must result in our getting right with other people. When we are right with other people, it will show in the way we talk about them. So we must not speak evil of one another and not judge our brother.
i. Speak evil translates the ancient Greek word katalalia. “Katalalia is the sin of those who meet in corners and gather in little groups and pass on confidential information which destroy the good name of those who are not there to defend themselves.” (Barclay)
ii. This sin is wrong for two reasons. First, it breaks the royal law that we should love one another. Second, it takes a right of judgment that only God has.
b. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law: When we judge our brother, we put ourselves in the same place as the law, in effect judging the law. This is something that we have no authority to do, because there is one Lawgiver – so who are you to judge another?
i. “However high and orthodox our view of God’s law might be, a failure actually to do it says to the world that we do not in fact put much store by it.” (Moo)
c. Who are you to judge another? This is an extension of the same humility that James writes about in this chapter. When we have proper humility before God, it just isn’t within us to arrogantly judge our brother.
i. “This is not to rule out civil courts and judges. Instead, it is to root out the harsh, unkind, critical spirit that continually finds fault with others.” (Burdick)
ii. “Who art thou; what a sorry creature, a man, a worm, that thou shouldest lift up thyself into God’s place, and make thyself a judge of one not subject to thee!” (Poole)
B. A humble dependence on God.
1. (13-16) A caution against an attitude of independence from God.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
a. You who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”: James rebuked the kind of heart that lives and makes its plans apart from a constant awareness of the hand of God, and with an underestimation of our own limitations (you do not know what will happen tomorrow).
i. “This was the custom of those ancient times; they traded from city to city, carrying their goods on the backs of camels. The Jews traded thus to Tyre, Sidon, Caesarea, Crete, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, Rome, &c. And it is to this kind of itinerant mercantile life that St. James alludes.” (Clarke)
ii. This attitude that James challenged goes far beyond making wise plans for the future. “Not, let us go, but, we will go, in the indicative mood; noting the peremptoriness of their purposes, and their presuming upon future times and things, which were not in their power.” (Poole)
iii. “Notice, that these people, while they thought everything was at their disposal, used everything for worldly objects. What did they say? Did they determine with each other ‘We will to-day or to-morrow do such and such a thing for the glory of God, and for the extension of his kingdom’? Oh, no, there was not a word about God in it, from beginning to end!” (Spurgeon)
iv. “There are two great certainties about things that shall come to pass – one is that God knows, and the other is that we do not know.” (Spurgeon)
b. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away: James asked us to consider the fragility of human life, and the fact that we live and move only at the permission of God. James does not discourage us from planning and doing, only from planning and doing apart from reliance on God.
i. The idea that our life was a vapor or shadow was a frequent figure of speech in the Old Testament (Psalm 102:11; Job 8:9; 1 Chronicles 29:15).
ii. We also remember the story Jesus told about the rich man who made his great plans for the future, and foolishly lost it all when his soul was required of him (Luke 12:16-21). “They might easily observe that many things fall out betwixt the cup and the lip, betwixt the chin and the chalice.” (Trapp)
iii. “There are a thousand gates to death; and, though some seem to be narrow wickets, many souls have passed through them. Men have been choked by a grape stone, killed by a tile falling from the roof of a house, poisoned by a drop, carried off by a whiff of foul air. I know not what there is that is too little to slay the greatest king. It is a marvel that man lives at all.” (Spurgeon)
iv. Knowing that life is short, we must be diligent and energetic about the common duties of everyday life. “It is sinful to neglect the common duties of life, under the idea that we shall do something more by-and-by. You do not obey your parents, young man, and yet you are going to be a minister, are you? A pretty minister will you make! As an apprentice you are very dilatory and neglectful, and your master would be glad to see the back of you; he wishes that he could burn your indentures; and yet you have an idea you are going to be a missionary, I believe? A pretty missionary you would be!” (Spurgeon)
c. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” It is nothing but sheer arrogance that makes us think that we can live and move and have our being independent of God. This boastful arrogance is the essence of sin: a proud independence, the root of all sin, as was the case with Lucifer (Isaiah 14:12-15) and Adam (Genesis 3:5-7).
i. Paul knew and lived this principle: I will return again to you, God willing (Acts 18:21). But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills (1 Corinthians 4:19). I hope to stay a while with you, if the Lord permits (1 Corinthians 16:7).
ii. “All such boasting, when life is so precarious, is worse than absurd, it is wicked, a positive sin, a specimen of the ungodly haughtiness (James 4:6) of which men should repent.” (Moffatt)
iii. You boast in your arrogance: “The word is alazoneia. Alazoneia was originally the characteristic of the wandering quack. He offered cures which were no cures and boasted to things that he was not able to do.” (Moffatt)
2. (17) A challenge to live according to what we know in the Lord.
Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.
a. To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin: James knows that it is far easier to think about and talk about humility and dependence on God than it is to live it. Yet he makes the mind of God plain: as we know these things, we are accountable to do them.
i. Here James returned to his consistent theme through his letter: the idea that genuine faith is proved by action. “However high and orthodox our view of God’s law might be, a failure actually to do it says to the world that we do not in fact put much store by it.” (Moo)
ii. Yet we also see that the uncertainty of life, to which James referred to in the previous passage, should not create fear that makes one passive or inactive. The uncertainty of life should make us ready to recognize what is good and then do it. “This uncertainty of life is not a cause either for fear or inaction. It is always a reason for realizing our complete dependence on God.” (Moffatt)
b. To him it is sin: Jesus told a story with much the same point in Luke 12:41-48. The story was about servants and how they obeyed the master in the master’s absence. Jesus concluded the story with this application: For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more (Luke 12:48). Greater light gives greater responsibility.
©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission