James 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Don't You Know the Choice to Be Made?

As James poses (in 4:4) the third question of this section, I paraphrase it in order to display the heart of the matter. James has placed the problems of selfish ambition and fighting under his spotlight in 3:13-18 and 4:1-3. Now he addresses what to do about the problems. In light of the preceding paragraphs, a choice must be made between friendship with God and friendship with the world.The Significance of the Choice (4:4-6)

The presentation of this choice extends the parallel with Matthew 7 one step further. After inviting his hearers to ask the Father for what they needed, Jesus confronted them with a choice between wide and narrow ways leading to opposite ends--destruction and life (Mt 7:13-14). Now James's thought runs in the same direction; his purpose in this paragraph is to impress on his readers the importance and urgency of the choice.

First, the importance of the choice is clarified by the simplicity of the alternatives. It becomes a matter of whether we want friendship with the world or friendship with God. This use of world to encompass the patterns of human life contrary to God's will was apparently common enough in Christian circles for James to expect his readers to understand; Paul would use the term in a very similar sense. James thereby cuts through the complications and subtleties of our secondary goals and defines the matter in terms of primary values. Whether we will be described more accurately by 3:16 or by 3:17 will be determined by whether we want the world or God.

Second, the seriousness of the one alternative is made clear with shocking terms: you adulterous people, hatred toward God, an enemy of God. It all sounds so offensive that we are tempted to think he must be addressing non-Christians rhetorically (similar to his address of the rich oppressors in 5:1). Here, however, he must be addressing his Christian readers, for his immediate message is still too closely connected to the hypocritical wisdom and the fights and quarrels among you from 3:13 and 4:1. But he is again warning those who call themselves Christians that they may be false Christians who are really enemies of God.

James simply writes with a stronger conviction of the seriousness of sin than most of us are willing to hold. In fact he writes with a sense of moral outrage. Consider Davids's rendering of the beginning of this paragraph: " `Adulteresses!' the author cries" (1982:160). We should accept James's terms, learn from his acute sense of moral right and wrong, and apply it to ourselves in fear of the judgment that comes to any who are not true Christians. Harboring bitter envy and selfish ambition, with the actions of fighting and quarreling, makes us adulterous people who are treating God with hatred and enmity.

Third, the powerful reality of the other alternative is offered so that we will not miss it by indifference. The point of James's references to Scripture in 4:5 and 4:6 is to persuade his readers to choose God unreservedly instead of the world because God himself is jealous that they make this choice and is furthermore gracious toward them to welcome their humble commitment. Contrary to the NIV, God should be understood as the subject of the clause in the scriptural reference of 4:5 as well as 4:6.

However, 4:5 is one of the most problematic verses in the letter. We would be helped in determining the meaning if a definite Old Testament origin could be identified, but there is no verse like the last half of 4:5. In the absence of a definite reference by which to establish the meaning, two major understandings have been proposed.

One possibility is reflected in the NIV. Here the subject of the clause is spirit, pneuma, taken to mean the human spirit which God caused to live in us from creation. This is the spirit that envies intensely, so James is reminding his readers that human nature tends toward the envy and jealousy about which he has been warning since 3:14. The arguments in favor of this rendering are as follows.

1. Linguistic. James says literally that this spirit "yearns to jealousy." This verb epipothei is never elsewhere applied to God, and the noun phthonon is consistently negative in other instances.

2. Contextual. A reference to human envy would be consistent with what James has been emphasizing in the larger passage.

3. Logical. The next scriptural reference, in 4:6, would provide logical contrast by stating that God gives more grace to overcome this human tendency toward envy.

While these are worthy arguments, an alternative reflected in the NASB and the NIV margin is preferable. Here the subject of the verb is the understood he, referring to God. The object of his yearning is the spirit he caused to live in us. This spirit could be either the created human spirit or the Holy Spirit given to Christians, though the former seems more likely because it is consistent with James's only other reference to "spirit" in 2:26. In either case, the meaning is that God jealously desires us to belong wholeheartedly to him. (Even if one takes the Jerusalem Bible or Living Bible rendering with "spirit" referring to the Holy Spirit as the subject of the clause, one is left with the same meaning: that God jealously desires us.)

The arguments making this understanding of 4:5 preferable are the following.

1. Linguistic. Two terms for "envy," phthonos and zelos, are sometimes interchangeable, and zelos is used elsewhere of God. James would be choosing this more unusual use of phthonos simply for stylistic contrast, since he recently used zelos negatively of human envy in 3:14 and 3:16.

2. Grammatical. It is more natural to have the same subject for the two verbs yearns and caused to live.

3. Contextual. An emphasis on God's jealousy for righteousness in us is equally consistent with what James has emphasized in the letter.

4. Logical. A reference to human envy here would be awkward, because it would seem to ignore the point to which James has come in 4:4 and would instead return to his point in 4:1-3. On the other hand, a reference to God's jealousy fits the flow of thought well. The point of 4:4 logically raises the objection "How does friendship with the world make me an enemy of God?" James would be answering this in 4:5 by reminding us of God's jealousy. Then 4:6 would follow as a reminder of God's grace to the humble, which protects us from being overwhelmed by God's jealousy.

If this second alternative is the correct understanding, then the Old Testament Scripture James has in mind is probably a theme rather than a particular verse--the frequent theme of God's jealousy for undivided devotion from his people (e.g., Ex 20:5). The reference in 4:6 is more specific and definite, quoting Proverbs 3:34 about God's personal stance in regard to the choice before us. He is neither passive nor indifferent but quite active in opposing the proud and giving grace to the humble. The proverb is also reflected in Jesus' teaching in Luke 14:11 and 18:14. It fits James's context perfectly here, as it reminds the readers succinctly of the two alternatives James has taken trouble to portray since 3:13--pride and humility.

Altogether, the paragraph of 4:4-6 emphasizes God's requirement of Christians: "a total, unreserved, unwavering allegiance" to God rather than to the world (Moo 1985:144). It equally emphasizes that this requirement is not an achievement by which the proud can earn God's friendship, for the call to devotion is based on God's extension of grace to the humble. Grace is what opens the way for the steps prescribed in the next two paragraphs.Steps to Be Taken Toward God (4:7-10)

James has a problem: his readers are being corrupted by bitter envy and selfish ambition leading to fights and quarrels. He has a goal: to help them learn to live in love and at peace with each other. Therefore he has a prescription for them: repentance. That is what his ten imperatives provide--a forceful call to repentance as the requisite to love and peace in the community.

There is a clear structure to this paragraph. Submit yourselves to God states the theme, which is indicated by the insertion of then to be an application drawn immediately from the preceding Proverbs 3:34. Humble yourselves before the Lord is also drawn from Proverbs 3:34 by repetition of the term for humble in verb form. These first and last of the ten imperatives are intended to be synonymous, the former introducing and the latter summarizing the theme. In between, the imperatives flow in three couplets.

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Come near to God and he will come near to you.

Wash your hands, you sinners,
and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Grieve, mourn and wail.
Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.

James's description of becoming humble or submissive before God, then, begins with a willful rejection of and opposition to the devil, complemented by a deliberate choosing of God instead of the devil. It reflects the biblical worldview of God's enmity with evil and the choice this requires of us. God opposes or resists (antitasso) the proud in 4:6; now in 4:7 we are to oppose or resist (anthistemi) the devil. The verb anthistemi has the middle sense of "set oneself against" and so emphasizes the Christian's deliberately chosen personal stance. The contrasting action that we are to take toward God is to come near. Thus James has put this entire section in terms of knowing the choice to be made: friendship with the world or friendship with God, opposing the devil or opposing God.

Along with the presentation of this choice comes a pair of promises to encourage James's readers. The devil . . . will flee from you. Meanwhile, God . . . will come near to you. Just as there is a continuity between God's stance toward the devil and our own (opposing him), so now there is a continuity between our reverse action toward God and his action toward us (drawing near). The same verb engizo identifies our act and God's act of drawing near, to make definite that God will not give himself to us any less than we give ourselves to him. This is an assurance of God's readiness and availability.

The middle couplet requires a sincere purifying of one's life, since both verbs (katharizo and hagnizo) emphasize a moral and ceremonial cleansing, and since the two objects (your hands . . . your hearts) complement each other for external and internal cleansing. The essential connection between external washing and inward purifying is already an Old Testament theme in James's background (Deut 10:16; Is 1:15-17). James may also be prompted by Jesus' own teaching on washing of hands and purification within (Mk 7). An evidence of the unity of thought in James's letter is his reference to the double-minded in 4:8. It is the same term as in 1:8, where the double-minded man is condemned as "unstable," akatastatos. This is the evil James abhors in 3:16 as the "disorder," akatastasia, resulting from selfish ambition. From the very beginning of the epistle, James is giving a consistent picture of authentic Christian faith in practice.

The third couplet describes deep and acute sorrow--not merely regret over mistakes but actual grieving, mourning and wailing over one's sin. The three verbs, in order, make vivid impressions: talaiporeo, a state of being miserable or wretched; pentheo, the great sadness of mourning; and klaio, a vehement or bitter weeping. Again James is calling for what Jesus prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:4, using a participle of the verb pentheo). The seriousness of sin is unmistakable here, and Christians today who lack that sense of seriousness about sin are weakened and corrupted. Tasker sees the importance of this application: "When the Christian compromises with the world and is double minded, it is a sure sign that his sense of the gravity of sin has become blunted" (1983:95). James is unapologetic and authoritative in his command to such a person: Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. We should not be afraid today to call for such deeply felt repentance.

The whole paragraph (not just the third couplet, as in Davids 1982:167) is a portrait of repentance. Repentance is an act of humble submission to God which includes a choice to resist the devil and to draw near to God, a commitment to moral purity both externally and internally, and a genuine remorse for one's sin.

I would love to know how James's message was received in his day. James is properly described as a "prophet-pastor" (Webster 1991:22), and I wonder whether he sounded too much like the Old Testament prophets to be very popular. He may be recalling passages like Amos's prophecies of wailing and mourning (5:16; 8:10). Amos was ordered to go away and stop prophesying. James's message is not the kind of spiritual direction most people want to hear today; the church is being pressured to rely on counsel that is only affirming, programs that are merely entertaining and music that is always upbeat. Yet the problems James has addressed require a submission that is humbling, a resistance that is demanding, an attitude that is sorrowful and life changes that are radical.

At the same time, these steps are reinforced with encouraging promises: the devil . . . will flee from you, God . . . will come near to you, and the Lord . . . will lift you up. Such promises certainly direct us to a reliance on God rather than our good works. The assurance that God will lift you up is not explicitly defined. However, since submit yourselves, then, to God is the direct application from Proverbs 3:34, and since humble yourselves before the Lord restates that first imperative to summarize the paragraph, the promise of being lifted up probably refers back to the promise of grace in 4:6. From the context of the intervening imperatives, James would be telling us to expect that God will come near to forgive sin, to restore joy and to strengthen the repentant sinner to live in purity and righteousness. Seeing the requirement of radical life changes in 4:710 expands our appreciation for that preceding promise in 4:6--he gives us more grace. Motyer comments, "What comfort there is in this verse! It tells us that God is tirelessly on our side. He never falters in respect of our needs, he always has more grace at hand for us. He is never less than sufficient, he always has more and yet more to give" (1985:150).

It would be accurate to say that James's entire letter is instructing us to live in reliance on God's grace. That sounded tame enough until James applied it to actual practice, such as ending hatred and fights. Now we see just how radical this proposition of grace-reliance really is. How do we manage not to curse people who treat us with such hostility and injustice that cursing them is exactly what we want to do? The answer is the course James has described: examination of one's own desires, choice to want God instead of the world, repentance for sin and reliance on God's grace.

Ralph Bell, an associate evangelist with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is a godly man who tells of learning grace-reliance in a deeply personal way. Bell is a Canadian-born black man who lives and ministers in the United States. As a young man, he struggled with experiences of racial insults and discrimination. Being so treated by fellow Christians, who were disobeying James's instructions about impartiality, was especially hurtful. Bell shared his struggles with his mother, who counseled him to keep his eyes on Jesus, because Jesus would never disappoint him. As he sought to apply that advice, he began to find the grace to see others' racism as their problem. He further sought grace from God to purify his own life of hatred toward those who mistreated him. In James's terms, Ralph Bell humbled himself before the Lord, and he found himself being lifted up by the grace of God to be able to love his enemies. How does one love hostile and hurtful people? The answer is supernaturally, by relying on the grace that God gives to the humble.

10 expands our appreciation for that preceding promise in 4:6--he gives us more grace. Motyer comments, "What comfort there is in this verse! It tells us that God is tirelessly on our side. He never falters in respect of our needs, he always has more grace at hand for us. He is never less than sufficient, he always has more and yet more to give" (1985:150).

It would be accurate to say that James's entire letter is instructing us to live in reliance on God's grace. That sounded tame enough until James applied it to actual practice, such as ending hatred and fights. Now we see just how radical this proposition of grace-reliance really is. How do we manage not to curse people who treat us with such hostility and injustice that cursing them is exactly what we want to do? The answer is the course James has described: examination of one's own desires, choice to want God instead of the world, repentance for sin and reliance on God's grace.

Ralph Bell, an associate evangelist with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is a godly man who tells of learning grace-reliance in a deeply personal way. Bell is a Canadian-born black man who lives and ministers in the United States. As a young man, he struggled with experiences of racial insults and discrimination. Being so treated by fellow Christians, who were disobeying James's instructions about impartiality, was especially hurtful. Bell shared his struggles with his mother, who counseled him to keep his eyes on Jesus, because Jesus would never disappoint him. As he sought to apply that advice, he began to find the grace to see others' racism as their problem. He further sought grace from God to purify his own life of hatred toward those who mistreated him. In James's terms, Ralph Bell humbled himself before the Lord, and he found himself being lifted up by the grace of God to be able to love his enemies. How does one love hostile and hurtful people? The answer is supernaturally, by relying on the grace that God gives to the humble.Steps to Be Taken Toward Others (4:11-12)

James could end this section at this point, having directed his readers with steps toward God. He is unrelenting, however, in making the explicit application to the problem with which he began--the problem of anger, impure speech and judging within the Christian community. He introduced this topic as early as 1:19. He focused on the aspects of judging and discriminating in 2:1-13. He returned to the issue of impure speech in 3:1 and specifically the problems of cursing and envy and fighting through chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter 4. Now he drives home his call to a life of faith in personal relationships. Here the coherence of James's letter is again evident, contrary to some commentators who see it as disconnected, self-contained pieces (e.g., Dibelius 1976:207-8; Laws 1980:186; and even Davids 1982:168-69).

First comes the pointed command Do not slander one another. The verb is katalaleo ("speak against"), which could include destructive verbal attacks, gossip behind another person's back and false accusations. Such offenses are not to be practiced among Christians.

Then James repeats this first verb in anyone who speaks against his brother but adds a second verb or judges him to make clear that the speaking against is a form of judging. Judging then becomes the real focus of these verses, and the remainder of the two verses is explanation of why judging is so wrong.

The fundamental notion of "judging" with the verb krino is one of distinguishing or making a distinction. It is certainly right to distinguish between good and evil; James himself is not timid about condemning people's evil behavior. Yet he warns against judging. To see what he means, we need to draw together the line of thought James has pursued about judging all through the letter. We must begin with James's emphasis on faith, because that is still the unifying theme of the letter.

[] 1:1-18. Christians begin with a stance of faith. This faith could be summarized from 1:1-18 as confidence in God's mercy. James emphasized God's mercy with several examples: God is faithful to complete in us what we lack (1:3-4); God is generous to give to us without finding fault (1:5); God is kind to exalt us even in humble circumstances (1:9); God is reliable for us even when our own evil desires would entice us into temptation (1:13); God is, in fact, the gracious and consistent giver of every good gift (1:17-18).

[] 1:2-6. Faith in this mercy of God has radical implications for our lives. The first implication is that because of faith in God's mercy, Christians face trials with joy. They believe God instead of wavering with doubts (diakrino). If they act on the basis of doubts, they are distinguishing (or judging) a basis for life other than God's mercy.

[] 2:1-5. A second implication is that Christians are certainly not to practice partiality toward others, for then they would be discriminating (diakrino) and making themselves judges (krites). They would be treating people as if wealth instead of God's mercy were the factor determining people's value.

[] 2:8-13. The royal law commands us to be merciful. If we treat others with judgmental discrimination instead of mercy, we sin and will be judged (krino) by that law. Our lives are based on God's mercy, by which we escape judgment and receive salvation; now in the law that we obey, our lives are again based on mercy. So both in being saved and in living the Christian life, "mercy triumphs over judgment!"

[] 3:1-2, 13-18. Everyone stumbles and so is vulnerable to judgment. But because of faith in God's mercy, a Christian will act in humility. A Christian will be impartial (adiakritos, "without judging") and sincere (anhypokritos, "without hypocrisy").

Drawing upon this background, in 4:11-12 James would now help us avoid the sin of judging. He instructs us in regard to three relationships that form the context for our lives. In each case, judging is inherently contradictory to the true nature of the relationship.

First mentioned is the relationship with each other. James chooses significant terms to identify the ones his readers would be judging: brother in 4:11 and then neighbor at the end of 4:12. Jesus used the term brother in his instruction against judging (Mt 7:1-5), and he used the term neighbor in the great commandment to love (Mt 22:39). In light of all that James has written so far about God's mercy toward us, these terms now come as reminders that our family bonds in God's mercy are violated when we who have received mercy turn to judge each other; and God's goodness to us is treated with contempt when we show judgment instead of mercy to our neighbors.

Second is the relationship with the law. James insists that we are to be doers under the law, which is contradicted when we try to be judges over the law. The "law" (nomos) could refer to the Old Testament command in Leviticus 19:16, which prohibits slander, and to Leviticus 19:18, "Love your neighbor as yourself," which James quoted in 2:8. Given James's reverence for the teachings of Jesus as the royal law of the kingdom, it is likely that he also has in mind Jesus' specific command against judging in Matthew 7:1 and Jesus' own quoting of Leviticus 19:18. James's point is that if we accept God's mercy through Christ, we place ourselves under Christ's law, which commands mercy. If we then judge others instead of being merciful toward their faults, we are rejecting that law and so setting ourselves up as judges over the law. This contradicts our proper stance as recipients of grace--we are to be doers under the law.

The third relationship is with God. One (heis) as the subject of the sentence emphasizes that there is only one who is Lawgiver and Judge. When we judge each other, we are contradicting that fact. This is a revealing insight into our hearts. In judging people, what we really want is to take God's place. The United States government is arranged in judicial, legislative and executive branches, with a careful separation and balance of powers. In the realm of personal relationships, however, judging and lawgiving operate together; the one who judges another person is presuming to have authority to set the law or standard by which the other person is judged. Judging is an attempt to be in control as God is in control, which has been our rebellious desire ever since the serpent told Eve she could be "like God, knowing good and evil." Our sins of judging are attempts to set ourselves not only over the law but over the Lawgiver as well.

Now we can summarize. What James has been prescribing is a life of faith that has two facets: confidence in God's grace and passion for God's righteousness. The confidence and the passion are complementary responses to God's judgment and mercy. God's mercy triumphs over judgment on our behalf; therefore we may be confident in relying on grace. However, we who have genuinely grasped grace will become all the more eager to grasp righteousness, realizing that our lack of righteousness so nearly brought us to disaster in the fearful judgment of God. Once one has humbly sought grace for escape from judgment (4:10), it becomes unthinkable to set oneself up as judge over a neighbor (4:11). It is part of a single stance before God to submit to him for his grace (4:7) and to submit to him for his law; one cannot be both a judge over the law and a doer under the law (4:11). James is showing us a well-integrated faith in Christ as both merciful Savior to be trusted and righteous Lord to be obeyed.

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What Causes Fights Among You?

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Patience Until the Lord's Coming

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