James 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Instead, Be Patient

The particle oun ("then") makes definite the connection with the preceding paragraph; the picture of sin and judgment is the fresh motivation for telling the brothers now to be patient. Be patient? What an incredible command to give after the preceding portrayal of offenses! "Be outraged" is more what we would expect. But James has not lost his moral perspective in the midst of his moral passion. He has already expressed his outrage, but his concern is still for purity among the Christians, and he discerns the danger of falling into sin here. James is practicing his own counsel from 1:9-15, recognizing the danger of temptation in the midst of trials inflicted by rich oppressors. He does not tell his readers to compete with or fight against the rich for their wealth, because it would be horrible to become drawn into the materialism of the rich and so to come under the same divine judgment.

James's other alternative might be to say, "Give up in despair, for the situation is hopeless; all the power is in the hands of the rich." This, too, would be falling into sin; it would be an affirmation of the values of the rich, saying that their materialistic power is the only goal to live for.

"Both giving in to the world and attacking the world are wrong," concludes Davids (1982:182). Instead, James says, Be patient, and he spends these next five verses explaining that patience.The Nature of Christian Patience (5:7-8)

I used to think of patience as a passive personality trait. I prayed for patience as if God might infuse me with this trait so that I would become unaffected by trying circumstances. It is certainly right to pray for patience; James is the one who urges prayer and reliance on grace so strongly. But if I want patience, I need to better understand what it is.

First, patience has a specific object in our own sanctification. James begins with the verb makrothymeo, which carries not only the idea of being patient but specifically the picture of waiting with patience. This implies some object of the waiting, but the object is not the parousia, the coming of the Lord. This becomes clearer in the analogy of the farmer who also "waits." James first uses the verb ekdechomai for the farmer's waiting, but he makes the continuity definite by adding a participle of makrothymeo--"being patient." The farmer is patient "over" one thing and "until" another thing. The text says the farmer waits for the valuable fruit of the earth, being patient "over it" (ep' auto), that is, over the fruit. He is patient "until" (heos) it receives the autumn and spring rains. The description of the crop as valuable (or "precious" in NASB) would help the persecuted readers to identify with the farmer as not a wealthy landlord but a small farmer who depends on a good harvest for survival, even as the Christian readers are hanging on for survival. More important, it reminds the readers that there is something to be patient "over," something that is of more value than riches or ease. By this point in the letter, readers should be accustomed to James's conviction that the goal of becoming "mature and complete" is the goal of greatest value. James is telling the brothers to be patient over their trials to gain maturity and completeness until that process is crowned with the glorious coming of the Lord. The parallel is that farmers must be patient over their labor to gain the fruit of the soil until that fruit receives the coming of the rain. Do you want to learn patience? The first step is a choice of values. Set your heart on becoming "mature and complete" and having "the righteous life that God desires."

Second, patience has a specific hope in Christ's return. James tells the brothers to be patient "until" (heos) the coming of the Lord. The future return of Christ is the event that motivates Christians to persevere in the endurance of suffering. In the life of the farmer, the autumn and spring rains have a similar role. If the farmer could not hope for the rains, all the plowing and planting and weeding would be futile. Rain (literally, the "early and late [rain]") is a standard Old Testament image of God's promised faithfulness (e.g., Jer 5:24 and Joel 2:23, as well as Deut 11:14, which would have been especially familiar as part of the regularly recited Shema). The effect is to leave no doubt about how appropriate it is to be patient. God has promised these rains; therefore the farmer can be patient in laboring. Even so, God has promised Christ's return; therefore believers can be patient in their hardships. Do you want to learn patience? Contemplate the hope of Christ's return.

Third, patience has a specific stance in deliberate behavior. In 5:8 James begins with the same verb makrothymeo in imperative form, exactly as at the beginning of 5:7. Then kai hymeis ("you too") adds emphasis to the force of the imperative and defines this verse as the application of the farmer analogy. The elaboration comes with a second imperative, "strengthen your hearts" (NIV "stand firm"). It communicates that the waiting is to be done not in weakness or defeat but in strength and action. This makes the patience "much more than passively waiting for the time to pass" (Kistemaker 1986:164). Finally, the hope is stated again; the Lord's "coming" (parousia) approaches or comes near. The perfect tense refers to a process viewed as having been completed and consummated. With the final verb engiken ("approaches" or "comes near") in the perfect tense, the coming of the Lord receives dramatic emphasis, as if James is saying with intensity, "It is so close and so certain--don't give up now!" Do you want to learn patience? Since you have set your heart on becoming mature and complete, and since you hope for Christ's return, now choose to stand firm. What that stance will mean in actual behavior is described in the next three verses.

I was talking with a woman who was facing circumstances of terrible hardship. She was telling me of a friend who had encouraged her significantly, and I was keenly interested to know what the friend had done to minister to her. "What helped me the most," she recalled, "was that he reminded me with assurance that these circumstances will come to an end. It looks so dark and unending now; I needed to be told that it would not last forever." In the same way James has encouraged his persecuted readers with the hope of Christ's return and so has helped them choose a stance of patience.The Practice of Christian Patience (5:9-11)

One view is that 5:9 is "quite isolated," with "scarcely any material connection with the admonition to patience" (Dibelius 1976:244, 242). Such a reading misses the point that James is now turning from the nature of Christian patience to the very practical manifestation of it. What will it look like when we practice Christian patience? James gives one specific application and then reminds his readers of models to follow.

The one application of patience is that we will not grumble against each other (5:9). The imperative verb is stenazo, which means "sigh" or "groan." It refers to a proper groaning for something good in Mark 7:34, Romans 8:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:2. The only other New Testament usage is in Hebrews 13:17, where it has a sense more like the grumbling or complaining that James wants Christians to avoid. It is a grumbling specifically against each other (kata with genitive), thus referring to a complaining in which we blame each other. "Do not moan about one another," Davids translates it (1982:184). The warning or you will be judged is identical to Jesus' words in Mt 7:1 (hina me krithete), indicating that James regards this grumbling as a form of speaking against or judging one's brother, as in 4:11. No further explanation is given for the identity of the Judge, but the Lord in the immediately preceding verse is surely the most likely referent. At the door (translating the idiom "before the doors") would be an image for the nearness of the Lord's coming, as emphasized in 5:8.

It is valuable for us that James makes grumbling his singular point of application. We might want to sidestep this behavior while we try to practice patience in other ways. The trials being faced by those suffering Christians would have put their patience to the test and given plenty of opportunity for bickering and criticizing. The same happens in the church today, even when the Christians are more affluent and the trials more contemporary: "difficult marriages, frustrated dreams, demotions at work, commotions at home, insomnia, high blood pressure, allergies, credit-card bills and insecurity" (Webster 1991:149). Christians lose patience with each other under these pressures, and the church becomes infected with a readiness to criticize and blame. James would correct the problem with a renewed vision of the imminently returning Christ, particularly emphasizing that he comes as Judge.

The models given (5:10-11) are the prophets and Job. Here James's focus is on three elements that make up the portrait of patience at work in the believer's life: suffering, perseverance and blessing. James wants his readers to understand that these three develop in succession and that their outcome is as definite as the character of God. Suffering enters the believer's life; perseverance is the believer's response; blessing comes from the Lord, who is full of compassion and mercy. As in 2:20-26, James's choice of illustrations assumes a largely Jewish-Christian audience who would be familiar with Old Testament examples. A host of particulars might come to their minds from these models, but James chooses not to isolate specific instances as he did with Abraham and Rahab. Instead, he chooses to focus on the three elements: suffering, perseverance and blessing.

The suffering is kakopatheia, which can have a passive sense--misery that comes upon a person. It is also used in a more active sense to describe the deliberate endurance that a person practices in hardship. The latter meaning is James's emphasis here, since the prophets are an example of the pair of traits: literally, "an example . . . of suffering and patience," which would probably mean "patience in suffering." His term for patience is the nominal form of the verb with which he instructed his readers in 5:7 and 5:8 to be patient. It is clear that he is intending to give examples of those preceding imperatives. When he speaks of perseverance in the next sentences, he is using the verb hypomeno and the noun hypomone, going back to the idea with which he began his letter in 1:3-4. He is using patience, makrothymia, and perseverance, hypomone, as virtually synonymous.

God's work in the life of the persevering believer is to bless, conveyed by the verb makarizo ("consider blessed"). James's use of this verb in the first-person plural in 5:11, coupled with the reference to the prophets, indicates a common knowledge of Jesus' words recorded in Matthew 5:11-12. The source or reason for suffering is not identified. James's concern is not to answer that question, but to emphasize that God brings blessing. It was the same in chapter 1 of the letter. The origin of the trials was not specified, but it was important to be clear about this: God does not tempt us to do evil; he will use trials to bring good gifts to us. Now James emphasizes not merely that God will manage to bring some blessings but that God will ultimately accomplish his good purposes. The example of Job, who was ultimately blessed in abundance, reveals to telos kyriou--the end or goal of the Lord.

All of this demonstrates the character of the Lord, which is finally what James wants his readers to know with confidence. The description of God as compassionate and merciful would be as familiar to his readers as are the prophets and Job, from passages such as Exodus 34:6 and Psalms 103:8. Yet James places unique emphasis on this picture of God by introducing a term used nowhere else prior to or within the New Testament: polysplanchnos ("full of compassion"). This, ultimately, is the source of assurance by which we can be patient. What will it look like when we practice Christian patience? It will look like the prophets, who kept speaking, and like Job, who kept believing, in suffering and perseverance, with this specific assurance: God will bless.

This is the message of grace. God gives good gifts because he is full of compassion and mercy. Grace is the element in God's character which James wants his readers to know with absolute confidence. The Christian can be patient in suffering and consider trials pure joy because of the assurance that God will give wonderfully good gifts even through the hardships.

Fundamental for Christian practice is Christian belief. What is the truth about God? Is he this God of grace or not? We are called over and over in James's letter to believe this truth--believe it, believe it, believe it. And then act accordingly. Put belief into practice by being patient in the endurance of suffering.

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Don't Be Materialistic

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The Encompassing Instructions

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