James 5:1-12 -- The Oppressors and the Oppressed
In this last chapter of the book of James, we detect a change in his tone of voice. It takes on an air of an Old Testament warning of impending judgment. Let's take a look and compare it to similar passages in the Bible.
I encourage you to read any verse or even book of the Bible in the context of all of Scripture. That means two things:
1. Read any passage in the context of the Bible's redemption story; that is, the gospel: The perfect and only God created mankind. We were created “ good” but have fallen into sin. We are dead in sin until raised to life through Christ's sacrifice on the cross. It is when we accept His free gift of grace that the Holy Spirit begins to sanctify us to become more like Christ and bring honor to God. Reading Scripture in the context of this truth reinforces what is really important. The Bible is never a manual for selfish gain or superficial happiness. It is primarily about God and faith in Him.
2. Any passage or verse you study is likely not the only place where Scripture talks about whatever topic it addresses. It only gives you a small glimpse into the subject matter, so look for a more well-rounded perspective found elsewhere in Scripture. We have kept this principle in mind during the study every time we brought in other passages from Scripture to complement our reading. These are considered cross-references. You can easily find cross-references with online tools like biblestudytools.com and sometimes even in the back of your Bible.
James' Stern Warning
As we head into this last chapter of the Book of James, we notice that the tone of voice changes. Whereas James has given us many practical examples of how to live out our faith, he now gives a stern warning in a different type of language. It reminds us of Old Testament warnings of impending judgment.
As we finished the previous passage in James 4, I proposed that verse 17 was a conclusion to the first four chapters of the book of James. He told us how to live out our faith in a number of ways, surely addressing issues that he saw going wrong in the congregations he addressed. He then finished with this concluding statement: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and does not do it, it is sin for them.”
Basically, James says, “ Now you know what to do, so go do it.”
Now, he shifts focus a little bit. He speaks a warning against the rich oppressors that he has brought up a few times in this letter. We have gotten the feeling that these people abused their power for personal gain, dragged people into court, benefited from favoritism, and did not show care for the poor as God commands.
James speaks this warning, telling these rich people to "weep and wail”. He reminds them of the coming day of judgment because, as of right now, they are not in right standing with God because of their action.
He also condemns their riches, calling them corroded and rotten. Do you remember Matthew 6:19-21? Jesus encouraged us to store up our treasures in heaven where rust does not destroy and thieves do not steal.
You might also think of the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. Jesus tells of a man who whose field produced a lot of grain. This man continued to build larger storehouses and felt secure in his riches, his abundance of grain. However, Jesus calls this man a fool because while he had many earthly treasures, he was not rich in faith.
As we're looking at James’ warning of judgment and the words of Jesus, we come to understand that this warning is not meant for all rich people. Instead, it is against those who have either come by these riches through evil or are relying on them rather than on God. A wealthy person who loves God has nothing to fear on the day of judgment. It is those who rely on their wealth who are in for a rude awakening.
We begin to get a sense here that God will judge those who made money by oppressing others. Their actions may have given the luxury on earth but are preparing them for judgment in heaven.
Be Patient and Forgive
Then, James shifts his focus from the oppressors to the oppressed. We can imagine that these victims had been humiliated and taken advantage of... and they were probably quite angry. At this point in the letter, they might be thinking, “That's right. You listen to James. I hope God judges you right here, right now.”
But James encourages them to react differently. He tells them to be patient for the Lord's coming and His judgment. He compares it to a farmer who waits for his crop to grow. In the same way, we are to be patient and stand firm in the Lord and wait for His coming.
In the meantime, we should not complain about each other so that we ourselves are not subject to judgment. Basically, don't let someone else's sin against you cause you to sin.
As an example, James brings up the prophets of the Old Testament who were often ostracized for their message but patiently and faithfully proclaimed the Word of the Lord. They did not seek their own revenge but submitted to the Lord's timing.
James mentions Job who, even when he lost everything, persevered in his faith in God. Are there any other Bible characters that stand out to you as an example of patience? I'd love to hear about them in the comment section.
How has God challenged your patience and trust in His timing? When people wrong you, is your first reaction to show compassion and mercy or two wish judgment upon those who hurt you?
Let's be challenged by these two passages to love one another, treat each other fairly, and extend forgiveness, no matter what!