Practically Speaking: James 9

Some observations on how we treat each other

James 4:11-17

As we begin reading this group of verses, two things come to mind.  First, the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-2,

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

And second, something James said earlier in this letter:

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?  (2:2-4)

What makes this section curious is not necessarily the subject matter, although it seems that believers judging other believers for no apparent reason was all-too common in the early church, and that is something very curious to me.  What is extremely curious is how James address his readers.  Not a handful of verses previously, he called them “double minded” and “adulterous” people.  Now he comes back to refer to them as “brothers” or “brothers and sisters.”   I don’t want to read too much into this, but to me, it is a very comforting thought to know that even when believers behave badly, even to the point of slandering one another, they are still members of God’s family.

Even though it seems like James is launching into a series of unrelated series of topics, it should be noted that verses 11 and 12 are, in fact, very closely related to the preceding passage.  In Psalm 101:5, David actually links slander to a lack of humility:

Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure.

The connection is really very simple.  Slander comes from a person who thinks they are superior to others.  When a Christian begins to drift away from God, they begin to draw away from other believers and begin to be unduly critical of them.  Such was the case of James’ friends.

1.  The evil of evil speaking, verses 11, 12

Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.  (Verse 11)

This prohibition might better be translated like this:

Do not speak against one another.

The Greek word, katalaleite does mean “to slander,” but it is a more encompassing word.  To slander some one generally means to lie about them or make false or misleading statements about them to others.  But katalaleite properly refers to any form of “ugly speech” against somebody else.  In fact, it refers to more than just the unkind words but also to the way they are spoken.

The grammatical construction of this sentence indicates an ongoing activity.  James is not only prohibiting a nasty habit, but he is telling to stop doing it.  And the reason James gives for stopping this despicable practice is that the one who speaks against his brother will soon find himself in trouble with God.  “The law” to which James refers is “the royal law,” mentioned earlier in the letter.  A/F. Harper’s comments on this verse are extremely helpful at this juncture:

When I violate God’s law of love, I set myself up a judge and say in effect, God’s law is not a good law.  Thus the real evil of speaking evil speaking rests in a sinful pride that refuses to accept and obey the law of God.

The one who slanders a brother literally puts asides the Word and wishes of God and places himself on the same level as God.   Debelius:

Slander is not a transgression of merely one commandment, but a transgression against the authority of the law in general, and therefore against God.

When viewed like this, we can see the seriousness of this sin.  It is not merely against a brother or sister, but against the God of the universe.  Of course, James is not condemning legitimate human judgment, for elsewhere in Scripture believers are encouraged to exercise godly judgment of one another.

But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.  (1 Corinthians 11:31)

Ultimately, as verse 12 says, God is the only Lawgiver who has the ability to administer His law righteously; God shares that position with no human being.  James goes so far as to describe God as:

one who is able to save and destroy

That’s a powerful statement of the sovereignty of God, that finds two parallels:

There is no god besides me.  I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal.  (Deuteronomy 32:39)

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  (Matthew 10:28)

As believers and members of one great Body, we are all guilty of our sins, though we stand forgiven by our heavenly Father.  Still, we are the accused, and therefore rather than standing in judgment of each other, setting ourselves up as their judge, we should encourage, comfort, and love our family in the Lord.  Simply put, you and I are in no position lord it over another in the position of their judge because we ourselves are in need of the grace and mercy of Jesus.  It would do us well focus our attention of Jesus, and direct others to do the same.

2.  Recognize the presence of God, verses 13-17

In this section, James returns to the “arrogant rich,” first to condemn their arrogance and to show their evil end.  However, it is not a new discussion; it relates to the previous verses in that it illustrates the danger of an unchristian attitude toward material gain (verse 2) and to what James has been saying  in regards to pride and humility (verse 6-7, 10).

(A)  Setting the scene

The Jews of the Diaspora, the Dispersion, eventually came to settle in various Roman cities, and once there, they began to settle in and become very successful merchants and traders.  Some of these prosperous Jews converted to Christianity, like Lydia, for example.  Perhaps it was people like her that James had in mind:  Christians who had become comfortable and successful and had either forgotten or failed to see what the true meaning of the Gospel was in relation to life and business.   James advises:  Realize the reality of God in every area of life.

(B)  Ignoring God, verses 13-15

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

“Now listen” is serious call to pay attention to what follows and the word “say,” legontes, is in the present tense, which indicated the situation James describes is an ongoing one.  Traveling for business in the first century was very common, and Jews especially were known to have traveled extensively.  Here is a prime example of people who do their planning and engage in their day-to-day work without thinking about God.  By ignoring God, they show as much arrogance as the person who slanders his brother.  It has been said that failing to come to God regularly in prayer is one of the most common offenses in the Church.

James is not condemning the practice of doing business, but he condemning the attitude of people who live as though God does not exist.  To such people–people who carry on their business without regard for God–money is more important than serving the Lord.  People like this are just like the “rich young fool” Jesus taught about in Luke 12:16-21, who failed to realize that he could not add even a minute to his life.  The lesson:  we are all dependent on God.  Calvin notes:

But James roused the stupidity of those who disregard God’s providence, and claimed for themselves a whole year, though they had not a single moment in their own power.

Verse 14 is a  not-so-subtle wake-up call, which Moffatt translates:

You who know nothing about tomorrow…

Even though the Bible is not a medical textbook, it does offer some profound medical truths!  A tiny clot of blood in the brain may cause an instant and unexpected death.  No wonder the Psalmist wrote:

My days are like the evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.  (Psalm 102:11)

In the KJV, that verse is even more graphic:

My days are like a shadow that declineth…

People who make no room for God in their day-to-day lives leave themselves wide open to be knocked about by unforeseen circumstances.  James shows the foolishness of living like this:  they plan way in advance to do something as though they themselves are in control of the future.  Proving his point, James points to the transitory nature of life, comparing it to mist that vanishes in the morning warmth.  There is nothing wrong with making plans, as long as God is in the plan.  That’s the main point of the next verse:

Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Today, the notion of “the Lord’s will” has become almost hackneyed.  Christians use that phrase as a kind of formula in their prayers in hopes of having them answered.  In it’s overuse. “in the Lord’s will” seems to have lost its significance.  Yet it is the most important thing a believer can defer to.

Interestingly enough, this phrase does not appear at all in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament era, Paul used it constantly as if to teach people about its proper use.

  • When he left Ephesus, Paul said to the Jews, “I will come back if it is the Lord’s will” (Acts 18:21)
  • He told the Corinthians, “I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing” (1 Corinthians 4:19)
  • He promised the believers in Corinth to spend some time with them “if the Lord permist” (1 Corinthians 16:7)

But in many other instances, neither Paul nor the other apostles used it.  But they lived according to it.  In other words, believers do not need to use the words “God willing” as a Christians talisman, in a mechanical fashion.  Instead, our entire lives should be lived in the knowledge that we are God’s children and that we are safe and secure in Him and that He holds sway over them, to our benefit.  Mayor’s comments are valuable:

The boaster forgets that life depends on the will of God.  The right feeling is, both my life and my actions are determined by Him.

(C)  From neglect to opposition, verse 16

So, how far can one go in neglecting God before they cross the  line into outright opposition?   The merchants to whom James is addressing, apparently had taken business risks and made a profit.  Success breeds success, and sometimes along with prosperity comes pride and an unhealthy sense of self-sufficiency.  J.B. Phillips’ translation provides a helpful insight:

As it is, you get a certain pride in yourself in planning your future with such confidence.  That sort of pride is all wrong.

The Greek is powerful and literally means:

You are boasting in your arrogant pretensions.

One word in that long Greek phrase is alazoneiais, and refers to one taking pride in their knowledge or cleverness, but implies that those qualities are not really possessed by the person.  Sinful boasting, then, is rooted in unreality.

There is a good boasting.  Paul teaches that one can boast only in the weakness, for Paul had come to realize that in his weakness the power of Christ becomes evident (see 2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:5, 9).   Hahn rightly observed:

A Christian may boast of himself only in so far as his life is lived in dependence on God and in responsibility to Him.

(D)  Sins of omission, verse 17

James ends this part of his letter with a proverbial saying that may have been popular in James’ day. It’s a very stern warning the sin of neglect.

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.

Once again, James’ words seem to echo the words of his brother:

That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.  (Luke 12:47)

Verse 17 is a verse that may be applied to many situations, especially to most of his letter!  Ropes suggests that James is saying something along the lines of:  “You have all been warned!”  Burdick writes:

It is like saying, “Now that I have pointed the matter out to you, you have no excuse.”  Knowing what should be done obligates a person to do it.

Verse 17 really is what Erdman calls a principle of wide scope and great importance.  It is not only wrong to commit an action that we know to be contrary to the will of God, or about which we are uncertain, it is equally wrong to fail to do what we know to be God’s will.

James does not write this to make life hard for his readers or for us.  Doing God’s will fills the believer with joy and satisfaction.  Who else besides a Christian who is living according to the statutes of the Word may say regards of the circumstances:

“If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

(c) 2008 WitzEnd
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