April 9, 2008

Be Patient and Stand Firm: James 5:7-12

Remember the circumstances for these early Christians to whom James wrote this letter. The church was first established on the day of Pentecost, about 33 A.D., when Peter preached to the crowd in Jerusalem, and about 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2). Persecution erupted almost immediately. Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Jewish authorities. They were told not to even speak the name of Jesus or to teach about Him, to which they answered, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20).

A number of apostles were arrested and jailed, only to be freed by an angel of the Lord. The people of Jerusalem saw many miracles performed, which were testimonies to the power of God the Father and Jesus the Son, and more and more people believed and were saved. A church leader named Stephen was especially effective in telling the people about their Savior, was called before the Jewish authorities and accused of blasphemy. Concluding his address to the Jewish council (Acts 7), he accused them of persecution: “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it" ”Acts 7:52-53). The council took Stephen out and stoned him to death, and in the aftermath hundreds or thousands of Christians were dragged from their homes and stoned or imprisoned.

So over a decade or so, the Christians scattered out from Jerusalem and Judea, where the persecution was so intense, and moved to other parts of the known world: Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, modern-day Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Persecution spread, but was not nearly so intense as in Judea. In about 44 A.D., Herod Agrippa, the ruler of Palestine appointed by the Roman government, instituted an official government persecution of Christians (Acts 12). It was most intense in Palestine, but also spread to other regions of the Roman Empire.

These were the circumstances when James, a key leader in the Jerusalem church (Paul called him a “pillar” of the church, Galatians 2:9), wrote this letter to the Christians scattered throughout the world, addressing the letter to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1). From what we know, this is the first book of the New Testament to be written, around 45 A.D. The epistle is short and to the point. Its theme is that true faith must manifest itself in works of faith.

Writing to Christians under a lot of persecution from the world around them, James deals with how to respond to trials and advises them to live lives worthy of the Lord regardless of how hard that might be. In that context, he gives a lot of guidelines: be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, because a quick temper and striking back in anger are not righteous (1:19-20); to live righteously, to be humble and not prideful, and not to judge each other. And in our passage last week, he assured them of judgment for those who oppress them and cautioned them not to become oppressors themselves.

So the church was under a great deal of pressure. How would you have coped with this pressure?

The natural tendency might be to become hard and bitter, to strike out and get vengeance when possible, to perhaps become secretive and do nothing that might bring attention.

In James 4:14, he reminds his readers that this life on earth is like a vapor in light of our eternal life. And here in 5:7-12, he again reminds us that our life here on earth is not all there is. Our Savior is coming again, and in light of that, we should face our present troubles with patience.

So in our passage today, James shows us that God has a better idea about how to respond when we are under pressure and treated unjustly. He suggests four specific attitudes, two of which we should adopt and two we should avoid:

“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful. But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment” (James 5:7-12)

Attitudes we should adopt

1. Be patient (7)

The word “therefore” in verse 7 (“then” in some English translations) points back to the previous six verses. There, James lectured the wealthy who perverted justice and treated the Christians unfairly. Now he addresses those who had been mistreated.

How should we respond to the injustice? Our just God will deal with injustice. His coming is certain, so “be patient.” This term is also translated as “longsuffering” and means just what we know it to mean in English—to be “long-tempered” instead of short-tempered.

Patience is the mark of God-like love, the kind of unconditional love we are capable of because the Holy Spirit has put it in us. It is the love Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 13:4-5: “Love is patient (same word, “suffers long” or is “longsuffering”) and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil.”

So we are to show this kind of love, the same kind of love God has for mankind, even to those who treat us badly because of our faith. Remember in Romans 14:12, Paul took it a step further: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”

In verse 7 James also gives the reason we must face troubles patiently: Jesus is coming back. Here in just those few words “until the coming of the Lord,” James sums up a lot of theological truth: no suffering here on earth can compare in importance to our future with Christ. This is one of about 300 verses in the New Testament about Jesus’ return. The reality of an eternal future offers comfort and hope to any Christian facing stress and strain. Christ’s return will end oppression and make all suffering a thing of the past.

Like every good preacher, James gives us an example of the principle from everyday life. He writes, “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain.” In Palestine, with its rocky soil, farmers planted seeds in time for the early rains in the early spring. The plants are ready for harvest after the rains of early fall have softened the soil and the plants have thrived and matured. Once he has plowed the ground and planted the seed, he waits patiently until the fall harvest. The wait can be difficult because he cannot control the weather, but he just has to be patient.

While his readers were scattered and in the midst of persecution, James reminded them that the coming of the Lord is certain; it’s worth the wait, so be patient.

So why was the early church going through this difficult period? Why is it that even today Christians go through difficult times of criticism and in many cases persecution because of their faith? James gives us the accurate perspective: because this is not all there is. Jesus is coming back, but first there are more people to be saved. I have often thought about this because of a single verse, 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

So that’s it. God continues to be longsuffering with mankind. He wants more people to trust in Jesus for their salvation. Harvest time (when Jesus returns) isn’t here yet. Meanwhile, Christians continue to mature and learn more about patience and righteous living.

2. Stand firm (8)

The literal translation of v. 8 is “stabilize your hearts” or “prop up your hearts.” The NIV rendering of v. 8 really captures the thought best: stand firm.

So patience isn’t all that’s needed. We need to stand firm; that is, there is a practical sense of knowing there is a bigger picture: Jesus is going to return. Standing firm means we must live in light of that promise. What truly exists for the Christian is not the here and now, but the eternal life we already possess.

God wants us to be strengthened and firm in our faith because of His presence. Christians are to live with the full faith and knowledge that we can, as David writes in Psalm 55:22, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved.” Peter says it more simply in 1 Peter 5:6-7: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.”

Actions we should avoid

1. Don’t grumble (9)

Often, tempers can flare in times of stress and hardship. We tend to want to be impatient, argumentative, and critical. Verse 9 literally tells us, “Don’t groan or sigh against each other”; that is, don’t blame each other for the troubles or difficulties we face. James reinforces this point with a strong warning: “Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!”

How can a believer be condemned since we are forgiven? The statement means that we may be found to be at fault before God. To grumble against means we are judging. James may remember Jesus’ statement, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). To "grumble against one another" is to judge, and so to become liable to be judged.

2. Don’t swear (12)

“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.” James’ concern was not with swearing in courts of law, or with profanity.

He wanted his readers to be ethical in ordinary conversations and private talk. Dishonesty can creep into Christian speech when we are impatient, when our faith and our hearts are not firm, and when we grumble against each other. We want to find whom to blame for troubles, to play the “if only” game—“if only you had done A, then B wouldn’t have happened.” So we can grumble and blame with what we might call a casual disregard of truth or perhaps interpreting facts with self-centeredness.

James wants his readers to know that no matter the difficulties of life, the Christian must be truthful at all times. Today, we might have written verse 12 this way: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”

We may wonder what swearing has to do with the problem of facing trouble in life. In the midst of a difficult trial it is easy to say things we don’t mean. We make bargains with God—“God I know I acted wrong, but if you get me out of this I swear I’ll be righteous,” or something similar. Or when people try to get out of a difficult situation, sometimes they’ll say something like, “I swear to God I didn’t do it” or “I swear on all that is sacred.” James is telling us there should be no need to try to appear super-spiritual or super-honest in tough situations. We should be known for honesty and integrity—when we say “yes” it means yes, and when we say “no” it means no. In other words, we shouldn’t have to swear we’re telling the truth this time, as if we may have a different standard of truth the other times, when we don’t swear.

In verses 10 and 11, he gives us examples of people of God who demonstrated patience. One example is the prophets—who endured persecution and rejection. The prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and the others—were given the assignment to speak on God’s behalf. They spoke against injustice, idolatry, and other sins, and admonished people to obey God. When Israel was invaded and destroyed, they did not hold back in saying that God allowed it because of the people’s sin, all the while prophesying the future coming of the Messiah. The prophets were ostracized and persecuted, but they endured with patience.

The other example James cites is Job. Job was also blessed because he stood firm. His sufferings were tragic and intense, and through no fault of his own. But he patiently endured, saying, “Though God slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15).

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