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Here, we continue our study in the Epistle of James.
9The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. 11For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.
In this seemingly strange passage, James describes the proper attitude that the "rich" and "not-so-rich" Christians should have. I put quotes around these designations because the "rich" in the eyes of the world are not necessarily the same as the rich as viewed by the child of God. That is what this passage is all about. The way Christians view things should be different than the way those of the world view things. For instance, Paul describes the believer as "genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (II Cor. 6:8-10).
Note that James says the believer is to "take pride in" either situation, whether humble or rich. We should be content with our circumstances, whatever they may be, realizing that it is God who has dealt us our lot: "Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure" (Psalm 16:5). We should be as Paul: "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want" (Phil. 4:12).
Unfortunately, many times, even as Christians, we complain when we cannot "get ahead" in the world. We desire the riches of the world, we dream of that big lottery win, we even murmur that we are being persecuted because we are short worldly riches. Why do we do this? Have we forgotten the riches of knowing Christ? As Paul, we should "consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:8). What could be better than being "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God" (I Pet. 2:9)? What kind of witness for Christ are we when we complain about not having the riches of the world?
We must have the proper attitude concerning our circumstances in the world. We may be naked now, but we will be clothed in "fine linen" (Rev. 19:8); we may be hungry now, but "the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples" (Isa. 25:6); we may be thirsty now, but as Christ says, "whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst" (John 4:14); we may be "in humble circumstances" now, but we will get "a crown that will last forever" (I Cor. 9:25).[Footnote #1]
Our desire for worldly riches is all the more surprising in light of the well known, well documented woes of the rich. One cannot read a newspaper without reading of their broken marriages, broken lives, bondage to drugs and alcohol, and bondage to sin. More importantly, Christ Himself said: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24). It is difficult for a rich man to humble himself, even before the God of the universe. He feels self-sufficient. "The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it an unscalable wall" (Prov. 18:11). But, "whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf" (Prov. 11:28). Unfortunately, few of the rich give their lives to Christ. Security in this world often leads to loss in the next. Paul tells Timothy to "command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (I Tim. 6:17). Thus, the rich of the world must beware, for the riches of the world are a trap.
As James says, the "one who is rich should take pride in his low position". In other words, the rich man's true glory will be found in his humility. He is to see his riches in the world as a danger, even a disadvantage. The riches threaten to puff him up, to lull him into thinking that he doesn't need God. But, as Christ says, "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36).
The rich man must realize that "he will pass away like a wild flower". Indeed, he and his riches are fleeting. For instance, the rich man in Jesus' parable in Luke 12 discovered this. He grew confident in his good crop and dreamnt of building bigger and better barns in which he was to store all the grain and the goods he was to accumulate. He pondered: "`And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'". Then Christ summed up: "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:16-21).
James likens the unfulfilled existence of the rich man to the beauty of a flower, beautiful for a season but fading. "The fairest things are most fading."[Footnote #2] This is contrasted to our riches and our inheritance as Christians, for God has "given us new birth...into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade" (I Pet. 1:3-4).
James finally points out that the rich man will "fade away even while he goes about his business". Indeed, the rich, in order to keep their riches, more often than not put more effort in going about their own business, than the business of God. Oh, that they would seek God as persistently!
12Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
13When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
James goes on to talk about the two types of testings that the child of God experiences. We are tested by trial and by tempting, by stress and by seduction, by adversity and by allurement. The first type is approved and even, at times, ordained by God for the purpose of our edification. The second type is opposed by God and is from Satan for the purpose of destruction.
In verse 12, James teaches that the man who withstands Godly trials is blessed. The trials ordained by God are edifying to us; they strengthen us, causing us to grow as children of God. Our natural reaction to trials, even to those from God, is to grumble. But James is telling us that we should consider that we are "blessed" through the Godly trials. In fact, we should consider it a privilege that the God of the universe loves us as children and desires that we grow spiritually. The writer of Hebrews (quoting Proverbs) says: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son" (Heb. 12:5-6 from Prov. 3:11-12). Later, he goes on and says: "God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Heb. 12:10-11). So, there are rewards for our endurance and growth through Godly trials. As James says, we will "receive the crown of life"; and again, the writer of Hebrews points out that the endurance "produces a harvest of righteousness and peace."
Seeing that the result of these trials is great rewards, we should not grumble, but rejoice. Afflictions and trials should not make the true child of God miserable, because his reward and riches are not in this world (see the discussion above on verses 9-11). On the contrary, at times, the trials will bring about rejoicing and increased happiness when the child of God sees God's work in bringing him through the trial. Had there been no Egypt, there would have been no parting of the Red Sea; had there been no Goliath, there would have been no slaying of the giant; had there been no chains, there would have been no breaking of the prison walls; had there been no cross, there would have been no resurrection.
Going on, notice that the "crown" that we will receive is a crown "that God has promised". There are two implications of this. First, since "God has promised" it, we are assured of receiving it. God always keeps His promises. As Solomon pointed out in his dedication of the temple: "Not one word has failed of all the promises He gave through His servant Moses" (I Kings 8:56). And Paul says: "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are `Yes' in Christ" (II Cor. 1:20). Second, since "God has promised" the crown of life, it does not come by our own merit. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).
Those who will receive "the crown of life" are described as "those who love him". We are identified as those who love Him (rather than those who serve Him or those who obey Him) because "love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10). When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matt. 22:37-40).
In verse 13, James begins to speak about the second type of testing, which is the temptation to sin. He points out, in no uncertain terms, that God is not the originator of this type of testing; thus, we should not blame God for the temptations that we face. God is holy. For Him, temptation has no draw, evil has no attraction.
Man blames God in various ways for his own sin. Sometimes he says, "God made me like this". Some men will say that because they have a proclivity for a certain sin, somehow they are not to blame, and, in fact, should be pitied when they practice it. But this proclivity is not from God; it is from man's fallen nature. God made man to be holy and in His image, but He also gave man a free will. Man, in his free will, chose to succumb to Satan's temptations and ignore God's warnings. Thus, man and his fallen nature are to blame for his proclivity to sin.
Man also blames God for his own sin by saying "He put me in this environment". They blame their upbringing or socio-economic circumstances or peer group influences, etc. But this is a poor excuse. Every man faces temptations. Satan leaves no one unattended. Rich and poor, white and black, pagan and Christian all face temptations tailored by Satan for their situation. Note James says "each one" is tempted. No man is exempt from temptation, only one man was free from sin.
Man often puts the blame for his sin on others. Adam said to God, "The woman you put here with me--she gave me some fruit from the tree" (Gen. 3:12). And Pilate said to the Jews: "I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your responsibility" (Matt. 27:24). However, excuses do not hold with God. After making the excuse, your sin is still your sin and, to a righteous God, all sins deserve punishment. Rather than make excuses, it is much better to confess the sin to God and let the blood of Christ make a clean slate of things, for "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9).
James goes on to state the true cause of sin: our "own evil desire". So, the blame for sin lies upon us. Not even Satan is to blame for our sin. Yes, Satan tempts us, but we are "dragged away and enticed" because we ourselves harbor evil desires. It is we and we alone who are accountable for our sin.
James uses the words "his own" when speaking of a man's evil desires because each man has weaknesses specific to himself. Some are especially vulnerable to lust, some to pride, some to anger, some to covet, some to idol worship, some to theft, some to adultery, some to murder. Let no man think that he has been dealt a worse lot than others because of his specific weaknesses. On the other hand, let no man condemn another man for his weaknesses, for it is only by God's grace that the same weakness does not torment him. Rather, we should say, as Paul did: "By the grace of God I am what I am" (I Cor. 15:10). No, we should not condemn the weakness, but strive to help each other overcome our weaknesses through friendship, through discipleship, and, most importantly, through prayer.
Each one is "dragged away" and "enticed". Temptation works in many ways: sometimes by force ("dragged away"), sometimes more subtly ("enticed"). So, we see in our lives, sometimes we plunge violently, recklessly into sin; sometimes we are led subtly by our desires, not consciously realizing it, until we look up and find ourselves entrenched. So, as Peter warns: "Be on your guard so that you may not be carried away" (II Pet. 3:17).
The life-cycle of sin consists of more than just the sinful act. James says: "Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." So, sin's life-cycle consists of first desire then sin then death; first the conception then the act then the result. What begins as a desire, many times is brought forth into meditation. The meditation in the heart and the mind overflows into one's conversation. And then, what one meditates on and speaks about results in action, action turns into sinful behavior, and sinful behavior must be punished by death.
Knowing this, we should make every effort to be victorious over the first step in the cycle, the desire, so that we are not led into the much more difficult battles after the "desire has given birth". As Paul exhorts Timothy: "Flee the evil desires of youth" (II Tim. 2:22). Those who flee have a better chance to succeed in resisting temptation. Joseph fled and succeeded (Gen. 39); David stayed and failed (II Sam. 11).
God, by His grace, helps us to avoid sin. For instance, God has promised to keep us from any temptation that is more than we are able to resist: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (I Cor. 10:13).
Also, many times, though we have the evil desire, God keeps us from the opportunity to sin. Praise God for the lack of opportunity! How many of us would have fallen miserably if given the opportunity? Real temptation comes when real opportunity comes. This is when we are truly tested. Again, some succeed and flee, as Joseph; some fail and stay, as David. Many pray for wealth or good looks or power; yet, they do not know that they are actually praying for more opportunity to be tempted! Praise God for your humble circumstances, for, in them, you are not given the opportunity to depend on your wealth instead of on God. Praise God for your ordinary looks, for, because of them, you are not given the opportunity to consummate the lusts of your flesh. Praise God for your position of service rather than leadership, for because of it, you are not given the opportunity to be puffed up with pride and lord it over people.
Furthermore, God will, at times, hinder us even when we are given the opportunity. He kept Abimelech from adultery: "I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her" (Gen. 20:6). He kept David from murder, as David told Abigail: "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands" (I Sam. 25:32-33). He will keep Israel from idolatry: "Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way. She will chase after her lovers but not catch them" (Hos. 2:6-7).
Though God, by His grace, helps us to avoid sin, temptation continually presents itself. Be on guard! The most important prayer in this regard that we can pray is: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one" (Matt. 6:13).
16Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. 17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
In the previous verses, James pointed out the error of those who make God the author of sin. Here, James expands on that, saying that "every good and perfect gift" is from God.
He warns us not to "be deceived" concerning the nature of God. We should all strive to have the correct understanding concerning the nature of God. Many times, we err because we project on God the fallen nature of man. We attribute to God the same motives for doing things that man's fallen nature has. But we must not be deceived. God is the author of all that is good. The best way to understand the true nature of God is through the study of the word of God, especially the life of Jesus. Jesus' life is, in effect, the nature of God put into human terms. Jesus said, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).
James makes a sweeping statement that "every good and perfect gift" is from God. In other words, all good is from Him. Thus, if we want a "good" life, we should turn to Him for it. The most precious of the "good and perfect" gifts that we have received from Him is "eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23).
The gifts come from the "Father of heavenly lights", meaning, of course, God. "Light" in the Bible is a symbol of purity and righteousness. "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all" (I John 1:5). In fact, since God is pure "light" (i.e. holy), He "lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see" (I Tim. 6:16). The fact that "God is light" explains why the ungodly hate Him: "Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed" (John 3:19-20). Since we are his children, our lives should reflect the fact that "God is light": "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light" (Eph. 5:8).
Although God is "the Father of heavenly lights", He "does not change like shifting shadows". We may get the incorrect idea that, since the creation is ever-changing, God also changes. This is not true. The Psalmist says, in speaking to God about the heavens and the earth: "They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end" (Ps. 102:26-27). The Lord Himself says, in no uncertain terms: "I the Lord do not change" (Mal. 3:6).
Some people have the understanding that the God of the Old Testament is different in nature than the God of the New Testament. This is not true, as borne out by the verses cited above. We must be careful not to misinterpret the unveiling of God's plan as the changing of God's nature. It was necessary that God deal with Israel through the law so that we would understand and fully appreciate God's dealing with us through grace. Some would say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of judgment and the God of the New Testament is a God of mercy. However, the Old Testament shows that God was abundantly merciful and longsuffering to Israel and the New Testament shows that God will judge the world with a full measure of His wrath at the end of this age. God's nature is consistent throughout the Bible.
So, God does not change. We, however, are fickle and inconsistent. Sometimes, we trust in Him, serve Him and are bold for Him; sometimes, we lose heart, follow our own desires and deny Him. The more inconsistent we are, the less like God we are. In your inconsistency, go to Him; make your foundation the solid, unchanging Rock, on whom you can depend.
In verse 18, James describes the best and most perfect of the gifts that we have received: our new birth. Note that God "chose" to give us new birth. He was not forced to give us new birth; He did not need to give us new birth; we did nothing to merit it such that He was obliged to give us new birth.
Note that it is "new birth" that He has given us. He did not mend our old selves, but He created us anew. As Paul says: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (II Cor. 5:17). Note also that a "new birth" implies a changed life and a fresh existence.
Our new birth comes "through the word of truth", which is the gospel. We cannot receive the new birth by obeying the law; we can only receive it through faith in Christ, who died for us so that the "righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us" (Rom. 8:4). Just as, typologically, Moses brought the Israelites to the border of the promised land but could not bring them in, and then Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land; so also, the law brings us to the place where we realize our need for a new birth, and the new birth comes through Jesus (the Greek form of the Hebrew name "Joshua").
Finally, James states the purpose of our new birth: "that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created". The "firstfruits" was an offering of the first grain of the harvest in recognition of God's goodness and provision (see Lev. 23:9ff; Lev. 2; Lev. 6:14-23). Interestingly, the feast of firstfruits was not offered until the Israelites entered the promised land. So, after our new birth, we are to offer ourselves as "living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God" (Rom. 12:1), in recognition of His goodness in providing us with a new life.
Our Father, we thank You and praise You for the new birth that You have chosen to give us by Your grace. We offer the firstfruits of our lives to You to use as You would. We praise You that all that is good comes from You, that You never change so that we can depend on Your unfailing love. We praise You that You have assigned us our portion according to Your good purpose. Help us to rest in it, knowing the glorious inheritance that You have kept in heaven for us. We praise You, thank You and ask these things in the name of Jesus. Amen.
(We will continue our study in James in the next issue.)
1. Manton, A Commentary on James, p. 65.
2. Manton, A Commentary on James, p. 70.
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