This short letter is famous for its instructions on “the tongue,” as well as for its emphasis on practical religion, visiting widow and orphans. There are a number of practical instruction on showing no partiality between rich and poor, as well as a stern warning against envy. What many don’t realize is that these are all actually aspects of the same subject.
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (Jas. 4:7–10).
Can’t Tell the Players Without a Scorecard:
The epistle of James is actually from a man identified in the original as Jacob. For some reason we Anglicize some names and transliterate others. This letter finally won general acceptance for its canonicity in the 4th century A.D. The writer claims to be from “James,” a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Part of the difficult was that the early church knew that James the apostle had likely died too early to write the letter.
James, the son of Zebedee, was the brother of the apostle John and was one of the sons of thunder (Mark 3:17). He was one of the twelve, and was mentioned apart from the other disciples at the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37), and on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2). He was one of those rebuked by Jesus for impetuous zeal when he wanted fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan town (Luke 9:54). His mother wanted special places of honor for him and for John, which distressed the other disciples. He was told that he would drink the same cup that his Lord would drink (Mark 10:39), a prophecy that came to pass around 44 A.D. when he was killed with the sword at the command of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2). It is possible that he wrote this letter.
Another candidate is James the son of Alphaeus, another one of the twelve (Matt. 10:3; Acts 1:13). He is usually identified with James “the less” (Mk. 15:40). The word for less is mikros, meaning that he was likely shorter or younger than the son of Zebedee.
The most likely candidate for the author of this epistle is James the Lord’s brother. During the Lord’s earthly ministry, James had not believed in his older brother (Mk. 3:21), but that all changed when the Lord appeared to him after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). James became a leader in the Jerusalem church (Gal. 1:19; 2:9; Acts 12:17). According to tradition, he was the first bishop of Jerusalem, but whether that was the case, he certainly presided over the first ecumenical council that was held there (Acts 15). He became known as “James the Just” because of his austere manner of life, and strict adherence to the law. After the death of the procurator Festus in 61 A.D. James was stoned to death as a martyr at the hands of the high priest Ananus. He is the most likely author.
Summary of the Text:
The exhortation does not begin with “resist the devil.” It begins with “submit to God” (and His Word), resist the devil, and then he will flee. Remember that a devil is an accuser. Making the devil flee is making the spirit of accusation flee. Approach God and you will find that He approaches you. Wash your hands, sinners. Cleanse your hearts, you double minded. Remember that the double minded man is mentioned in the first chapter, and is the one who cannot rejoice in affliction. In what follows, we do not humble ourselves permanently, but we are to humble ourselves in the light of God’s Word only, which is to say, completely, and then the Lord will lift us up.
Note some of the verbs involved. Submit. Resist. Draw near. Cleanse. Purify. Be afflicted and mourn. Weep. Humble yourself.
Where do conflicts come from? This glorious chapter dissects the spirit of envy and vain competition that afflicts every human soul. When we understand this chapter, we understand the others. When the spirit within us veers toward envy (Jas. 4:5), what does this do? It causes us to not understand our temptations and afflictions (Jas. 1). It causes us to flatter the rich and despise the poor (Jas. 2). It causes us to not watch our boastful tongues (Jas. 3). It drives us into economic folly (Jas. 5). All of these things are functions of human relationships, steered by the tongue, and the helmsman for the tongue is the human heart, filled brimful with envy.
The Grease of Vainglory:
The world is a tall obelisk, slicked down with grease of vainglory, extracted from every human ego. Ordinary grease doesn’t crackle, but this grease is charged with every form of human vanity. All of us want to get to the top of it, or at least to the top of it as far as we are concerned. We clamber, we throw elbows, we complain when others clamber and throw elbows. We talk. We whine. We cut. We complain. We accuse.
“Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4).
“And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God” (Jas. 2:23).
There it is. Friend of the world, or friend of God. There is a profound and fundamental dichotomy here, but do not set up a false dichotomy. The contrast is not between earthiness and holiness, but rather worldliness and holiness. Never muddle the two. Abraham was a rich man, but no friend of the world. And that is because he looked forward in faith, saw the day of Christ, and rejoiced and was glad (John 8:56).