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The Epistle of James Chapter 5 “The Price of Patience”

The Epistle of James

Chapter 5 – “The Price of Patience”

James ends his epistle with both a warning and an exhortation.  He warns those who have become rich through exploitation.  The three greatest temptations that human beings face are wealth, power and sex.  One of our greatest needs is patience (St. Augustine had the famous prayer, “Lord give me patience and give it to me right now!).  Finally, James calls us to prayer reminding us that prayer sustained those who have gone before us and it continues to sustain us with its power.

  1. “Come now, you rich people . . . .” – 5:1-6

The Bible is not very positive about wealth.  For every passage that speaks of wealth as a blessing (Gen. 24:34-35; Job 42:12; Mal. 3:10; John 12:1-3) there are twice as many that warn about the corrupting influence of riches (Deut. 8:10-14; I Kings 10:23; 11:6; Prov. 11:28; 28:22; Eccl. 5:10; Matt. 6:19-21; Mark 4:19; 10:23; Luke 6:24; 12:15; Rev. 17:3-5).  Paul calls greed “idolatry” (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5).  He then gives a clear summons to those “who in the present age are rich” (I Tm. 6:17-19),

It can certainly be noted that James is not simply speaking of those who are rich economically.  He is denouncing a system of oppression and exploitation.  He is describing a situation in which laborers are defrauded and in an extreme sense murdered.   We can read these passages and easily justify ourselves by saying that we are not exploiting anyone much less murdering them!  Yet one of our greatest errors is to read the Bible as though it only speaks of individuals.  To the contrary the Bible speaks of systems, of “rulers and authorities” (Eph. 1:20-21).

Our whole economic system is based on greed.  We think nothing of walking into a super market and finding food literally from all over the world.  The same applies to clothing stores and shopping malls.  There is a long and well documented history of exploitation of workers which allows us to enjoy our materialistic way of life.  We have a system that has indeed defrauded laborers.  Yet the system itself masks that exploitation where it occurs.  When we buy even a t-shirt made in Thailand or wherever we don’t have to see the workers who labored perhaps in difficult circumstances to manufacture our shirt or whatever.  The fact that exploitation takes place thousands of miles away from us doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to see that workers are being paid a fair wage.  The sober fact of Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is that it may well have been the case that the Rich Man didn’t even notice Lazarus until it was too late (Luke 16:19-31).

  1. “Be patient therefore” – 5:7-12

We live in a world of instant gratification.  We don’t want to wait for anything.  We honk at people who stop when the light turns yellow.  Yet James reminds us that patience is part of the discipline of faith.  This underlines his whole thesis that “faith without works is dead” (2:26).  We need to live with the expectation that Christ’s coming is always near.  We don’t know when he will come so we need to be ready.  The churches under James’ supervision were obviously far from perfect.  He has to admonish the believers not to “grumble against one another.”

For James patience goes along with suffering.  We need to be patient in adversity, in the “trials” which he says produces endurance (1:2-4).  He makes the same point here.  We will never develop endurance in the faith unless we have been patient in suffering.  This is not the lesson we want to learn.  We want all the joy and confidence of believing in Christ.  Yet there is no Christ without the cross.  We cannot follow him unless we are prepared to take up our cross also (Matt. 10:38).

James reminds us of those like Job who endured suffering.  He alludes to the “prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”  Among these are Moses (Num. 11:10-15), Elijah (I Kings 19:3-21), Jeremiah (Jer. 12:1-13) and Jesus himself (Matt. 27:11-14).  The final sustaining note in this discussion is the fact that “the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”

What does James mean by not swearing?  This goes back to his earlier comment about claiming more than we can assume.  James has an overall concern about the tongue, about how we speak to each other.  When we make plans purely on our own (4:13-17) or we make promises appealing to God or anything else we finally are falling into pride.  This all comes back to our own self-confidence (or what James would call “selfish-ambition”).  Jesus says the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:33-37).   Echoing Jesus, James says we should simply say “yes’ or “no.”  Nothing is up to us.  It all depends on the Lord.

  • The Prayer of Faith – 5:13-20

James ends his epistle with an emphasis on prayer.  What he really is saying is that we should pray in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  If we are suffering, we should pray. If we are cheerful we should sing songs of praise which are also prayers.  James here includes the admonition that those who are sick should call on the elders to pray over them anointing them with oil.  He says the prayer of faith will save the sick.  Does this mean healing?  Not necessarily.  Salvation has a broader sense.  Saving the sick can also mean saving from despair or hopelessness.  When James speaks of the prayer of faith using the example of Elijah who “was a human being just like us,” he is not talking about degrees of faith but rather simple trust, the basic nature of faith itself.  The point being stressed here is that God answers prayer.  God does not necessarily answer all our prayers the way we want.  In fact, he often doesn’t (Job’s prayers are really never answered).  Yet we are to have this confidence that God does answer prayer and we should pray in good times and bad.  As Paul says, “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17).

Finally, James picks up another theme from Paul.  When someone falls in the faith they are to be brought back and restored not condemned (Gal. 6:1-5).  We are to confess our sins to one another.  This also means we need to be open about our own failings.  James s says that the one who restores the one who has wandered away will save the sinner’s soul and cover a multitude of sins.  Whose sins?  Presumably both the one who wandered and the other who restored the fallen believer.  What is restoration?  It is simply to confess our sins and be reconciled to Christ and to one another (I John 1:9).

The ultimate value of prayer is that it keeps us focused on Christ and not on ourselves or others.  We are finally to draw near to God knowing that he will draw us unto himself (4:8).  Amen!

Questions for Us –

  1. We are the richest people in the history of the world. How do we apply James’ warning about wealth to ourselves?
  2. What are some of the ways we can build up our patience especially in times of suffering?
  3. How can we discipline ourselves to pray in all circumstances?


Next Study – Hosea chapters 1-2 – “The Scandal of God’s Grace” – Sept. 20, 2017