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When we spend some time in the letter of James to the early church, we cannot help but come away with the realization that this church is dealing with a lot of troubling issues that largely stem from the persecution that they are receiving from others in their community. Though James’ letter is intended for all of the churches, his experience is largely drawn from the events surrounding the life of the church in Jerusalem, arguably the most persecuted of any of the early Christian fellowships.
The stress of persecution can cause the church membership to respond in a variety of ways, and we have seen from this letter that those ways included conflict within the body. James wrote to encourage the church to recognize the true source of the conflict and to continue to conduct themselves with love towards one another and to express their faith through good works, not just among themselves but also to others in the community.
Likewise, the Christian church of the 21st century faces similar challenges. The church is widely criticized and challenged by a culture with a similar epicurean humanism that considers any expression of faith to be unenlightened and ignorant. The church finds itself blocked by anti-faith movements at every venue of public expression. The American constitution simply states that the government will make no law to limit the expression of religion where that expression causes no harm. However, our population is ignorant enough of that constitutional amendment to buy into an assumed “separation of church and state” philosophy that was never intended. Armed with this philosophy, anti-faith groups systematically resist the work of the Christian church.
Like the early church, even the church itself is guilty of persecution as denominations deny one another, condemn one another’s practices, and consider themselves somehow better, resulting in a fractured church that is now a mosaic of independent groups.
How long is conflict from without and from within going to keep the church embattled? Once can probably safely state that the conflict will remain as long as satan is the prince of this world, a period that will last until the second coming of the LORD. If the church is to remain so persecuted, how should it respond to this cultural climate?
James 5:7. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.
These words are addressed to the saints who may be experiencing the injustice of those just spoken to, thus providing some encouragement to God's afflicted people. Three admonishments are given:
establish your hearts, and,
grudge not one against the other.
Be patient. Bear your continuing afflictions without murmuring. How long are we to be so patient? The Greek word that is rendered patient is “makrothumeo,” a continuing tense verb that refers to the patient endurance of an on-going stress. It is an agricultural term that can refer to the patience that a farmer expresses when he waits upon the sewn seed to grow to fruition when growth is challenged by drought, blight, and other damaging forces. Consequently, the example given has to do with the farmer who waits on the fruit of the earth.
How does this metaphor correlate to bearing affliction within the body of the church? Growth in faith is not unlike growth in the fields. Seeds of truth are planted in the hearts of the church fellowship and is subject to resistance from many worldly influences. Labor is involved in the planting and the nurturing of the spiritual seed, just as it is required of the physical seed, including cultivating and weeding through continuing Bible study and discipleship. Nourishment for growth, whether physical or spiritual comes only from God.
Makrothumeo is an active patience that is characterized by more than a simple yielding to the current stress, but rather one that looks forward and beyond the affliction with the hope of the final harvest. For the Christian that harvest includes the promised blessings of God, including an eternal relationship with Him. That promise makes the labor worth it all, just as the physical harvest is worth the farmer’s labor.
James 5:8. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.
Establish your hearts. The Greek text uses the word, ste-ri’-zo, to stand fast, or to turn resolutely in a certain direction. An established heart is one that is not easily swayed by falsehood, but rather stands firm on the Word of God without wavering. Decisions are not made capriciously, but rather with a deep sense of God’s purpose and plan in one’s life. An established heart has its focus fixed firmly on God and heaven despite all of the distractions, sufferings, and temptations of this world.
The prosperity of the wicked has always resulted in the affliction of the righteous and poor. It is possible that some to whom James wrote were more accurately described by verses 1-6. Their hearts must also be established.
The Coming is Near. Hope is a powerful weapon against circumstances that would encourage despair. It is evident that the apostles thought that Jesus’ return was imminent, likely taking place in their lifetimes. Consequently, they always taught that Jesus’ return is coming soon. Whether Jesus does come back in our lifetime, or we meet Him at the end of our lifetime, the hope is still the same. We can know that we will not be defeated by that which would attack us in this world. If we lived as though Jesus’ return is imminent, we might react differently to the circumstances of this world, probably placing them into a more spiritually mature perspective. The importance of this life’s issues would be better illuminated by God’s plan and purpose, and we might not consider them of such great significance when compared with that purpose. We can live every day as though Jesus’ return is imminent, and if we did, we would have less need for enduring patience.
James 5:9. Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.
Grudge not against one another. The Greek word, sten-ad'-zo means to sigh, to murmur, or to create strife. One common response to persecution is to strike back at any target within sight, and that target is often those who are closest to us. When we are under stress, it is often a very difficult task to refrain from lashing out at those around us. We may be reminded of Paul’s counsel that the enemy of the faithful is never people, but rather the influence of the evil one: the one true enemy. However, the emotions of the moment blind us to that truth and we tend to commit sin ourselves when we take the battle to the wrong enemy.
Fretfulness and discontent expose us to the just judgment of God, and we bring more calamities upon ourselves by our murmuring, our distrustful, envious groans and grudging against one another, than we may be aware of.
How can we respond to persecutions in a way that do not cause us to attack one another?
Realize that fellow Christians are never the enemy: satan is the enemy. Rally together to confront the true enemy: satan and sin.
Seek to establish the true source of the affliction, and bring that affliction together to the LORD in prayer.
Rather than share in a spirit of defeat, stand firm together on the promise of God’s victory over sin and death.
Minister one to another as some are more defeated by stress than others.
Certainly, this list goes on. There are many positive responses that we can employ to negative circumstances. James reminds us that some spiritual wisdom needs to be engaged so that we will not practice a negative response to stressful events.
James 5:10. Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience.
We are encouraged to be patient by the example of the Old Testament prophets. The prophets of God who received God's greatest honor and favor usually found themselves treated quite differently by their community. This is not unlike the state of the faithful in this wicked world today. When we look at how the sin-filled world treated the prophets we should not be surprised that that same wicked world treats modern-day prophets in a similar manner. James has pointed out that even those within the church are joining the world in their persecution of the faithful. Certainly this was true during the lives of the Old Testament prophets also.
Did the prophets find peace and resolution in their lifetimes? Most of the prophets lived out their lives in persecution and because they would not compromise their testimony in the presence of the wickedness of the community, they were often tortured and killed by wicked leadership. We may be reminded of the brutal imprisonment of Jeremiah by the Jerusalem leadership during the Babylonian occupation prior to the city’s destruction.
Though we may experience various forms of persecution from both within and without the walls of the church, most of the faithful will not experience torture and imprisonment. However, there are even today some locations around the world where people of Christian faith are systematically tortured, imprisoned, and killed. Consequently, when persecution is experienced, one can remember that the necessity for the endurance of that persecution is a common affliction of the faithful.
Rather than focus on the affliction, the Old Testament prophets focused upon the LORD and held true to their message without lashing out at others. They endured persecution, sometimes unto death, without committing the sin of hurting others. Their love for the LORD and their love for the faithful was only strengthened by persecution because they understood its true source and depended upon the LORD for their deliverance. James points out that the experience of these is instructive to all of us as we respond to the vagaries of this wicked world.
James 5:11. Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.
God provides a hope in the future to every believer. When one endures the conflicts of this world for the sake of God’s kingdom, there is a unique reward, whether it be experienced in this world as a deeply felt peace and joy, or experienced in heaven as a promised “crown.” What does James mean when he states that those who endure without compromising their faith are counted as “happy?” Certainly, there is little to produce happiness in the experience of conflict, persecution, and stress. However, when that conflict, persecution, and stress comes directly from one’s faithfulness, the knowledge of that enduring faithfulness can bring a deep joy that is attained no other way. Paul often testified to the joy that he experienced in the knowledge of his own endurance. James includes the example of Job’s experience of faithfulness, loss, and restoration. We are given the privilege of witnessing the end of the story of Job’s life. We will not see our own until we meet the end of our lives. The LORD responds to our patient obedience with mercy. Consequently we have an advocate and paraclete in the LORD who is with us through the tough times, particularly when they are made tough because of abuse that we receive by others as a direct result of our faithfulness to God.James clearly teaches that the faithful will experience various forms of persecution by this wicked world, and by those of the faith who succumb to it. If one does not show some battle scars, one is not taking part in the battle, and does not know the measure of peace and joy that James refers to. However, those who are in the battle share the scars of persecution from both within the body of believers and from without. James teaches that our response to that persecution can be one that is spiritually mature and godly, one that strengthens us and better prepares us to faithfully serve the LORD throughout our days.