James 5:7-12 (AD 48)
God didn’t command patience because it seemed, in an abstract way, like a holy thing to be. Verse 7 says, “Be patient, then…” [emphasis mine]. James’s train of logic was, ‘given what I’ve just said, you should be patient’. Christians were being oppressed by selfish and corrupt rich people, and there was no promise that justice would be done on earth. Instead, the Christians needed to be patient “until the Lord’s coming” (v.7).
Sometimes we might prefer to comfort ourselves with, “What goes around comes around”, or if we lack patience, to try and ensure that we are the bringers of justice. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with standing up for justice, and there are times when we should, or even must stand up for justice. But we must also accept that God doesn’t promise it before the Second Coming.
Hoping for God’s justice makes me nervous, anyway. I know I’m forever saved, and permanently safe with God. But the idea of begging God to bring justice scares me – it seem like an almost delusional request. Like, bring justice for them, not for me. I am receiving the blessings of God’s just treatment of Jesus. I don’t want to, and won’t, receive the punishments of God’s just treatment of Paul Reynolds; thankfully, Jesus has already borne that.
There’s an important Biblical distinction between standing up for others who are being treated unjustly, and trying to force people to treat us with what we regard as justice. Think about how much Jesus condemned the way ordinary people were mistreated and abused by the religious leaders, and yet how he accepted all the mistreatment that came his way. That doesn’t mean we should not avoid, escape or push back on mistreatment of us when we can. But if your life is defined by fighting people for what you think are your rights, you will have no credibility to fight for someone else’s. You just look like someone who loves to fight.
Instead, be like farmers, who knows better than most of us, the inevitability of waiting. They know they must wait, whereas for many things we feel like we shouldn’t have to.
Be like the Old Testament prophets, who persevered through rejection and persecution, patiently waiting for God to take them home.
Be like Job, who despite his struggles with God, never renounced God, and came into a period of blessing that far surpassed his prior experience.
Your suffering is real. Injustice is repugnant and painful.
And when Jesus comes again, he will bring justice with him.
“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.”
Be careful what you wish for.
“Above all…do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Otherwise you will be condemned.” (v.12)
We don’t know whether this verse relates to the prior or subsequent verses – translators and commentators disagree on this point. In either case, James is not talking about blasphemy or foul language. Rather, he wrote that we should not attempt to guarantee the truth of something by reference to something else (as per the use of the same Greek verb in Mark 6:23). It cannot be a blanket prohibition – after all, Paul swore by God repeatedly that his conscience was clear on a specific point (e.g. Romans 1:9).
He may have had in mind the contemporary problem of people swearing by smaller things to diminish the binding nature of their oaths (see Matthew 23:16-22).
James echoed – even copied – Jesus’ injunctions from Matthew 5:34-37. Our word should be so dependable that it requires no oath to ratify it.
Further, James was most likely using “Above all…” similar to how Paul used “Finally…”, though again the reason for the original Greek word that was used is not clear to commentators. It appears in the text almost as a, ‘And another thing’ type of comment, so whilst he was of course as serious about it as Jesus was, he wasn’t elevating it above all other commands, just like Jesus didn’t.
(I was startled when we moved to the Caribbean, to hear so many Jamaicans, including Christians, preface a statement with, “Trust me…”, as if they were swearing by themselves that something was true. It wasn’t long before I realised it was merely an expression, used as easily and with as little import as ‘seriously’, or ‘literally’.)