In James’ introductory chapter, he spoke of four themes he would teach upon in this epistle. One of those is the theme of the first ten verses of James 4. James expressed that theme saying Christians are rich because they enjoy an inheritance with Christ in the kingdom of God. He said in James 1:9, “But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position.” The difference in chapters one and four is chapter one compares believers (the poor) to unbelievers (the rich), but chapter four compares believers who are rich and poor.
In the first ten verses of chapter four, James spoke about envying other brothers and sisters and the greater grace – God’s grace. He spoke about the character of those who envy, quarrel, and fight and what God felt about the people who do these things. As a resolution, James stated what Christians must do to return to a right relationship with God and what God would do as a result.
These verses are pertinent for us because we, too, at times begrudge a person of his or her possessions. We become embittered and quarrelsome. James spoke to the heart of every person knowing we are all weak and need to hear this lesson about returning to God and receiving His grace.
James explained the situation in the first verse. He said, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” Before we dissect this verse, let us study the words. “Quarrels” comes from the Greek word polemos and means a verbal fight or dispute[i]. “Conflicts” comes from the word mache. It means a physical fight of people at variance or in contention[ii]. When James spoke of “pleasures,” he used the word hedone, which meant desires and pleasures[iii]. From this word comes our English word hedonistic. The final word we must understand is “members.” It comes from the Greek word melos, which can be a limb or member of the human body or members of a group of people[iv]. As we understand this, we realize James taught about the conflicts between brother and sister Christians over desired things, which the rich could more readily afford. James confronted these Christians about their quarreling and fighting over “pleasures,” things unnecessary for living, but chosen additions from one’s desires and wishes. Titus spoke of this, too, in Titus 3:9. He told believers, “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” James, in later verses, said the same as Titus, avoid these controversies.
With verses two through five, James explained what happens when a person desires what another has, why that person does not get what he or she wants, and what God considers these people. James stated explicitly what fighting over pleasures was. He said in verse two the Jerusalem Christians lusted over what they did not possess. A person’s lusting over something is not an innocent thing. God calls it a sin. He called it “coveting” in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and commanded the Israelites not to covet a neighbor’s house, wife, servants, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to the neighbor (Exodus 20:17). The word “lust” James used comes from the Greek word epithumeo and means to have a desire for those things forbidden by God[v]. The word “covet” from the tenth commandment comes from the Hebrew word meaning to desire greatly and to take pleasure in. In James 4:2, James noted the believers lusted for the things other Jerusalem Christians owned. God forbade covetousness because it turned the person’s attention from seeking God and following Him to seeking something or someone else instead of God. When someone lusts after a person’s possessions, it refocuses that person’s attention primarily to getting what he or she desires instead of focusing on God. That which should have been first in the life of the believer – God - took second place in the heart of the person. For this reason, God forbade coveting/lusting after what another person had.
James addressed, too, when a person lusted after something another person had, quarrels and fights could lead to murder. Murder occurs when one puts him or herself and his or her desires about the value of another person’s life. Possessions are of greater value than God and human life to the person who lusts. This way of thinking and living goes against what Moses taught in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Jesus taught in Matthew 22:37-40. Relationships with God and other people are to be paramount to any other thing in the hearts of people. James continued in verse two by telling the Jerusalem Christians the lust, quarrels, fights, and murders occur because a person envies another person. Lust comes from wanting something God forbids. Envy is the heart action from which lust comes. The Greek word for “envy” is zeloo, and it means to desire earnestly[vi]. Envy leads to boiling with desire for something in another’s possession so that hatred and anger occur. From that hatred, fights and murder can happen if envy is not checked.
James did not leave his hearers with definitions and results of envy and lust. He explained the envious believers did not get what they desired because they did not ask. This statement takes the hearer back to what James said in James 1:5. He said the Christians did not possess because they did not ask. Notice though, James told them to ask for wisdom when they were going through trials. Lust and envy arise because of temptation and are a trial. Instead of asking to receive what the other person has, as James instructed, the believer must ask for wisdom from God to combat the temptation and grow more Christlike. Besides this reminder, it brought attention to another lesson from James 1. James taught them in James 1:12 followers of Jesus are richer because they will inherit the crown of life. Their riches are not comparable to the world’s riches, so do not seek the riches of the world.
James went a step further in chapter four. He implied the person did not have what he or she desired because they did not ask, not just did not have wisdom. This meant God wanted them to receive the good things of the world. Yet, James qualified this in verse three and stated, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” Wrong motives are the reason people do not get that which they want. “Wrong motives” comes from the Greek word kakos and means improperly or wrongly[vii]. The Jewish Christians did not receive what they wanted from God, James said, because they asked improperly. They wanted to use what they received solely for themselves and not for God’s service – not to give God glory. The believers, James said, wanted to “spend it on their pleasures.” John spoke about this in 1 John 5:14 when he said, “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.” James pointed out in chapter four, the people did not ask to receive what they wanted from God. He said they would not have received it because they did not ask for the right reasons. The believers wanted the other person’s possessions for their own pleasures.
James spoke with conviction and called the Jerusalem Christians “adulteresses” in verse four. This meant the people desired what other people had to the extent they did not ask God for them because they knew God would not give it to them. They relegated God to second or third in their lives behind their own pleasures. When a person chooses something or someone else as having greater priority in his or her life than God, God calls that adultery. “Adulteress” comes from the Greek word moichalis and means those who relapse into idolatry to play the harlot against God by having an intimate relationship with that person or thing instead of God[viii]. It is a faithlessness to God that makes a person unclean in the Levitical sense or makes the person apostate. The adultery of the Jewish Christians, James said, came from “friendship with the world.” Desiring things of the world instead of God is “hostility toward God.” Paul explained this in Romans 8:6-7. He said, “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God, for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Lest the Jerusalem believers think James fabricated this teaching, he reminded them in verse five what Scripture says and its pertinence for daily living. He said, “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us.” James did not take this statement verbatim from any one part of Scripture but from the intent of it in many places. Proverbs 3:32-34 indicates this saying. Paul spoke on the situation in 1 Corinthians 6:19 when he said, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Because God’s Holy Spirit lives in believers, He jealously desires we stay in relationship with Him. God is jealous for His people. Moses told the Israelites the same thing in Exodus 34:14 while they wandered the wilderness. When a person sins by putting something else at a higher priority than God, the relationship is not as close as it was earlier. The more a person sins, the higher the wall that separates the person from God. This point is what James made in verse five. By lusting after and envying what others possessed, the believers put their desire for the things over their desire for a close relationship with God. These things caused a separation from God and a greater alliance with things of the world – “friendship with the world and hostility toward God.” These Jerusalem believers sold themselves to sin and the world to get what they desired and they became adulteresses.
A Greater Grace.
James began the second section of this lesson with an assertion in verse six. He said, “But He gives greater grace.” What God gives is of a greater degree and comes from the pre-eminent Giver. What He gives is best. James said God gives grace. “Grace” comes from the Greek word charis, which means that which brings joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness to life, and loveliness. It comes from God’s loving-kindness, goodwill, and favor to strengthen, guard, and increase a person’s faith, knowledge, and affection toward God and lights within the Christian a desire to exercise Christian virtues[ix]. God’s grace gives greater pleasure, if pleasure is what the believer seeks, and with it comes joy, delight, loving-kindness, and goodwill from God and from the person toward other people and God. What God gives is greater than what can be had from the world.
Pride and Humility.
Lest that not deter the Jerusalem believers from envying and fighting over possessions of each other – sinning against God and man, James gave another reason. This reason must have gripped the hearts of the church members and then gave them hope. James said in verse six, “Therefore it says, ‘God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” The word “proud” comes from the Greek word huperphanos and means showing one’s self above others with an overweening estimate of one’s means and merits, despising others or even treating them with contempt[x]. God opposes those who consider themselves more worthy of honors and things because of their status or monetary position in the world. He gave to the person whatever the he or she has. To take the glory from God and apply it to self places self before God in importance. Counter to this, James said God gives grace to the humble. God gives joy, pleasure, delight loving-kindness, and goodwill to the humble, those who do not consider themselves above God or other people. Humble people realize they are not greater than God and do not take the glory from God, but rely upon Him for their every need and for His plan for greater good. By saying this, James implied God does not give grace to the proud. They are never satisfied or sated and always seek more things and honors only to never have lasting joy, pleasure, kindness, and goodwill. This verse was James’ warning to those who envied and fought over things of the world - things other people had and they did not.
To Receive God’s Grace.
With verses seven to nine, James explained how to receive God’s grace. He listed six things people must do to receive God’s grace. These verses read like a to-do list. James said:
· Submit to God
· Resist the Devil
· Draw near to God
· Cleanse your hands
· Purify your hearts –
a) Be miserable and mourn and weep
b) Let your laughter turn to mourning and your joy to gloom
· Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord
Submit to God
Submitting to God means subordinating yourself and your plans to God and yielding to His advice and warning. Submitting is subjecting yourself to another person. Peter encouraged his hearers “to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt them at the proper time” (Peter 5:6).
Resist the Devil
Resisting is not just a refusal to do something, but is actively opposing something or someone. Here James told the believers to “resist the devil and he will flee.” Actively seek God - His will and strength - and the devil cannot stand against you. For Paul, this is putting on the armor of God to stand against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11). By doing this, the believer relies on God and uses His power to combat Satan.
Draw Near To God
Drawing near to God brings a promise of God drawing near to the believer. “Drawing near” means to join another person, in this case God. The believer forms an intentional bond with God subjecting him or herself to God’s will, love, grace, and power. By drawing near to God, believers have lasting joy and hope. The Chronicler stated to the Israelites in 2 Chronicles 15:2, “The Lord is with you when you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him, but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you.” James stated this promise as a lesson and reminder for the believers of the Jerusalem church.
Cleanse Your Hands
Cleansing one’s hands means making one’s self clean from physical stains and dirt. For one’s relationship with God, it means a moral cleanness from evil and the contamination from sins and guilt. In the Levitical sense, a moral cleanliness occurred when a person removed his or her sins by the method God commanded in the Old Testament – via the sacrifices at the temple and the washing of hands and garments. God never meant this cleaning to be sufficient to remove sins forever, but as a means to be in God’s presence at that time. By cleaning one’s hands from sin, a person could go into the presence of God.
Purify Your Hearts
To remove the sins of people for all time, God gave the new covenant with the better sacrifice, His Son, Jesus Christ, whose blood removed the filth of sin and guilt and paid the judgment penalty for every person who believes in Him. This sacrifice provided the purification of hearts of all believers so they can have access to God anytime they return to Him. From this, we learn James meant for believers to turn to God, confess their sins with earnest hearts, and live in union with Him. Peter extended James’ teaching in 1 Peter 1:22 when he said, “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart.”
James made one other statement about cleansing hands and heart. He called them double-minded. It alluded to James 1:8. When they cleansed their hearts and hands, they were not to do it just for the moment, but in earnest and with all their heart and mind. They could not expect forgiveness when they wavered and doubted about God’s desire to bless them with His grace – love, goodwill, and joy. They had to return to God with sincerity seeking to follow Him completely. This required mourning and weeping over their sins and separation from God realizing the joy and pleasures they sought would not fulfill them but would bring gloom. That joy was a false joy.
Humble Yourself Before God
The final thing James commanded the believers to do was to humble themselves in the presence of the Lord. This called for them to realize they themselves were nothing compared to their Creator, Jehovah God. When a person humbles him or herself, he or she recognizes his or her pride and lowness and seeks forgiveness from God recognizing He is greater. He provides all they need for physical and spiritual life. Nothing they do or can grasp for themselves would be adequate or enough. None of it would bring joy or the greatest riches - the crown of life in God’s kingdom. What is of the earth perishes. What God gives is eternal.
Exaltation - God’s Action Toward You.
James said when a believer arrives at this point – humbling him or herself before God – God will draw near to and exalt him or her. He will lift the person up in dignity, honor, and joy. This person knows God loves him or her and wants the best for him or her. Job expressed this exaltation in Job 5:11 when he said, “So that He sets on high those who are lowly and those who mourn are lifted to safety.” Ezekiel expressed this in Ezekiel 21:26.
When a person desires what another person has be it things or people so he or she thinks continually on that desire, envy and lust occur. When a person gives envy and lust free rein, anger and hatred happen. From that, quarrels and fighting ensue so that the one who has defends his or her right to have and keep the thing or person and the one who does not have fights to get it. Both people in this situation show pride and lack of care for the other person. When this fighting escalates to an intensity where one or the other person is killed, a devaluing of human life occurs. From this situation, the relationship with God and other people becomes secondary to the desire to have things or people. When people replace God as primary in a person’s life, adultery occurs. Adultery comes from idolizing something or someone more than God and shows the person desires “friendship with the world” more than a relationship with God. When that occurs, the person becomes an enemy of God. Because of this sin and because God jealously desires the Spirit He made to dwell in believers, He disciplines and judges people from His righteousness.
James made clear the Jerusalem believers realized they placed their lusts before God in their lives. He reminded them God gives a greater grace – a greater joy, love, goodwill, mercy, and pleasure – than can be found in things from the world. James exhorted them to return to God by telling them God opposes the proud. He encouraged them to return to God because He gives grace to the humble. James explained to the Christians of Jerusalem how to return to God. He told them to submit to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, cleanse their hands, purify their hearts, and humble themselves in the presence of the Lord. God wants every person to return to Him, and He promises He will forgive them.
Relevance and Conclusion
James reminded the Jerusalem Christians God’s grace is the greater blessing and benefit for the people than what they could give themselves. By relying solely upon themselves, they created pride in providing and continued to turn away from God creating a bigger wall between Him and themselves. The pleasures and desires they sought caused strife between them and the surrounding people, including other members of the body of Christ.
Today we see this happening in daily life and in our churches. God blesses some people with more physical prosperity than others for His purposes. When people who do not have the same blessings from God envy their richer brothers and sisters, hatred builds in them which then creates a wall in their relationship with the person and with God. That person who envies no longer sees the blessings God have him or her and discounts it wanting worldly things. Contentment is not found in God’s provisions. Just as James brought this situation to the attention of the Jerusalem Christians, he warns us, too, of this situation in our own churches and within ourselves.
As a good teacher, James reminds us that God gives a greater grace than any we think we could give for ourselves. Our joy will not be better with possessions provided by our own hands. In addition to this, God’s will not smile on our self-reliance instead of Him nor on our pride in having done so. Because the natural human tendency is to walk away from God and become worldly – being prideful, angry, envious, hateful, James reminds each believer, and even each person, a better grace - God’s grace - is available for those who turn to God. He gave six things each person must do to receive God’s grace as above outlined. The biggest step is to humble yourself before God. This step is the hardest for any person. It requires a yielding of our desires and plans to God and His better plan. It requires a submission of our goals to God’s best goal – proclamation of the Good News of salvation available to every person.
As a Christian today, have you allowed Satan to convince you to strive for that bigger house, higher position in the company, industry, or organization? Have you allowed him to convince you to strive for things beyond necessary because you deserve them? Or have you stopped asking God what to strive toward and are now doing your own thing without His guidance regarding what is best for you and your family?
If you are a Christian in service to the Lord, have you sought greater income in fear you will not have enough on which to retire? Have you sought leadership positions so that your works will be more visible and praise be given to you? Maybe you simply stopped seeking God’s will because you are tired and you have lost sight of God’s calling.
We each can return to God. God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. He wants to renew a relationship with you. Remember, that is why He gave Jesus Christ to be the living sinless sacrifice on a cross. God’s plans are the best plans for us, our families, and the world. God’s plan from the beginning of the world is to be in a relationship with every person. Through you, His child, He desires to make His love known to other people. Will you return to Him and allow His grace to pour to you and through you? Will you be the conduit of His love and mercy so other people will see God through you, seek Him, and come to know Him in a saving relationship?
If you do not know God in this personal way, He waits for you to call to Him. You only have to admit Jesus Christ is God’s Son. Believe He died as the sacrifice for your sins to give you salvation and eternal life. Confess your sins to God with an earnest and contrite and He will forgive you. You can be rich because you have an inheritance in the kingdom of God, too.
Whether you already are a Christian and just need to return to God seeking forgiveness or you are not a Christian and want to be, God waits to welcome you into a relationship with Him.
What will you decide?
What will you do today?
[i] Thayer and Smith, The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon, 1999. (http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/polemos.html).