We’ve been studying this book for several weeks, although it’s been about a month since we last looked at it together. And we’ve seen that it was probably written by the James who was the Lord’s half-brother and who became a prominent leader in the early church. And he was writing to Christians who had been scattered among the nations, probably as a result of persecution. And his letter is a very practical letter, because it’s all about how we’re to live our lives as believers and how we’re to treat one another in the church of Jesus Christ.
And so, do you remember? He began in chapter 1 by speaking about the trials we may have to go through as believers. And he spoke about how we ought to ask God for the wisdom we need to live a good and godly life. And he spoke about how believers ought to regard wealth and poverty. And then, of course, we ought not to blame God for our sins, but we’re to remember that our sins are the product of our own sinful hearts. And then, James wrote about the importance of not just listening to God’s word, but of doing what it says, putting it into practice.
And then, in chapter 2, James warned believers that we mustn’t show favouritism, but must welcome whoever comes into our church. And then there was that vital reminder that there are two kinds of faith: one faith works and the other doesn’t; one faith leads to obedience and the other does not. So, do we have the right faith, the faith which produces good deeds in our life. So again, it’s all very practical and it’s about how we’re to live and how we’re to treat one another and how we’re to regard one another.
And then, in chapter 3, there were really three warnings. First of all, there was the warning that not many should become, or should seek to become, teachers in the church. Secondly, there was the warning about how we use our tongue and what we say to one another in the church. And thirdly, there was the warning about bitter envy and selfish ambition which seemed to have been lurking in the hearts of some of his readers. And James seemed to be referring to people in the churches who claimed to be wise, and who wanted to take over, and run things, because they thought they knew best and were wiser than everyone else. But, James went on to say, the wisdom they possessed was earthly, and not heavenly; and it was unspiritual, and not from the Holy Spirit; and it was of the Devil, rather than being good and godly. And these people, who were claiming to be wise, but whose hearts were filled with bitter envy and selfish ambition were causing disorder and division in the churches.
And so, it seems, from what we can learn from chapter 3, that James was aware of a problem among the churches. There were members who wanted to become teachers. There were members who were causing all kinds of problems because of the things they were saying. And there were members who wanted to take over and run things, because they thought they knew best.
And, you see, as we turn to chapter 4 and to what James says here about fights and quarrels and about friendship with the world and about slandering one another, we need to keep in mind what he’s already said in chapter 3 and about what might have been going on in the churches to whom he was writing. You see, what he says in chapter 4 fits with what he’s already said in chapter 3. And it seems that James is still addressing some of the problems which existed in the churches at that time; and he’s trying to deal with those problems and to offer instruction to the believers so that they will put things right.
But, of course, the problems which James addresses here are not confined to the churches in that time only. It’s not as if these problems were dealt with once and for all in the past, and we’ve now got rid of them. You know the way children today are inoculated against diseases which used to kill so many children in the past, so that those diseases are now virtually unheard of. Well, it’s not as if believers can receive an injection which will inoculate them from the problems James is writing about. No, these problems still exist in churches today. And so, what James says here is still relevant and it’s still important and it’s still very practical, because he’s teaching us about how we’re to treat one another in the church.
Verses 1 to 3
And so, look how chapter 4 begins. It begins with a question:
What causes fights and quarrels among you?
The NIV has softened what James really asked, because what he really asked was:
What causes wars and fights among you?
He’s asking what is it that has turned the church into a battlefield.
Now, of course, James is probably using a bit of hyperbole here. You know, he’s exaggerating for effect. And that’s almost certainly the case in verse 2 where he refers to killing one another. I’m sure they weren’t really killing one another. Things weren’t that bad. But by comparing their disputes to wars and fights, he’s conveying to us something of the seriousness of the problem and the horror of it. We can imagine him saying to them:
Here you are, members of the church, brothers and sisters in Christ, and look how you’re treating one another! It’s awful, the way you’re attacking one another like this!
And, of course, anyone who has been unfortunate enough to have been involved in a church dispute knows what James is talking about and why he’s using this military language, because in any church dispute, sides are drawn up and trenches are dug and people think to themselves:
Everyone on this side, my side, is right; everyone on that side is wrong; and we’re not going to budge one inch from what we think.
So, James asks, what causes these wars and fights, these quarrels and arguments in the church? Well, I’ll tell you what people usually say. What people usually say is this:
What has caused this fight? He has. She has. They’re to blame, not me.
We’re always so sure that we’re right, and the other person is wrong. But what does James say? Look at verse 1 again:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?
We tend to blame everyone else, but James points the finger at us, personally and individually, and says:
I’ll tell you what the source of the problem is. You’re the source of the problem. You and the sinful desires that battle within you.
And look at verse 2:
You want something, but don’t get it.
When our desires within us are frustrated — when we don’t get what we want — what do we do? James say we kill. Now I’ve already said that almost certainly they weren’t really killing one another. But perhaps James is using the word ‘kill’ the way the Lord Jesus used it in the Sermon on the Mount when he said that whoever hates his fellow believer is guilty of breaking the sixth commandment which forbids murder and every other way that we harm one another. So, we want something and don’t get it; and because we don’t get our own way, we hate the person who is in our way; and by hating him, by hating her, we’ve broken the sixth commandment.
And then James says — and we should probably have a full stop after the word ‘kill’ and begin a new sentence here — we covet, says James, but we can’t get what we want. And so, what do we do? We quarrel and fight.
What’s the source of this conflict in the church? Those who are involved in such disputes will often blame their opponents, but James says to the one who is involved in a dispute:
No, you’re to blame. You’re not getting your own way; and you don’t like it.
This fits with what he’s been saying in chapter 3, doesn’t it? Those who wanted to be teachers. Those who cursed their fellow believers with their tongues. Those who thought they were wise, but really they were causing all kinds of disorder and division in the church because of their bitter envy and selfish ambition. And now James is saying that the quarrels and fights in the church are caused because they weren’t getting their own way. It happens in churches all the time.
At the end of verse 2 James suggests that prayer would be of help here, but his readers aren’t often praying about this matter. And perhaps the reason they’re not often praying about this matter is because of what James says in verse 3. You see, James says that any time they do pray about these things, their motive is all wrong; when they pray, they’re only thinking about their own pleasures. And the word ‘pleasures’ here in verse 3 is the same word used before in verse 1 for ‘desires’. So, when they pray — and they don’t often pray — but when they do pray, they’re only asking God to give them what they sinfully desire. And perhaps they know this, deep down in their hearts. And perhaps that’s the reason why they don’t often pray, because they know that these prayers, like their desires, are wrong.
It’s devastating, isn’t it? The way James is able to put his finger on the problem and he’s seen how certain members, who want to run things, aren’t getting what they want. And they’ve turned the church into a battlefield. Well, when we read this, we all ought to search our hearts to see whether we are ever like this. Perhaps we haven’t got so far as to start quarrels and fights. But who knows? Perhaps in someone’s heart, or perhaps only forming in someone’s heart, is that kind of sinful desire which James is writing about, that desire to get your own way, that so easily leads to quarrels and fights in the church of Jesus Christ. And so, we ought to search our hearts to see what’s hiding in there, what’s lurking in there, what’s developing and growing in there. And if it’s there, we need to repent of it before it’s too late, and we need to ask God to forgive us for these sinful and hateful thoughts.
Verses 4 to 10
James isn’t finished yet. And verse 4 is a bit of shock, isn’t it? Imagine the person who had to read this letter to the congregation when it first arrived from James. And I can imagine some members in the congregation were already feeling a bit uncomfortable because of some of the things this person has been reading to them. Well, if they felt uncomfortable before, now they would begin to feel really, really uncomfortable when James accuses them of adultery! Imagine the poor man, reading this letter to them; you can imagine him pausing after reading that, and looking around in fear and trepidation, to see how people would respond and trying to decide whether he needed to remind them that he didn’t write these things; he was only reading these things which had come from James.
But what an accusation!
You adulterous people!
He’s talking about spiritual adultery, isn’t he? All through the Bible, God’s relationship with his people is compared to the relationship between a man and his wife. When a man and woman are married, they say to one another:
Forsaking all others, I take you….
The Lord is always, always faithfully devoted to his people. But all through the Old Testament, we read how the Israelites were often unfaithful to him. Instead of forsaking all other gods, they went after other gods. The whole of the book of Hosea is on this theme and how the Israelites were unfaithful to the Lord, even though the Lord remained faithfully devoted to them.
And now James is accusing his readers of being unfaithful to the Lord. So, instead of remaining faithful to the Lord, or instead of keeping their friendship with the Lord, they became friends with the world. What did he mean? Well, when he mentions ‘the world’, he’s not referring to the physical world, which God created and which is good. No, he’s referring to the sinful world of men and women who do not love the Lord and who are in rebellion against him.
And when he says that his readers have made friends with this world, he’s saying that the way some of them have been behaving — the things they’ve been saying to one another; the things they’ve been doing to one another; the bitter envy and selfish ambition in their hearts; their sinful desire to get their own way; the quarrels and fights which they’ve caused in the church of Jesus Christ — the way they’ve been behaving shows that instead of walking in the ways of the Lord, they’ve been following the ways of the world. It’s devastating, isn’t it? There they were: thinking they were great and that they ought to be allowed to be teachers in the church and they ought to be allowed to run things, because they’re so wise. And James is saying about them:
You think you should be leaders in the church! But you’re not following the ways of the Lord. You’ve turned away from him and you’re now following the ways of the world.
Verse 5 is a difficult verse to translate. The NIV translates it this way: The Scripture says ‘that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely.’ Put that way, it’s saying that our spirit within us envies the world. It wants us to be like the world. That’s one way of translating this verse.
The ESV — which I use at home — puts it this way: The Scriptures says ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.’ Put that way, it’s saying that the Lord is jealous for his people, the way a husband is jealous for his wife and wants to guard her and to protect her from other men who might, if they got their way, destroy their marriage. So, in that case, James is saying that we can count on the Lord to guard his church against the ways of the world.
Which translation is better? It’s hard to say. However, I think we need to remember that James is referring to something the Scripture says; that’s how verse 5 begins. And all through the Bible, all through the Scriptures, we’re told about God’s jealous love for his people. Think of the second commandment, for instance:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image … for I the Lord your God am a jealous God….
Since the jealous love of God appears all through the Scriptures, then it’s perhaps best to go with the ESV which speaks of God’s jealous love for his people.
And, of course, because God is committed to his people, and committed to protecting his church from the ways of the world, then we can rely on him to give us the grace we need to overcome the ways of the world. And that’s James’s point in verse 6:
He gives us more grace.
He will graciously help his people, all those who humble themselves before him, confessing their sins, asking for his forgiveness, seeking his help. God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble. So, we should humble ourselves before him and seek his gracious help.
And in verses 7 to 10, James lists some of the things we ought to do to humble ourselves before the Lord. And he mentions six things we’re to do. No. 1. Submit to God so that instead of insisting we get our way, we submit to his will. No. 2. Resist the Devil who wants to use us to wreck the church. So, resist him and his temptations; and he will soon leave you alone. No. 3. Come near to God. In other words, turn to him in repentance. No. 4. Wash your hands and purify your hearts. ‘Hands’ refer to what we do; ‘hearts’ refer to our inner thoughts and desires. And we need to make sure our thoughts and actions are pure. No. 5. Grieve, mourn and wail and change you laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. In other words, we need to weep over our sins which are wrecking the church. No. 6. We ought to humble ourselves before the Lord, because whoever humbles himself, confessing their sin and guilt, asking for God’s forgiveness and his help, will not be cast away by the Lord. That’s what we’d expect: we’ve let him down; we’ve acted shamefully; we’ve dishonoured him; he ought to cast us away, throw us out. But instead of doing that, instead of treating us as our sins deserve, he’s very gracious, and he will lift up the sinner who bows before him and who confesses their sin.
We’re to search our hearts to see if our hearts contain this sinful desire to get our own way which can wreck the church. And if, having searched our hearts, we find this sinful desire lurking there, then we’re to repent and seek God’s forgiveness. And, if we don’t find this sinful desire in our hearts, then, of course, we’re to guard our hearts so that this sinful desire to get our own way does not get in, ever.
Verses 11 and 12
In this passage James first writes about what causes quarrels and fights in the church. Then he writes about how we need to be faithful to the Lord, instead of making friends with the world. And finally, and briefly, he instructs us not to slander one another.
In verse 11, James refers to the law. What does the law teach us? It teaches us that we’re to love one another; we’re to love our neighbour as ourselves. But what happens when we want to get our own way in the church? Well, we stand over the law, don’t we? We stand over it, to judge it, and to judge whether or not the law applies to me. And, of course, when we think we’re in the right, when we think we’re in the right and we ought to be running the church, then it’s very easy for us to think that we have every right to do what we want and to treat others whatever way we want in order to get our own way. We’ve judged the law and determined that it doesn’t apply to me, because it’s important that I get my own way.
But, says James, there’s only one lawgiver; and there’s only one judge who is able to save and destroy — and it’s not you; and it’s not me. And so, we ought to bow before the Lord and we ought to seek to do what his law commands us to do, which is to love our neighbour.
It’s all so devastating, isn’t it? You know what the problem is, don’t you? These people, who have forsaken the Lord, and who have made friends with the world, have forgotten something vitally important. They’ve forgotten that Jesus Christ their Saviour has called them out of the world; and he’s raised them up to live a new, heavenly life. Do you remember how Paul puts it in Ephesians 2? He said:
You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world….
To the Ephesians, Paul wrote that you used to follow the ways of the world. But not any longer, because you’ve been raised with Christ to the heavenly realms. That’s where we now belong and we’re to follow the ways of heaven, where Christ our Saviour is, and we’re not to follow the ways of the world. But the Christians James was writing to have forgotten that. Instead of living this new, heavenly life, they’re acting as if they still belonged to the world. And it’s affected how they speak to one another; and what they do to one another; and how they think about themselves and their own importance. And so, they need to — and perhaps someone here needs to — say to themselves:
I’m no longer going to live like that. I used to follow the ways of the world. I used to be a friend of the world. But no longer. I’ve been raised with Christ. I belong to him. I will gladly, cheerfully, willingly submit myself to him and to his will; and I will love my neighbour just as he loved me and gave up his life for me.