The resurrection day of Jesus — the first Easter — was no merely private experience of Jesus. In space and time, the body of Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, dead, and buried, was raised to life again. Amazing! And what else is amazing is that this resurrected Jesus didn’t just immediately ascend to Heaven, but He first spent many days creating witnesses to His resurrection, as He appeared to His disciples and taught them. After all, He had been raised for them.
Christianity is a for them religion. It’s also certainly a for Him religion. At its heart, everything that we Christians do, we are to do unto the Lord (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). But it is also a for them religion. Following the example of our Lord, we live in such a way that others will be blessed.
And that’s what this little letter of James has been up to. Really, throughout the whole letter, James has been preparing his audience for this point. In chapters 1 and 2, he warned them that, for the Christian, trials are not bad — they’re good. And they are certainly nothing to be avoided.
Then, in chapters 2 and 3, he instructed them that true faith will always be accompanied by actions. Real saving trust in Christ shows itself in deeds. And the implication of taking these first two points together is that real Christian faith will show itself even in hard and trying circumstances.
At this point, then, James had his readers perfectly lined up for what he wanted to teach them in these last chapters of his letter. The trying circumstance that they needed to address in their claim to be Christians was how they were treating each other. “I love everybody; it’s just my neighbor I can’t stand.” Many of us have seen that bumper-sticker. More than that, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we’ve all known that feeling. And it seems that the Christians to whom James was writing had experienced that also. And they had experienced it with each other. Look at James’ letter, and it becomes clear that the church or churches to whom he was writing were wracked by quarrels, pride, and sins of the tongue. Some of their actions may have been fueled by a worldly concern for money (as in chapter 2). Their problems were just made worse by false teaching.
Listen to how James describes the situation: he mentions bitter jealousy and selfish ambition and arrogance (James 3:14), disorder and every evil thing (James 3:16). And all of this, he says, shows the wisdom that is not godly but “demonic” (James 3:15). Instead of behaving like this, we Christians are to be “wise and understanding,” showing this by good behavior, in deeds of gentleness and wisdom. As James says in 3:17, “The wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.”
How is it that we Christians can treat each other in such sincerity and faithfulness, with such mercy and gentleness? It is because of the risen Lord. The Lord, says James, is full of compassion and mercy, (5:11). God’s mercy to us in Christ should cause us to trust Him, even in matters as strange as the cross. God’s mercy in Christ should also call us to act out our faith. God’s love for us in Christ was no mere notion — it led Him to action. And here in the last part of James’ letter, he makes it clear that the difficult actions that should particularly mark the Christian’s life are acts of love and kindness toward each other. Why? Because we know the king is returning. “Be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7).
If you’re anything like me, you tend to forget that. And James says in 4:13–16 that part of our problem stems from our ignoring the fact that the future is in God’s hands. I try to remind myself of this by doing just what James says there in 4:15 — I try to say “Lord willing” whenever I talk about something in the future. It’s just a way for me to try to remember that the future isn’t mine. Thinking this way about the future can be hard. We struggle with it. But it can actually be the key to more unity and peace in our churches. As we remember that we will give account to God, we may be motivated to be a little slower in thinking this or saying that.
In our day of good health and medical care, we presume we will have time. Too many of us tend to assume our lives are long and our days are assured. But James reminds even the youngest and most vigorous — the businessman in the middle of his travels — that the future is not ours (see James 4:13–14). And he reminds us that the future will bring judgment. Do you see that how we think about the future can affect how we think about others? If our religion is real, if our faith is saving, it not only affects our actions, but affects our actions towards others, and especially our brothers and sisters in our churches.
Real religion will replace the quarrels that come from our own false wisdom with honest prayers about real needs. Our pride will be replaced by humble confession of sins to one another (5:16). Our love even reaches out to those who are in need, who have wandered from the truth. Real religion cannot remain simply a “vertical thing” between me and God. It must affect the way I deal with others.