Read the Passage: James 5
Regarding Oppression (5:1–6)
Several times in this epistle James has addressed the topic of wealth and poverty, focusing upon the dangers of material wealth and the need for spiritual poverty (cf. Jas. 1:9–11; 2:5–7). Here in Jas. 5:1–3 James again writes about wealth and poverty. In this passage James confronts the rich, not for their possession of wealth, but for their misuse of wealth. James writes about the futility of putting one’s hope in material things, as he observes that both garments and coins—two common measures of wealth in biblical times—would eventually decay, even becoming a witness against the rich (cf. Jas. 5:3). With this admonition James was teaching his readers that when anything but the Lord becomes the object of one’s affections, it will ultimately lead to spiritual decay, for man was not created to worship idols, nor can idols provide redemption and restoration.
In Jas. 5:4–6 James identifies two related sins of the wealthy. First, James writes, “Indeed, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord” (Jas. 5:4). According to the Old Testament civil law, holding back wages was forbidden (cf. Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15). Second, James writes, “You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you” (Jas. 5:5–6). This second sin complements the transgression of withholding laborers’ wages. In other words, the wealthy whom James addressed were not paying their workers and were using these funds to finance their own lavish lifestyles. Financial fraud is not only sinful, but also leads to the sin of self-indulgence.
Regarding Patience (5:7–12)
In Jas. 5:7–12 James turns from addressing the wealthy, who were doing the oppressing, to the poor, who were being oppressed. Here James writes, “Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord” (Jas. 5:7). The patience that James calls for here relates generally to the sinful injustices faced by all believers, but specifically to the oppression faced by the poor (cf. Ps. 73). The reason for this patience, notes James, is the future “coming of the Lord” (Jas. 5:7). Note that Scripture repeatedly calls for patience in light of Jesus’ return (cf. Rom. 8:18; Gal. 6:9; 1 Pet. 4:13). Moreover, divine judgment is frequently mentioned as a component of the Lord’s return (cf. Acts 17:31; 2 Tim 4:1). In Jas. 5:7–8 James gives an illustration of the patience for which he is calling, as he appeals to the example of a farmer who regularly and patiently waits for the rains to come.
In Jas. 5:9–12 James continues his admonition from Jas. 5:7–8 as he exhorts believers, “Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned” (Jas. 5:9). Of course, James is not forbidding rightly expressed judgment (cf. Matt. 7:1; John 7:24); rather, he is addressing self-centered complaints. As in the preceding verses, so here James gives an illustration of the patience for which he is calling. James writes, “My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience” (Jas. 5:10). Interestingly, James includes Job as one of the prophets, as he cites Job’s example in support of his teaching of perseverance. Note this is the only place in Scripture where Job is referred to as a prophet. In this passage James reveals that one of the purposes of Job’s suffering was to show God’s compassion and mercy.
Regarding Suffering (5:13–20)
James 5:13–20 is an oft-appealed to passage of Scripture, especially James’ reference to anointing the sick with oil (cf. Jas. 5:14). While this may be a reference to some type of ceremonial cleansing or even spiritual anointing (cf. Lev. 14:18; Mark 6:13; 16:18), given the terminology that is used here, common practices of Scripture, and the larger context, the practice of anointing with oil that James cites is likely best understood as a reference to providing medical assistance to the poor, needy, and infirm. Note that James does not indicate that such anointing will promote miraculous healing; rather, as James mentions in each and every verse between Jas. 5:13–18, it is prayer that brings about healing. In Jas. 5:16–17 James illustrates this point by appealing to the example of Elijah. James concludes his book with a reminder to the church to seek out those in need of repentance.
- How can we explain the differences between James’ warning to the rich in Jas. 5:1–6 and Paul’s instructions to the wealthy in 1 Tim. 6:6–10, 17–19?
- Does James’ teaching that laborers ought to be compensated mean that all workers should be compensated equally (cf. Matt. 20:1–16; 25:14–30)?
- How do we balance being patient and long-suffering in the face of trials with seeking justice for ourselves and for others in the fallen world?
- Do you find it difficult to be patient during the trials and troubles of life? Do you find it harder to be patient with people or with circumstances?
- Is anointing the sick with oil a biblical practice? Ought we to anoint with oil in the modern context? What is the duty of the church when a fellow believer is sick?