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It is rather startling that James would refer to the disputes and wranglings of church members in such terms as "wars and fightings"; but is this not actually the nature of them? It is a gross error to construe these words literally in the sense of wars, seditions and revolutions, such literalism being the distinctive "fundamentalism" peculiar to certain schools of New Testament criticism. "James cannot be thinking of wars and fightings between nations." F1 Roberts, quoting Arndt and Gingrich, noted that the Greek word for "fightings" "is used always in the plural and always of battles carried on with weapons." F2 Other uses of this word in the New Testament substantiate this meaning, as in 2 Cor. 7:5; 2 Tim. 2:23, and Titus 3:9. Paul spoke of "fightings within and fears without." Thus it is safe to view James' words here as directed toward the solution of "a spiritual problem within the circle of believers." F3 The invasion of Christian personality by evil influences contrary to it is a recurring problem in every generation; every Christian must fight and win the war spoken of in these verses. The idea that James is here speaking only of religious teachers and their disputes, and another notion to the effect that James, writing to Jews of the Diaspora, directed these teachings against the wars of Jews with each other - both ideas, according to Lenski, "are untenable." F4 The words of this section are applicable today, being sorely needed in countless situations all over the world.
Pleasures that war in your members ...
The pursuit of pleasure must be regarded by every Christian as a fruitless and dangerous course, loaded with all kinds of disastrous consequences. As Barclay noted:
In addition, it may be pointed out regarding the pursuit of pleasure that:
James' reference, "ye kill," is not to be taken as an indictment of the Christian communities addressed by him as murderers. "The word kill is to be taken in the sense of hatred proceeding from envy, as in 1 John 3:15: whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.'" F6 Of course, all of the New Testament writers were aware of the Master's teaching in Matthew 5:21,22, where the antecedent motives and attitudes leading to murder were exposed and judged as murder. The blunt, powerful charges made in this verse are difficult to punctuate; but Tasker's arrangement of them in a parallel seems to be commendable:
You desire and do not have; so you kill.
And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. F7
The frustration and misery of the selfish, pleasure-craving soul are eloquently portrayed in this verse.
Roberts said that "obtain" means "to attain one's goal or purpose (cf Romans 11:7). F8
Ye have not, because ye ask not ...
There is no hint here that if they had prayed for the ability to gratify their lustful pleasures God would have given it; rather, that their willful selfishness had dried up the springs of prayer within them.
"God answers prayer, but not all prayer, especially not in giving the ungodly the ingredients for selfish gratification." F9 The Bible reveals exactly whose prayers are answered. He hears the cry of the righteous (Psalms 34:15); he hears those who call upon him in truth (Psalms 145:18); and he hears the penitent (Luke 18:14): those who ask "in his name" (John 14:13), those who ask "believing" (Mark 11:24), and those who ask according to God's will (1 John 5:14). As Gibson observed, here again "is an evident allusion to the sermon on the mount (Matthew 7:7)." F10 See also Matthew 21:22.
Ye adulteresses ...
Like "kill" in the preceding verses, this word too must be understood in the spiritual sense of unfaithfulness to God. "Spiritual adultery" is the unfaithfulness of the church, which is the bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Romans 7:1-6; Revelation 21:2; 22:17). The marriage metaphor was extensively used in the Old Testament, as in Isa. 54:5; and the new Israel of God, the church, naturally took it over. Jesus used it in John 3:29; and also in Matt. 12:39. The crass literalism sometimes adopted in viewing this chapter obscures the meaning completely, as Oesterley testified, "It must be confessed that these verses are very difficult to understand." F11 The answer, of course, is in understanding the metaphor. This verse represents the bride of Christ, the church, falling in love with the world and giving the adoration and allegiance owed to her lawful head and bridegroom, Jesus Christ, to the world, world also being used here in the metaphorical sense of meaning "society, as it organizes itself apart from God." F12 The Greek word here for "world .... is found only in the New Testament." F13 James followed here the exact usage of the term that marked our Lord's teaching (John 15:18,19).
Friendship with the world ...
refers to a Christian's loving the pleasures, enticements and lusts of society in general, a friendship that tends inevitably to forsaking the Lord.
An enemy of God ...
Demas, it will be recalled, "loved this present age" (2 Timothy 4:9), the result being that he forsook Paul and the gospel of Christ.
It is the conviction here that spirit should be read Spirit, since the only spirit ever made to dwell in Christian hearts is the Holy Spirit.
This is a disputed text, of course, with almost as many renditions of it as there are translators and commentators, the first sentence usually being presented as a formula for introducing a Scriptural quotation. We agree with Lenski who said, "We are not convinced that the question is a formula of quotation; if it were, we should certainly expect the addition of saying that." F14 The proof that this does not introduce a quotation from the Bible is that no quotation is given, a problem which has perplexed the commentators extensively. Rather than being troubled by the presentation of different views on it, we shall be content with giving what would appear to be the best rendition of it, as follows:
Or do you suppose that the Scripture speaks falsely? Does the Spirit that dwells in us strongly incline to envy? F15
This rendition, which actually is not out of harmony with our text above, also fits in beautifully with James 4:6, given by the same translation thus:
Indeed, it bestows superior favor; therefore, it is said, "God sets himself in opposition to the haughty, but gives favor to the lowly. F16
Do you suppose the Scripture speaks falsely ...
Although James was not at this point introducing a specific text, the inherent truth in this is that Christians were familiar with the New Testament teaching regarding the indwelling Spirit, and the fruits of it, which never included envy! Oesterley agreed here that the reference "must be to the New Testament"; F17 and this shows that James, with all Christians, held the Pauline writings to be authentic Scripture.
The rendition which is accepted here is challenged by many; but Punchard defended the practical equivalent of it, pointing out that Wordsworth favored it, and that it may be fully justified by only a slight variation in punctuation," adding that, "Defensible or not as this translation may be, at least it escapes some of the difficulties." F18 It should be added that punctuation is all of men and not of God.
He giveth more grace ...
The unity of the triune godhead makes it futile to inquire whether God or the Holy Spirit is the subject here. Anything that the Spirit of God does to bless men may also appropriately be said to be what God does.
The Scripture saith ...
Here indeed is a formula for introducing a Scriptural passage, and there followed a quotation from Prov. 3:34. As Punchard noted, "Peter used the same quotation (1 Peter 5:5); and it seems to have been a common saying, a maxim of the wise that had become, as it were, a law of life." F19
God resisteth the proud ...
There is no greater deterrent to righteousness than pride. Through pride, Satan fell; pride leads the list of the seven deadly sins; pride cankers and destroys human personality; pride incurs the enmity of God himself. As Barclay said:
Pride does not know its own need, cherishes its own independence, and does not recognize its own sin. It shuts itself off from God; its real terror is that it is a thing of the heart. F20
Grace to the humble ...
New Testament teaching on humility is all-pervasive. The parable Jesus spoke regarding the publican and the Pharisee at prayer (Luke 18:9-14) is a good example.
As noted in the introduction, James here included a series of blunt, power-packed exhortations, running through James 4:10. The expression "ye sinners" coming right in the middle of this (James 4:8) forbids referring this particular paragraph to Christians, the unmodified designation "sinners" not being an appropriate address for members of the body of Christ to whom the whole letter is written. Carson pointed out that "The verbs in these exhortations are in the aorist tense, indicating that these things are to be done `once for all,' as a settled thing for the soul." F21 We might add also, "indicating that the people addressed had not already done them." The unconverted, who make up a part of every Christian audience, are plainly intended as recipients of the exhortation here. This conclusion is made more certain by James' immediate employment of a number of expressions used elsewhere in the New Testament for conversion, or primary obedience to the gospel.
Be subject therefore unto God ...
That primary Christian obedience is inherent in this admonition is apparent from McNab's comment:
Herein are blended perfectly the true activities of faith and works. By faith we submit to God in a fuller, deeper surrender to his will ... in our act of submission, we are prepared for conflict with the evil one? F22
Of course, if men submit to God, they must resist Satan in order to do so initially, and recurrently ever afterward.
Resist the devil and he will flee from you ...
brings to mind the initial scene in our Lord's ministry, that of his resisting Satan in the wilderness temptation (Matthew 4:8), which ended by Satan's "leaving him for a season." This also suggests that it is initial Christian acceptance of the gospel that is in view here. Let James' continued relation of all that he wrote to the life and teachings of the Master be noted. This admonition has its relevance to Christians in the fact of their original victory over Satan when they became children of God not having been due to their own strength, but to that of the Lord; and a reminder of this would steer them in the right direction for subsequent struggles against evil.
Draw nigh to God ...
The exact equivalent of this expression, "Let us draw near," as used in Heb. 10:22ff, has a marked application to conversion, faith, repentance and baptism, all three being specifically referred to. See full comment on that passage in my Commentary on Hebrews, pp. 229-232. It is of special importance that Hebrews was also written to Christians and yet contains this very pronounced paragraph on the conversion of alien sinners; and there is no good reason for supposing that James did not do the same thing here.
DRAWING NEAR TO GOD
Who is there among men who would not like to draw near to God? Even the privilege of drawing near to some great man, such as a president, a prince or a king excites and challenges men, and how much greater is the privilege of drawing near to the Almighty God himself!
Only God has the right to prescribe the terms upon which men may approach him, and these are outlined in Heb. 10:22ff, where faith, repentance and baptism are laid out as preconditions of drawing near to God "in Christ."
The wonderful benefits of drawing near to God are beyond all calculation:
There can be little doubt that James was familiar with the New Testament theology of drawing near to God; and it is not amiss, therefore, to see a reflection of it in this verse.
The last portion of this verse has a parallel in it, thus: Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; And purify your hearts, ye double-minded. The New Testament usage of "purify your hearts" is seen in this verse:
Seeing ye have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth unto unfeigned love of the brethren, love one another from the heart fervently: having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God which liveth and abideth (1 Pet. 1:22,23).
It is clear that Peter used "purify your hearts" in the sense of being obedient to the gospel, being born again, in short, being converted; and it would be strange indeed if James used this same expression in any other sense here. We have repeatedly noted his amazing familiarity with the whole spectrum of Christian doctrine.
Cleanse your hands ...
is parallel with "purify your hearts" and means exactly the same thing.
This stern warning to the unregenerated is an appeal for them to consider the wretched and miserable state of the lost. Some unsaved persons may indeed laugh; but let them recognize their separation from God, and their laughter will be replaced with weeping and mourning.
How perfectly James follows the teachings of the Master, who said, "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). The mourning mentioned both by Jesus and James is that godly sorrow which produces repentance, and without which salvation is not promised (Luke 13:3,5).
This is an appeal for the unconverted to forsake the human pride, which more than any other impediment restrains men from obeying the word of the Lord; and, like most of this passage, it also has its abiding relevance for Christians themselves.
Jesus said, "Whosoever shall humble himself shall be exalted" (Matthew 23:12), in the light of which Gibson saw here "a further parallel with our Lord's teachings." F23
In the sight of the Lord ...
There is no need to equate "Lord" here with Jehovah of the Old Testament, despite the Old Testament term for it (without the article) being the one thus used in the LXX; because, by the time James wrote, and even much earlier, "Lord" had been almost universally adopted in Christianity as a designation of our Lord Jesus Christ, as witnessed by all of the Pauline writings, in fact, by the whole New Testament. That it is Christ whom James had in view here is plain from his stressing the law of Christ in the very next two verses.
Whosoever shall humble himself ...
In view of its connection in this passage, James may have been using this well-known teaching of the Master as a synecdoche for obeying the gospel of Christ.
And the Lord shall exalt you ...
What is this exaltation? As it relates to conversion, when one in penitence submits to the initiatory rite of Christian baptism, he is immediately "raised to walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). Beyond this, however, there is the exaltation that shall come to all the redeemed at the last day.
Having here concluded his abrupt, powerful exhortations to the unsaved, James returned to his admonishing the "brethren."
Speaketh against the law ...
"James does not here use `the law' as a reference to the Mosaic Law, because he is writing to Christians, not to Jews." F24 All efforts to dissociate James' teaching from the religion of Christ and move it back into Judaism should be resisted. Lenski noted that all such efforts are "unsupported by the context." F25
"The law" spoken of here is the law of Jesus Christ, the law of the gospel, the law of the New Testament, the Christian law. Gibson summarized concerning this question, thus:
What law? According to Dean Plumptre, "the royal law of Christ, which forbids judging (Matthew 7:1-5)." Alford said it was: "The law of Christian life: the old moral Law, glorified and amplified by Christ, the royal law of James 2:8." Luther made it: "The law of Christian life, which, according to its contents, is none other than the law of love." F26
In the scholarly opinion thus cited by Gibson, the admission is clear enough that the teachings of Jesus Christ are the law James here referred to; but it should be particularly noted that such opinion does not consider the whole of Christ's teaching as "the law." They restrict "the law of Christ" to the "moral" pronouncements of the Old Testament as expanded by Jesus, or to "none other than" the law of love! By such devices as these, modern theologians get rid of the great Christian ordinances of baptism and the Lord's supper, the obligations of church membership and attendance, and everything else except "the law of love," rather nebulously interpreted to mean "merely being a nice guy!" Let the servant of the Lord beware of this. Extensive treatment of this question is given in my Commentary on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, pp. 102-117.
"The priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law" (Hebrews 7:12). Inherent in this is the fact of there still being a law that men must obey, i.e., the law of Christ. The Mosaic law's being abrogated could never mean that God's eternal principle of governing mankind through law was thereby repealed. Law was not done away with; it was "changed" to the law of Jesus Christ our Lord. Salvation "by grace" does not abolish law as a principle, though it did abolish salvation by "Moses' law." "Not under law but under grace" is not a denial that men must obey the law of Christ, but rather emphasizes the grace and liberty of Christ's law contrasted with Judaism.
Therefore, James' words in this verse refer to the law of Christ in its entirety, and to the specific instance of certain Christians having broken it by their speaking against and judging one another, the specific part of that great law of Christ which they had violated being Matthew 7:1ff.
One only is lawgiver ... judge ...
Moses was known as the great "lawgiver" of the Old Testament; and it is not amiss, therefore, to see his great antitype, Jesus Christ the Holy One, as the lawgiver and judge referred to here. Christ himself made his teachings to be the "rock" upon which alone the builder could safely build (Matthew 7:24-27). His word will judge men "at the last day" (John 12:48); God has commissioned Jesus Christ to "execute judgment" (John 5:37). Christ is the one who will preside in the judgment of all nations (Matthew 25:31ff). His words, "these sayings of mine," "whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20), are the constitution and bylaws of the kingdom of God; and this student cannot accept any interpretation of this which would in any manner dissociate these verses from Jesus Christ, unto whom only has been given "all authority in heaven and upon earth" (Matthew 28:18ff). James was steeped in the teachings of Jesus; and it is certain that these and other teachings of Jesus were in his mind as he wrote this.
Who is able to save and to destroy ...
This same thought was given by Jesus in Matt. 10:28, which is usually cited as proof that the reference is to "God" and not to "Christ"; but it should be noted that Jesus, later in that same gospel, represented himself as being the one who would save and destroy by his judicial "Come ye blessed," or "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire" (Matthew 25:31ff), nor does the passage in Matt. 10:28 deny this. The reason so many do not understand James is that they do not see it as, almost totally, an extension of the teachings of Christ.
Who are thou that judgest ... ?
There are certain types of judgments that Christians must make; but the kind of judging forbidden by the Lord is the uncharitable pronouncement of harsh and uncomplimentary allegations against fellow creatures. There are many reasons why this is a sin. First, Christ forbade it; also, it inevitably bears fruit in the proliferation of harsh judgments; it is negative, unhelpful and destructive; it contravenes the love principle that binds Christians together "in Christ"; it usually is a mark of blindness, the participant in harsh judging usually being as deficient, or more, than the one judged. For further comment, see in my Commentary on Matthew, p. 90.
The presumption of men is a dreadful and arrogant conceit:
Of course, we shall be alive and in health tomorrow. No emergency will arise, no sickness lay us low, no sudden death overtake us. Tomorrow is our apple, and we'll cut it up like we please.
We will go into the city ...
The weather will be good; transportation will be available; we shall meet with no accident; no car will be wrecked, airplane fall, or train derail; we shall arrive exactly as planned.
And spend a year there ...
Lodging will be available to us, and at a price we can afford; no problems! No rioting shall break out; no epidemic shall occur; no war will break out; no disastrous fire will hinder; no earthquake will level the city; no flood will sweep it away. No thieves or robbers shall injure us!
And trade ...
Ah yes! Goods will be available, and of the kind, quality and price we want; financing the operation will be no impediment; there will be no shortages, no damaged freight, no ruined merchandise, no change in style or taste that would hinder trade; no city regulation, no competition, no shortage of labor - nothing will get in the way!
And get gain ...
Of course, buyers for our products will be plentiful; they will have the money; they will wish to purchase our goods, at a prince substantially higher than we paid; the profits will roll in!
What should be thought of such godless planning? As Harper said, "The sin of these men was not in planning for the future, but in failing to consider God in their plans." F27
It is not necessary to apply these verses (through James 4:17) to the rich only. All people, regardless of wealth, social standing or any other condition, who make their life plans without respect to the will of God are the ones remonstrated. James will treat the problem of riches in the next chapter.
The uncertainty of tomorrow was stressed by Jesus who said of the grass of the field, "It today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven" (Matthew 6:30); and both Peter and James discerned the spiritual overtones of the teaching, Peter saying, "All flesh is as grass" (1 Peter 1:24), an idea certainly inherent in what James declared here. How ephemeral and uncertain is life! James, following in the example of Jesus in drawing illustrations from nature, illuminated his teaching with the metaphor of vapor, a fog or mist. How present, real and tangible is a heavy ground fog; yet three hours later the sky may be clear for a thousand miles in all directions. That's the way life is. Poets of all ages have marveled at the brevity and uncertainty of it. Shakespeare said:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. F28
Despite the propensity of men to discourse on this subject, however, nothing ever written surpasses in beauty or power the noble words of the New Testament in this passage.
If the Lord will ...
"This, it seems, is not an Old Testament expression." F29 It is found, however, a number of times in the New Testament: Acts 18:21; Acts 21:14, 1 Cor. 4:19; 1 Cor. 16:7, and in Heb. 6:3. The use of this expression in daily speech was once common among Christians, even their writings frequently carrying it in the form of D.V. (Deo volente); but this extensive usage has been discouraged and diminished to the point of its being seldom heard or seen any more. This is deplorable. It is high time that commentators stopped larding their dissertations with the admonition that "This must not be an empty phrase on our lips," F30 or that "It becomes repellent to hear one use the name of God flippantly and constantly." F31 Our agreement with such comments is by no means total, because such comment tends to the conclusion that Harper gave in connection with his comment, i.e., "The thing that matters is for us to have the right attitude toward God, not the chattering of a formula!" F32 This is contrary to what James said. He laid down the law that "Ye ought to say, if the Lord will!" There's not a word in that to the effect that the right attitude is all that matters; that is not all that matters, and it is highly important that Christians witness to their faith in Jesus Christ and to the sovereignty of God by saying, "If the Lord will," not in an irreverent and flippant manner, of course, but sincerely and truly.
In the Arab world, "There is constantly heard the expression, `Imsh' Allah, meaning `If Allah wills.'" F33 It is a beautiful and eloquent testimony of their religious faith and zeal; and a similar witness should not be absent from Christianity.
As Tasker pointed out, the Christian failure to honor James' commandment is not due "to a horror of hypocrisy," but to an unwillingness to honor the "supremacy of God." F34
All glorying ...
is not evil, but "all such glorying." There is a type of glorying "in Christ" that is helpful and necessary in the Christian pilgrimage. Heb. 3:6 has the instruction that Christians should "hold fast our boldness and the glorying of our hope firm unto the end." Paul gloried in the churches (2 Thessalonians 1:4), in Christ, and in Christians (2 Corinthians 7:4). He commanded that "He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord" (2 Corinthians 10:17).
The type of glorying James had just outlined, in which men flaunted all kinds of ambitions and godless plans without any reference whatever to Almighty God, was reprehensible and sinful.
Ye glory in your vauntings ...
The conduct James described was not that of mere thoughtlessness, but that of consciously leaving God out of consideration in the making of human plans.
The primary application to what James had just said is evident; but, as frequently in the word of God, the principle here extends to the whole theater of faith and the obligations incumbent upon men. Tasker expressed it thus, "This maxim has wider reference than that which is drawn from it in this particular context." F35
Oesterley perceptively attributed James' teaching in this verse to the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 23:23), wherein Christ laid down the law that "sins of omission are as sinful as those of commission." F36 It is truly amazing that hardly a line of this entire epistle may be found without this same connection.
The Jesuit fallacy that if one is able to raise some doubt in his mind, regardless of how small, concerning the validity of any commandment, or of its applicability to himself, that under that circumstance, "he may follow his own inclinations," F37 is rationalized as the doctrine of "probabilism." This error is aided by an inordinate emphasis upon and intensification of the meaning of "knoweth." This is gross wickedness, of course; because the practical application of it means "that as long as one can, on some `father's' say-so, or on some other illustory ground, claim some doubt of what he should do ... he can justify his sins." F38
Ward identifies the great sin of omission as "the failure to receive and obey the word of God." F39 Phillips' translation of this is, "Well, remember that if a man knows what is right and fails to do it, his failure is a real sin." Gibson saw in this "a remarkable correspondence with the words of Paul (Romans 14:23)." F40 It is this perfect consonance of James with everything else in the New Testament that goes far to establish the interpretation of this chapter as given here, especially with reference to James 4:7-10.
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.