James concludes his letter by reminding us of the biblical perspective Christians must have in light of the judgment that is to come on the world. Jesus will return soon, and He will come to deliver His people from their suffering and to judge the world.
James begins with the fate of the wealthy who oppressed the poor. We know that the poor Christians suffered from two different groups of wealthy people. Their fellow Christians who did not attribute their wealth to God’s grace took advantage of their poorer brothers and sisters. But the wealthy non-believers outside of the church were responsible for much greater suffering of poor Christians. They refused to pay the laborers who mowed their fields, keeping back their wages by fraud. “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.” (5:4-6)
James has no appeal to these people, only condemnation. The cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord. They cry out for justice, and justice will not be long-delayed.
The Christians who received this letter were suffering, both from discord and prejudice inside the church and also from injustice and persecution outside the church. The attitude Christians must have in suffering is to endure with patience, looking forward to Christ’s return. The expectation of Christ’s return is the foundation of Christian hope.
James uses two illustrations: Just as the farmer waits patiently for the fruit of his labors, so Christians must wait patiently for the coming of the Lord, and must be patient with other members of the community. “You too must be patient; do not lose heart, because the Lord’s coming will be soon.” (5:8 NJB) The Christian’s heart must be firmly established in the hope of the Second Coming. He asks them to remember the prophets, who endured persecution as they spoke in the name of the Lord.
The second illustration is Job, who endured to the end and was rewarded. Job never lost the fire of his faith during the whole time he was suffering. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. (Job 13:15) Job also continued to confess his hope in the Lord. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God.”(Job 19:25-26) He continued to trust God even though he could not understand Him.
How do we maintain our faith during times of suffering? By establishing our hearts, by strengthening our faith in the Lord’s mercy and compassion. We must turn away from sin and hold firmly to our faith in the midst of temptations and trials. We must allow the Word of Christ to dwell in us richly, so that the Holy Spirit may restore in us the image of Christ. And we must love one another just as Christ has loved us. Together we wait for His return, realizing that our friendship with one another in Christ is not temporary, nor it is limited to this world; it is eternal.
James closes his letter with an exhortation to pray for one another. The secret of a life of intimacy with the Lord is prayer, not simply as an act of obedience but as the way to deepen our relationship with God. We are told, in Hebrews 7:25, that “Jesus’ power to save those who come to God through Him is absolute, since He lives forever to intercede for them.” (NJB)
When we make our home in the Holy of Holies, in the very presence of God, we continually become more and more like His Son, Jesus Christ. Andrew Murray, the South African pastor whose books have influenced millions of Christians, says it this way: “Here the soul, in God’s presence, grows into more oneness with Christ, and more entire conformity to His likeness. Here, in union with Christ, in His unceasing intercession, we are emboldened to take our place as intercessors, who can have power with God and prevail.” (from his commentary on Hebrews, The Holiest of All.)
Jesus Christ invites us to pray with Him, in intercession for one another and for the whole world. We are confident, even bold in our prayers, because Christ is seated on the throne and praying with us. The Holy Spirit is also praying in us, and through us. “The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness, for, when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words; and He who can see into all the hearts knows what the Spirit means because the prayers that the Spirit makes for God’s holy people are always in accordance with the mind of God. (Romans 8:26-27 NJB)
Our Lord Jesus Christ invites us to pray with Him. His Holy Spirit prays through us. What an honor to be invited to pray together in the “War Room” of the Holy Trinity!
At times, we feel that the suffering is too severe, or the problems too great, or the world is in such chaos that we don’t know how to pray. This happened to King Jehoshaphat when a great army invaded his tiny nation of Judah. The story is found in 2 Chronicles chapter 20. King Jehoshaphat prayed to the Lord and reminded God of His character and His powerful acts that He had done in the past for His people. Then he prayed a simple prayer that is the essence of all prayer: “We have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.”
(2 Chronicles 20:12.) Immediately the Holy Spirit spoke to them and told them that this battle was not theirs, but God’s! When we focus on God alone in our time of prayer, His Spirit prays with us, and God moves in mighty ways.
James spoke earlier about prayer, in chapter one, when he told us to pray to God for wisdom. He reminded us that we can pray with boldness, for God is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. God is a generous Giver, and He tells us to ask that we might receive. James links his great teaching on wisdom with prayer. After all, those who pray are the wise ones in any community. James began his letter by an exhortation to pray, and he ends his letter with an exhortation to pray.
James speaks of the “prayer of faith.” (James 5:15) He adds to that, “effective, fervent prayer of a righteous” person. As people who by faith have been made right with God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we have the privilege of entering the throne room of God on a daily basis. (Hebrews 4:14-16) We enter with the confidence that we have the authority and power to pray to God for our own needs and the needs of our family, for the needs of our Christian brothers and sisters, and for the needs of the whole world.
James mentions three specific situations that need our prayers.
- We must pray for those who suffer.
- We must pray when we are cheerful, when we experience joy in our lives. We also intercede for others at such times.
- We must pray for those who are sick, whether it be physical, emotional, mental or spiritual.
These three critical times – times of suffering, of joy, and of sickness – are times to pray.
How should we pray?
- We must pray in faith. In our prayers we must rebel against the forces of evil that seek to destroy those for whom we pray. The prayer of faith will bring healing to the sick. Notice that it is not the faith of the sick person, but the faith of the person or persons praying, that God seeks. All too often the burden of faith is placed on the sick person, or the suffering person; if the person is not healed, the blame is placed on the sick person. This is not the prayer that honors God. God commands us to pray in faith.
- A sick person should call the elders, or those in leadership, in the church. Spiritual leaders of a community should always be ready to gather beside the bed of the sick person, anoint the person with oil, and pray in faith for that person. Of course any Christian can and must pray for the sick. When Jesus gave the Great Commission in the Gospel of Mark, He said: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved . . . and these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons . . . they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:15-18) But it is important that church leaders make this an important part of the church’s life – to pray for the sick by anointing them with oil and the laying on of hands. We must recover the healing ministry inside the church.
It is very important that we put the healing ministry of the Church in proper perspective. When Jesus promised His disciples that they would do “greater miracles” than He Himself (John 14:12), He was promising that far greater multitudes would respond to their proclamation of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. We saw what happened in the Book of Acts, as well as in the Early Church; and we see even today, great masses of people being freed from Satan’s power and entering into the Kingdom of God. This is our message – forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. But Jesus promised that following this message of salvation, the healing of the sick would also be multiplied; and we are seeing this also. When we preach forgiveness and reconciliation as the message of our churches, we can expect to see the same miraculous signs as were evident in the Early Church.
- We must confess our sins to one another, and pray for another, that we may be healed. This would seem to indicate that all Christians, not just the elders, should confess their sins to one another and pray for healing. This does not mean that every Christian must confess all his or her sins to everyone in the church. But it does mean that every Christian must have someone – even one person, and always a person of the same sex – with whom they can share their weaknesses, their need for forgiveness, and their need for prayer. (But of course no one should share with a person prone to gossip, or who has not tamed his or her tongue.) In such a community, great healing and also great forgiveness will take place.
- We must pray as righteous people. “The heartfelt prayer of someone upright works very powerfully! (James 5:16 NJB) Or, in the NKJV, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Walking righteously, in the fear of the Lord, enables us to be friends with God; and He will gladly hear and answer our prayers.
James reveals his shepherd heart as he closes his letter. His last words are a compassionate appeal to all members of the community. “Brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” (5:19-20) There were those among his churches, as there are today, who did not live up to the high standards of community living. It may have been that they were lazy in maintaining disciplines in their lives, or it could have been that they had suffered moral failures that led them to “wander from the truth.” Whatever the cause, they were broken people who succumbed to their weaknesses. They were wandering away from the truth because of sin in their lives.
James teaches that we need to treat such people with compassion, by encouraging them to confess to any others who may have been involved in their sin; and then by graciously covering them with the unswerving mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
Questions to consider
- What are some ways you have endured during times of suffering? How have you maintained your faith?
- Have you experienced more power and freshness in your prayer life, and in your intercession for others, by your abiding in the presence of the Lord? Have you heard Jesus and His Holy Spirit inviting you to be partners with them in intercession?
- What is your experience in praying for the sick? Have you used oil to anoint the sick? Has this made a difference as you pray? What is the symbolism of doing this? Have you acted on James’ insistence that we should confess our sins to one another, and then pray for healing and restoration?
- How has your church, or your community, dealt with people who have “wandered from the truth,” either through lack of discipline or moral failure?
*For Korean readers, a help in understanding the impact of the Christian’s life of faith on society is Mrs. Lee Sang Suk (이상숙권사님)’s dissertation 믿음이 개인의 삶을 통하여 사회에 미치는 영향에 관한 연구 (한국성공회 일반대학원 삭사학위논문2020).