Saturday, January 16, 2010

James 5: How To Endure Suffering

Theme: Wait for the Judge

5) By enduring suffering (5:1-20)

Chapter one began with a call to rejoice in trials.  Chapter five returns to the subject, calling on believers to patiently endure them.  This passage seems to show several ways to endure suffering.

By hoping for Christ's return (1-8)

Verses 1-6 reprove those who gain riches by oppressing their laborers.  To encourage those who are oppressed, verses 7-8 remind the readers that the return of the Lord is near, and that the Judge stands at the door.  Christ could rapture the church from earth at any minute, and then the Tribulation will begin.  Christ, the Judge, will severely bombard the inhabitants of earth with various plagues (Rev. 4-19).  This will vindicate believers of their persecutors.  Like a farmer patiently waits for the crop to grow, believers, too, should be patient (lit. "long of spirit", or "long suffering") in hope of Christ's return as Judge.

By avoiding complaints against brethren (9)

"Complain", in the phrase, "Do not complain, brethren against one another" (NAS), literally means to "groan".  In Romans 8:23, it is used to describe the "groan" believers make as they wait to be delivered from their sinful bodies and natures.  In 2 Cor. 5:2, it refers to those who "groan" while waiting to receive their glorified bodies.  Hebrews 13:17 mentions this word when telling believers to obey spiritual leaders, so they may do their work with joy rather than "grief". 

The warning that if you "groan" against your brother, you may be judged, and the reminder that the Judge stands at the door, seems to indicate that this "groaning" is some type of complaint, or judgmental attitude toward fellow believers.  Suffering can motivate us groan with such complaints, but the soon return of the Judge should persuade us to avoid them.

By counting blessings of endurance (10-11)

Many who endured suffering were later rewarded for it.  The prophets furnish examples of this, and a list of such witnesses appears in Hebrews 11.  Perhaps one of the most detailed accounts is that of Job.  He endured the loss of all his possessions, his children, and his health, and God rewarded him with a double portion.  Believers, too, have been blessed with an eternal inheritance of "every spiritual blessing, in the heavenlies, in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 1).  Counting the blessings of endurance should motivate us to wait for the Judge.

By avoiding oaths (13)

Rather than cursing, this seems to refer to swearing in such a way as to bind yourself, by witnesses, to an agreement.  We should be honest enough that our yes means yes, and our no means no, so that it is not necessary for us to take oaths to insure the truth of our words.   

By praying for sinning brethren (14-20)

This passage calls for those who are enduring suffering to engage in prayer to God.  If you are suffering, pray.  If you are cheerful, sing praises to God.  If you are sick, call for the elders to pray for you.  In times of suffering, believers should pray according to their condition.  

Verse 14, about praying for the sick, has been the subject of some misunderstanding.  Many have understood it to mean that if a person is physically sick, prayer will insure his restoration to physical health.  One condition is that the prayer must be offered in faith, but even so, it would seem that this kind of restoration just doesn't always happen.

If you take this statement in view of the meaning of the word "sick" and the following context, though, another view seems more likely.  The word "sick" comes from roots meaning "not" "strong".  In the Gospels, this word is often used to describe those with physical problems.  But in the epistles, it often refers to those who are weak in their faith or conscience.  

In Romans 4:19, this word shows that Abraham's faith was not weak.  In Romans 6:19, it refers to those who are weak in the sense they yield their bodies as slaves to impurity.  Romans 8:3 uses the word to show that the Law was weak in the sense that it could not enable people to live in a way that pleases God.  Romans 14:1 explains how some are weak in their conscience, so it would be defiled if they exercised certain liberties in Christ.  1 Corinthians 8 gives the same meaning of the word.  Thus, "sick" can refer to those who are spiritually sick, in the sense they have a weak conscience, or are weak in faith with the result they live defeated lives, enslaved to sin.

The following context seems to support this view.  Right after instructing the "sick" to call for the elders to pray for them, it says that if the sick person has "committed sins, they will be forgiven him" (NAS).  This seems to refer to the kind of confession which restores believers to fellowship with God (cf. 1 John 1:9). 

Also, the following verse says, "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed."  (NAS).  The kind of healing this seems to refer to, then, is that which comes as a result of dealing with sin in one's life.   Also, verses 19-20 explain that if someone "strays from the truth, and someone turns him back (cf. Gal. 6:1ff.), that person has turned a sinner from the error of his way, and will "save his soul from death" (perhaps physical chastening, by God, to the point of death [cf. Heb. 12]). 

It's true that physical illness may accompany sin (cf. Psalm 6:1ff.), but the context seems to be talking about restoring brethren who are spiritually weak and lost their way in sin. As with Elijah, God answers the fervent prayer of a righteous man, and this seems to apply to those who pray for brethren who are spiritually weak and out of the way in sin.

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