I was driving our twin six-year-old boys to school last week when one of the guys asked, out of the blue, “Dad, do you know what year Jesus is coming back?”
I told him that I did not know the year, and that even Jesus himself, when he was on earth, said that he didn’t know the exact time when he would be coming back, but only the Father did (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32). And if anyone says he knows, that person is false.
Then I said that even though I don’t know what year Jesus is coming back, what I do know that his coming is near. And by “near,” I mean what the New Testament means when it says his coming is near — that there’s now nothing else that must happen first before Jesus can come back. After his perfect life, sacrificial death for us, resurrection from the grave, and ascension to heaven (to pour out his Spirit on us), the next major step in history is his return. There is no unfulfilled list of items that must happen first. What the Bible promises will happen at the end is already happening around the world today, and has been happening since the earliest days of the church. His coming is the next big thing. That’s what the New Testament means when it says his return is near:
Romans 13:12: “The night is far gone; the day is at hand” [literally, “the day has drawn near”].
Hebrews 10:25: “[Do not neglect] to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourag[e] one another, and all the more as (because) you see the Day (already) drawing near.”
1 Peter 4:7: “The end of all things is at hand” [“has drawn near”].
James 5:8 (in our passage today): “the coming of the Lord is at hand” [literally, “has drawn near”].
Are We Living in the End Times?
I was a teenager in the late 90s when I remember a book appearing at our local bookstore with the title Are We Living in the End Times? I remember wondering, Are we? My interest was piqued; I wanted to get that book and read it and answer the question for myself whether we are living in the last days. Well, I did get the book, and I was very disappointed. It was very speculative, and all about current political events, and it wasn’t nearly as convincing as I’d hope it would be. But it wasn’t too long until I realized that the Bible is very clear about whether we are living in the last days.
First, as early as Acts chapter 2, just after Jesus has ascended to heaven and poured out his Spirit on his disciples, Peter declares that the “last days” prophecy from Joel 2 is being fulfilled: “In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17).
Then the apostle Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:1, “Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” And the times of difficulty he was talking about were already happening for his readers. He was saying, “Don’t be surprised; these are the last days, remember?” And 2 Peter 3:3 makes a similar assumption and gives a similar reminder: “scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.”
But perhaps most prominent, and unmistakable, of all is the first two verses of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”
Jews and Christians view history as linear. It is going somewhere. It had a beginning, and it will have an ending. There were first days, there were the days of the patriarchs and the many seasons in the history of Israel, and there were the days Jesus walked the earth. And since then we have been in the last days. What we don’t know is how long this present season of history will last. What we do know is that this present season of history, which began two thousand years ago with the early church, is the last one until Jesus comes. The next major, literally “epoch-making” event to come is not some especially great persecution (as if Christians haven’t been persecuted for the last two thousand years and aren’t being persecuted in horrible ways around the world today); and it’s not God intervening to rapture Christians from being persecuted.
The next big step is that Jesus coming back. That’s what the New Testament means, fundamentally, when it says his return is “near” or “at hand.” It’s not about shortness of time as we configure it, but about nearness in history as God crafts it. The coming of Christ is near. We are living in the last days.
Which bring us to our passage in James and the tragedy of verses 1–6, and perhaps the most ironic and tragic line of all: Verse 3: “You have laid up treasure in the last days.”
Fire in Verses 1–6
This is now the third passage we’ve come to in James that mentions “the rich,” and James has fire in his eyes. First we saw James’s shot across the bow in 1:9–11:
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
Then in chapter 2, the church is warned not to show partiality to the rich. 2:5–7:
Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
The rich (apparently exploitive landlords) are the ones oppressing the “lowly brothers” of the church. The rich drag them into court. Perhaps the most significant of the “various trials” this church faces is such oppression from this rich.
Then it all comes to a head in chapter 5, and James doesn’t mix any words. Look with me at verses 1–6:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
James is very clear that “the rich” he addresses here are not fellow believers. Last week’s passage (4:13–17) seems to be directed to “overly self-confident Christian businesspeople,” but now a new group is addressed in 5:1–6. The previous section was an exhortation to Christians; this new section is a prophetic denouncement of eternal judgment.
- Verse 1: “weep and howl” are responses of those being judged; “miseries” here seems not to be misery (singular) in this life, but the miseries (plural) which are coming at the final judgment
- Verse 3: “eat your flesh like fire” implies eternal judgment in hell
- Verse 4: “fraud” is an overtly immoral action never condoned as Christian
- Verse 5: “you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” implies is that they will be slaughtered
- Verse 6: “you have murdered the righteous” (more on this below)
- James says brothers four times in verses 7–12; none in verses 1–6.
- James had said in 2:7 that they “blaspheme the honorable name.”
So “the rich” here in verses 1–6 are not Christians. The question we might ask, then, is this: Since this passage is directed at non-Christians, is the believing community off the hook? Why does James include this section to a group of people who aren’t even reading this letter written to Christians?
First of all, Christians are not off the hook, and we need to hear these judgments leveled against the unrighteous rich to stem the tide of greed in our own hearts. We need these strong words, and the words of Jesus that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom.
There are three particular charges against the rich that we should hear and watch in our own hearts. The two overt ones are fraud and murder: fraud (deliberate deception for unjust gain) because they have not given their laborers a just wage, and murder, not literal murder, because they have taken away the very livelihoods of less fortunate people through suing them in court (verse 6, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person”). But the most devastating charge, because it is so relevant for the believing community, and especially for us today in the wealth and possessions we live with in America, is selfishness, plain and simple and deadly. Instead of using their money and possessions to bless others, they have hoarded them. “You have laid up treasure in the last days.” “You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.”
What, then, should a Christian with money do? Not lay up treasure here and now — in the last days, with Jesus’s coming being near — but leverage our riches into good works and acts of love to meet real needs. Most (if not all) of us in this room, relative to human history and the rest of the world, are indeed rich. And so, 1 Timothy 6:17–19 is a very important passage for us:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
Why Do the Righteous Not Resist?
One more question here before we get into the main part of the passage in verses 7–12: Why do the righteous not resist? Verse 6 can be hard for us to swallow: The rich “have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.” Wouldn’t the righteous thing to do be to resist?
The simple answer why the righteous here do not resist (other than having no realistic recourse over their oppressors) is because they are leaving it to “the Lord of hosts” (verse 4), the king of heaven’s armies, to take revenge. The line “he does not resist you,” hanging as the end of this section, is ominous, because it means the righteous are leaving place for God’s vengeance. Instead of spending the opportunity for revenge on their own small powers, they are leaving place for omnipotence. The righteous trust in something better than human revenge: they wait for divine judgment. Like Romans 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
Be careful not to equate godliness or righteousness with resisting. It is powerful and righteous, and perhaps makes the loudest statement, to “leave it to the wrath of God.” This is the link, then, with the main part of the passage that follows in verses 7–12.
How to Wait for Jesus (verses 7–11)
The “therefore” in verse 7 connects the call to patience with verses 1–6. The righteous do not resist; therefore, be patient until the coming of the Lord. James now encourages his readers, who are “righteous” and do not resist the rich, but leave room for God’s vengeance when the Lord comes with his armies, to be patient. So, don’t miss the context here. It is not simply a call to patience, but as verse 10 says, “suffering and patience.” These early Christians are living hard lives, under injustice and oppression. They are longing for things to be set right. And into this context, James tells them how to wait for Jesus. The harder our lives are, the more sense these will make to us. They are amazingly relevant for today. Let’s finish with three way to wait for Jesus.
1. Strengthen Your Hearts (Verses 7–8)
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Clearly the main charge is to “be patient” (twice in verses 7 and 8). But after James says “be patient” for the second time, he says it in another way that it really helpful: “Establish your hearts,” or literally, “strengthen your hearts.” This way of saying it not only reinforces patience, but also clues us into how to go about being patient. Patience comes from somewhere, from a strong heart.
Strengthen our hearts for what? Strength is for resistance — not external resistance to the oppressors, but internal strength to endure, to hold fast to the faith when God’s timing feels inconvenient, even painful. Why doesn’t he break in and change things? We pray for relief, but find little. We labor, but see little or no fruit. It is not long before there is the temptation to just give in and stop going against the grain. But this is the time to do heart-work.
But “establish your hearts” means to stand firm, to fortify yourself; it means “firm adherence to the faith in the midst of temptations and trials” (Moo). It’s a charge to take action to keep ourselves, and the most important part of ourselves, going in the right direction, against the tides.
I find it very significant that explicitly in view is the heart. Note how important the heart is here in James 5. Contrast the rich who have “fattened their hearts” in verse 5 with the righteous who are to “strengthen their hearts.”
How do we strengthen our hearts? It’s not something you can do all at once, but it’s by building patterns and habits into our lives that reinforce truth and give us ongoing access to God’s grace. One way to summarize it would be hearing God’s voice (in his word), having his ear (in prayer), and belonging to his body (in the church). Another summary might be world, word, work, and worship. See him in his world, know him through his word, receive grace through his work in others, and be shaped by him and for him as we worship together. And we build these into our lives as rhythms and habits to strengthen our hearts because the coming of the Lord is near. As we saw earlier, his coming literally “has come near.” He could come anytime. Don’t let your heart go. Don’t let it get cold and hard. Don’t ever take time off from the Christian life. Suffering is not an excuse to let things go.
So, establish your hearts is the positive pursuit, a call to keep the heart; James then follows with a surprising negative to avoid.
2. Do Not Complain (Verse 9)
We might think that this poor community, being unfairly treated by rich landlords, would complain to God, or complain about their oppressors. But look at verse 9.
Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. This is such an important word for us to hear, because all sinful humans, Christians included, find it so easy to complain about those closest to us: in our homes and in the household of faith.
And the word James has for this believing community, under oppression, as they wait for Jesus to come provide relief, right alongside be patient and establish your hearts, is “don’t grumble against each other.”
Grumbling may seem small to us, but it is a big deal. It undermines the church’s witness and undermines the honor of her Lord and love for each other. And he, the Judge, is coming to reckon with those who are abusing the church. So stick together, and don’t let the pressure from the outside cause dissention within, and then you end up under judgment just like your enemies. In every society, club, and association on the planet it is inevitable that people will eventually grumble against one another. It’s expected and accepted. However, in the church, our expectations should be different.
Let Your Yes Be Yes
This is not the first time James has made it clear how much our words matter. The importance of our speech connects verse 9 with verse 12:
But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
How does verse 12 relate to the rest of the passage? Those who take oaths often do so in dire straights. Whether it’s oaths with creditors to get out of poverty, or making an oath to God of what they will do for him if he gets them out of poverty.
James, like Jesus (in Matthew 5:34–37) is not telling us not to take any official legal oaths when asked, but not to make a practice of adding voluntary oaths to our speech (“I swear to God . . .”) because we’re not trustworthy, or are trying to weasel out of something. We should aim to be people of such integrity that others can trust our simple Yes and No.
So, how do we wait for Jesus? First, establish your heart; second, do not complain against each other, and finally . . .
3. Go Deep with God (Verses 10–11)
As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
This phrase “the purpose of the Lord” is such a refreshingly pointed and precious phrase. God has a purpose in Job’s suffering, and it was for Job was to see more of himself. Job needed to know God better. God’s great purpose in Job’s trials was Job going deeper with God. God’s purpose was not something for Job to do, but to see about God.
And so also in our suffering, God has a purpose, and we get ready for eternity by goig deep with God now.
How amazing that the lesson of Job and all the prophets is that God is compassionate and merciful! This is who he is. He is not only compassionate and merciful; he is more than just that; but this is who he is deep down. This is his heart. This is who he’s showing himself to be in what he’s doing for his people in all the ups and downs of history, in all the blessings and hardships, in all their so-called fortunes and misfortunes — he is giving his people the most valuable, precious gift possible: himself, to see who he really is and enjoy him.
In the brightest of days and darkest of times, when his people seem to be on top and when they are the ones who are oppressed and beat down, God is orchestrating epochs and crafting human history, in all its details, in such a way that his people will learn this precious reality, in more depth and sweetness, that he is compassionate and merciful.
When you go deep with God, what you find again and again, in new layers and textures of depths, is that he is compassionate and merciful. This is our God. And this is one of the great privileges and blessings of life’s more difficult circumstances. This is where we get to know him best.
To the Table
Every Sunday we come to this Table and repeat the words of Jesus and the commentary of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. We say, as Jesus said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (verse 24), and, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (verse 25). And then we add Paul’s commentary in verse 26: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
And when we say “until he comes,” we mean his coming is near. We are living in the last days. The Judge is standing at the door. The Lord of heaven’s armies “is near, at the very gates” (Matthew 24:33). As we eat this bread together and drink this cup together, we say, “God, make us the kind of people who live in light of the nearness of your Son’s return. Strengthen our hearts and make us patient in suffering. Keep us from complaining against each other. And Father, cause us to go deeper with you, as we taste more of your compassion and mercy toward us.