Listen: Simon Manchester presents Christian Growth. For more in this series, see Lessons From James.
Our section of the Letter of James this morning is chapter 4 verses 1-12. We are actually in the 7th of a series of 9 sermons.
The passage which was just read to us (chapter 4:1-12) is full of treasure, and I hope that there will be one sentence from the section that you will take home. It may be a section of great comfort that you need; it may be a section – a verse of great challenge that you need.
Some people think that this section chapter 4:1-12 is the key to the letter because it is the part of the letter where James is calling on the people of God to come back to God which is of course where everything begins – when you come back to God. So much of the Christian life goes bad when we have distance between God and us when there is distance because of some sin or neglect. You know this as well as I do – Christian life becomes dry, unhappy, wretched, and meaningless but there is a great deal that goes well in the Christian life when we enjoy his fellowship and walk with him closely, grateful for his grace to us and putting away the foolish games that we play. When we come back to God, we come back in great humility, and he receives us with great affection.
So I want to begin by saying this morning that what I am going to say in the next few minutes may just come and go and you’ll say at the end ‘I can’t remember what he was talking about but something’! I want to say to you that these verses actually cannot be avoided. If there is to be any progress in the Christian life we are going to have to take James 4:1-12 seriously. The title that we have given the passage is Taking a Low Position based on verse 10 “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up”. In other words – go low before God and he will raise you or surrender everything and he will supply everything.
We Have to Go Lower in Order to Move Forward
I’ve often told the illustration before that if you are talking to somebody on George Street and they say I am planning to catch a train – you have to say to them ‘down the stairs, you must go down the stairs if you are to get on a train and go forward’. If the person says ‘I’m not going down the stairs’ – well you are not catching a train. And James says we must humble ourselves if there is to be any real progress.
So please turn with me to James 4:1-12. I am trying to imagine whether any School Principal at this time of year giving their message to the Assembly of pupils would ever say anything like James chapter 4.
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Can you imagine a Principal getting up and saying to all the girls or boys “I want you all to think very, very humbly of yourselves?”
Can you imagine some company director getting all the people of the business together and saying ‘friends the way forward is to bow very low before God – admit your failures and admit your weaknesses and He alone will provide the help that we need’. Incredible isn’t it – almost every Principal at this time of year and every CEO is saying something like ‘we are going to go forward and we are going to go up’. James says we are going to go forward by going down and he is right. If you want to deal with God and if you want to make headway with God it has to be by going low.
So we are going to look at this under two simple headings this morning. The first is verses 1-6 God’s Wake Up Call to the Church and the second in verses 7-12 (exactly the other half) is God’s Way of Fellowship for the Church.
God’s Wake-Up Call to the Church
First of all, God’s Wake Up Call to the Church – I want to remind you that this is a global letter written by James, the half brother of Jesus. He says in chapter 1 verse 1 it is written to the 12 scattered tribes. In other words, it is sent out to God’s people who live in the world. It is no longer sent to the Jews living in the Promised Land. This is now sent to the Christians living in the whole world. And we know from the last weeks that James is not interested in things that are shallow or passing but he is interested in things that are deep and forever.
We have seen his teaching on trouble – that’s often got a deep purpose. We have seen his teaching on temptation – that goes down to the depths of the heart. We have seen his plea for us to treat the Word deeply – not superficially to treat one another carefully – not superficially. We have seen his plea for works which are an expression of the heart and words which are an expression of the heart.
So James is interested in very deep things and the last verse that we saw last week in chapter 3 verse 18 says “Peacemakers that sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness”. And immediately in chapter 4 verse 1 (and remember there were none of these artificial chapter divisions that we have in our Bibles – they have been put in to try and help us but they are often not helpful) and you’ll see that in chapter 3 verse 18 “Sow in peace” and in chapter 4 verse 1 “Why do you have fights?” And there is a real link.
So here is James, leader in the church and he is sending a friendly rocket to the global church in every Century. And he writes like an Old Testament prophet. You know how the Old Testament prophets work – they would walk around the community of God’s people – they would observe some of the evils that are taking place – and they would recognise that these evils were symptomatic and that the real problem was that there was an unfaithfulness to God in their heart. And the Old Testament prophets would call God’s people to come back to him. And the language of the Old Testament prophets was often –
“Look at the way you treat one another”… “Look at this, look at this”… “You are ignoring each other”… “You are exploiting each other”.
And the prophet would say “this is because you have turned your back on God, your Covenant God, the one that you are meant to be married to and because you are in a covenant marriage with God.” The prophet would say “come back to him – you’ve allowed a third party to come in and he is angry and you are guilty”. And so the prophet would say “stop your unfaithfulness, stop your adultery to God, get rid of the idol, come back to him and he will welcome you and renew you and care for you”.
“But”, said the prophet “if you continue on with your spiritual unfaithfulness, if your spiritual adultery continues, God will take action – he will humble you”.
Now this is exactly what James is doing as a New Testament spokesman. His example is church fighting but his language is very much like an Old Testament prophet. And if you look at verse 1 you’ll see how he begins:
Fighting in the Church
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” In other words, says James, you attack one another and he uses some incredible words to describe this – he uses the word ‘fights’ although the word in the original is ‘wars’ and quarrels and then in verse 2 (I don’t know if you have ever noticed this when it was being read) ‘you kill and fight’. Now what do we do with that word ‘kill’? I mean we will really know won’t we if one of our 10 o’clock parishioners kills one of the other 10 o’clock parishioners!
And some of the commentators don’t know what to do with this and so they say- well the early church had a lot of rough people; a lot of wild people joined that early church. But surely friends, surely James is using metaphorical language.
Remember Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said that if you are angry with your brother, it’s like you are murdering – they both come from the same source. And James is making the same point – he says ‘I want you to realise that your fights come from the heart and the heart is capable of terrible, terrible abuse. – So many of our public problems have actually got private causes.
And therefore (verse 1) these fights come from your desires. Verse 2 – You want but you can’t get what you want and so you fight and you quarrel. Those of you who have seen little children in playgrounds or sandpits grabbing and saying “MINE” and refusing to hand something back can observe exactly the same process going on among adults – grabbing something and saying it’s mine, just slightly more sophisticated methods. That’s what James is talking about here. This is the issue that he is putting his finger on.
Now I suppose there are many things that James could have put his finger on. Remember how the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church – just one church – and there were problems there in the church of division and immorality and law suits and marriage troubles, food issues, speaking in tongues, unbelief in the resurrection – the Apostle Paul had his hands full. I suppose if James is writing to the global church, he could have had a long list of problems that go on in the local church but he decides to target this very general subject of division.
When you think about it, all the problems in the Corinthian church would have been marked by some kind of division or attack. It is good for us to see that the early church was not perfect because we often have romantic views of the early church as if it was all magic. If only we could go back it would all be so wonderful but it’s obviously not. And we could read James chapter 4 out, on any Sunday, in any church, in any town, in any city, of any country, in any decade, of any century – and it would be utterly meaningful.
Friends told me in this last week of a sad division in a church nearby and the week before I was told of a sad division in a church nearby. Here at St Thomas we’ve had our own share of tensions, troubles, divisions, and yet in general God has given to us a remarkable and much-appreciated unity. But as we read James chapter 4 and we hear about fights and quarrels, I hope that we would have the wisdom to bow our heads and say this is exactly appropriate. I am capable of this and this is the sort of thing which I am capable of producing or experiencing and we need God’s help. James is putting his finger on the symptom.
Then like an Old Testament prophet in the next verses from 4 on James peels back the barrier and shows what is happening with the heart and the heart is a heart of unfaithfulness. He describes the church in many ways as God’s bride and he says in verse 4, literally, you adulteresses. And if I was really brave and feisty this morning I would call this out in a booming voice to you “you adulteresses”. Some people I can think of in the church would love to call that out and do it in a strong booming voice!
What is going on, says James, behind these frictions, these power plays (verse 4) is there are people who actually have had an affair begun with the world. This doesn’t mean that James is criticizing us for appreciating the world or loving the creation we are meant to have an appreciation for the creation. But this text is describing the person who has made the world their priority, their master so when the choice comes between compromising on personal wants or the will of God; you know which way things are going to go? The will of God is going to be dropped for personal wants – that’s what James is getting at.
I remember Martyn Lloyd Jones told a story once of a farmer who had two cows. One was black and one was white and he dedicated the black cow to the family and he dedicated the white cow to God. After a little while the black cow died and so he quickly claimed the white cow for himself and the family and his wife said to him: “I thought you dedicated the white cow to God?” He said “No, I’ve always decided that the white cow would be mine and ours”.
And Lloyd Jones says in the simple illustration – this is the point isn’t it – that again and again for the man or woman of the world – when the tension or the choice comes between the will of God and the will of self,it is as if God will lose which is of course to say that the person will lose because to take the will of self over the will of God is to dreadfully lose.
The Jealousy of God
Well when God sees this take place in the human heart, it doesn’t leave him unaffected. He is not careless; he is totally involved with his people. He is a lover of yours and when he sees you (his bride and assuming that the Holy Spirit lives within you) the believer flirts with the world (verse 5 tells us) he gets intensely jealous. Verse 5 is a very complicated verse but I think in context it’s a reference to the Holy Spirit whom God places in his people who strive strongly for fellowship with God. When God puts his Holy Spirit into the believer the Holy Spirit opposes spiritual adultery and longs for spiritual faithfulness. So the Holy Spirit will fight when you are trying to settle with sin – God bless, God bless that particular fight that he would be at work to make sure that we don’t settle down with unfaithfulness just as every real loving spouse should oppose a third party and long for marital faithfulness and intimacy.
So jealousy from God is good when the rival is bad. Jealousy is bad when the rival is good. If you have a rival in your marriage, that’s a bad rival so your jealousy is good. If you have a rival on the sports field, well that’s a good rival and your jealousy is bad – you’ve just got to learn to live with it. But there is such a thing as good jealousy and God feels good jealousy for his people and he plants in his people his Holy Spirit and his Holy Spirit strives strenuously for intimacy and faithfulness.
So these 6 verses (chapter 4:1-6) they are wakeup call where James puts his finger on the problems or the symptoms or the behaviour and he reveals that behind this is a sort of betraying heart but it is not hopeless because if you look at verse 6 it says “He gives more grace”.
So whatever the challenge, or whatever the problem, or whatever the battle, or whatever the failure, or whatever the weakness, or whatever the stupidity – He gives more grace.
God’s Way of Fellowship
And that leads to the second point this morning – God’s Way of Fellowship – and again I want to say to you that if you want to have good fellowship with God you will need to take verse 7-12 seriously.
James sets out the way of fellowship in these verses and he uses very fresh language. And if I may put it like this – he is basically saying you are not able to have good fellowship with God if you refuse to go low. If you fold your arms and say God has to fit in with me – what God will do (verse 6) he will oppose you. He will oppose you, he will stop communicating, he will stop supporting, he will stop blessing because he is going to get you to return. But if you are willing to humble yourself (as it says in verse 6) he will give incredible grace.
And in the next verses he sets out what I think are some reasonable steps to having good fellowship with God. I hope you’ll remember these and I hope you’ll take them away and I hope you’ll remember these three simple steps – 4:7 – 4:8 – 4:9 – I am not suggesting this is just tick the box, tick the box and tick the box but I am saying to you that if you take these three seriously, God will definitely take them seriously and bless you.
Verse 7 – Make your choice to submit to God. Say to him I don’t want to play any more games, no more compromises, no more secrets and say to the devil “LEAVE” I am not going to compromise anymore – The devil will flee because he has nothing to say to the decisive Christian.
Verse 8 – Come near to God and he will come near to you. Surely one of the greatest New Testament promises – Come near to God and he will come near to you. Can you picture the Prodigal Son coming up the path, head bowed, dejected, devastated, leading back to the farm house and you see the father coming near, running down the path to embrace and welcome his son. The son is coming near; the father is coming near, come near and he will come near.
Verse 8 – also says we should wash and purify ourselves. This doesn’t mean friends you have to remove your guilt. You can’t remove your guilt. It’s only Jesus who can remove our guilt by giving us forgiveness based on his death on the cross. But what James means by ‘wash yourself and purify yourself’ is get rid of any deceit, any pretence, any double dealing.
Verse 9 – and this is incredible language – grieve, mourn, wail, change your laughing to mourning, change your joy to gloom. You wonder if some churches could do with a dose of 4:9. I mean we could do with a dose of many verses but some churches could do with a dose of 4:9. You remember in the Beatitudes; Jesus said “blessed are those who mourn”.
I can’t think there is anything more unattractive, more deadly than shallow repentance or non-repentance. Can you imagine the Prodigal Son coming back up the path shaking hands with the father and then saying to him?
“Well in the end you know I had to go, life had got pretty dull and I really had to go and spread my wings. And Dad, it’s been tough for me so get a grip on yourself, I’ve had a tough time and I guess we’ve all learned a few good lessons haven’t we? So what about if we just put all this behind us and act as if nothing happened”. Well that’s an ugly conversation isn’t it? An ugly and unattractive and unhelpful conversation but the conversation that he did have “Father I’ve sinned before you and heaven and I am no longer worthy to be called your son – welcome me back as one of your servants” – that is a beautiful prayer. His father recognised immediately the humility and the honesty and embraced his son.
Repentance Brings us Closer to God
I want to read to you this morning just a few paragraphs from a new book which has come out called The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. This is written by a lady who was Professor of English in a New York University. She was a committed lesbian and a leading feminist and she became a Christian around the year 2000 through the patient witness of a Pastor. She eventually moved to Pennsylvania and she started going to a brand new church as a Christian and she describes going into the church and experiencing a brand new level of repentance.
You have to imagine that you have come to church this morning and you have been a Christian for a while and you have repented for a few times already and something else takes place.
She says: “As I sat in the folding chair and listen to Bruce preach I knew I had never heard anything like this – direct, painfully honest and unapologetically bold. There was no question in my mind and as the tears started to run down my face that I had just barely started on the journey of my repentance. And here I had thought I had repented in full and that my pain was a result of someone’s sin – Hah! This sermon hit me across the face. I was suffering from my own sin, from the pride that was rising high in my heart and from my false sense of entitlement and deserved goods. Here I had spent the summer feeling and acting like some innocent victim of a random crime – how false – I was guilty. After the benediction, which I sorely needed, I folded myself from my chair and I walked to the door. I was too wiped out to talk to people or thank the Pastor the usual niceties of church were completely lost to me. I was drenched with sweat and I had used up all my Kleenex. I walked the two blocks to my apartment slowly and gingerly as if injured. Never in all my life had I a spiritual experience like this. I felt like I had just come as close as I had ever to understanding the living Jesus. I had much more sin, layers of sin from which to repent. I would learn how to grieve through repentance without feigning false innocence. Even when faced with the blinding sting of someone else’s sin, it really is not someone else’s sin that can hurt us – it is our own festering sin that takes the guise of innocence that will be the undoing of us all.”
I must say I read that – it’s an incredibly powerful and well written description of repentance. I read it and I thought to myself – I would love more of that. I would love to be a more repentant person. The end result (as she says) is a closer fellowship with Jesus.
So when James writes chapter 4 to us, he is not a sadist saying I want you to think badly of yourself or I want you to be crushed or I want you to be unhappy unnecessarily – he is deeply affectionate towards us and he wants us to take that precious step of humility towards God expressing exactly how we are and enjoying the real depths of intimacy with Jesus without which humility very little of it takes place – and God, we read, gives grace and he will come near.
So the first step James sets out is submitting to God. The second step is coming near to Him (and I presume this means setting aside some time in prayer). And friends, let me says this a little bit more loudly – YOU’VE GOT TIME TO PRAY!!
The average Australian is spending three hours [a day] on the internet. You’ve got time to pray. Some of you pray so little your prayers are like pre-school prayers. It’s time for you to become an adult with your prayers.
Draw near to God. Pray. Give time to prayer. Grow up in prayerfulness.
Mourning Over Our Sin
The third thing he says is mourn over your sin. This will just make you appreciate Jesus more. And then in verse 10, “Humble yourselves and He will lift you up”.
Well the last two verses come back to the subject of returning to the fellowship. He says, if you attack a fellow Christian with your words by slander or being judgmental, you are setting yourself over the Will of God, the Word of God and the law of God. If you refuse to love somebody then you take the position of lawgiver and judge – and that’s God’s position.
So here is the wakeup call from James chapter 4. It’s very wonderful that when symptoms begin to appear which reveal that there is an unfaithful heart, but James says there is a way back to fellowship with God – there is a road back which was opened by the Lord Jesus on the first Good Friday 2000 years ago, so that you and I can go back and have the best fellowship in the world. And the way to do it is to submit to Him, to draw near to Him, to mourn over sin and to humble ourselves and we will find that when we do this and go back, we will receive more than we have ever found by keeping distance with God.
An old hymn written by Annie Flint called “He Giveth More Grace” – and it finishes with these words:
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power has no boundary known unto men.
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus,
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.