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“The Fact That There is an End”

James 4:11-5:6
Bob DeGray
March 11, 2001

Key Sentence

Does the fact that there is an end make a difference?


I. means I don’t judge. (James 4:11-12)
II. means I don’t presume (James 4:13-17)
III. means I don’t hoard (James 5:1-6)


        In almost every sporting event the last few minutes are the most exciting. You’ve all seen football teams that play like mush for 58 minutes, but as the game’s end approaches they suddenly wake up and in the last two minutes they’re awesome. For me as a teenager in the 70s no team was more awesome than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Terry Bradshaw. Jack Lambert. Franco Harris. "Mean Joe" Green. Lynn Swann. The list of greats on those Steeler teams goes on and on. And they always seemed to win in the last two minutes. Terry Bradshaw was the ultimate big play quarterback and receivers like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth could be counted on to catch in the fourth quarter what they dropped in the first. The Steelers played better when they knew the end was coming.

        The fact that there is an end to the game of our lives, should affect the way we play too. Samuel Johnson, in Boswell’s famous biography, said “There is nothing like a hanging in the morning to clear a man's thoughts. Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The fact that there is an end should change the way we go about living at this moment.

        In the last part of James 4 and the opening of chapter 5, James calls his readers to certain attitudes that can only be maintained if we remember that there is an end. He won’t mention the second coming of Jesus until next week, but the fact of the end colors every instruction he gives here. Does the fact that there is an end make a difference? For you and me, in the way we deal with others, the way we make choices, the way we spend our money, does the fact that there is an end make a difference?

The fact that there is an end . . .
I. means I don’t judge. (James 4:11-12)

        In James 4:11 and 12, the fact that there is an end means that I don’t judge others, for I myself will be judged. James 4:11 Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you--who are you to judge your neighbor?

        The New International Version uses ‘slander’ to translate a Greek word which literally means ‘speak against’. Other versions use broader terms like don’t ‘speak evil’ of your brothers, don’t ‘speak against’ them. We can speak against someone not just by spreading false information about them - slander - but by maliciously sharing true information about them. We can speak evil by name calling in malice or anger. We can speak evil by silence, by not defending someone when others speak. We can speak evil of someone by tone of voice even when our words are neutral. It’s easy, because of the treachery of the tongue, to do harm and to speak evil.

        This violates the law of love. James says that when we speak against our brothers or judge them we speak against the law and judge it. Remember that in this letter James has taught us that the law is not just the Old Testament law, but is a wider body of teaching, focused especially on the commands of Jesus. It is ‘the law of love’ which he calls the perfect law and the law that gives freedom. But to speak evil of and to be judgmental of your brother or sister in Christ is not ‘loving your neighbor as yourself.’ And a failure to act out this law of love is an implicit denial of the law’s authority. However orthodox our view of God’s word, a failure to really do it says to the world that we do not in fact put much store by it. James wants Christians to be characterized not by head knowledge but by heart attitude and behavior.

        So we should not speak evil of each other and should not judge or condemn one another. This doesn’t mean Christians are never to make judgments about others or discern what is right and wrong. Even when Jesus teaches ‘do not judge or you too will be judged,’ he does so in the context of directing people to get the logs out of their own eyes before trying to help their brother with the splinter in his. Jesus doesn’t forbid judgment: he commands self-examination. Only after we’ve examined ourselves and honestly confessed our sins are we ready to speak the truth in love to our neighbor.

        If, on the other hand, we have not examined our own lives, and are continuing to sin against the law of God and the teaching of Jesus, then whenever we point the finger at another person we are hypocrites. We place ourselves above the law and place others under it. We’re making the ‘me’ exception. My circumstances are different, my heart attitude is different, I can’t help myself, my sin can be explained and justified. If we place ourselves above authority, outside accountability, and then use that platform to judge, we have put ourselves in a place that only God can occupy. Verse 12: “There is only one lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor.”

        God is the one who gave the law, fashioned it to serve fallen man, and he is the one who judges according to the law. Further, he is the one who can carry out his judgment. Even if we position ourselves as judges, there is no way we can administer justice. We cannot redeem the fallen, nor can we damn the condemned. God alone can do these things. Our task is to examine ourselves, and to see if we are living by the law of love and the words of Jesus. We may then be called to discern sin and deal with it in others, but in love, knowing that ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’

        Notice that if God is Lawgiver and Judge that implies there is judgment. The one qualified to judge is going to judge, and that should give us pause. It should warn us that we need to be sure of our own salvation. Are we, as James said, ‘believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.’ It is only through faith in him, trusting that what he did on the cross he did for you, that you are able to escape the judgment that leads to death and eternal separation. In Jesus we find forgiveness, life, and eternity with God. The fact that there is a judgment should also cause us to keep short accounts - to examine ourselves, as James has implied, and to confess our sin, and receive forgiveness. And the fact that we will all be judged by the same judge should give us humility in dealing with others. We are not God to judge anyone - we are fellow travelers simply trying to point out to others how to escape the coming storm, and live.

The fact that there is an end . . .
II. means I don’t presume (James 4:13-17)

        The fact that there is an end - judgment -means I don’t judge. The fact that there is an end also means I don’t presume on God. Listen to James 4:13 to 17 Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." 14Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." 16As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. 17Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.

        Did you know there is a sin called presumption? When we try to impose our will on God, when we presume our plans are just as good as his plans, we sin. James talks to businessmen who are deliberate and self-confident planners. They decide where they will go, when they will go, how long they will stay, and they are sure they will gain profit from their venture. Their focus is on what they will do to achieve financial gain. This presumption sounds strangely contemporary, but in fact business and trade in the Roman empire was every bit as developed and competitive as our own.

        It is not, however, the desire to make a profit James condemns. He is concerned about the exclusively this-worldly context in which the plans are made. Some of these readers had reverted to self-made self-assured self-centeredness that relied on their personal efforts and not on God’s plans. They lived as if this world was all there is. If they prayed it wasn’t to ask what they should do, but to get God to bless their big plans.

        But are we very much different than they? I’m afraid it’s very possible for Christians in any age to live without real reference to God’s will, so that many attend church, marry, decide what work to do, have children, buy and sell homes and cars, manage portfolios and live lives without submission to Him. This practical atheism is pure presumption. Verse 14: “You don’t even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You’re a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

        James reminds us of the uncertainty and brevity of our lives. You’ve all probably had an experience like one I had in college, driving back from Urbana with several other students. We hit a patch of black ice that caused our car to spin around and around, across the road and back, and finally onto the right shoulder before stopping in a ditch. And not only our car, but several cars near us also spun and slid and came to rest. Yet by the hand of God none of the cars touched each other. At that moment the possibility that life was brief was brought home to a few college students.

        James says: “you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. You are like a mist.” The Scriptures are full of images like this which convey the brevity and uncertainty of life. Job laments that “My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle and they come to an end without hope.” Zip; zip; back and forth. He says “Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath.” In; out; gone. David knew the same things. Psalm 39: “You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. 6Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.” Psalm 102:11 “My days are like the evening shadow” - As brief as the twilight before darkness.

        Jesus teaches the same truth, and James is clearly tuned in to His teaching. In Luke 12 Jesus teaches in a parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.' Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." ' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'

        Our lives are but a mist. Are you convinced of the brevity and uncertainty of life? If so, you will not presume to tell God what you’re doing tomorrow. You will submit to His will. Verse 15: “Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." The Puritans and other older writers had the habit of putting Latin phrases and abbreviations in their work. One that I’ve seen in Puritan writings is the abbreviation DV. It was only when I read commentaries on this verse that I found out that those two letters stand for the Latin phrase ‘deo volante’ which means ‘if God wills.’ The Puritans knew that whatever their plans were, they would only happen if God willed. We don’t write in those two letters, but we ought to have the same thoughts.‘If God wills’ should be the echo of our hearts in all our choices: the choice of a school, of a career, of a life partner, of a church, of our everyday activities. This is the refrain of a submissive heart, for only one who has given their life over to God can trust his will in day-to-day matters.
        So James has told us we must not presume on God or on his will. Why? Because there is an end. Life is uncertain and brief. Will we use it to pursue our selfish desires, saving service of God for a time when it’s more convenient? Will we strive after gain and security at the risk of being cut off, like the rich fool, in our selfishness? Or will we submit our time, our energy, our skills and our talents to God’s will?

        What causes presumption anyway? James says it is pride. There is this very American attitude that I have to make it on my own. I need to be a ‘self made man’. Those who are ‘self made men’ have long been admired in our culture and have been well received when they boast about their humble roots and their achievements. There has hardly been a U. S. President since Lincoln who has not portrayed himself this way - including George W. Bush. As an American ideal this may be OK, but James tells us that as an attitude toward God it is evil. It is giving ourselves credit for what God has done, putting us in the place only He can fill. It is the sin of presumption.

        Verse 17 may be a proverbial truth James has chosen as a summary of what he has said: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James has given many ethical commands in this letter, some negative: ‘don’t do this, don’t do this’, and others positive, about our speech, attitudes and relationships. This says that we should not just avoid the negative, but we should do the positive things. If you know in a specific circumstance what is right or what fulfills the law of love, and you don’t do it, you have sinned just as surely as if you had murdered.

The fact that there is an end . . .
III. means I don’t hoard (James 5:1-6)

        Since I am aware that there is an end, I will not judge. Since I am aware that there is an end, I well not presume to put my own desires ahead of God’s will. And finally, since I am aware that there is an end, I will not hoard. James 5:1 to 6: Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.

James has used some very strong language in this letter, but this is the strongest yet. The reason, I believe, is that he has switched to a prophetic approach and is addressing nonbelievers rather than the Christians to whom the letter is written. This seems strange until you recognize that many Old Testament prophecies, written to Israel or Judah, do the same thing, addressing whole nations of unbelievers in their sins. The rich people pictured are wealthy landowners who are concerned only about how to gain more profit. James announces the condemnation of these rich land holders and justifies it on the grounds of their selfish, sinful, and destructive accumulation of wealth. He warns them to weep and howl because of the misery coming upon them. This misery is not likely in this life, but is eternal, the punishment and wrath God will send on the day of judgment. The rich are not condemned because of wealth alone, but because of their misuse of it. It is their sinful use of what God has given, that has caused their wealth to rot and to corrode and be diseased, just as a dad’s good tool will rust and corrode when a child misuses it, leaves it in the rain.

        But why is wealth so often misused? The reason is that material possessions tend to focus one’s thoughts and interests on the world only. Wealth gradually enslaves those who are attached to it and perverts their values. We are possessed by our possessions.

        Jesus says “the worries of his life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke out the word.” Wealth corrodes, and has a corroding affect on us: “Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.” The first symptom of wealth’s corrosive power is hoarding. “You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” The last days are now, the time after Jesus’ resurrection and before his return. These days require a new kind of ethics in which people are expected to look at their lives and their possessions and their time in a new way. No longer are we owners of these things, but in the last days we are stewards managing till the master returns. So to hoard wealth for ourselves is sinful and at times tragic.

        Bertha Adams was 71 years old. She died alone in West Palm Beach, Florida on Easter Sunday, 1976. The coroner’s report read: “cause of death... malnutrition.” When state authorities did a preliminary investigation of her home, they found a veritable “pigpen...the biggest mess you can imagine.” One seasoned inspector declared it was the worst he’d ever seen. The pitiable woman had begged food from neighbors and got what clothes she had from the Salvation Army. From all appearances she was a pennyless recluse, a pitiful and forgotten widow. But such was not the case.

        Amid the jumble of her disheveled belongings, the keys were found to two safe deposit boxes at local banks. The first box contained over 700 AT&T stock certificates, plus hundreds of other certificates, bonds and securities, not to mention a stash of cash amounting to nearly $200,000. The second box had no certificates, only more cash – $600,000 to be exact. The worth of both boxes was well over $1 million. Bertha Adams hoarded what she had until she became insanely unable to spend it.

        But at least she did no harm to others with her wealth. The rich people addressed by James have done great harm with theirs. First they have cheated and deprived those who work for them. They have grown rich on the backs of the poor. James says the wages they failed to pay the workmen cry out against them. Further, they withheld those wages just at the time of harvest, when last year’s crops had long since been consumed and hunger was at its peak. The barns of the rich men were full of grain, and the bellies of the workers were empty. But there is judgment for sin. James says the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty, the Lord Sabaoth. The prophet James warns these rich, corrupt and sinful men: God will not allow this perverse use of wealth, and depraved use of power to go unpunished.

        James says they have lived on earth in luxury and self indulgence. Isn’t this the way of the rich throughout history? We remember the Nazi regime for its callous destruction of human life. But we sometimes forget that these fat, rich Germans exploited and stole every drop of wealth from their victims before killing them. In Auschwitz the Jews were not even given the dignity of dying clothed, but were stripped naked so their clothing could be taken to warehouses and used to make ammunition, while their possessions were systematically gathered, rifled and banked. There is perhaps no more grievous sin to the heart of God than this exploitation. And don’t blame the Germans: James identified this universal depravity a millennium earlier: these rich had fattened themselves in the day of slaughter. Some commentators take day of slaughter as referring to anytime the poor suffer while the rich are indulging themselves. Others point out that the day of slaughter is one of the descriptions of ‘that day’, the day of the Lord, the final judgment of the end times. In any trouble, but especially in that time, the rich can be counted on to look out for themselves.

        Finally James accuses these rich sinners of murder. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. It is possible that these deaths of the innocent were consequential. They murdered them and killed them by withholding the wages, and by withholding the food. It is also possible and perhaps more likely that these were literal murders. This is supported by the James’ use of a judicial term to indicate that these rich as judges condemned the poor to death, perhaps perverting the legal processes to accumulate their meager properties.

        Given that this fiery condemnation is a prophetic word to the rich who exploited James’ readers, and thus the rich of all ages, how do we as Christians apply it? I believe there are two key thoughts here, both found in the phrase “you have hoarded wealth in the last days.” The first thought is that these are still the last days. Jesus has not yet come, and while we wait the ethics of last days living are even more important for us as believers than for unbelievers. We must take seriously the implications of these words to the rich, and ask ourselves whether we have hoarded our wealth.

        What would this hoarding look like? Simply put, it would be keeping for ourselves money and resources that God intended us to use for his work and in accordance with his heart for people. Far too often we succumb to the desire to use what God has given for our own benefit. We put our needs first, and even our wants and wishes first, and we end up with nothing leftover to participate in God’s incredible works. If our retirement savings come first, if spending on luxuries comes first, and if God and his purposes come second or third or last, then we are hoarding wealth. We are not being stewards of his resources, but are trying to behave like owners.

        Has the fact that there is an end coming made a difference in your life? Has the fact that there is a judgment, that life is brief, that these are the last days made a difference? Does the difference show up in self examination when you feel like judging, in submission to God’s will when you make life choices, and in generosity when you could hoard God’s resources. The fact that there is an end must make a difference.