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James 5:1-6: A Sober Warning to the Rich Print E-mail
Sunday, 17 May 2009

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What we do with our money is extremely important to God. Do not get me wrong, I know that God is more concerned with our hearts than He is with our checking account, but we must realize that what we do with the money in our checking account says a lot about our hearts. Jesus said: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Luke 12:34). Thus, if our treasure is in our bank account, then our heart is there as well. The Bible repeatedly warns us against making such an error by showing us the truth about riches and wealth. Our passage this morning from James is a prime example of such teaching.

As we noted last week, James is still drawing out some implications from his charge for us to humble ourselves before the Lord (see 4:10). The practical application is addressed this week to you rich (v. 1). Some see James as speaking to rich unbelievers who were landowners and were oppressing the Church, while others see this as an address to rich Christians.1 Either way, he offers a sober warning to the rich. Now, we might be tempted to be thinking at this point: ‘Well, if James is addressing the rich, then he is not talking to me this morning.’ Or maybe we are tempted to be thinking this: ‘That’s right, all those rich people out there need to know that they are going to get what’s coming to them in the end.’ Let me just caution this morning to not be so quick to assume that this passage does not apply to us. Granted, we may not be wealthy landowners who are oppressing our workers, but that does not mean that these principles have no application in our lives. I encourage us all, as we look at James’ warning together, to take a hard look at how we use our money. I am committed to only preaching on money when it comes up in the text, but since it obviously does this morning, let’s be committed to searching our own hearts and being honest with ourselves and with the Lord about how we handle our finances. So then, how does James warn us here and what are the implications of that warning for our lives?

First, the rich will not escape judgment (v. 1-3).

There is a tendency among the wealthy to be arrogant about what is to come (which is why so many have lost their riches as fast as they have made them). They tend to think: ‘As long as I have money, everything will be alright,’ which drives them on in their pursuit of even more money. Yet, the Bible makes it clear that money does not last and it cannot prepare us for the judgment to come. Look at how James says it in verse 1. As James has done before, he starts with an imperative: weep. This is the exact opposite of what the world says and what the rich do (at least, what we see them do). They do not weep, they do not howl, they do no mourn. No, they live it up. They have all they need so why should they weep? James tells them. You should weep because of the miseries that are coming upon you. Throughout the passage James keeps the idea of future judgment before his readers. He wants them to know that no matter how wealthy they are or how easy life appears to be now, it will not last.

He goes on to describe the fleeting nature of riches in verses 2-3a. Look at those with me. James uses the perfect tense here and is either pointing out the certainty of future destruction of wealth or the fact that it is already wearing out. Either way, the point is that riches will not last. Food will rot. Clothes will wear out. Gold and silver will corrode. It will either happen in this life or in the life to come, but either way, worldly riches cannot last. In fact, not only will they fade away, but James says that they will bear witness against the rich. Again this could be taken in one of two ways: either the corruption of what the rich have amassed for themselves will speak against their wastefulness in this life or it will speak out against them on the Day of judgment. In one sense both are true, even though I lean towards James speaking of future judgment in these verses.

It makes no sense to accumulate wealth that you cannot even use. Such waste cries out against the rich and James points out its futility in verse 3b. Look at that with me. A literal translation of this phrase would be: ‘You have stored up in the last days’. The verb implies the idea of storing up ‘treasure’ or ‘wealth’ and so most English translations correctly insert the word. Yet, the focus is the verb: ‘you have stored up,’ or you have laid up. James is showing the foolishness of amassing wealth. We are living in the last days and there is no reason to accumulate worldly riches. This age is passing and when it is done, the wealth of this age will be done with it. To amass riches is to miss the point, it fails to recognize the fleeting nature of our lives and the fact that we should use our money and resources for their intended purposes: namely to further the kingdom through the spread of the gospel. Thus, instead of storing up treasures for ourselves, we need to be using our money faithfully in the service of others, which leads to James’ next point.

Second, the rich will be judged for their unjust treatment of others (v. 4).

James will actually speak of the unjust treatment of others in the next few verses, but I want to focus on what he says in verse 4. Look at that with me. Apparently these rich landowners had not paid what they owed to those who worked their fields. Since the law favored the wealthy, there was not much that the workers could do. Yet, James reminds them that even though no one on earth seems to hear their cries, the Lord of hosts, the Lord who has legions at His command, He hears. Who will fight for the powerless, the poor, the widow, the mistreated, the abused? The Lord of hosts will and He will right all of the wrongs that have been done to them. James wants his readers to know that the Lord sees all and He will bring justice. Thus, we should make certain that we are just and merciful with our money and resources.

Third, the rich will be judged for their way of living (v. 5-6).

If these landowners were not paying their workers, then what were they doing with the money? They were spending it on themselves. Look at verses 5-6. They lived in luxury and in self-indulgence. They used their wealth to make their lives easier and more enjoyable. Instead of paying their workers what they owed them, they kept it for their own luxury. Instead of using their money to help others, they kept it for their own self-indulgence. By doing so, James says that they have condemned and even murdered the righteous person. These workers could not eat without their pay. You can only survive so long without food. Thus, their selfish living was actually condemning others and possibly even leading to their literal death.

Now I would venture to guess that none of us are withholding pay from people that would eventually lead to their death. Yet, what implication can we draw from James’ warning here? Could we not at least say that we should be using our money to help others instead of serving ourselves? Or could we not go even further and say that when we waste money on our luxuries and self-indulgences that someone else is paying for that? In other words, our money was not meant to be hoarded and spent on ourselves. It was not meant to be gathered in barns, or buried in the ground, or stored away in bank accounts. It was meant to be used. Calvin wrote: “God has not appointed gold for rust, nor garments for moths; on the contrary, he has designed them as aids and helps to human life.”2 Thus, it is not wrong to be rich necessarily, but it is wrong to live rich. Piper, in one of the better chapters I have read on stewardship of money, wrote: “The issue is not how much a person makes…The evil is in being deceived into thinking a $100,000 salary must be accompanied by a $100,000 lifestyle.”3 Of course, we must be careful, lest we make another law. Yet, as we said at the beginning, I would encourage us all to take a hard look at how we use our resources and specifically at how we spend our money. Are we spending our money in the service of others and in the service of the gospel? What sacrifices can we make to free up more money for those services?

My goal this morning is not necessarily to make us all feel guilty about how we spend our money. Yet, we cannot ignore what the Bible says. We cannot look around at all of the extravagant living in the United States and justify our own selfishness with the trite thought: ‘Well, at least I’m not living like they are.’ Instead of focusing on others, I am simply asking us to take a hard look at ourselves this morning. So then, let me close with a couple of thoughts.

First, as I have said before, you will never out-give the Lord. Every time you think about ‘your’ money and ‘your’ time and ‘your’ resources, begin by reminding yourself of ‘your’ Savior. Paul says (in another passage dealing with money): For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). Christ left glory, came to earth, suffered in my place, died on the cross, and was raised again from the dead. He did all of this so that His people might become rich. No matter where you are this morning financially, if you have repented of your sins and placed your faith in Christ, then you are rich in Him. Thus, may the glorious gospel of all that we have been given in Christ be ever on our minds as we consider how to spend our money.

Second, never forget that we are at war. Piper spends a great deal of the chapter I quoted from earlier on this idea. He encourages us to adopt a war-time mentality when it comes to our resources. How can we spend our time laying up treasures for ourselves when we are living in the last days? People are dying and going to Hell, having never heard the gospel, and we are doing all we can to make sure we have enough for a comfortable retirement? What a waste? Instead of wasting the resources that God has given us for the day of battle, we should be gladly using them in the service of the King. How much money could be freed up if we adopted this attitude and heeded James’ warning this morning? Do not waste your time trying to store up money for yourself in the last days. Rather, look for ways to use it in the service of others and the cause of Christ. Amen.

1 For more on this divide, see Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James (PNTC) (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), p. 209-210.
2 Quoted in Moo, p. 214.
3 John Piper, Desiring God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1996), p. 172-73.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Friday, 29 May 2009 )

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