Monday, March 14, 2016

Embrace Eternal Perspectives


James 1:9-12     
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. 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. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

James by the authority of God, has already to us that joy ought to be the normal experience of every Christian regardless of his earthly circumstances. This joy is informed by the unchanging character of the goodness of God. Some of you have been in the Prosperity Gospel[1] circles long enough. So you may have imbibed their common philosophy that material prosperity and happiness sleep on the same bed with a Christian always. They also confidently assert that poverty and misery are Siamese twins, which a believer, who is a child of God must never have. That is, it is not the will of God for his children to suffer sickness or poverty. They must always be healthy, wealthy and prosperous here on earth. Is this true? This letter shows that it is in will and purpose of God to send trials our way so that we may be perfect and complete lacking in nothing (v.4). As if this is not enough, James tells us again that he is blessed who goes through trials steadfastly, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised those who love Him (v.12).
Undoubtedly, trials of life come in sorts of colour, manner and shape. They are various kinds of trials (v.2). James in this passage, identifies economic status as one of the gates that trials come to us. There are those who are poor materially. There are those who are rich materially. He gives both the exhortation, ‘boast in his…’ different circumstance. The point is that these outward economic circumstances are temporary, and could be trials. So he gives us two opposite life circumstances (vv. 9-11). In these two cases, he instructs them to act in the opposite, what we call paradox. He also has one common circumstance of remaining steadfast under trial (v.12).
1)     Poor brother is eternally rich (v.6)
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation      
Pastor James, was a very caring pastor. He watched over the flock with a keen eye. So he did not want poverty-stricken Christians, who were part of the flock that he had charge over, whom he fondly refers to as brothers, to think of themselves as second-rate or unimportant in the church. Believers are to interpret their present circumstances as if they were already residing in glory.[2] Not by wishing them away, but by looking at them as the highway leading to glory.
You can imagine how one would feel, with the economic pressures of life, with no steady income. One is not sure of one meal in a day. There is only a pair of threadbare clothes; living in a slum. One is scared of landlord and of debtors. One is unable to face the children because of the struggles. In every sense, the sense of human dignity is faded.
Who wants to face his children in the evening without food for them? It is not interesting to explain to the children why you cannot pay school fees. Or one is unable to afford medication for his wife – it is not interesting to see her writhing in pain. This is real life in the third world country we live in. No wonder impostor preachers have been born in their scores to deceive people into utopia. This poor state, is not any worse than the situation of persecuted Christians, who were destitute in every sense – some were homeless, with no means of livelihood. The people James wrote to, went through terrible circumstances as they faced the sword all the day long, lost their property, and were killed because of their faith.
We know that because of the persecution of Christian Jews in the first century, many were left impoverished. Because they were economically low, they were low in the eyes of the world and, no doubt, in most instances low in their own eyes. Their poverty produced lowliness of mind.[3] Like the 10 of the 12 spies who were sent by Moses to Canaan, it is too easy to seem to oneself like grasshoppers and this mindset communicates that one would appear to others in the same manner. Therefore, James, just like Joshua and Caleb, presents a very balanced and Biblical view of things from an eternal perspective.
James knew this too well and so he encourages them to glory or take pride in their exalted position of being brothers, that is, being children of God! This privileged position is higher than that of the angels. So high it is that Peter tells us that believers are beneficiaries of such great divine love that the angels long to look (1 Peter 1:12). God has given us His Son and His Spirit and made us His heirs and co-heirs with Christ in glory (Romans 8:17). This is the most exalted position, the world cannot take us higher. And God has brought us to the highest point of being His children.
Yet remember that, no matter how detested we are in this world, no matter how low and despicable we appear to be, we actually enjoy the highest of all privileges, namely being part of the family of God.[4] You belong to Christ! So do your circumstances, for they are within the orbit of His plan for your ultimate good, your full salvation.[5]
The paradox of grace is exhibited in the most striking form. Amid the depressing influences of poverty, the Christian is to keep his eye fixed on his real dignity, and glory in it. His present low position is merely in external things, and consequently temporary, and is appointed him because his heavenly Father sees poverty to be needful for the good of his soul; his dignity belongs to the man himself, considered apart from surroundings, and is thus unending, like himself.[6]
2)     Rich Brother is eternally humble (v.10)
… and the rich in his humiliation. We must first acknowledge that grace and wealth are not strange bedfellows. Wasn’t Abraham the father of faith rich in silver and gold? Wasn’t David, a man after God’s own heart, a wealthy king? What about Job before and after his affliction, wasn’t he rich in wealth and grace? What about Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus, and John Mark’s family, and Dorcas, and Lydia, and Cornelius, and Priscilla and Aquila and many others? Were they not rich both in the earthly wealth and in the earthly treasure?
While it is difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom, it is not impossible. While it is true that that those who desire to be rich in this  life fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction, the rich are not beyond the reach of grace. But they must not love money, for if they do, they will get into all kinds of evils, and perhaps wander away from the faith and pierce themselves with many pangs. They must know that godliness with contentment is great gain.
It is not obvious in this passage that if the person who is rich is a Christian or a non-Christian. At the time when James was writing, the rich people were usually seen as proud, persecutors, exploiting the poor, and so uncaring as they lived in luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the majority poor, and so would not be associated with the Christian faith. Yet we know that some rich people like Zacchaeus, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus among others had come to faith.
But weighing all the factors from the context, and the Greek construction, there are reason to believe that this was a rich brother who was being exhorted along with the poor brother to act in accordance to the Biblical perspectives, rather than the financial value of his accounts. This rich man could only be a non-believer if James was speaking ironically. Therefore, I go a long with Douglas Moo and many other good commentators, who say,
While the evidence does not all point in the same direction, we think that the balance shifts toward the view that James in these verses addresses two Christians, a poor one and a rich one. He exhorts each of them to look toward their spiritual identity as the measure of their ultimate significance. To the poor believer, tempted to feel insignificant and powerless because the world judges a person on the basis of money and status, James says: take pride in your exalted status in the spiritual realm as one seated in the heavenlies with Jesus Christ himself. To the rich believer, tempted to think too much of himself because the world holds him in high position – things that are doomed all too soon to fade away forever – but, paradoxically, in your humble status as a person who identifies with one who was “despised and rejected” by the world. The point of this passage is, then, that Christian must always evaluate themselves by spiritual and not material standards. Maintaining such a perspective in a world that so insistently confronts us with a very different standard of measurement is not easy. But if the church is to be the kind of “countercultural” society that Jesus intended to be, establishing and propagating such a perspective is essential.[7] (Emphasis mine)
The rich Christian is in a very slippery and precarious position. He is not careful, he could stop to depend on His Saviour and depend on His wealth. He is reminded that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Reading the newspapers, you see wealthy people who have recently died. They left everything behind, including their children and possession. Their grave clothes do not need to have pockets! To put what?
Therefore, this brother and those of you who fall under this category of financial ladder are warned by their Saviour to think of two things that bring him to a humble position:
a)      The brevity of life
… like a flower of the grass he will pass away. No man shall live more than 130 years. The lifespan is basically 70 years and it could come earlier or later, but no one will be forgotten. The problem is that while people know this, they still conduct themselves in a manner that ignores this fact. Life is brief. Death is coming. Grave is ready for you, wouldn’t you be ready for it? Be ready by putting on an eternal perspective. As a flower fades before the scorching heat or wind of Palestine, so shall the rich man pass away in death. There is no doubt that just as the flowers of the field are attractive to look at so is the riches of this world. We are told by Dr. Luke that, “…the poor man died… the rich man also died” (Luke 16:22) (Emphasis mine). Yes there is a time to be born and a time to die, for the poor and the rich alike. Certainly he will pass away.
b)     The temporary nature of possessions
The rich die and their wealth are also fleeting. As a flower fades before the heat of the scorching sun, so shall the rich man fade away in his pursuits. His possessions, his projects, his counsels, and his managements for this world, are called his pursuits or business. For this reason let him that is rich rejoice, not so much in the providence of God, that made him rich while in a temporary earth, but in the grace of God in the glory of eternity. This ought to make and keep him humble. He must be humiliated in that insurance cannot prevent accidents or disease and death. These occur to the rich as well as to the poor. For the rich also cry!
Therefore, a Christian who is rich must be careful so that his joy must not come from the possession like the rich fool who thought that because his barns were full, his joy was complete. For that same day God removed him from enjoying his wealth and others were left to plunder his labour.
We all should remember that we are not immune to the dangers of wealth. The power of material prosperity must not be underestimated. Materialism is charming and seductive. The riches of this world have such a power to allure and entice us to fix our eyes on the temporal instead of the eternal. The ogre called idolatry does not call itself Monster Idolatry, it calls itself Miss Comfort. The comforts of this life are attractive to the flesh, but the spiritual eye will know when in Vanity Fair.
Yet, we must bear in mind that even when one has overflowing bank accounts, and platinum medical and insurance covers, this does not guarantee happiness or heaven. Robert Jones’s rightly observes on his meditations on Isaiah 40:6
The primary application to be drawn from these scripture references comparing man to grass, and his glory to a flower of the field is the forcible reminder of the brevity of his life, and the perishing nature of his greatest attainments upon earth.[8]
3)     Blessed brother under trials (v.12)
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
Both the rich and the poor of verses 9 and 10 could be included in this category. They are blessed if they remain steadfast under the weight of the unique trials of their lives. What does it mean that they are blessed? This word, makariotj, means more than happy, for it means supremely fulfilled and satisfied in the enrichment and endowment of the Lord. It is the word the Lord employed in the beatitudes. That is, God is at work in all this business of trial and persistent endurance, God is imparting blessing all the while as guiding us toward the great, ultimate blessing of approval.[9]
The blessed man endures suffering with patience and faithfulness. Afflictions must not make us miserable, if it is not our own fault, and if it is our fault we should repent. This is because we know that a blessing may come from them, and we may be blessed in them. Trials upon a godly man will make him even more godly and faithful. Trials will be the hedge upon the narrow way leading to the Celestial City where he will receive the crown of life when he is approved.
One can only be approved when he has stood the test of love. For God has promised to those who love him. Love for God with the whole of soul, heart, mind and strength even when under the intensity and immensity of trials of life is the basis of approval. Faith works in love. Trials will usually strengthen love for God for a believer, and not by any means weaken it. Our enduring temptations must be from a principle of love to God and to our Lord Jesus Christ, otherwise we are not interested in this gracious promise. Every soul that truly loves God shall have its trials in this world fully recompensed in that world above where love is made perfect.
This means that when his virtues and graces coming from a genuine, living and working faith are found to be true and of the highest worth, just as gold is purified by the fire then he will receive the garland from the Father. When his integrity is manifested, and all is approved of the great Judge as genuine, then the Lord will reward him accordingly.
To be approved of God is the great aim of a Christian in all his trials. This will be the standard of one’s blessedness at last, when he shall receive the crown of life. The tried Christian shall be a crowned one: and the crown he shall wear will be a crown of life. It will be life and bliss to him, and will last for ever. We only bear the cross for a while, but we shall wear the crown to eternity[10].




[1] The Word of Faith, or Health and Wealth Gospel
[2] Anthony. Selvaggio, The 24/7 Christian,  (Darlington, Eng: EP, 2008), p.78
[3] R. Kent Hughes, James: Faith That Works (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), p.35  
[4] Roger Ellsworth, Opening Up James, (Leominster, England, Day one Publications, 2009), p. 35
[5] Gordon Keddie, The Practical Christian, James simply explained, (Darlington, Evangelical Press, 1989), p. 42
[6] Robert. Johnstone, James, Geneva Bible Commentaries, (Edinburgh, Scotland, Banner of Truth Trust, 1871), p. 50-51
[7] D. Moo, The Letter of James, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), P. 68-69
[8] Robert Jones, Let God be Magnified, Meditations from Isaiah 40, (Shoals, IN, Old Paths Tracts Society), p. 28
[9] Alec. Motyer, BST The Message of James, (Leicester, England, IVP, 1985), pp.48
[10] Matthew Henry, Commentary On The Whole Bible, (Peabody, MA. Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), p. 1934

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