Christians must patiently await the Lord’s coming to bring final justice, even when it is tempting to give up on God because the wait seems too difficult in the midst of suffering, too costly in a world where being faithful so often prevents success, and just too long to endure.
Introduction – Twenty years ago, the pastoral intern in the church I grew up in began a sermon with these exact words: “Patience…what is patience?” As he asked this pedantic question in a slow, monotone voice, I remember telling myself, “patience is listening to this sermon!” Do you empathize? Does the Christian life seem a drag to you? Do the promises of the Bible, once so precious to you, now feel stale? Does having to do the right thing all the time wear you down? Would you rather be golfing right now? Or having breakfast at IHOP? Or watching a church service on TV from the sofa in your own living room? Or maybe you’re envious of those joggers you pass on the drive to church every Sunday. Isn’t the Christian life a race to run? Why I am just sitting in this seat every Sunday (for some of you it is the exact same seat)? Why is my life not turning out the way I envisioned? What happened to my plans for an exciting career, for world-travel, for seeking world peace? Will I ever be successful like other people, like other Christians? Or is this all there is for me until I get my reward in heaven? Wasn’t the cross supposed to take care of all my problems, all the Church’s problems? Are you tired of waiting for justice, for blessing, for reward? Why is being patient so difficult? Patiently enduring injustice and suffering is hard because the wait is agonizing, costly, and seems to never end.
A. Patience is to Graciously Endure Suffering because the Judge is Coming (vv 9-11)
This is precisely what the poor, oppressed believers whom James addressed needed to hear. In the previous passage (Jas 4:13-5:6), James confronted the rich and presumptuous people in the church who regularly abused their brothers and sisters. Here, James promises the victims that deliverance is near.
1. God is our Savior, but He is also our Judge
God is returning as Savior and Judge, and he will avenge his people when he returns (2 Thess 1:5-7a). But James warns us not to grumble in the meantime, for the grumbler’s impending judgment is near—right at the door! Grumbling is the opposite of the Christian’s duty to rejoice and give thanks. Grumbling against one another is speaking against the law and judging it (Jas 4:11). We are to refrain from grumbling to others by complaining about our difficulties and grumbling about others by blaming them for our difficulties.
I attended VA Tech, which is a relatively conservative college—politically speaking. I remember we had a mock presidential election in October 1992 when Bill Clinton ran against the first George Bush, and Bush won by a landslide. All my friends were smug and confident that the upstart Democratic governor from Arkansas was going to lose the upcoming election to Bush, the presidential incumbent. On election night when it became clear that the Democrats had won the White House, the grumbling started. As I recall, it seemed everyone I knew thought our country was about to be ruined! But with a few more years and a little historical perspective, I’ve observed that every 2-4 years approximately half the country is certain that political disaster is imminent because the other party won the election. We freely grumble against the other party, and we forget there are Christian brothers and sisters on each side of the political divide, sometimes worshiping in the same congregation! When I observe the parking lots of evangelical churches, I wonder if our political bumper stickers serve to divide the body of Christ and segregate us into grumbling factions—complaining to the like minded and complaining about the rest (the wrong!).
Grumbling about politics is rampant, but this sin really appears everywhere there is a hierarchical relationship between people. Employers and employees grumbling against one another, teachers and students do the same. So do parents and children, and it doesn’t automatically stop when children reach adulthood. Pastors and congregants; leaders and followers; owners and tenants, lenders and borrowers, older and younger siblings, husbands and wives. Grumbling is everywhere, and James says it must stop because God will judge grumblers!
James comforts those who do not grumble but who patiently wait for the Lord to judge. The Lord is a patient Judge for he is longsuffering with sinful humanity, desiring that all repent and believe the gospel, but his patience with sinners will run out someday. You must examine your own behavior so you will be ready to meet the Judge. The coming Lord is Judge of the believer and unbeliever alike. Suffering is always a tough test for even the most patient person. Suffering at the hand of an oppressor is even tougher. But take heart! God is a just Judge who will save those who patiently await his judgment.
2. The prophets and Job: Is complaining allowed while we endure suffering?
Why does James point to the prophets and Job as people who, instead of grumbling, patiently suffered and endured? The prophets are obvious examples. They were called to be patient with those who would not listen to them. Many of the prophets endured hardship, suffering, and humiliation—most obviously Jeremiah (Jer 11:21; 20:1-2; 38:6), but also Ezekiel who was not allowed by God to mourn his wife’s death while ministering to the exiles (Ezek 24:15-27), Daniel who ministered in the shame of exile (Dan 1:3-6), and Hosea who God commanded to marry an adulterous wife to model God’s relation to his “wife” Israel (Hos 1:2-3). Two OT prophets were martyred: Zechariah son of Jehoida (2 Chr 24:20-21) and Uriah son of Shemaiah (Jer 26:20-23).
When enduring indifference, insult, and persecution, and continuing to speak and act in the name of the Lord, Christians should consider themselves blessed to be counted among the prophets and the Lord Jesus Christ who also suffered the same fate. Suffering for being a Christian, for faithfulness to the word of God, is good—it builds character, perseverance, and hope in God’s coming vindication. Are you mocked by your neighbor or relative for talking about Jesus and the gospel? Do not return evil for evil. Continue to speak kindly and pray for them. Is your advancement hampered at work because of your Christian witness, or your desire to be away from work on Sundays? Do not criticize your superiors, or stir the pot by crying discrimination and suing for retribution. Stand with the Savior as he was reviled and made irrelevant. Are the cool kids at school making fun of you and your religious beliefs, and leaving you out of social involvement. Rejoice that you are in good company, for they treated the prophets the same.
But Job’s endurance of suffering was of a peculiar kind. Although he complained (grumbled?) about his undeserved suffering to his friends and demanded an explanation from God, he nevertheless did not sin (Job 1:22; 2:10). Job’s righteousness was finally vindicated when God restored his health, wealth, and family, and rebuked Job’s friends. Even so, God rebuked Job for demanding an explanation for his suffering. It is true that Job’s patience waned at times as he spoke (Job 3:1; 16:3), but he persevered in faith that God would be just in the end (Job 16:19-21; 19:25-27), therefore God vindicated and restored his servant. God is merciful, and he will sustain those who faithfully suffer and endure for righteousness sake. Note that God not only extends his mercy toward the righteous in the form of forgiveness of sins through Christ, but also in help through troubles and afflictions. God is merciful as Judge, but he is also merciful as Deliverer and Savior. The example of Job teaches us that suffering and perseverance are rooted in God’s purposes with the goal that we will know Him as a compassionate and merciful God. It may be difficult to patiently trust God through your suffering, whether it is failing health, financial struggles, or evil oppression. But the prophets and Job demonstrate that God will save and deliver those who patiently endure to the end.
B. Patience is to Always Tell the Truth and Trust God with the Consequences (v 12)
1. To swear or not to swear, that is the question
Note that James is not addressing the kind of swearing that is defined as cursing or vulgar language. Rather he is referring to taking oaths. Verse 12 is a clear paraphrase of Christ’s teaching regarding oaths (Mt 5:33-37; cf. Lev 19:12). There is much confusion regarding the Bible’s teaching on Christians taking oaths. Many understand Jesus and James forbidding all oaths as a new covenant command that supersedes old covenant instruction. But a careful reading of the whole Bible clearly demonstrates that proper oaths continue to be lawful for new covenant believers. Paul put himself under oath (Rom 1:9; 2 Cor 1:23; 11:11; Gal 1:20; Phil 1:8; 1 Thess 2:5, 10). Jesus accepted being put under oath (Mt 26:63-64). God himself swears oaths (Lk 1:73; Acts 2:30; Heb 7:21, 28). The Confession extensively addresses the Bible’s teaching on lawful (and unlawful) oaths (WCF 22).
2. Tell the truth (in love), even when it hurts
Jesus’ teaching on oaths was unique, but it should have been obvious considering how duplicitous and deceitful oath taking became. Jewish people in the first century were mindful of the danger of taking the Lord’s name in vain (third commandment), and that guilt accrued if they did not keep their oaths to the Lord. But instead of striving for faithfulness in their words, they devised ways to create non-binding oaths that had the sound of solemnity. For instance, they would not swear by God’s name, but they would swear by “heaven”, “earth”, “Jerusalem”, or anything else that sounded serious, thinking that such oaths (those not literally sworn in God’s name) were not binding. People were attempting to bolster the reliability of their words without intending to follow through, and they reasoned such oath swearing removed their guilt. With his admonition against swearing oaths, James reveals he is concerned with Christian brothers and sisters reflecting the same standard of truthfulness as Jesus. The idea is that Christians ought to be men, women, and children of their word. Promise keeping is imperative. Covenant keeping is a must. People who shrewdly deal with others so as to weasel out of their promises and commitments will be condemned. People who frivolously make promises and think nothing of reneging will be condemned. We must simply and soberly tell the truth, shoulder our responsibilities, and keep our commitments.
It is easy to imagine that James does not envision the official, public oaths that we are called to swear in various times and seasons. Rather he has in mind the type of casual and private conversations between individuals. The simple truth-telling that James advocates has ramifications on the way we speak and conduct ourselves as Christians today.
How do we swear non-binding or frivolous oaths today? Attaching words like “I swear”, “cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye”, even the flippant “I swear to God!” When I was young, kids would negate their words by crossing their fingers behind the back. Even believers are guilty of white lies (lies that don’t hurt anyone and may even promote happiness), intentionally misleading words, omitting important information when we make promises, and half-true words. We think nothing of breaking verbal agreements until they are recorded in signed contracts. We publicly promise to support the work of the local church when we take membership vows, but our actions reveal that what we really mean is that we will support the church as long as we’re happy. Elders take oaths to faithfully shepherd the flock of God, but sometimes treat the sheep in ways they would never dream of treating their own family. On the other hand, when we make vows or other promises to God (or in God’s name), we ought to fulfill them without delay. Better to not vow at all than to vow and not pay (Dt 23:21-23; Eccl 5:4-5). The important thing is that we sincerely mean Yes when we say “yes”, and No when we say “no”. It is a matter of integrity and character rather than a matter of the form of our words. If the truth dwells in us, then we must be truthful and lovers of the truth (2 Jn 1:1-2).
Patience is difficult because telling the truth in love in this fallen world seems to so often lead to failure, relational breakdown, uncomfortable circumstances, and negative consequences. But God is a truth-telling God, and he desires lovers of the truth who will trust him with the results.
C. Patience is to Expectantly Wait for Christ’s Second Coming (vv 7-8)
1. Is the Lord’s coming really “near”?
How near was the Lord’s coming for Christians in the first century? James (and all orthodox believers) understood that Christ’s second coming (the parousia) was imminent and could be very near. The apostles did not teach that the Lord’s coming must be near, only that it could be, and that believers should always be ready. The situation is exactly the same today. The Lord’s coming may be within a few years (maybe tomorrow!). Or it may be a long way off. Only the Lord knows. But it is still imminent—meaning that it could occur at any time without warning and without anything else of redemptive significance as a precursor to the parousia.
So if the Lord’s coming is “near”, then what does the Bible teach about that day? (1) It will be preceded by signs (Mt 24:3). (2) It will be clearly visible and unmistakable like lightning in the sky (Mt 24:27). (3) It will happen on a day that no one knows (or can know) beforehand (Mt 24:36ff). (4) It will entail a separation of believers from unbelievers through a snatching away of God’s people (Mt 24:37ff). (5) Christians will be gathered forever to be in God’s presence, meeting Christ in the air (1 Cor 15:23; 1 Thess 2:19; 2 Thess 2:1; 1 Thess 4:17). (6) Believers will be made totally holy and fully alive in Christ (1 Thess 3:13; 5:23; 1 Cor 15:22). (7) Unbelievers will scoff and dismiss the Lord’s promise to return (2 Pet 3:3-4). (8) But believers consider Christ’s promise a sure hope and strong call to endure the long wait by pursuing holiness (Jas 5:8; 1 Jn 2:28). (9) When the Lord himself comes in power, he will defeat his and our enemies (1 Thess 4:16; 2 Pet 1:16; 2 Thess 2:8; 1:7-10). (10) Jesus will renew heaven and earth so righteousness will flourish forever (2 Pet 3:12-13).
We respond to the certainty of the Lord’s future coming, not by speculating or calculating when it could be, nor by reading world events like tea leaves, but by preparing our hearts and lives to be ready at all times without shame. The doctrine of the Lord’s imminent return should spur us on to live every day coram deo (before the face of God).
2. Fighting back is not worth it
Until he returns, we must wait and be patient, even though waiting for relief from suffering can seem intolerable at times. We must not take matters into our hands by fighting back our oppressors. Patience for those oppressed is necessary in light of the trials described in James 4:13-5:6 (cf. Ps 37:7-11; Lk 18:1-8). We as God’s people must patiently await our vindication when Christ the Judge will return to eradicate all injustice. James forbids rebellion and fighting back, and instructs his oppressed brothers to patiently endure suffering, waiting on the one who rightfully judges (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19-21; cf. Heb 10:30).
3. Wait like a farmer
The early and later rains (autumn and spring) are typical weather patterns in the land of Israel and are reflected in the OT (Dt 11:14; Jer 5:24). James teaches that the way to holiness is a process of growth, and patience is what allows for holiness to grow. Patience is required early and later in the Christian life to produce the fruit of holiness, just as the early and later rains are essential to producing a farm’s precious crop. Just as the early and later rains arrive at the appointed proper time, the coming of the Lord will arrive just in time. Nothing the farmer does will hasten the rains. He must wait and be ready. So also the Christian cannot hasten the Lord’s coming. He must wait and be ready by taking care to guard his words, endure suffering, and look hopefully for Christ’s coming. Yes, waiting for relief, for salvation, for vindication is difficult. No doubt the wait for the Church has been very long. But Jesus will come. The Day of the Lord is imminent. It is “near” in that sense. So we must wait with expectant hope.
Conclusion – In closing, how shall we encourage ourselves to patiently await the Lord’s coming salvation and judgment? Consider the highly appropriate exhortation in Hebrews 11:32-40, then Hebrews 12:1-2, then Hebrews 12:3.