James 4:11-17

We have been looking at the writings of James, the brother of Jesus. James was a man who it appears throughout Jesus public ministry did not believe what Jesus’ said about himself. And yet, James listened to what Jesus said.  At one point in Jesus ministry throughout Galilee, James thought Jesus was out of his mind and came to seize control over Jesus and bring Jesus home.  And yet, James paid attention to Jesus’ teachings and remembered them.  James’ separation from his brother Jesus’ ministry seemed so complete that upon Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus appointed his own disciple, John, as the caretaker of Mary, mother of Jesus and mother of James.  And yet, James would come to honor his brother Jesus as Lord and Savior and did so even to the point of his own death by the hands of a mob who stoned and clubbed James to death.  What accounts for the transformation of James from doubter and skeptic to disciplined believer?  The apostle Paul revealed to us the reason James’ transformation in the letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.

For what I [Paul] received I passed on to you [the believers in Corinth] as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he [Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me [Paul] also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Jesus, risen from the dead, first appeared to those who believed in him and who grieved so terribly after Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul said Jesus appeared to Peter, a man broken by his own denials of Jesus.  Then Jesus appeared to the other apostles.  Jesus then to 500 people who believed in him, men and women alike. Only after resurrecting the faith and spirit of those who had believed in Jesus, did Jesus then appear to those who had not believed in him.  Paul lists only two such appearances to non-believers: James and Paul.  Jesus first appeared to his brother James, a man who thought Jesus was insane.  We do not know when or where Jesus appeared to James.  We know when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, Jesus spoke her name, “Mary,” and at Jesus’ calling, Mary threw herself to the ground and wrapped her arms around Jesus’ feet and cried out “Rabboni,” a term of endearment.  Did Jesus do likewise when he appeared to his brother and simply say, “James?”  And did James fall to Jesus’ feet knees calling Jesus by some pet name?  Or did Jesus just appear, standing before his brother, James and say nothing?  And in that silence did all the words James said about Jesus, about being insane or a fraud, come pouring into James’ mind, reminding James of the judgments he had made against his brother, Jesus?  And in that silence, did Jesus who was and is perfectly innocent judge his accuser James? Innocence accuses its accuser. And after those few moments of terrifying silent reflection by James of what he said to and about Jesus, did those words depart from James’ mind and replaced by forgiveness and words of Jesus? We do not know.

            But we do know two important things about James from that encounter with his brother, Jesus.  First, James believed in Jesus.  The resurrection changed and transformed the entirety of James’ life.  The resurrection of Jesus was and is the defining event for James, for you, and for me.  Today, people chant, “No justice, no peace.”  For the Christian, the statement should be “No resurrection, no peace.” The apostle Paul said, “17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).  James believed and so after becoming a witness to the resurrection, James called himself, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).   James called his brother, the “glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (James 2:1). James believed in Jesus without reservation and, instead of being a detractor of Jesus, became a servant of his brother.

            The second thing we learn about James after the resurrection appearance by his brother is that James was concerned about what came out of his mouth and the mouth of Jesus followers.  James’ letter is not long and yet he speaks numerous times about what we say to one another.  Let me give you just a few examples.

  • Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19).
  • Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless (James 1:26).
  • Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law (James 2:12).
  • The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:6)
  • With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:9-10).

James was concerned about what people said, perhaps because what James said before the resurrection of Jesus about Jesus was unkind, unworthy, and earthly leaving James open to judgment by the Son of God. James seeing his brother, Jesus, appear before him, resurrected from the dead, must have been a terrifying moment. The final words of James’ letter may give us some insight into what those brothers shared in that moment. James wrote, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). In that moment of the resurrection appearance of Jesus to James, it seems clear that Jesus turned James from James’ error and rather than judgment into eternal death, Jesus covered a multitude of James’ sin and brought him into eternal life.  That is the promise we too share with James.

            James, perhaps like few other people, understood the significance of brother speaking against brother and the power of forgiveness found in one brother forgiving the other.  James wanted his readers, he wanted you and me, to understand that what we say matters in this life and what we say carries eternal significance.  From today’s reading, James wrote, “11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another.  Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it.  When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 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?” (James 4:11-12).  James’ words showed the eternal significance of our words. “Do not slander one another.”  The King James Version of this verse is more pointed, “Speak not evil one of another.”  These words are as old as one the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 5:12).  Slander is the act of making a false statement against someone else.  James made this connection.  To slander is to violate the law of God.  To violate the law of God is to set yourself as judge of the law.  To judge the law is to judge the lawgiver, God.  Slander thus hurts the person we speak against and places us in the position of judging God.  James said, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12).  James’ words here reflect that he understood what Jesus said on this very matter and in many ways applied to the way James treated Jesus.

            Jesus said, “21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). “Raca,” meant the person was considered emptyheaded or a fool.  Makes you wonder if James felt he had called his brother Jesus, ”Raca,” when James believed Jesus was out of his mind.  James had judged Jesus and quite wrongly.  To judge another is not a small matter. Jesus said, “28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  James must have remembered his brother, Jesus’ words, when James wrote, “12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12).  James, standing before his resurrected brother Jesus, stood the risk of being judged for eternity but instead James was saved by Jesus whom James saw as his Lord.  James, the new person saved by his brother, the Son of God, said, “Who are you to judge?” (James 4:12).  Indeed, who am I and who are you to judge another and slander the reputation of a brother or sister?  James’ question and his words of admonishment are powerful and should call us to check our words.  Jesus said, “36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

            James finished up this chapter by continuing to address the impact of what we say.  We pick things up again at verse 13, “13 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.’  14 Why, 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.  15 Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’  16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes.  All such boasting is evil.”  James’ point here was that his readers, believers in Jesus, were using the gift of language and testimony to boast that they would use their lives, also a gift, to make money – lots of money.  The boasting represented a desire to set their own plans in motion for the purpose of amassing wealth for themselves.  Wealth itself is not necessarily a problem.  The problem James was pointing out was that God was absent from the plan.  The boasts of James’ readers were strictly earthly centered and that the objective was to amass wealth such that these people would become even more self-reliant. The boast means James’ readers saw no dependence on God at all for their lives.  James brought his readers up short and said, “What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).  We are a mist.  A mist appears for a while and then vanishes, and no one remembers anything about the mist. That is a sobering thought and a hard truth.  Now we could be discouraged or even depressed by the idea that we are seemingly so inconsequential.  But that was not James’ desire.  His point was that we must not see our lives through the lens of earthly living alone. We must have an eternal view. James was reflecting the teaching of Jesus who said, “19Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus point, James’ point, was that the treasure of life will not be found here in the pursuit of wealth.  The treasure will be found in doing what God desires.  James said we must approach God in humility and in dependence to him.  From that posture, James wrote, “15 You ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15).  Our posture ought to be found in seeking God and in seeking God’s will.

            James knew something about the power of words and thoughts expressed about life. James knew something about the power of words and thoughts expressed to God and about God.  James shared the same living space as God lived among us in the person of Jesus.  James had plenty of time to know Jesus, his brother, and to speak with his brother. James thought his brother was insane. James thought his brother was not genuine.  James thought his brother was wrong in his thinking.  James was not quiet about his thoughts and his words were hurtful. Then something happened.  James’ brother Jesus was killed and buried. Then came the terribly wonderful and terribly frightening news.  Jesus was alive.  He had been raised from the dead.  Jesus was who he claimed to be, the son of God.  The wonder and terror of that news came to a peak when James stood before Jesus. All of James’ idle and unkind words flooded James’ mind.  James must have thought to himself, “I am doomed.”  Then Jesus spoke to James in a reassuring tone that James’ sins were forgiven; that is why Jesus came and died.  James shared with us that we need to be thoughtful about what we say and to use our words not to judge our neighbors but to seek the will of God; God’s good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).  That is the good we can do.  With that in mind, James concluded, “17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”

            This week, let’s restore our language with our brothers, sister, parents, children, and neighbors because we know what is good and seek to just do it. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).  Amen and Amen.