Learning Patience (James 5: 7-12)
Patience doesn’t come naturally to farmers either, but they have to cultivate it in order to gain the reward of a harvest. Likewise, says James, Christians must cultivate patience.
Behold, the Judge is standing at the door.
As James draws his letter to a close he reminds his readers that this life must be lived in the light of Christ’s imminent return - as Judge. Assuming that the rich of whom he has just spoken are their oppressors (see 2.6-7), he counsels them to bear their suffering patiently, knowing that when Christ returns all will be set to rights. Not only are they powerless to resist, they will be rewarded for not doing so and their fortunes will be restored.
They are not yet ready though for the Lord’s return (see 1.2-4). There is grumbling against one another - and worse - as we have seen repeatedly throughout the letter.
Holman Hunt’s well-known picture depicts Christ “standing at the door”. Not well-known is that Hunt painted this picture three times. He painted the third version (in St Paul’s, London) out of disgust that Keble College Chapel (Oxford), home of the first version (gifted to it), was charging people to view it. Doubtless that excluded the poor. What might Christ have said at the door of Keble College Chapel then?
James knows that bearing suffering patiently, and not grumbling against one another, tend not to come naturally to believers. Patience doesn’t come naturally to farmers either, but they have to cultivate it in order to gain the reward of a harvest. Likewise, says James, Christians must cultivate patience. They will do so by “establishing their heart”, i.e. attuning their hearts to the values and rewards of Christ’s eternal kingdom. Their hope is set on the future, the new age which will be inaugurated at Christ’s return.
James parallels the writer to the Hebrews in holding up as examples of faithful patience the heroes of the OT, of whom he wrote, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw them and greeted them” (Heb 11.13). Meanwhile, God was compassionate and merciful to them, as he will be to all who remain steadfast.
Although James doesn’t mention him, Jesus himself provided the perfect example of patience amidst suffering – see Heb 12.1ff.; cf. Heb 4.14-16). He therefore can empathise with us (Heb 4.14-16).
In the wake of such weighty matters as remaining steadfast and living out one’s faith, it is surprising that “not swearing an oath” ranks “above all”. James has made no reference to oaths before. It is probably better understood, therefore, as a closing instruction, with the sense of “And one other important thing, lest I forget…” It is important because it goes to the heart of James’ theology: personal integrity. Nothing a Christian says should need to be supported by an oath. Absolute honesty and trustworthiness are fundamental to Christian character and speech (cf. Matt 5.34-37).
Is there an area of your life in which you need to pray for greater patience?
Heavenly Father, I praise you for your compassion and mercy which sustain me in times of trial. Grant me greater patience as I await the coming of my Lord Jesus Christ, and may my speech always be truthful so that all I say may glorify his holy name, in which I pray. Amen.
Michael Hewat is currently serving as the Senior Minister at West Hamilton Community Church, New Zealand
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