James is writing his letter to believers who had been forced to flee their homes because of persecution. They had left everything, and were now poor and vulnerable to exploitation. In chapter 5, we find out that rich landowners, some of whom were attending church meetings, were withholding wages from their poor workers. What does James teach in these circumstances?
1. The misery and the madness (v1-6)
James tells the wealthy people that there is a day of misery coming, a day when they will weep and howl (v1). Why would they be miserable? Much of their wealth would have been tied up in their crops - James says that this wealth will have rotted! Expensive clothes were a sign of riches (2v2), but their clothes would be moth-eaten (5v2)!
In other words, a day was coming when their goods would have no meaningful value. They would discover that their treasures were temporary, and they had made no provision for eternity. Just like the rich man in the parable Jesus tells (Luke 12v13-21), they had planned for days they could not predict, but failed to plan for the one day they could not avoid - that last day, when they would face eternity.
James continues by stating that their silver and gold would also have no value. Instead it would be corroded, and the corrosion would eat at their flesh and condemn them (v3). As an illustration, have you ever been tidying one day, and found a voucher for something, only to discover it had passed its expiration date? You kick yourself for wasting something valuable, and it eats at you. The more valuable it was, the more it eats at you!
James tells the wealthy that they will discover they wasted a lifetime accumulating treasures that had no eternal value, and this will condemn them - the corrosion will be evidence of a wasted life, and will eat their flesh like fire (v3).
James now points out their madness - he writes "you have laid up treasures for the last days!" (v3) They were hoarding as though they had forever, but actually time was running out! They were like turkeys enjoying extra food in the weeks leading up to Christmas (v5)! Their behaviour was causing the death of people, and those being exploited could not resist them (v6).
But they could not hide their sins from God - he heard the unpaid wages crying out to him, and the cries of the exploited harvesters(v4)! It is madness to hoard temporary treasures when facing the eternal judgment of God.
James now turns his attention to the poor believers, whom he refers to as his brethren.
2) Be patient and persevere (v7-11)
James encourages them to be patient - the Lord is coming, and there will be justice. As field labourers, they would have understood James' illustration of the patience of a farmer who waits for the seasonal rains (v7)
In Britain, we might respond, "You can't trust the weather!" However, the return of Christ is more certain than the seasons. He is not temperamental - he will not fail his people. So James tells the believers to establish their hearts (v8). The faithfulness of Christ is to inspire our faithfulness.
So this is not a time for fighting each other. We are brothers and sisters, not judges. The Judge is coming - he is at the door (v9)! James warns: if you don't behave as a member of God's family, you might discover you aren't one! If you behave as a judge, you may be the one judged!
James then tells the believers to persevere (v10-11) and uses the prophets and Job as examples. We can see that their perseverance leads to the fruition of God's purposes and promises (v11).
It's not easy to persevere. Often, it involves a lot of unspectacular obedience - simple, daily disciplines such as praying and reading the Word. But let's not forget the example of Christ. He lived for about 33 years on earth, yet there is very little we know about most of that life! He was about 30 when his ministry began, and people asked: "Isn't that Joseph's son?" They didn't know him as the Creator of the universe, but as the son of a construction worker.
Christ lived 30 years of unspectacular obedience before 3 years of spectacular ministry: 30 years without being noticed; perfectly steadfast and obedient, but in unspectacular ways. If you trust Christ as your Saviour, you are clothed in his righteousness - not just those 3 years of teaching, healing and ministry, but also those 30 years of unrecognised, unspectacular but absolutely unwavering perseverance!
Let us not dismiss the importance of unspectular obedience. Often, it is unspectacular obedience that leads us into the spectacular plans of God.
As we trust in the perfect perseverance of Christ, let us patiently persevere, knowing he will one day return. We will all face a final day. James writes that for some, it will be a day of rejoicing at the harvest. For others, it will be a day of misery because of what they have wasted.
What kind of final day are you anticipating?