11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. – James 4:11-17 ESV
James had strong words for those who claimed to be Christ-followers but failed to live in obedience to God’s commands. That kind of behavior was unacceptable because saving faith always results in sanctification, the Spirit-empowered transformation of the believer into the likeness of Christ. The apostle Paul’s informed the believers in Thessalonica of his ongoing prayer for them:
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23
The New Living Translation words Paul’s request this way: “Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way…”
Both James and Paul had high expectations for the believers to whom they each ministered. There was no room for spiritual apathy or complacency. God’s gift of salvation was not intended to be viewed as a ticket that gained the holder entrance into some future state of glorification. While eternal life is the final reward for all those who place their faith in Christ, there is also the present reality of our ongoing transformation into the image of Christ.
Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, who were primarily Gentiles, and reminded them that there had been a time when their hearts were incapable of seeing the truth. It was as if they had a veil over their eyes that prevented them from recognizing the gift being offered to them in Christ. Their condition had been just like that of the Jews in the days of Moses. He had delivered to them God’s law but they had been unable to understand or obey it.
…the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand. – 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 NLT
Little had changed over the centuries. Even Paul, a Jew himself, recognized that his people still lived in a state of spiritual darkness, unable to see or receive the truth concerning Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Then he reminds the Corinthians believers that they had come to faith in Christ because the Holy Spirit had removed the veil of ignorance and apathy.
But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 NLT
Not only had they experienced freedom from sin and condemnation, but they had begun the process of transformation into the likeness of Christ. And all those who are being conformed to His image should reflect His character. That is the whole point behind James’ letter. He is demanding that his readers embrace the life of holiness to which they had been called by God. They were free in Christ, but they were not free to live as they pleased. Their behavior was to be in keeping with the Word of God. Obedience to God’s law was non-optional. And he made that point perfectly clear.
Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. – James 4:11 NLT
And James appears to have the Mosaic Law in mind. He is calling believers to live in keeping with the commands of God as found in the book of Leviticus.
“Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly.
“Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people.
“Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord.
“Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives. Confront people directly so you will not be held guilty for their sin.
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
“You must obey all my decrees.” – Leviticus 19:15-19 NLT
While these commands had been given by God to the people of Israel as they made their way from Egypt to the promised land, James insists that they were still relevant and required for his 1st-Century audience. God’s will regarding the interpersonal interactions between His people remained unchanged. And James warns his readers against cherry-picking which laws they wanted to obey.
…your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. – James 4:11 NLT
In order for them to practice partiality and justify their fits of anger against one another, they were having to play fast and loose with God’s law. If nothing else, they were violating the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And they were disobeying the command of Christ.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” – Jonn 13:34 ESV
These people had made a habit out of judging one another. They were hyper-critical and harsh in their treatment of one another. But James warns them:
God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor? – James 4:12 NLT
They were guilty of violating every command found in Leviticus 19:15-19. It was as if they had chosen to put back on the veil that the Spirit had removed. They were willingly closing their eyes to the truth of God’s Word and living in disobedience to His will for them.
In a sense, they were acting as if they were large and in charge. They had decided that they wanted to be the masters of their own fates and the captains of their own souls. And this shared sense of autonomy and self-determination was doing great damage to the body of Christ. And James warns them against trying to play god. Their desire to control their own fates was not only misguided but impossible. And James points out just how ludicrous their attempt at self-sovereignty really was.
Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:13-14 NLT
Their power was limited and their ability to predict the future was laughable. While they could make grandiose plans, they had no idea what tomorrow would bring. In fact, they had no guarantee they would live long enough to see the next day. So, James provides them with an alternative perspective.
What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:15-16 NLT
This all points back to the issue of holiness. As followers of Christ, they were to recognize their new status as children of God and citizens of the Kingdom. They were no longer of this world. They belonged to God and were expected to live according to His will and not their own. They could make plans, but they were to hold them loosely and always remember that those plans must be in keeping with God’s will.
The apostle Paul constantly encouraged believers to recognize their new identity in Christ.
Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT
And Paul made it clear that this set-apart status as God’s temple applied to the corporate community of faith, not just the individual believer.
Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? – 1 Corinthians 3:16 NLT
The temple of God in Jerusalem had been set apart for His use. It was intended to be His earthly dwelling place. And it was the responsibility of the priests to maintain the holiness and purity of the temple through constant obedience to God’s laws. A believer’s body belongs to God. It is the temple or dwelling place of the Spirit of God. And God expects us to keep His house pure and set apart for His use. The same thing is true regarding the body of Christ, the church. According to Paul, it too is the temple of God and its holiness should be diligently maintained. That’s why James pleads, “Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world” (James 4:8 NLT).
They needed to do some serious house cleaning. They had allowed the temple of God to become impure and uninhabitable. Unconfessed sin had made God’s dwelling place unacceptable. And their individual battles with sin had done serious damage to the faith community. So, James closes out this chapter with a call to obedience.
Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. – James 4:17 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.