James 025 – The Brevity of LifeJames 4:11-17 • Dr. Andy Woods • April 28, 2021 • James
The Brevity of Life
Dr. Andy Woods
The book of James 4. As we have been looking at the book of James, James is the half-brother of Christ writing to the scattered Hebrew Christian church at Jerusalem at the beginning of the first century. One of the things that will come up tonight is that James was the first New Testament book ever written. There was Malachi, 400 years of silence, and then came the book of James. There were no New Testament books yet when James wrote his.
He is not writing a book so much about how to become a Christian. The assumption is that his readers are already Christians, so he is teaching them how to walk as Christians. The first part of the book of James 1:1-3:12 is the walk of faith. We are saved by faith, and then God expects us to continue to walk by faith, and as we walk by faith, we are growing in Christ. That involves, and this is just for review if you are here for the first time, adopting God’s perspective on suffering, obeying His Word, not showing favoritism, doing good works, and controlling the tongue.
Once you get to James 3:13, he begins to deal with wisdom. It is no longer the walk of faith, it is now the walk of wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge applied. He starts off that section by describing what wisdom is and is not. From there he moves into the most important area of one’s life where wisdom needs to be applied — the spiritual life. He does this in 4:1-12. That is the paragraph that we have been in, and we are now almost finished with it.
Wisdom involves avoiding wrangling per 4:1-3 and worldliness 4:4-6. Replacing those things with the essence of spiritual wisdom, in 4:7-12, involves submitting to God; resisting satan; drawing near to God; repenting of any known sins in your Christian life and walking in humility. We have covered all of this but not verses 11 and 12. Then I hope that we can move on to the next paragraph, God willing, hopefully finishing this chapter.
The essence of spiritual wisdom also involves foregoing judgment, particulary against fellow Christians. It is very easy to make sweeping judgments about people — for example, someone isn’t growing in Christ, someone is obviously not saved. We are very quick to point the finger at other people, not understanding at others, not understanding that when we do point the finger at others, we should have three pointing back to ourselves. Or, ‘so and so won’t fare well at the Bema Seat Judgment of Christ, the Lord must be really displeased with them.’ James really tells us here in 4:11,12 that we really should not do that, particularly when you get into others’ hearts as there are all kinds of things going on in one’s heart that we cannot see.
Notice what James says in 4:11,12 — “Do not speak against one another, brethren [I don’t know if you have observed how Christians interact with one another today on social media. They are all attacking one another, and James specifically says not to do that…brethren, so he is speaking to Christians here] … He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?” So, it is a very convicting passage, and he talks here about when we speak against one another, then we are usurping the role of God as it is His job to judge, not so much our job. When I mean to judge, I am talking about what Jesus dealt with in the Sermon on the Mount: judging someone’s heart. Of course, we are called to be discerners all the time. The spiritual man in 1 Cor 2:14, makes judgments about all things.
So hopefully as I am talking, you are screening what I am saying with the Word to see if it is true, but when you get into looking at someone’s heart and motives, that becomes a problem. He says that when you do that, you speak against the law. James 4:11 — “…speaks against the law and judges the law…” What law is he speaking of here? As we have learned, James is the first New Testament book, so there are no teachings of Paul to which he can be referring, and since he is writing to a Jewish audience, I think that he is likely speaking of the Old Testament law, which is really the only law they knew.
We went into a lot of detail in prior teachings explaining that the church is not under the Old Testament law. The church is under the law of liberty. In James 1:25, you will see a reference to the law of freedom or liberty. It sort of looks like the Old Testament law at points, but it isn’t exactly the Old Testament law, and that is a prior teaching that has been done so we don’t have time to get into it tonight. Part of that teaching, I think, involves Leviticus 19:18 as it is repackaged for the Church and the law of liberty. Leviticus 19:18, which all of these Jewish Christians understood very well, says ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.’ Most people, when hearing the expression, ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ immediately say that is what Jesus said and taught. This is true, Jesus did teach that, but it is interesting that this concept precedes Jesus by 1,500 years. It goes all the way back to Mount Sinai, and I think that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is getting back to the original intent of the Old Testament law, and he talks here in Leviticus 19:18 about your heart: do not hold any grudge. Notice that the law of God sits in judgment not only on what I do but on what I think; the inward motives of my heart. Again, ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people…[in other words, amongst your fellow believers within the community], but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.’
So, when James says that when we speak against and judge one another, we are speaking against the law, and I think that is the law to which he is referring. Again, it is repackaged in our age as the law of liberty, but it is the only Scripture that was available in terms of Old Testament when James actually wrote this. So, if I am going to judge someone else’s motives and speak inappropriately against a fellow brother or sister in Christ, then what I have done per 4:11, is that I have sat in judgment in the law. I have basically said that the law of God is irrelevant because I can violate the law at will. James says that this is a problem of getting into the mindset of attacking and speaking against each other verbally and judging each other’s motives. Honestly, we are putting ourselves in the place of God because James 4:12 reminds us that God is supposed to be doing this.
“There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?” So, not only are we sitting in judgment on God’s law by saying that it is irrelevant because I am not going to follow it, but we are essentially taking the role away from God because God Himself is the Judge. So, we don’t have to be overly preoccupied about what is happening in someone else’s heart; that is God’s job. God is the Judge. James is telling us here that as we walk out the true essence of spiritual wisdom is to forego judgment on people. Judging people’s hearts, thoughts, motives, speaking against brothers and sisters in Christ — we are to forego doing that because God is going to deal with it all. If I step in and start dealing with it, then I am putting myself in the position of God, and James says not to do that.
By the way, Romans 14:10-12 talks about the future judgment saying, But why do you judge your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God.” So, it is very clear here in Romans 14:10-12 that judgment is coming, called the Bema Seat Judgment of Christ, and that is the point in time when peoples’ motives will be evaluated by God. So, I am to wait for God’s judgment and let Him do His part. I am to forego judgment in the meantime — that is what it means to be walking in the essence of spiritual wisdom.
Notice 1 Cor 4:5 and how it is interesting how many of the points that James makes get picked up by the apostle Paul later. “Therefore, do not go on passing judgment before the time… [that is exactly what James is saying], … but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” Here, Paul is picking up the same point that James makes — we are to forego judgment because judgment ultimately belongs to God.
Go back to James 2:4, this might be one of the things that James is harkening back towards. Remember they were showing favoritism in the assembly? James 2:4, “…have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?” Then move forward to James 2:13, “So, speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” There it is dealing with people making evaluations of others within the assembly concerning showing favoritism since showing favoritism is a form of judgment. James makes the identical point in James 2 that if you do that then you have made yourself a judge and have taken the place of God.
The bottom line is to avoid wrangling and worldliness; pursue the essence of spiritual wisdom which involves those six things in James 4:7-12: submit to God; resist Satan; draw near to God; repent; humility; forego judgment.
The last listed is one we have not yet covered: to forego judgment. James tells us not to get into the business of judging people’s hearts, thoughts, motives because when we do that, we are saying that the law of God which says to love your neighbor as yourself is irrelevant. We are putting ourselves in the place of God. James is basically saying ‘don’t worry or be concerned with all of that; God will do the judging at the Bema Seat Judgment of Christ.’
That is what I wanted to cover last week and here is what we will get to this week.
James 4:13-17 where James is switching subjects and no longer applying wisdom to our spiritual lives; he is broadening wisdom by applying it to our commercial lives. ‘You mean to tell me that the walk of wisdom has to do with how we conduct ourselves in the business world?’ Yes, it does. ‘You mean that the walk of wisdom relates to how I handle money and finances?’ Yes, it does. He starts to get into these financial topics here at the end of James 4, and next week, he will get into it at the beginning of James 5.
Here is a fast outline of James 4:13-17: it has essentially two parts.
- The Need to Plan While Depending Upon God — the Bible is not against planning. I think that it was John Wooden who, in his pyramid of success, the famous UCLA coach who won ten NCAA championships, basically said that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. The Bible, I don’t think, is against planning, but what James speaks against here is to make your plan so concrete that it leaves no wiggle room for God. You plan by making a lot of assumptions, and since we aren’t omniscient, all knowing, then we aren’t in a position to make iron clad assumptions. So, James deals with that in 4:13-15.
- The Problem of Planning Without Depending Upon God. So, in 4:13-15 the need to plan while depending upon God. Then 4:16-17, the problem associated with planning without depending upon God.
Let’s see if we can tackle 4:13-15 first. The need to plan while depending upon God: you have a problem exposed in 4:13; the reason for the problem in 4:14, and the preferred mindset in 4:15.
So, notice that in 4:13, James exposes the problem, Come now, you who say “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” He is basically dealing with a mindset that says that I will have my plans, my plans will be executed, and it leaves no wiggle room for God to disrupt our plans. Example, ‘I will have my house paid off in x number of years, or I will retire in x number of years, I will spend my retirement years doing this or that.’ There isn’t anything wrong with trying to think through the direction of your life, but it becomes a problem when you act as though God can’t disrupt our plans at will, which He frequently does. Amen?
In 4:14, James gets into the reason why it is a problem to think this way by planning so airtight and specifically without consulting the mind of God and without leaving God any room to intervene in our plans. In 4:14, James explains the problem with that type of planning— planning as though God isn’t even there. He says in 4:14, “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” In other words, you have these iron-clad and airtight plans, and you think that you have a specific understanding of where your life will be tomorrow or in five, ten, or 25 years down the road, and you don’t even realize the limitations of your own life. What are we in our fallen state? We are like mist that appears for a little while and then is gone. That is what our lives are like against the backdrop of eternity. People in that position don’t really have the information necessary to make airtight plans. Look at your coffee cup, or your hot water or tea. I’m a coffee drinker which is one of the reasons I didn’t want to convert to Mormonism because I like my coffee. Look at the coffee cup and steam comes up and within a nanosecond, it dissipates. That is really what our lives are like against the backdrop of eternity. We are here for a little while and then we are gone.
As I said before that this would become important, James is the first New Testament book. We don’t have the gospels yet by the time James writes in AD 44-47; nor do we have Paul’s writings yet, and James is making tons of scriptural allusions, so the only Scripture he could be referring to is the Old Testament Hebrew Bible. So, a lot of fun of the book of James is trying to guess since he doesn’t provide the specific quote, which Old Testament passage would he be alluding to? I don’t know for sure, but I do have some educated guesses. You might want to jot down the Psalms. (See slide on Order of Paul’s Letters). There is Galatians listed first which hasn’t even been written yet. Jot down Psalm 103:15-16 as this is a potential verse that James is referring to as he is speaking of the brevity of life. He says, “As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, And its place acknowledges it no longer.” It is dealing in Psalm 103:15,16 that our lives are like grass, flowers, it is here and then gone. That is how James describes our lives, like mist.
Another potential verse that James is referring to is the book of Ecclesiastes, which in the Hebrew Bible was known as Kohelet, which means Preacher. In Ecclesiastes 1:2 (NKJV), “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher [Kohelet], “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Most people, I think, misinterpret that to mean that life is empty without God. Now it is true that life is empty without God, but when he says, ‘Vanity of vanities,’ I don’t think that he is speaking of the emptiness of life but of the shortness of life. Life is very fleeting. It goes by very fast, and you have a very limited window of time to get right with God and to get saved through faith alone in Christ alone, and to live your life in a way that is pleasing to God in the area of growth. There isn’t a lot of time when you think about it to get this right. That is why the Bible says that today is the day of salvation. Now, ‘Vanity of vanities,’ per Ecclesiastes 1:2 is what is called a Hebrew superlative. It is a way of saying ‘the ultimate.’ Life is not just fleeting; it is vanity of vanities; the ultimate fleeting experience. It is like calling the Temple the Holy of Holies. When you go into the Temple, back in Old Testament times, you weren’t just going into a holy place. You were going into the ultimate holy place. Or, where in the book of Revelation, Jesus is called the King of Kings and the LORD of Lords. He is not merely a king; He is the ultimate King. He is not merely a lord; he is the ultimate LORD. This is a superlative. When the book of Ecclesiastes calls life not just vanity, but ‘Vanities of vanities,’ what he is dealing with is the ultimate fleeting experience; how fast life can go by. Because you are in the ultimate fleeting experience in our fallen state with life passing by very quickly, you don’t have a lot of time in terms of getting right with God, then growing in your newfound faith in Christ. When considering how quickly life goes by, it is foolish to postpone God. Thus, the book of Ecclesiastes calls life just that: ‘Vanities of vanities.’
In James 4:14, I think that James is alluding, at least indirectly, to either Psalm 103:15,16 or to Ecclesiastes 1:2 in our coffee verse about mist that is here and then gone. So, since that is our present experience, it is foolish for to plan life as if God didn’t exist, and as if I understood all of the variables, and as though I will be here 20-30 years down the road. There is one Christian couple I heard about who said that they would retire from their business at a particular age, and then they would go on the mission field to serve the Lord. It turns out that they retired and within one to two months, one of the spouses had a debilitating health issue. I remember them saying that they never counted on this happening; we never thought this could happen. That would be an example of having one’s plans so concrete and airtight that you are acting as though God doesn’t exist at all when the fact is that God intervenes constantly to disrupt plans and life itself intervenes constantly to disrupt plans.
James is dealing here with the mindset where we say per 4:13, ‘I am going to start a business, make a profit, spend a year there, I will do this and that, then I will sell the business at a particular price.’ James is saying that this is folly; that you don’t even know what your life will be like tomorrow. The only thing that you are is mist that appears for a little while and then disappears. If you don’t believe how fast life can change, look back at the year 2020 at how fast everything changed early in that year with the Covid all over the world. Who, at the end of 2019 anticipated that? Everyone’s plans were changed, just like that! That is the nature of the life that we have in its fallen state. It is not just a vapor; it is a superlative, the thinnest of vapors. A lot of times we don’t think this way; we think that we are in charge and that we call the shots; James says that this is foolish thinking.
If that is foolish thinking, then what is the preferred mindset? What should you do? The Bible is not anti-planning, but it is against planning as though God doesn’t exist. If the Bible is not anti-planning, then what should you do? James 4:15 gives the preferred mindset, “Instead you ought to say [to the person who says that they will start a business and make a profit],… “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” There is nothing wrong with thinking about retiring at a certain age, starting and selling a business, paying off the house, but God might have different plans. So, make your plans with a looser grip on them realizing that the Lord can interrupt your plans if He wants to. If the Lord interrupts your plans, praise the Lord, because whose plans to you want: yours or God’s? It is this mindset of the true spiritual walk where we are walking through this life with our grip not as tight as it once was as we are growing in wisdom.
When I was working at the Bible College locally, I loved our contracts that they gave us at the beginning of every school year. Then there was a little clause at the bottom that said that they may not have the enrollment numbers in which case this contract would be void or vitiated. I liked that because they were giving me a contract that wasn’t so airtight that God couldn’t interrupt my plans if He wanted to. I think this is what James is dealing with here and how we should live.
The problem is exposed in James 4:13, planning as though God doesn’t exist; the reason for the problem in 4:14, our life is like mist that appears for a little while and then is gone. Life is the thinnest of vapors, so we aren’t so much in a position to make airtight plans even though we are deceived into thinking that we are in such a position. Then the preferred mindset is to go ahead and plan but to leave room for God to intervene if He desires. Or to leave room for life’s circumstances that change things should they happen.
In 4:16-17, there is the problem of planning without depending upon God. Why is God against us planning as if He didn’t exist? He mentions four things in 4:16-17 — how does God look at planners who plan as though He isn’t even there? James 4:16,17 says, “But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, the one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” So, the Holy Spirit through James, uses four descriptors to describe the mindset of airtight planning:
- Boasting — again, it is a lot of fun to try to figure out which Old Testament Scripture James is referring to when he uses the word, boasting. I think he is probably referring to Proverbs 27:1 written 1,000 years before James wrote this book, “Do not boast about tomorrow, For you do not know what a day may bring forth.” I don’t mean to get too far off on this, but this becomes the problem of incurring massive amounts of debt or going into debt at all. I don’t have a carte blanche rule of ‘no debt,’ but my mindset is that if you go into debt for something, make sure you are on your knees about it because if you aren’t careful, you will commit the sin of presumption. You will presume on tomorrow. That is what Proverbs 27:1 is dealing with: “Do not boast about tomorrow, For you do not know what a day may bring forth.” The problem, therefore, with going into debt, is if you say to yourself, ‘I will use the money that I have from this job to pay back this debt at this time.’ If you aren’t careful, what you have just done is to commit the sin of presumption because you assume that you will have the same job a year from now, and you may not. So be very cautious about putting yourself in a position where you are pretending that tomorrow is going to be just like today. Maybe your tomorrow will be like today; maybe you will get a better job; then again, you might lose your job and be without an income for a while. This is why it says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, For you do not know what a day may bring forth.” That is why James calls this mindset of planning as if God didn’t exist — boasting.
- He also calls it in 4:16, arrogance because you are living as if God didn’t exist. In fact, you are pretending to be God yourself; you are giving yourself an attribute of omniscience because you think you know exactly what will happen tomorrow; an attribute that belongs only to God. James calls it arrogance; those are strong words — it is boasting; arrogant…
- The third descriptor James uses is evil — a pretty strong word. In other words, it is evil to make ourselves out to be like God, and when we commit the sin of presumption, that is essentially what we are doing.
- The last thing James says it is — sin. He then gives a generic description of Sin, per 4:17 is the Greek word, ‘hamartia’ — it literally means missing the mark. When we miss the mark, that means that we have fallen short of God’s character, of God’s’ law. It could mean that we are violating our own consciences because God has put His laws in our hearts and minds per Romans 2:14-15. These all go under the category of sin. Then he also says here in James 4:17 to expand our definition of sin, “…Therefore, the one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” So, I guess that God, rather than giving us 66 books, could have given us a book as big as the United States Tax Code, enumerating every single possible sin that we could commit in which case we would have a massive amount of studying to do. Fortunately, God gave us a limited revelation; He doesn’t articulate every single sin that we can possibly commit. ‘How do I know if something that I am doing is sin or not?’ Because it becomes sin when, to you, you know the right thing to do but you do not do it, or you know something is wrong to do but you do it anyway. That, too, is sin. If I am planning my life as though God doesn’t exist, I am committing the sin of presumption. By doing so, I am transforming myself into the place of God, and it is in that particular case, that I know what is wrong yet choose to violate it. I don’t necessarily have to find chapter and verse in the Bible that identifies it as sin if it is something that you know in your conscience is wrong, but you do it anyway, then it becomes sin.
These are, would you not agree, strong words to describe this concept of planning without God. It is boasting, arrogant, evil, and it becomes sin if it causes us to do something that we know is wrong. That is a pretty powerful paragraph, particularly for people like me who are type A personalities who want every nook and cranny ironed out in advance. James has described for us the need to plan — nothing wrong with planning — but do so with an attitude of dependency on God. He then describes in 4:16-17 the problem of planning without depending upon God using four very strong words:
Then, factor in all of that what we looked at earlier, which is the true walk of spiritual wisdom that also involves foregoing judgment on fellow Christians.
Next time we will do the use of wealth per James 5:1-6. So, you may want to look at that paragraph for next time.
Prayer: Father, we are grateful for the book of James and how practical it is and how it speaks into our lives. I pray that we would not be just good students of the book of James but that we would apply these principles to our lives. We will be careful to give You all the praise and the glory. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen!