The book of James in the New Testament helps us see how we all fall short of God's perfect standard.
It also illustrates how easy it is to be enticed by the opportunistic ways of the world. Today we'll explore the stern warning given to the greedy and the tender encouragement offered to the poor and oppressed as we wrap up our study in the book of James on Truth for Life. Alistair Begg is teaching from the opening verses of chapter 5. Probably the best way to come to grips with the passage was to summarize the charges that are leveled against these individuals. And we only managed to deal with one of them, and that was to recognize, as it says at the end of verse 3, you have hoarded wealth in the last days. The second charge that is leveled is that these same individuals have failed to pay the wages to the workmen.
That's in verse 4. The wages you've failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. Thirdly, you have lived in luxury.
That's the third charge. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. These charges are absolutely crystal clear, because the rich man's punishment didn't lie in what he did as much as in what he failed to do, as in Luke chapter 16 in the parable of the rich man in Lazarus. The problem for the rich man was not that he was intrinsically a rich man, but it was that his riches blinded him to the needs of the poor man. And poor old Lazarus, even the dogs were there just to lick his sores, and that was the kind of comfort that he received, and he would have gladly eaten from the stuff that the rich man had his servants throw out after they'd had a big dinner party.
But the rich man was oblivious to all of that. His luxury had sort of deceived him as to what it means to live in the real world. Now, the word that is used here for luxury is a word that would be… It's not just, you know, you bought yourself a cashmere sweater.
The word that is used here for luxury is a word that would be used for you have lived delicately, or you have pampered yourself, or you have essentially set your life up in such a way as to give yourself over to the wanton indulgence of your senses, so that all the things that will make your life cozy, comfortable, and fine and dandy has become the pursuit of your existence. And it is that which, James, under God, is challenging. Now, again, we said that it has the sting of the Old Testament prophet, and I said that some of us would have Amos in the back of our minds. Let me just give to you Amos in relationship to this. In chapter 6 of Amos, which in the NIV has a heading, Woe to the Complacent, this is how Amos speaks, Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation to whom the people of Israel come. Go to Calne and look at it. Go from there to great Hamath, and then go down to Gath in Philistia. Are they better off than your two kingdoms?
Is their land larger than yours? You put off the evil day and bring near a rain of terror. You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your hearts like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. Therefore, you will be among the first to go into exile.
Your feasting and your lounging will end. There's really nowhere to hide from that kind of thing, is there? That's why, again, one of my favorite country-western songs of all time that you're so tired of hearing me quote—but the reason I quote it so often is because it just fits on so many occasions, doesn't it? No wonder they wouldn't play this in the sixties, when it was done by Ray Stevens. Because it was regarded as an offense to the capitalist system of America.
Well, we're not gonna have that playing on the radio—that'll get people upset. Itemize the things you covet as you squander through your life. Bigger cars, better houses, term insurance on your wife.
Choose the evenings with your harlot, and on Wednesdays it's your charlatan. Your analyst is high upon your list. And so it goes on. It's a devastating piece.
You remember what it was called? Mr. Business Man. Mr. Business Man. Spending counterfeit incentive, wasting precious time and health, placing value on the worthless, disregarding priceless wealth. You can wheel and deal the best of them and steal it from the rest of them.
You know the score. Their ethics are a bore. You better take care of business, Mr. Business Man. Or it's too late. Now, you can go back and check and see whether what I tell you is right, but the majority of radio stations refused outright to play that lyric. Why?
Too close to the bone. Fourthly, you have fattened yourselves in a day of slaughter. What is this all about?
I think it's fairly straightforward, isn't it? You fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. Now, it may be that this is a contrast between what the rich are doing—i.e., living self-indulgent lives—while the lives of the poor are being snuffed out. In other words, you fattened yourself while the poor people are being slaughtered. That may be what it's saying.
I don't think it is. I think it's a picture here of an unwitting beast eating away quite happily. If you go across the back way here, wherever it is—I never know the road names, but there are famous Scottish cows over here called Galloway belties, or belted Galloways. But they have the white wrap around their tummy and then the two black pieces on the outside. And they're really lovely and wonderful-looking, and especially the wee ones. And I pass them, you know, maybe five, four days out of a week, and they just munch away.
Sometimes they're up in the high field, sometimes they're down in the low field. And then my wife told me last year, she said, Did you see the sign that was there? And I said, No, yes. She said they were selling the beef. I said, What beef? She said, The belties. I said, No, no.
They're just there so I can talk to them every day when I'm coming back. No, she said, No, they're munching away so that they can be slaughtered and so that they can be eaten. Like unwitting beasts, these acquisitive misers were fattening themselves quite happily, unaware of the fact that with every munching bite, they were making themselves more ready for a visit to the abattoir. Alec Matea suggests that James is in this issuing a warning to any who might be tempted to follow the example of these people and thereby imperil themselves on the day of judgment. And in a classic Materism, he writes just one sentence, and he says, O to be a thin cow on the day the butcher comes! O to be a thin cow on the day the butcher comes!
In other words, better to have your ribs showing than your belly bulging. And fifthly and finally, you have condemned innocent men, murdered innocent men who were not opposing you. Now, remember who he's addressing here. He's spoken to the brothers and sisters in verse 11, urging those who follow Jesus not to be slanderous towards each other.
He comes back to the brothers and sisters in verse 7 of chapter 5, be patient until the Lord comes back. And here in verse 13 of chapter 4, he says to the presumptuous who are living as though they can determine their own lifespan, I want you to listen up, those of you who have got all these great plans for yourself, leaving God out of your plans. And then again, I want you rich people who have made money your idol to listen to what I'm saying to you. You've hoarded, you've withheld, you've lived in self-indulgent luxury, you've fattened yourselves without any thought of a day of judgment, and your lust for wealth is covetousness. And when covetousness takes hold, men may be prepared to go to just about any length to secure their advantage.
Yes, and their wives may be prepared to go to any length along with them to secure the advantage. That's the reason for the long reading from 1 Kings chapter 21. And he went home and lay on his bed and sulked and said, I can't have what I want. And his wife said, Is that the way the king responds?
Let me show you how to handle this. And then the tragic, murderous activities that emerge from the covetous heart of one who should know better, aided and abetted by his wife. I read in the last week or ten days one particular biographical record of the Russian oligarchs, these individuals who have become vastly wealthy within the timeframe essentially from the coming down of the Berlin Wall through the end of the millennium. And even if you allow for poetic justice or even poetic injustice, even if you allow for inaccuracies in the details, it goes without saying that the vastness of the wealth consumed by these men is a wealth that has been secured on the backs of people whose lives were impoverished under communism and have been devastated under an oligarchical form of attempted capitalism.
And it is a story of bribery and of corruption and of murder and of deceit and of the overwhelming impact of covetousness in the lives of people. And what we need to recognize—and with this we're going to close—what we need to recognize is what James was affirming for the people of Christ to whom he's writing. The vast majority of those who would be within the readership of James' letter in its initial span of influence would be poor people—poor people. The artisans and the workers, the harvesters. The vast majority of those who were the early members of the Christian church were, as Paul said, not many of the mighty or the well-chosen or the powerful or the influential.
They were not in some kind of quasi-middle class. They knew exactly where they were, and their lives were hard, and their faces were often ground down, and they were aware on a daily basis of the injustices that were done to them by those who had the power to make a difference for them and that for good. And what James is affirming as he goes through this—and he's already drawn attention to it—as he's warned them about becoming judges and the establishes of law, he has reminded them that there is a higher throne than that which adjudicates even on the affairs that are referenced here, that there is a judge of all the earth who will do everything ultimately that is right, so that while injustice prevails and while deeds are not settled and while verdicts are rendered that are bogus and wrong, the people of God need to know that God will fulfill his purposes and that money and possessions will be no shield against the execution of God's righteous decrees. Money and possessions will not mean a rap before the bar of God's judgment.
It is the one place, if no one has understood it before, where everything that becomes the vehicle for accommodation and exploitation is absolutely flushed in that for good. And on that day, appointed by God, all the injustices will be dealt with. On that day, unjust salaries and wages will be recompensed. On that day, those who think that they got away with it will have reason to bring to full focus the weeping and the wailing and the misery that James suggests they recognize now.
And that, you see, is what we must hold onto. Because in the execution of righteous living in an unrighteous world, even the systems of legality established by God for the punishment of those who do wrong and the well-being of those who do right, yes, they fail. Yes, they are subject to the chances and changes and sinful endeavors of those who are put in positions of authority.
Corruption abounds. So what then is the Christian to do? Rail against the system? No, we must do what Peter tells us to do. We must uphold the law. We must abide by the rule of law, unless it absolutely tells us to run counter to God.
We must be those who are known for our good deeds and for our law-abiding works. But we have to keep in mind that there's coming a day when the judge of all the earth will do what's right. The story is told of a man who was brought before a judge, justly accused of a dreadful crime. And through some legal technicality, the judge was obliged to discharge him.
If you like legal matters, it must frustrate you as it frustrates me when you realize that a mistrial takes place, because somebody offered into the proceedings that which was disallowed. And although it didn't have a whit to do with the absolute guilt or innocence of the accused, it was sufficient to shut the thing down and send everybody home for the rest of their lives. And through some legal technicality, in this case, the judge was obliged to discharge the man. But as he did so, he chose to say what he thought of the matter. And this was the judge's final summation. He said to the man, in dismissing the case, I believe you guilty and would wish to condemn you severely, but through a petty technicality I am obliged to discharge you.
I know you are guilty, and so do you. And I wish you to remember that you will someday pass before a better and a wiser judge when you will be dealt with according to justice and not according to law. And that, you see, is the thing that is forgotten in our society.
In the most litigated society in the Western world that has become adept at fiddling the system and working it on the side of the oppressor or on the side of the guilty or whatever it might be, unless we believe that and understand that, then I guess we would all want to become shegevara and rail against the system and fight for our rights. God will have the last word. And in light of that, we do well to turn again to the words of James' brother Jesus when he said, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust creep in and destroy, but instead lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. You're listening to Alistair Begg on Truth for Life.
Alistair returns to close today's program in just a minute. Today is the last day in our series titled, A Study in James. If you missed one of the messages or you'd like to re-listen or share a message with a friend, you can download a single message or the entire four-volume study for free at truthforlife.org. At Truth for Life, we are amazed at all that God is doing through this ministry, and we're excited to share our joy with you. In fact, lately, Truth for Life has been growing because God is at work through you. Your partnership, your prayers, and your financial gifts have enabled this ministry to go global through radio, online, various streaming channels.
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Now here's Alistair with some closing thoughts. Well, gracious God, we bow before your Word, and we realize just how tremendously challenging it is, the inherent warning that it contains, nudging us away from self-indulgence and greed, from covetousness, from trying to line our own nest while failing to be equitable with others. We realize that in James addressing these people, he's not assuming for a moment that he's speaking to his own Christian people. This is a mark of those who love the world, because you can't love money and love God, and so he addresses these people who just love money so much that they clearly don't love God. And yet we remind ourselves in the words of Bunyan that there was a gate, a road to hell from the very gate of heaven. So Lord, let us heed the warnings as they come. Let us derive encouragement from reminding ourselves that you, the judge of all the earth, will do right. Let us affirm again that in knowing you, Jesus, we have everything, that all the things we once held dear and built our lives upon, that these things eventually crumble and go away, but that you are our all in all. And may that be the hallmark of this week as we deal with all the affairs of business as employers and employees, as we take our checkbooks and our credit cards, as we execute decisions and plans for savings and disbursements, and as we try to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Let us heed every warning that your Word brings. Let us rest in every encouragement that it contains. And may we seek first the kingdom of God and your righteousness so that all things may be added unto us. For we pray in Jesus' name, Amen. I'm Bob Lapine. The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk wasn't afraid to ask God tough questions, the kind of questions many people are still asking today. We'll begin exploring those questions tomorrow. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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