The book of James has a variety of contemporary applications for modern readers based upon its major ideas. One of the main themes of the book is stewardship; that is, the author of is concerned with how his readers should manage their possessions and resources. This theme is especially visible in 5:1-12. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate some implications and applications for modern readers based on the meaning of James 5:1-12.
Interpretation of the Passage
Before any applications can be gleaned from the text, the meaning of the passage must be established. There are two clear sections inside these verses. First, in vv. 1-6, James essentially pronounces condemnation upon the rich people in view because they have “laid up treasure in the last days” which has now “rotted” and “corroded.” Second, in vv. 7-12, James shifts his tone and tells his audience to “be patient…until the coming of the Lord.” This change signals not only a change of the people in view, but it also signifies the meaning of the entire section. What James does here is point out that the first group put their hope ultimately in the goods and possessions they had. This is shown by his comment that they “laid up treasure in the last days” (5:3). On the other hand, the second group put their faith ultimately in Christ, and James exhorts them to be patient until he returns.
Thus, the overarching theme of this text is the importance of putting faith and hope in Christ rather than material, worldly possessions. Manton argues, “He is not simply threatening rich people but those who are described afterwards—worldly rich people, drowned in pleasures, puffed up with pride—worldly, wicked, oppressive” (Manton, 288). Furthermore, Martin notes, “In light of vv 1-6 (especially 5:6) and their theme of the rich versus the poor, James is urging his readers to keep the faith that centers on a divine visitation to rescue the ‘pious poor’ who trust God” (Martin, 189). Lastly, Nystrom posits, “James also makes clear the fate of those who persist in claiming true Christian identity without the concomitant life of practice he has outlined. Finally, the passage offers hope to the righteous who suffer, since the fate of those who cause this suffering is the opposite of their own fate” (Nystrom, 268). Having established the meaning of the passage, original and contemporary applications can now be discovered.
Original Application of the Passage
One of the rules for contemporary application is to first determine the original application, if any, of a given passage. Applications must inevitably stem from the interpretation of the specific passage. Moreover, particular contemporary applications must be roughly analogous to the original application. That is, a modern application should seek to be faithful to how the original audience might have applied the text, bearing in mind particular cultural, situational, and time differences.
For James 5:1-12, then, the original audience might have applied the text in several ways. Firstly, they would have ensured that the proper use of their wealth and possessions. They would not have “kept back [the wages of laborers] by fraud” (5:4), and they would have sought to avoid condemning and murdering “the righteous person” (5:6). These physical actions point to the spiritual reality of having fundamental hope in worldly possessions and earthly power and privilege, something James is trying to warn his readers against. Additionally, the Christians would strive to “not grumble against one another” (5:9). Contextually, this probably means that each should be satisfied with his own possessions, ultimately looking to the coming of the Lord.
Contemporary Application of the Passage
Having discovered some of the original applications of the text, contemporary applications can now be explored. First, modern readers should not fall into the trap of materialism. The idols of greed and power pervade Western culture, principally in the form of advertisements (formal and informal), so Christians today should continue to remember that Jesus is their ultimate hope. No amount of money or possessions will bring fulfilling joy; on the contrary, those things almost inevitably bring destruction (5:1-6). Christians should be wary of putting too much hope in acquiring possessions and power, knowing that these things can be devastating to their faith.
Second, and closely related to the first application, Christians should be patient until the coming of the Lord. Followers of Christ can wait in firm confidence, knowing that Jesus will return one day and bring this fallen world to an end. No longer will anyone put their hope in things that will fade away; all hope and trust will be in Christ. When Christians are tempted to succumb to the materialism of the surrounding culture, or lured to the brink of despair by the present suffering and destruction throughout the world, they can take ultimate hope that one day everything will be made new.
Third, Christians are not grumble against one another. Not only does this work against an effective witness for Christ, but it also points again to the reality that too much hope has been placed on material things. Christians should not seek to complain about each other, but they should be fully focused on the coming of the Lord. This kind of eschatological framework will provide Christians with immense patience, for knowing that Jesus will ultimately return allows for a certain freedom regarding earthly rights and privileges.
This paper has demonstrated that there are a variety of applications for modern readers that stem from James 5:1-12. The two-fold meaning of the passage is 1) the importance of wise stewardship of earthly goods; and 2) the necessity of waiting patiently for the Lord to return. Some of the original applications that flowed out of that meaning were avoidance of fraud, condemning and murdering the righteous, and grumbling against one another. Three contemporary applications to be acknowledged are avoiding materialism, patience in waiting for the Lord, and not grumbling against one another. In applying all of these, readers will be able to “establish [their] hearts,” knowing that “the coming of the Lord is at hand,” thus fulfilling the original intention of the author (James 5:8).
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