If you went to Sunday School you probably know that the Israelites grumbled in the wilderness. And you may know what God did to them when they grumbled. He slaughtered them (see Ps 106:25-26)!
“So let this be a lesson to you, children,” says the historically-minded teacher. “You grumble, you die.”
What a frightening thing to hear, especially if you are a child.
Will God really kill us if we grumble? “Oh, no Paul. That’s so old covenant.”
Okay. So how do we read this verse which is found in the New Testament?
Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! (Jas 5:9)
Is James saying we set ourselves up for God’s divine judgment when we grumble? According to Matthew Henry, that is exactly what James is saying:
Fretfulness and discontent expose us to the just judgment of God, and we bring more calamities upon ourselves by our murmuring, distrustful, envious groans and grudgings against one another, than we are aware of.
Adam Clarke agrees:
By giving way to a (grumbling) spirit of this kind, you will get under the condemnation of the wicked.
According to these Victorian gents, if you grumble or murmur against your brothers, you can undo the work of the cross. Although there is “no condemnation” to those in Christ, you can fall under “the condemnation of the wicked” merely by grumbling.
Flip. Talk about your bad news.
But wait – it gets worse
The Greek word for grumble in James 5:9 actually means to groan or sigh. We’re not even talking about the sort of grumbling the Israelites did when dragging their weary selves around the wilderness. A mere groan or sigh is enough to “expose us to the just judgment of God” and bring “calamities upon ourselves.”
Sidebar: And we wonder why nobody wants to go to church when they hear messages like that!
It seems we have three options:
1. Aim for balance. Obviously this radical grace message is too good to be true. I mean, who were we kidding? God never changes. If he slaughtered the grumbling Israelites he may slaughter you. The cross changed nothing. You have been warned.
2. Keep grace but dismiss James. Unlike Paul, James didn’t have a clue. His book is only in the Bible to show us what mixture looks like. Now, where are my scissors?
I hope you can detect my sarcasm here. Obviously, I would never call for balance because grace is unbalanceable.
(Sidebar: I was recently accused of over-emphasizing grace. Since grace = Jesus, that’s like saying I was preaching too much Jesus!)
And although many dismiss James as the black sheep of the New Testament, I don’t. James was an apostle of grace, so put those scissors down. It seems we are left with only one alternative.
3. Read the scripture in context and find out what James was actually saying before jumping to ridiculous conclusions.
That sounds good. Let’s try that.
What James is really saying
Read James 5:9 in context and you will see that he talking about folk who make us groan and sigh!
I’m not kidding.
Sidebar: The church is full of people who, God bless ‘em, exasperate us and make us sigh. I received a message a few minutes ago from a brother who said I was dangerous since I am leading people astray. Sigh. Now that I’ve told you about him, does that make me a grumbler? Better stand back. Lightning’s coming my way for sure!
Anyway, back to the text.
Who are these groan-inducers James is writing about? Who are the people who make us sigh?
They are the big shots in fine suits who love to take the best seats in our meetings (2:3). They are the rich men who exploit us and drag us into court when they don’t get what they want (2:6). By their evil actions they slander the name of Jesus (2:7). They exploit their workers (5:4), while living in luxurious, self-indulgence (5:5). They condemn and kill the innocent (5:6). Frankly, these greedy fools should be weeping and wailing on account of the misery coming their way (5:1-3).
These are strong words but James was telling it like it is. The early church was troubled by wicked men. “But don’t worry about them,” says James. “When Jesus returns they will get their comeuppance.”
Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. (Jas 5:7)
We are living in the collision of kingdoms. In the kingdoms of this world power comes from the barrel of a gun. Worldly power is also exercised through lawsuits and market-based exploitation. But we are citizens of another kingdom, one that has nothing to do with guns and greed. When faced with injustice, the temptation is to fight with the weapons of this world. But James exhorts us to be patient.
See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (Jas 5:7-8)
James is saying, “Hang in there – justice is coming.”
We in the West lead sheltered lives. We don’t face imprisonment and death like our brothers and sisters in other countries. It’s hard for us to relate to James’ words. But if you are a victim of corruption and oppression, his words are encouraging. “Look for Jesus,” says James, for Jesus knew what it was like to suffer injustice at the hands of the rich and powerful.
Let justice roll down
When Jesus comes with a sword he’ll right every wrong and heal every hurt. He’ll demolish the corrupt government of Herod and end the religion of the Pharisees. On the day he returns, the justice of heaven will prevail over the injustice of earth.
“Well, that’s great James. But we have to live with wicked men here and now. Any advice on how to do that?”
Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. (Jas 5:9a)
In other words, be patient and don’t pick fights you can’t win. If you let these turkeys get to you, they’ll ruin your life. They’ll haul you before the courts and bleed you with lawsuits you can’t afford. That’s how these fat-cats operate (see 2:6). They’ll haul you before judges with a little “j.” But fear not, because in your corner is a Judge with a big “J.”
The Judge is standing at the door! (Jas 5:9b)
These guys will drag you before the magistrate at the slightest provocation, but be encouraged. The Judge of all judges is standing at the door! The One who justifies you will soon execute his righteous judgment on those-who-make-you-sigh.
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