James, Part 19
Today’s passage contains one of the most scathing rebukes in the Bible. And it is directed to Christians:
Adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives more grace… ”
James refers to his readers as “adulteresses,” but he is not just speaking to women. He uses the feminine form of the word to remind his readers that God views his people as his bride. “For your Maker is your husband–the Lord Almighty is his name–the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5).
What is the significance of God claiming the role of husband? It means that our relationship to God is not distant like that of a king and his subjects, but intimate, like the marriage relationship. And Israel was terribly unfaithful. The passage from Ezekiel below is long, but it provides a dramatic picture of how God feels when his people reject him.
Give her this message from the Sovereign Lord… “On the day you were born, no one cared about you. Your umbilical cord was not cut, and you were never washed, rubbed with salt, and wrapped in cloth. No one had the slightest interest in you; no one pitied you or cared for you. On the day you were born, you were unwanted, dumped in a field and left to die.
“But I came by and saw you there, helplessly kicking about in your own blood. As you lay there, I said, ‘Live!’ And I helped you to thrive like a plant in the field. You grew up and became a beautiful jewel. Your breasts became full, and your body hair grew, but you were still naked. And when I passed by again, I saw that you were old enough for love. So I wrapped my cloak around you to cover your nakedness and declared my marriage vows. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, and you became mine…
“I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry… Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful…
“But you thought your fame and beauty were your own, so you gave yourself as a prostitute to every man who came along. Your beauty was theirs for the asking. Unbelievable! How could such a thing ever happen? You took the very jewels and gold and silver ornaments I had given you and made male idols and engaged in prostitution with them… You used the beautifully embroidered clothes I gave you to dress your idols. Then you used my oil and my incense to worship them. Imagine it! The food I provided for you–the fine flour, olive oil and honey I gave you to eat–you set before them as sacrifice.
“Then you took your sons and daughters–the children you had borne to me–and sacrificed them to your gods. Was your prostitution not enough? Must you also slaughter my children by sacrificing them to idols? In all your years of adultery and detestable sin, you have not once remembered the days long ago when you lay naked in a field, kicking about in your own blood.”
Ezekiel 16:3-22 (NLT)
It’s impossible to read that passage and not sense the heartache God feels when his people are unfaithful. And James’s audience would be familiar with the concept of God as the husband of Israel. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel and other prophets chastised God’s people for their unfaithfulness and labeled their idolatry as adultery.
James rebukes his readers for having a love affair with the world. And the “world” James speaks of is not the planet we live on; he uses the term in the way we use the word “worldly” to describe someone who makes the acquisition of wealth and personal power their top priority. In that sense, when we dedicate ourselves to the world we become the enemy of God.
Why does being worldly make us enemies with God? Recall what Jesus said in a similar situation: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). “Mammon” is that glittery stuff the world entices us with. And Jesus is not suggesting our service to God will suffer if we try to do both–he is saying it is impossible to serve God and the world at the same time.
Why? The short answer is, we can’t be in two places at the same time. If we are following Jesus and walking with God, we will be walking in a different direction than those with worldly ambitions.
None of us have an unlimited supply of time or energy, and the simple truth is that if we devote our time and energy to keeping up with the values of our culture, we will not have enough time and energy left over to set our minds on things above, seek first the kingdom, love one another, pray without ceasing, and a host of other things that come with following Jesus.
It’s not rocket science. All of us have limited resources when it comes to time, energy, and money. If these resources go to one place, they can’t go to the other. And before we get clever and start scheming on how we could indeed divide our resources between the world and God, we should consider a second observation James makes: our God is a jealous lover. He will not sit idly by while we bounce between him and our latest idol.
This is what James is talking about in verse 5 when he asks, “do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’?” Some of us wince we see the adjective “jealous” applied to God, but we should celebrate it because it conveys the idea that God loves us passionately, and he refuses to share us with the world.
That is a good news for us because our culture is also a jealous lover. She has seduced many Christians into believing they can fulfill their desires for pleasure and power and wealth, but the consequences are dire. We become people who–at the very core of our being–are unhappy. We become hardened toward God and the people around us, and all our relationships become toxic. None of us want to end up like that, yet millions of us are rushing headlong in that direction.
James encourages us to trust God. Yes, our God is a consuming fire. Yes, the demand for full allegiance is overwhelming. James understands that, and in verse 6 he reminds us that God “gives more grace” to enable his people to meet his demands. Years later, the apostle Paul would say it this way: “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20). The point James and Paul want us to get it this: our God will not make impossible demands of us. He will graciously supply us with all we need in Christ Jesus to become the people he calls us to be.
Next: Conflict–where it comes from and how to resolve it.