An Exposition of the Epistle of James
Chapter 1:9-11, The Exalted Poor, The Perishing Rich:
The Word of God stands in direct, sharp antithesis to the whole “way of life.” of the world—especially the American world and “way of life.” To go from rags to riches, from a log hut to the “White House,” to make something of one’s self, power, influence, money: these are the ideals of life, while the poor are at best pitied and more often condemned. God, however, exalts the poor and despises the rich! That is, God exalts the poor who are poor indeed. He exalts the Seekers of His Kingdom, the church in the dispersion. The rich, the lovers of money who are covetous and who trust in uncertain riches rather than in the living God are made low by the righteous Judge of heaven and earth.
James speaks of the “brother of low degree.” There is no difficulty in understanding him to be the child of God, the Christian brother. He is said to be “of low degree.” This term is used in two senses in the Scriptures. Sometimes it refers to one’s natural condition; one is poor, lowly because of a lack of the necessities of food, clothing, shelter; or because of some natural adversity. Other times the Bible speaks of this in terms of the spiritual grace of humility, the antithesis of which is pride. Jesus uses this word “low degree” in this sense when in Matthew 11:29 He describes Himself as “meek and lowly in heart.” We find the same idea in James 4:6 and I Peter 5:5.
Both senses of the term apply in this text. The brother of low degree is one who belongs to the elect in Christ, the redeemed. He has been raised up to new life by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the pride of sin has been broken in his heart by the regenerating work of the Spirit of Christ. He is, therefore, a saint in the world of unholy wicked, a friend of God in a world of God’s enemies. All his hope and trust is in the God of his salvation, so that in daily repentance, fervent prayer for the wisdom of God, fighting the battle of faith, he counts it all joy in divers temptations and patiently waits for the coming of the Lord and the glory of the New Jerusalem.
For this reason he is “of low degree” in the world. He is persecuted and despised for his faith. That was stark reality for the “twelve tribes in the dispersion” to whom James wrote. They literally had no place in the world. They had to flee Jerusalem for their very lives, suffered loss of possessions. Many were fed to the lions, slaughtered, imprisoned, burned and sawn asunder. So it has been, is, and always will be for the brother of low degree in this world. And this is something we apparently have a hard time understanding living in our pleasure-mad, hell-bound world. This life is not a playground but a battle ground for the Christian. It is that today. And it is that in Grand Rapids, South Holland, Iowa, California in just as real a sense as it was that in the Roman world of the first century. The Christian brother is of low degree because he seeks the things which are above and sets not his affection on the perishing things which are below (Col. 3:1ff). He labors not for the meat which perishes but for that meat which endures unto everlasting life. He seeks God’s Kingdom first rejecting the service of Mammon and does not worry about tomorrow or what he’s going to eat, drink, or wear, trusting that his heavenly Father Who clothes the grass of the field, adorns the lily with a glory greater than Solomon’s, and feeds the little sparrow, will also clothe and feed him, for he is of more value for Jesus’ sake than many sparrows (Matt. 6): Thus he is of low degree because he presses all that he is and has in to the service of God’s Kingdom. He educates his children in the fear of God, supports the ministry of the gospel, helps the poor. Besides, his ability to earn a living is somewhat limited. The better-paying factory and construction jobs are closed to him because he will not compromise the Biblical principles of master-servant relations by joining an anti-Christian labor union. Some professional fields are closed to him because they would take him away from the church which preaches the true gospel, administrates the Sacraments and administers Christian discipline in the name of Christ. He finds it difficult and in many cases impossible to climb the “ladder of corporate success” because he cannot be a friend of the enemies of God at the cocktail parties.
James says to him; “rejoice in your exaltation.” Boast, glory in your exaltation. The brother of low-degree must not complain of his poverty, his limited resources and influence. He must be content with his lowly position in the world, thankful and even glory in it. His exaltation is his salvation. While now for a little while he is despised and lowly, a fool for Christ’s sake, he must glory in his deliverance from the power and guilt of sin. In his victory by the grace of God in Christ Jesus over every temptation he must rejoice. He must rejoice in the fact that he shall never die, but only pass through death into his Father’s house of many mansions. And, ultimately he must rejoice in the fact that his light affliction which is but for a moment works for him a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, to be revealed in the new creation (II Cor. 4).
“But,” and here is the contrast, “the rich in that he is made low.” To take “the rich” as the rich brother as most commentators do is to miss the whole point of the text. This is not the godly rich but the ungodly rich. There are rich children of God and it is not impossible for them to be saved, as Jesus’ disciples once erroneously concluded (cf. Mark 10:17-27). There are examples of rich Christians in the Scriptures; Abraham, Job, Solomon, Barnabas to mention a few. Riches are not wrong as such. But that is not the point here. The contrast is between the poor child of God and the ungodly rich.
The grounds for this position are:
1) The passage itself says of this rich man that he shall pass away and fade away in his ways. That cannot be said of the child of God.
2) The text does not address him as “brother,” but simply calls him “the rich man.”
3) The context of the entire Epistle indicates that this must be a reference to the ungodly rich. In James 2:5-7 the rich are presented as the persecutors of the church and in James 5:1 ff James announces the just judgements of God upon the rich in the most graphic of terms.
4) This same contrast is generally found throughout the Scriptures. Jesus contrasted the poor child of God and the ungodly rich in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19ff). In Luke 12:15ff the Savior warns us that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” and to drive the point home He gives us the Parable of the Rich Fool. The Apostle Paul warns, “they that will be rich (wish to be rich—R.D.) fall into temptation and a snare and into many hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.” Why is that? Because the love of money is the root of all evil. Hence, the man of God is to flee these things and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love etc. and the rich are not to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God (I Timothy 6:9ff).
5) There is truth (I Cor. 1, James 2) that God has chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, the base and despised to destroy the wisdom of this world. And the purpose of God in this is that no flesh should glory in His presence.
James means, then, the ungodly rich who are consumed by covetousness and greed, the lusts of the flesh, eyes, and the pride of life. There is a word of God to this rich man and it is: “Let him rejoice in that he is made low.” Literally in that he is humiliated. There is holy irony here! The ungodly rich boasts in himself and rejoices in his sin, and that amounts to rejoicing in his being humiliated. He gains the whole .world but loses his own soul.
His perishing is illustrated by the figure of verses 10b and 11. “. . . because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.” Just as the flower of the grass flourishes for a while and then passes away so the rich man shall utterly perish. Not a trace of him shall be left. He becomes after all his striving for earthly gain but a quickly fading memory. But James extends the figure in verse 11: “For the sun is no sooner risen with a’ burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth (the beauty of its appearance is destroyed—R.D.): so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.” There is frightening power in these words! The sun rises with burning heat and dries up or withers the grass, with the result that its flower falls off and the beauty of its face, appearance is destroyed—that is literally what the Word says.
Thus, in that same manner, the rich man fades away in his ways. “In his ways,” literally “in his journey, pursuits, or goings!” Think of that! The rich man in all his feverish pursuing of uncertain riches, in which he has no time for God, His Church and Kingdom, in all his home life, pleasure-seeking, fades away. His entire life is geared to self-satisfaction, his own security apart from God, amassing a fortune—those are his ways. And in those ways he “shall fade away.” That verb really means “shall waste away.” It does not appear that way to the natural eye. Observing the ungodly rich it appears that they prosper in their ways (cf. Psalm 73). Go, into the sanctuary of God, brother of low degree, and see how God places them in slippery places and casts them down into destruction! The rich come to a miserable end. They perish in their ways. They waste away under the “burning heat” of the righteous wrath of God. Hell is the final end of them. I don’t want to call that common grace, do you?
Let us be warned: Seek the Kingdom! First! Trust in the living God, not in uncertain riches. Rejoice in your exaltation, brother of low degree. It will not be long before it’s realized in the new creation. “Behold I come quickly” is the word of the Savior.