Let The Bible Speak for Itself
Now, on the surface it seems that James thought that the Lord would return in his lifetime (or at least in the lifetime of his readers). Indeed, why else would he say that the selfish rich had hoarded wealth in the last day? I don't think that James was looking for an "Hezekiah reaction" from his readers; Hezekiah shrugged off Isaiah's prophetic warning when he understood that the promised judgement would take place after he had died (Isaiah 39:1-8). No, James meant what he said. He wanted the selfish rich who read or heard his letter to understand that their timing was really bad. God was about to move in judgement and everything they had so carefully accumulated would be lost. In other words, James was not writing about the end of all things; he was speaking of a coming judgement that would take place within the lifetime of his original audience.
This shouldn't be so hard to accept. The words are plain (in the English and the Greek1) and should be plainly understood. Yet, there are at least three reasons we tend to believe that James had the end of all things in mind. For one, we don't understand the character of this letter. Secondly we presuppose that all talk of "the end" or "the last days" (and so on), in the Bible is related to our day and age. Third, we don't recognize the significance of Christ's life and death.
James' intended audience was first century Jewish Christians (the same audience targeted in the letter to the Hebrews). He himself was a Jew; he thought like a Jew and he wrote in a Jewish fashion. Like the rest of his countrymen, James understood that God had come in judgement on more than one occasion in times past (Isaiah 13:1-ff and many more). He also understood that rejection of the Messiah was a cause for judgement - just as Jesus Himself had said (Matt. 24:3-ff).
Related to this is that fact that the Bible often makes reference to the "last days" as an event the original readers would experience - or were even then experiencing (Heb. 1:2, 9:26, 1 Cor. 10:11 and etc.). No amount of gloss will cover the fact that the writers of the New Testament (including Jesus Himself), believed that there would be a coming of the Lord in their day (Matt. 24:34, and etc.). We can choose to ignore this and pretend that they were really talking about an event that would take place thousands of years in the future or we can accept the fact that we are not the most important generation in the history of the universe.
Our problem is that we do not understand the import of Christ's first advent. Far too many Christians think that His first go-round was a failure. No one says that out loud of course but the implication is there. After all His own people rejected Him. That being the case (we are told), God had to salvage the situation so He dreamed up the Church on the spot - just so Jesus wouldn't feel bad about wasting His time. The truth is much different. The truth is that myriads of Jews accepted Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 21:20). Indeed, the early history of the Church shows us that in the first century the Church was primarily Jewish. Certainly there were very few Israelites who had followed Jesus during His earthly ministry. Nevertheless, from the day of Pentecost onward the Church was largely Jewish in character and content. Indeed, it was a struggle for the early Church to shed the oppressive elements of its Jewish heritage (consider Paul's letter to the church in Galatia).
The point of Christ's first advent was to fulfill the promises to the Fathers (Luke 1:68-ff, 2 Cor 1:20), to conclude the old covenant and to establish the new. Those who were part of true Israel (Rom. 9:6-ff), accepted Christ as the Messiah and embraced reborn Gentiles as members of the covenant people as well (Rom. 10:17-ff, Eph. 2:1-3:21). They accepted the fact that Jesus was the true seed of Abraham and that anyone who was in Christ was truly Abraham's seed and an heir according to the promise (Gal. 3:29). The old age came to a definite conclusion with the judgement of the apostate generation (first century Jews who opposed Christ), and the destruction of the old covenant temple. Thus James warns his first century readers; do not place confidence in wealth, but in Jesus.
God continues to bring judgement against stiff necked people even today. Like the original readers of James' letter, we must not suppose that our modern American way of life is an indomitable fortress. It is foolish to believe that we are "the people" and that wisdom will die with us (Job 12:1). Indeed, it seems that the future belongs to the East. Whether we care to admit it or not, it appears that the soul of the contemporary Church is in Asia, Africa and South America . Rather than look for a cataclysmic end of history to solve our problems let us cry out to God for mercy lest He come and strike our land with a curse. I admit I am not too hopeful.
1. "The tense of the verb [in James 5:8], indicates that the coming is near." James B. Adamson, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Epistle of James, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 191.
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