James 5:1-6 “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.”
What a gift from God is great wealth, and how many poorer servants of God have been beneficiaries of Christian generosity. How grievous is the abuse of a great gift. James is dealing with this subject in these verses. He could remember a centurion who built a synagogue for the old testament community to learn the Scriptures, and he is aware of the potential for the gospel that riches brings, but these are wretched men. Consider all they might have done and failed to do. “Weep and wail!” says James as he indicts them for their sin. His whole exhortation is aimed at humbling them. Scripture is profitable for rebuking and correcting. God did not inspire it to give everyone a good self-image but that all might come to the truth.
Think of it in this way. A boy in school excels at track sports. He breaks the county sports record for the high hurdles. His friends tell him how fabulous he is. Then one day the Olympic champion visits the school and sees him perform and says, “There is so much you have to do to improve. Your technique needs to be drastically changed if you are going to get anywhere.” Who had the higher view of that boy? His friends who praised him constantly because he is the best in all the local schools, or the Olympic medalist who tells him he has no chance unless he changes? The gold medalist of course. He has a realistic view of the boy’s prospects because he has such high standards. The very fact that he speaks to him and evaluates his style and tells him what has to change is a tribute to the boy.
So when God speaks to wealthy people and points out their failures it is not because he has a demeaning view of humanity or desires all take a vow of poverty. It is because God expects much more of man than we require of ourselves. These rich men thought they had it all because of what they could do with their money, but God is saying all they’d got was fearful judgment. If you have made some money in life you might takes these verses in James as an insult and a blow to your precious self-esteem, but the fact is that God takes you and your millions so seriously that he holds before you a very high standard, which is the majesty of God himself and your life is being measured by that glory. Don’t come short of it!
That is the reason for the great warnings which occur throughout the New Testament about selfishly accumulating wealth. There are the words of the Lord Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19). It is a categorical prohibition. You remember how the Saviour said it was hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven, in fact, it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Or you think of the apostle Paul speaking of the love of money. He says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Timothy 6:6-10). “Flee from all that,” the apostle tells Timothy. Think what a barrier to coming to God was the Rich Young Ruler’s money.
The warning is about becoming emotionally attached to riches, so that one’s desires become centred upon getting money, and one’s energy is consumed in the pursuit of more and more wealth. “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Eccles. 5:10). Here is a man who is not simply getting necessary possessions, providing for his family and safeguarding the future. This man is laying down layer after layer of money, amassing it, hoarding it, and never satisfied. He achieves his first million, and without a pause he sets out to gain his second, and so on. As James says to rich people here (v.4), “You have hoarded wealth in the last days.”
Obviously wealth had become a snare at all sorts of levels for these Christians. There was the temptation to judge someone in terms of his wealth. When the stewards at the door saw someone approaching the building dressed in fashionable attire, with the insignia of wealth, then these Christians got excited. A poor old lady entering at the same time was told to stand in a corner but the rich man was shown to a seat. They were being partial and obsequious, judging people not by their moral, spiritual or human worth but by how wealthy they were. The world judges in that way. Magazines like “Hello” and “OK” show that enthusiasm, but followers of the Lord Jesus can never think like that – admiring someone because of what he’s got.
The New Testament is warning us about a preoccupation with the world’s pleasures and glittering prizes. Concentrating your attention and energy on wealth is the snare. You can become engrossed with what this world has to offer, and all of it requires money. A missionary told me about his student son, “He likes nice things.” He was talking about a mentality that visits the shopping malls, liked designer clothes, the latest computers, dreams of a sports car, an interesting old house, a wide selection of CD’s, vacations in fashionable places in the winter and the summer, glossy magazines, eating out in good restaurants. The boy was saying that his taste was part of maturing; they were for him ‘the cultivated pleasures of a cultured intellect.’ But the father was seeing a dangerous obsession with this vain world. We must be careful not to give our hearts to pleasures in any of their forms.
Think of how the world praises the wealthy man, and such attitudes are tremendously flattering. People jump to attention and shower their interest upon us. Wealth brings prestige and influence. They pay attention to what we say simply because we’ve got money. Women are attracted to wealth, we are told, though men might be as unattractive as an Onassis. How tempting it all is, the eyes following us, the whispers, the invitations, the pull.
The New Testament tells us that above all, as Christians in the world, we are to be governed by an awareness of how deceitful money is. It says to us, “You’ve made it. You’re a success. This is what it’s all about.” It is the great deceiver, because this is not at all what life is all about. Think of the greatest man who walked this earth; he had nowhere to lay his head. We are not to pursue wealth, or come under its power, because it is in God that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden. To him we look. Upon him we live. With him we walk. To please him is our end. He is our goal and our great reward. “Whom have I in heaven but Thee?” we cry. “And there is none upon earth I desire but Thee.” That is the logic of Christianity. All lasting wealth is at the right hand of God. That is our treasure and that is where our heart is also. We have no other obsession, and nothing else to which our hearts are given. For us to live is Christ.
So James begins with this tremendous warning: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you” (v.1). It is a solemn word. It is an alarming word. “Shriek!” James says. “Howl!” He is discriminating and singling out monsters from one economic class, and he arraigns before them their danger. They should be in frantic terror from what he says. And if there are any here tonight who fit James’ description this preacher has failed if you do not weep with shame. Let’s consider their behaviour that brings this judgment upon them.
1. The Actions of the Corrupt.
We are living in a culture of corruption. It has almost become a global norm. The American constitution has not been strong enough to nail down its political scandals. The constitution of the European union has failed to deal with the financial scandals of the Commission. They have mislaid a staggering ten per cent of the Commission’s budget. There is not a country in Europe without vast financial scandals. Our wealthy advanced economies may be able to support the marginal cost of corruption but weaker economies cannot. Russia has been looted and destroyed. The Asian depression of 1998 was largely caused by corruption. For India and China it is a major economic handicap. Several sub-Sahara African countries have been ruined by criminal dictators such as Bokassa or Mobutu who shifted much of the national wealth to their own Swiss bank accounts. In those countries children who go to church die of malnutrition because of such wickedness. In Britain we live in a culture of lobbyism and cronyism, of spin and sympathy, where politics has become too much an exercise of the exchange of the favours of power. The wealthy have destroyed sport. There is no way back from where we are but the gospel way. It has happened before and the sole hope for any country is that it is done again.
Former editor of “The Times,” William Rees-Mogg has written this, “In late 18th-century and early 19th-century Britain, honourable people, many of them evangelical Christians, were outraged by sinecures and corruption, and successfully rooted them out of British public life. For more than a century, the British even ran their huge empire without bribes. Now there is a new and global wave of corruption. We need a new sense of outrage” (“The Times,” 15 February 1999).
This is one great purpose of these words. James starts with his conclusion, “wail because of your coming misery.” Why? What have they done? There are four charges he brings against them.
i] “They have hoarded wealth in the last days” (V.3). These rich are saying that they are being shrewd investors, and denying themselves and displaying tremendous industry, but it is all vitiated by self-centredness. They are not gathering money as a stewardship before God but because they are absolutely besotted by it. They love mammon. It is their god. The apostle says, “Greed…is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). He doesn’t say good business sense, or hard work or industry is idolatry. But hoarding wealth for ourselves, and having our daily quiet times around the stocks and shares columns in the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times – that is idolatry. Such people are utterly disregarding spiritual values while we are living “in the last days.” The next great event on God’s timetable is the coming of Christ, the day of judgment, the great separation and the eternal state. But they are living as if Christ had not risen from the dead. They are storing up their goods as if they were going to live for ever with monthly statements coming from the bank in perpetuity. Everyone has to choose either to trust in a loving heavenly Father or in money. Either your expectations are in the Lord’s faithfulness or in the shrewdness of your investments. You have to choose. Jesus says, let me tell you this when you come to make up your mind, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). In 1934 Percy Shaw invented and patented the cat’s eye reflectors set in rubber in the middle of the road. By the 1990’s 16 million of them had been sold and he had a vast income. He lived in a house with four rooms downstairs each of which had a television set always turned on and locked into one of four different channels. He went from one room to another to see something that took his fancy. It is a sort of adumbration of hell, isn’t it? What sort of existence is that? All the money to buy anything he wanted, and that is how his last years were spent before he met God. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
ii) These rich defrauded those who worked for them. “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you” (v.4). How are they so rich? They have taken advantage of people. They have paid them a pittance, and sometimes they have failed to pay them anything. You can imagine these little people turning up in church on the Lord’s Day in their rags, aching with hunger, weary from having spent the last week working long hours in backbreaking toil for next to nothing. It is happening today all over the world, the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, women and children. We hear of children being taken from their Thailand villages to work in Bangkok in unspeakable activities. This occurs everywhere in south-east Asia and India. For the most demeaning tasks they get nothing. They are virtual slaves and their lives are ruined. God knows it.
iii) These rich live in sumptuous luxury. “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” (v.5). What a vivid picture. It is of a group of soldiers on the night of victory, all the slaughter behind them, celebrating the destruction of their enemy and without any restraints gorging themselves on what they have picked up. Just one night for the soldier; every day for the rich. James is referring to people who must have a new car every year, who are weary of their expensive clothes after they have worn them a couple of times, and like the sheets changed on their beds every morning. What was one news item in the paper this week-end? That some film-star had taken four friends for a meal in London and the bill had been 17,000 pounds. The major part of this had been on the purchase of a bottle of wine called Romanee Conti 1978 which cost 11,000 pounds, and some other similarly priced bottles. Such extravagance is unalloyed wickedness. “Self-indulgence” James calls it.
How can preachers live sumptuously? It is wrong for them to do so because it is wicked for any follower of the Lord Jesus to live in that way. Thomas Manton says, “God gave us wealth for another purpose than to spend it in pleasure.” Remember how Amos preached so courageously against the self-indulgent with this same spirit: “You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions” (Amos 6:1-6) A luxurious lifestyle is as much an abomination to God as anything in the ten commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. That is the absolute, invariable and inviolable law of Almighty God. To live lives of sumptuous prosperity will lead people to hell. Dives was indulging himself while Lazarus was starving. Dives ended his life in the place of woe, but Lazarus went to heaven. The rich man cannot maintain a life of extravagance and keep a good conscience simultaneously. That is impossible. One of the two has to be sacrificed. You can keep you conscience and mortify your luxuries, or keep your luxuries and smother your conscience. You cannot keep both.
iv) These rich murder the innocent. “You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you” (v.6). Wealth is power. Keeping wealthy means keeping power, and so it easily leads to violence. The mob, the gangs, the Mafia, the drug barons, the private armies, the Provos, the I.R.A., the godfathers, the hit men, murderers, intimidated witnesses – all of this so familiar to us from the media. Powerful men use legal processes and are able to condemn the innocent. And the innocent are not opposing. What pathos! We have received such moving letters from condemned cells in Iraq of brave servants of Christ going to their deaths modestly and bravely, not shrieking and protesting their innocence. It is not that they could not or ought not to have resisted their powerful accusers but that they chose not to. They have committed their souls to the righteous Judge who will reveal all things in that great day. That is enough. We think of the Lord Jesus Christ the one completely innocent man. He did not resist his enemies. He was sold to his enemies by his friend Judas and he bowed to that action. His servant Stephen cries out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” as the hurled rocks crash into his body.
These then are the actions of the wealthy wicked which James arraigns before us.
2. Why Does James Preach to a Poor Congregation About the Wealthy Wicked?
We all know how easy it is to declaim against sins that no one in the congregation has any opportunity to commit. Every real minister feels agreement with Edmund P. Clowney when he wrote, “I must confess that I was sterner with the liberal enemies of the gospel outside the Orthodox Presbyterian Church than with the sins of those to whom I ministered.” Is this a classic case of James the preacher getting worked up over men who would never darken the doors of a place of worship, and the result of our hearing his words is that we poor folks feel smug? Not at all. There are many good reasons for this passage to be judged and weighed by us all. The seeds of covetousness are in every heart. Poor people are troubled by inordinate desire just as much – if not more – than rich people. There are always those who are mean-spirited and secretly wealthy within every congregation. There is nothing like the word of God on any subject to cleanse and purify all who hear it in faith. We are interested in knowing what does the Bible teach about riches? We want to know everything in the Word of God don’t we? The truth will touch us somewhere in our lives. Scripture is like an Internet. It is a series of connections. You hear something on life under the Judges, or the battle to build the walls of Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah, or read what Paul says to slaves in the first century and the messages directly relate to your problem in the factory this coming week.
Again, the Christian church has its share of charlatans who use religion to make themselves rich. Here is a letter from a certain Pentecostal evangelist. He is a proponent of the so-called ‘health and wealth gospel.’ They are the ‘name it and claim it’ people. In this letter he is appealing for funds to enable him to send Christian materials to the Third World. He says, “There is no better way to insure your own financial security than to plant some seed-money in God’s work. His law of sowing and reaping guarantees you a harvest of much more than you sow … Have you limited God to your present income, business, house or car? There’s no limit to God’s plenty! … Write on the enclosed slip what you need from God – the salvation of a loved one, healing, a raise in pay, a better job, newer car or home, sale or purchase of property, guidance in business or investment … whatever you need … Enclose your slip with your seed-money … Expect God’s material blessings in return …” (quoted by John Stott, in “Issues Facing Christians Today”, 1984, Marshalls, p.226). There are not many churches without some people toying with such dreams, and wondering whether they might be true. Don’t they deserve just a little more money? These ideas are to be sternly resisted. In the Old Testament, when God’s people were a nation, God did reward their obedience with material blessings, but now the new covenant has obtained for all God’s people “every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3) which is enjoyed by every single Christian. Forgiveness of sins, the indwelling Spirit of God, unlimited access to the indwelling Saviour, a glorious inheritance in heaven, the imputed righteousness of Christ, the end of the reign of sin over us – these blessings are the portion of the youngest lamb in the flock of God. Even under the old covenant the rich man had to use what he had to care for the poor. So all of us need warnings about how destructive riches can be.
Again, there were people hearing these words who were the victims of unscrupulous men. Their lives were a misery and they were suicidal. They were like Israel threatened and raided by Babylon, Moab, or Tyre. There were few people from those countries listening to the prophet Isaiah as he declared how the Lord would deal with them, but the Lord’s people heard that God would avenge them for what his enemies did to them. Hitler and the Nazi party was not listening to Winston Churchill breathing out threatenings against them, but his words bolstered the morale of the British nation. So it was here: the down-trodden and disadvantaged and abused Christians were lifted up by James describing the justice of God and the judgment that would fall on their cruel employers. They no longer envied them. It gave them hope and calm. They felt they could cope because the Lord was with them.
3. Why are the Actions of the Wicked Wealthy So Unwise?
James chooses three symbols of success:- wealth, clothes and precious metals. The word ‘wealth’ can refer to cereal crops like corn and wheat. Garments were a common form of wealth, and finally there is gold and silver. So James had taken the most recognisable evidences of financial security. A wealthy man had barns of corn and wheat, wardrobes full of beautiful silks and embroidery, and his strong room full of gold and silver. James says, “Fine, but do you realise that the corn and wheat can get mildewed and spoiled, and so utterly useless. And moths have got into your wardrobe and laid their eggs in your fine clothes. Even now grubs are eating your dresses and suits. And your gold and silver? Even that has been corroded, and you had thought your jewellery was not a base metal and it could never lose its value.”
You see how James even uses a past tense, actually the perfect tense, as he describes the disintegration of all the possessions of the wealthy man. It is perfectly captured in the NIV – “your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.” You are riding around in your chariot expecting everyone to notice you and be subservient, but don’t you know that everything you are basing your hopes on for a secure future is being destroyed. Every earthly treasure is uncertain. The Lord Jesus talks of moth and rust corrupting and thieves breaking through and stealing our most valued possessions.
You accumulate all that wealth, and yet how vulnerable it all is. You invest in a mink coat and dare not wear it because an animal rights activist will throw acid over it. If you keep it in a wardrobe the moths will attack it. You invest in grain and you build bigger barns and silos, but mildew attacks, and vermin gnaw their way in and it is ruined. You buy some treasure, an antique, a Welsh dresser, an old master, some early books, postage stamps, but they are liable to breakage, wood worm, fire and corrosion. You take any earthly treasure and safeguard it against inflation, but it is vulnerable to those forces of destruction, revolution, greed and war that operate in human society. It may be economic uncertainty. It may be sophisticated thieves. It may be the uncertain political situation. It may be something that happens on the other side of the world, but certainly what we can expect in the future is change and decay.
Why are you investing in those treasures? They are transient and impermanent. Let me remind you, if it is necessary, that this applies not only to consumer goods but to the most precious of our possessions, to those things that are of the most consequence to rich and poor, our homes and marriages. The intimacies of marriage relations, the love of a husband for his wife, and a sister for her sister, even over these precious realities there lies a great and solemn inscription, “until death us do part.” There is no way that we can frame our lives and guard our treasures – even by Fort Knox security – and ensure that they are going to be permanent. If the wealth is physical, then physical changes will destroy it. If the wealth is personal then that reality which severs all personal relationships will destroy that. James is saying, “Don’t live for corn, wheat, garments, silver and gold. Don’t live for anything that is transient and uncertain.”
Let us go beyond that, not only impermanent, surely also this, that in the last analysis they are not able to satisfy our deepest human need. Now an animal can survive by food alone. He looks at grass and eats grass all his days. Man cannot live by bread alone. You cannot sustain a soul on gold bars. You cannot feed the human spirit on pounds and pence. See what James goes on to deal with in the rest of this chapter – some of the great realities of our lives, pain – it comes to all of us – and patience – how we need it – and prayer. How can I be helped in this?
You remember Mr Percy Shaw who invented the cat’s eye? With all his money he needed more. He needed to look at something. He had to think and feel and laugh. He needs stimul ation, and so he turned to the TV set and lived his life before that. Do we not know the problem of boredom? You see a child with a new toy, how fascinated he is with it, taking it to bed and unhappy when it is not in his hands. He had begged for it and even prayed for it, and at last he has it and is overwhelmed with delight, but a week later the toy is discarded. It has lost its fascination. We are back to Augustine’s great dictum, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” Only in God can we find patience in suffering and one who hears our prayers.
The “Radio Times” has recently done a four page feature on a showman called Freddie Starr. It is the saddest story because Freddie Starr concludes saying, “I’ve had no life. I’ve missed it. And if you haven’t got a life material things mean nothing. I’ve lived in a palace, with eight Rolls-Royces and two helicopters, so there’s nothing anyone can tell me about that. There’s times I put my head in my hands, and think, ‘What’s this all about?’ I lead a dull and lonely life off-stage. Show business has cost me a lot of money and two marriages. Categorically it has not been worth it” (Radio Times, 20-26 February, 1999, p.20).
There is only one ambition worth pursuing and that is to discover what is the meaning of life, hearing the answer in the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, “I am the life.” I say that you can look at the mountains of all your other ambitions, the salary you want to be earning by the time you are thirty, the man you want to marry, the sort of car you’d like to drive, the house you dream of living in, the clothes you see yourself wearing, the qualifications you want to get, the rank you wish to reach, and you can say ,as you plod up that long slope, step by step, on the weary way towards your life’s dreams, “Not much longer, and when I attain that, what a glorious day it will be, to reach the summit, what a beautiful prospect will be mine then.” Then finally you have it. It’s you who have it, remember. It’s you; no one else; but the same old you with your fears and weaknesses who has it. It comes at last to you, and I tell you, the moment you have it, then the goal itself seems to crumble into dust. It’s not much after all. It doesn’t fulfil. It is not man’s chief end. It may have its relative importance and value, but it is not going to meet the needs of your soul. One gold bar would not do it. The eight Rolls-Royces and two helicopters fail to do it. I wander in my palace house from one room to another and all I find in each room is a TV set and me. I have my millions, but I have no life. You’ve missed it! The Lord Jesus says I can have the whole world, but I am on the edge of eternity, a lost man.
Is that fulfilment? You have your riches, your corn, wheat, garments, silver and gold, item by item, maybe like Chairman Mao, or the president of Zaire, or Robert Maxwell – you could get anything at all that you desired, just suggest it, and minions will run and obtain it, but you have lost your own soul. So what has been the point of the accumulation of transient treasures at such cost, to the hurt and destruction of so many people? They cannot satisfy you, and in the end you are bored with them all. Look at Elvis Presley, that great icon of 20th century youth, in the last years of his life totally dependent on drugs to get him through a single day, while he was such a wealthy man. He started life going to church in a small town in Mississippi and hearing the gospel every Sunday. He ended life the most famous young man in the world but without a family or one real friend, a recluse surrounded by hangers-on, and in bleak despair. He who in films would croon love’s tune, by the Hawaiian lagoon, in June, died a lonely loveless death. The dream became one long nightmare. He missed it.
Let me spread this teaching on the folly of materialism a bit further. James is describing men whose treasures are material things and they are totally ruthless hanging onto them. They will trample on other lives and condemn and murder to keep the treasure they’ve got. The Lord Jesus says, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” Now that is one of the great threats that hangs over our Christian lives. Christ says in the parable of the sower that there are some who initially receive the gospel with joy, but then, he says, they are drawn away by “the deceitfulness of riches” and their hearts are being taken away from the gospel.
Think of the Christian interest of young people, their openness to the Bible and admiration and love for the Lord Jesus Christ. There is an idealism and purity about them, until earthly ambitions grow and the pursuit of this world engrosses their hearts. The Lord Jesus is saying to you, “Be careful.” Remember how the devil showed the Son of God the kingdoms of the world and all their glory – and they do have glory – and vainly promised Christ that splendour if he fell down and worshipped him. Will you be strong enough to say, “Away from me Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only”” (Matthew 4:10). Many have fallen down before Mammon. No longer for them to live is Christ, but for them to live is to graduate, to own my house, to increase my salary, my children doing well – that, for me, is to live. That is my treasure. That’s where my heart is. How often is it true of us that we’ve left our first love. There was the joy of discovering Jesus Christ, and that great peace in our souls, and a zeal that others should know what we know, and there were hardly enough sinners in the world to convert. But today we have relapsed into the cult of ordinariness and averageness. We are consumed by the passing trivia dictated to us by the papers and the media, because it is inevitable, wherever is a man’s treasure there will his heart be.
4. What is Going to Happen to the Wealthy Wicked?
Nothing happens to them, you say. They just die. That’s it. We live. We die. Right? Wrong. We live. Yes. We die. Yes. And after death the judgment. Not reincarnation. The wicked wealthy does not come back as an untouchable. “How do you know?” you ask. Because of the Lord Jesus Christ. He said one day he would stand before all men and he would divide them as a shepherd divides a sheep from his goats, and consign them to their destinies. Jesus said that there was a wicked wealthy man and he died and he went to hell, that he longed to be delivered from there, but there was no deliverance. There was a great gulf fixed as wide as the distance between one side of the universe and the other, and then some more, and it was impossible to cross it. The coming sequence before us all is this: Death: The throne of the universe: Heaven or hell. Jesus said it plainly for simple fold to understand. The Jesus who raised the dead, and gave sight to those born blind. The most sane and lovely man in human history. The one who preached the Sermon on the Mount. You and I are devious and proud people, self-seeking, believing and teaching what is most convenient for ourselves. He wasn’t.
So I don’t believe in reincarnation because he didn’t. At his transfiguration Moses and Elijah met him. Moses had been dead 14 centuries, enough to be reincarnated 20 times but it was he who met with Jesus. When the dying criminal asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom Jesus did not tell him that if he lived a better life in his next hundred reincarnations atoning for being a criminal worthy of that death in this life then maybe he would reach nirvana. Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” When Stephen was stoned to death the last thing he saw was the heaven opened and Jesus standing to receive him. There is no reincarnation. We all have just one life, and each of us then must give an account of our lives to God. This is a moral universe. My conscience tells me it is. The man whom grace taught to live his life for other people, and laid down his life caring for them does not end in the same place as the man who hoarded wealth, and lived in luxury and self-indulgence, failing to pay those who worked for him, and murdering the innocent. There are two roads, and two destinies, one in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, and one in an unspeakable place. See what James says here:-
In verse 4, “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” You see the picture. Here are starving families, men weak with hunger, but one day a landowner calls them over: “Work in my field all day and I will give you such a wage.” It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. So all day under the hot sun he laboured longing for the evening to come when he’d take his wage home to his wife and children and buy some food that they might live. But at the end of the day the landowner turned up with some of his bully boys and said he didn’t have the money right now, and “come back tomorrow.” But tomorrow was too late for your baby, and your cries in heartache over your dead child and over the evil of that man with so much money who made those great promises but failed to keep them – those cries of yours and your wife’s have reached the throne of the universe. The Lord Jesus has heard those cries. The Lord Almighty, that is, the Lord of the hosts of heaven, one day will come and all his holy angels with him. Nothing can possibly prevent him raising the dead and setting up his throne in the heaven and gathering all the world before him to be judged. He hears the cry of the tortured, the rape victim as she cries for mercy, the little boy forced to work 12 hours a day, the empty promises of the bribed politician, the weak smile of the corrupt policeman – those very sights and sounds have reached the Lord Almighty.
More than that, James says the very “wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your field are crying out against you” (v.4). Judas’ 30 pieces of silver are round his neck in hell for ever. The blood of Abel cries out for justice. Cain must answer to that blood. The pennies stand in the witness box and all jingle at the wealthy wicked, “We were the sum you promised to your workmen. We never left your pockets did we?” That’s their cry. Your mouth is stopped. The alimony you never paid. The maintenance never given. The money meanly kept back from your wife and children. It will cry out in the great day, and your mouth will be stopped. Men say, “Ah, well, you can’t take it with you.” The implication is, so you spend it here. But God says, “I will take it beyond the grave. Not its delights and forbidden pleasures but as evidence to speak out against you.”
See what James says about your corroded gold and silver, that it “will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire” (v.3) The marks of mammon are on you indelibly, James says. You have hugged your silver and gold to yourself and it has corroded your soul. Why that meanness? Why that Mr Scrooge? Why so pitiless? Your soul is corroded. That is the reason, and you cannot give. You can only take. It is emotionally impossible for you to be generous. It hurts you to be kind. You are a corroded man, and all the signs are there, the toughness, the implacability, the insensitivity, the aloofness and the distance from hurting people, the emotional stringency – they are all marks of a soul that has clung to gold and silver and become corroded by it. That is the evidence of your shame, and that will be your punishment in the place of woe. You wanted gold and silver, well you will have it for ever and ever and ever. That is all you will have, eating your flesh like fire. There will be nothing else for you but the thickest walls of gold, cages of silver, chains of precious metal all preserving you in judgment for the great day. That will testify against you and it will “eat your flesh like fire.” That, James says is “the misery that is coming upon you.” These people look so beautiful in the glossy magazines, and their lives appeared so enviable, but look where they end up. They are on a road, everyone of them, and it is going to destruction. They dealt with their workmen; now the living God will deal with them.
Why is the rich man in hell? Not because he was rich. That is where the socialist is wrong. He is there because of the manner in which he got his money, and the spirit it produced in his own soul, and the way in which he used it. There is nothing like wealth to make it hard for us to enter the kingdom of God. It dulls the sense of spiritual urgency, and the reality of divine judgment.
“Weep and wail,” says James. He is talking about godly sorrow. He is telling them to repent. In other words there is hope, even for the meanest cruellest Scrooge that this world has seen. There is hope of his redemption if he weeps in shame for what he has done. If he wails in repentance before God for his wickedness. Let our repentance be commensurate with our sin. James is denouncing great sinners. Great sinners must manifest great repentance. It is not enough on their death-beds to mutter a general confession. What value will that be? Scarcely any. Now is the day of mercy, and that is received by repentance. “Oh God I am sorry.” Really break your heart before God. There was a wealthy man named Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1ff). He was the sort of man James was speaking about. When Jesus entered his life the change that took place was commensurate with the wickedness of his past. He gave away half of what he possessed to the poor and if he had cheated anyone he paid it back four times over. It was deadly serious and very costly for Zacchaeus to be saved from that wickedness. It means weeping and wailing. But far better to do that in the day of grace in this life, than endlessly in judgment in the life to come. There is an escape from hell, but there is no escape without repentance. The only escape is through grief for your sin at the feet of the Lord Jesus.
Geoffrey Thomas 7th February 1999