Suffering and Salvation – 1 Peter 1:3-5

PersecutionIt is possible the original readers of 1 Peter wondered about the status of their salvation. They knew God had promised the Jewish people a return from the exile, a return to the “promised land” and a righteous and just king to rule over them in a time of prosperity. Yet the Jewish people remain in exile, Rome rules over them with an iron fist and the political circumstances of the early 60s would seem to indicate that some sort of war between Rome and Jerusalem was inevitable.

The original readers believed Jesus was in fact the messiah and that his death and resurrection had inaugurated a new age. They were awaiting the return of the Messiah to establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. But instead of a glorious return of the Messiah, the original readers of this letter were suffering oppression and persecution as a result of their faith in Jesus as Messiah. It is unlikely this was the sort of systematic persecution by Rome that would later be the case, but it was no less shocking given the hope they have in Jesus.

Does the persecution mean that they have not inherited salvation? Have they put their faith in Jesus in vain? Peter’s point in these opening verses is that the believer in Jesus has a new status (they are born again into God’s family) and that their inheritance is kept for them by God himself. In fact, by its very nature, their inheritance is unable to fade or become worthless.

In response to these fears, Peter first describes salvation as “an unfading inheritance” (1:3-5).  Peter is writing to Jewish Christians who are in fact suffering for their faith, so in this introductory prayer he introduces the main themes of the letter. The Christian will suffer in this age, but that suffering is not an indication of punishment. In fact, genuine salvation is completely secure because it is kept by God himself.

Second, Peter says we are born again into “a living hope.”  While “born again” is a common way to describe Christians in the contemporary church, Peter is the only writer in the New Testament to use the verb ἀναγεννάω to refer to the spiritual experience of the believer, although the concept appears in 2 Cor 5, for example, and is implied in several adoption passages (we are children of God, etc.).

All of this language refers to the Holy Spirit’s regeneration of the believer. Peter says here that we have “a great salvation” not simply because we get to go to heaven someday, but because we have been fundamentally changed through the power of the Spirit of God and the resurrection of Jesus.  Ernest Best points out that this should not be reduced to a metaphor. It is not the case that believer’s experience is “like being born again.” We are in fact born again (Best, 1 Peter, 75).

Third, this regeneration to new life is through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is somewhat surprising that he does not say through the blood of Jesus, or the Cross. Peter’s focus is on the coming of the new covenant in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; since he lives, we also can have life.  Peter described the hope we have on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus and the regeneration of the spirit as an inheritance.  This is a very biblical way to describe salvation. In the Hebrew Bible, Israel was redeemed from their slavery in Egypt and brought to the “promised land.” That land was their inheritance, promised to Abraham in Gen 12. In the New Testament Paul describes our salvation as an inheritance (1 Cor 6:9, 15:50, Col 3:24, Titus 3:7; cf., Heb 1:14).

In our increasingly post-Christian America, it is possible some more conservative evangelicals may have the same questions as Peter’s original readers. When is Jesus going to return and judge those people! How should this description of our salvation in 1 Peter change the way we look at the changing role of Christianity in contemporary culture?

Elect Exiles of the Dispersion – 1 Peter 1:1

As I showed in a previous post, 1 Peter is addressed to the “elect exiles of the dispersion” (1:1, ESV). The metaphor for the Christian as a “stranger” or “alien” in this world is very powerful, one that makes for great preaching. Christians sing “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” (For those who enjoy 80’s Christian rock, think of Petra’s “Not of this World.”) Famous stories like Pilgrim’s Progress describe the Christian life as a long journey through a foreign land. We are slowly making our way through a strange and wicked country to out real home, the Celestial City.

But in 1 Peter 1:1 the “stranger” and “exile” is a metaphor drawn on the experience of Israel. In fact, 1 Peter is framed with the idea of exile. In 5:13 Peter says “she who is in Babylon greets you.” To be “in Babylon” is to be in Exile, living in a strange land which is trying to “convert” you away from serving your God. Think of Daniel, a faithful Jew who served God in Babylon, in the exile. He was a stranger and foreigner, and a model for faithful Jews living in Exile. Peter addresses his letter to Jews living “in exile” as strangers in a strange land.

Does this metaphor address Jews or Gentiles? I think that it is undoubted that Peter drew the metaphor from the Hebrew Bible and the experience of the Jewish people. Calvin commented on 1 Peter 1:1 saying, “Those who think that all the godly are so called [foreigners], because they are strangers in the world, and are going on metaphorically towards the celestial country, are greatly mistaken, and this mistake can be refuted by the word dispersion which immediately follows. This can apply only to the Jews.”

Frequently the recipients are Gentiles, based on 1:18 (“futile ways inherited from your ancestors”). But Jobes points out that the next verse states that the readers are redeemed with the “precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter; BENT, 2005). This description of Jesus as Messiah and a spotless lamb seems in favor of a Jewish recipient. In addition, Jobes points out that Paul considered his Jewish accomplishments as “rubbish”(Phil 3:7-9). It is not surprising therefore that Peter might describe the practice of Judaism apart from Jesus as Christ as “futile.”

Does that mean we who are Gentile Christians ought to ignore this book as “Jewish”? That strikes me as dangerous and foolish, but it is nonetheless important to read these metaphors (and the whole book) in the context of Jewish Christianity of the mid-first century. Peter is addressing Jewish Christians who struggle living as strangers in their culture, which is exactly the sort of circumstance we face now. As Jobes says, “Once the letter circulated away from its original readers, the first sense necessarily receded and the metaphorical sense of “foreigners of the Diaspora” became primary.” (Jobes, 1 Peter, 64.)

How can this distinctly Jewish metaphor be transferred to the situation of the American church in the early 21st century?  Or, should it  be applied in this way?

Is 1 Peter Addressed to Jewish or Gentile Christians?

Peter at CapernaeumLike James, Peter’s first letter appears to reflect a Jewish Christianity. Surprisingly, this is not the majority opinion. In his brief notes on 1 Peter in the ESV Study Bible, Thomas Schriener comments that “Most scholars are convinced that the recipients of 1 Peter were primarily Gentiles” (ESVSB 2402). Carson and Moo (Introduction, 647) assume a mixed congregation. Raymond Brown (Introduction, 720) also sees the target audience of 1 Peter as “Gentiles who have been heavily catechized with a strong appreciation of Judaism.”

There are several indications that Peter is addressed to Jewish Christians congregations, which may include God-Fearing Gentile converts, but I would prefer to see these primarily Jewish Christian churches.

1 Peter 1:1 addresses “the elect” who are “scatted” (1:1, NIV). Both words are significant in that they point to a Jewish audience. The “Elect” is a common self-designation in Judaism. They are the nation which God chose (via Abraham, or in the prophets, when he rescued the nation out of Egypt). “Scattered” is the Greek diaspora, the Diaspora. This was a word used frequently to describe Jews loving outside of the Land, including those regions addressed in 1 Peter 1:1.

These elect believers are described as being in exile (ESV). This word is better translated as “sojourners,” or “strangers.” The Greek parepidamos is rare in the New Testament, occurring here, 2:11 and Heb 11:13 referring to the children of Abraham (LXX Gen 23:24, LXX PS 38:13, 39:12 ET). The synonym paroikos appears in Acts 7:6 with a similar sense.

If one sees the addressees of 1 Peter as Gentile, then these descriptions must be taken as metaphors. It is assumed that the church is New Israel, and so Christians like Peter picked up on language once applied to the Jewish Diaspora and re-apply it spiritually to the Church (as Schreiner does in ESVSB 2405). If Peter, like James, is writing a letter to other Diaspora Jews, then there is no reason to take the language referring to anything other than Jewish believers.

There are several other examples of letters to Jews in the Diaspora. In Jer 29:4-23 a letter is sent to Jews living in Babylon. Similarly, 2 Baruch 78-87 imagines a similar letter sent from Baruch after the fall of Jerusalem. The first chapter of 2 Maccabees is a letter sent to Alexandrian Jews. James should also be included in this list, as well as the book of Hebrews, which is addressed to Jews living in Rome in the mid first century, although the word Diaspora does not appear there. It is therefore Peter stands in a tradition of Jewish writers and leaders writing to Jews in the Hellenistic world. to encourage them in their belief and practice.

What difference would reading 1 Peter as addressed to Hellenistic, Diaspora Jewish Christians make as we read the text of 1 Peter?

Book Review: Charles L. Quarles, Matthew: Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament

Quarles, Charles L. Matthew. Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017. 384 pp.; Pb.; $29.99. Link to B&H Academic

Charles Quarles new Exegetical Guide to Matthew joins John Harvey’s contribution on Romans and eight other volumes in the EGGNT series published since 2010. I have previously reviewed Greg Forbes on 1 Peter. Quarles serves as Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is well qualified to write this exegetical guide, having published The Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church (B&H Academic, 2011), A Theology of Matthew in the Explorations in Biblical Theology (P&R, 2013), as well as numerous articles and other publications on the Jesus and the Gospels.

As with other volumes in this series, Quarles begins with a short introduction covering authorship, date, provenance, composition and structure. He argues for traditional view the book was written by the Apostle Matthew during the 60s A.D. this is based in part on several references to Temple practices in the book which would be meaningless after the fall of Jerusalem. He is less dogmatic on the provenance, Syrian Antioch or Palestine are equally plausible. He does not comment on the destination nor does the introduction deal with sources or redaction criticism. Occasionally he will refer to some word as “characteristic of Matthew’s style” (p. 51) or compare Matthew to a similar saying in Luke.

Each new section of the outline of Matthew begins with a short paragraph on the structure of the pericope and highlight key features. The bulk of each section is a phrase by phrase analysis of words which have difficult syntax or are exegetically interesting. He refers to intermediate and advanced grammars such as A. T. Robertson’s classic grammar (cited as R), Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar beyond the Basics (cited as W), blass-DeBrunner-Funk (BDF) and Zerwick (cited as Z) by page number so the student can examine other examples or get a definition of obscure syntactical terms. Quarles frequently refers to the third edition of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2000; BDAG), but he also compares several English versions as well. When necessary, Quarles comments on textual variations appearing in the Nestle Aland Greek New Testament, often citing Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies, 1994). When Quarles cites important major commentaries on Matthew he uses a single letter (F = R. T. France, G = Robert Gundry, N = John Nolland). Careful attention to the abbreviations page is necessary to use this book. Unlike other contributions to the EGGNT series, Quarles does not offer any kind of syntactical display. Because Matthew is lengthy book compared to Paul’s letters a syntactical display would increase the length of the guide.

Following the exegetical guide, Quarles collects a short bibliography of articles and monographs. There are 152 of these short bibliographies in the book and will prove to be extremely valuable for further study on each unit. These include many recent works (in the last ten years) as well as well-known older articles. Given the nature of the exegetical guide, these bibliographies cannot be not exhaustive bibliographies.  Each unit concludes with a few homiletical suggestions. For the most part these are extremely brief outlines look more like bullet points than sermon outlines.

It is possible for a student to replicate but of the content of this exegetical guide with good Bible Study Software (Logos, BibleWorks, Accordance). These tools will identify every word in the Greek New Testament and parse every verb. A student can create a “reading guide” with one of the Bible Software tools. But Quarles’s exegetical guide is not reading guide. Greek verbs are only rarely parsed and not all vocabulary is glossed.

The goal of the exegetical guides in this series is to offer a summary of the issues for a given phrase, picking out the data from all of the major resources and gathering them into a single paragraph. Since Matthew is the longest book in the series, not every word can be given the same level of detail. In Forbes’s exegetical guide to 1 Peter, a single verse fill a full page; Quarles must cover four or five verses per page.

This guide is a valuable tool for doing exegesis, it cannot replace learning koine Greek. For example, in Matthew 22:10, Quarles identified the participle ἐξελθόντες as a participle of “attendant circumstances” without further explanation or citation of a syntactical grammar. The usage is so common in does not need explanation for an intermediate Greek student. The same is true for the dozens of historical presents in the Gospel of Matthew. Without taking an intermediate Greek grammar course or the equivalent, the student will not be able to make an interpretive point without knowing what a participle of “attendant circumstances” means nor will that information help with translating the text.

A common criticism of a “reading guide” is that it arms the student with information but not an understanding of the Greek New Testament. This book requires some knowledge of intermediate Greek in order to fully use the wealth of detail Quarles provides.

This exegetical guide will be welcome for anyone studying the Greek text of Matthew. The book is densely packed with information which will aid the student preparing exegetical assignments and papers, but for there is much in this book to help the pastor or Bible teacher preparing sermons and Bible studies on the first Gospel.

 

NB: Thanks to B&H Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on February 22, 2018 on Reading Acts.

What To Do with the One Who Wanders – James 5:19-20

The final lines of this letter address a Christian who has “wandered from the truth.” Does this mean this brother has completely rejected the Gospel? In English, wandering has the sense of random meandering away from where you are supposed to be, perhaps aimlessness. But the Greek word translated “wander” (πλανάω) can have the connotation of deception. This brother could be misled by another, perhaps even a teacher or elder.

But the verb appears in Matthew 18:12-13, a sheep who wanders away from the sheepfold. It is also used consistently in the Old Testament for the apostasy of the nation of Israel. If the nation are the sheep of God’s pasture, then their persistent sin and rebellion is like a sheep wandering out of the safety of the pasture, putting them in danger from predators.

The truth can refer to doctrine and practice, but it is not specific (i.e., the truth of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus as God, etc.) In a contemporary context, this is more than someone leaving our church and attending another, or shifting from a Calvinist to Arminian view of salvation, or any other doctrine within the larger world of Christianity.

Whatever the truth refers to, it is possible for another to restore the wandering brother to fellowship. James is addressing the responsibility of the one who has not wandered to restore those who have wandered,

If the tensions between Jewish Christians and the wealthy aristocracy are in the background of the letter, then perhaps the “wandering” James has in mind is a return to the synagogue, perhaps even a rejection of Jesus as the messiah. Remember the congregations to which James is writing are small Jewish Christian messianic communities which have not gone very far from the synagogue. It is possible pressure from non-Christians Jews have convinced some to worship in the synagogues and keep their belief in Jesus as Messiah secret.

James is speaking hypothetically, but this kind of defection from the faith was always a possibility for Jewish Christians. The grammar of the passage is a third-class condition. Whatever the case, James does not think any have actually wandered away from the truth, but if that should happen, they can be brought back. James says the one who brings back the wandering sinner “saves his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” Does this refer to the wanderer, or the one who restores the wanderer?

The problem for the modern reader is how we treat those who have serious questions about their faith or how they live out their faith in the world. It is very easy to write-off a person who has wandered from their faith, those who appear to have rejected the core doctrines or now participate in behaviors we “insiders” consider sinful.

Perhaps it is best to return to the first of the commands in this paragraph, “If someone has wandered away, pray for them to be restored to fellowship.” But we ought to pray four our own sensitivity and grace toward those who have wandered in order to win them back.

Praying for the Sick – James 5:13-15

James 5:13-18 briefly mentions several kinds of prayers for those who are suffering or rejoicing (5:13). Those who are suffering ought to pray. The verb James used for suffering (κακοπαθέω) is rare in the New Testament. Paul used the word in 1 Tim 2:9 to describe his own suffering, bound in chains like a criminal. In 2 Tim 4:5 it is one of the final commands to Timothy (endure hardship). This is not necessarily that people being oppressed by outsiders (such as the wealthy of the previous section). This word can refer to any sort of affliction (even the sickness in verse 14).

Image result for anoint the sick with oilAlthough the verb is the common word for prayer, James makes a clear parallel with “cheerful singing” in the next line. It is at least possible James wants the one who is suffering to pray a lament Psalms. There are many examples of prayers in the Psalms where the writer is lamenting because of suffering and oppression.

In contrast, the cheerful ought to “sing praise.” The verb “be cheerful” (εὐθυμέω) and the related nouns have the sense of “in good spirits” (BDAG), as in Acts 27:22, 25, 36 where Paul encourages those about to be shipwrecked to “take heart.” This word does not refer to someone who is bubbly and happy, but rather someone who may be suffering but rejoices anyway. In James, the readers all seem to be suffer in some way.

Although there is no organized persecution, there is some harassment at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Since the verb for singing (ψάλλω) is related to noun for a psalm, perhaps James wants the cheerful to respond to the Lord with thanksgiving or praise drawn from the Psalter. The believer is to respond in worship whether they are enduring some suffering or enjoying a time of relative peace.

A second kind of prayer in this paragraph is prayer for the sick (5:14-15). The elders are to pray over the sick and anoint them with oil. It is important to understand “elders of the church” in the context of James as a very early letter. This is not the office of elder in the fairly structured church of the Pastoral Epistles. Some scholars see this as a distinctively Christian phrase. Sophie Laws, for example, “This is one phrase which gives a specifically Christian colouring to the epistle” (Laws, James, 225).

An elder (πρεσβύτερος) referred to the older, wise men of a community. For Jews, these were the men who were respected in a town and synagogue. As the church developed certain men were appointed to function as official guardians of faith and practice, but in the earliest Jewish communities, the elders were analogous to the older men of the synagogues. By church (ἐκκλησία), James refers to the Jewish Christian communities in the Diaspora, more or less equivalent to a synagogue. This is not the universal church, the body of Christ.

The elders also anoint the sick with oil. Although anointing with oil is used for a variety of things, it is associated with treating wounds. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan puts oil on the man’s wounds, for example. But in the ancient world there was nor a clear distinction between a miraculous healing and medical science. “A distinction between remedies based on superstition and remedies based on science would have been foreign even to the practitioners of Greek medicine” (Laws, James, 227).

The elders anoint the sick person “in the name of the Lord.” This could refer to Jesus, or could refer to the father. For the most part Jews would have referred to God as “the name,” so this implies the Lord is Jesus. Although this seems academic, there are so few references to Jesus in James scholars hope to find them wherever they can! Dibelius thought the command to pray “in the name of the Lord” is an allusion to exorcising a demon who was responsible for the sickness. This would reflect the Second Temple view that demons caused illness, but there is little in this text to support an exorcism.

The sick person also confesses their sin. This may reflect the Jewish view that sickness and sin are related. It was common in the Second Temple Period for Jews to connect physical illness and sin. For example, Sirach 18:19-21 and 38:15 makes confession of sin a requirement for healing and good health (Laws, James, 229).

Sirach 18:19–21 (NRSV) Before you speak, learn; and before you fall ill, take care of your health. 20 Before judgment comes, examine yourself; and at the time of scrutiny you will find forgiveness. 21 Before falling ill, humble yourself; and when you have sinned, repent.

Sirach 38:15 (NRSV) He who sins against his Maker, will be defiant toward the physician.

In John 9, Jesus’s disciples ask of a man who was born blind had sinned, or of his parents had sinned; in Mark 2 the Pharisees considered Jesus’s pronouncement that a lame man’s sins were forgiven to the blasphemous since the man was still lame.

It is surprising James makes no reference to laying on of hands, a common practice in healing. This may imply this is not a “traditional healing.” The impression from the two verses is that a person with an unusual illness can call one or two of the community leaders to their bedside and confess their sins. These elders will pray for them and tend to their illness in some real tangible way.

Like the first two commands of this paragraph, the sick person confessing sin is often found in the Psalms.

Psalm 35:13–14 (ESV) But I, when they were sick— I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. 14 I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother; as one who laments his mother, I bowed down in mourning.

Psalm 41:1–3 (ESV)  Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him; 2 the Lord protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; you do not give him up to the will of his enemies. 3 The Lord sustains him on his sickbed; in his illness you restore him to full health.

The prayer of these elders can “save them” and the Lord will raise them up. This appears to refer to healing, although this is not necessarily the sort of miracle Jesus did, nor the apostles in Acts. But regardless of the activity of these elders, it is the Lord who raises the sick person from their sick bed.

By way of application, these two verses are not related to modern healing at all, they reflect Jewish practice in the first century. James is describing a practice which should be as obvious as praying at times of suffering or cheerfulness.

The Rich Have Fattened Themselves – James 5:1-6

The book of James is quote clear: those who are wealthy now face judgment in the eschatological judgment. They may be living a good life now, but the rich can only expect suffering and judgment in the future. James’s condemnation of the rich certainly resonates with the Sermon on the Mount, especially in the Lukan beatitudes (Luke 6:24-26).

Who are these rich people and what have they done to be attacked as the prophets once attacked Israel? Scot McKnight argues these are the wealthy who oppressed the poor members for the congregation in 1:19-27 and 2:14-17 (McKnight, James, 382, note 74). But these are not necessarily Christians: the prophets often addressed the nations. McKnight points out (rightly) we need to recognize James is not like a Pauline letter (addressed to a Christian community), but a prophetic letter sent to a broad range of Jewish readers, some of whom are not yet Christians.

It is possible the wealthy condemned in this paragraph would never hear James’s prophetic speech. If this is the case, then the function of the condemnation is to encourage the oppressed readers of the letter. But this too is similar to the prophetic literature. Did the nations condemned by Amos actually hear the words addressed to them?

James reflects both the prophetic tradition of Israel and the teaching of Jesus in his relentless attack on the rich who oppress the poor.  Condemning the wealthy is one of the most prominent features of the early prophets (Micah 3:1-4; Hos 2:4-7; Isaiah 3:11-5:1) as well as the apocalyptic judgment in 1 Enoch 95.

Micah 3:1–4 (ESV) And I said: Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not for you to know justice?— 2 you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin from off my people and their flesh from off their bones, 3 who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces and chop them up like meat in a pot, like flesh in a cauldron. 4 Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil.

1 Enoch 95:6-9 “Woe unto those who build oppression and injustice! Who lay foundations for deceit. They shall soon be demolished; and they shall have no peace. 7 Woe unto those who build their houses with sin! For they shall all be demolished from their foundations; and they shall fall by the sword. Those who amass gold and silver; they shall quickly be destroyed, 8 Woe unto you, O rich people! For you have put your trust in your wealth. You shall ooze out of your riches, for you do not remember the Most High. 9 In the days of your affluence, you committed oppression, you have become ready for death, and for the day of darkness and the day of great judgment.

James attacks the rich in a series of short phrases which sound like apocalyptic judgement.

First, the rich will weep and wail because misery has come upon them. Weeping is a common word in the New Testament and is associated with mourning. Wailing (ὀλολύζω) is only used here in the New Testament, but in the LXX it is associated with apocalyptic judgment (Isa 13:6; 14:31; Zech 11:2; Amos 8:3). The Greek word sounds like a howl, and the Hebrew word it translates in Isa 13:6 (ילל) refers to an undulating wail or howl (cf., the Arabic walwala). It is often used in parallel to lament and for the wailing of an animal in the desert.

Misery (ταλαιπωρία) sometimes refers to extreme suffering (Job 30:3), but it is also associated violent destruction when the Lord Almighty comes to restore Israel (Joel 1:15). In LXX Ezekiel 45:9 the word is used for oppression by the rich (cf. LXX Psalm 11:6; ET Psalm 12:5).  In fact, Ezekiel 45:9 is a possible intertext for James 5:1 “Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and execute justice and righteousness. Cease your evictions of my people”

Second, their hoarded riches will rot away and the rich will burn. James says money and clothes will corrode and become moth-eaten. This immediately calls to mind Matthew 6:19, Jesus draws a contrast between treasures in heaven were rust cannot destroy and moths cannot destroy (both James and Jesus use the same word, “treasure” (θησαυρίζω). But Job 13:28 has a similar metaphor for the temporary character of material possessions and Isaiah 51:8 is also very close (McKnight, James, 386). Once again, James (and Jesus) stand on the foundation of a prophetic-wisdom tradition.

This should not be a pastor’s house

This hoarded wealth is the result of oppression of the poor (5:4). This verse claims the wealthy have robbed the poor of the proper wages. The verb (ἀποστερέω) refers to frau or embezzlement (BDAG). Leviticus 19:13 specifically forbids defrauding one’s neighbors and the general principle of the Law was paying the laborer at the end of the day (Deut 24:15; Jer 22:13). This is another case where James may know the parable of Jesus in Matthew 20:8, but the wisdom tradition regularly condemns the man who withholds wages.

Third, because the wealthy have lived lives of luxury in this life, they are “fattened for the Day of the Slaughter” (v. 5). The “day of slaughter is a vivid image drawn from the prophetic tradition of a great slaughter of God’s enemies when God fights for his people (for example, Zech 11:4-7; Isaiah 30:25, 34:2, Rev 19:17-19; 2 Enoch 50:2-6). Like the animals they fattened to be slaughtered in the Temple, these wealthy elites are about to be slaughtered.

These elites have lived a life of extreme luxury. The first verb (τρυφάω, only here in the New Testament) has the sense of revelry, carousing and the second (σπαταλάω) is “to indulge oneself beyond the bounds of propriety” (cf. 1 Tim 5:6, BDAG). The word is very rare, appearing only in the LXX in Ezekiel 16:49 to describe the indulgences of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is as if these wealthy elites led lives like the Romans!

If James is writing prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, then this great fiery judgment likely refers to the slaughter of the rich and powerful in Jerusalem, people who have used the Temple to make themselves wealthy and have “fattened themselves” for the Roman slaughter of Judea and Jerusalem. In fact, this helps explain the next obscure line in verse 6. The rich condemned “the righteous person” (v. 6). If James is attacking the wealthy aristocratic priests who have oppressed the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, then they are the very ones who condemned the righteous Jesus to death.

Both Jesus and James condemn those who have enjoyed wealth at the expense of the poor and use vivid language to describe their fate at the eschatological judgment. Does this mean James condemns all wealth as evil? Does Jesus expect the true disciples to live voluntary lives of poverty?

More chilling is the possible application of this teaching to the contemporary church. There are many examples of people who have enriched themselves through their churches, often harvesting money from the poor to support lavish lifestyles. Much of the American church is obviously under the sway of the “health and wealth” gospel, so are African and Asian churches. What would James have to say to us about our great wealth?