James 4: 2 – 5
We are reminded again and again that the Book and the message of James was written and directed towards the Jews in dispersion. They had received and responded positively to the message of the Gospel and as such had become Christians. To this end, one would have expected that they (Jews) would have moved from the tenets of the Old Testament, which had its strengths on the external, to the new found Law they had just embraced – the Law of the Spirit of life as opposed to the Law of Sin and death.
We are also reminded that this Book was written just before the meeting between Apostle Paul and the others (Peter, James and John) at the council at Jerusalem, even before the Epistles of Paul were written, meaning that James would have written this Book having the customs, traditions and ceremonies of the Old Testament in hindsight. He didn’t know better than to write from that perspective having been a Jew himself and more so had not yet been introduced to this New Life in Christ Jesus.
It was the opposite for them, they would rather continue with the ceremonies, rituals, traditions and customs represented by the Law of Moses. Jesus was spot on when He explained the parable of the new wine, old wine, new wine skin and the old wine skin – trying to put new wine into old wine skin was more like looking for trouble. The Jews found themselves in a situation where they refused to let go of the old traditions after they had responded to the Gospel of Christ, which brought Salvation to them.
They got into trouble as the new wine was poured into old wine skins. They started to experience the dividends of the Law – there was envy, strife, hatred, oppression, disorder, and killings to mention a few. These were the resultant effect of trying to mix the Law of the Old Testament and the New. It is just not possible to become a believer and then still try to substantiate your brand new life with the traditions of the Old Testament. It’s not going to work – it eventually leads to frustration because no one can keep the Law in its entirety.
Apostle Paul describes it this way: if we had worked to merit the Grace of God then we have every right to pen down the many things we did, which eventually would lead to boasting but we didn’t. God did not respond to the many things we did right or wrong through the Law but allowed His Son to be slaughtered as a sacrifice for all. In other words, we had to respond to what He (God) did and not proudly and anxiously trying to run the parade. He (Paul) said, “It is not by WORKS so that no man would boast”.
There was a full blown works of the flesh (The Law), which was the resultant effect of living under the Law. Apostle Paul describes this as the works of the flesh. His (Paul) advice was for us to walk in the Spirit so that we wouldn’t fulfill the desires of the Law. In plain terms, he said, “My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law dominated existence? “
The Jews in diaspora were already having problems; they had started to become materialistic to the extent of killing each other out of mere frustration. They were not getting what they wanted and the next thing is to take it out on their fellow brothers and sisters. They didn’t mind going through the avenue of scheming to acquire what was not rightfully theirs; they also went through the way of violence just because they had to own things that were not theirs. They didn’t use the vehicle of prayer because they knew so well that they would be praying outside of the Will of God and that those things were not rightfully theirs. It was more of the pleasure for them than anything else.
It was an outburst of the old wine skin as they tried to fill it up with the new wine.
One would have thought that the Jews, who were custodians of the Law would have known and understood that being covetous was breaking the Law, but they couldn’t help it because they were not in control of the Sin Nature. They never knew that the Law was the strength of Sin and as Apostle Paul puts it, he said, “Where there is no Law, there is no sin”. In other words, no human being could keep the Law without breaking one and as far as the Old Testament was concerned, breaking one part of the Law, meant you had broken all.
There is a difference between the Old Sin Nature and the newly acquired nature which we received through the acceptance of Jesus as our Lord and Savior – it’s the New nature. Paul made it clear when he said that when he tries to do good, something stops him from doing it but when he wants to do the opposite, there was a kind of passion he gets that empowers him to do the evil which he really would not want to do – Romans 7.
Paul resolved that the root of his problem when he did the things that he hated was the Sin Nature. His members became empowered by the Sin Nature but on the contrary when he would like to do what he feels is good, there was nothing to empower him to perform or act, rather he ends up doing the opposite.
Paul couldn’t have expressed this better as he said, “ It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me join in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.”
Trying to live as a Christian today through the Old Testament rules, laws, tradition and custom is like putting new wine in an old wine skin with the resultant effect of frustration, which eventually will mean giving up on walking with God. Many are frustrated today because of this simple fact and forgetting that all we have to do is to renew our minds so that our minds are fed with the new life in Christ Jesus so that when we choose to do good things, we are simply empowered by the Holy Spirit.
“Every one of us ought to remember that a great deal of that commodity in this world known by the name of good works, is not good works at all. What is a good work? I should venture to say that anything that has in it the element of selfishness is not good. You may question that, but I think it is the highest virtue to be unselfish. If a man be found to be virtuous, as we say, with the design of benefiting himself, has he not spoiled his virtue?” – C.H Spurgeon