A Lesson from the Flowers
Since we started our study of James a few weeks ago, we’ve already learned that James is writing to Christians about how to grow through various trials. Trials and hard times are a part of life whether you’re a Christian or not. But for believers, God designs each trial to build your faith. Trials can take the form of various shapes and sizes and of various degrees and durations. Last week we learned that even a lack of wisdom in how to respond to a trial can be a trial in itself. But none of this threatens genuine faith any more than strenuous exercise threatens healthy muscles… enduring trials with faith will make us stronger.
When thinking of the kinds of trials Christians are likely to face, you may think of the typical variety: sickness, persecution, alienation from friends and family, or even death. But have you ever thought that even your socio-economic status in life is designed to test and build your faith?
The Christians in James’ audience knew about inequality, but they never saw God’s hand in it. They never would have thought that God had a purpose for teaching His people about Himself and about ultimate reality by how much income He allowed them to earn and to give away to others. There were many Jewish Christians who were poor in this original audience; some had lost their jobs when they became Christians and other vendors wouldn’t even allow them to sell their wares in the same market with other Jews. It was hard for them to scrape enough money together just to feed their families. But there were also some wealthy Christians in this audience. A few of them were Jews, but many were likely Gentile Christians who heard the gospel after the dispersion. So there was a wide economic spectrum represented in this church.
I wouldn’t be telling you all anything you don’t already know when I report that there tended to be social inequality and favoritism even among believers in the 1st century. This inequality arose because Christians were determining their blessedness, not by looking at Christ, but by looking at their assets. This made the wealthy feel smug… and the poor feel dejected. Both attitudes were wrong in the eyes of God. They both needed stronger faith to see their position in Christ aright. So James wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to correct their misunderstanding of God’s evaluation of their faith and status. His words were written to help believers pass the test of social status in the Body of Christ… a test which is so relevant to our day. Look at James 1, verses 9-11. In honor of God and His Word, let’s stand for the reading of these verses.
9 Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, 10 but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. 11 For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits. [NKJV]
[Prayer] In these verses, God speaks through James to believers. His purpose is to show how faith is built through yet another trial. He addresses the poor; he addresses the rich; and then he advises everyone to learn a lesson from the flowering grass. First…
I. The believer’s position in Christ allows him to exalt in humble circumstances (9).
Look again at verse 9: “Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation…” Now there’s a lot of good theology packed into that little phrase in verse 9. This is all about living in the present on future grace. The sentence is emphatic in the original. The compound verb is the first word. Here’s what a literal translation would sound like: “Let him glory (or let him boast), the brother, the lowly, in his exaltation.” This is a call to virtuous boasting in what is true about God in spite of your circumstances.
The phrase “let him boast” is not expressing the idea of permission; it’s much stronger in the original. This is a command: the Christian of lowly means is commanded to glory in his riches in Christ. Now this is something that the flesh doesn’t want to do… we want to complain about our poverty and boast about our wealth. But James is telling Christians as a command from God that faith must glory in the abundant riches which are laid up for you in Christ. This is a command to let faith rule over our feelings. When you’re poor and the bills are due and the needs are big, you don’t feel like exalting or boasting in something you can’t feel. So God says faith must rule over your feelings: “Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation” (NKJV); The NIV says: “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.” That is, his high position in Christ (which only a living faith can do).
You see, this is heavy lifting for faith’s muscles. This is a real workout James is giving us. This poor believer may be hungry, but he has the bread of life. He may be thirsty, but he has living water. He may be poor, but he has eternal riches. He may have no home, but he has a glorious dwelling with Jesus. The flesh hears all this and says, “So what?” But genuine faith rejoices in what is true about God for the believer. Do you believe this is true for you in Christ? We’ll talk about how these physical and financial needs should be met when we address the wealthy in the next point. The lesson for the lowly brother is to glory in the riches of Christ in spite of humble circumstances. Only genuine faith will do this—and strong faith will do it joyfully.
Matthew Henry said: “Where any are made poor for righteousness’ sake, their very poverty is their exaltation. It is an honor to be dishonored for the sake of Christ.”
But they still need to eat. They still have to have their physical needs met. Are they supposed to just starve in the church while wealthy Christians in the same church do nothing? No… look at the second point.
II. The believer’s position in Christ reminds him of the potential poverty of riches (10).
Hear verses 9 and 10 together: “Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away.”
Both the rich and the poor, in this context, are believers. The rich Christian should glory in his humiliation, says James. This means, when the trials of life come, the wealthy believer will be reminded that his hope isn’t in money or materialism, but in Christ. When you’re reminded of Christ and how worthy He is—that’s a reason to glory! A believer who is materially well-off, healthy, and otherwise physically blessed should rejoice when trials come, for they teach him the transitory nature of those material things and their inability to give inner and lasting satisfaction or help, especially spiritual help. Trials correct our thinking about the true value of stuff.
The wealthy Christian can be thankful for his blessings, but even more thankful for his salvation in Christ. He learns by trials to hold his wealth very loosely to grasp his faith more firmly. If you love any earthly thing more than Christ, then that thing is deadly to you! Any object, any event, any relationship that you cherish more than Christ is your idol. James knows that we all have a tendency to trust more in material things we can see than in spiritual realities we cannot see. So he’s addressing the dangers of faithless and unprincipled wealth.
What does faithful wealth do… how does it live? Well, in the context of the poor Christians in verse 9, faithful wealth comes to the aid of its brethren. It helps fellow Christians with food and shelter and clothing; it provides and sustains. Faithful wealth undergirds the faithful proclamation of God’s Word. It supports the missionary enterprise. It expands the kingdom with a view toward eternity. Faithful wealth realizes that all good things come down from God and He owns it all. When we hold our money loosely by setting aside a percentage to give to the church, we show that our trust is in God rather than in money. It honors God when His people use their money to glorify Him. No man can serve two masters, Jesus said. For the Christian, money can be a wonderful servant, but a ruthless master.
Perhaps one of the best pictures of giving for God’s glory comes from Luke 21 (1-4). This is where Jesus was at the temple with His disciples watching the crowds. Verse 1 says…
And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, 2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. 3 So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; 4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”
Notice in this scene that the poor widow put in two mites! If she had only put in one mite, that would have been 50% of her total liquid assets – but she put in two mites! And also notice that Jesus saw everything. He knows exactly who gives what and everything we give is for His eyes only. Giving for God’s glory is not just the responsibility of the very wealthy; it’s the privilege of every true believer. Joyful giving demonstrates that we are stewards of God’s resources, not slaves of mammon. The believer’s position in Christ reminds him of the potential poverty of riches. James concludes verse 10 with a reference to the flower of the field which passes away. This introduces the third point and verse 11…
III. The believer in Christ learns a lesson from the flowers about the superficiality of earthly glory (11).
Here’s the lesson from the flowers in verse 11: “For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.”
The trial of social status comes with a sober illustration attached. James reminds the wealthy believer that money-wealth is only for a brief time on earth; like the flower of the field, the rich man will pass away. When he passes away he leaves all of his money-wealth behind. The true wealth to pursue is spiritual wealth through faith in Christ. Trials are the great leveler of rich and poor in Christ. We all face trials. To the poor believer he says, you have great glory (great riches) stored up in heaven for you. To the wealthy believer he says, use your wealth to glorify God in this life: invest wisely, give generously, and hold every material thing loosely. We relinquish every material thing at death; only what we invest in kingdom building by faith will go with us.
Your money matters to God, not because He needs anything from you. God has no needs. We are to give generously because it shows what we really believe in our hearts. The test of how you spend and invest your money is between you and God, but it matters greatly. Jesus is to be the Lord over every area of our lives: our money, our thoughts, our actions, our relationships with others, our purity; every area. The lesson of the flowers teaches us that eternity is much longer than time and the resources not yielded to Christ will all burn up and fade away. The test for faith is to demonstrate that we trust more in God than in our circumstances or our money. We do this by praising Him in affliction and by esteeming Christ as our highest treasure.
(c) Charles Kevin Grant
September 19, 2005