I last considered how James exhorts his audience to be patient (Jas. 5:7). What he tells them applies to us, particularly when we’re under pressure, as these early Christians were. That’s the time not to panic, grow angry or aggrieved, or worry, but to turn to the Lord, read and meditate on his Word, pray, and, frankly, pick up and carry on—that’s right, carry on, not by being strong, as we may hear, but by being strengthened in and by him so we may remain strong in him—exercising faith, hope, and love. That’s the Christian’s testimony, and it goes a long way when others are living in panic, anger, and fear.
But there is something specific going on here in James’s letter, and we shouldn’t miss it. There’s a historical context in which James is writing. And we do well to remember, especially with passages like these, that although the Bible is written for us, it’s not written to us. We don’t live at the time or in the place that James’s audience lived. Does that make a difference? Often it does. This is why we need to have the Scriptures responsibly taught to us by thoroughly trained men. Otherwise, we may take passages or verses out of context and apply them in ways they weren’t meant to be applied.
James tells his audience to be patient “until the coming of the Lord” (v. 7, English Standard Version). Millennia have since passed, so if this refers to the second coming, then he’s telling them to be patient even after they no longer need to be, that is, after their death, when they are with the Lord in heaven until the last judgment. It’s just before the last judgment, when they, like all believers, will be resurrected, as Christ was, to have their bodies reunited with their souls to dwell in the new heavens and new earth. That’s a ways off, certainly from James’s day. Why would they need to be patient until the second coming if they’re in heaven?
They need to establish their hearts, James writes, “for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (Jas. 5:8). What? Is James off by thousands of years? Is he making stuff up, giving them a false hope? If he’s referring to the second coming and is wrong, what does that do to the inerrancy of the Word of God? Why does the apostle Paul write something similar to the Roman Christians (Rom. 13:11–12)? Why does the writer of the letter to the Hebrews also write that “yet a little while, and the coming one will come and not delay” (10:37)? Or why does Peter write that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet. 4:7)? “At hand.” “A little while.” “Nearer than when we first believed.” Are these rhetorical prods the early church leaders used to keep the faithful in line and on their toes? That would be a cynical interpretation to be sure.
Maybe it’s somehow spiritually symbolic: “at hand” meaning far off but to be considered near. Honestly, does that make sense, especially when considering the first-century audiences of these letters? The apostle John gets even more specific. In his Revelation, he tells first-century Christians that the vision he’s to disclose must “soon take place” (Rev. 1:1). Was he kidding? Was he using child psychology on new, immature believers to keep them in line? Can we really believe he’d do that? Some may refer to 2 Peter 3:8, that “with the Lord a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” But it’s clear from verses 7 and 10 in 2 Peter 3 that Peter was referring to the last judgment. The same cannot be said of these “at hand” passages cited, including Peter’s own in 1 Peter 4:7.
In any case, to say that James and the apostles were wrong in holy writ or disingenuously wanted to light a fire under the first-century Christians would be unacceptable. The last judgment is not the only judgment. The coming of the Lord that’s “at hand,” about to happen in “a little while,” “near,” and is to take place “soon” in James’s and the apostles’ day (probably in the AD 60s—lots of unrest in the 60s) is Christ’s coming via his judgment on the old, Hebraic system centered in the temple in Jerusalem. In AD 70, when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans, the temple to this day never rebuilt for Hebrew worship, the presence of the one, true God would no longer be identified with old wineskins but with the new that could hold the new wine, the church, comprised of both Jews and Gentiles. The law came through Moses, but grace and truth—the fulfillment of the law, not its abrogation—came through Jesus Christ, John tells us (John 1:16–18).
Many of the Reformers, English Puritans, faithful early Americans, and later church understood this as a stock exegetical interpretation, and yet today the evangelical church has largely lost it,* even though it’s this understanding that makes most sense of passages like this one in James and other passages that many would rather pass over or somehow spiritualize away. This natural sense reading of his coming being “at hand” during the first century when the epistles were written has implications for how we understand Scripture as it applied to the church then, which has implications for how we understand its application to us and the church today.
In Hebrews 10, the writer tells readers of an imminent return, coming soon. He offers them this prophetic news as an encouragement for them to remain steadfast in their faith when they’re facing opposition, and from the very religious community from where they originally came. The apostle Paul’s life is this very thing in miniature. In James, we see the same thing. James tells them to establish their hearts, to remain faithful and steadfast, just because this coming is, well, coming. Stop grumbling, he tells them, because the judge is at the door (Jas. 5:9). You don’t want to be among those who “soon” get swept away in judgment.**
Around the Corner? For Whom?
To what is he referring? The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 by the Romans. This annihilated Israel—those long identified as “the people of God”—in a way from which it never recovered. That’s what’s around the corner, James prophesies, as do Paul, Peter, and John in other places—around the corner for them, not for us. The people would die by the sword en masse; hence James earlier tells the rich, apparently preoccupied, Jerusalem-rooted business leaders in the church, that they’d fattened their hearts in a day of slaughter (Jas. 5:5). It’s also why James points to the prophets as an example of patience (Jas. 5:10), not only for their character to be imitated (though that’s the focus), but, indirectly, for the prophets’ vindication—for their word about God’s judgment being seen as true—even though theirs were voices crying in the wilderness that no one listened to (Ezek. 33:30–33).
Why is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple for the Hebrew Christians a watershed event? It inaugurated the new covenant into history in a way that’s unmistakable—something the Christian Hebrews as we see in the letter to the Hebrews—were struggling with. Practically, their tormentors will be slain or dispersed. Their lives will also be disrupted as they spread out across Asia Minor, and eventually throughout the European continent, but the persecution they were undergoing will have come to an end.
That’s why they’re told to be patient, to wait for that day. Soon there will be “a whole lot of shakin’ going on” (see Heb. 12:26–27), but in the end, the church will remain; it will be for their benefit and for that of the church as a whole. That’s why following each of these “at hand” passages, James and the apostles exhort faithfulness. “Don’t give up or give in when the shaking starts! To make sure you’re ready, prepare now. Keep your lamp lit.”
We are saved by grace through faith, not by our works or performance, yet certainly we all face the judgment seat of Christ and must give an account (2 Cor. 5:9–11); that should, to a spiritual people, make us live circumspect lives, taking God’s Word as our guide. We don’t need to be scared into kingdom obedience by Christ’s “imminent return” if we’re doing that and living in covenant with God. AD 70 is not around the corner for us, though we all know the bell will toll for each of us. Moreover, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” as the apostle told Timothy (2 Tim. 3:12). That’s not only a first-century phenomenon. The antithesis between good and evil, between God’s kingdom and all that is outside it, ensures that.
Written for, Not to, Us
However, we needn’t apply particularly ornery persecution passages to ourselves or to some unknown, futuristic event when they are about a historical reality involving the church thousands of years ago. The general principle holds; persecution’s particular intensity or personages involved need not. For example, the Hebrew Christians, we’re told, joyfully accepted the plundering of their property, knowing they had a more abiding possession (Heb. 10:34). That historical phenomenon had a context of Christian Hebrew persecution among their own people in a political environment that supported it. That’s not true today, at least not in North America, and so we needn’t think it’s to be replicated. Could it become the case for us at some future time? Yes. Will it be? God knows.
In regard to the coming of the Lord being “at hand,” then rather than now, I encourage readers to source English Puritan Thomas Manton’s commentary on James 5:7–8 and early American Presbyterian Albert Barnes’s commentary on the same verses as well as on Hebrews 10:25–37: all free online. Likewise, English Puritan John Owen understood (rightly, I believe) that Christ’s kingdom, which “cannot be shaken,” in Hebrews 12:27 refers not exclusively to the eschaton but to the destruction of the old, Hebraic system, which is the beginning of the flourishing of the post-Pentecost church (“what remains”) that will eventuate into the eschaton. We’re in the middle of that, where on the slide rule no one knows except God. But we know it’s not at its beginning (as was true when the New Testament was written). For us, that means Christ’s openly disclosed kingdom yesterday and for today, and into tomorrow, and not expressed only in some unknown, future event.
For someone more contemporary, go to goodquestionblog.com where Christopher R. Smith explains why Jesus on his way to Golgotha told the women of Jerusalem not to weep for him but for themselves and their children (Luke 23:28). History matters in biblical interpretation; otherwise, we’re prone to confusedly read yesterday’s news as today’s, or push news of the past into the future, where it isn’t even news anymore.………………………….
*Fundamentalistic Darbyism may be the culprit. The dispensational “system” years ago was equated with biblical faithfulness, and so was widely adopted by Bible believers of various stripes. The evangelical church may have jettisoned much of dispensationalism, but it still keeps some of its anti-historical exegesis.
**Without denying the universality of the message of Christ’s parable of the virgins (Matt. 25:1–13) for the church, I’d submit that this partial-preterist reading can likewise apply to the parable, perhaps even as its main thrust, given whom Jesus was historically addressing………………………….
Mr. Gerry Wisz is a writer, college instructor, and semi-retired public relations professional who, with his family, is a member of Preakness Valley URC in Wayne, NJ.