April 23, 2023
Before we look at these final verses of chapter four we need to set a foundation for understanding God’s sovereignty. Knowing God’s will…what it is and how it works in our lives…is essential to our Christian worldview.
God’s sovereignty is one of the most important principles in Christian theology. There are several nuanced points-of-view, all of which have valid Biblical arguments. This is one of those places where people can agree to disagree agreeable. None of these legitimate disagreements would nullify anyone’s salvation. They are simply points of contention that kind-hearted people will talk about until the end of time.
For our purpose, all faithful Christians agree that God is preeminent in power and authority. We are all in agreement on the three 0’s:
OMNISCIENCE – God knows everything.
OMNIPOTENCE – God is all-powerful.
OMNIPRESENCE – God is everywhere.
All three of these are essential to our understanding of God’s sovereignty. The question is, to what extent does God apply His sovereignty to His creation. In other words, how much control does God exert over the wills of men and women and all of creation.
Here’s what the Bible says about God’s sovereignty:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
In other words, God is outside of time.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Again, God exists outside of time and space.
Here’s a good summary of God’s sovereign control of the universe:
NOTHING IN THE UNIVERSE OCCURS WITHOUT GOD’S PERMISSION. GOD HAS THE POWER AND KNOWLEDGE TO PREVENT ANYTHING HE CHOOSES TO PREVENT, SO ANYTHING THAT DOES HAPPEN MUST, AT THE VERY LEAST, BE ALLOWED BY GOD.
At the same time, God’s sovereignty does not excuse human behavior. In addition to God’s sovereignty, the Bible describes God as offering us choices. We are not automatons. God is not a puppet master. Here are some Bible passages to make the case:
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you
obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
In other words, God offers us choices.
You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
In other words, God holds us personally responsible for our sins.
So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.
Because God is holy, and cannot sin, when we sin, we a choosing to disobey God. God cannot force us not to sin. To put it another way, God chooses to allow things that He does not directly cause.
Here’s something you might want to write down:
GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY MEANS THAT HE HAS THE POWER, WISDOM, AND AUTHORITY TO DO ANYTHING HE CHOOSES WITHIN HIS CREATION.
God acts either directly or indirectly to allow certain things for reasons of his own purposing will. All things happen within God’s determining or permissive will. God either makes it happens or allows it to happen. In fact, the fact that God gives us freedom to act is an important part of His sovereignty. God’s will will be done, wherever and however God chooses.
With a basic understanding of God’s sovereignty in mind, let’s now turn to James 4:13-17:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
First, let’s get the basic economics of the passage out of the way.
The culture in which James lived bustled with economic activity. Because of the geographic location of Palestine, commerce roared in and out of the region. There was much money to be made. Travelling merchants were especially prolific. Add to that infrastructure support and food and leisure offerings and housing and transportation and everything else in between, and you’ve got business people businessing and money changing hands. Obviously, most people were tied to an agrarian economy, doing well to make ends meet. But there was still economic success for many.
It’s in this context that James paints his economic picture. There was great commercial activity. Not for all, but for some.
The point James is not making is that there is something wrong with money or making money. Remember, the Bible never says money is the root of all evil. It says the love of money is the root of all evil. Materialism, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. Ours is a very materialistic faith. It is about crosses and crowns of thorns…empty tombs and bread and wine as ways to remember what Jesus did on the cross. We live in a material world. We find meaning and purpose from material things. Nothing wrong with that at all.
Making a profit is not bad. Buying and owning things is not bad. Having investments and planning for retirement is not bad. Enjoying things money can buy is not bad. Getting lost in the beauty and wonder of nature is not bad. Meaning and purpose do not solely exist in the spiritual realm. When Jesus appeared to his frightened disciples, what did he invite them to do? He invited them to feel the nail wounds and the wound where the spear pierced his side.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the things of this world. They were created by God. As the Book of Genesis reminds us, everything that God created, He called good.
If its primary idea isn’t about money or earning or saving or planning for or enjoying material blessings, then what is the point of James 4:13-17? The main idea is:
WE SHOULD NOT PLAN FOR THE FUTURE AS IF WE ARE IN COMPLETE CONTROL OF OUR OWN LIVES. WE SHOULD ALWAYS MAKE A HEALTHY ALLOWANCE FOR GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY. WE FAIL TO UNDERSTAND THIS AT OUR OWN RISK.
Long-range planning is never the end-all, be-all to the health and direction of any organization, corporation, or church. Look what happened to everybody’s long-range plans in the spring of 2020. We all had to make a
Make no mistake. James isn’t saying we shouldn’t plan for the future.
The mistaken mindset is seen immediately in verse 13:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.”
The consistent use of the future tense shows confidence that these plans will be carried out. As they say, no ifs ands or buts about it. “These things that we have planned to happen will happen.”
You can pick up on their flawed reasoning, right? They have failed to take into account the unexpected or inexplicable changes in people and/or situations. They are thinking past the transitory nature of this world. Nothing is permanent. Things change. I love the line from “Tom Sawyer” by Rush:
No, his mind is not for rent To any god or government Always hopeful, yet discontent He knows changes aren't permanent But change is.
James puts it even better in verse fourteen:
Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
There are some great words at play here.
First, there’s the Greek word translated “mist.” It is atmis. It can also be translated as “breath, steam, vapor.” What English equivalent do you hear in atmis? James’ audience knew exactly what to make of this analogy. Their climate was such that any water droplets which formed in the air were quickly gone, because it was so dry. James reminds us that life is like that. You never know. Last month, six members of a construction crew were killed in a work zone on I695 in Maryland. The video is horrific. You say goodbye to your family leaving for work, and they never see you again. You never know. Saint Augustine captured it best when we wrote:
“Restoring health for a time to a man’s body amounts to no more than extending his breath for a little while longer. Therefore it should not be considered of great importance, because it is temporal, not eternal.”
The next word in verse fourteen is phainomene. This is the word translated, “appears.” You hear another English word in the Greek, right? The mist appears, as if out of nowhere. And then, James says, it just as quickly vanishes. That word is from the Greek, aphanizomene. Quite cleverly, James employs a play on words. He adds the negating “a” to phainomene, indicating something vanishing as quickly as it appeared. Amoral, in the same way, becomes the polar opposite of moral.
Life is a fleeting moment. It laughs at our long-range plans.
We’ll close with a few Bible passages on the unknowns of life.
First, Proverbs 27:1:
Do not boast about tomorrow,
for you do not know what a day may bring.
Second, Job 7:7-10:
“Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good. The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone. As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.
Third, Psalm 39:4-6:
“O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!
We need to understand that these passages are not pessimistic or cynical or fatalistic. They are places where the Word of God speaks about the realities of life. These are the realities of life into which Jesus was born. These are our realities of life. And we are the people experiencing these realities of life for whom Jesus died. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection shows us that the mist is not the lasting reality.
Here’s our final passage, from the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus gives us the final word:
And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Again, you can hear echoes of Jesus in what James writes. James heard what his brother taught. Clearly, Jesus warns against covetousness. He reminds us not to trust in our own planning. Because you never know…you never know.
For next week, for homework, I encourage you to play cards. Solitaire, Hearts, Gin, whatever you like with a standard deck of 52. Shuffle, deal, play, shuffle again. Poker or Blackjack, I don’t judge. But just remember, the losses are on you, but the church gets 10% of any winnings.
SOLI DEO GLORIA…
To the Glory of God Alone