The Birth of Death, The Birth of Life, The Death of Death!
The small book of James is often overlooked, at least to some degree, in discussions of eschatology. When discussion does focus on the book, it normally turns, rightfully to a degree, to chapter 5:6-10 and James’ assertion that the parousia of Christ had drawn near, and that the Lord, as Judge, was standing right at the door. I suggest, however, that chapter 5 is the “back end” as it were, to an inclusio discussion of the resurrection harvest, at the coming of the Lord. I suggest that James begins his discussion of that theme by introducing an admittedly brief, but, powerful discussion of the overcoming of the Adamic Death Curse in the New Creation of Christ.
James 1:18: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of His creatures.”
Here, we have explicitly stated that James’ audience – those from the twelve tribes (1:1) – who had been converted to Christ- were first fruits. Notice that unlike Romans 15:6 where the “first fruit” were simply the first of a geographical region to be converted, those in James are the first of God’s creatures (ktismaton). The power of James 1:18 should not be overlooked. They were part of the New Creation!
Side Bar: I suggest that there is another “layer” of thought in James’ reference to the New Creation. Not only does the author posit his audience as the New Creation, but, directly related to that is the concept of the New Israel. It must be kept in mind as Moses was sent to Egypt to deliver Israel from bondage, he was told: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Exodus 4:22). There is a close connection between first fruit and first born. Thus, just as Old Covenant Israel was God’s first born, the righteous remnant of the twelve tribes in James’ day, now followers of Messiah Jesus, were the first fruit of the True Israel (Acts 3:21-24). Added to this is the fact that in the Old Covenant prophecies of the New Creation we find the prediction of the destruction of Old Covenant Israel and the creation of a New People with a New Name. See Psalms 102 / Isaiah 62-65. In other words, the promise of the New Creation included the prophecy of the New People. James’ audience – the righteous remnant – was about to live through the parousia and judgment of the Old Covenant people, and along with the Gentiles comprise the New Creation of the Lord! This is a rich and important topic, but I will not develop it further at this time.
Notice that James contrasts the former life of his readers with their current status. They had once given themselves to temptation, lust and sin which had produced (given birth to) death (v. 14-15). Death was the “offspring” (the child, if you please) of sin. Sin “brought forth” death. This is patently the same death as Adam, since what we see in Genesis was temptation, sin and death there as well. James’ audience had, in their past lives, recapitulated the story of the Garden, temptation, sin, death.
The word translated as “brings forth” (James 1:15) is apokuei, from apokueo. It basically means “to give birth, to bring forth from the womb.” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1973), 64). Their former life had given birth to death. They had experienced the “wages of sin” i.e. death.
But, James then says that his readers had now been “begotten”- and he uses a cognate of apokueo. This contrast between a “birth to death” and a birth into Christ is extremely important. Their former life gave birth to death. But, now, through faith, they had been “begotten, brought forth”; another birth had taken place! They were the first fruits, the first born, of another creation.
Scholars have long recognized that creation language permeates James’ thought here. Thus, James is contrasting two creations, a creation (the Old Creation) of sin and death, and a New Creation of life. This is resurrection. Their former life had given birth to death. Their new life in Christ was bringing forth life. (See Ralph Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 48, (Waco, Tx; Word Publishers, 1988), 38+).
They had been delivered from the law of sin and death (temptation, sin, death, see 1 John 2:15) and were now a New Creation. Just as Paul spoke of being subject to the law of sin and death, and deliverance from it in Christ (Romans 8:1-3), James is contrasting their former “life of death” with their new found faith in Christ as the New Creation.
The “giving birth to death” motif is brought out very powerfully by James’ use of several words: sullabousa (from sullamabanao), tiktei, and the other words already noted, apokueo, etc.. The use of all of these words drives home the point that James is discussing two “creations”, two worlds. One is a world of death. This is nothing other than the Adamic world. The other is the New Creation of life in Christ. This is, in effect, a powerful discussion of the resurrection, the overcoming of the death of Adam.
James says that his audience were the first fruit, they were the first born of God’s creatures, His New Creation. This is directly parallel with Paul’s comments in 2 Corinthians 5:17– “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Thus, since they had gone from the Old Creation of sin and death, to the New Creation in Christ, they had become the first fruits of the resurrection into that New Creation.
Christ was the first fruit of the first fruit, they were the first fruit of the harvest, and they were living in the last days before the harvest at Christ’s parousia (James 5:6-10) which had drawn near.
Notice that there seems to be an inclusio in James. In chapter 1 he refers to them as the first fruit. This is harvest imagery. Then, in chapter 5 he urges them to patience:
“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:6-8).
So, he begins his epistle with a reference to harvest and he closes with an illustration and reference to harvest, assuring them that Christ’s coming (for the harvest) was near (cf. Matthew 13:39f).
We should not fail to see the connection with Revelation 7 and 14 here. Just as James was writing to the twelve tribes scattered abroad, and referred to them as the first fruit of God’s New Creation, in Revelation John saw the 144,000 out of the twelve tribes. And who were they? They were the first fruit:
“Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth. These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being first fruits to God and to the Lamb” (Revelation 14:1-4).
Like James’ audience, these saints were the first fruit of those redeemed to God. They had once been dead in their sins and trespasses (like those in Ephesians 2 and Colossians 2) but, had been redeemed to God from among men. They had patently not been raised from physical death. They had been redeemed from spiritual death. And there is something very important to notice in the text.
The 144,000 were the first fruit. It cannot be over-emphasized that “redemption” was the nature of their first fruit status. They were the first of those redeemed to God from man. But, to reiterate, they had not been raised from biological death.
If so, we have literally not a word to chronicle what would have been such an incredible, massive event. So, the nature of their birth, their resurrection, is patently not physical. What were they waiting for? They were waiting for the harvest, Revelation 14:
“Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and on the cloud sat One like the Son of Man, having on His head a golden crown, and in His hand a sharp sickle. And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, “Thrust in Your sickle and reap, for the time has come for You to reap, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” (I suggest that we have here the “hearing the voice of the Son of God” for the resurrection of John 5:28f). So He who sat on the cloud thrust in His sickle on the earth, and the earth was reaped” (Revelation 14:14-16).
So, the first fruit who had been born to life were not biologically dead people raised out of the ground. They were the beginning of the harvest and were waiting for the harvest. If they were the first fruit, which was not physical resurrection, then upon what basis do we say that the harvest – of which they were the first fruit, and of which Christ himself was the first of the first fruit – would be physical resurrection? That is changing horses in mid-stream. There is no justification for that in the text.
But notice that the 144,000 and those in James would be, in the typology of Israel’s festal calendar, the first fruit following the “first fruit of the first fruit.” In Leviticus 23:9f we find the commandment of the offering of the first fruit of the first fruit, which was to be offered on “the eighth day” – the day after the Sabbath. Thus, Jesus, as the first fruit of the first fruit (1 Corinthians 15:20) was raised on the eighth day (Matthew 28:1f). Then, on Pentecost, seven Sabbaths later, on another eighth day, they offered the first fruit (Leviticus 23:15f). And so, on the Day of Pentecost, over 3000 souls turned to Jesus the Messiah as the first fruit of those redeemed to God from man to receive the forgiveness of their sin – to be raised from “sin-death.”
Now, we are constantly told that the resurrection harvest must follow and be of the same nature, as the first fruit. This would demand that the first fruit would be of the same nature as the first fruit of the first fruit, right? So, let’s test that and see if it works. Let’s begin with an examination of the nature of the first fruit saints in James and Revelation, and work our way back to the resurrection of Christ as the first fruit of the first fruit.
The 144,000 and James’ audience (James 1) were the first fruit of the harvest.
The first fruit were to be of the same nature as the first of the first fruit.
Christ was the first fruit of the first fruit of the resurrection, the first to be raised to die no more. (Traditional view).
But, neither James’ audience or the 144,000– as the first fruit – had been physically raised from the dead to die no more.
Therefore, the resurrection of Christ as the first fruit of the first fruit, was not focused on his physical resurrection. His physical resurrection was, as he said repeatedly, and as John tells us, a sign of the greater spiritual realities. His resurrection was out of Adamic Death, separation from the Father. (The same kind of death from which James’ audience and the 144,000 had been – were being – raised).
Let me state my argument even more succinctly:
If the harvest is of the same nature as the first fruit,
if the first fruit of James 1 and of the 144,000 were not raised from physical death,
the harvest would not be of a physical resurrection.
To counter this argument, one would have to demonstrate that there are two different harvests, two different first fruit gatherings in the NT. There is no merit, no evidence, no support for such a claim.
James’ language of birth and death, death and life in chapter 1 shows that he was dealing with the solution to the Adamic Death problem. James is not discussing some aspect of the Adamic Curse. He is speaking of temptation, sin and death, the very same kind of death that was introduced into the world through Adam (Romans 5:12).
What we then have in James 5 is his concluding discussion of the harvest. As he has introduced the idea of the harvest in chapter 1, he then reminds his readers that the Day of the Lord, when the sickle would be thrust into the earth, was at hand, Take note of his harvest imagery:
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you. Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!”
I will not discuss every tenet of this text but, it is important to note the urgency of the end and the day of the Lord, the harvest that permeates the text. This is brought out in a variety of ways.
1. In one of the few NT epistles in which “outsiders” are addressed, James warns the wealthy land owners who were defrauding the laboring saints of their rightful wages, thus causing incredible hardship.
It is well documented that the very social and economic conditions that James describes were sad realities in first century Judea. The wealthy land owners were depriving the tenant farmers of their rightful wages. Hunger, deprivation, foreclosures were rampant as the wealthy stripped the poor of their belongings and their dignity. (See Ralph Martin, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 48, James, (Waco, Tx.; Word Publishers, 1988), 176+).
2. Take note that James said that the rich had heaped up treasure “in the last days” (5:3). This is not some “timeless” or generic reference to the last days as the Christian age! Like the rest of the NT writers, James believed that he was living in the last days foretold by the OT prophets (Acts 2:17f / 3:23f). Those were not the last days of time, or the last days of the Christian age (which has no end. See my book, The Last Days Identified, for a full demonstration that “the last days” in Scripture was referent to the last days of the Old Covenant age). The last days were the last days of the Old Covenant age, that would arrive with the destruction of the Old Covenant Temple (Matthew 24:3).
3. Notice James’ promise of coming vindication for the oppressed saints. This hearkens us back to Matthew 23 (among many texts) that promised the vindication of the suffering martyred saints, in the coming judgment of Jerusalem.
4. This connection, i.e. the coming vindication of the martyrs, is strengthened by hearing the “echo” of some key OT passages. Notice that James says of the unrighteous who, through their ungodly lack of mercy and compassion, “you have fattened your hearts as in the day of slaughter” (5:5). This is a direct echo of Jeremiah 12:3, where the same sins of the wealthy were taking place. Those sins– and persecuting the saints of the Lord– was bringing that “Day of Slaughter” on Jerusalem.
Likewise, James echoes a contemporary of Jeremiah, and the dire warnings of the imminent Day of the Lord. In Ezekiel 7, the Lord warned Judea and Jerusalem that, “the end has come”; “Doom has come to you, you who dwell in the land; The time has come, A day of trouble is near” (7:7f– see v 19). Just like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was warning of the impending Day of the Lord against Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.
Likewise, James told his Judean audience, “The Day of the Lord has drawn near”; “The judge is standing right at the door.” The conditions in the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel were similar to those in the days of James, and we should not ignore those similarities. James’ theme of imminent vindication of their suffering, as just suggested, is just a continuation of what Jesus and the other NT writers wrote.
James assured his suffering audience- and warned the wicked: “the cries of the reapers has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth” (v. 4). One should take note of the use of “the Lord of Sabaoth.” The term Sabaoth means the Lord of Hosts, i.e. the Lord of the Heavenly Armies. It was “the Lord Almighty”! This is a very thinly veiled threat that the armies of heaven were coming in judgment of the persecutors and in vindication of the suffering saints. In the Tanakh (what we call the OT) anytime the “Lord of Hosts” came, it was a day of judgment and destruction of the wicked as well as vindication for the righteous (Cf. The instances in Isaiah 1-6 which commentators have noted has strongly influenced James 5).
This motif of the cries of the Lord’s saints being heard by Him is reflected in Luke 18, which perhaps serves as the source of James 5. In Luke, Jesus assured his disciples that a time of horrific suffering was coming. But, he assured them, “Shall not God avenge His elect, who cry out to Him day and night? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.” Here again we see the connection with Jesus’ promise of the vindication of the martyrs from Matthew 23. The point being that James is not giving some random, generic, timeless paranesis to his audience, saying that one day, by and by, who knows when, they would be vindicated. No, he was assuring them that the Lord had heard their cries for vindication and just as Jesus had promised, vindication was coming soon.
5. James then incorporates the imagery of the harvest that he had introduced in chapter 1:
“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!”
I must confess that it is more than a little disturbing to witness the attempts to avoid and deny the imminence that is undeniably in the text. Consider the following:
Throughout the NT the idea is presented that the end of the age harvest was near. John the Baptizer said that Christ’s winnowing fork was “already in his hand” (Matthew 3:10f). Keep in mind that the winnowing fork was not an image of the beginning of the harvest, but the end of the harvest and the time of separation!
Jesus said that the harvest would be at the end of “this age” (Matthew 13:39-40). That was the age in which he was living, the Old Covenant age. The end of the age would arrive with the destruction of the Old Covenant Temple, as even the apostles of Jesus understood (Matthew 24:1-3).
The very fact that James’ audience was the first fruit of the harvest demands that the harvest was underway! It was simply unthinkable to use the imagery of the harvest and the first fruit while denying the reality that with the first fruit, the harvest had begun. Only a preconceived idea of the nature of the harvest would suggest such a specious dichotomy.
James is emphatic: “Be patient therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.” But, we are supposed to believe that the promised Day of vindication did not come in their lifetime. They died under that burden of suffering and persecution, believing – being told!– that the Lord’s coming in vindication was near, but, never receiving that promised relief.
I suggest that Kenneth Gentry’s comments on the book of Revelation (comments that he refuses – revealingly so – to apply to other books of the NT). Commenting on the promise in Revelation that the vindication for the suffering saints was near, and coming soon, Gentry had this to say:
“Another detriment to the strained interpretations listed above is that John was writing to historical churches existing in his own day (Rev. 1:4). He and they are presently suffering “tribulation” (Rev. 1:9a). John’s message (ultimately from Christ 1:1) calls upon each to give careful, spiritual attention to his words (2:7 etc). John is deeply concerned with the expectant cry of the martyrs and the divine promise of their soon vindication (6:10; cp. 5:3-5). He (John, DKP) would be cruelly mocking their circumstances (while committing a ‘verbal scam’ according to Mounce) were he telling them that when help comes it will come with swiftness–even though it may not come until two or three thousand years later.” (Kenneth Gentry, The Beast of Revelation, (Powder Springs, GA; American Vision, 2002), 27).
Amazingly, Gentry abandons this hermeneutic when he comes to 1 Thessalonians 4, 2 Thessalonians 1, and other key eschatological texts where the saints were experiencing the same persecution as those in Revelation and were given the same promise of imminent relief at the coming of the Lord.
For Gentry, apparently the promise of vindication and relief for the saints in Revelation had to be fulfilled soon, within their lifetime, or else God would be cruelly mocking their suffering. But, in Romans, in Thessalonians, in Hebrews, in James, in Peter, etc., it was perfectly fine to use the language of imminent vindication at the Day of the Lord, when in fact no such soon coming vindication was intended! To say that this is inconsistent and self-defeating is a huge understatement. Sadly, other commentators make the same mistakes. See my book, In Flaming Fire, for an in-depth exegetical examination of 2 Thessalonians 1 and Paul’s promise to the suffering Thessalonian saints that they would receive relief from that then on-going persecution, “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven.”
Our point here is that the harvest, of which the saints in James were the first fruit, was clearly posited as coming soon when James wrote his epistle. His paranesis to remain faithful, “until the coming of the Lord” only makes sense if he had the coming of the Lord in mind.
His emphatic declaration that the Lord’s parousia “has drawn near” cannot be denied without doing horrible injustice to the linguistics of the text. That was not a “spatial” nearness, but temporal.
And, his statement that the Lord, the Judge, was standing “right at the door” is an undeniable allusion and echo of Matthew 24:32. There, Jesus told his apostles that when they saw the signs of the end that he had given, “when you see these things come to pass, then know that it is nigh, even at the doors.”
When we combine James’ testimony of the imminent harvest with the testimony of Revelation 7 & 14 in regard to the first fruit and the impending harvest, at the coming of the Son of Man in judgment of Babylon, the city “where the Lord was slain” (Revelation 11:8 / 14:6f), there can be little doubt that the NT posits the end of the age harvest, the coming of the Lord, as a first century event.
Not only that, when we honor the nature of the first fruit in James and in Revelation, it precludes any idea of a physical resurrection of dead corpses coming out of the dirt. This is incredibly important, and yet, mostly ignored.
So, what we have in James is this. The writer speaks of the past life of his audience. Like Adam, they had lived lives of lust and sin that had “given birth” to death in them. Like Adam, when they sinned, they had died. They had belonged to the Old World of sin and death. Again, one would think it unnecessary to point out that they had not died physically. They had died spiritually.
But now, they had been raised from that death (and according to Ephesians 1:12f, given the charismatic gifts of the Spirit as the guarantee of the coming consummation of what had been initiated in them). They had died to death; they had been “begotten” to life! They had become the first fruit of God’s New Creation!
Since neither the death that they had died was physical death, nor was resurrection / “birthing” a physical raising from biological death. This serves as virtual prima facie proof that the resurrection harvest that was so imminent was not a literal resurrection from biological death.
James 1-5 thus serves as an incredibly powerful testimony to the reality and truth of Covenant Eschatology.