The First Fruit of the Resurrection #2
Be sure to read the first installment of this two part series.
What we 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. As a typical Jewish author James was drawing on Israel’s history. And his 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. And rightly considered this means that his audience was the first fruit of the resurrection.
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. Those in James and Reveltion were clearly the first fruit of the resurrection!
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). Whereas their former life had given birth to death, now, they had died to death; they had been “begotten” to life! They had become the first fruit of God’s New Creation; the first fruit of the resurrection!
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. Be sure to get a copy of my book, The Resurrection of Daniel 12:2: Fulfilled or Future? for one of the most in-depth discussions of the resurrection to be found anywhere!