The Boasting of the Lowly and the Rich

Sermon preached on James 1:9-11 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 01/17/2021 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Today’s passage in James commands how one ought to “boast” depending on your circumstances. Boasting is about speaking with pride about something. It’s about verbally glorying in something. Often boasting is a negative thing as when it expresses a sinful pride. But the Bible does teach us that there are some things that we ought to take pride in. Today’s passage is about such. It speaks to one’s physical and material circumstances and exhorts each on what they should be taking pride in. As we consider this, we realize that James is again educating us about how our faith should be put into action. In this case, it’s how our faith should think about our outward circumstances. Our faith should think a certain way about those circumstances in light of our relationship with Christ and in light of the future he has promised us. And so, it inherently calls us to think Christianly and not worldly about our outward estates.

Let us consider first about the exhortation to the lowly. This is verse 9. Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation. The words “lowly” and “exaltation” in the Greek are literally words about elevation. The idea of “lowly” is literally about being low to the ground. And the word for “exaltation” is literally about height, being high off the ground. Given the comparison in the next verse with the rich, we are quite appropriate to consider this lowliness in terms of a financial application – i.e. the “poor”. But the word “lowly” itself isn’t constrained to only a financial application, so we could certainly imagine people are in various lowly, humble, meager estates in this life.

You can imagine how such a lowly person is naturally inclined to think of their circumstances. They can feel depressed; weak; powerless; hopeless. They can feel unimportant, of no value, or disregarded. They might wonder if they can ever improve their situation. There can be a range of negative emotional inclinations for someone in such lowly circumstances. Such inclinations are understandable for a person to feel that way. In fact, the world really tells us to think that way.

But see the hope of Christ in verse 9. James calls the lowly brother to have a different perspective than how the world would have them to think. Notice James is telling this to the lowly brother, not just lowly people in general. The brother language is referring to Christians. James isn’t trying to change the perspective of a lowly non-Christian. If you are a lowly non-Christian who is feeling down and out, the sad reality is that things will ultimately get worse for you. But to the lowly brother in Christ, James calls them to see that he is “high”. He is to boast in his exaltation! That is to be the perspective of a Christian of lowly circumstances in this life. Realize that for what it is – it is a perspective of faith.

What do I mean that it is a perspective of faith? To say that a lowly Christian is high is a perspective of our spiritual reality and our future eternal hope. But it is not a description of what such a person possesses in the moment here and now. Here and now the lowly Christian is not high from a material or financial or social standpoint. That’s why they are “lowly”. They are lowly in the world’s eyes. But the eyes of faith see a way in which they are high and exalted. Let’s spell out some of those ways. From a spiritual reality, James will next chapter, in 2:5, say that such lowly brothers are rich in faith and that they are heirs of the kingdom of God. Likewise, Paul says that right now our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20) and that we possess every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:3). Such things are already the case, but since they are spiritual in nature, they require faith by a Christian to believe that such things are already theirs. In terms of our future eternal hope, James 2:5 says that while we currently are heirs of the kingdom of God, he immediately goes on to describe this kingdom as something God has promised to us Christians. In other words, we don’t possess it yet in its consummate glory. Likewise, Paul in Phil 3:20 says that while we are currently citizens of heaven, we await Jesus’ future coming to us from heaven in order to transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body. Such glory and heights of exaltation lie in the future for a Christian. They are ours for certain, but we’ve not come to experientially know them yet. So then, it is the perspective of faith that a lowly Christian knows he is exalted. He is exalted already spiritually. He will be exalted all the more in the glory of the age to come. This is the faith of a lowly Christian. It is the perspective their faith has in light of their current lowly condition, outwardly speaking.

We also see this idea elsewhere in the New Testament, that God will lift up his lowly people and reverse their fortunes. Mary prophesies about this in her song after becoming pregnant with Jesus. She speaks of how God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). Jesus likewise taught of God bringing a great reversal saying things like the last will be first, and that the poor in spirit are blessed for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mat 5:3, 19:30). Again, such truths require faith to believe that they will be fulfilled. But indeed, they will be fulfilled, and so us today who are Christians that find ourselves in lowly positions are to take great encouragement from a verse like verse 9.

That is, of course, the application to us in this first point. If you find yourself in a “low” place, your faith tells you to look up. Remember that today’s verses are in the greater context of trial and temptations. When you are in a lowly state according to the world’s perspective, we can be tempted to discouragement. Faith says we should be encouraged. Faith says we are high even when we are low. Maybe you are low right now in the financial sense. Yours is the riches of heaven that await. Maybe you are low right now in your social standing. As a Christian in a godless society maybe you feel socially you are getting more and more ridicule, more and more ostracized, more and more passed up for opportunities. But in Christ you are royalty, you will judge angels, and you have a place at God’s heavenly banqueting table. Maybe you are low right now physically – you are in a health trial or physically limited in some way. Yours is the glory of a resurrection body that will be raised imperishable and incorruptible, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye. Whatever low position we find ourselves in this life, a Christian can take pride in his current and future exaltation. And the reason a Christian can take pride it in, is because such exaltation is all about grace – God’s underserved gift for us. And we receive such a gift in faith. Our pride is not in ourselves but God’s grace that lifts us up from our low estate. We boast in God’s grace that lifts us Christians up to the heights of glory!

Let us now in our second half of today’s sermon turn to consider the exhortation here to the rich in verses 10 and 11. It’s interesting that the description of the “rich” is placed here in contrast to the “lowly”. While the word for “lowly” was a term of elevation that is broader than simply financial wellbeing, the word for “rich” is literally a word of financial wealth. That doesn’t mean the word for “rich” here can’t be figuratively extended to being rich in other things besides just money, but it most naturally refers to having lots of money. So, James here turns to exhort the person who is rich in the world’s eyes, in the outward sense.

At this point I should draw your attention to an interpretive question here. The question is if verse 10 is addressing a rich believer, or a rich unbeliever. Let me explain why that is a question here. Grammatically, the “rich” in verse 10 is closely connected with the “lowly brother” in verse 9. They both share the same one verb of “boast” and are part of the same sentence. A natural way to read this grammatically would be to read the word “brother” as applying to both the lowly and the rich in this sentence. In other words, grammatically it seems natural to read the word “brother” as implied when it speaks of the rich in verse 10. And of course, “brother” here is a reference to believers – to Christians. Yet, while the grammar in this sentence might typically be taken to imply “brother” for the rich, the argument from the other side is that elsewhere James has nothing nice to say about the rich. In 2:6, James, without qualification, says it’s the rich who persecute Christians, dragging them into court. In 5:1, James, without qualification, urges the rich to repentance for the miseries that are coming upon them. Well, while we might feel the need to choose one of these two options, I would like to point out that these verses would have a message to say to both parties. To the rich unbeliever, this is a rebuke and a warning to indeed repent in light of the coming judgment. To the rich believer – and there are absolutely rich believers in Scripture – there is an exhortation to have a Christian perspective on their wealth and status. And so, as we work through these verses, we’ll see that James’ point can be easily applied to both rich Christians and rich non-Christians.

Let us then start by imagining how a rich person is naturally inclined to think. They can feel pretty good about their standing. There is opportunity and peace that can come in financial prosperity and affluence. Yet there are common temptations in such circumstances. You might be tempted take pride in yourself and your accomplishments, instead of thanking God for his every blessing. You might be tempted to trust in the riches as your ultimate source of life and wellbeing. You might be tempted to brag to others about how much more you have than them, and even if you don’t tell them that, you might think it in your heart. You might be tempted to think you are better than others, more important than others, and deserve more honor and respect and privilege than others. There are so many temptations to boast in the wrong thing when you are rich. Indeed, as Paul writes the younger Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:10, the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils. And such ways of thinking of one’s wealth are very much how the world teaches us to think. But of course, that’s the point. We are rejecting again today the world’s perspective on these things.

Instead, we see that James exhorts the rich to see that they are lowly. Our translation in verse 10 says “humiliation” which is a fine translation too. But the word is from the same root as the word “lowly” in verse 10. In other words, this brings out the very idea we said Mary and Jesus were prophesying about; that the first will be last and the last will be first. The lowly will find themselves high and lifted up, and the high and lifted up will find themselves lowly. If you are a rich non-Christian this warns you and even taunts you that it doesn’t matter how much you have in this life, because you will lose everything material you currently have. And if you are a rich Christian, this reminds you to put your current wealth in the right perspective – that it is something you temporarily steward, as a trust from God, but it is not something you are going to be taking with you into the age to come.

Again, we see that this is a perspective of faith. That’s the problem with the non-Christian rich person – they don’t have this perspective of faith and so should they hear these words they will fall on deaf ears unless they by the grace of God turn and repent. But the perspective of faith can see that the rich must put his boast in his humiliation if he is to be saved. Think about what faith is saying in that truth. Like we saw with the lowly brother, there is an already and a not yet component to this perspective of faith on earthly riches.

So, what do I mean when I say verse 10 is a perspective of faith that the rich need? Verse 10 speaks of the way a rich person is lowly and humbled. Like with the lowly brother’s exaltation, we can think of that in terms of both current spiritual realities and what is coming in the future. Think of the already of the spiritual reality. A rich person doesn’t stand before God in some better position because they are rich. Someone’s riches in this life mean nothing before God. Earthly treasures don’t hold value in God’s sight when he looks upon someone. As the prophet Jeremiah said in Jeremiah 9:23, he said, “Let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me. Jeremiah goes on to say that what the Lord delights in is love, and justice, and righteousness – things that Scripture says too often the rich have been deficient in. You see, anyone who would be saved by God needs to come in humility before God. If a rich person were to go to God and think God better treat him like royalty, he is mistaken. The perspective of faith recognizes that as creatures, and especially as sinful creatures, that rich or poor need to come to God in humility. We need to come lowly of heart and poor of spirit. As Peter says in 1 Peter 5:16, we need to humble ourselves before the mighty hand of God – so that he can lift us up in his proper timing.

So that is how a rich person ought to think of himself in terms of current spiritual realities. That’s how faith thinks of a rich person here and now — he is already lowly in God’s sight. But a rich person should also recognize that he is lowly as well in light of the future. That future is spelled out in part in the rest of verses 10 and 11. The rich are reminded that they are like the flowers and grass of the field. They are but short lived and their days are numbered. As James will say later in chapter 4, we are but a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. This too is part of the perspective of faith that a rich person needs.

I would point out that this imagery and language here of the fading beauty of the flower and grass comes from Isaiah 40. James is paraphrasing Isaiah here. But if you go back to Isaiah 40 you’ll see that the context doesn’t apply this idea only to the rich. It says it is true of all flesh. In other words, it’s speaking of the universal fate of human death, something common to all human beings, rich and poor. And so, the point here of the rich’s future is that they will lose all their riches. Everyone dies. And as the saying goes, he who dies with the most toys still dies. You can’t take your riches with you when you die. They all are left behind. The book of Ecclesiastes laments of this fact in Ecclesiastes 2:18 – that all we toil for ends up belonging to our heirs, and it says who knows how they will handle everything we’ve stored up for them. Ecclesiastes says our heirs might end up being fools instead of wise, and yet all our riches end up belonging to them. That’s the point being made to the rich here in verse 11. And it’s a point that everyone needs to remember, whether you are rich or poor. But the point is that the rich needs to have this perspective on their riches. They are going to one day die and their riches won’t carry over. Their riches are temporary and fleeting and will go away. Their soul is eternal and the rich needs a plan for their wellbeing beyond this life. Again, this is the perspective of faith a rich person needs in terms of how they consider their riches.

This is, of course, the application to us in this second point. If you find yourself in a place of riches in this life, a place of earthly heights, your faith tells you to look down. Remember that today’s verses are in the greater context of trial and temptation. If you are a Christian with riches they will present a test to your faith. Will you view them properly? Will you reject the temptation to trust in them? Will you see them as a stewardship from God to use not only for your own needs but to share with others in need and for other good kingdom purposes? To say it another way, will you see your earthly treasure as something God has given to you to help you acquire heavenly treasure? Or will you fall prey to the temptation of the love of money? In our materialistic society and in our affluent community it is easy to fall into this snare. And in the coming days, this test might end up becoming even more pronounced if you have to start choosing between financial success and being a Christian. What I mean is that there are more and more situations where Christians are finding themselves incurring financial losses when they stand on their Christian convictions. If we are rich, may God strengthen us to have that faith that takes pride not in riches but in our humiliation. For to take pride in our humiliation is to simultaneously acknowledge that we need God to graciously lift us up in Christ. Our pride is not in ourselves except in our weakness, for that weakness looks to God’s grace that lifts us up from our low estate. We boast in our low estate knowing that God’s grace lifts us to a far better glory than anything this world has to offer!

In conclusion, I point us again to Christ for that is how we can have what is held out today. I love how Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:9 speaks of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the terms of what James uses here. Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Jesus had the greatest riches of the heights of heaven but he made him lowly, not only in becoming human, but in going to the cross to die in our place. This Jesus did so that we who were spiritually poor and low might become high and lifted up to the riches of heaven and eternal life. What James teaches us today — these perspectives of faith – they call us to look again to Jesus Christ. In him the poor can be encouraged and the rich can be humbled, both unto salvation.

Find this perspective of faith in Jesus Christ! And may it bear tangible fruits not only in how we think about earthly riches and standing, but in how we act in regards to it. So then, whether we are rich or poor today in the world’s eyes, may we by grace turn our eyes towards Christ and heavenward and toward eternity. Amen.

Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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