Lesson 25. The Control Of A Critical Attitude (James 4:11-12)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

11Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.

12There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

INTRODUCTION

The passage for today’s lesson contains the last mention of the law in the New Testament. A particular Bible commentator states that the law refers to the old moral law applied in its complete spiritual fullness by Christ, “the law of liberty.”

James returns to the specific worldly behavior his readers are following: harsh and even violent speech. Jesus changes that when He sanctifies sinners, for they no longer covet their neighbor’s possessions, but instead, they have become a doer of God’s law.

COMMENTARY

11Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.

What an abrupt shift from describing an appropriate attitude toward God. James turns to the proper relations between believers. (He either addresses social stratification within the Christian church or, more likely, uses “brothers” in the more familiar Jewish sense of “fellow Jews.” Jewish revolutionaries had already begun killing aristocrats, and inflammatory rhetoric was undoubtedly even more common.) His general principle was standard Old Testament and Jewish wisdom opposing slander, which many of his readers may not have considered in this context. The law declared God’s love for Israel and commanded His people to love one another (2:8); to slander a fellow Jew was thus to disrespect the law.

James was not forbidding us to use discrimination or even to evaluate people. Christians need to have discernment (Phil. 1:9, 10) – Remember this, “God never gives us discernment so that we may criticize, but that we may intercede” -- but they must not act like God when passing judgment. We must first examine our own lives and try to help others (Mat. 7:1-5). We never know all the facts in a case, and we certainly never know the motives at work in Men’s hearts. To speak evil of a brother and to judge a brother based on partial evidence and (probably) unkind motives is to sin against him and God. We are not called to be judges; God is the only Judge. He is patient and understanding; His judgments are just and holy; we can leave the matter to him.

We love God by being humble before Him; we love our neighbor by refusing to speak evil. Speaking evil can take many forms. We may talk about a person’s truth and still be unkind or spread gossip that others have no business knowing. We may be questioning someone’s authority or nullifying their good work by backbiting. This hurts the harmony among believers (Rom. 1:29-30; 2 Cor. 12:20; 1 Pet. 2:1). The tense in the Greek reveals that James is forbidding a practice that is already happening. The people were in the habit of criticizing one another.

This verse includes the sixth and seventh times in this letter that James has mentioned God’s law. The law that frees or convicts, the law that must be kept, is the royal law. Here the law is under attack. The specific problem being confronted violates the ninth commandment. “Do not testify falsely against your neighbor (Ex. 20:16).” It also violates the more fundamental law of Christ, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mat. 22:39; also see Lev. 19:18). Jesus called this the second greatest commandment (Mark 12:31). If a believer speaks against another believer, he criticizes, condemns, and disobeys the law because he does not show love and is not treating others as he would like to be treated. His disobedience shows disregard for the law, for he is passing judgment on its validity. By doing so, he is putting himself above God and showing contempt for the law. When we judge each other in this slanderous way, we are failing to submit to God. James is concerned with condemning speech that divides believers and breaks the law of love, also called “the royal law.” If a Christian judges his Christian brother, he indirectly speaks against the royal law of love (Lev.19:16-18; Mat 22:39), love being the essence of “the law of Christ,” which he also judges (1 Cor. 9:21), supposing Christ’s commands to love are below him, or that he has sufficient authority to set aside the royal law (James 2:8).

The saints were speaking evil of one another and judging one another. Here again, we see the wrong use of the tongue. Christians are to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15); they are not to talk about evil in a spirit of rivalry and criticism. If the truth about a brother is harmful, we should cover it in love and not repeat it (1 Pe. 4:8). If he has sinned, then we should go to him personally and try to win him back (Matt. 18:15-19; Gal 6:1, 2).

12There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

God alone is both the source and enforcer of the law. That God alone was the true judge was a common Jewish and New Testament teaching. In Jewish education, earthly courts proceeded only on His authority, and those who ruled in them had to judge by the law. Investigations had to be conducted thoroughly with a minimum of two witnesses, acting as false witnesses; slandering someone to a court without genuine firsthand information was punishable according to the judgment the falsely accused person would have received if convicted.

We who are accountable to God’s law (and we all are) cannot place ourselves in God’s place. God rewards those who obey the law and destroys those who disobey (Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6; Ps. 68.20; 75:6-7; Mat. 10:28). James also takes away any rights we might claim for criticizing our neighbors. Behind the critical spirit is an attitude that usurps God’s authority and is full of pride. There should be no harsh critical faultfinding in the body of Christ. This verse’s principle does not prohibit the proper action against a church member acting in flagrant disobedience to God (1 Cor. 5-6). Instead, James is concerned with the critical speech that condemns or judges others’ actions and their standing with God. He is comforting individuals who might be tempted to set themselves up as personal watchdogs on other believers.

We might think that just criticizing a church or spreading a little interesting gossip is not that serious – especially when compared to other sins. But the Bible sees it as a sin of utmost seriousness because it breaks the law of love and tries to usurp God’s authority. As we saw in chapter 3, the tongue is a tool of deadly sin. We dare not minimize its danger.

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge. Translate, “There is one (alone) who is (at once, simultaneously) “Lawgiver and Judge,” (namely) He who can save and destroy. Implying God alone is Lawgiver and therefore Judge since it is He alone that can execute His judgments and at the heart of His law is love (Mark 12:30, 31). Our inability in this respect (to act as the judge) shows our presumption in trying to act as judges, as though we were God. How rashly arrogant in judging your fellows and wresting from God the office that belongs to Him over thee and them alike!

James’ question, “But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?” follows Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1. It is a sharp question that gives believers a proper perspective of who they are in relationship to God.

Love lifted me!

God always initiates contact with humanity; think about Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses … 12 Apostles, Paul, Tom Lowe. I can add my name to the list because I was not seeking Him when He saved me. I can still feel the emotion present, the power of God that lifted me out of the pew, drew me down the aisle, and the presence of Jesus that met me at the altar. I cried when I realized how much God loved me and that Jesus died for me two-thousand years before I was born. But, dear friends, I love him more today than I did then. Someday, I will approach the Angel at the Gate of heaven like millions of others have, and I will joyously say to him, “Please, sir, take me to see Jesus!”

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