Imminence of the Lord’s Return
James has been enumerating some of the sins that will bring rich men to a frightful judgment (Jas. 5:3–6). The last he mentioned was that they have "condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you." As soon as James remembers how cruelly the privileged have sometimes treated the righteous, compassion stirs his heart and turns his attention from the victimizers to all of God's people who might become their victims. He addresses his fellow saints in loving terms, calling them his own "brethren" (v. 7), and, to help them cope with persecution, he exhorts them to be patient. He reminds them that this present world, so grievous for the godly, will not go on forever. Whereas the miseries of rich men will be unending in an eternal place of punishment, the sufferings of good men cannot last beyond the coming of Christ. His descent to the earth will be the grand moment when good triumphs visibly and decisively over evil. He will deliver the just from every oppression and usher them into a life of permanent joy.
Yet James is not content with one reassuring promise. He gives two. The second is that the coming of the Lord is drawing nigh (v. 8). Our wait for deliverance will be short, at least from an eternal perspective. Soon the strong hand that evil extends to do us harm will be crippled, cut back, and consumed. It brings hard blows upon us now, but in a little while it will disappear, and God will heal every wound.
These verses furnish an important prophecy. It belongs to a class of three prophecies foreseeing the future spread of the gospel and growth of the church.
Parable of the Mustard Seed
In this parable appearing third in the Parables of the Kingdom (Matt. 13:31-32), Jesus predicted that in the historical period preceding His return, something exceedingly small, like a mustard seed, will grow to be exceedingly large, like a mustard plant towering above the other plants of the garden. What is this organism of phenomenal growth if not the church? The church indeed began exceedingly small, as only 120 in the Upper Room (Acts 1:15). Yet the church—or, more precisely, nominal Christianity—has become the largest religion in the world. According to statistics compiled in 2005, the people in the world today who name Christianity as their religion amount to about one third of the world's population. Their number is about the same as the combined number of adherents to the next two largest religions, Islam and Hinduism. Thus, the Parable of the Mustard Seed is a remarkable prophecy. Two thousand years ago, before the church even existed, Jesus knew that He was founding a religious movement that would continue and prosper until it overshadowed all rivals.
Jesus' last instruction
In His last words before His ascension, Jesus explained how the professing church would become so large (Acts 1:8). The dominance of Christianity over other religions would come about through worldwide evangelism. In His statement, "Ye shall be witnesses," He used the future tense in the indicative mood, signaling that we should understand His words as a statement of fact. He was clearly prophesying that before He returns, the gospel would reach the uttermost part of the earth.
The prophesy can be interpreted in two ways: as referring simply to general expansion of the church to every place, or as referring to something more specific. Where was Jesus when He made the prediction? He was on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. In relation to that specific location, where is the uttermost part of the earth? It is the directly opposite point on the globe. That point lies in the South Pacific Ocean, and the closest inhabited island is Rapa-iti. Although small and remote, it was not overlooked in the early years of the modern missionary movement. The first preacher to land there was John Davies of the London Missionary Society. Soon after his arrival in 1826, all of the island’s inhabitants adopted Christianity as their religion.
Yet as we said, Jesus’ instruction could be understood more generally as a prediction that the gospel would go everywhere in the world. This too has been fulfilled. The modern era since 1800 has been an age of great missionary enterprise, pushing the gospel to every nation under the sun. Statistics compiled in 2001 show that the church's goal of reaching the whole world has been substantially attained.
- Radio with evangelical programming reaches 99% of the world's population in a language they can understand.
- About 94% of the world's population lives in a culture with an indigenous witnessing church, and another 4% has a resident witness provided by outsiders.
- In the 1990s, a broad-based initiative by American evangelicals to reach groups who had not yet heard the gospel was dramatically successful. This initiative, called The Joshua Project I, put church-planting teams in a thousand unreached cultures, about two thirds of those identified, and started churches of at least one hundred members in about half of the cultures where the teams had penetrated.
We should not overstate the progress, however. Although the gospel today is available to nearly everyone in the world, personal evangelism has confronted only a small minority, and still a large percentage of the world's population has never actually heard the gospel.
Yet what has been accomplished so far seems in itself a fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy that the gospel would go to the uttermost part before He returned. Within my lifetime, virtually all the last places deprived of the gospel have finally heard it. Today’s global culture held together by mass communications has spread so aggressively that it has probably reached or will soon reach any remote tribes overlooked by missionaries. Thus, no uncompleted task prevents Christ from returning now. The worldwide embrace of the church is a major sign that the end is near.
The patient husbandman
The third major prophecy concerning future growth of the church is our text here in James (vv. 7–9). James's use of a developing crop to picture church history is reminiscent of Jesus' Kingdom Parables, especially the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24–30, 36–43). Just because the patient husbandman is a poetic image, we should not, from an outlook that sees poetry as vague and imprecise, assume that his story is meaningless except as an illustration of patience. On the contrary, when we approach the compositions of great poets—the Miltons and Shakespeares of our world—we expect to find design in details. After all, depth and density of meaning are proofs of genius. Why should we expect anything less than genius in the Word of God? In every speck of matter that comes from the same creative source, we find design too intricate for human comprehension. It is therefore wise to assume that when James, the divinely inspired author whose work is infused with meaningful imagery, uses a farmer to represent Jesus waiting to return, he intended even the details of the image to be true prophecy.
When we view this text with eyes open to larger meaning, we find it highly significant for three reasons:
- It agrees with several others that Jesus would return only after some delay. In the Parable of the Talents, where Jesus compares Himself to a man who returns home from a far country and rewards his servants according to their work while he was gone, He says that the man returns "after a long time" (Matt. 25:19). In a similar vein, Peter teaches that in the Last Days, men will arise who scoff at Jesus' promise to return. Why will they see it as a false promise? Because so much time has elapsed and still nothing has happened (2 Pet. 3:3–4). Likewise, James compares Jesus to a husbandman who wants to harvest the fruit of his garden, but who chooses not to come for it immediately. Rather, he waits with long patience until the fruit is ready.
- James says that the fruit will not be ready for His return until it has received both the early and the latter rains. Most commentators view the two rains as merely a way of describing a full growing season. But as we argued, a better approach is to look for specific prophetic meaning. Rain is probably a metaphor referring to the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus likened to living water (John 7:37-39). Whatever the rain represents, its indisputable effect is to spur growth. So, James is clearly saying that the Church Age will continue until there is a final period of growth to balance the growth at the beginning.
The prophecy has been fulfilled. Expansion in the church has been mainly confined to two historical periods. In its infancy the church spread like wildfire despite fierce opposition by the Roman government. Countless believers were martyred, yet the church thrived. This was the time of early rain. Vigorous growth of the church has also taken place during the modern era. For the first time in history, the church has carried out Jesus' command to spread the gospel to the uttermost part of the earth. This has been the time of latter rain.
- James tells us what will happen after the latter rain. The waiting will be over and the husbandman will come. Where do we stand in history? The latter rain has now fallen for generations, but it is subsiding. Missionary work is being scaled back. The churches in many countries are at some stage of drift into the waters of unbelief and corruption. Since Scripture foresees no more rain after the second outpouring, the apostasy we see all around us in our day must be the final apostasy foreseen in many prophecies (2 Thess. 2:1–3; 2 Tim. 3:1–5, 13; 4:3–4; Luke 18:8; etc.). Exactly how long this retreat from vital faith might continue, we have no idea. Nevertheless, we can be sure, as James says, that "the coming of the Lord draweth nigh."
A side benefit of our investigation of James's seemingly simple exhortation is the discovery of a double sign that the Lord's return is near: first, that the latter rain has fallen; second, that it is stopping.
Before closing his words of prophecy, James makes two key applications.
- He stresses again that the imminent return of Christ makes it easier for us to endure the troubles of life in a wicked world (v. 7). The confidence that He is coming soon is the secret to waiting for Him with a patient heart. It removes the anxieties that would otherwise keep us unsettled and sad.
- The imminent return of Christ is another incentive to guard our tongue (v. 9). James warns, "Grudge not one against another, brethren." "Grudge" renders a word suggesting complaints spoken with a sigh or groan. It could be translated "grumble." He evidently is not referring to passing frictions of a minor sort, soon forgiven and forgotten, because the consequence is severe—to be condemned at the Judgment Seat of Christ. There, although a believer will not have his salvation taken away, he may incur penalties. The kind of offense in James's mind is probably a chronic resentful attitude toward a brother—a simmering bitterness verging on hate—that leads to the wars and fightings he discussed earlier (Jas. 4:1-2). The danger in holding on to such an attitude is that our lives on earth might come to an end at any moment, perhaps through sudden death or even perhaps through the surprise return of Christ. In either event, there will be no chance to put away sin before we see our Judge. If we wish to protect ourselves from His displeasure, we must deal now with any wrong spirit that is poisoning our love for the brethren. Lest we balk at correcting ourselves, James reminds us that the Judge stands before the door. As we said once before, the image has two meanings. Christ is standing at the door of heaven, ready to pass through into our realm and steal away His people. He is also, figuratively speaking, standing at the door of the courtroom, ready to enter and conduct our trial. Let us therefore live as though we might at any moment receive a summons into His presence.