As we look at James chapter 4 we must keep in mind the context of the entire letter. There is a close connection between the section just covered in 3:13-18 and the one we are moving to in chapter 4. In 3:13-18 James taught about true godly wisdom and the fruit of that wisdom. What we saw is that, at least in part, the fruit of wisdom is peace. What we see in 4:1-6 is that the recipients of this letter were in the midst of bitter conflict rather than peace. They were dealing with serious problems within their community. The connection between these two passages is that they were dealing with these serious problems within the community because of an over all lack of wisdom in the community. If we go even further back in the book of James to 1:27 we will see that these people traded godly wisdom for worldly influences.
In 1:21-27 we find one of the central themes to the book. How to live in such a way that it is pure and acceptable to God even in the midst of earthly trials. In this section we see that in order to do this we must accept the word of God. James says in vv. 21-15 that in order to receive the word one must do the word. Consequently, in is necessary for one to examine themselves with scripture like one would examine themselves in a mirror. This correlates with Chapter 2, and James’ teaching on faith. The next step in receiving the word is found in vs. 26. “Bridle the tongue.” This is what James covered in 3:1-12. The next step in receiving the word is to keep oneself unstained by the world. It may look like I am skipping a step because James first says “to visit orphans and widows in their distress.” Really this is a part of keeping oneself unstained by the world. In most of our English translations the word “and” had been added (notice italics). In the Greek there is no conjunction. I think that we can reasonably say that the two (visiting and not staining) both represent pure undefiled religion, and are really a part of the same life change that will result form the Spirit of God working through the Word of God. This teaching correlates with 3:13-5:6.
The key that we must remember as we seek to unlock this passage is James’ command to “keep one’s self unstained by the world.” When we think of being stained by the world our minds usually go straight to the most heinous sin that we can think about. A rapist, or a murder, that is a person who has been stained by the world. This is not a wrong thing to think, but there is more to being stained by the world than just the “really bad sins.” To be stained by the world is to be preoccupied with the things of this world. It is to be immersed in the things of this world; whether that is some gross immoral sin, or misplaced priorities. You can immerse yourself in sports, school, music, hobbies, friends, really just about anything! It is very easy to become preoccupied with this world, because this world is all that we have ever experienced. In 2 Peter 3:11-14 the apostle Peter warns us of this very trap.
Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless,
All of these things that we spend our life pursuing will be destroyed! How petty does that make our pursuits seem. We, as disciples of Christ, must be “looking for new heavens and a new earth” rather than holding on to this earth with white knuckles. If we can somehow figure out a way to do this we can “be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless.” James was talking about the very same thing that Peter was. Look at how similar there language is. James says “do not be stained,” Peter says “be found… spotless.” James says “wisdom from above is… peaceable,” Peter says “be found by Him in peace.” So in 2 Peter we find the same key that James gave us in 1:27; stay unstained by the world. Do not be preoccupied with this life, and thus stain yourself with the world.
This is exactly what the recipients of James’ letter had done. They did not have the wisdom to see beyond there earthly trials, and they let themselves become immersed in this world. Rather than peaceable and spotless, they were contentious and stained. I don’t want to jump to far ahead but we see a big part of the problem in verse 4.
You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
They desired the things of the world over God, and in doing so they placed themselves in hostility towards God. Let’s take a look at their situation lest we fall into the same trap.