Overcoming Pride in Riches by Looking to the Crown of Life
Sermon from James 1:9-12 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word (Part 3)
Delivered on April 24, 2016
It’s fairly common for people to equate prosperity with significance. The world often judges people by riches, fame, and social status. Your value and your meaning in life is bound up with your possessions, the world tells us. But then there’s Jesus, the Son of God. The most significant person in the universe. He is one with God the Father from all eternity. Yet Jesus chooses to enter this world on behalf of sinners, not in the pomp and class of a rich boy but as a slave (Phil 2:8). He has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58). “Blessed are you who are poor,” he says, “for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). He tells the rich not to live their best lives now, but to sell what they possess and give to the poor, and they will have treasure in heaven (Matt 19:21). He says that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15).
Jesus stands the world’s value-system on its head. Not surprisingly, James does the same thing in relation to riches.
9Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. 12Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
To belong to Jesus as slave—to surrender all rights to him—will mean that our lives stand the world’s value-system on its head when it comes to riches. We should view riches through our identity in Christ and in comparison to his final reward. When we do that, the church will not only expose the emptiness of earthly riches, but offer the world the true riches found in Christ.
A Two-fold Command
James does this first by giving the church a two-fold command. And in many ways, it reflects what the arrival of God’s kingdom in Jesus signifies—an end-time reversal. The weak are made strong, the poor are raised up, the last become first, the humble are exalted; but the strong and the rich and the first and the proud are laid low.
The lowly brother must glory in his exaltation
In the first part of his command, he says, “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation.” Or better, “the lowly brother must boast in his exaltation.” This isn’t a suggestion; it’s a command. And it’s a command that may leave us scratching our heads initially, “Doesn’t the Bible forbid boasting? Isn’t it the arrogant who usually boast?”
That all depends on what you’re boasting in. In the Bible, boasting is an offense to God only when he and his gracious purposes are not the object (e.g., 1 Cor 1:29; 3:21; Jas 4:16). Boasting is good when we’re boasting in God and his gracious purposes. We might think of Jeremiah 9:23-24, “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I’m the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.”
Paul also says in Romans 5:2-3, “Through [Jesus] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice [or we boast] in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice [or boast] in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (cf. Rom 5:11; 2 Cor 12:9). Boasting is good when it’s God-centered and grace-dependent.
When this boasting language appears, though, in these positive, God-centered ways, it’s better understood as glorying in something, rejoicing exceedingly in God and his gracious works. And here we begin to see the link to where James began: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials.”
What kind of trials might the lowly brother be facing? Certainly, he’s facing some economic hardship. But if you read James a few more things stand out. The lowly brother’s needs are getting ignored in personal relationships—James 2:16. They’re also getting overlooked, even dishonored in their church gatherings, 2:1-7 tell us. And they’re also experiencing oppression in their daily vocations—that’s clear in 5:1-6.
So they’re getting ignored, overlooked, and oppressed. What might you feel under those circumstances? A desire to be recognized? Loneliness and betrayal? A want to get even with the big guys? Envy? Bitterness? A great sadness over your unchangeable circumstances?
James says the lowly brother need not go there. It’s significant that James uses the word “lowly” instead of “poor.” Being poor certainly places you in a better position to welcome the gospel, but it doesn’t automatically make you Christian. I’ve met lots of poor people who hate God over their circumstances. James doesn’t have them in mind. He has the lowly poor people in mind—those who are humbly walking with Jesus through their impoverished circumstances. And in the midst of the economic hardship—the unimportance in the world’s eyes—the lowly brother must glory in his exaltation.
What exaltation? The exaltation that he has in union with Jesus Christ. The New Testament uses this same language to speak of Jesus being exalted to the right hand of God (John 12:32; Acts 2:33; 5:31; Eph 4:8). And everybody who is then united to Jesus by faith—that means there’s a trustful reliance upon Jesus and he makes you his own…when that’s true of you—you are exalted with him. You’re exalted with him now and you will be exalted on the final day that he raises you from the dead (e.g., Luke 1:52, 78; 14:11; 1 Pet 5:6).
And it doesn’t get any higher or richer than being seated with Jesus folks! The poor Christian must find deep, settled contentment in his exalted status in Christ—even when his rich brothers and sisters are being jerks. Even when the world scoffs, the lowly Christian must not sit a sulk over his circumstances. He must not resort to complaining and bitterness at his circumstances. Nor should he pretend to gain significance by changing his circumstances. He might very well receive a better place economically speaking, but he shouldn’t find his significance—his identity and sense of self-worth—there. Why, to all these things?
Because of all the riches he possesses in Jesus Christ. You don’t need significance in the world’s eyes, when you have it in God’s eyes. In God’s eyes he’s exalted in Christ. You may be materially poor, but in Christ you’re spiritually rich. The church in Smyrna was like this. In Revelation 2:9, Jesus says, “I know your tribulation and your poverty but you are rich.” Or even in James 2:5, he asks, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?” Romans 8 says that means we inherit the earth. Ephesians 1 says that means we have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
Some of you visited with Larry and Anita last Sunday. They have a friend whose name is Yamuragiye Cyprien. He goes by Cyprien. He was born with some severe deformities. And his parents treated him as if he was some sort of evil spirit or demon that came to destroy their village. So they gave him the name, Yamuragiye, which in Rawandan means “unknown thing.” He was disowned, despised in the world’s eyes.
And then God saved this man. This is how he does it—he saves the weak to shame the strong. God saved him. And now he’s a passionate evangelist. He loves Jesus. Even when the world sees him as an “unknown thing,” Cyprien now knows that in Christ he has everything. He is an heir to God’s unshakable kingdom. He is seated with Christ in the heavenly places. He is clothed with Christ’s righteousness. He is filled with the Spirit. He has resurrection hope despite all his deformities. And he glories in his exaltation, and that hope fills Cyprien to overflowing in love and grace toward others.
How about you? Do you glory in your exalted status in Christ when brought low? When people overlook you…despise you…ignore you…leave you in the dust while they chase after their earthly pursuits—how are you doing remembering all that you possess in Christ? Are you preaching the riches of Jesus to yourself in those moments? The lowly brother must glory in his exaltation.
The rich brother must glory in his humiliation
But there’s a second part to this command as well. It comes at the beginning of verse 10—“and the rich in his humiliation.” Now, since James doesn’t repeat the word “brother” in verse 10, some have argued that he doesn’t have a rich Christian in mind but a rich non-Christian in mind. Perhaps. By the end of the letter, we’ll see that both kinds of rich people are present in their Sunday morning gatherings (Jas 1:27; 2:1-7, 16; 4:3, 10; 5:1-6). Christian and non-Christian—you just have to discern which rich people are being addressed more directly or indirectly in each context.
I take James to be addressing rich Christians directly in verse 10, with the rich non-Christians listening in the background. Verse 10 is a parallel thought; and many times when this happens in Greek, you simply have to supply the wording from the previous clause. In this case, “the rich [brother] must [glory] in his humiliation.”
If you’re a rich believer—and that’s almost everybody in this room. Even if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, the majority of us fall into the “rich” category. Wealth is more than money; it’s also resources—house and cell phones and cable internet and minivans and college and books and computers and roads and bridges and doctors and stores and Cheerios and Facebook. When you think “rich,” don’t limit wealth to your weekly income. We are rich in comparison to most Christians throughout this world. If you’re a rich believer, then you must glory in your humiliation.
What humiliation? It’s the humiliation we have in union with Christ and his people. Let me tease that out. I say in union with Christ, because we find the same humiliation in Jesus. Second Corinthians 8:9 tells us: “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.” The richest person in the universe made himself lowly to make others rich with life. Riches give us the opportunity give and give and give away, so as to reflect the way Jesus saved us. We must glory in this.
That’s hard for the rich person to do. That’s why the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus. He couldn’t give up his riches to the poor. He went away sorrowful, because he had great possessions (Matt 19:22). It’s hard to live this way when you’re rich. But it gets easier if you know that Jesus is a superior and lasting possession (cf. Heb 10:34). It gets easier when the Spirit grants you wisdom; when the Spirit gives you a proper perspective on your riches.
We see it in verses 10-11. He says, “because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.” I can just see the pastor looking at all the rich people in the room as he reads this. Many of them think they’re ‘all that,’ and yet one by one he reminds them how fleeting their riches are. The rich are rich only for a little while, and then they die.
Paul says the same thing, doesn’t he? “Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” That keeps things in perspective, doesn’t it? Because, if riches are transitory, if they’re passing away, then my ultimate treasure best be found elsewhere, namely, in Jesus and his unshakable kingdom.
But there’s another piece, I think, to this humiliation. It’s something in union with Christ and also his people. He just said, “the lowly brother must glory in his exaltation.” Now he says, “the rich brother must glory in his humiliation”—or, more literally, in his being made lowly. So you have the lowly brother in verse 9 and the rich becoming lowly in verse 10.
See, he’s being made lowly together with the lowly. Everybody’s on the same level at the foot of the cross. When you believe in Jesus, he brings you low. He humbles you. He puts you in your place. He exposes how weak and frail and destitute you really are without him. You might feel awkward toward the beggar on the street that holds up the cup. That’s a picture of you and me at the foot of the cross. We’re all beggars in need of God’s grace.
And if you don’t like that position, you’re not going to follow Jesus very long. You’re going to be like the ones who are choked out by the cares and riches of this world. If you find your identity in riches, you will perish with your riches. But if you glory in your humiliation in Christ, there is great reward waiting for you. That’s where we’re going next with the crown but we need to sit on this a little longer.
Are we okay being numbered with the lowly brother—those brothers and sisters suffering economic hardship, those who, in the world’s eyes, are “unknown things”? Are we okay with being identified with them? Let me ask the question differently—why aren’t more of them part of us? If one of the primary aims of Christ’s kingdom is that the poor hear the gospel, where are they? If God promised their conversion, how many of them would be saved tomorrow because of our prayers today, our evangelism efforts today, our mercy ministries today?
Are we only showing hospitality to those who look just like us, and make about the same amount of money as we do, and who don’t have a bunch of pressing needs we have to deal with? Jesus said, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14).
James encourages a similar outlook on life for the rich Christian. We must glory in our humiliation. We must glory in being made lowly, in being identified with the One who was despised and rejected by men. We must not let riches go to our head, but see just how fleeting our earthly riches really are. We must rejoice exceedingly in our association with those who are lowly and poor and insignificant in the eyes of the world.
This is the two-fold command. By identifying ourselves with Christ, whether poor or rich, we stand on level ground. The lowly are made high in Christ—they glory in their exaltation. The rich are made lowly with Christ—they glory in their humiliation. And this seemingly upside-down community reflects what the kingdom of God is all about—toppling the boastful-pride of man through Christ’s humble reign.
The Crown of Life
This is how we view our circumstances through God’s wisdom in Christ. James hasn’t left the theme of wisdom. This is God’s wisdom whether you’re poor or rich. Both the poor and the rich face trials in their circumstances.
Trials come with poverty and with prosperity. As John Blanchard put it, “The [poor man is tempted] to doubt God because he has so little; [and the rich man is tempted] to desert God because he has so much.” I have a Christian brother who owns a construction company; and he regularly texts me asking for prayer that God would guard his heart from the love of money. This is why verse 12 brings us full circle back to the various trials he mentioned in verse 2 and being steadfast through them.
Whether poor or rich, you’ve got to see yourself as God does. You’ve got to find your identity in Christ, and Christ alone. But it’s not just about your identity in Christ that will help us think rightly about riches. It’s also the future reward that will help us think rightly about riches. That’s where James goes next with the crown of life.
He looks at the poor Christian who must glory in his exaltation, with all the belittling things hurled at him by others; and then he looks at the rich Christian who must glory in his humiliation, in the face of all the riches alluring him away from faithfulness to Christ and generosity toward others. They’re both facing their various trials—and he encourages them with a promised reward if they remain steadfast: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (Jas 1:12).
The crown is the reward of eternal life with Christ
The image is of the crown an athlete would receive after winning a strenuous contest. You’d get a wreath-like crown. The only difference with this crown is that it never perishes. And it’s probably best to see this crown as a metaphor. Revelation 2:10 helps us here. It’s the only other place where the crown of life appears. And to gain that crown means that you will not be hurt by the second death. That is, if you persevere, you won’t suffer the final judgment, you will experience eternal life. “The crown of life” means “the crown which is life.” It’s the reward of life in God’s presence. God himself will adorn you with his life as a reward for steadfastness.
The poor Christian and the rich Christian alike can look to this reward as they remain steadfast in trial. Future reward is one of the motivating factors of our obedience, of our perseverance. Christians sometimes struggle with that, because it sounds like we’re just trying to obey God to get something else. But that’s not what’s going on. Life with Jesus is the reward, and everything he will reward us with will only help us to enjoy more of Jesus. Every good work receives reward, because every good work is a testimony that Jesus is worthy of all our allegiance. Heavenly reward says, “Jesus is greatest!”
So don’t try to be more spiritual than the Bible. The crown of life is in your Bible to motivate you, to strengthen you, to help you hold on to Jesus. God knows what we’re facing as Christians—whether rich or poor. If you’re rich, he knows how dangerous wealth can be. He sees how it tugs on your heart. He sees the temptation to covet more and hoard more and puff yourself up more. So here’s what he does: he exposes how transitory it is—rich people die—and then he stirs your affection for the superior and abiding possession, the crown of life.
And if you’re poor, he knows what it means to be ignored, to be overlooked, to be oppressed, to suffer for his sake. Maybe you’re choosing a path of obedience that means you won’t ever see the riches that others see. God’s Son walked that road before we ever did on his way to the cross. And he gives us the payoff to follow him through such trials. It’s in your Bible, so that in every trial that makes you want to quit, in every trial that’s almost unbearable, you can look to the crown and say, “He’s worth my faithfulness!”
Only those who are gripped by the crown can endure their cross. In his book, God in the Whirlwind, David Wells says, “…no one can sustain consistent self-giving, freely and joyfully, over a lifetime, unless they are hearing the music of another ‘age.’”
James is playing a kingdom tune for you. Can you hear it? You sang it earlier: “Find rest, my soul, in God alone / Amid the world’s temptations; / When evil seeks to take a hold / I’ll cling to my salvation. / Though riches come and riches go, / Don’t set your heart upon them; / The fields of hope in which I sow / Are harvested in heaven. / O praise Him, Hallelujah, My Delight and my Reward…” (Aaron Keys and Stuart Townend, My Soul Finds Rest).
“…no one can sustain consistent self-giving, freely and joyfully, over a lifetime, unless they are hearing the music of another ‘age.’” That’s why we sing together. The songs of corporate worship are like a catechism, to etch biblical truth onto your souls, so that you carry it with you throughout the week. That whether you’re getting a paycheck or losing your savings, the music of another age is helping free your soul from deserting God because you have so much or doubting God because you have so little. How much we need to be singing these kinds of songs to keep us from falling in love with riches.
Our love for God over earthly gain
You see, the question of our love for God really strikes at the heart of the matter. James tells us that much by making it part of the promise. Who gets the crown? It’s those who love God. Not those who love riches, but those who love God. The greatest thing you can do to live like we’ve talked about today is grow in your love for God. It’s to meditate on his greatness and glory. That’s our vision as a church: it begins with delighting in God’s glory.
So, I want to finish by setting before you just a few questions to ask yourself in relation to riches. And by asking these questions, I don’t want to give you the impression that wealth is evil. The Bible never says that wealth in itself is evil. But it has a whole lot to say about how dangerous wealth can be. And so it’s good to ask ourselves some questions based on Scripture to make sure we’re loving God and not money.
First question: how are you acquiring your wealth? With honesty? With integrity? James 5:4 says, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Are you cheating employees, cheating your employer, cheating your roommate, fudging on time sheets? How are you acquiring your wealth? Is it righteous gain?
Second question: how are you using your wealth? Does it look more like hoarding or generosity toward others? Are you like the Rich Fool, who built bigger barns but wasn’t rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21)? Or are you more like those using their possessions for godly purposes? Like those who count it a privilege to associate with the lowly and help them in their needs? Like the wealthy in the book of Acts who were able to sell their houses and lands in order to provide for others (Acts 2:45; 4:34). Or others kept their houses, like Pricilla and Acquila. But they used their house for the church to meet there regularly (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19).
Paul also commended the sister, Phoebe, because she apparently used her wealth to serve and bless others with it (Rom 16:2). So, how are you using your wealth? And you could evaluate that in concentric circles, starting with your family (1 Tim 5:8), then the local church (Gal 6:6, 10), and then those who live in closest proximity to you.
A third question: are you content with what you have? Paul says, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim 6:8; cf. Phil 4:11-13). Perhaps you don’t have what others have, and you begin to covet what they have. Perhaps other things are stripped from you that you would’ve liked to keep; and instead of contentment, you find yourself growing bitter, anxious, or worried. Such lack of contentment is often indicative of a deeper lack of love for God and a desire to have what he, in his wisdom, has not seen fitting to grant at this time.
And one more: how much do you value earthly riches in your heart? 1 Timothy 6:10 says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim 6:10; cf. Heb 13:5). He tells the rich also not to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God (1 Tim 6:17). Where’s your love centered? Where’s your hope ultimately found? Is it something that lasts?
Whether rich or poor, we all have much to consider as we carry this passage home with us and to work with us and to school with us. But let’s pray that God would make it alive in us. Let’s hold out hope that God would help us walk together in this exaltation and humiliation. And may God then be pleased to cause us to live out the kingdom reversal. To live in such a way that it leaves the world scratching their heads, wondering, “Where is it that you find your identity? What is it that you value so much?” And then we can tell them, it’s not a matter of where or what, but who—his name is Jesus Christ, let me tell you about him. He’s worth infinitely more than money can buy, and he died for your sins, so that you could become his heir. You too can have him by faith.
other sermons in this series