James’ epistle has been called the “gospel of practicality.” It is so down-to-earth in relating the teaching of Jesus Christ to the affairs of daily life.
In the fourth chapter of his letter, James (almost certainly the half-brother of Christ) addresses overconfidence in those who are spiritually short-sighted and so this-world oriented.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this city, and spend a year there, and trade, and get gain”: whereas you know not what shall be tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a vapor, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall both live, and do this or that” (Jas. 4:13-15).
Life is a precious gift. Let us pause a moment and consider the value of the blessing of life.
The Brevity Of Life
In the immediate context, the thrust of James’ question is to emphasize the brevity of human life to those whose thoughts were riveted in time rather than in eternity. Relatively speaking, our existence upon this planet is a fleeting thing. How seriously, then, ought it to be viewed. How desperately its moments should be treasured.
The Scriptures are filled with reminders of how rapidly earth’s sojourn passes.
Job, in his suffering, appears to have dwelt on this thought more than most men do. His day seemed to pass quicker than a “weaver’s shuttle” (Job 7:6), or a single breath (Job 7:7). His days appeared to rush by like a courier with an urgent message (Job 9:25), as a “swift ship,” or like an “eagle who hastens to the prey” (Job 9:26). He saw man’s days as “few.” He was rather like a flower that blossoms and then quickly dies, or as a rapidly passing shadow (Job 14:1-2).
Moses, who lived to be 120 yet was still vigorous (Deut. 34:7), lamented that man’s days “are soon gone and we fly away” (Psa. 90:10). Who among us who has reached the maturity of his life does not reflect upon the times of his youth as if they were but moments ago? Playing around the back steps, walking down a dusty road to the fishing hole, the smell of mother’s baking bread—where has the time gone?
Perhaps, though, the most haunting of all thoughts is the reality that we’ve let life slip away quickly, having neglected so many grand opportunities for advancing ourselves spiritually and for helping others. Oh, if we could but rescue some of those times.
As we arise each fresh morning, we could scarcely better start our day than to contemplate the brevity of time, and the value of the day before us. Apart from the contextual point in James’ admonition, there are other thoughts upon which one may reflect as he considers the question: “What is my life?”
When Paul was invited to speak before the philosophers of Athens, his limited opportunity forced him to focus on matters of extreme importance. One of these was his emphasis on the origin of life. He confidently affirmed that it is the true God who “gives to all life, and breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25). Later, in a letter to his young friend, he will remind Timothy that the Creator is the one who “gives life to all things” (1 Tim. 6:13).
How shocking it is that arrogant man, the persistent rebel, should assign the astounding phenomenon of “life” to a mere quirk of nature. To the disciples of Darwin, the commencement of life was but a “spontaneous” freak happening in some slime pit of antiquity.
Isaiah delivered a blistering rebuke to the haughty ones of his day who chided, “He [God] made me not” (Isa. 29:16). One of England’s top scientists, Sir Fred Hoyle, once compared the accidental development of higher forms of life to the probability of a tornado roaring through a junkyard and assembling a 747 jet plane.
There are a couple of prime implications involved in the realization that life is a gift from God.
First, human life is a sacred essence, bequeathed to those who are made in the very image of the Creator himself (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6). No person has the right to arbitrarily take the life of another person. Only the Lord himself can authorize such an action (cf. Josh. 6:21). Let those who labor under the illusion that a woman has the liberty to destroy her pre-born child contemplate that issue with the greatest of gravity.
Second, when one reflects upon the fact that his life is a gift from heaven, he cannot but ponder the purpose of his existence. Isaiah declared that man was fashioned to glorify his Maker (Isa. 43:7). Why, then, do millions live as if Jehovah has no claim on them?
Solomon seems to have explored the meaning of his existence in the waning days of his life—as set forth in the book of Ecclesiastes. In retrospect he surveyed the folly of his youth, as he aimlessly sought for some “key” to happiness. Every “under the sun” (i.e., earthly) solution that he sought proved to be a dead end. Ultimately, he concluded that the purpose of life is to reverence God, and submit to his commands (Eccl. 12:13). In no other way can Adam’s children find contentment.
Treasure your gift of life. Use it to extol your Creator. In such a pursuit you will discover that which is blessed—both in time and in eternity.
A One-Time Experience
There is another aspect of “life” that is worthy of contemplation—especially in this age of bizarre religious theories.
It is the reality that one lives his earthly life only once, and he would be wise to make it count. As an unnamed woman from ancient Tekoa once said: “For we must needs die, and are as water spilt upon the ground, which cannot be gathered up again” (2 Sam. 14:14).
While in biblical times there were very special episodes of resurrections (to confirm divine revelation — Mt. 10:8; cf. Mk. 16:17-20), clearly they were not the norm. The rule was (and now always is) that, “it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Death is the universal experience that is the consequence of human rebellion (Rom. 5:12).
Why is it that so many people in America have absorbed the mystical, Eastern notion that human beings are “recycled” through the process of reincarnation? One constantly hears this idea advanced by celebrities in the news media, including some who are nominally associated with the church.
Intrinsic to Hindu thought is the idea that the soul, at death, can migrate from one body to another (in various species of biological life), and that the new residence is dependent upon the quality of life in the previous body. This chain of rebirth supposedly goes on endlessly, until broken by a “release,” i.e., some method of “salvation,” which results in the cessation of all human passions and the entrance into a vague sort of bliss. The philosophy reflects an ancient pagan way of attempting to deal with the problem of suffering. The dogma of reincarnation is both unscriptural and illogical. (For an excellent analysis of the dogma of reincarnation, and a refutation of the same, see Geisler 1999, pp. 639ff.)
Another sobering aspect of life is its dramatic uncertainty. The aged Isaac once expressed a sentiment that is applicable to most of us: “I know not the day of my death” (Gen. 27:2). The Lord warned the Jewish nation that should they rebel against him he would scatter them afar, and, he promised, “Your life shall hang in doubt before you” (Deut. 28:66). Is that uncertainty not true for each of us?
Over the past five decades as a preacher of the gospel I have conducted numerous funerals involving “untimely” deaths. A young mother is murdered by her sister’s estranged boyfriend, a young man is blown into eternity when he tries to rig a dynamite-trap for a bear, a seventeen-year-old drowns, and vehicle deaths have been common. Edmund Cooke well wrote:
Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce,
And whether he’s slow or spry,
It isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts,
But only how did you die.
A Time For Preparation
The Bible emphatically stresses the idea that life on earth is a time of preparation for one’s eternal destiny. When the wicked northern kingdom of Israel persistently ignored the divine chastisements designed to soften their hearts, the prophet Amos warned of a terrible judgment to come (Assyrian captivity). His language was: “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (Isa. 4:12). Only by genuine repentance and conformity to the will of Jehovah could they avoid this disastrous encounter (cf. Isa. 5:4, 6, 14-15).
Peter once asked Jesus if he would describe the character of one who is considered to be a “faithful and wise” steward. The Lord provided an illustration to drive home the point. In concluding the matter, the Savior suggested that servants to be so honored would be those who had “made … ready” (cf. Lk. 12:47). This is what life is about.
In the final state of earth’s affairs, the glorified church is depicted as the Lord’s wife. Here is the key expression: she “has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7).
In one of the Savior’s parables, just days before his death, he spoke of virgins who were a part of a wedding festival. Some of these were wise. Others were foolish. The distinction between the two groups lay in the fact that the wise were simply those who had prepared. The foolish had not (Mt. 25:1-13).
Satan, the archenemy of Jehovah and man, has rendered no greater disservice than to infect the minds of gullible men with the notion that preparation for eternity can be made in a postmortem fashion. Note the following:
As indicated earlier, Hinduism teaches that man is progressively reincarnated until he ultimately enters the bliss of Nirvana. Roman Catholic dogma embraces the notion of Purgatory, a fabricated “intermediate” state where one may expiate his sins until “purged,” and thus is fit for heaven.
Mormonism offers the doctrine of proxy baptism. This is the notion that the living may be immersed on behalf of the dead, thus providing salvation for those who did not submit to the will of God during their sojourn on earth. “Pastor” Charles T. Russell, who founded the “Jehovah’s Witness” cult, alleged that God has a plan of salvation for those who do not have opportunity for gospel obedience in this present life, so that those who die lost may yet be saved.
Each of these theories, though perhaps originating in sincere hearts, is misguided. They represent a desperate attempt to deal with the terrible reality that many are dying lost, not having recognized, or having been sensitive to, their need for submitting to the plan of Almighty God. These ideas ignore the fact that a largely corrupt human family desires to forge its own system of religious dogma, and function as its own “god.”
Your life on earth is a precious time. Do not ignore its value; do not squander it in trivial pursuits; do not let it slip away and leave you unprepared. This very day you may wish to contemplate the question: What is your life?