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The Problem of Adultery

“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” (James 4:4).

Throughout his letter James had addressed his readers as “my brethren” (1:2; 2:1, 14; 3:1, 10, 12), even “my beloved brethren” (1:16, 19; 2:5). It is startling that he now says, “You adulteresses”! Doubtless he intended to shock them. They needed to wake up!

It is likely that James used the term adulteresses just as the Old Testament prophets frequently did. The Bible often depicts the relationship of God and His people as a marriage. God, or in our case, Christ, is the husband; His people are the wife. When we are unfaithful to the Lord, it amounts to adultery (see Jeremiah 31:32; 3:20; the book of Hosea). The prophets used this figure to expose idolatry. James’s readers were not worshiping statues, but their worldly conduct—favoring the wealthy (2:1-13), speaking evil of others (3:1-12), being selfishly ambitious (3:13-18), quarreling and fighting (4:1-2)—showed that they were much more aligned with “the god of this world” than the God of heaven. Remember the warning of 1:26: religion that does not produce right daily conduct is worthless.

Literal adultery, of course, is part of this picture. While it should not even be named among God’s people (Ephesians 5:3), too often it is. Sexual sin has always been a common temptation, and in our society that seemingly wants to remove all restraints we are surrounded by it. We must also remember that Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). That being the case, it is not unusual to encounter men and women living in adultery who nevertheless view themselves as Christians and want to be active church members. James wants them to see the utter inconsistency of such a course.

James says the problem is, such people are friends of the world. His word is philia, a friendly love typically based on mutual interest. Affinity with the world means enmity with God. The Christian has to choose, and the real choice is reflected in his daily conduct. A. T. Robertson noted, “God is gracious and forgiving to sinners who repent but has no mercy for presumptuous sinners who defy his kindness and keep in touch with the devil. . .”

“Or do you suppose that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: ‘He jealously desires the Spirit [or spirit] which He has made to dwell in us’?” (v. 5). While translations vary on this difficult verse, the NASB rendering fits the context well. God said of Himself, “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 5:9). No right-thinking husband is willing to share his wife’s affections, and God is no exception. His people must be wholly His!

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