More Than One Interpretation


James 4:5 Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (NRSV)

James 4:5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? (NIV)

James 4:5 (1) Or that the spirit he caused to dwell in us envies intensely; (2) or that the Spirit he caused to dwell in us longs jealously. (NIV notes)


On first glance I was inspired by this Scripture today for I took it to believe that God has placed his Holy Spirit within us and he deeply desires that this Spirit would be connected to him -- and thus draw us closer to him.  However, as I began to read and study more about this verse I discovered that its translation is fraught with discussion.  Barnes' Notes say, "Few passages of the New Testament have given expositors more perplexity than this." If you look above there are four different options listed for possible understandings of this one little verse, and what becomes clear is that we don't know exactly what James was referring to because there is no exact quote like this to be found in the Old Testament scriptures.  Therefore it may be that he was referring to a general understanding of things in the scriptures, which would have been an Old Testament understanding which would bring us more to the idea that is found in the first NIV note, that the bent toward sinning which exists in us since the fall of humanity envies intensely.  This would be almost a complete opposite understanding of what I read into the verse at first glance.  Therefore, honestly, there are two possible interpretations here, but there is something significant that we can receive from both, and maybe that is the joy of reading a verse like this and discover the very depth of one little sentence.


1)  Let's begin with what we might see as the negative side of things.  James has been talking about people who live in sin -- adulterers, murderers and those who quarrel.  If we look at this verse from that perspective he may be explaining that the reason all of this exists is because we have a sin nature problem.  That is because the sinful nature is living within us and it has a propensity toward intense envy!  It wants the neighbors wife, it wants to be more powerful and therefore is willing to take a life, it wants to pick a fight with others and therefore quarrels.  James is saying that the Scripture tells us that this nature lives in us because of sin and it will continually be bent toward sinning.  This would fit well with verse 6 where he tells us that therefore he gives us all the more grace!  You see, because of the bent toward sinning we have been engaging in acts which are not pleasing to God and therefore he has showered us with even more grace!  This is the good news of the gospel.

2)  The more positive interpretation is that since Pentecost God has made possible the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit within each of us.  That Spirit naturally is drawn toward God because the Spirit is from God.  God jealously longs to be united with the Spirit he has placed within us and therefore the Christian no longer wants to be a participant in the things of this world.  No longer do we want to be a part of murders, quarrels, or committing adultery.  The new Spirit is God's very nature and that is contrary to the things of the world and that nature will constantly draw us away from sin and toward God himself. 

As you can see, two very different interpretations.  Either the spirit within us is the old sinful nature, or the spirit within us is the presence of the Holy Spirit.  But do we really have to pick one interpretation?  Could it be that with the ambiguity of this verse we are left with the full message of the gospel -- in just a handful of words.  Maybe the ambiguity is purposeful for it gives us the story of humanity's fallenness -- a life trapped by the sinful spirit -- while at the same time it gives us the hope and freedom of a life consumed by the Holy Spirit.  James was living in the new life of the Spirit, while at the same time he had witnessed life in the old spirit.  He was watching a metamorphosis of humanity from living in the old law to living in new life.  He had been raised a Jew -- he knew what had been expected -- he knew that people were not victorious over the old nature.  But now, through the power of the Spirit, people were set free.

More than one interpretation -- but maybe just one hopeful story of transformation!  Where do you find yourself today - in which interpretation?


Lord, may your Spirit dwell in me and draw me ever closer to you.  Amen.


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