Sermon on James 4:13-17 | The Frailty of Life


The Frailty of Life (James 4:13-17)

September 11, 2001, greatly affected the psyche of this nation. For the first time in recent memory, we felt vulnerable; we felt angry in a different way than ever before; we rallied around our nation and her troops like we had no in two generations.

But I hope that September 11th affected our psyche in yet another way—I hope that we learned just how fragile life really is. So many boarded planes that morning, anticipating a vacation or going over notes for their meeting with a new client that afternoon, not knowing that in a moment they would be ushered into eternity. So many ran off to work that morning, concerned with budget numbers, concerned with profits, concerned with returns on investments, not knowing that in moments they would be ushered into eternity. So many firefighters ran to the scene, expecting to rescue the trapped and extinguish the flames, not knowing that in moments they would be ushered into eternity.

Too often we forget how fragile life is. Although we know that we will die, we tend to think of death as being something in the far distant future, not taking into account that we could die this very day.

In our text this morning, James speaks to businessmen who thought they would live forever. He speaks to the foolishness of their thinking. This morning, we want to examine the foolishness of their thinking that we may not be taken by such foolish thinking.

Folly of Human Planning, vv 13-15

“Come now” is a Greek expression often used for the purpose of getting attention. James wants the attention of his readers, for he has something quite important to share with them.

James speaks plainly to those who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit.”

Business travel in the first century was very common; businessmen would load their goods on camels and go from town to town selling their merchandise. Notice the planning these businessmen had done:

  • They had planned the time of their trip—“Today or tomorrow.”
  • They had planned the place of their trip—“We will go to such and such a city.”
  • They had planned the duration of their trip—“Spend a year there.”
  • They had planned the activity of their trip—“Buy and sell.”
  • They had planned the success of their trip—“Make a profit.”

Such planning is foolish, for we do not know what tomorrow holds.

There is clear irony in verse 14. The businessmen had decided to go to a certain city for a year, but Jams says that you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, let alone a year from now. We do not know what will happen tomorrow: “Do not boast about tomorrow, For you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Prov 27:1).

James asks, “What is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”

Life is just as frail and temporary as the steam rising from boiling water. It appears, you can see it, but it quickly vanishes away. Scripture speaks of the fleeting nature of life. “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, And are spent without hope. Oh, remember that my life is a breath!” (Job 7:6-7). Peter quotes Isaiah: “All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away” (1 Pet 1:24).

How many people have we known who were making plans to do this or that and died suddenly—a heart attack, an accident, stroke, murder. Those on the R. M. S. Titanic in 1912 thought the ship was unsinkable, yet on its maiden voyage it struck an iceberg and 1,515 men, women, and children perished in the icy Atlantic. Are you so sure you have tomorrow?

Instead of simply making plans, we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.”

This is the whole point James is making. He is not saying, “Don’t make any plans, just sit back and whatever happens, happens.” Instead, he is saying, “Don’t leave God out of your plans. Don’t act as though you are the mater of your own life, and whatever you want to happen will happen.”

James is not saying that one must always preface what he plans by saying, “If the Lord wills.” There were times that Paul prefaced his plans by saying, “If the Lord wills,” but there were times he did not preface his plans by this statement: “I shall go by way of you to Spain” (Rom 15:28). The point James is making is that this should be the attitude of our hearts; although we don’t have to say, “If the Lord wills,” we need to understand that our plans are subject to his will.

Man is dependent upon God in two distinct ways according to this text:

  • Man is dependent upon God for life: We should say, “If it is the Lord’s will, I will live.”
  • Man is dependent upon God for what he does: “If it is the Lord’s will, I will do this or that.”

Do you realize that your life and your plans are dependent upon God? Or do you think you’re self-sufficient?

Folly of Human Boasting, v 16

Those who claim they know what they will do tomorrow or next year boast in their arrogance. Boasting refers to taking glory in something, tooting one’s own horn about what he’s done—this person is going around telling people, “I know I’ll be around next year. Nothing can ever happen to me.” Arrogance here refers to pretensions. This person is boasting about something he really doesn’t have.

All such boasting is evil. This boasting must be evil, for it takes on and places him in God’s place; this person thinks he controls the future; he’s boasting about something he really doesn’t have.

Do you boast in your arrogance?

Folly of Human Neglect, v 17

The one who knows to do good and does not do it commits sin.

There is a principle being taught here that Christianity is not just not doing what’s wrong; it is also actively doing what’s right. We, as the children of God, are taught to be active in good works. We were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). “Do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb 13:16).

There are so many opportunities we have to do good—to visit the sick and shut-in, to encourage those who need to obey the Gospel, to take food to the bereaved, to teach Bible class, to bring children to Bible school. Are you actively doing good?

Although we need to be active in doing good, we must not divorce this verse from its context. The context is the brevity of life; we don’t know what tomorrow holds, let alone next year.

That’s why we need to be doing good—we don’t know how much longer we’ll be on this earth. How many people have thought about doing good, but they waited until it was too late? How many people have thought, “I’ll be baptized in the near future,” but died while those words were still on their lips? How many people have thought, “I’ll be restored in the near future,” but died while those words were still on their lips? We need to do good before it’s too late.

Are you doing good, or are you going to wait until it’s too late?


Because we do not know what tomorrow holds, we need to be right before God today. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). “Today is the day of salvation, Tomorrow may be too late. There’s danger and death in delaying, Accept God’s saving Grace; His life on the cross He has given, O come while yet you may, He’s earnestly pleasing, O make no delay, Tomorrow may be too late.”

Tomorrow may be too late. Do you need to come this morning to be baptized into Christ? Do you need to come this morning and be restored to Christ?

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.

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