Seminary Viewpoints

James’ Two-Part ‘Bitter Water’ Test of Believers’ Faithfulness

Sam Horn | February 23, 2023
Theology Thursday


Fifteen times in his epistle, James addresses readers as ἀδελφοί — “brothers” — a male form. Yet in chastising believers for their adulterous disobedience of giving in to their passions, he abruptly switches to the feminine plural, mοιχαλίδες (4:4). Is this a first-century form of diversity, equity and inclusion, or something deeper?

Pastor James’ Jewish audience (1:1) was well aware of the numerous Old Testament references to Israel as an adulterous bride, but also certainly of God’s now-obscure yet fascinating test of a wife’s claims of innocence to a suspicious husband.

In this “bitter water” ceremony (Num. 5:11-31), an accused wife would swear an oath of innocence to the priest and then drink holy water sprinkled with tabernacle floor dust. If she was guilty, God would cause her abdomen to swell; if innocent, she would be unaffected. (Do not try this at home! It was one of many practices unique to the theocratic Jewish nation.)

At this test’s core were two issues: the true relationship between husband and wife, and their obedience to laws regarding adultery and false witness, respectively. In the same way, James 4 establishes a two-part spiritual test to expose or vindicate the true hearts and obedience of Christ’s bride, the church.

Test 1: Slanderous Speaking that Displaces God

In verse 4:11a, James issues a direct and pointed command not to “speak evil against one another.” The term and tense indicates continuing slander in their midst, attacks clearly prohibited by God through Moses (Lev. 19:16) and Christ (Matt. 6:21-24).

James went so far in 4:11b as to equate such acts to speaking evil against and judging the law itself! Demanding “Who are you to judge another?,” he reveals in verse 12 that in slandering, believers were attempting to displace the “one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy.”

In short, the first test clearly reveals the bride’s (church’s) true relationship with Christ: they were friends, and in reality, lovers of the world rather than Him (v. 4). They were indeed “adulteresses”!

Test 2: Self-Centered Living that Disregards God

James then turns to his second test: were his charges double-minded and hence disobedient? Were they living according to the wisdom of the world, for its values, and by its counsel, rather than God’s pure, peaceable, gentle, yielding, merciful and fruit-bearing wisdom from above (3:17)?

The merchants described in verse 13 were planning and engaged in legitimate business pursuits (emporium) to make an honest profit — none of which was sinful by itself.

Their downfall: arrogantly, boastfully (4:16) and foolishly presuming (4:14) to do all of this in disregard to God’s will (4:15) or His purposes. Rather, they were trusting their own finite skill, ability and especially knowledge (4:14) to pursue their own ends and purposes — all to accumulate treasure for the wrong kingdom!

The Lord, the spurned husband but also righteous Judge, delivers His verdict in 4:17: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” James’ readers knew they were disobedient in not only issuing slanderous speech but in self-centered, self-directed living disregarding God’s freely offered wisdom.

In so doing, they were partaking of a bitter potion indeed, for Pastor James had already declared that an unfaithful, double-minded believer should expect to receive nothing from God (1:6-8).

The Sweet Cure: God’s Gracious Two-Part Invitation

But verse 8 offers a sweet cure to this bitter portion, still available to us as believers today, in the form of God’s two-part invitation to repentance and righteous conduct: as “sinners,” to “cleanse (our) hands” and as “doubled-minded” believers, to “purify (our) hearts.”

James first makes it clear that if we resist the devil, drawing near to God, lamenting our sin and humbling ourselves in His sight, He will “lift (us) up” or restore us (vv. 7-1).

And in commanding believers to “come now” in verse 13, James echoes God’s gracious call in Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together … though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

That reasoning, as in Romans 12:2, involves aligning our thinking — and here, its expression in our speech — with God’s sovereign will: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'” Again, this course correction involves submission, this time of all plans, goals, objectives and profits to God’s will.

James has delivered a bitter truth to his beloved people — and to us — backing the horrific charge of spiritual adultery with undeniable evidence from our daily lives.

But alongside God’s gracious two-part invitation, the apostle offers this coda in his epistle’s close: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20).

As we inevitably wander from God’s wisdom, we can rest assured that submitting our hearts to Him, realigning our minds to His will — and helping others to do the same — will bring His full, rich mercy.

As discussed by Sam Horn on The Steve Noble Show on February 23