Have you ever puzzled over this verse in the book of James? I have. Stranger still, it follows James’ statement about faith needing works. Let us read it from the New English Bible. James makes a practical illustration.
James 2:14–17 (NEB) 14My brothers, what use is it for a man to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it? Can that faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or a sister is in rags with not enough food for the day, 16and one of you says, ‘Good luck to you, keep yourselves warm, and have plenty to eat’, but does nothing to supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So with faith; if it does not lead to action, it is in itself a lifeless thing.
Then, to be emphatic, James says it again:
James 2:18 18But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
We have heard the point made, that even here we are not told we must have “works” to be saved. “Faith” does the work—not us!
How contrary this would be to James’ point, that we must DO, that our faith must WORK—and WE are the ones to MAKE it work!
Then James says,
James 2:19–20 19You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
James says even the “devils”—those who do not know or worship God—tremble.
To tremble means, according to Thayer’s lexicon,
to bristle, stiffen, stand up; shudder, to be struck with extreme fear, be horrified.
Why do the “devils tremble”? Because they realize there must be something to believing in God. It is enough to worry them, though it doesn’t bring a change of heart. Not knowing God or understanding His purposes, it only makes them fearful.
Wasn’t this the concern of some of the chief priests and Pharisees about Jesus after He was crucified? We read:
Matthew 27:62–63 62On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, 63saying, “Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise.’
They were recalling what Jesus “the deceiver” had said about rising. They had just enough faith to worry them: What if what Jesus had said should be TRUE?!
Hence their request:
Matthew 27:64 64Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ So the last deception will be worse than the first.”
If He should rise, they said, just think what we’ll look like! Absolute fools!
What was Pilate’s reply?
Matthew 27:65–66 65Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how.” 66So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard.
Imagine: securing a tomb against the power of Almighty God? They obviously believed and trembled—without knowledge.
There is a feeling that it might be true, but there was no comfort, no joy. Their “faith” only brought a negative reaction. No basis for any conviction, only a fear of the unknown.
Might James have had a certain “devil” in mind when he wrote about the devils trembling? Could it possibly have been one named Felix, whom Paul addressed. What is the account?
Acts 24:25 25And as [Paul] reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.
A clear put-off. If there was any stirring in his conscience, time would return it to its normal complacency!
But James, in speaking of the devils that tremble, was it making a point we must not miss. Like many of his statements, it is a sharp rebuke of the professing life-seekers. James is pointing up the reaction of the “devil” in contrast to the LACK of faith among his own people, who claim to be believers!
The faint faith of the unbelievers, he says, makes them tremble, while the faith of some of his readers isn’t real enough to give them a shiver! Why? Because they aren’t showing their faith by their works of righteousness!
How critical is James statement, that
James 2:17 17…faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Jesus made a similar point in his parable of the often called the Unjust Steward, recorded in Luke 16. In this parable,
Luke 16:1 1He also said to His disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods.
The wealthy business owner had a hired manager. Likely an educated slave, this business manager was responsible for buying and selling for his master.
Apparently someone had reported to the owner that his manager was wasting his property.
Luke 16:2 2So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’
Without any verifying of the source of the report, the owner made the decision: The bad manager had to GO!
Knowing people as we do, we wonder if the story might have been started by a jealous employee of the rich man who was looking to unseat the present manager and advance himself? It has happened.
But first he must write up an account of who owed what. The owner needed this information to give to the manager’s successor, because the owner had been trusting his manager completely.
Now here is where the accused “devil,” the departing manager, starts to tremble. We hear his thoughts:
Luke 16:3–4 3“Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. 4I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’
He had a plan, one that his master’s creditors would surely approve, one that would gain the departing manager some good, solid friendships going forward. What was it?
Luke 16:5 5“So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
He called in “every one” of the master’s creditors to arrange an immediate settlement.
Luke 16:5-7 5“So he … said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’
Settling for half. 50 percent with the first and 80 percent with the second creditor. Good bargain for the creditors—and a solid plus for the manager offering the settlement.
This has often been called unjust, but it may be that it was fully in the manager’s right to offer such a settlement. It may be that he was only giving up his share of the deal? Or perhaps he actually had that authority to settle accounts? We are not told.
In any case, how did the owner feel about the settlements?
Luke 16:8 8So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly.
Then comes the key statement that explains Jesus reason for giving this parable:
Luke 16:8 8… For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.
Could it be? Yes, Jesus said it: that the sons of this world (unbelievers) are ahead of the sons of light (the believers) when it comes to acting in their own behalf.
How is it true? It is the same point James made about the “devils,” the unbelievers, who have enough belief in God to tremble.
Jesus commended not the manager’s faith but his quick action. He was losing his job—he had to do something for his own future.
Jesus’ final statement to His followers is a powerful command to all of us:
Luke 16:9 9“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.
There is a problem with the translation of this passage. Permit us to supply the words that make it a true translation and more understandable:
Luke 16:9 9“And I say to you, make friends [God and Christ] for yourselves by [using] the unrighteous mammon [your God-given resources—talents, money, time, energy], that when [they—your earthly resources] fail, they [your friends God and Christ] may receive you into an everlasting home.
How can we be sure the “friends” are God and Christ? Because no one but God and Christ have an “everlasting home” to share! None but God and Christ can offer us anything eternal!
But to get what they are offering, we must act NOW! Immediately! This is no time to be complacent and let events take their course. Even the “devils” believe enough to tremble at the word of the Lord. Even the shrewd manager shows himself “wiser than the children of light” by acting quickly to secure his own best interest.
This is no time to be complacent, no time to temporize, no time to be delayed or sidetracked. Our present position is tenuous at best, it cannot last. We must settle our accounts NOW, must meet our owner’s expectations NOW, must come to the heavenly standard NOW.
We have no time to lose.
What if it were Today?