What does it mean that life is a vapor?Question: "What does it mean that life is a vapor?"
Answer: James 4:14 says, “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” A vapor is a fine mist like fog. It quickly burns away when the sun comes up. It has no substance and leaves nothing behind. Comparing our lives to a vapor illustrates how fleeting our days on this earth are.
Life can feel endless at times, but the Bible reminds us that, compared to eternity, an individual life on earth is like a vapor chased away by the morning sun. It is important to recognize the brevity of life so that we don’t squander the time we’ve been given. Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” God wants us to live with purpose, recognizing that the clock is counting down to the moment we step through death’s portal and enter our eternal state. At that moment, the books are closed, and we will begin to reap the consequences of our choices on earth (Hebrews 9:27; Romans 14:10; cf. Luke 16:19–31).
During our brief stay on earth, we should live with eternity always before us. Whether we live 5 years or 105, our lives are still as fleeting as a vapor. Even Jesus felt the urgency of being about God’s work while the opportunity remained. He said, “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).
Recognizing that our lives are like a vapor interjects a serious note into our daily activities. Human beings in privileged parts of the world are given to squandering time on frivolities that have no lasting value. While entertainments and relaxation are important parts of a healthy life, they must never be our primary reason for living. Our lives are like a vapor, and that means we may not have tomorrow; living always with that knowledge keeps us focused on the things that matter. Our prayer every morning can be, “Lord, thank you for another day. May I do something today that will have eternal significance.” When we live with eternity in view, we are more interested in storing up for ourselves treasure in heaven (Luke 12:33). Knowing that life is but a vapor causes us to be uncomfortable with wasted time and restless to invest ourselves in God’s work.
In his metaphor of life being a vapor, James was reminding his readers that they should not become overconfident about their plans because, ultimately, they were not in charge of their plans. The God who rules all things may overrule our ideas. If we are not holding our earthly treasures loosely, the overriding of our plans can feel devastating (James 4:13–16). God often allows unpleasantries into our lives to remind us that this world is not our home (Philippians 1:27; 3:20). Our time here is like a vapor, and then it’s gone. Like an exhalation in cold weather, our lives show up for brief moment and quickly disappear from this earth. All those born into the family of God (John 3:3) will, at death, gather in their eternal home and enjoy forever the rewards of serving the Lord on earth (1 Corinthians 3:12–13).
Recommended Resource: The Epistle of James, New International Commentary on the New Testament by James Adamson
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