It’s a Religion! Part 2

As previously mentioned in part one, James is taking his readers toward pure and undefiled religion (1.27) in this section. To get there, he first deals with the word of God – Christians are to receive the word in their life. What does that look like? James’ concern for the body is once more manifested in his use of imperatives (“be doers”), the attachment of a blessing (v.25), and the exposition of what it means to receive “with meekness” the word of God.

Christians are to be hearers of the word, but our duty does not stop with hearing only – “be doers of the word.” This is tied directly to what Jesus taught during His ministry (cf. Matt 7.24-27; Luke 6.46-49). He taught his disciples to hear his word (Luke 8.8, 10-15, 18, 21) and also put it into practice (Luke 11.28). So here is James, half-brother of Jesus, continuing the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ as he exhorts his fellow countrymen and brothers in the faith toward not only hearing the word of God but also putting it into practice.

James 1.22-25
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.
24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

The Injunction (v.22)

James saw it in his day. The Jewish Christians to whom he writes apparently had become lax in doing the word. Or worse yet, they had heard the word, believed it, but had put it to no practical use. They showed up at the synagogue to hear preachers reason with the Jews concerning Jesus as the Christ. They met Sundays with their brothers and sisters and heard bishops and evangelists proclaim the word. Their profession, though, had become an empty form. They were merely hearers only, adopting a downright antinomian worldview. By the end of the second chapter, James will have set this monstrous distortion aright.

So James puts pen to parchment and calls upon his brethren to remind them that the sum of Christian duty is more than hearing only. James is not against hearing; indeed, it is vital to a Christian. However, to be a hearer only is self-deceptive. These Christians have been convinced by false reasoning that hearing only is enough. They have reasoned falsely and been deceived. James sets this straight by explaining that action is necessary – “be doers.” This is an imperative command. Stop being self-deceived and believe the truth: hearing is good but it must be coupled with action. “Do what it says!” (NIV)

This is nearly identical to what Paul says in Romans 2.13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV). While Paul speaks to a different context concerning the Law of Moses, James makes a similar argument for the greater “law of liberty.” If this were true concerning the Law, much more is it true for those in Christ Jesus!

“Very many hearers of the gospel are not sufficiently upon their guard against the dreadful danger of being ‘hearers only’” (Pulpit Commentary 17). They sit in pews every Sunday. They hear sermons every week. Their talk may even be full of “church talk.” But ultimately their life is void of transformation from having put into practice the word. Thus, they dwell in a state of false, carnal security.

An Illustration (v.23-24)

James next uses a very simple yet profound metaphor to further make his point and wake up these slumbering saints. To illustrate someone who is a hearer only, he uses the image of a person looking into a mirror. While this person looks intently into the mirror at his face and sees its features. Perhaps there are some blemishes, flaws which need to be corrected. Perhaps there is dirt which needs to be cleaned off. Whatever the case may be, it is the careful investigation which is highlighted. Time was spent looking into the mirror to see what he looks like. But as soon as he goes away having looked at himself, he immediately forgets what he saw. Hence, any blemish goes uncorrected, any mar is not cleaned. In addition, the man forgets his entire appearance! What he is like is not remembered. The very face he was born with is forgotten. How absurd!

That’s what it is like when you hear the word only and do not do it. You look into the perfect law and see what you are to be like – you are to be like Christ. Any flaws or character defects are found out. Any moral filth is identified. Your overall character is derived from what you see when you look into the perfect law. But as soon as the hearing is over and the doing should begin, you turn away from the mirror and forget what you are to look like! You forget Christ! A Christian who forgets to look like Christ? How absurd!

The Incentive (v.25)

Here in verse 25 we find the beatitude of the persevering. We have been born of the perfect law of liberty (see v.18), the word of truth. This perfect law is a perfect gift from our perfect God. The one who looks into this law and continues in a state of activity (perseveres) with it; the one who is not a hearer characterized by forgetfulness, but rather is a doer characterized by putting this gospel into action; the one hearing the word and doing it will be blessed. Just as the one who is steadfast under temptations is congratulated, so too the one who is steadfast is doing and keeping the law of liberty is congratulated. In other words, God looks with favor upon those who are doers of the word. In the very doing of the word God there is blessing! Alford says, “The life of obedience is the element wherein the blessedness is found and consists.”

On persevering Matthew Henry puts it this way: “when we are not forgetful of it [God’s word], but practice it as our work and business, set it always before our eyes, and make it the constant rule of our conversation and behaviour (sic), and model the temper of our minds by it.” It should be noted that scholars are careful to distinguish between being blessed for the doing and being blessed in doing the word. As the Psalmist says, in keeping the Law of the Lord “there is great reward” (19.11). Adam Clarke on this passage cites the sayings of the Jewish Fathers: “There are four kinds of men who visit the synagogues, 1. He who enters but does not work; 2. He who works but does not enter. 3. He who enters and works. 4. He who neither enters nor works. The first two are indifferent characters; the third is the righteous man; the fourth is wholly evil.” Perhaps James has this Jewish saying in mind when he writes this passage calling his Christian brethren to the high calling of Christ.

It’s a Religion! Part 1

Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker or tee-shirts: “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” In this section (1.19-27), James seems to be driving to a destination: It’s a religion! He will end up talking about religion that is “worthless” (v.26) and religion that is “pure and undefiled” (v.27). Religion is tied up in our speech. Religion addresses our actions. Religion is related to our view and reception of Scripture. So it is a religion! Perhaps the bumper sticker would better read: “It’s a religion…and a relationship!”

There is a Rabbinic saying: Talk little and work much. Also, “The righteous speak little, and do much; the wicked talk much, and do nothing.” And “If speech is silver, then silence is golden.” Perhaps James has these in mind and assumes his primarily Jewish audience will make the connection when he pens this section of the epistle.

“We have two ears and one mouth so we may listen more and talk less.” – Epictetus (55-135 AD), Greek philosopher. Unfortunately, some people have this backwards – having two mouths and one ear (and usually end up with both feet in their mouths!). In America, where the first amendment guarantees us the freedom of speech, we believe it is our God-given right to express any and every opinion no matter what the consequences. We are slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to become angry. We have it all backwards. James writes to Christians to exhort them to a lifestyle where God’s word and not man’s word is of primary importance.

James 1.19-25

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;
20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

The Requirement

James gives several imperatives in this section. The first begins verse 19: “Know.” This is from oida, that knowledge which is certain and refers back to what James has just covered. His “beloved brethren” know about the begetting power of the word of truth. This is a truth that have come to know and continue to know (perfect tense) concerning the word of God. “But let every man be…” begins the list of three imperatives.

A Swift Ear: Bookended by statements which have to do with the “word of truth” (v. 18, 21), it seems best to understand this swiftness in hearing in regards to the word of God. It is the word of God which is “truth” and saves souls. Certainly every person, Christian or not, should be quick to hear the word of the Lord. Tragically, most people have turned a deaf ear to God’s word. Even Christians, whose love has grown cold, are no longer swift to hear. It seems that some of those to whom James is writing fall into this category (cf. v.21).

A Slow Tongue: James is not advocating John Wayne talk, but is calling for a lifestyle which thinks before it speaks. How does this relate to the Word? First, I think of a Christian’s prayer life where we communicate or talk with God. Someone has said that if we are going to talk with God, it’s a good idea to let Him talk first! So we quick to hear God’s word and then speak to Him. Keep God in the proper perspective and remember He is God in heaven and you and human on earth. “Let you words be few” (Ecc 5.2). Second, in this context of temptations, do not be hasty in ascribing blame to God. In fact, as already seen, do not do that at all. So be slow when accusing God responsibility concerning temptation.

Truly, this is a difficult task. A modern proverb derived from Scripture, even from James, says “To control speech is to control self.” Later in James he says, “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body” (3.2). Speech control, then, is the supreme example of self-control.

A Serene Temper: Slowness to anger is more than just great advice in self-improvement. To be slow to anger is divine for God Himself possesses this characteristic (see Ex 34.6; Num 14.18; Neh 9.17; Psa 86.15; 103.8; 145.8; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2; Nahum 1.3). James does not prohibit anger entirely, but he does warn that anger must be kept under control. One should not have a quick temper; one should be of such a mind that he thinks carefully before becoming angry. Is this worth getting exciting about? If not, why get angry? If it is, manifest the character of Christ in the situation, i.e. sin not.

The Reason

Christians are to be models of these three qualities to people in the world. Of all the people on earth, Christians should be leading the charge in demonstrating swiftness to hear, slowness to speech, and slowness in becoming angry. We manifest the light of the world in our lives when we are and do these things. Or, as James explains, we put on display for all to see the “righteousness which God requires” (ESV). It is not that when we get angry God is more or less righteous; it is that when we get angry, the product is usually not toward an upright life which God calls us to. Barnes says, “The particular meaning of this passage is, that wrath in the mind of man will not have any tendency to make him righteous.” With sobriety of mind and thought, with a temper that is slow to boil over, one can then look toward the word of God with the proper perspective.

The Replacement

Since verses 19-20 are true and anger can hinder us from working righteousness, James wraps this teaching up by exhorting Christians to “put away” (ESV) several characteristics. Here is yet another imperative for Christians. The word used for “put away” carries the idea of taking off clothing. Therefore, the Christian is to strip him/herself of “filthiness and rampant wickedness” (ESV). First, “filthiness” or “moral filth” (NIV) which is disgusting or offensive evil conduct is to be taken off. This is the only time this word is used in the New Testament. Second, “rampant wickedness” or “superfluity of naughtiness” (KJV) which means evil which overflows or abounds is to be removed. “Thus the two words rhuparia and kakia comprise two classes of sins – the sensual and the malignant” (Pulpit Commentary 5). In essence, James is exhorting his brethren to rid themselves of “all” evil in their lives.

They replace anger and all moral impurities with the word of God. Rather than say “put on” and continue the imagery, he exhorts Christians with yet another imperative to “receive with meekness the implanted word” (ESV). With open mind and open heart one takes unto himself the word which is planted in the soil of the heart. There is a sense in which this harkens back to the parable of Jesus about the soils (see Matt 13.3ff). The gospel teaching, when accepted and welcomed into the life, is able and has the power to save or deliver the soul (cf. Rom 1.16). The plant imagery is plain: the word has been planted in the hearts of these Christians. A primarily Jewish audience would have been raised with the “sacred writings” and thereby the word of God would have been planted in them. By receiving the word, the gospel continues to germinate and grow in us, producing good fruit and leading us further toward final deliverance. In other words, a Christian must never think that he/she is done with the word once they have obeyed the gospel.

Good Gifts from a Good God

Having presented the reality of temptation, the root of temptation, and the results of temptation, James exhorts his brethren further: be not deceived or lead astray. About what, James? About the sin! And about the origin of sin and temptation. In other words, do not believe the lie. This is serious business and to attribute temptation to God is a gross error! God is far from the one who entices to sin. And so verse 16 acts as a type of transitional sentence to move into the next section, especially about the nature of the good God Christians serve. “Far from enticing to evil, God is the source of every good gift (v.17), one of the greatest of which is the new birth (v.18)” (Moo 74).

James 1.16-18 (ESV)

16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.
17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

You will note that James addresses his readers as “my beloved brethren” (v.16). As mentioned in the introductory material, it is maintained that the James who wrote the epistle of James was the half-brother of Jesus. He was converted when he had a post-resurrection appearance from Jesus (see 1 Cor 15.7). Following his conversion, he became a leader in the Jerusalem church of Christ (Acts 15.13-21). In fact, because of the close similarities in language between the letter sent forth from the Jerusalem council and the epistle of James, in all likelihood the author of each of these is one and the same. Further, according to tradition, this same James went on to become one of the bishops (elders) of the Jerusalem church. This language used here in James 1.16 indicates that James had a shepherds heart with a deep concern and care for the flock of God. He loved them and desired for them to have a proper understanding about the true nature of God. So what is God like?

God is good

If God were not good, then there could be no good giving which is what the Greek indicates “good gift” means. Two different words are used for the same English word (“gift”) – dosis and dorema. The former is used with the adjective “good” to describe the act of giving which God engages in. Everything God gives is good or beautiful. Hence, there is no evil or bad in it. By the way, even in situations that we classify as “bad,” if they are given by God, they are good for man does not dictate and define what is good; God does.

God is perfect

Next, the gifts (Gk. dorema) from God are perfect. If God were not perfect there could be no perfect gifts. James has already used this same word (v.4) to describe a Christian who is steadfast in trials: they come out “perfect” when perseverance runs its course. As mentioned there, more than maturity is meant with this word and that is especially highlighted here with its connection with God’s gifts – they’re perfect, complete, lacking nothing.

It is interesting to note that in the original language the phrase “every good gift and every perfect gift” is in perfect hexameter. What this may indicate is that this is some kind of poetic line James is using to communicate what should be a well known principle to his readers, perhaps even using a line from a well known hymn sang regularly by the church to remind them about who God is. At best, it is possible.

Another point of interest: these Jewish Christians probably would have recognized and distinguished between these two words used for “gift” and also known from their Bible (the Septuagint, LXX) that these words appear together in Proverbs 21.14. That helps to identify that these are different words and therefore different concepts of giving which are being communicated, yet nevertheless, when they come from God they are good and perfect.

God is above

These gifts which are given by God come “from above.” This is a common phrase used to describe the location of God: He is in heaven. So these gifts come from the realm not only above but also beyond our finite, material universe. It points us to the spiritual nature of God. Indeed, “God is spirit” as Jesus taught (John 4.24). And since He is above, the giving and gifts flow from on high and are “coming down” from Him who sits on the throne. This present tense participle indicates that it is the regular habit and career of God to bestow good and perfect gifts and cause them to flow from the spiritual realm into the physical realm.

God is unchanging

James uses the “lights” of this physical universe of which God is the Father inasmuch as He created them to contrast the unchangeable nature of God. The sun seems to change when during the year its course is changed as the earth tilts on its axis; the shadows cast by the sun change as the day draws out; sometimes the sun is eclipsed for a time; the moon during the month seems to change as it rotates in its course, even apparently disappearing; the stars and constellations from night to night shift; stars and planets can sometimes not be seen. James uses the constant shifting and changing of creation to show God as unchanging. God is different since He is the Father (Creator) of these lights. There is no variation or change in God. He is constant, indeed the only constant in a universe of change. There is no shadow, “no darkness” whatsoever in God. As God has stated about Himself: “I, YHWH, do not change” (Mal 3.6). He is not a capricious being who one day is one way and the next He’s completely different.

God is Father

James calls Him the “Father of [the] lights.” Indeed, as Creator of sun, moon, and stars, He is Author or Father of the physical lights that we see in the sky. More than that, “God is light” (1 John 1.5) and if there would be any light whatsoever it must find its origin in God, the source of light.

But the definite article “the” can be inserted (Gk. ton photon). Hence, God is Father of the lights. Given the context in which we find this, this rendering is harmonious. God is pictured as the Father who brings forth or begets “us” (Christians) by the true word. Inasmuch as we are “the light of the world” (Matt 5.14) who reflect “the Light of the world” (John 8.12), God is our Father who brought us forth as His children. This is accord with the purpose and plan of God – He willed that this would be so. And it is!

As His children, we are “a kind of firstfruits.” For Christians today 2,000 years removed from this writing, the concept of firstfruits is primary lost on us. However, to a Jewish Christian to whom James is writing, firstfruits is loaded with significance. The Jews under the Law had a feast of firstfruits in which the first and best of the harvest were offered to God (see Lev 23.9-14). So a saved Christian who has been begotten by the true word has become a kind of firstfruit to God, set apart and holy, consecrated for offering to God. Paul would call us “living sacrifices” (Rom 12.1).

You sync all this up and James seems to be driving toward identifying Christian immersion as the good and perfect gift from the good and perfect God. These Jewish Christians to whom the gospel was first to go have, by obedience to the word of truth (the gospel), become a kind of firstfruits among the creatures of God. The harvest of God began on Pentecost and continues to today, but these Jewish converts who were the first to hope in Christ were the firstfruits of that harvest.

In one sense, this perhaps can reach even to today. When we hear the word of truth, the gospel, “which is able to save your souls” (1.21) and are obedient to that word, we are “born again,” “born of the water and spirit” in baptism. In this action, God begets us. Indeed, when Christians are pictured as being born of God (1 John 3.9) the verb is passive; here, with God pictured as the one doing the begetting, it is active. In other words, this is the work of God performed on those seeking Him out through obedience to the true word. These kinds of people (“we,” plural pronoun) become a kind of firstfruits of the creation, redeemed from the brokenness and lost-ness of creation (cf. Rom 8.18-25).