Special Study – Perfection & Righteousness

Special Study—Perfection

“The biblical idea of perfection is of a state of ideal wholeness or completion, in which any disabilities, shortcomings or defects that may have existed have been eliminated or left behind” (J.I. Packer in The New Bible Dictionary). When applied to God, it speaks of God being  complete in Himself, lacking nothing, and without flaw. Thus, God becomes the basis or standard by which all other perfection is measured (cf. Matt 5.48). God is absolute perfection.

When Paul speaks of perfection (Gk from teleioo) in Philippians 3.12, 15, he is obviously not saying that he is absolutely perfect as God is absolutely perfect. The reference to the “resurrection of the dead” in v.11 hints at the fact that Paul looks forward to absolute perfection in the future, though now, in the flesh, he is not “already perfect.” In this single verse, Muller (122-123) says Paul is dismissing three erroneous concepts of perfection:

1) Self-righteous perfectionism—the claim that one has arrived and is already perfect.

2) Self-sufficient semi-perfectionism—though not yet entirely perfect, one has attained much already and is perfect to an extent.

3) Indolent imperfectionism—conscious of the “not yet” but gives in to the sinful desires of flesh with no pursuit of holiness.

However, just a few verses later, he speaks of “those of us who are perfect (Gk teleioi).” Once again, Muller says Paul is speaking “not of ethical perfection, but of perfection in principle” (125). It is similar to how Paul to describes the Corinthian brethren (1 Cor 1.2) as “sanctified” and “saints” despite their being engrossed in several sinful practices. Though their ethical practice needed correction, in principle they were holy (set apart) unto God. Another way of understanding Paul’s use of teleioi is to connect it with what he says in 1 Corinthains 14.20: “in your thinking be mature (Gk teleioi).” Therefore, this has to do with spiritual maturity and readiness to apprehend things divine. Some believe there may have been a self-righteous group which saw themselves as superior to their brethren, as perfect. Paul “is opposing a relative and progressive ‘perfection’ which he expects of every Christian to the impossible claim of final perfection which must ever be future while we are still on earth” (Martin 152).

Special Study—Righteousness

Paul speaks of “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law” which stands juxtaposed with “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” and is the righteousness “which comes through faith in Christ” (3.9). The former speaks to man seeking right relationship and standing with God through conformity to the demands and obligations of the will of God. The latter is God achieving right relationship between God and man through Jesus Christ. Man attains to that right standing in his obedience to the gospel, namely, denial of self, belief in Christ, and the obedience of faith in immersion where we are put into Christ (Rom 6.3) and we put on Christ (Gal 3.27).

Righteousness is also “holy and upright living, in accordance with God’s standard” (New Illustrated Bible Dictionary 1089). Indeed, John says, “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as He is righteous” (1 John 3.7). So there are acts of righteousness which Christians are to pursue and put into practice. However, these righteous deeds must never be viewed as a means to gain right standing with God. Christ Jesus, by His perfect obedience, brings us that right relationship and we live accordingly.

Christ’s Righteousness

We are declared righteous by obedient faith in Jesus and His completed work of atonement.

Practice Righteousness

In light of right relationship with God based upon Christ’s finished work, we live upright and holy according to the Word.

Paul makes it clear that Christ’s righteousness cannot be acquired by human effort in commandment keeping or inherent virtue. Thus, the righteousness from God is a gift from God to the Christian in Christ Jesus. The medium or vehicle by which this righteousness is accepted by man is obedient faith. This new and true relationship between the believer and God involves a new moral standing and a new moral standard to be upheld and championed in the life of the Christian. Further, from this new union with God in Christ comes the impetus and motivation for holy living. God has dealt with not only sin but the consequences of sin I Christ on the cross freeing the Christian to pursue upright and godly living. God makes us righteous through Christ; we, having been declared righteous, will do what is righteous.

Rejoicing in Pursuit of Growth

After writing about a couple of brothers who have rendered invaluable service to him (2.19ff), Paul turns his attention toward those Judaizing teachers who threaten the faith of the Philippians (3.1-16).

Rejoice in the Lord (3.1)

Once more Paul exhorts his brothers to celebrate and be glad in the Lord.

1Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

Finally, my brother: this phrase can also be translated “furthermore.” Paul is not attempting to wrap up the epistle, but commence a warning. This is distinct from 4.8 where he concludes

Rejoice in [the] Lord: A common theme throughout this epistle (2.18; 4.4; cf. 1.4, 25). The command can only be fulfilled in the Lord—Christians in Him and He in us.

To write…safe for you: To repeat himself concerning Christian joy does not bother Paul and for his brethren it will free them from danger. What kind of danger?

Reprove the Lawbreaker (3.2-4a)

Paul warns his brethren about Judaizing teachers and reminds them they are the true Israel.

2Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

Look out: Beware! Repeated thrice for emphasis and urgency. Keep an eye on them.

For the dogs…mutilate the flesh: Paul uses three phrases to describe the Judaizing teachers. First, they are dogs. The irony here is that Jews viewed Gentiles as dogs because they were outside of the covenant; now they are excluded from the covenant and are dogs. Second, they are evildoers. They are evildoers because of their opposition to the gospel. Third, they are flesh mutilators. This is hyperbole for circumcision.

3For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—

For we are the circumcision: Believers in Christ are the spiritual circumcision (see Col 2.11-12), the new Israel (cf. Gal 6.16). Paul presents three identifying markers of believers…

Who worship by the Spirit of God: Worship (Gk latreuontes) should read “serving.” It denotes that Christians render religious service. There is a textual variant: some mss read “God in [the] Spirit” (so reads NKJV); however, the best mss have “by/in [the] Spirit of God.” Some commentators suggest this phrase could also be rendered “serving God’s Spirit.”

And glory is Christ Jesus: that is, Christians boast in the Lord (Jer 9.24; 1 Cor 1.31). Christ alone is our ground for confidence.

And put no confidence in the flesh: The Judaizing teachers would trust in circumcision and other religious rites. To put one’s confidence or trust in anything except Jesus Christ is confidence in the flesh.

4though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also.

Though I…also: While Paul may “have reason” to trust in the flesh, he will not use it.

Reasons from Paul’s Life (4b-6)

Paul appeals to his life before Christ in order to compare and contrast with the Judaizers.

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:

If anyone…I have more: “More than anybody else, more than any of the Judaizers themselves, he could have trusted in the flesh and carnal privileges” (Muller 109). Paul will lay out his credentials, not for grounds of boasting, but to show he had every Jewish privilege.

5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;

Circumcised on the eighth day: This was characteristic of all Jewish boys (Lev 12.3). He was a child of the covenant because of his parents’ conformity to the Law.

Of the people of Israel: He was not a proselyte but genetically (Gk genous) of Israel.

Of the tribe of Benjamin: Indeed, he shared his name with Israel’s king who was from the tribe of Benjamin (Saul).

A Hebrew of Hebrews: “The Hebrew son of Hebrew parents” (Moffat). Also, he would have been reared  in the ancient Hebrew languages (Hebrew & Aramaic), a sign of faithfulness.

As to the Law, a Pharisee: In regards to his devotion to the Torah (Law), he claimed the strictest sect of the religion—Pharisee (Cf. Acts 26.5; Gal 1.14).

6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

As to zeal, a persecutor of the church: Zealous for the law and eager to protect the Jewish religion, Saul of Tarsus pursued, persecuted the church with the aim of exterminating it.

As to righteousness under the law, blameless: no charge could be brought against him as pertaining to his obedience and conformity to the Law of God.

Recognize the Lord (3.7-11)

The highest and greatest goal for Paul is to know Christ, His resurrection, and His suffering.

7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.

But whatever gain…the sake of Christ: These “gains” (pl), the seven reasons he could boast in the flesh, were regarded and continue to be regarded (perfect tense) by Paul as one giant loss because of Jesus. Indeed, this statement builds on Jesus’ teaching in the gospels (Matt 16.26; Mark 8.36; Luke 9.25). Paul gained the whole Jewish world but lost his soul for it. “They were loss because confidence in outward things tends to keep the soul from Christ.”

8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

Indeed…Jesus my Lord: any and every possible thing which might somehow be conceived as a merit or advantage acceptable to God by a pious person is invaluable compared to Christ. That is how much better and greater knowing Christ is—everything else in life is worthless. “Knowing (Gk from gnosis) Christ Jesus” is more than head knowledge; it is heart knowledge based upon experience (i.e. fellowship). The worth of knowing Christ—see John 17.3

For his sake…I may gain Christ: Lit. through Him I lost everything. Paul “lost” (aorist) everything at his conversion; they were taken from him (passive). Paul counts everything he lost as garbage (KJV dung). Not only Paul’s Jewish heritage but anything he might claim as valuable religiously are considered a stinking mess. The purpose of this strong renunciation of everything is that Paul understands to lose all means to gain Christ. “Paul was never satisfied with his knowledge of Christ and always craved more fellowship with him” (Robertson). To gain Christ is to rely upon His all-sufficient merit.

9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—

And be found in Him: that is, at the Day of Judgment when Christ returns. “Be found” (Gk eurisko) is the idea of discovered as though by surprise. No one knows when Christ will return so we must be found in Him now, at the last day, and always.

Not having [a] righteousness…from the law: Lit. not having my righteousness. This kind of righteousness is derived by the bootstrap method of self-effort and commandment keeping which condemns “ because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2.16). Even though Paul was “blameless” under the Law (v.6) he was still under the curse of the law (Gal 3.10).

But that which…depends on faith: “but” (Gk alla) draws a sharp contrast—not my righteousness BUT God’s righteousness through faith in Christ. This is the righteousness a Christian puts on through obedient (active) faith in Christ. Paul speaks of “having” (present tense) this righteousness. While he possesses it, it is not his own but God’s.

10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,

That I may know Him: The ever-constant aim for Paul and all Christians—to experience the righteousness of God enabling us to know Christ and His salvation.

And the power of His resurrection: It was the power of God which raised Jesus (Rom 1.4). “The resurrection of Christ was a glorious manifestation of Divine power” (Caffin 113).

And may share in His sufferings: Lit. fellowship (Gk koinonian) His sufferings. The was an honored prized to Paul (cf. Col 1.24) since He bore all our sufferings (Isa 53.4).

Becoming like Him in His death: present passive participle indicates this is continual and progressive “deep, real, inner conformity” through daily self-death (Luke 9.23; Gal 2.20).

11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

That by any means…from the dead: Paul’s language here does not denote uncertainty about his destiny. Rather, this is the language of humble expectation. In the struggle of faith, Paul uses language to capture the resurrection as arriving at the end of a journey. Here and now Christians are risen with Christ, but we still look forward to the final consummation.

Reach for What Lies Ahead (3.12-16)

Paul continues his discussion (which is intended to indict the Judaizers among the brethren in Philippi) of pursuing perfection or maturity. He just wrote about trusting only in Christ’s righteousness (not his own); now he exhorts these brethren to press on in righteousness.

12Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

Not that I…am already perfect: Paul does not want the church to be mistaken about what he just said in v.11—he is not saying he has “obtained” (aorist) the prize at conversion nor is he saying that he attained perfection in the past and stands perfect presently (perfect tense). In other words, Paul is saying that he has not reached the end of his journey and race.

But I press on to make it my own: Rather, the object is before him and with speed and energy he is moving toward it. The word Paul uses was a hunting term as in the pursuit of game. It was also a term for foot-racing. Paul’s whole life is a pressing on to the future goal that he seeks to make His own or overtake and arrest.

Because Christ Jesus has made me His own: When? At his conversion. When he was immersed for forgiveness of sin, that was the beginning of the chase for Paul, not the end. Further, that was when Christ overtook Paul and made him His own possession. NKJV: “laid hold” that is to grasp or seize.

13Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,

Brothers: fellow Christians of the Philippian church who are in the same course of pursuit.

I do not consider…in my own: There will come a time when Paul will say, “I have obtained it!” Or God will say, “It has been finished!” Or Paul “I have finished” by God’s grace. But it stands to reason that that time is not right now. Not yet.

But one thing I do: Lit. But—one thing. “I am single-minded” (NET).

Forgetting what lies behind: This includes his Jewish pedigree (v.5-6), his life as a church persecutor, and even that part of his life as a Christian with whatever failures and miseries had come to him. By deliberate and continuous “forgetting” Paul further progresses to the prize.

Straining forward to what lies ahead: the image is of a runner leaning forward as they run. So Paul with great energy reaches for those last Day things (v.11).

14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

I press on toward the goal: exact same word as v.12—with all his being and strength Paul is in pursuit of the prize and crown. This pursuit is continuous.

For the prize…in Christ Jesus: The prize for which Paul is striving for he has named in v.11—the resurrection of the dead and that unto eternal blessedness in heaven. Hence, this calling is “upward” to the heavens (cf. Heb 3.1—”heavenly calling”). Notice it is God who calls Paul “in/by Christ Jesus.” In these last days [God] has spoken to us by His Son who is the Word of God (Heb 1.2; Jn 1.1).

15Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.

Let those of us…think this way: “Mature” is a word related to “perfect” in v.12. Some see a wordplay here where the “perfect” ones are those who know perfection is not possible in this life. Others make a distinction between absolute perfectionism (where no further striving is necessary) and relative perfectionism (being full-grown, see Eph 4.15-16).  So maturity is bound up in pursuit of fuller maturity.

And if…you think otherwise: Those among the Philippians who believed perfection in this life was/is attainable or Paul’s general opponents who were just anti-Paul.

God will reveal that also to you: Paul “invokes the aid of God to illuminate the minds and correct the behaviour (sic) of those who do not share his conviction” of the truth he has stated.

16Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

Only let us…attained: “Let there be no falling back; let us, at each point in our Christian course, maintain and walk according to that degree of grace at which we arrived” (Caffin 115).  “Hold true” lit. means to walk in a line. In other words, stay the course.

Fellowship with God is rooted in our Settled Practice of Righteousness

John ventures forth having established our position before God as children of God to explaining that with this position comes a practice God’s children are to follow. The shift is subtle: our positional status prompts and promotes a practical style of living. This practical aspect is captured by John in 1 John 3.4-10.

4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning—Present active participle, lit. the one doing  the sin. This is a person whose habitual practice is to sin (miss the mark, veer from the right). This is in contrast to “the one doing right” (2.29).

Also practices lawlessness—lawlessness (Gk. Anomia) is to behave with complete disregard for the laws of society. In this case, there is no regard for the laws (commandments) of the kingdom of God (cf. 2.3).

Sin is lawlessness—veering from what is right is also disregard for the law.

5 You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.

You know—perfect tense of oida, absolute knowledge.

He appeared to take away sin—these Christians knew absolutely the purpose of Jesus’ coming: to take away, remove, bear/carry sins (ours). What is emphasized here is not the manner of the removal but the removal itself. Sin has been taken away.

In him there is no sin—not a single sin whatsoever. Present reality.

6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.

No one who abides in Him—or “Whosoever abideth in him” (KJV). Abiding in Christ means certainly to be in Christ, but it also points to the communion we enjoy with Christ/God and is characterized by our habitual doing of God’s will. If our goal and aim is to do the will of God (do right, 2.29), we would not keep on sinning…

Keeps on sinning—KJV “sinneth not.” (Linear) Present tense verb which is captured in the KJV with the “-eth” suffix attached to the word. This is not occasional sin John is talking about here but habitual sin. And as is characteristic of John’s writing, he presents the two camps as opposite (light and darkness, right and wrong).

This is also a logical deduction from the foregoing discussion: if the nature of the Son of God is sinless perfection and if His purpose in coming was to take away sin, then no one who abides in Him keeps on sinning.

No one who keeps on sinning—and here is the clarification of the practice of sin (linear present tense participle). Lit. this is “the one sinning” and points to a life marked by a habit of sin. It also points a life which is not in Christ and denies Him.

Has either seen him or known him—Woods says this points to the enjoyment one finds in God (sees) and the recognition of God in one’s life (knows). John uses the perfect tense of the verbs: one has not seen nor presently sees Him and has not known nor presently knows Him. Indeed, Sin and Christ are irreconcilable, incompatible and are at enmity.

7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.

Let no one deceive you—Let no one pull you away so as to stray from the truth.

Whoever practices righteousness is righteous—lit. the one doing the right(ness) as opposed to the one sinning (v.6). Compare this with 2.29. The one whose habitual practice (keeps on doing) is to do what is right concerning the will/law/commandments of God is righteous. In other words, you are doing what God desires. God makes us righteous through Christ; we, being righteous, will do what is righteous.

As he is righteous—In other words, your doing exactly what Jesus did while on earth. Character and practice cannot be separated; Jesus’ life shows us this.

8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 

Whoever makes a practice of sinning—present tense part. lit. the one doing (the) sin. This is again continuous action, a lifestyle and career of sin. The habit of sin.

Is of the devil—cf. Jn 8.44; When one acts like the devil, they demonstrate they are not children of God but children of the devil. This person belongs to and is aligned with the devil. Important note: John is careful not to say they are “begotten” of the devil. “The devil made no one, he begot no one, he created no one; but whosoever imitates the devil, is, as it were, a child of the devil, through imitating, not through being born of him” (Augustine). “There is the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the evil one, and man cannot find or make a third domain; if he is not in the one he is in the other.” – Pulpit Commentary

For the devil has been sinning from the beginning—this is his character. Hence, when one sins, breaking the law of God, they demonstrate the same character as the devil and their relation to him. “From the beginning” probably points to the devils fall from an angel of God to the demonic evil being he is now. He was the first sinner. But he continues to sin.

The reason the Son of God… – In v.5 we see the work of Jesus to take away sin. Here John adds that Jesus’ work was to destroy the “works” (pl.) of the devil. The word John uses for “destroy” is “loose” picturing, as it were, chains that had bound mankind; he unbinds, dissolves the bonds. So Christ, in removing our sins, looses us from the bonds of sin. He takes away/looses the us from the penalty and punishment of sin.

9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.

No one born of God—Perf., pass., part; lit. the one having been born of God. How? John 3.3,5 – baptism. God is incompatible with sin; irreconcilable opposites. Hence…

Makes a practice of sinning—KJV “doth not commit sin” is unfortunate and unbiblical (2.1). John is dealing with the habitual, continual career of sin; walking in darkness.

For God’s seed abides in him—God’s seed has taken up resides and continues to dwell in the begotten of God. But what is that seed? Most commentators point to the parable of the soils where Jesus says the word of God is the seed. That’s fair. In context, that fits (2.24). The apostolic word. But dig a bit deeper: you had Gnostics running around saying they had been reborn and enlightened and as a result they had the divine nature  or seed remaining in them. Over against this heresy, John tells Christians who have been born again they have God’s seed (His nature) in them. And what higher motive is there for not sinning?

He cannot keep on sinning—indeed, if he is a partaker in the divine nature, God makes his dwelling in him, then he should be done with sin and be focused on righteousness (2.29; 3.7, 10). Children of God do not act unbecoming of their Father.

Because he has been born of God—perf. Pass., ind. We were begotten and stand begotten of God. We continue to be children of God, bearing the divine nature/image in our being.

10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

By this—preceding or what follows? Either/both for they both are similar

It is evident who are the children of God—the individual who is a child of God is clearly known by what their practice is. Partakers in divine nature. Cf. Matt 7.16

Who are the children of the devil—at the same time, we can clearly know (identify) who the children of the devil, those who are partakers in the nature of Satan (sin).

Whoever does not practice righteousness—Present Active Part., lit. the one not doing righteousness. This is lifestyle, habitual, continual career stuff.  What does it mean to “do righteousness”? Obedience to the will and word of God. Do what is right when faced with the commandments of our holy God. Said another way: doing what God desires of us. Ok, what does it mean not to “do right”? Failure to keep the commandments of God, disobedience to the law of God. The person whose life does not match up with God’s revelation is “not of God.”

The one who does not love his brother—Present Active Part., lit. the one not loving his brother. Here John ties in the “new commandment” and places this on par with righteous behavior. The significance of this commandment cannot be over-stressed. This is the springboard into the next portion of John’s letter about sacrificial love. Who is my brother? One commentator says “mankind at large.” Eh…But John specifies in 3.14, 16—”the brothers.” Fellow Christians, fellow children of God.

Watch Your Mouth! part 3

James has explained about the importance of the tongue (v.1-2) and has provided several dynamic illustrations to communicate the truth about the tongue (v.3-12). Now James will give instruction about wise use of the tongue. Still working in the context of teachers (v.1), James will address the difference between earthly wisdom and ethereal wisdom.

James 3.13-18 (ESV)
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.
15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.
16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Earthly Wisdom (v.13-16)

James begins by asking a very pointed question: Who is wise and intelligent in the church to which he is writing? Every reader or hearer of this epistle should have asked “Am I wise and intelligent; do I lack wisdom?” Wisdom here is pertaining to the tongue and the ability to bridle and restrain it by the power of God. Connected with this is the idea of intelligence or understanding which is the knowledge that an expert would have, in this case an expert teacher. Anyone like that “among you,” James asks. He then tells them how the wise and understanding can be identified – “By his good conduct.” The wise and intelligent teacher’s conduct will be a manifestation of the works of wisdom done in meekness. This kind of good behavior the wise man will put it on display daily. Meekness is not weakness; rather, meekness is strength under control. It is a mild and calm disposition which exercises patience and self-restraint. These are all marks of true or heavenly wisdom. False wisdom would be none of these.

One great Old Testament illustration of “the meekness of wisdom” is Moses. Scripture tells us that he was “very meek, more than all people who were on the face of earth” (Numbers 12.3). Here is one of the meekest men to ever live and yet when he comes off the mountain with the Ten Commandments and finds the people engaged in gross idolatry, his “anger burned hot” and he ground the golden calf into fine powder, dumped it in the water, and made the people of Israel drink it (Exodus 32.19-20). Is that wisdom’s meekness? One commentator put it this way: “Moses was very meek in his own cause, but as hot as fire in the cause of God” (Pulpit Commentary 50).

The greatest illustration of “the meekness of wisdom” is the Lord Jesus Christ. Here is the wisdom of God incarnate, come from heaven to dwell with man. He says of Himself, “I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11.29). Yet we find Him on more than one occasion turning over tables and driving out money changers from the temple (John 2.13-19; Matthew 21.12-16). Is that wisdom’s meekness? With Jesus as with Moses, the answer is yes. The teachers of James’ day who were in the church to which he writes were hot as fire for their own cause and very meek for the cause of God. They had it all wrong and so James’ admonition is that if teachers are not going to display true meekness of wisdom in their daily life, then they are not wise and understanding and ought not to be teachers.

The Substance of Earthly Wisdom (v.14). We get a glimpse of the heart of the teacher who is displaying earthly wisdom. In the heart of the worldly wise is “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.” First, the word for jealousy (Gk. zealon) is the word from which we get the English words “zeal,” “zealot,” and “zealous.” While not always a bad thing, coupled with bitterness or resentment it is an ugly thing. It is a conceited, contemptuous, contentious spirit which is unkind. Second, the idea of selfish ambition is rooted in the practice of electioneering or running for office. One wants to get as many votes as possible so he is put forward and seeks to win men over to his party. Here is what the unwise teacher does – he seeks to win people over to his party and is therefore divisive and factious. Unity is not his goal which puts him diametrically opposed to Christ who desires for His people to be united (John 17.20-21). This is an unhealthy desire to be preeminent and first. James says that if that is what is “in your hearts,” they should not boast against and lie against the truth. It seems James may be making a point about how these unqualified teachers were treating the truth and distorting it to their own destruction. James could be read as telling his brothers to not despise even (by) lying against the truth. In other words, the truth does not fit their agenda to promote themselves so they hate it and seek to degrade it (as though they could) and part of that process is to lie against and speak falsely toward the truth (or Truth, i.e. Jesus Christ). This is the nature of these teachers.

The Source of Earthly Wisdom (v.15). But what is at the root of lying against the truth? The origin of this kind of earthly wisdom is not from the mind or heart of men. While it may take up residence there, earthly wisdom originates in the pit of hell. Every good and perfect gift is from above (cf. 1.17) but this earthly wisdom is not from above. It is first earthly. It takes its origin from this world. Go to any non-Christian and you can find this wisdom. Even the heathen possesses this so-called wisdom. It is next unspiritual. Some translations say “sensual.” The idea is that it originates in the physical realm, even in the flesh. The spiritual realm did not birth this worldly wisdom; man did. It is then demonic. Here we have the final true source of this earthly wisdom. Even as the tongue is set on fire by hell (v.6), so the heart of these teachers is aflame because of this wisdom. This wisdom is demon-like, not God-like or Christ-like. “These three adjectives correspond to our three great spiritual enemies. Earthly wisdom has its origin in the world; natural wisdom, in the flesh; demoniacal wisdom, in the devil” (Pulpit Commentary 51). True wisdom comes from God (Proverbs 2.6) and clearly based upon the description of James the wisdom these teachers have is not from the Lord.

The Side-effects of Earthly Wisdom (v.16). James spells out the consequences of such wisdom from such teachers. “There will be disorder and every vile practice.” These are not marks of a healthy church. Instead, these are traits of a dying church which is a synagogue of Satan (cf. Revelation 2.9; 3.9). Riotous rebellion to the authority is a result of earthly wisdom taught in the church. It begins by unsettling the hearts and minds of Christians. Unsettled Christians will lead to tumult and turmoil in the congregation. Eventually, this tumultuousness gives way to full blown abandonment of the faith and every vile practice. Wickedness slips in unchecked even to the point that the church becomes offensive to the world because she allows activity that even pagans would not permit (cf. 1 Corinthians 5.1). Moo says, “Where the hearts of individual Christians are wrong, an unlimited variety of sins will be found also” (134).

Ethereal Wisdom (v.17-18)

James has shown that the teachers about whom he is writing are not only a danger doctrinally but also stand morally and motivationally wrong. What is needed is wisdom which comes from above. Not a base, earthly, rationalistic, physical, even devilish wisdom. True wisdom from God must be and is greater than that. The origin of true wisdom is God. “The LORD gives wisdom” said Solomon (Proverb 2.6). James has instructed his readers that if they lack wisdom, pray (1.5). God hears that prayer and gives liberally. True wisdom from the ethereal realms will produce Christian character. True wisdom also brings peace.

Holiness (v.17). To demonstrate that God’s wisdom will promote a holy life, James gives seven (7) characteristics of wisdom from above. First, wisdom from above is (indeed) pure. The Greek word (hagne) for pure has the same root as the word for holy (hagios). This is moral and ethical purity. This stands in stark contrast with earthly wisdom. The pure wisdom from God is free from everything earthly, carnal, unspiritual, and demonic. Second, God’s wisdom is peaceable. It seeks peace among men and peace between men and God. It loves and brings peace. Next this wisdom is gentle (NIV “considerate”). This is forbearance and courteousness. It is equitable, mild, and fair. Also, this wisdom is open to reason (NASB “reasonable”). This means it is willing to listen and ready to obey. It should be noted this is the only time this word appears in the New Testament. In addition, this ethereal wisdom is full of mercy and good fruit. Mercy has been called “practical help” (see A. T. Robertson on this verse in Word Pictures of the New Testament). This wisdom has mercy in abundance and is constantly engaged in helping those afflicted ones. Further, this wisdom is full of good fruits. No doubt this is in connection with the mercy aspect. John Gill says this is “compassion and beneficence to the poor; feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the widows and fatherless in their affliction; and doing all other good works and duties, both with respect to God and man, as fruits of grace, and of the Spirit.” The wisdom from above is impartial (NASB “without wavering”). God does not show partiality (Luke 20.21; Romans 2.11) and therefore His wisdom would not either. It is free from prejudice and never divided. Note also that this is the only time this word is used in the New Testament. Finally, God’s wisdom is sincere (KJV “without hypocrisy”). It is genuine in character and “never wears a mask” (Lenski). It should go without saying that those who possess this ethereal wisdom will likewise possess these qualities.

Harvest (v.18).  As mentioned, the true wisdom of God will produce peace. Man’s earthly wisdom produces strife, tumult, and chaos. Therefore, God’s heavenly wisdom is needed for that alone can cause strife to stop, turn tumult into tranquility, and cause chaos to cease. The notable absence of peace among these brothers was also a tell-tale sign that wisdom from above was likewise absent. The “harvest of righteousness” or “fruit of righteousness” does appear elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Proverbs 11.30; Amos 6.12; Philippians 1.11). Here James seems to have in mind the beatitude from his half-brother’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5.9). This harvest of righteousness is contrasted with “every vile practice” and seems to sum-up all the qualities listed in verse 17. All this righteous fruit will belong to those what pursue peace by sowing in the atmosphere of peace they promote.

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.