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.

Advertisement

Watch Your Mouth! part 2

Having addressed the importance of the tongue, James will now graphically illustrate this principle utilizing several common objects familiar to his readers and even to us. Several of these illustrations can also be found in philosophical writings before the first century (Aristotle, Sophocles, etc.). James will seemingly borrow and baptize these Hellenistic thoughts to suit his purposes in showing the nature of the tongue. If nothing else, these are common and familiar objects for his readers. Nevertheless, these serve to illustrate the importance of the tongue for the believer, especially in how it pertains to the teaching ministry of the church.

James 3.3-12

3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.
4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,
8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?
12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

The Power of the Tongue to Direct (3-5a)

James begins with two illustrations which show the tongue’s ability to direct the life of an individual. First, he points his readers to bits which are put into the mouths of horses to “guide their whole bodies.” This sentence begins with “if”(ESV) but is really a statement used to indicate the assumption of some truth. Hence, a reading like “now since…” seems suitable. James is reminding his readers of something they already knew to be true. In fact, James is building on a theme he’s established earlier in this letter (1.26) and which he just made mention of one verse previous (v.2). To bridle the tongue was a common illustration of the time and even centuries before it was used by Plato and Sophocles (Pulpit Commentary 42). Wild horses seem to be untamable. But when broken with bit and bridle firmly in place, he is able to be kept in submission. By using a bit which the animal bites he is under control. So the person who “bites” his tongue, holding his peace, controlling his mouth will use his tongue correctly. Connecting this with the context, the teacher who keeps mastery over his spoken words will not only guide his own body, but will also guide his students in the way they should go. With a horse we guide them from one place to another. Perhaps we guide them from low ground to high ground. So the teacher who uses his tongue rightly will guide himself and his students to the higher ground of maturity. With a horse we would steer them on the path in which they should walk. So a teacher who controls his speech will guide himself and his students in the path of righteousness.

Second, James illustrates the power of the tongue to direct with a ship’s rudder. On clear display is the smallness of the object which directs the larger vessel. As James points out, ships are very large and bulky. Maybe not necessarily an ocean liner, but this is comparative to the very small rudder. It is this least or very small part which is able to steer the much larger ship. This was a common illustration used centuries before by philosophers like Aristotle and Philo (Moo 122).This does not necessarily suggest that James borrowed from these sources or even knew of them, but simply is a testament to the fact of their commonality and prevalence in that culture. That ships are steered by rudders is a basic fact known by most societies. As the pilot directs the ship wherever he wants or needs for the ship to go, he steers the vessel by means of the rudder. Even though strong winds might drive the vessel forward, it is the rudder which directs its course. Again, this illustrates the power of the small tongue to direct the course of a man. The influence of the tongue is great even though it is a small member of the body. In terms of the context of the teacher, the tongue is able to guide a congregation into spiritual health or spiritual harm by what is spoken. No wonder teachers fall under greater judgment!

Before James continues with his illustrations, he first makes a point of application. Just as the bit and the rudder are small parts or members of a much larger body which have a great influence upon the object they direct, so the tongue is a small member of the body of a man but it makes great boasts which has great impact upon the direction of a man. Literally, the word for “boast” means to lift high the neck. This is unusually great confidence in someone or something. Lenski points out that usage of this phrase (“boasts of great things”) is categorically evil when used in other literature but here it is meant only as the possibility of evil.

There are a couple application points to pick up from James here. First, it should be understood that just as bit or rudder controls the course of a horse or ship, so the tongue can control the course of an individual’s life. The “mature man” will learn to control (“bridle”) his tongue and subject the rest of his body. But when the tongue is out of control, it tends to be in the mouth of a person who is undisciplined. Second, even as a bit or rudder can determine the destiny of a horse or ship, so the tongue of a teacher can determine the destiny of a congregation of the Lord’s church. A mature congregation of the Lord’s people will be mark by teachers whose words are controlled and directed (even held captive) by the Spirit infused and inspired word of God. Immature churches are marked by teachers who failed to have their mouth bound by and captive to the God’s word. May teachers in the Lord’s church have their tongues trained by the word of God so that they might direct the congregation to maturity in Christ Jesus.

The Power of the Tongue to Destroy (5b-8)

James transitions now from the power of the tongue to direct to the power of the tongue to destroy. The disproportionate size of the tongue to the destruction caused is graphically demonstrated by the following two illustrations: fire and animals. The previous two illustrations showed that restraint and control could be exercised over the vessel in which the small part was. But now the uncontrolled and unrestrained nature of the tongue is put on clear display through these two illustrations.

Recently, in Arizona, the Wallow fire made national news as millions of acres were set ablaze. Authorities narrowed the origin of the fire to a campground where two men had stayed and had failed to extinguish their campfire fully. They face a severe penalty for this negligence including being banned from national forests for life. We are all aware of the Smokey the Bear commercials warning that “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Some forest fires can be traced to a single cigarette butt. But forest fires are not a modern occurrence; indeed, ancient philosophers frequently refer to ancient forest fires (Virgil, Homer). This pours right into James’ next statement that the tongue is a fire and seems to be the force in back of his saying, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” One might point to a similar statement that is found in the extra-biblical work Ecclesiasticus 11.32: “Of a spark of fire a heap of coals is kindled.”

With a powerful metaphor, James drills the point home even further: “The tongue is a fire.” This is so because it is “set on fire by hell” (Gk ghenna). As a fire, the tongue sets ablaze the “entire course of life” (lit. wheel of birth). This phrase is meant to picture life as a wheel which begins rolling at birth and ceases to roll at death. Using that familiar imagery, James communicates the idea that the tongue sets ablaze not only one life but ignites everything it encounters and rolls over. No wonder James calls the tongue “a world of unrighteousness.” This could be understood in a couple of ways. First, we sometimes say that someone is in a world of trouble or in for a world of hurt, meaning there is a whole bunch of trouble or hurt coming their way. Second, Jesus talked about the “unrighteous wealth” of His day (Luke 16.11). Perhaps James, borrowing a page from his older half-brother, speaks of the unrighteous world in a similar manner. Either way, the tongue has been set in our bodies and though small has the ability to stain our whole body.

James goes even further by adding yet another illustration. Wild animals (lions, tigers, bears, etc.), birds (from the sparrow to the birds of prey), reptiles (including snakes; think snake charmers), and marine animals (think Shamu) are all different examples of the animal kingdom over which man exercises dominion. Further, there seems to be a reference made to Genesis 9.2. All of these various creatures are tamed (present tense) and have been tamed (perfect tense) by mankind. The contrast is therefore quite striking that while man can tame these creatures, his tongue is out of control. “No human being can tame the tongue.” It is not possible for man to get control of his own tongue. Man can boast great things of taming every species of animal under the heavens, but he cannot boast of taming his own tongue. But here is the theological connection for James – man cannot tame the tongue, but God can! Only God can take what is unstable and base (“restless evil”), full of venomous poison ready to kill and bring it under control and continued restraint. Just as man can charm a venomous cobra, God can tame the venomous tongue. Even as man can train a deadly lion, so God can tame the wild tongue. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” says the wise man Solomon (Proverbs 18.21). No doubt this is something James has in mind when penning these words describing the deadly nature of the tongue.

The Power of the Tongue to Delight (9-12)

James continues his discourse on the dialect by presenting a perplexing paradox. This is something that is familiar to his style (see ch.1). Building upon what he just said about the tongue (the restless or unstable member of the body loaded with poison) and now addressing his readers for the first since verse 1, James zeroes in on what seems to have been a very real issue in the church to which he is writing. The members of the church would show up at the synagogue on Sunday and offer praise to God. Their tongues would bless the Lord and Father no doubt with the highest praise. But then, when the services were over and they went back into the “real world,” they would curse their fellow man. They are seeking for evil to happen to others and vocalize those bad intentions and wishes. In fact, the curse was not just a denunciation of the person but it was the desire to see a person cut off from the presence of God and endure eternal punishment. Some even speculate that these Christians were invoking a curse in the name of the cross! How much more un-Christ-like can one be! So the paradox is quite perplexing – “We bless God for the cross; and then we curse men in the name of the cross” (Pulpit Commentary 50).

Further, James identifies the theological connection – these people that these Christians curse and wish for them to go to hell are the creation of God and bear His likeness. Moo says, “What makes cursing particularly heinous is that the one whom we pronounce damned has been made in God’s image” (128). Even those whom we might curse are important to God. So the greatness of the sin is revealed in the nature of those on whom cursing is pronounced. James sums up the paradox succinctly: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” One of these is natural, the other unnatural. One of these is Christian, the other anti-Christian. Once more with pastoral care and guidance and yet with emphasis and force James admonishes his brethren. “My brothers, these things ought not be so.” Literally, it is neither morally right nor appropriate for these things to keep on happening.

Two more illustrations enter the discussion: fountains and fig trees. The main idea is that fountains and fig trees must produce those things which are beneficial. These are illustrative of man’s proper conduct when it comes to his dialect. Allowing garbage talk to issue forth out the mouth is like a spring producing salt water or like a fig tree bearing olives. These are incongruous. The questions are presented as rhetorical and a negative answer is expected. Of course these things are not so. That is not what these were created for; hence, that is not what man was created for. Instead of salty language from the spring of the mouth, fresh and refreshing water should issue forth. Blessing, especially the Father, is what man’s mouth was made for. Cursing is the antithesis of that creation.

Watch Your Mouth! part 1

James is masterful in his ability to communicate to his first century reader. He will use a form of argumentation common for his time both in the Jewish culture and in the Greek culture. In addition and as we have already seen, he will weave into this rich cultural tapestry the word of God from the Old Testament. “The picture of James that emerges is of a reasonably well-educated Jew who knows his Old Testament and who is well acquainted with Hellenistic-Jewish culture, language and literature” (Moo 119). James has already touched on the words we speak: in 1.19 he exhorts his brothers to be “slow to speak” and in verse 26 an aspect of pure and faultless religion is bridling the tongue. Some even suggest that chapter 3 is a continuation of faith and works with the works being the words the Christian speaks. A Christian’s speech is a major indicator of their maturity. So we see the importance of the tongue.

James 3.1-2 (ESV)

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

Teacher was a favorite expression used to address Jesus in the gospels (cf. Matt 22.36; Mark 9.17; Luke 7.40; John John 1.38). As we reconstruct the first century church from what we read in the New Testament, it is evident that many participated in the worship service. From this situation, one can infer that many of those participating during worship sought to put themselves forward as teachers. “’Teachers’ does not mean ‘elders’ in the pastoral office; it refers to members who arise in the meetings in order to instruct their fellow members” (Lenski 599). Some suggest that quite possibly there were selfish purposes and some of the brethren sought prominence, position, and power (see Diotrphes, 3 John 9). Others suggest that perhaps they just wanted to be like the Lord who was known as Teacher. Still others suggest that this is a carry-over from the Jewish culture with their rabbis (these Christians still met in synagogue, 2.2). Whatever the case, there apparently were those who were abusing this role in the church. James has to exhort his brothers (term of endearment) concerning the nature of teaching.

Strictness in Condemnation (v.1). James says that these Christians should stop becoming teachers. The force of the command is shocking. “There is thus a clear complaint that too many of the Jewish Christians were attempting to teach what they did not clearly comprehend” (Robertson). As will be seen in the verses to come, wisdom is needed in teaching (v.12). So this is a call for wise teachers, not for foolish ones. Not everyone is mature and has wisdom. Hence, not everyone should become a teacher. Nevertheless, those who are wise among the brethren should teach. James includes himself in this group (“we”). But every Christian should know the sobriety that goes with this role in the church.

Apparently there were several in the church who were assuming the role of teacher too hastily and so James reminds his brothers of a truth they already know (Gk oida). The teacher “will receive the greater judgment.” This is one reason why not everyone should assume this role. There are eschatological implications. When incompetent teachers assume this mantle and disseminate their folly to the rest of the church disaster awaits. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4.6). “Many wish to be teachers who have more need to learn” (Clarke). Paul identifies this same principle: not everyone has the same gift. In fact, among several other rhetorical questions, Paul asks, “Are all teachers?” (1 Cor 12.29) The expected answer is “no.” Not everyone is a teacher and the reality is that while every member is a gifted person, not everyone has the gift of teaching. Those few who have the gift should not be dissuaded by James; rather, they should all the more use their gift since they are so few.

Stumbling in Communication (v.2). Scripture regularly compares the Christian life to a walk (Eph 4.1; 5.2; 1 John 1.7). To walk closely with God and make it your habitual practice to do what is right is to walk uprightly. When we fail to do what is right (sin), we stumble in our walk. Some even fall and refuse to get up or walk in a completely different (wrong) direction. The word James uses (Gk ptaio) captures the idea of the Christian who sins – he is said to stumble. And James recognizes the frailty of our human condition and even includes himself in this struggle: “We all stumble in many ways.” Contrary to come translations (RSV), this is not addressing how profusely one may sin but the variety of avenues in which we fail. James then gets specific that it is the mouth which he has in mind and the things we say.

This verse is explanatory of the first verse (postpositive gar). James is saying let me tell you why there is stricter judgment for the teacher. The reason is because the mouth or tongue is so difficult to govern and control. In fact, if a man can so guard his mouth that he does not stumble (sin) in what he says (Gk en logo, lit. in word), James says that man is a perfect (or mature) man who can govern not only his mouth but his whole body. The teacher uses his mouth constantly to communicate the word and will of God. This is a grave and sober experience which is not intended to be diminished or taken lightly. In short, not everyone should assume this mantle. Is there a sense in which all Christians are teachers? Certainly. But that is not what is in view here with James.

It’s a Religion! Part 3

I hear it quite often. In fact, just the other day Dr. Fredrick K. C. Price in his weekly television program harped on it. “Religion is an abomination.” Thus, God hates religion. I wonder if these “theologians” (and I use that term loosely for televangelists) have ever read their Bible! Christianity is very much a religion. To be a Christian is to put one’s religion on display. “The cult of Christianity is the religion of the life, and the ceremonial cleanness is cleanness of conduct and heart” (Pulpit Commentary 27).

Admittedly, religion can be bad. Scripture talks about “worship of angels” (Col 2.18) where the same word for “religion” (Gk. threskeia) is used. Also, there is “self-made religion” (Col 2.23). However, just because religion can be perverted does not mean that religion should be completely abandoned. To the contrary, Scripture speaks of “pure and defiled religion” which one performs “before God” and which He apparently accepts. So instead of abandoning religion, should not Christians today be working to recapture the essence of true, pure, undefiled religion before God?

James has been moving his readers along in this section to this point. The focus has been on the “word of truth” (v.18), “the implanted word” (v.21), “the perfect law, even the law of liberty” (v.25). The call has been for the Jewish Christians to not only be hearers of the word but to do what it says and put it into practice. What does this obedience look like? In verses 26-27, James gets intensely practical by pointing out that the Christian’s religion is tied up in several actions he/she does before God.

James 1.26-27

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

The words used here for “religious” and “religion” are threskos and threskeia respectively. The first word appears nowhere else, either in the New Testament or in extra-biblical material. James appears to have coined a new and unique term. The latter word is used elsewhere in the New Testament and in various Greek works. It means piety, God-fearing, and also touches on the outward acts of worship in which one engages. James presents a staggering conclusion: the true test of religion is to be found in obedience to the heard word. Flowing from the discussion about doers who act or work, James presents both the good and bad side of religion.

Worthless Religion (v.26)

Worthless religion is work-less Christianity. The Christian is God’s workmanship “created in Christ Jesus for good works” in which he/she is to walk (Eph 2.10). The Christian is saved by grace through faith (Eph 2.8); this is a faith which works the works of Christ. Without these works, our religion is “worthless.” This word worthless is no doubt chosen on purpose. This word is used constantly in the Septuagint (LXX) to speak of the gods of the nations; these gods are “worthless” or “vain.” They stand juxtaposed to the one true and living God. So too religion that is lived not in accordance with the revealed word of God is likewise “worthless” or “vain.” Truly, it is a form of idolatry, indeed, the worst kind of idolatry – self-deification. God and His standard have been abandoned and man and his standard have replaced Him. One may think wrongly that he is a religious, pious, God-fearing person. But if his actions run contrary to the word of God, in reality his religion is empty, void of the power of God’s word. It has become nothing more than worthless idolatry.

Specifically in this context, James addresses one aspect of the Christian’s religion that if absent makes it worthless: control over speech. This has already come up with James (v.19, “slow to speak”) and will come up again (3.2-12; 4.11-12). This is a key component to living like Christ. It is an ingredient to obedience to the word of God. If one does not “bridle his tongue,” a metaphor picturing a horse being lead by a bridle, then his religion is “worthless.” There seems to be an allusion to Psalm 39.1 here which speaks of muzzling the mouth. In addition, this person is self-deceived. He is lying to himself! The importance of taming the tongue is seen here. Here is a very vital component to living life in accordance with the word of God.

Too many Christians today wreck their religion by failing to bridle the tongue. In fact, far too often our speech mimics the world’s rather than Christ’s. How many among the brethren show up Sunday morning and sing praise to God only to revert to “sailorspeak” Tuesday afternoon? Thus, they have an appearance of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim 3.5). “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works (Titus 1.16). “My brothers, these things ought not be so” (James 3.10b). Christian, clean up your mouth lest your religion be found to be worthless.

Worthy Religion (v.27)

James points his brethren to worthy religion. This religion is worthy because it is able to be “before God.” The reason it can be before our God and Father is because 1) it is in accordance with His and therefore 2) is pure and undefiled. These words have to do with precious stones or gems. “Pure” is to be from anything which would soil the appearance (i.e. with a stone, dirt). “Undefiled” is to be free from deformity or defect (i.e. in a gem, blemish). Hence, this religion is presented both positively and negatively. But it is also religion “before God.” The Greek word for “before” (para) can also mean “beside.” In this instance, it seems to indicate that this is religion “with” God and from His perspective. He is right there beside us, with us as we seek pure and proper piety patterned after the Prince of peace. Two areas of concentration are presented for the Christian to pursue. Note that our duty to our fellow man is placed before our duty to self.

Pure religion consists in the exercise of active benevolence in a world of suffering. “To visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (ESV). Here is imitation of the Father. Indeed, even in Jesus ministry He spoke to disciples, urging them to “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6.36). God has always been concerned for the orphans and widows. In the Law, the Israelites were instructed not to reap the edges of their fields, go back for a sheaf left in the field, or beat the olives from their trees for these were for “the poor,” “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Lev 19.9-10; Deut 24.19-21). When the Israelites neglected to care for the fatherless and widows, God pronounced judgment and called for repentance (See Isa 1.16-17; Micah 6.8). Thus, God has always been concerned about the orphans and the widows (Psa 68.5). Under the Christian dispensation, this has not gone away and James reminds his brothers of this important fact. In fact, to exercise this religious function is to imitate Christ who “went about doing good” during His earthly ministry (Acts 10.38).

Truly, then, obedience to the word and to be a “doer that works” (v.25) is to take care of the widows (those bereft of husband) and orphans (those bereft of father or mother or both). But what does that mean? Digging even deeper, the word which James uses here for “to visit” is also used in his speech in Acts 15 (verse 14). “God visited the Gentiles” and Simeon (Peter) related how God did that: by sending Peter to preach that they might hear and believe the gospel, ultimately resulting in their reception of the Holy Spirit. Hence, God visited the Gentiles by sending part of Himself, the Holy Spirit, to be with them. In the same way, James points Christians to service beyond proxy (i.e. sending money and gifts, etc.); physically go and be with the orphans and widows. Examine their plight. See it with your own eyes. Be there with them and for them “in their affliction,” that is, suffering. Suffer with them (see Rom 12.15). As a shepherd of the church, no doubt James had suffered with many widows and cared for many suffering orphans. Out of that experience, he calls for his brethren to unite around the suffering ones of their number. Note that orphans come before widows. Adam Clarke says, “This is the religion of Christ. The religion that does not prove itself by works of charity and mercy is not of God. Reader, what religion hast thou? Has thine ever led thee to cellars, garrets, cottages, and houses, to find out the distressed? Hast thou ever fed, clothed, and visited a destitute representative of Christ?”

Pure religion consists of the maintenance of personal purity in a world of sin. “To keep oneself unstained from the world” (ESV). “To keep” is a military term for when a prisoner was kept under guard by soldiers. James calls his Christian brothers to fortify themselves and be ever watchful for pollutants from the world (cf. 1.14-15). This present tense infinitive carries the weight of something like “keep on keeping on being free from spot.” The Christian’s habitual practice is to be free from stain from the world. This is more than dirt of course; James is speaking metaphorically about moral purity. This fallen world is full of dirt and dust, grime and grease, slime and sludge which bespatters the best of men. But a life which seeks to imitate Christ’s moral uprightness and be free from the vices of mankind practices a worthy religion with God.

So James calls Christians to live in the world an unworldly life (see John 17.11, 14). This kind of religion is pure in the eyes of God. It seems clear from these verses that James was writing to a people who believed in Jesus but did not practice their devotion in their lives. They were deceived, even self-deceived about the true nature of Christian religion. They believed they were saved without the practice of true Christian religion. How many today believe the same thing! James will reach the pinnacle of this thought in chapter two when he writes “faith without works is dead” (2.26). Or to borrow the language this context: religion without action is worthless.

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.