James 1:19-27

This week we’re looking at the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. (See Monday’s post if you missed the intro to the series, as it’s foundational for all of the others.) Today we look at James 1:19-27.

This passage is a bit like the first minute of a “World’s Craziest Grainy Security-Camera Footage” type of TV show. Where they flick through all of the coolest bits (explosions, crashes, and armed robberies) to get you to watch the rest of the show. And over the next hour you realise they didn’t have much more worthwhile footage than the bits you saw in the first minute.

James 1:19-27 is a bit like that, as we get a quick preview of the upcoming highlights – snapshots to whet your appetite. But don’t worry, James has got far more substance to the rest of his epistle. Let’s begin:

Our words and God’s Word

1:19-20 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

Being self-controlled in speech is a common theme in Wisdom writings. (Verse 19 seems to contain echoes of Sirach 5:11-12 and Proverbs 29:11.) Here, James seems to be using this theme as an example of what it means to be a person who has been given “birth through the word of truth” to become “a kind of firstfruits for all he created.” (verse 18, yesterday). Someone who has been born through God’s word is careful with their own words. 

The connection between controlled speech and controlled anger is also found in earlier Wisdom writings, for example:

Prov 17:27 The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.
Sirach 1:22-24 22 Unjust anger cannot be justified, for anger tips the scale to one’s ruin. 23 Those who are patient stay calm until the right moment, and then cheerfulness comes back to them. 24 They hold back their words until the right moment; then the lips of many tell of their good sense.

So someone who is living by God’s word – i.e. who has wisdom – is careful with their words and controls their temper. The opposite – uncontrolled anger – is displeasing to God. In other words, a friend of God controls their tongue and their emotions, unlike a friend of the world. This is picked up and dealt with at length in chapter 3.

Born – through God’s word – so get rid of evil

1:21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

The Greek word translated here as “moral filth” literally means “earwax.” So it could be that this verse is telling us to clean our ears out and listen to God’s word! But it also metaphorically refers to evil behaviour. In which case, the verse is saying that since “worldly” behaviour (like human anger in v20) is displeasing to God, then we should get rid of it. In its place, we open ourselves through the implanted word to God’s gift of salvation – that “birth” he spoke of back in v18.

We see in 1 Peter the same link between being born again through the word and getting rid of moral filth:

1 Pet 1:23, 2:1 For you have been born again… through the living and enduring word of God… Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.

In both James and 1 Peter we can break the ideas down in this way:

  • God has given us new birth into his new creation – it’s a gift, not something we earn.
  • The means by which this is done is the implanted/living word – again, it’s not something we have, but God plants it in us through his Spirit.
  • In response we rid ourselves of evil behaviours.

Don’t just listen, do!

When we understand that the word of God is the means by which this is done, the importance of the next few verses is clear:

1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 

The word isn’t going to do its work if we only listen to it. We also need to do what it says. James adds an illustration to point out how fundamental this is.

1:23-24 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 

Now I must admit, I do this all the time. I look in the mirror, and then spend the rest of the day forgetting I’m unattractive. Then, when I go to clean my teeth the next morning, I go “oh… that’s right…” (Cue sympathetic compliments – which is why I’ve already disabled commenting on this post.) Ignorance is bliss.

We can do the same with God’s word. We read it, and then we conveniently “forget” – putting it out of our minds so that it doesn’t have an impact on how we go about our lives. So what’s the antidote?

1:25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

The key here is the fact that there’s a different verb here which the NIV correctly translates “looks intently.” In verse 23 the word spoke of a “glance” in the mirror, vs someone stooping over to peer intently, studying the reflection. If we look intently into God’s law – here probably referring to the whole of God’s teachings, not just the Jewish law – and practise putting it into practice, that’s how we live in right relationship with God. It’s not about glancing at the Bible each morning and then forgetting it, but intently studying it (so it takes root) and immediately taking steps to obey it (so it becomes a habit). And the second part is the most crucial.

There is a particular danger here for pastors and other bible teachers. Alfred Plummer gives this sobering warning:

“But it is much to be feared that with many of us the interest in the sacred writings which is thus roused and fostered remains to a very large extent a literary interest. We are much more eager to know all about God’s Word than from it to learn His will respecting ourselves, that we may do it; to prove that a book is genuine than to practise what it enjoins. We study Lives of Christ, but we do not follow the life of Christ. We pay Him the empty homage of an intellectual interest in His words and works, but we do not the things which He says. We throng and press Him in our curiosity, but we obtain no blessing, because in all our hearing and learning there is no true wisdom, no fear of the Lord, and no doing of His Word.” (Plummer, The General Epistles, p110.)

Control your speech

James continues:

1:26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

Again, this foreshadows the teaching in chapter 3. Don’t be double-minded with your speech.

Don’t be like the world in how it treats the disadvantaged

1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

What does it mean to look after orphans and widows (and all those who are powerless) and to avoid being polluted by the world’s values (in particular, those that treat people unfairly and perpetuate the imbalance of power)? That’s what tomorrow’s passage is all about!

To think about

How do your words and your self-control reflect the fact that you are God’s “firstfruits”?

Do you look intently into the Word of God, or are you satisfied with a passing glance to check your hair is OK?

Do you look intently into the Word of God, but still don’t actually do it, being more interested in how much knowledge you’ve gained about God’s Word (or how well you can critique other Christians’ behaviour or theology on social media)?

Enough “ouch” type questions for one day…