James 1:19-2:13.
Living the Word

Copyright © 2009, American Journal of Biblical Theology
www.biblicaltheology.com   Scripture quotes from KJV

The epistle of James is very practical, in that the writer is concerned, not so much with basic Christian doctrine, as he is with the application of that doctrine in the Christian life.  His basic argument is that a life of one who is truly a child of God will show evidence of that relationship with God through a consistent and godly lifestyle, a life in which all trivial self-centered desires are overcome by a love of God and His Word.  When a person moves to this level of spiritual understanding and maturity, true freedom from the law is fully experienced.  In the passage of this study, James comments on some very specific areas of behavior that can be brought under control by the Holy Spirit in a necessary endeavor to achieve such freedom and the peace that it engenders.

This passage may appear detached from the previous verses, but close inspection reveals that it is fully contextual.  In the first chapter, the writer clarifies the necessity of regeneration through the Word.  This passage then continues this thought by describing the result of that regeneration, a life that is centered on that Word and obedient to it.  The writer asserts that a life that shows no evidence of living in the Word is, indeed unregenerate.  By describing specific ungodly behavioral patterns, James provides an opportunity for introspection, an opportunity to look into our own lives and observe what areas need 'cleaning up'.  In these verses, James specifically takes on those sins that seem to have the greatest impact on the body of Christ:  self-will and prejudice towards others.  These are normal and common characteristics of the world that have no place in the heart of one who loves the Lord.

James 1:19.  Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:

The word, "wherefore" in the KJV, is more accurately translated in today's English as, "take note of this."  James brings particular attention to the following point.  A godly response to circumstances is one that is informed as it demonstrates God's agape love.  To do this, the passions of impatience and self-will must be consciously restrained.  So, James advises us to listen with the intent of fully understanding before speaking, and to do whatever it takes to avoid anger.  One who lashes out with an angry voice is not characteristic of living a life that is immersed in the Word, but one who is more concerned with personal desires, passion, and influence. 

Recall that James is writing to people who are enduring persecution and suffering.  No doubt there is a lot of anger and frustration experienced by his readers.  Instead of blaming God in our trials we should listen to what it is that God is telling us.  

James 1:20.  For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. 

James describes a very clear reason for suppressing and controlling anger.  God's cause is better served by meekness and mildness than by wrath and fury.  Furthermore, such fury simply does not demonstrate the righteousness of God, but rather the weakness of the individual who is not looking to God.  Such loss of self-control is described by the writer of Ecclesiastes as 'foolishness,' the opposite of godly wisdom. 

Eccl.  9:17.  The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools

When studying for an academic career I was once told, ďIf you are not sure, just shout a little louder!Ē  The idea was by shouting you can intimidate your students into believing what you have to say is true.  There may be a grain of truth in the concept:  if one is known to lack wisdom, they may have to raise their voice to be heard.  However, when one is known to be wise, a quiet voice will quiet the crowd as they hope to hear.

One is not likely to hear God's voice while lashing out in anger, and one is certainly not demonstrating a Godly and loving testimony when doing so.  Paul reminds us never to lash out at people, for the Christian battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities of the evil one.[1]  We may forget this truth and approach one another in anger while satan sits on the sidelines and laughs at us.

One who is quick to speak is also one who will tend to be quick to hurt others with thoughtless statements, or words that are not tempered by the spiritual fruit of self-control.  All manner of error can be averted when we place more emphasis on listening and applying godly wisdom and unconditional love before speaking. 

James 1:21.  Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. 

The word translated "lay apart" apothemenoi, refers to the removal of an encumbrance such as excess and unnecessary weight as one runs a race.  One example of unnecessary weight to be shed is a "superfluity of naughtiness,"  a nice old-English idiom for "moral filth."  In this phrase alone, James refers to a wide array of morally corrupt behaviors and desires.  Such behaviors are sinful acts that would turn us away from the Word and ways of God, as such sin defiles the individual and grieves the Holy Spirit.  Willful acts of sin may be seen by this world as evidence of oneís individual powerful and cunning, but when illuminated by God's Word, it is simply sin. 

However, living a Godly life does not mean a sacrifice of that power and cunning.  James calls us to receive the Word in meekness:  power under control.  When all of the emotion, passion, and desires of the person are brought under the influence of the Holy Spirit, oneís power is not diminished, but refocused and harmonized with the power of God, producing far more strength and character, a character that is an appropriate demonstration of the working of the Word of God in the life of a believer. 

James also reminds us that it is the power of God that saves, not our own power.  The things of this world have no ability to save us.  Consequently, they are far less important than our willful submission to Godís Word. 

James 1:22.  But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 

Is it sufficient to be only a patient listener to Godís Word?  Is it appropriate that the Christian listen to sermons, Bible studies, or even to the very Word of God through the scriptures and other sources, and not be changed?  Should not the person's life start to respond to what is heard by a demonstration of sincere, Godly living?  James fully believes that one who receives the Word, lives the Word.  Like fruit that is produced by a vine, good works are produced in the lives of the faithful.  Consequently, he defines a relationship between "doing" and "hearing".  Hearing without action is powerless, having no more impact than noise on deaf ears.  If one thinks that hearing alone is sufficient, then they are deceived.  The word "deceive" here is para logi zomanoi, one who argues sophistically to themself to the point of self deception: the blind leading the blind.  What are we to do after hearing God's word? We are to act upon it.  God's Word provides some very specific purposes in our lives:  

2 Timothy 3:16-17.  All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

When hearing the Word, one can learn doctrine.  However, our hearing is not for the learning of doctrine alone, but also for reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.  When we hear from the Lord through His Word (that includes impressions from prayer, scripture, sermons, Bible studies, advice from other Christians, etc.), we know when a response is appropriate, and to rationalize away that response is only an act of self deception.  Did the pastor "step on your toes" in his sermon last Sunday?  If it was the Holy Spirit who is convicting you of your unrighteousness, then the appropriate response is to repent from the sin and experience more of the freedom from sin's burden that righteousness gives. 

James 1:23-24.  For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. 

The word translated, "beholding", katanoeo, refers to a long and careful observation, rather than simply a quick glance.  Spending such an effort in front of a mirror serves to reveal every blemish.  In today's culture it is not unusual for women (and some men?) to spend an hour in front of a mirror while engaged in the primping that comes with putting on makeup, coming each hair, etc, in order to change one's natural appearance. 

Just as a mirror shows our spots and defilement, so God's Word exposes our sin.  A mirror does not flatter, but rather reveals the crystal clear truth, and when one hears God's Word the truth is revealed.  Once the truth is revealed, what is our appropriate response.  Here, James describes an inappropriate response, one that gives no heed to what has been heard. 

After delivering a sermon, it is not unusual for members of the congregation, in making pleasant conversation, to compliment the sermon.  My response is always a short, quiet, thanks.  What I want to do is ask in return, "what change are you going to make in your life as a result of hearing the Word?"  In many years of watching the exiting congregation, I have often wondered if anyone will remember anything.  How many people fall under the hearing of the gospel, hear their need for God and the necessity for change in their lives and then forget it an hour after hearing it? These are "one-hour Christians" whose single hour of reflection takes place on an occasional, forgotten, Sunday morning. 

What kind of blessing comes from this manner of reflection?  For many, it might be a heart warmed by the hearing, but the blessing quickly fades like a vapor when the hearer refuses to respond in a life change.  James goes on to reveal the real blessing of an appropriate response. 

James 1:25.  But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. 

The word for "looketh" used here is different from that used in the mirror metaphor.  Parakrypto refers to an observation with an intent to understand.  It is this word that was used to describe John's observation of the empty tomb.[2]  Rather than listening to the word to receive a warm and fuzzy feeling, one who looks to the Word sincerely wishes to learn and understand what message God has for them.

When James refers to the "perfect law of liberty," he is using the word for law in a different context than his Jewish contemporaries might understand.  The Law to the Jew refers only to the Old Testament writings and the Jewish traditional writings that surround them.  This is a set of documents that define thousands upon thousands of laws that the righteous Jew is to follow.  However, James sees the Law as fulfilled in the Messiah, the coming, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.  James' Law then takes on a broader meaning.  He sees a complete law that includes the sum total of God's truth.  And unlike the Old Testament law that enslaves all of those who regard it, the fulfilled law sets one free of the condemnation that the Old Testament law engenders.  The Law of liberty resides, not in the words of Scripture alone, but in the heart of the believer through the power of the Holy Spirit to comfort, convict, and to guide. 

Jer.  31:33.  But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. 

James also describes this observation of the law with an intent to understand as an on-going lifestyle, not a momentary and forgotten effort.  One who seeks the Word of God in sincerity, seeks it continually, day and night.[3]  Such an individual will be listening to what God has to reveal in every opportunity.  Then, God's will can be found in scripture, in prayers, in the testimony and counsel of other Christians, and in any other form that God chooses.  Furthermore, the sincere listener is not forgetful.  This implies that the hear makes a concerted and deliberate effort to remember what has been heard so that real learning takes place.  What was the message that you learned from last Sunday's sermon?  If you cannot remember, it is simply because of a lack of deliberate hearing as described in this verse.  Some find it helpful to take notes while listening to a sermon, or while reading scripture.  Such deliberate effort is an indication of a true desire to learn. 

When listening results in learning, there is a life change that takes place.  If the Spirit convicts one of a need for change, and one responds to that conviction, then change takes place.  This is what James describes as a "doer" of the Word.  If this person battles a foul tongue, people will see his/her language cleansed.  If the person is battling addiction, people will see the individual seeking help.  A doer is one who, when hearing the word, appropriates it into his/her life, and upon doing so experiences the blessing that comes from shedding the sin and guilt, and from seeing any manner of other results of obedience. 

James 1:26.  If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this manís religion is vain. 

What is "Vain religion"? In vain religion there is much show and an appearance of piety.  Vain religion has all of the appearance of faith, but none of its power.  Without power, there is no love, and the vain believer is exposed by their self-centeredness.  In such an individual we will, in addition to their loud and confident prayers much self-aggrandizing, censuring, condemning, gossip, and distracting of others.  This individual will want their own way to be followed in the congregation.  Note how all of these offenses are committed using an unbridled tongue.  This word, unbridled, is in many ways the opposite of the meekness that comes from true humility.  The tongue of the humble is meek or bridled, as a horse is bridled, enabling its strength to be focused for a purpose.  An unbridled tongue is like a wild horse loose in the congregation.

Such a person is deceived in their own heart.  They may be truly sincere in their efforts to impress their own opinions and desires on the congregation, but they are still sincerely wrong.  Theirs is a vain, or powerless, or love-less religion.  Theirs is not a faith based upon God's love. 

James 1:27.  Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. 

Rather than setting forth another law of works (as some have argued), James describes some of the characteristics of a person who has appropriated pure and undefiled faith.  The acts done by a pure faith are done out of love, not out of obligation.  The practitioner of a pure faith will be seen visiting the sick, the orphan, and the widow because he loves them and seeks to minister to them.  Widows and orphans are pointed out by James because, in their culture, these were the lowest people in their caste system.  Seen by the Jews as lower than 'dogs', they were dependent upon the alms and good deeds of the people.  In our culture, this refers to any person in desperate need.  A 'doer of the Word" will be compassionate of those in need and will be driven by their love to do something. 

James sees "true religion" as a sincere faith that is evident by the love in the heart of those who have appropriated it.  We will simply see these people ministering to others in their times of need.  We will see these people sacrifice their time and their resources for the benefit of God's kingdom, not out of obligation, but out of an uncontrollable love.  This is what happens when the Holy Spirit is empowered in the life of a believer and not suppressed by selfish desires. 

Finally, an individual who has a sincere faith will be learning of their sins and repenting as they mature in their faith.  As this transformation takes place in life, they will be seen to have a righteous lifestyle, not one of following a legalist rule of law to maintain righteousness, but rather one who simply chooses to do the godly thing in response to the stimuli of the world.  Such an individual will become "unspotted" from the world.  That is, the selfish characteristics of this world culture that engenders no limit of sinful acts, will not be replicated in the one of true faith.  Such a lifestyle of godliness is deliberate, as James states, "to keep himself."  One must be diligent and vigilant to observe the insidious ways in which our lives can be infiltrated by the filth of this world, whether through the media, TV, Internet, or any other form.  What the world defines as good and appropriate behavior is not necessarily, or probably never, godly.  One must listen only to the Perfect Law of Liberty to ascertain righteousness.

James 2:1.  My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. 

James is again writing of a practical application of God's Word in the lives of the faithful.  It is a natural and selfish characteristic of the world to devalue the lives of others.  Your life has no value to Satan, and no value in the world over which he exercises his rebellion.  Satan does not experience agape love, and likewise, neither does the world.  Consequently, we should not be surprised when we see the atrocious acts of godless men upon one another.

One very specific sin that creeps into the lives of Christians is that which James refers to as a lack of respect for other persons.  One only need observe the characteristics of most individual congregations to find a very narrow social strata represented by its members.  Prejudice and its inherent devaluing of others is a characteristic of this wicked world, and is prevalent within the body of Christ. 

How did Jesus relate to the different social classes?  We see in His life that there were no social classes to Christ.  He saw all people as prized treasures of God's creation (Matt.  5), lost people in need of salvation.  The Holy Spirit is not the author of prejudice and ignorance.  Consequently, such characteristics have no place in the life of a faithful believer. 

James states that a true love and respect for all persons has a component of faith involved.  We love because God loves, not because of the worthiness of the individual to be loved.  This may be one of the most difficult battles for the Christian to deal with, as we regularly ignore the homeless, thinking only of our own wants and desires.  We avoid contact with those who are not like ourselves, or in our own ignorance, think that any culture that is not found in our own back yards is somehow of lesser value. 

James 2:2-4.  For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; 3And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: 4Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? 

One example of the expression of such prejudice takes place within the church assembly.  This world, and each of its cultures, is made up of all sorts of people.  Communities are becoming multi-cultural, multilingual, as they are already multi-ethnic, embracing the lives of a wide variety of people from the rich to the poor.

Under Jewish law, those who would enter the assembly would stand alike.  This was not difficult for the Jew since those who were not like them were not allowed in the assembly.  Much of this prejudice is replicated today in mono-ethnic congregations.  Members will argue, "they will not be happy here ...  let them worship with others like them."  The key here is this "we - them" mentality.  This is an indication of the sin of disrespect that so diminishes the practice of love.  Christians who demonstrate such prejudice are revealed to be just as ungodly as those who James described in previous verses who are defiled by sin.  Prejudice is a defiling sin, one which must be repented of by any true believer.

We separate ourselves from one another by setting up our own set of standards.  God has no standards that separate people from Himself except the Standard of the Cross.  God sees the potential of all people to have faith in Him, and does not base their value on their worldly state as contrasted with others.

It might be interesting to note the relativity of this argument.  James is writing to believers who are persecuted by their culture.  Among their assembly are the poorest of the land.  Still, they have their definition of "goodly apparel" as a gold ring, and recognize the "vile raiment" of the poor.  They feel victimized by the prejudice and unfair treatment of the rich and famous, but still exercise that same victimization of the strata in their own body.  Prejudice knows no boundaries.  Such prejudice has no place in the heart of a faithful believer.  This respect of persons is caused by the basic nature of man - to seek outward show rather than inward grace.[4]

James 2:5-7.  Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?  6But ye have despised the poor.  Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?  7Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?

James points out the paradox that is demonstrated by the venerating of the rich against the plight of the poor.  In reality, those who are venerated deserve no such attention, as these are the ones who despise and oppress the poor.  It is these people who use their power to drag the poor into the courts, taking their land and possessions.  They blaspheme God by using His name but have not appropriated for themselves any of His power.  Their lives are not characterized by agape love, and therefore, should be afforded no special place in the assembly.  Where the natural bent is to respect the "rich and famous," those worthy and in need of our respect are the poor.

James 2:8-9.  If ye fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 9But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 

Who is my neighbor?  It is easy to love my neighbor when he looks, walks, talks, and smells like me.  However, we pick our neighbors, befriending those of our own choosing.  It is here that prejudice enters our lives.  It there is any doubt as to the sinfulness of prejudice, James removes it here.  If one demonstrates prejudice, or disrespect of other persons, they have committed a sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  If God put his law within us then His Spirit convinces us of our wrongdoing.  We do not need a written law to tell us we have transgressed.  Listening to the Word of God in our hearts far supersedes the searching of Bible text to defend or attack the righteousness of a given action.[5]  We can look into our own hearts, as we were to gaze in a mirror, and determine whether we are in need of repentance. 

James 2:10-11.  For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.  11For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill.  Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. 

With liberty comes responsibility to remain sensitive to what constitutes righteous living.  Any unrighteousness is sin.  Not all sins are equal, but they all carry the same contempt of the authority of the Lawgiver.  Consequently, it is ridiculous to think our good deeds may outweigh our bad.  It is our bad deeds which condemn us, and a single bad deed is such an offense.  If we were without the forgiveness of sin that Christ affords, we would be the most miserable of creatures.  But God has demonstrated that He is faithful to forgive sins when we confess them and repent (turn from those sins.)  We are all guilty and in need of repentance and forgiveness.  Consequently, as stated earlier in this chapter, we must listen to the Word and respond in a Godly manner. 

Obedience is acceptable when the focus is on the will of God.  Any disobedience is to be condemned.  When we disobey we show contempt for the authority of God.  If we look to the old law we stand condemned because we cannot keep it.  When we look to the Perfect Law of Liberty we see an opportunity for forgiveness and restoration. 

James 2:12-13.  So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.  For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment. 

James concludes his discussion with an exhortation and a warning.  The repetition of "so" places a very strong emphasis in the Greek form of the statement.  James exhorts Christians to speak and act as those who are living by the Perfect Law of Liberty.  That is, Christians are to listen to God's will in their lives and respond to Him in obedience.  All Christians are subject to the sins of this world, and must be continually listening to the Holy Spirit for guidance on how to keep their lives undefiled.  For most, there is much defilement in their lives already that must be cleansed in order to appropriate for themselves the full measure of blessing that God affords.  James has described offenses of filthy morality, self-will, and prejudice.  These and other sins vex the lives of Christians, and will continue to vex those who refuse to listen to God's Word and refuse to repent. 

God has little mercy for those who show little mercy to others.  This statement should be of concern to all Christians.  Christians who truly love others will have a heart of compassion and mercy for all people.  This compassion and mercy cannot be contained, and will be evident in their lives.  This is a first step to fulfilling the Law of Liberty.  Let us all be sensitive to the Holy Spirit at all times, observant of His Word, intently listening to biblical teaching, and as clay in the potters hands, teachable and flexible so that we can mature in the faith, come closer to God, and experience more of the blessings of the faith.

[1] Ephesians 6:12 ff.

[2] John 20:5.

[3] Psalm 1.

[4] Genesis 6:5

[5] Leviticus 19:15.