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Here, we continue our study in the Epistle of James.
19My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21Therefore, 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.
James begins this section of his epistle with three exhortations: "Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry". Since the next section of this epistle predominantly concerns the Christian's response to the Word of God, it appears that James desired that we apply these exhortations also to the Christian's response to the Word of God (even though the exhortations could apply to many aspects of our lives).
With this in mind, we see that by exhorting us to "be quick to listen", James is urging us to have a teachable spirit, ready to receive instruction from the Word of God. We should be eager to listen to the Word, always with a mind for applying it to our lives. We all need teaching from the Word, continually until the end of our existence on earth. It seems that some Christian's that have known the Lord for a long time think that they have heard it all. They stop going to Bible studies and even stop studying the Word themselves because they think they "know it all". Perish the thought! The depth of the Word of God is immense. Diligently study the Word until you meet the Lord and you will be continually blessed.
By exhorting us to "be slow to speak", James is urging us not to rashly blurt out opinions concerning the Word of God without careful study. We must be careful in what we say, especially concerning God's Word, so as not to misrepresent it. We should be as Moses who, when asked a question concerning the law to which he did not know the answer, said: "Wait until I find out what the LORD commands concerning you" (Num. 9:8). When Moses did not know the answer, he waited for the clear Word of the Lord. So also, when asked a question about God's Word to which we do not know the answer, rather than giving an answer that we are not certain is correct, we should say: "I don't know, let me seek the Lord on that issue."
By exhorting us to be "slow to become angry", James is urging us to be patient with those who disagree with us concerning the Word of God. This behavior should characterize discussions concerning the Word of God. Christians should not be involved in heated arguments; rather, they should humbly, respectfully present their opinions, without forgetting to humbly, respectfully listen to the others' opinions.
These exhortations are tightly related. When one is "quick to listen", he cannot help but be "slow to speak". Also, being "quick to listen" aids in being "slow to become angry". Anger is often caused by a misunderstanding of the other person's viewpoint. Being "quick to listen" will decrease the possibility of such a misunderstanding. Moreover, not being "slow to speak" often causes anger. When participants in a discussion are not slow to speak, they must speak more loudly in order to make their point. Thus, the volume grows until the speakers become shouters! How often does a friendly conversation grow into a full-blown argument due to too much talking and not enough listening.
As James says: "Man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires". Anger and Christianity are incompatible. Christianity is founded upon the blood of Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. He did not go to the cross in anger but humility and submission. As Peter points out: "When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats" (I Pet. 2:23). It is difficult for you to preach grace, convey grace, and convince others of God's grace while you are angry.
Many, for some reason, think that anger will bring about righteousness. There are many problems with this, among them:
1. Anger turns people off. Rather than bringing people to repentance, it often causes a backlash of behavior in rebellion to the anger.
2. Anger blinds one's own mind to true righteousness. In your anger, you may veer from the course of righteousness and not even realize it.
3. Anger is a foothold of Satan: "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold" (Eph. 4:26-27). Satan takes advantage of inflamed passion, often in the name of "righteous anger".
4. Anger is, in effect, spiritual murder. As Christ says: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment" (Matt. 5:21-22).
Indeed, there is a great contrast between man's anger and God's righteousness.
James goes on to say: "Therefore, get rid of all moral filth...". By saying "therefore", he ties this exhortation to the previous one. In effect he is saying that the "moral filth" and "evil" in our lives cause us not to be "quick to listen", "slow to speak", and "slow to become angry".
The Christian, in order to be teachable and not deaf to the Word, must "get rid of all moral filth" in his life. He must not speak filthily; he must not read filthy books or magazines; he must not watch filthy movies or television programs; he must not listen to music with filthy lyrics; etc. For the child of God, these things should be an abomination. The true child of God should not enjoy filthy things. Why are we willing to watch and read things that our ancestors would have been ashamed to watch and read?
To get rid of the filth in one's life requires the help of the Holy Spirit, especially in today's society where filth is, indeed, so "prevalent". Be careful, its prevalence can make you numb to its evil. Prevalence does not make filth harmless or allowable. Filth is filth, regardless of the standards of society. Pray that the Holy Spirit would help you to have the right attitude about filth. Pray that filth would be detestable to your spirit. Pray that the Holy Spirit would give you the moral strength to cleanse the filth from your life.
Getting rid of filth in one's life is necessary preparation to "humbly accept the word". Filth and evil in our lives often cause us, in order to rationalize our behavior, to reinterpret God's Word, rather than to "accept" His Word. Filth and evil in our lives cause us to say things like, "Well, God didn't really mean that; it was a cultural commandment."
As James goes on to say, humbly accepting the Word "can save you". For the non-believer, accepting the Word can save their souls from destruction. For the believer, accepting the Word can save their lives from the destruction that filth and sin wreaks. Even in Christians' lives, we see the destruction that comes from rejecting the Word. We see filth and sin destroying relationships, destroying marriages, destroying ministries, etc. Salvation from these things is available by humbly accepting the Word. Seek salvation! Accept the Word!
22Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.
To hear the Word of God is a good thing, but it is not enough; so James says, "Do not merely listen to the word". There is a danger in "social churchgoing". Many "hearers" of the Word think that to hear is enough. They think that they are somehow doing God a favor by attending church for an hour a week. They do not apply what they hear to their lives. In some cases, they do not even accept Jesus as Lord and Savior of their lives. So, they "deceive" themselves: they believe they are saved by the "hearing", but they are not.
Unfortunately, many pulpit ministers aid in this deceit. They do not preach the Gospel of God, but rather the gospel of man. They do not speak of the riches of God's grace, but rather how to gain worldly riches, which, as Peter says, "perish even though refined by fire" (I Pet. 1:7). They do not teach the Word of God, but use the pulpit to teach their own philosophy. An indication of this is the fact that, in many churches, the members of the congregation do not even bring Bibles to church. These pulpit ministers are, in effect, putting their own message above the message found in the Bible, putting their own words above the Word of God. They are doing so to the peril of their congregation by aiding the congregation to "deceive" themselves. They are also doing so to their own peril. As James says later: "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1).
Rather than just hearing the Word, we are to "Do what it says". Now, what does the Word says that we are to do?:
1. Repent! The main message of the gospel of the kingdom of heaven is to repent from your sins and turn to Christ to be cleansed from your sins. John the Baptist said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt. 3:2). Christ Himself preached, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt. 4:17) and "But unless you repent, you too will perish" (Luke 13:3). Peter preached, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven" (Acts 2:38).
2. Obey! We are to obey the commandments of God. "Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Eccles. 12:13). "This is love for God: to obey His commands. And His commands are not burdensome" (I John 5:3).
It is the fool who hears the Word of God and does not "do what it says". As Christ pointed out: "But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash" (Matt. 7:26-27).
Do you believe that the Bible is God's Word? Then, "do what it says"! The extent that you "do what it says" reflects the extent to which you truly believe the Bible is God's word. It is dangerous to be just a hearer because knowledge brings responsibility. If you hear the Word, and thus know what you should do, but do not do it, you sin: "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins" (James 4:17).
James goes on to compare the "non-doing hearer" to someone who looks at himself in a mirror and forgets what he looks like. This is all to point out that the Word of God is a mirror to the soul. The Word of God makes us aware of our sin. As Paul pointed out, by way of example: "For I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, `Do not covet' " (Rom. 7:7). We think that we are "good" people, that is, in comparison to those around us. Then, we read the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and see how far we fall short in the eyes of God: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).
Thus, the Word of God is a mirror to the soul. Looking into this mirror should cause us to change our lives. Just as after looking at your mussed up hair in a mirror would cause you to comb it, so looking at your mussed up soul in the mirror of God's Word should cause you to straighten up your act. Self-examination should bring about change.
In verse 25, James goes on to point out that the one who looks into the mirror of the soul, the Word of God, and then acts on what he sees, will be blessed by God. Note that the blessings will come to the one who "looks intently". Looking "intently" implies studied meditation and diligent inquiry. It suggests not a glance, but prolonged meditation on the Word. It suggests not being satisfied with a first impression, but diligently gazing into the Word to find the full extent of its application to one's life.
It is the "perfect law" into which we are to gaze intently. As David says, "The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul" (Ps. 19:7). Indeed, God's law is "perfect". It is unchanging; it is invariable; it needs no amending, unlike man's law. Our response to its perfection should be:
1. Value God's law. Value it for its perfection, realizing that it was made for the good of man: "The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today" (Deut. 6:24).
2. Do not take from it. Realize that all of God's law is perfect, not just the parts that you agree with! "See that you do all I command you" (Deut. 12:32).
3. Do not add to it. To add to the law is to add man's imperfection to God's perfection. "Every word of God is flawless;...Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar" (Prov. 30:5,6).
James describes the law as the law that "gives freedom". The law gives us freedom from our own lusts and desires. Satan, along with the desires he fosters, is a prison warden. As Paul says, sinners should repent so "that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will" (II Tim. 2:26). For some reason, many think that they are free if they ignore the law. On the contrary, "the evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast" (Prov. 5:22). And Christ says, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin" (John 8:34). Moreover, Peter adds that "a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him" (II Peter 2:19). Thus, we must strive to be mastered by God's perfect law, rather than sin: "Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey--whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?" (Rom. 6:16).
The man who will be "blessed in what he does" is the one who, not only "looks intently into the perfect law", but also does not "forget what he has heard". In order to keep from forgetting, do the following:[Footnote #2]
1. Pay attention to the teaching of the Word. Attention brings retention.
2. Love the Word. "Men remember what they care for: an old man will not forget where he laid his bag of gold."[Footnote #3]
3. Apply what you hear to your own life. We remember what concerns us.
4. Meditate on the Word, so as to store it in your heart.
5. Put it into practice. Direct experience will foster remembrance.
6. Reflect on how application of the Word has worked in past. Lessons learned will foster remembrance.
7. Most importantly, commit the hearing of the Word to the Spirit for your remembrance. Pray that the Holy Spirit would aid you in applying it to your life.
In summary, many over the years have heard the Word of God, pondered the Word of God, and discussed the Word of God. However, the Word was not primarily given to us for philosophical meditation, but for action. "Do what it says!"
26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27Religion 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.
Here, James describes true religion. The word for "religion" that James uses here "signifies religion in its external aspect, religious worship, especially the ceremonial service of religion."[Footnote #4] In other words, James is speaking of the outward manifestation of true Christianity. So James, in effect, is describing the actions through which a Christian's religion is displayed to the world.
Here James is addressing the one who "considers himself" religious. We are much in our own eyes. We must cultivate the ability to examine ourselves and our actions objectively in order to gain a correct estimation of ourselves. "If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself" (Gal. 6:3,4). "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you" (Rom. 12:3).
The first test of true religion that James gives is keeping a "tight rein on the tongue". This is the first of many exhortations in the Epistle of James concerning controlling one's speech (2:12; 3:2; 3:5-12; 4:11; 4:13; 5:9; 5:12). There are also many Proverbs that deal with incorrect speech: "When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise" (Prov. 10:19); "A man of knowledge uses words with restraint,...Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue" (Prov. 17:27,28); etc.[Footnote #5] Christ warned about careless speaking: "But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matt. 12:36,37). Why does the Bible put such emphasis on controlling the tongue?:[Footnote #6]
1. It is the chief way we interact with others. The primary means that people determine "who we are" is from what we say to them.
2. It is so easy to stumble with the tongue, yet so hard to rectify once done.
3. Stumbling with the tongue seems such a small sin, but, in fact, can be extremely destructive.
4. There are so many ways to stumble with the tongue: derision, mockery, gossip, lying, slander, boasting, obscenity, blasphemy, etc.
5. The tongue is the tool of hypocrites. How many times have you heard of someone: "Oh, he just talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk"?
6. The tongue reflects the heart; control the tongue and odds are that your heart is in the right place. Thus, James says later: "If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check" (James 3:2). And Christ points out: "For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34).
As he did in v. 22, James points out an example of someone who "deceives himself". In this case, self-examination concerning what you say will keep you from deceiving yourself. Do you use profanity? Do you gossip? Do you lie? Do you deride others? To the extent that you do, as James says, your "religion is worthless". Ask the Lord to help you to "keep a tight rein on your tongue".
The religion that counts is not what we consider as true religion, but "religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless". As far as religion goes, it does not matter what men think. You can "act" like other Christians, and "speak" like other Christians, but God sees the heart. We must be careful because pretended religion can have eternal consequences: "Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
James goes on to indicate a second work that tests true religion: "to look after orphans and widows in their distress". So, true religion involves not only restraint (as in matters of the tongue), but action (as in charity towards to orphans and widows). True religion manifests itself in good deeds. James covers this theme in detail in chapter 2.
Charity toward "orphans and widows" is representative of charity toward those who, in general, are not closely related to us. We are to love all believers as brothers, not just our close acquaintances and family members. Charity toward "orphans and widows" is also representative of charity toward those who are most needy. "Orphans and widows", in general, have no close family members and, thus, need most the help of their extended church family.
The third test of true religion that James points out is "to keep oneself from being polluted by the world". God desires not only good deeds, but holiness as well. This is so that our charity can be seen by others as work for God and by God. However, it is difficult to walk in the world without being tainted by it, filth being so prevalent. Treat the world as refuse. Wash yourself after touching the world. As Paul says: "Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God" (II Cor. 7:1).
Now, Father, cleanse from the filth of the world and, by Your Spirit, keep us from being polluted by the world. Give us the desire and opportunity to do your work on earth so that we may be truly religious in Your sight. Guide us in being doers of Your Word, faithfully serving You. In the name of Jesus we ask these things, Amen.
(The study in James will continue in the next issue.)
2. Adapted from Manton, A Commentary on James.p. 167-168.
3. Manton, A Commentary on James. pg. 167.
4. Vine, W. E. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Zondervan, 1940. Vol. III, p. 272.
5. See also Prov. 11:13; 13:3; 14:23; 15:1; 21:23; 25:23; etc.
6. Adapted from Manton, A Commentary on James. pg. 170-171.
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