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James 1:17-27 Biblical Commentary
This book was written with Jewish readers in mind––people of modest means who were oppressed by the rich, who dragged them before the courts (2:6)––and blasphemed “the honorable name by which (the believers were) called” (2:7)––and kept back the wages of believers (5:4). James counsels patience, and calls them to remember that the Lord will ultimately set things right.
The author opened by identifying himself only as James (1:1), traditionally believed to be James the brother of Jesus who came to lead the Jerusalem church. He identifies the recipients of the latter as “the twelve tribes which are in the Dispersion” (1:1)––literally meaning Jews living outside Israel. However, 1 Peter uses the word Dispersion metaphorically to refer to Christians living in “Pontus, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1), and that is likely the meaning here.
James addresses their temptations, saying, “Count it all joy,” because “the testing of your faith produces endurance” (vv. 2-3). He counsels prayer for wisdom, prayed in faith without doubts (vv. 5-8).
He counsels the poor to “glory in (their) high position”––and the rich to assume the humility appropriate to their mortality (1:9-11).
Then he returns to the issue of temptation, pronouncing a blessing on those who endure temptation, because they “will receive the crown of life” (v. 12). He counsels them not to think of temptations as being sent by God, because God “tempts no one” (v. 13).
Verse 15 sets up a parallel with verse 18 when it says, “lust, when it has conceived, bears sin: and the sin…brings forth (Greek: apokueo) death. In verse 18, he says that God “brought us forth (apokueo) by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” The contrast, therefore, is between the offspring of sin (death) and the offspring of God (first fruits of God’s creatures).
JAMES 1:17-18. HE BROUGHT US FORTH
17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (v. 17a) This would better be translated, “Every generous giving and every perfect gift is from above.” James’ interest here is to show that God is good. Therefore, the gifts sent to us by God are good rather than evil. As noted above, he has already stated that God “tempts no one” (v. 13).
“coming down from the Father of lights” (v. 17b). The phrase, “Father of lights,” takes us back to the creation, where “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3)––and God creating the great lights of the heavens (Genesis 1:14-18).
Light and darkness are used in both Old and New Testaments as metaphors for a series of opposites: good and evil––order and chaos––security and danger––joy and sorrow––truth and untruth––life and death––salvation and condemnation (Isaiah 5:20; John 3:19-21; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:17-18).
In the conflict between light and darkness, light always wins. Darkness can never dispel light. Light always dispels darkness.
“with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow” (v. 17c). We think of the sun, moon, and stars as ever faithful––the North Star will always lead us rightly. But the heavenly lights are often obscured by clouds or eclipse, and might not present themselves when we need them most.
God is not like that. God is unchangeable––never given to eclipse. He is accessible to us by day and night, through times both good and bad, even in life and in death.
“Of his own will” (v. 18a). The sense we get here is of a deliberate, resolute God carrying out his creative vision. It is as if we were watching a gifted artist at work, making something out of a bare canvas––or a brilliant medical researcher, determined to bring health out of illness. There is a nose-to-the-grindstone determinedness behind God’s creation work.
“he brought us forth (Greek: apokueo) by the word of truth” (v. 18b). As noted above, verse 15 set up a parallel with verse 18 when it said, “lust, when it has conceived, bears sin: and the sin…brings forth (Greek: apokueo) death. In verse 18, he says that God “brought us forth (apokueo) by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” The contrast is between the offspring of sin (death) and the offspring of God (first fruits of God’s creatures).
“that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (v. 18c). God required the Israelites to bring their first fruits as an offering to God (Exodus 23:19; Leviticus 23:9-10; Numbers 15:17-21; Deuteronomy 18:4; 2 Chronicles 31:5; Nehemiah 10:35). The idea behind the first fruits was that the first fruits of any harvest are especially valuable, because they represent something that we have had to do without for a period of time.
There is great joy in first fruits. Not only do they satisfy a real need, they also signal the end of winter––and tell us of more to come.
When James tells these believers in the very early church that they are the “first fruits of (God’s) creatures,” he is letting them know that they are special––that God finds exceptional pleasure in them, even as we find exception pleasure in the first ripe tomato of the season. These believers are not only precious to God, but they also signal the beginning of a great harvest––a church that will spread the news of Jesus to every corner of the world.
JAMES 1:19-20. SWIFT TO HEAR, SLOW TO SPEAK, AND SLOW TO ANGER
19 So, then, my beloved brothers, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God.
“So, then, my beloved brothers” (v. 19a). A literal translation would be, “My beloved brothers, know this.” This phrase signals that something important follows.
“let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak” (v. 19b). What wonderful advice! People hunger for someone who will listen to them. We prize listeners. The late Dr. Joyce Brothers, the psychologist and television personality, said: “Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery…. If you want to influence someone, listen to what he says…. When he finishes talking, ask him about any points that you do not understand. Then tell him what it is you want and point out the areas where you are in agreement and those where you do not agree. He will be flattered that you have listened intently, that you take him seriously, and that you truly want to understand his position.”
Could the same listening counsel be true for prayer? We think of prayer as talking to God, and that is legitimate. But prayer can also be listening quietly for God to speak to us. One way to listen is to read a passage from the Bible, and ask God to help you to understand how that passage applies to you––and then listen prayerfully for the answer.
The late Frank Laubach, the Christian missionary who developed the “Each One Teach One” literacy program, said: “The trouble with nearly everybody who prays is that he says “Amen” and runs away before God has a chance to reply. Listening to God is far more important than giving Him your ideas.”
“and slow to anger” (v. 19c). Again, excellent advice! Quick-tempered people are also likely to be quick to speak––and to do so in a manner that hurts others, damages relationships, and (ironically) hurts their chances of getting what they want. The humorist, Will Rogers, said, “People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing.” And so they do.
But James doesn’t absolutely prohibit anger. Anger is sometimes appropriate––we call it righteous indignation. Jean Baptiste de la Salle advises, “There is a holy anger, excited by zeal, which moves us to reprove with warmth those whom our mildness failed to correct.” But “slow to speak” (v. 19b) still applies. We will almost always accomplish more by measured words and actions than by flying off the cuff in anger.
“for the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God” (v. 20). Quick anger is likely to produce sinful words and actions––the opposite of the righteousness of God.
JAMES 1:21-22. BE DOERS OF THE WORD
21 Therefore, putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with humility the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deluding your own selves.
“Therefore, putting away (Greek: apotithemi) all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness” (v. 21a). “Therefore” connects this verse with verses 19-20, which suggests that James considers overly quick speech and anger to be filth and wickedness.
Apotithemi means to renounce or to lay aside or to put off. Believers are to play an active role in shedding moral filth and wickedness. We can (and should) pray for God’s help in this challenging endeavor, but must also do our best to live holy lives.
Paul provides a strong rationale for putting away filthiness and wickedness. He says that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death, and like Christ were raised to a new life where filth and wickedness have no place (Romans 6:1-4).
“receive with humility the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (v. 21b). The “putting away” is just a first step. Once we have rid ourselves of filth and wickedness, we must fill the void by receiving with humility the implanted word.
The word “receive” makes it clear that, although we play a significant role in ridding ourselves of filth and wickedness, the implanted word is a gift from God. This is reminiscent of Jeremiah 31:33, where God says, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it.”
It is also reminiscent of Matthew 12:43-45, where Jesus tells of an unclean spirit that decides to return to his original habitation. Finding it empty, the unclean spirit “goes, and takes with himself seven other spirits more evil than he is, and they enter in and dwell there. The last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” That serves as a warning that we dare not leave our cleansed house empty, but must fill it with a Godly presence lest the original evil return to haunt us.
“But be doers of the word, and not only hearers” (v. 22a). We must go beyond hearing the word to doing it––living it. This is consistent with:
- The emphasis that James will place on works in 2:14ff
- Paul’s statement, “For it isn’t the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13).
- Jesus’ statements, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21) and “Blessed are those who hear the word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:28).
“deluding your own selves” (v. 22b). Those who hear God’s word but fail to live it delude themselves. They think that their relationship with God is solid, but it isn’t. In the final judgment, they will learn that they have failed the test.
Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
He also said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity'” (Matthew 7:21-23).
JAMES 1:23-25. BLESSINGS FOR DOERS OF THE WORD
23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he sees himself, and goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and continues, not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in what he does.
“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his natural face (Greek: to prosopon tes geneseos autou––his birth face or the face of his creation) in a mirror, for he sees himself, and goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was” (vv. 23-24). Scholars have spilled lots of ink trying to explain the significance of to prosopon tes geneseos autou (translated “his natural face” in this version).
I like to think of geneseos (birth or creation) in this verse as referring, not to the person’s natural face, but to his reborn face as a follower of Jesus (see John 3:3; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 1:3). This person starts his day by looking at his face in the mirror and recognizing his identity as a child of God, but then proceeds into the whirlpool of daily life, gets caught up in worldly concerns, and forgets his Godly identity. He therefore fails to live according to his new spiritual identity––fails to proceed beyond hearing the word to living the word.
“But he who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and continues” (Greek: parameno) (v. 25a). This verse shows the other side of the coin––the person who hears the word, remembers it, and lives it.
Keep in mind that James wrote this book with Jewish readers in mind. When they saw “perfect law,” they would naturally think of the Mosaic Law. However, the phrase, “the perfect law of freedom,” moves the discussion into the Christian arena.
The Mosaic Law (613 commandments) prescribed in great detail exactly what a person could and could not do. The Talmud (thousands more rules) tried to specify the exact limits of commandments, such as limits on work on the Sabbath. Even Biblical scholars had problems remembering all the rules. The ordinary person, even if literate, had little access to the Biblical text and could have only a vague idea when he/she had transgressed the law. It was an impossible situation.
But Christ set us free by subjecting us to the rule of grace rather than the rule of law. He too gave commandments (“Love God…love your neighbor” Matthew 22:37-40), but was “full of grace” (John 1:14)––meaning that the transgressor who is also a believer can expect the blood of Christ to make him/her whole in God’s sight.
“and continues” (parameno). The word parameno is composed of two words, para (with) and meno (remain), so it literally means “remains with.” We say, “sticks with it.” In this context, parameno means perseveres––continues.
“not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer of the work” (Greek: poietes) (v. 25b). In verse 22a, James spoke of “doers of the WORD,” but here he speaks of “a doer of the WORK” (poietes). This person does a good work––a good deed––is not satisfied simply to hear the word, but acts in accord with the word.
The difference between the hearer and the doer is the difference between lip-service and service. It is the difference between empty discipleship and full commitment. It very well might be the difference between life and death. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
We need to hear this. We need to study God’s word, but that isn’t sufficient. We must also allow the word to reshape our lives. It is worth remembering that the demons knew who Jesus was, but failed to follow him. We must not make that mistake.
“this man will be blessed in what he does” (v. 25c). God will bless the person who allows the word to reshape his/her life so that he/she does good works.
JAMES 1:26-27. BLESSINGS FOR DOERS OF THE WORD
26 If anyone among you thinks himself to be religious while he doesn’t bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
In these two verses, James takes the general principle––doing God’s word, doing good works––and gives three examples of what that would entail:
- Bridling the tongue (v. 26).
- Visiting (helping) vulnerable people such as widows and orphans (v. 27).
- Keeping oneself “unstained by the world” (v. 27).
“If anyone among you thinks himself to be religious while he doesn’t bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (v. 26). James has already counseled his readers to be “slow to speak” (v. 19)
In chapter 3, James will deal in great detail with the importance of words. He will liken the tongue to the bit in a horse’s mouth that guides the horse’s whole body (3:3)––and a rudder that directs the course of a great ship (3:4)––and a small fire that can threaten a great forest (3:5). He then says, “And the tongue is a fire” (3:6)––”set on fire by Gehenna” (3:6). He notes that every sort of animal is capable of being tamed, but not the tongue (3:7-8a). “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8b).
The person who fails to bridle his tongue fools himself (“deceives his heart”). His “religion is worthless.” He worships in vain.
James doesn’t use the word hypocrite here, but that word comes to mind. A hypocrite is a pretender––a person who appears to be someone other than who he/she really is. That can be acceptable on a stage where it is clear that the person is acting a role, but it is not acceptable in the spiritual arena.
Jesus said that hypocrites “say, and don’t do.” They “bind heavy burdens (on others), but “will not lift a finger to help them.” They do their works “to be seen by men.” They love public acclaim. They love being called Rabbi. They “devour widows’ houses, and as a pretense …make long prayers” (Matthew 23:1-13).
“Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction” (v. 27a). Christ expects us to have compassion for those who are unable to provide for their own needs. Widows and orphans are good examples, but many others are also vulnerable.
“and to keep oneself unstained (Greek: aspilos) by the world” (v. 27b). The word aspilos combines a (without) and spilos (blemish or spot). Christ needs our moral conduct to be such that it honors his name. He was without spot or blemish, and calls us to walk in his moral footsteps.
“by the world” (Greek: kosmos). We live in a kosmos world––a world opposed to God––a world that is often demonic––a world that tempts us to think thoughts and to perform acts that threaten to undo us and to separate us from God.
God loves this kosmos and sent his Son to save it (John 3:16), but the kosmos won’t be fully redeemed until Christ comes again. We need to resist the pull of the kosmos world toward those things that would bring dishonor us and compromise our witness to Christ.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan