How Genuine Are You?
Explore the Bible Series
July 26, 2009
Background Passage: James 1:19-27
Lesson Passage: James 1:19-27
New Testament scholars have debated the theme of this section of the Epistle of James. Our lesson writer identifies one of these views, the role of believing and obeying the Bible as a norm for Christian living. This position has much merit, and this outline will approach the text from this perspective.
Verse Eighteen introduces the idea of the word of truth as the means of regeneration, the new birth. Through the ministry of the word, God gives eternal life to those who, as a result of receiving the word, become a kind of first fruit of God’s creatures. First, we must understand what James meant by the “word of truth”. If we correctly dated the Epistle of James (c. 55 A.D.), then none of the New Testament had yet been written. In this case the “word” cannot refer primarily to a written text. James certainly regarded the Old Testament as the written word of God, but that collection of books does not proclaim Christ, except in shadows and types. Clearly, James conceived of the word a body of truth that proclaimed the fullness of the Lord Jesus: his deity, sinless life, sacrificial death on the cross, and resurrection from the grave. These themes do not fully appear in the Old Covenant. So, while James included the Old Testament in his designation of the word, he must have also had in mind the oral proclamation of the gospel, by the apostles and those who embraced the apostolic faith. For a few decades the early church thrived on the verbal proclamation of the gospel, and, only at the end of the First Century, did the church have access to the full record of the apostolic witness in written documents. As I see it, the apostles believed sincerely that Christ would return very soon. When the Lord tarried, the church preserved the witness of the apostles by writing down the gospel stories and giving practical guidance to local congregations. It is, in my judgment, this verbal proclamation to which James refers, a written witness preserved for the generations by the books of the New Testament.
James employed three analogies to describe the effect of the word on those who would willingly hear and obey its message.
1. “The implanted word” (v. 21): James compared the word to a seed implanted in the believer’s heart. The ancient Mediterranean world, of course, was familiar with this agrarian imagery. The seed of the word, sown in the hearts of God’s people, would bring the harvest of life and fruitfulness.
2. “A man observing his natural face in a mirror” (vv. 23-24): The word reflects the true nature of man, his needs and moral desperation; yet, frail humans easily and quickly forget this reflection and return to a self-deceptive view of themselves.
3. The perfect law of liberty” (v. 25): Obedience to the word does not bring bondage; rather, it produces liberty, moral freedom from the bondage of sin.
I. Attentiveness to the Word of Truth (vv. 19-20)
A. Attitudes that foster attentiveness (v. 19): James began this section with a warm appeal to his readers, an appeal he highlighted by calling them “beloved brothers”. His plea centered on three attitudes.
1. “be swift to hear”: It appears that the early church worshipped in a free and open manner, a manner that some may have abused. Perhaps some spoke quickly and did not really listen to the word. James encouraged his readers to listen carefully to the message of the gospel, and only then to speak.
2. “slow to speak”: Hasty, thoughtless people speak rashly, without careful thought and reflection. The Lord Jesus warned of the dangers of idle words, and James added this injunction to re-enforce the quality of careful expression.
3. “slow to wrath”: Anger greases the mouth, and, at times, hasty people say things that actually damage the worship of God. James carefully guarded the principle of wisdom and grace that should characterize any public statements in the worship of God.
B. Reason for the previous injunctions (v. 20): The history of the church is littered with examples of hasty, injudicious, and destructive speech among God’s people. The result of this kind of expression is incalculable, and Baptists have known their fair share of unfortunate controversies fostered by angry speech. Wrath seldom serves the purposes of righteousness.
II. The Word Requires a Receptive Heart (v. 21)
A. Attitudes that hinder the reception of God’s word (v. 21a)
1. “lay aside all filthiness”: “Lay aside” reflects the removal of a filthy garment, and it denotes any unworthy defilement that might preclude a proper attitude toward the word.
2. “overflow of wickedness”: This phrase denotes malice, hatred that might consume and inflame the heart, cancelling out the effects of the sacred word.
B. The essential attitude to receiving the word (v. 21b): Meekness must characterize the heart of all who hope to embrace the word. “Meekness” reflects a spirit of humility and gentleness, and it carries the idea of a teachable, open heart.
C. The effect of receiving the word (v. 21c): The word is implanted in the heart like a fertile seed. Given time and favorable circumstances, the seed will grow and bring forth abundant fruit. This implanted seed will, among other things, produce salvation.
III. A Primary Command: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only” (vv. 22-27): James had a deep concern for practical obedience to the word, and he urged his readers to avoid the self-deception of only hearing. In the ancient world, itinerate teachers gathered a group of hearers. Some of these followers only heard the teacher’s words but did not devote themselves to live the principles they were taught. Others dedicated themselves to implement the teachings of the master. James drew on this imagery to denote the true disciples of Christ. Real followers do not merely learn and consider the Master’s path; rather, they yield themselves to obey the principles they have learned. Christianity involves more than making a “decision” for Christ; instead, it calls for a devotion of life to follow Jesus in practical devotion and obedience.
A. A pointed example (vv. 23-24): Those who merely hear the word are like persons who observe themselves in a mirror, but the reflection makes no lasting impression. When they walk away from the mirror, they quickly forget what they have seen. Some people hear the word that way. They gave temporary insight, but they rapidly forget the lessons of the word, returning to their previous manner of life.
B. An essential alternative (v. 25): James urged his readers to look (intently gaze) into and continue in the “law of liberty”. “Look” denotes contemplation, and “continue” contrasts with the temporary effects seen in those who merely hear the word. God will bless those who persevere in compliance to the word.
C. Practical counsel (vv. 26-27)
1. bridle the tongue (v. 26): The text indicates that the tongue is like unbroken, unbridled horse, powerful but uncontrolled. The tongue needs taming and appropriate restraint or it can do a great deal of harm. The man with an untamed mouth deceives himself, and that man’s religion, James says, is vain (empty, fruitless, futile).
2. visit the orphans and the widows (v. 27a): Orphans and widows represent the poor, disenfranchised people of the world, those most often oppressed by merciless men. James had no place for a faith that did not issue in genuine, compassionate concern for the poor and repressed. “Visit” signifies practical assistance to those in need. This is true religion and undefiled.
3. Keep oneself unspotted by the world (v. 27b): “World”, in this context, describes the base and ungodly principles that dominate mankind. James enjoined a purity of life that should adorn the conduct of God’s people. Christ does not remove his followers from the world, but he calls them to avoid the stain of worldliness (See John 17:12-19).