James 1:17–27

Reflecting God’s Word

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

September 9, 2018

Last week we ended our mini-series in Samuel and Kings by considering David’s son, Solomon, a man who became known for his proverbs and great wisdom. This week we turn to a mini-series that will highlight portions of the book of James and though he may not have been as wise as Solomon, he nonetheless wrote a proverbial, practical letter of wisdom. James was Jesus’ half-brother[1] and an early leader in Christ’s church.[2] He wrote his epistle to encourage a church that was being persecuted for the crime of following and proclaiming Jesus and his teachings. James wrote to exhort these believers to remain strong and live according to Scripture’s teachings and standards come what may. Among those to whom he was writing were fellow Jewish believers, the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations” as noted in verse 1, who, like he, had come to faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah, Jesus as Christ. This isn’t to suggest that James’ letter had no applicability to non-Jews who had come to faith in Christ for he presents universal and practical truths believers in all times and ages would do well to heed.[3] But knowing James’ background—that he was Jewish (as was Jesus) and therefore knew and drew from Scripture, i.e., our Old Testament, for his teaching can help us better appreciate what he has to say.

In the portion from his epistle we’re considering this morning, James emphasizes the importance of believers living out their faith. And he does so by anchoring his message in the truth that the gift of salvation is given by God. Having reminded these believers that God is incapable of tempting anyone to evil—rather evil is the result of yielding to the temptation of sin (vv. 11–15)—he goes on to state in verse 17 that, on the contrary, our heavenly Father is the giver of “[e]very good and perfect gift.” Our Father, who made “the heavenly lights”—an allusion to the first chapter in Genesis in which God made two great lights, the sun to rule the day and the moon to rule the night, as well as the stars[4]—“does not change like shifting shadows.” So he who made the sun, moon, and stars is the source of all light. As that source, as the Creator of all that exists, he is constant. He doesn’t change but it is the light-sources he created that produce shifting shadows by their reflected glory.

Further, verse 18, it is this unchanging God who “chose to give us birth through the word of truth.” Indeed this birth is the most good and perfect of all gifts that our Father could ever give. For whether we’re speaking of natural birth or supernatural birth, being born wasn’t our idea. We had no say in our parents giving us physical birth; and neither did we have a say in our gracious and heavenly Father giving us spiritual birth. Yet our loving Father in heaven chose to give us birth by means of his Word, “the word of truth.” Now since Scripture is God’s Word, it reflects his character. As God never changes but is ever constant and truthful, so his Word never changes or fails. God demonstrated this constancy and truthfulness when he took on human form in the person of Jesus the Christ, his Son, the Word become flesh. And so we see Jesus’ life being marked by constancy for he was steadfast and unchanging in his purposes. And we see in the Gospels how Jesus’ life was marked by truth—he lived according to what he taught. There was no light between his words and actions. As we were reminded a few weeks ago by our guest preacher, Jim Bishop, after Jesus proclaimed he was the resurrection and the life, he demonstrated that truth by raising Lazarus from death to life. For Jesus is the resurrection and life who gives life to any who believe in him so that they will never die.[5] He is the way, the truth, and the life, the only way to the Father in heaven.[6] And this very heavenly Father is the one who chose to give us birth by sending us his Son and giving us new life by his Spirit.[7]

James then goes on to tell us the purpose of this birth in the second half of verse 18. This life-giving God has given us birth through his Word “that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” The dictionary defines “firstfruits” as “the first agricultural produce of a season, especially when given as an offering to God.” James is again drawing here from his knowledge of the Old Testament. In the book of Deuteronomy, tithing—returning to the LORD a tenth of all that he has given—and dedicating firstfruits to the LORD are brought together in Leviticus 26. There Moses provided God’s people, Israel, specific instructions concerning what they should do when they “[had] entered the land the Lord [their] God [was] giving [them] as an inheritance and [had] taken possession of it and settled in it.”[8] Namely, they were to “take some of the firstfruits of all that [they] produce[d] from the soil of the land the Lord [their] God [was] giving [them] and put them in a basket.”[9] This action was to be accompanied by a confession and a ritual acknowledging how the LORD had delivered them out of Egypt and brought them to “a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now”—they were to confess the following: “I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” Then God’s people were to “Place the basket [with their firstfruits] before the Lord [their] God and bow down before him. 11 Then [they] and the Levites and the foreigners residing among [them] [would] rejoice in all the good things the Lord [their] God [had] given to [them] and [their] household.”[10] So this celebration acknowledging the good and perfect gifts God had provided was to be performed by both Israelites and foreigners for, as we saw last week, God has ever been a missionary God who reaches out and responds not only to his people Israel but to all who turn and cry out to him.

But notice that James isn’t saying that we are to rejoice in the firstfruits the LORD has given us, important though this practice may be. No, James is taking this concept of firstfruits further and stating that the reason God in Christ has given us birth by his word of truth is that we might be a “a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” Now this applies specifically to those to whom James was writing for they were part of the early Church who were literally the first to come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ. But being a kind of firstfruits also applies more generally to all who have been given new birth in Christ and whose lives similarly are to be an offering to God. And, again, this new life he has provided in his Son is great cause for celebration. To use Paul’s language, “17 …if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”[11] What gift could be better or more perfect than this?!

Having reminded his audience about our heavenly Father’s goodness in creating the world and giving birth to those who are his that they might be a kind of firstfruits, a precious offering, of all he created, the ever-practical James goes on to address how those who are firstfruits ought to live. Starting in verse 19 he states, “19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” I’m going to take these from last to first and start with being slow to anger because I think it’s the easiest to understand. We’ve all had experiences that have pressed our buttons and caused us to become angry, haven’t we? For when things don’t go the way we’d like or when people don’t treat us as they should, anger is often the outcome. But when we act immediately upon our anger, things rarely turn out well. And though it’s impossible for us to be “slow to become angry,” since anger is usually an immediate response, we can and should be slow to act on that anger.

But James is going further in what he’s stating here. He says we should also be “slow to speak.” Now though I’ve never tweeted a tweet on twitter and therefore can’t comment specifically on how it works, I suspect the following example from the ancient early days of email will apply to both forms of communication and to the immediacy of social media in general. Soon after I began teaching at Wheaton College years ago, I was part of a listserve—a select group of recipients—that was able to communicate with other members of the listserv as we responded to papers presented in a seminar in which we all partook each week. The academic world being what it is—a world comprised of people with strong opinions who are trained to defend those opinions—the exchanges on the listserv sometimes got intense. In the midst of one of these exchanges a dean jumped in and suggested that no one should ever send an email that was hastily and angrily written. For flaming, as this kind of response came to be known, rarely led to any good outcome. Instead, she said, everyone should wait a day before sending that email out. She was right. Her advice reflected what James is stating here. When we speak or respond to a situation, especially one that makes us angry, it’s good if we’ve had time to mull over and consider what we’re going to say rather than shooting off the first thing that comes to mind. We should be slow to speak and so help ensure that what we say actually expresses how we really feel.

But James begins by exhorting these believers to do something that I think has become genuinely rare: being “quick to listen.” Doesn’t everybody love a good listener? Doesn’t everybody love to be heard when they speak? Don’t we all long to be heard? Don’t we all long to be paid attention to and understood? Therefore don’t we all appreciate it when others make an effort to understand us? Not to pick too volatile an example, but I’ve always had a hard time with how politicians—whether Republican, Democrat, Independent or otherwise—answer questions. My difficulty is that they rarely answer the questions they’re being asked. Instead their alleged answer tells us what they want us to hear. By and large politicians tend to be poor listeners. Yet children of our heavenly Father are called by James to be good listeners; to pay close attention to what others are saying and seek to understand them; to be quick to hear what others have to say. James calls us to be sure we have properly understood others; to be slow to respond to what they’ve said; and to be slow to become angry if we don’t like what we’re hearing.

The reason for his exhortation, verse 20, is “20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” What we think is righteous anger, anger that is in keeping with what God teaches, is far too often self-righteous anger, anger that is a result of a personal slight, an insult caused by someone’s failure to pay us the proper respect or attention. Simply because we are followers of Christ we shouldn’t automatically assume that every reaction we have is a godly reaction. Anger can be especially tricky for us to gauge given its immediacy. This ought to give us pause—again “because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” Only God by his Holy Spirit at work in us can produce genuine righteousness. Only God by his Holy Spirit can guide us to respond as he would have us respond, in a way that honors him and those with whom we interact.

Instead of this ungodly, human anger, James tells these believers, verse 21, to “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 image here is akin to Paul’s teaching of the old and new man. In his letter to the Colossians Paul exhorts, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”[12] James similarly speaks of how ungodly behavior, “all moral filth,” should be removed for we have been borne of God and therefore have new selves in God by the righteousness given us by Christ, who took away our moral filth by dying in our place, and sent us his Holy Spirit to indwell and make us holy as he is.

Therefore our hope lies in the word of God that has been planted in us by God’s Spirit. Of our own unregenerate, fallen nature, we can’t know how to be righteous or kind or merciful or loving. We need God to teach us how. Therefore when God chose to give us birth through his word of truth, he planted his word in us so that we’re able to continue to respond to it. He planted his word in us so that we’re able to grow. He planted his word in us which is able to save us—to heal us—to make us like Christ. So we would do well to heed that word by relying on it and his Holy Spirit and fellow believers. For getting rid of all moral filth and prevalent evil is hard work and we all need all the help God has provided.

As James goes on to state in verse 22, hearing the word isn’t enough—and I’m using the word “hearing” instead of “listening” because I believe it better captures the intent of what James is saying. To “hear” is to perceive with the ear; to “listen” is to pay attention to which is precisely what James is arguing for. So James says “Do not merely hear the word”—i.e., do not merely perceive it with your ears—“and so deceive yourselves. [but] Do what it says.” Hearing and acting upon what we hear don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, do they? We hear a lot of things that we don’t act on. How often have we heard that exercise is good for us? Or that we shouldn’t eat sweets? But we don’t like to exercise and we do like to eat sweets so our hearing is faulty. But when it comes to Scripture, faulty hearing and acting is far more serious for Scripture has been given to us by God for our ultimate good. God who is truth has spoken truly in his Word about who he is and about our need for him so when we disregard Scripture’s teaching and do what we’d rather do instead of what Scripture teaches, we are in essence re-enacting what our first parents did in the Garden when they first turned away from God.[13] To do what we want over against what God teaches is to deceive ourselves by telling ourselves that we know better than our Maker and Savior how we can best live and function in life. But as those who have been given birth by God and so had his word planted in us, we are called to do what that Word says.

But what if we don’t? James addresses this beginning in verse 23: “23 Anyone who [hears] 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.” Each morning Ron and I take our puppy, Rango, to the dog park to try and wear down his seemingly endless energy by tossing tennis balls back and forth for him to chase. This is a messy endeavor that ends with him getting dirty and dusty. And because he’s also an affectionate pup, he often jumps on us, leaving us dirty and dusty. Well, I’ve taken to checking the mirror before going out since it’s common to have dusty dog prints on my arms or even face. But if I were to look in the mirror and not do anything about what I saw, then there really would be no point in checking the mirror in the first place, would there? Mirrors are there to help us be presentable to the world.

Well in verse 25 James connects the dots as he likens God’s Word, “the perfect law,” to a mirror. “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.” Again, God’s Word is given for our good. In fact, as suggested by James, God’s Word is the source of freedom. Scripturally defined, freedom is the freedom to do God’s will, which will is found in his Word.[14] So if we see something in our lives that is contrary to that Word, we should clean it up. We should get rid of it for we’re called not simply to look at God’s Word; not simply to hear it; but to look intently upon it. To look upon it “with earnest and eager attention.” As Jesus responded to the devil when he was tempted to turn stones to bread after fasting forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”[15] Jesus was quoting Scripture in his response, namely Deuteronomy 8:3.[16] Jesus knew Scripture because he looked intently upon it. Therefore Scripture was able to sustain him and he was able to act upon its teaching in his moments of great temptation and need. So should we ever look intently upon God’s perfect law that we similarly might know God’s freedom to be the people he made us to be.

James ends this portion of his letter by returning to his earlier theme about being “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” In verse 26 he states, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” James is acutely in tune with our ability to deceive ourselves, isn’t he? First in verse 22 he said that if we merely listen to God’s Word and don’t act on it, we deceive ourselves; and here he states that if don’t keep a tight rein on our tongues we deceive ourselves and our “religion is worthless.” Hypocrisy has no place in the life of a believer. We’re called not simply to teach the importance of being loving as our heavenly Father is loving; we’re called to act in a loving manner towards others.  And though the childhood taunt of “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” may serve to provide some level of protection to those being taunted, the fact of the matter is that words can not only hurt but they can hurt deeply. So the very James who throughout his letter encourages right behavior is also acknowledging that part of right behavior is pure speech. Therefore we need to keep a tight rein on our tongues. Our speech should be measured, not angry; kind, not hateful; true, not deceitful. If it isn’t, our religion, our profession of faith in Christ, is worthless for we’ll be acting in a way that is no different from the fallen world that surrounds us.

Finally James summarizes the behavior our gracious LORD does commend in verse 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.” And with this I want to return to the end of the earlier passage from Deuteronomy 26 that spoke of the importance of firstfruits and tithing. Moses, God’s mouthpiece, went on to instruct God’s people by stating,

12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. 13 Then say to the Lord your God: “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them. 14I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done everything you commanded me. 15 Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey.”[17]

Again James, a Jewish believer who came to believe that his half-brother, Jesus was the Christ, God’s promised Messiah, continues to draw from God’s Word in exhorting these fellow Jewish believers and others who have come to a saving faith and knowledge in Christ by drawing from those Scriptures. God’s people are to look after not only their own but also foreigners. Further, orphans aren’t able to look after themselves therefore God called his people to make sure they looked after them; widows in the ancient world, whether the ancient Near Eastern of the Old Testament or the Greco-Roman of the New, weren’t able to look after themselves either since their husbands would have been their livelihood. Therefore God called his people to be sure they looked after them. God has ever wanted his people to care for the foreigner, the helpless, and the destitute. This is true religion. Always has been; always will be.

The other part of true religion which was also emphasized in the Old Testament is that God calls his people to be holy as he is holy.[18] Therefore those who follow him, those who claim him, those whom he has claimed to follow him, are to keep themselves “from being polluted by the world.” This, too, has ever been and ever will be the call and responsibility of those who follow God.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, as followers of Christ, let us reflect his Word: We are called to be holy as Christ was holy. And one way we’re enable to do this is by “looking intently into” Scripture, God’s perfect law, learning it, listening to it, thinking about it, applying it to our lives. And if we do so we will reflect God’s words in our lives. For as Scripture is to be a mirror into the lives of believers, revealing areas that need to be changed and cleansed, believers are called to be a mirror of God in Christ, lifting him up that others might be drawn to him; displaying in deed and truth the ways of God to a world that yet has many pockets of darkness; caring especially for the foreigner and those who are unable to care for themselves. So let us not deceive ourselves but let us be doers of God’s Word and not hearers only for this is true religion that honors our heavenly Father who made us a firstfruit by planting his word in us.

Let us pray.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Mattthew 13:55: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”

[2] Note James’ role at Council at the Jerusalem church in Acts 15:13a: When they finished, James spoke up.

[3] In its note on James 1:1, the Crossway ESV study Bible goes so far as to state “Jesus chose 12 [sic] disciples to signify the twelve tribes [sic] and thus to identify the church as the new Israel (see note on Matt. 10:1). James reminds these Jewish Christians of their spiritual heritage as the people of God, gathered by Jesus the Messiah. in the Dispersion [sic]. The tribes of Israel were scattered throughout the world by the Assyrians and Babylonians. They looked forward to being regathered as a people (Jer. 31:7-14; Ezek. 37:15-28). James implies that the true Israel is now also dispersed (away from its heavenly homeland) and oppressed, but assured of their final gathering to the Lord.”

[4] Genesis 1:3–5, 14–19:3 And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day…. 14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.” See also Psalm 74:16: The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon.; Psalm 136:7–9: 7 who made the great lights—His love endures forever. 8 the sun to govern the day, His love endures forever. 9 the moon and stars to govern the night; His love endures forever.

[5] John 11:25–26a: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

[6] John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

[7] Jesus teaches this as well in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. See especially vv. 5–8:Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

[8] Leviticus 26:1.

[9] Levitius 26:2.

[10] Leviticus 26:9–11.

[11] 2 Corinthians 5:17–18.

[12] Colossians 3:9–10.

[13] See Genesis 3.

[14] See also John 8:34–36: 34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.; Romans 8:1–2, 15: 1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death….15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”; Galatians 5:13: You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

[15] Matthew 4:4.

[16] As Moses taught Israel in Deuteronomy 8:1–6: 1 Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. 2 Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 4 Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. 6 Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him.

[17] Excerpts from Deuteronomy 26:12–15. A further note on tithing may be found in Leviticus 27:30, 32: 30 “‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord….32 Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord.

[18] Leviticus 11:44-45: 44 I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground. 45 I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.; Levitius 19:1-2: 1 The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. Leviticus 20:7-8:“‘Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy. 1 Peter 1:15-16: 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Leave a Reply