(Please read James 1:13-27)
In the last half of chapter 1, James discusses the place of the Word of God in the life of the Christian. The “word of truth” is the instrument by which the new birth is effected (1:18), and just so the same word of truth must be the instrument for disciplining and maturing the life which it originates. It was the “word of truth” that brought us to God (See 1 Peter 1:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:13); now we must be guided by it as we live for Him.
1. God’s Word Requires Resistance in Temptation (1:13-18)
James 1:13 says, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.” In the first twelve verses of the first chapter, James was thinking of outward trials (troubles and afflictions of all kinds). Now, beginning at verse 13, he is dealing with temptation as an inward enticement to evil. There is a testing that builds, but there is also a temptation that destroys.
For every one of us, temptation to sin is very real, and we need to be on guard lest we yield to temptation. But who is responsible when temptation comes? Some might argue that because trials come from God, that then temptation to sin also comes from God. Man has always been inclined to shift the blame for his failures on to someone else. Verse 13 says that God never solicits us to do evil. God is entirely free from evil. It is man who has a tendency toward evil in his own nature. Matthew Henry says, “it is very bad to sin; but it is much worse (when we have done wrong), to charge it upon God.”
James explains (in verse 14) that temptation to evil comes from elements which have their roots in man’s own heart. The source of temptation is not God, but our own evil desire (“lust”) which is within us. Actually, the enemy is two-fold:
1) The flesh (with its evil desires) is the enemy within. “Lust” includes all that the sinful heart may passionately desire—greed for eating and drinking; lusting after material things; letting loose one’s anger; succumbing to depression; giving in to sweeping sexual desire; etc.
2) Satan (with his enticements) is the enemy without. “Enticed” refers to the devil who inflames the desires of the flesh. (James does not specifically say that the one who entices is the devil, but the Scriptures everywhere teach that it is he). The combustible matter is within us, but the flame is stirred up by the enemy without, who entices us.
Verses 13-14 tell about the cause for sin. Verse 15 tells about the consequence of sin: “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” Sin yields fruit, and the eventual result of sin is an endless eternity of regret and remorse. When we speak an evil word (or commit a wrong deed), it doesn’t end there. Lust (evil desire) is the bud; sin is the blossom; but the fruit is death.
When a believer is faced with trial, he is to rejoice in it. When he is faced with temptation, he is to resist it. And we can resist temptation best by being alert and stifling opportunities to sin. We must guard against playing with fire to see if we’ll get burned. It is inconsistent to invite temptation and to pray against it at the same time. We must refuse to let our steps take us into wrong places; we must refuse to let our eyes linger on forbidden things. We must stifle opportunities to sin—rather than nourish them.
Verses 16-17 explain that God (instead of being responsible for man’s sin), is really the source of all that is good. The phrase “Father of lights” refers to God as the Creator of the stars and of the other heavenly bodies. A typical Jewish morning prayer says, “Blessed be the Lord God who formed the lights.” And while there is variation in the brilliance of the stars and the planets—the moon is not always full; the sun is sometimes eclipsed; the length of day and night varies with the season—God by way of contrast is constant and unchanging.
Verse 18 states that God is generous and gives good gifts liberally. The supreme gift which God gives is the gift of regeneration. God “begot” us—He bestowed upon us a new life. God does not entice men to evil, but instead, He bestows upon repentant persons the great benefit of a new birth. Jesus says (as recorded in John 10:28), “I give unto them eternal life.”
2. God’s Word Requires Acceptance in the Heart (1:19-21)
The Lord reminds us (in verse 18) that we have been begotten by “the word of truth.” Now He calls upon each one of us to receive it and embrace it and give it our utmost attention.
In verses 19-20 we are commanded: “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” The primary application of the phrase “swift to hear” is that we should hear God’s Word eagerly. And we should be “slow to speak”—that is, we must not talk back to God. When God speaks, we should listen.
The words of verses 19-20 however have a wider application. The instruction “swift to hear” surely means that we would all do well to listen more and to talk less! (There are, of course, some cheap and trifling things in current conversation and in the news media that we should be slow to hear).
The words “slow to speak” remind us of the proverb: “Never speak without thinking, and don’t say nine-tenths of what you think.” God has given us two ears and only one tongue; thus, even physically, He implies that we ought to listen more and talk less. It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak, and remove all doubt!
The phrase “slow to wrath” should remind us that even when discussing the Scriptures, we must be careful not to let tempers rise higher and higher, until mean and hard things have been said. The servant of the Lord “must not strive, but be gentle unto all men” (2 Timothy 2:24). Verse 20 says that “wrath” never furthers the cause of right. Anger does not bring about the righteous life which God desires. One who is unrighteously angry, says and does things that he would never do in a quiet and thoughtful moment. Every one of us should be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath. We need a quick ear, a cautious tongue, and a calm temper.
Verse 21 says “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” To “receive” the Word means “to welcome it into our hearts with all readiness of mind” (Acts 17:11). The word “engrafted” means “implanted.” The Word of God is to root itself inwardly. We must open our inner selves to the influence of God’s Word, so that its truth becomes transfused into our hearts. The words “filthiness” and “naughtiness” refer to wickedness and vice—anything that soils. This includes filthy speech, dirty stories, ugly attitudes, etc. The word “superfluity” suggests an abundance of evil. We must cast these things aside.
The word “meekness” in verse 21 refers to a teachable spirit. We must accept God’s Word without any disputing or resisting. The Bible judges us. We hear some pretty straight things said to us from the Word of God. We must receive its instructions with a teachable spirit.
The chief glory of the Word of God is that it is able to save our souls. In Acts 20:32, the Word of God is said to be “able to build us up” and to “give us an inheritance.” When God’s Word is welcomed and rooted in our hearts, it is used by the Spirit to promote holiness and those things that accompany salvation.
3. God’s Word Requires Practice in Daily Life (1:22-27)
The final verses of James 1 practically repeat the words of Jesus when He said, “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:28).
Verse 22 says, “But be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” To be a “doer of the word” is to submit to its authority, and to comply with its requirements. The tense of the verb indicates that we are to keep on being doers of the Word. If we just hear (and don’t practice), we are not fooling God. We are deceiving ourselves. To listen to the Word, and then to do nothing about it, can be downright harmful. We can become more hardened and fixed in our ways, or we can become humbled and softened because we receive the Word with a penitent spirit. Naaman heard about how he could be cleansed, but it was not until he went and dipped seven times in the Jordan that he was benefitted (2 Kings 5:13-14). When our Lord comes in judgment, obedience to Him will have been the important thing (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Whether at business or at home or at school it should be said of each one of us that he is “a doer of the Word.”
In verses 23-25 James illustrates the point by contrasting two persons who look into a mirror. The man who hears the truth, but does not accept it and shape his life by it, is like a man some what carelessly looking at himself in a mirror, and then forgetting what he saw in the mirror (verses 23-24). Did you ever look at your watch and put it back in your pocket—and someone asks you the time—and you have to pull your watch out and look again before you could answer? One who merely hears the Word—is like that. He soon forgets what he heard and it has no abiding influence on him.
The Word of God is like a mirror. It presents a correct and complete description of the face of the soul. It reveals what we are (by nature) and what we can become (by the grace of God). We sing sometimes:
“Holy Bible, book divine
Precious treasure, thou art mine;
Mine to tell me whence I came,
Mine to tell me what I am.”
Because the Bible tells us our true condition, we must not take a mere quick glance, but a close look at what it says. This requires a systematic plan for reading and study. Verse 25 says that “the doer of the word” is like one who carefully looks into a mirror. (The word “beholding” in verse 23 means “a quick glance;” the word “looketh” in verse 25 means “to look closely”). The one who “looks closely” into the Word, not only gazes intently, but “continues therein.” He meditates on its requirements and strives to put them into practice. This is why expository preaching is a vital and necessary part of the ministry of the church.
The “perfect law of liberty” (verse 25) is a reference to the Word of God in general, and to the Gospel in particular. God’s Word is described as a “law” because it is the standard by which life is to be regulated; as a “perfect” law because it is God’s law; and as a law “of liberty” because it gives release to those who bring themselves under its authority. As we obey God’s laws we find freedom, and become free to live a happy life.
James 1:26-27 exhorts: “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue . . . this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion . . . is to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” The three characteristics described here are not the whole essence of true religion—but they are essential qualities in the life of one who is a new creature in Christ. The words “pure religion” mean that there is nothing selfish in it. The word “undefiled” means that our conduct is not to be motivated by any personal advantage.
1) True religion is restrained in speech.
One who practices the Word of God, bridles his tongue. The word “bridle” means “to discipline, restrain, keep under control.” The doer of the Word is careful with his everyday speech. If a person fails to bridle his tongue, he may seem to be religious, but his professed faith is void of meaning. The true test of a man’s religion is not his ability to speak his mind, but his ability to bridle his tongue! One who does not restrain the tongue, gives evidence of a religion which is vain and empty and unprofitable.
The Bible says that we should “study to be quiet,” and in another place, “he that refraineth his lips is wise,” and again, “in a multitude of words there wanteth not sin.” We must guard against the urge to be constantly chattering. One proverb says: “I more than half think that many a kink, would be smoother in life’s tangled thread, if half that we say in a single day, were left forever unsaid.”
2) True religion has compassion for the needy.
Sometimes the “fatherless and widows” were made the victims of oppression. The Pharisees devoured widow’s houses (Matthew 23:14). But the Bible says that the fatherless and widows are objects of God’s special care and compassion. Psalm 68:5 says that He is “Father of the fatherless” and a protector of the widows.
Note that the word “visit” (in verse 27) does not mean “to drop in and chat a while,” nor does it mean “to stop by and pay a cheery call.” The word “visit” means “to care for” and “to look after.” We are to help those who are down and out. We are to supply their material needs, comfort them in their sorrows, and give any other assistance they require. The word “visit” refers to the kind of thing that the Good Samaritan did when he ministered aid to the man who had been beaten and robbed (Luke 10:30-37).
3) True religion is separate from the world’s defilement.
One who practices the Word of God strives to live an “unspotted” life. The last phrase of verse 27 denotes “moral purity” and “personal integrity.” God has provided a clean path over which we should walk, but the muddy ditch of the world is on either side—and we must not fall into it.
What are some of the practices and attitudes of the world?
a) The love of money and a covetous spirit
b) The practice of gossiping and evil speaking
c) The tendency to shrink from suffering
d) The exposure of the nakedness of the body
e) The continual attempt to get glory for oneself
The “world” is the entire system about us which is regulated by principles contrary to God’s will, and is devoted to purposes other than the promotion of God’s glory. Those who walk with God—are bound to be out of step with the world. This does not mean that we should stand aloof from our fellow men, or that we should abandon the ordinary concerns of life here. We are not to retire to a desert and shut ourselves up in a monastery. God’s plea is simply that while we are in the world, we should not be ruled by the aims and the ideals of the world system. We can never convince the world that we are citizens of another country, as long as we speak the language of the world and follow the world’s customs.
In the last half of the first chapter of James we are exhorted to be doers of the Word. We are born again by the Word of God. Now we must let it become implanted in our hearts. We are to use it as a weapon in resisting temptation. We are to practice its precepts in daily life. What we hear in the holy place must be practiced in the market place. It is good to be saved and know it; it is better to be saved and show it!