By Sam E. Stone
Most Bible scholars believe that the James who wrote this epistle is the one who was a brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55). Though he was skeptical of Jesus during his ministry (John 7:5), James was convinced that Jesus was the Son of God after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). James was numbered among the company in Jerusalem waiting and praying after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:14). Later Peter and Paul met with him in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:19) where he was the “presiding elder” at a church conference (Acts 15). Andrew McNab pointed out that James’s letter to the churches (Acts 15:6-29) has some very striking parallels with the phraseology in this epistle.
An old saying declares it is obvious that we should listen more than we speak, since God gave us each two ears, but only one mouth! This fits with several Bible teachings (Ecclesiastes 5:2; Proverbs 10:19; 13:3; 15:2). Of course, it is most important that we listen to what God says, not simply other people. Being slow to speak will help us be slow to become angry. R. V. G. Tasker wrote, “An essential condition of listening to God is that the mind should not be distracted by thoughts of resentment, ill-temper, hatred, or vengeance, all of which are comprised in the general term ‘human anger.’”
It is not a sin to be angry. Jesus himself became angry (Mark 3:5). The question is, “What makes us angry?” It is one thing to be angry at injustice and wrongdoing. It is quite different to be upset because of some personal slight or difference. James warns us to be sure we are angry about the right things. (See also Ephesians 4:26.) Even God becomes angry at times (Joshua 23:16).
Hearing and Doing Required
Listening to God’s Word is important, but even more important is to do what it says. We are not to be “hearers only.” Jesus gave a blessing not to those who only hear the Word of God, but to those who “hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28). James knew all too well the empty ceremonialism of the Jews who said yet did not. Jesus denounced this trait in the Pharisees (Matthew 23).
If a person listens to the Word but does not do what it says, he is missing what is essential. James makes a helpful comparison: it’s like looking into a mirror but forgetting what you see there. R. C. Foster wrote, “Many refuse to come to church, and lay the Bible aside because they dread to look within and behold the reflection of their guilty souls . . . The man who deliberately turns from the higher and nobler things of life . . . hesitates to look in the divine mirror and see how small, withered, and emaciated his soul has become.”
The conscientious believer looks into God’s Word and then considers the implications for his life. It is called the “perfect law,” just what the law ought to be (see Psalm 19:7). It is dangerous to be forgetful in the spiritual realm. Scripture is the perfect law that gives freedom. All who continue doing what they have learned will be blessed in what they do.
Proper Religion Described
Some people consider themselves religious. They give scrupulous attention to details of formal worship. Tasker said, “Such a person may be very careful to use the right words when he is performing a religious ceremony, but very careless in his speech at other times.” Such religion fails to please God (Matthew 15:8; Isaiah 29:13). How we use our tongues indicates what is in our hearts (Matthew 12:34). We may think that we are very religious, but we may be far from what God wants us to be.
James gave a specific illustration of the sort of life that pleases God. What he accepts as pure and faultless is illustrated in two ways: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God wants his children to help those who cannot help themselves. A. T. Robertson declared, “This standard of purity and piety seems impossible, but God knows how to estimate the relation between listening and doing, between doing and loving, between loving and purity of life. The life must pass muster with God.”
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.