Notes for teaching on James 1:19-2:13, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Fall 2018, Session 9.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
In 1:18, James closed his opening section by speaking of “the word of truth” by which God “chose to give us birth.” He will return to this theme of God’s word momentarily, but he takes a moment in v 19 to focus on human words. James’ concern here is with words spoken in anger, which he argues do not bring about “the righteousness God desires.” That’s a way of saying that our anger doesn’t lead us to act as God would prefer. James’ instruction about words and anger? Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
This teaching is compact, but it packs a punch because it drives directly to the great lie of words spoken in anger. You see, it is when we are angry that we feel most justified (or “righteous”) in the way we speak and act. After all, the object of our anger deserves it! Not so fast, James says. In the very moment when your anger convinces you that you are right, there is a very high probability that you are actually wrong. Perhaps you are wrong in your thinking. Or maybe you’re thinking better than everyone else but are wrong in the way you are about to treat others. Whatever the case, James tells us to be wary of the moments when we are most convinced of the rightness of our speech and actions. Rather than speaking quickly, he says, be slow to speak, keep your ears open, and don’t give way to anger. Taking this path gives us space to weigh what God, and not ourselves, requires in a given situation.
I think that it is important here to note that James is not condemning anger itself. No, his argument is against wrong words and actions that flow from anger. As NT Wright notes, “Paul, in Ephesians 4:26, allows that there may be a type of anger which is appropriate, but insists that it must be kept severely in its place. James hints at a similar concession when he says we should be ‘slow to anger’ as we are slow to speak.” Moo notes that James’ genre is wisdom literature, which is “notorious for the use of apparently absolute assertions in order to make a general, “proverbial” point.” This in mind, we must sometimes qualify this general truth about anger is specific situations.
Having just written the last paragraph, I think it is important to let James have his say without too much qualification. Our temptation will be to say that James is right about anger but that his wisdom doesn’t apply in all circumstances. This attitude opens the door to ignore James completely! As we teach, we should make clear that James’ teaching on the unrighteousness that flows from anger is right on the money 99% of the time and that the burden of proof is on us in the small 1% of situations that need to be qualified.
21 Therefore, 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.
James now moves to include actions and especially words spoken in anger in the wider category of “all moral filth.” Moo notes that “get rid of” in the Greek actually paints the word picture of taking of dirty clothing. This is a stark image! James seems to assume that his audience is clothed in moral filth! He is not the only NT author to employ such extreme language, though. Peter speaks of being redeemed from “the worthless way of life inherited from our forefathers,” and Paul is clear that before meeting Jesus we were “enemies of God.” Surely, not everything from one’s pre-Christian life is moral filth. New faith does, however, make that entire way of life suspect. We are to identify what is not pleasing to God and discard those things like dirty clothing.
On the flip side, James says that we should “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” Remember that in v 18, James spoke of “the word of truth” by which we have been reborn. Now that word becomes a seed that God has planted inside each of his people. Like good soil, we should “humbly accept the word planted in [us].” This is basically a way of saying that throw off sin while at the same time allowing for God’s word to change us.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to 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. 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.
But what does it mean to humbly accept the word as Peter instructs in v 21? Vv 22-25 contain Peter’s answer. Humbly accepting the word is a matter of obeying what we hear rather than hearing only. To illustrate this point, James talks about a person who looks at himself in a mirror and immediately forgets what he looks like. Think here of your first glimpse of yourself in the mirror in the morning. If you’re like me, it’s safe to say that you’re not put together. You’ve got sleep in your eyes, and your hair is a mess. What would you think of a person who saw himself looking disheveled like that and then shrugging his shoulders and going about his business. Why have a mirror in the first place if you’re not going to use it put yourself together?! When we approach the word, it’s kind of like looking into a mirror in the morning. The word allows us to see ourselves through God’s eyes, and we’re probably going to look a little bit disheveled because of our sin. What kind of Christian would see his sin through God’s eyes and then just go about his business? The kind of person who deceives himself by thinking that hearing without obedience is enough.
In contrast to the forgetful hearer is the teachable doer. This person “looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it…” Note that the word that was a seed has now become the law that gives freedom. This is such an interesting way of talking about the word of God. As law, it is to be obeyed. However, obedience leads to freedom. Think here of a piano student who submits to the “laws” of learning the piano. Eventually, those rules set her free to play without thought. The perfect law that gives freedom is like that. It makes us free to be the people God made us to be. For that freedom to take effect, we must look at the perfect law intently and put into practice what we see.
Importantly, the word has been planted in us, but it is also something that we hear from outside us. We might speak of the implanted word as the seed of the gospel and the heard word as our encounters of gospel truth in scripture, the community of faith, and life in general. We accept the one by embracing the other.
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 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.
Having categorized words spoken with anger with “moral filth” and spoken of the doing the word, James now moves to speak of words in general. This time he tells us that “religious” people who don’t keep a tight rein on their tongues “deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” Here we might think of the venom that sometimes shows up in church business meetings or issues of slander and gossip. This is an important point, as these are the kinds of sin that can go unnoticed or unaddressed in a church community. James won’t give us any quarter here, though. Our religiosity is directly linked to our speech, which means that we should be careful of our words!
Beyond the necessity of reining in the tongue, James also points to the necessity of mercy in religious practice. True religion looks after the vulnerable, represented especially by orphans and widows in the ancient world. Attached to this positive practice is joined the necessity of guarding against the world.
2:1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
James now jumps to the topic of favoritism. As Moo notes, “The space that James devotes to this matter in his letter suggests that discrimination was a problem among his readers.” Apparently, although all Christians have been given equal standing in Christ, James’ audience was in the habit of showing the rich special respect and treating the poor as less. This isn’t really surprising when we remember that these Christians were called out of a culture that valued the rich and devalued the poor. It is much the same in our society today. Even James’ illustration spans the centuries.
In James’ imaginary scenario (that may not have been so imaginary), a finely dressed rich man and a poor man in “filthy old clothes” attend the same worship service (this is the meeting that James mentions). Having been formed by the surrounding society’s value system, the natural thing to do would be to offer the rich man a good seat and give the poor man the leftovers. NT Wright relates a real-life example of this scenario from his own experience:
I had arrived at the service in what I thought was good time, but there was already a large queue outside and it wasn’t moving. Clearly the place was already packed. I was wondering what to do when a familiar voice greeted me. I turned round and saw a man I knew a bit, a very senior and distinguished person in the city. I was flattered to be recognized and singled out. But then came the moment. ‘Come with me’, he said conspiratorially. He led me forward, past the queue, to one of the ushers.
‘I am Lord Smith’, he said to the man (I use ‘Smith’, of course, as a pseudonym). ‘I would be grateful if you could find my friend and myself somewhere to sit.’
Before I had time to think, the two of us were escorted right to the front of the church, where we were given excellent seats with a full view of the service.
Though Wright got a good seat, he says that he didn’t enjoy it because this very passage came to mind. As he states, “…the whole passage simply rules out any question of pulling social rank in church.” The danger of showing favoritism is as alive today as it ever was!
So, what does James say is going on when we play favorites with the rich and poor? We become judges with evil thoughts. We are judges because we judge by choosing to value the rich over the poor. We are judges with evil thoughts because favoritism is opposed to God’s value system. The ground is even at the foot of the cross. We all approach God with the same need, receiving the same grace. When we forget this, we side with the world against God.
James drives this point home by speaking in generalities about the rich and poor. The poor, he says, have been chosen by God to be “rich in faith.” The rich, on the other hand, are causing the very trials that James addressed in the beginning of chapter 1. This is not to say that all rich people cause these kinds of troubles. Apparently, there are rich people in the congregation. These, we should probably suppose, would not cause trouble for their fellow believers or blaspheme the name of Christ. In general, though, rich non-Christians are mounting the most opposition to the Christian community. This opposition shows that the rich are not due any special treatment simply because of their wealth. No, a rich person can get things wrong despite his wealth. This in mind, we should be careful of buying into the world’s value system that assumes the wealthy deserve higher honor!
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” d you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” i also said, “You shall not murder.” j If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
James closes his argument on favoritism by holding it up to the “royal law” that Jesus himself affirmed: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of neighbor doesn’t have room for favoritism, and James makes it clear that it is a serious sin. We might say, “But I’m not a really bad sinner. I just showed favoritism. What about the adulterers and murderers?” Breaking the royal law at any point, James says, means breaking the law, regardless of the offense. If we are to live lives that please God, we must pay attention to all the parts of the royal law and not just the ones we think are “really” bad.
In the end, James tells his readers to live in light of judgment. They will ultimately be held up to “the law that gives freedom.” They should therefore live in such a way that God will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The last part about judgment and mercy applies to the rich/poor situation because favoritism judges the poor without mercy. Be careful, James says, because you will receive the same kind of judgment that you extend to others.
Notes for Teaching
As was the case with last week’s lesson, James covers a number of topics in a small space. These include:
- Not speaking in anger
- Accepting the word by obeying it
- True religion as marked by mercy and holiness
Anger and favoritism are surely points to cover, but the middle section concerning the word may be a better place to start. This is so because it gives instruction on how to live the Christian life in general. We are to accept the word and do the word. If we will follow these instructions, we will find ourselves refraining from angry speech, caring for the vulnerable, and avoiding favoritism. Why? Because our meditation on the word leads us to live in these ways. I would therefore propose breaking the passage down like this for teaching:
- 1:21-25: Accepting and doing the word
- 1:19-20, 26: Christian speech
- 1:27: True religion
- 2:1-13: Favoritism
A Possible Teaching Plan
- How do you think we would treat Drayton McClane (a rich Texan) if he showed up for a worship service at First Woodway?
- How do you think we would treat a homeless person who needs a shower if he showed up for a worship service at First Woodway?
- Is it right for us to treat them differently? Why or why not?
Explain: Explain that we will be focusing on this question and others as we study James today. First, though, we’ll talk about “the word.”
Accepting the Word
Read: Jam 1:21-25
- What is the “word” that has been planted in us that James speaks of?
- What does it mean to “accept” that word? How can we do that practically in everyday life?
- What is all this business about mirrors? Why does James use this image when speaking of the word?
- What does it mean to “look intently on the perfect law that gives freedom”?
- How can a law give freedom?
Explain: Explain that we are now moving from discussion of the word to the doing of the word, specifically regarding speech.
Read: James 1:19-20, 26
- According to v 26, are our words important or unimportant when it comes to our faith?
- Why do you think this is the case?
- Do you think we Christians take this truth seriously?
Explain: James 1:19-20 is speaking of certain kinds of words.
- Is it easy to be slow to speak and quick to listen when we are angry? Why or why not?
- How is it that human anger does not live up to God’s standards?
- What are practical ways we can put this command into effect?
Read: James 1:27
- Why do you think James zeroes in on taking care of widows and orphans as the key to true religion?
- How can this be true?
- What would it look like for us to take this statement for seriously?
Read: James 2:1-13
- How would you summarize James’ view of favoritism?
- Why do you think he makes such a big deal about it?
- Is he fair in his portrayal of the rich?
- Why does he bring up the idea of being “lawbreakers”?
- What would it mean for us to live and speak as “those who will be judged by the law that brings freedom”?
- We’ve cover a lot today. Which of these instructions do you think the American church most needs to hear today?
- How can we leave this place as doers of the word?
Douglas Moo’s The Letter of James in the Pillar NT Commentary
NT Wright’s Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John, and Judah
Explore the Bible Curriculum
 Wright, T. (2011). Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John and Judah (p. 11). London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox Press.
 Wright, T. (2011). Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John and Judah (pp. 13–14). London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox Press.
 Wright, T. (2011). Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John and Judah (p. 14). London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox Press.