June 3 – Being Quick to Hear

“This you know, my beloved brethren. But let every one be quick to hear” (James 1:19).

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Being quick to hear involves a proper attitude toward God’s Word.

It has been well said that either God’s Word will keep you from sin or sin will keep you from God’s Word. Apparently some of James’s readers were allowing sin to keep them from receiving the Word as they should. God was allowing them to experience various trials so their joy and spiritual endurance would increase, but they lacked wisdom and fell into temptation and sin. James called them back to the Word and to a godly perspective on their circumstances.

James 1:19 begins with the phrase “This you know,” which refers back to verse 18. They had experienced the power of the Word in salvation, and now James wants them to allow that Word to sanctify them. For that to occur, they must be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (v. 19).

Being “quick to hear” means you don’t disregard or fight against God’s Word. Instead, when trials or difficult decisions come your way, you ask God for wisdom and receive the counsel of His Word with a willingness to obey it. You’re not like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, whom Jesus described as “foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25).

You should be “quick to hear” the Word because it provides nourishment for your spiritual life and is your weapon against all spiritual adversaries. It is the means by which you are strengthened and equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16–17). It delivers you from trials and temptations and engages you in communion with the living God. The Word should be your most welcome friend!

Be “quick to hear,” pursuing every opportunity to learn God’s truth. Let the testimony of the psalmist be yours: “O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day . … I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Thy word. … How sweet are Thy words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:97, 101, 103).

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Suggestions for Prayer:  Thank God for His precious Word and for the marvelous transforming work it accomplishes in you.

For Further Study: Read Psalm 19:1–14. ✧ What terms did the psalmist use to describe God’s Word? ✧ What benefits does the Word bring?[1]


  1. My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,20. for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

Throughout the letter in general and here in particular, James talks directly to his readers. He tells them what to do and what not to do. Here he says, “Take note of this.” And what should they know? In typical Semitic parallelism he states the proverb:

Everyone should be

quick to listen

slow to speak

slow to become angry.

Speakers who have the talent to express themselves fluently and eloquently are much in demand. They receive recognition, admiration, and acclaim. James, however, puts the emphasis not on speaking but on listening. That is more important than speaking.

Listening is an art that is difficult to master, for it means to take an intense interest in the person who is speaking. Listening is the art of closing one’s mouth and opening one’s ears and heart. Listening is loving the neighbor as oneself; his concerns and problems are sufficiently important to be heard.

James cautions his readers to be fully aware of the words they speak. In effect, he echoes the saying of Jesus, “But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37; consult Eccles. 5:1–2; Sir. 5:11).

When James says that we must be slow to speak, he does not advocate that we take a vow to be silent. Rather, he wants us to be wise in our speaking. Jewish proverbs prevalent in the days of James were these: “Speak little and do much”; “It is wise for learned men to be silent, and much more for fools”; “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent” (Prov. 17:28). Solomon said something similar in this proverb: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Prov. 10:19).

Careless words often accompany an angry mood. Of course, there is a place for righteous anger, but the psalmist tells us to know the limit of righteous anger: “In your anger do not sin” (Ps. 4:4; Eph. 4:26; and see Matt. 5:22). James pleads for restraint in respect to anger.

We have our excuses ready for being angry: too busy, too much pressure, a family trait, or even “I can’t help it.” James rules out excuses when he says, “Be … slow to become angry.” That is, we must be able to give an account of every word we speak. “A quick-tempered man displays folly” (Prov. 14:29) and anger is sin (Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8; Titus 1:7). An angry man listens to the voice of the evil one and not to the voice of God.

James is direct. Says he, “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” Anger hinders the prayers of a believer (1 Tim. 2:8) and thus prevents him from promoting the cause of Christ. In effect, he has given “the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:27). Consider Moses, who became angry with the Israelites but did not listen to the instructions God had given him. He showed disobedience and thus was not permitted to enter the Promised Land (Num. 20:10–12, 24; 27:14; Deut. 1:37; 3:26–27).

When we live the righteous life that God desires of us, we listen carefully and obediently to the Word of God. When we plan to do or say something, we ought to ask whether our actions and words promote the honor of God and advance the cause of justice and peace for our fellow man. When we permit anger to guide us, we are no longer guided by the law of God. “An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins” (Prov. 29:22). Instead the believer ought to control his temper, pray for wisdom, and keep the law of God.[2]


1:19a The rest of this chapter gives practical instructions as to how we can be firstfruits of His creatures. It sets forth the practical righteousness which should characterize those who have been born again by the Word of Truth. We know that we were begotten by the word in order to manifest the truth of God. So then, let us now discharge our responsibility.

We should be swift to hear. This is an unusual command, with almost a trace of humor in it. It’s like saying, “Hurry up and hear!” It means that we should be ready to hear the word of God, as well as all godly counsel and admonition. We should be teachable by the Holy Spirit. We should be slow to speak. It is surprising how much James has to say about our speech! He cautions us to be guarded in our conversation. Even nature itself teaches us this. Epictetus noticed so long ago: “Nature has given to man one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” Solomon would have agreed heartily with James. He once said, “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction” (Prov. 13:3). He also said, “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19). Compulsive talkers eventually transgress.

1:19b, 20 We should be slow to wrath. A man who is quick-tempered does not produce the kind of righteousness which God expects from His children. Those who lose their temper give people a wrong impression about Christianity. It is still true that “he who is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov. 16:32).[3]


Belief That Behaves—Part 1
A Proper Reception of the Word

(James 1:19–21)

This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. (1:19–21)

Here James presents a third test of a true believer. The first was his response to trials (1:2–12). The second was his response to temptation (1:13–18). The third is his response to the truth revealed in the Word of God (1:19–27).

When the true disciple hears God’s Word, there is an affection for its truth and a desire in his heart to obey it. One of the most reliable evidences of genuine salvation is that hunger for the Word of God (cf. Ps. 42:1). In 1:19–27, James focuses on two major truths relating to that evidence. First, saving faith is marked by a proper reception of Scripture as the Word of God (vv. 19–21). Second, it is marked by a proper reaction to the Word, reflected in an obedient life. The present chapter deals with the first element; chapter 7, with the second.

Just as a newborn baby does not have to be taught to hunger for its mother’s milk, the newborn child of God does not have to be taught to hunger for God’s Word, his spiritual food and drink. That is the natural impulse of his new spiritual life, of his new creation. To use another metaphor, his spiritual dial is tuned to the frequency of Scripture.

Our Lord stated: “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31). Genuine discipleship is evidenced by ongoing obedience to Scripture.

Jesus warned, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you” (Mark 4:24; cf. Luke 8:18). Jesus’ true disciples are to pay keen attention to the content of what they hear and read, measuring every idea, every principle, and every standard against the infallible and sovereign authority of God’s Word. Believers are not, however, left only to the limits of their own diligence and understanding but are enabled by God’s indwelling Holy Spirit to accurately interpret what they hear in light of the Word. “To you,” the Lord assures us, “it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. … Blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear” (Matt. 13:11, 16; cf. 19:11). Paul also assures us that “we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God. … He who is spiritual appraises all things” (1 Cor. 2:12, 15; cf. vv. 9–10). When our faith is real, we are connected to the living God, from whom flows into us the supernatural life and power that makes us responsive and receptive to His Word.

The psalmist declared, “How blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. … With all my heart I have sought You; do not let me wander from Your commandments. … I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, as much as in all riches” (Ps. 119:1, 10, 14). True believers love God’s Word, and their highest joy is to understand and keep it and thereby please their Lord.

Jesus also said:

“He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, “Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us and not to the world?” Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me.” (John 14:21–24; cf. 15:7; 17:6, 17)

The person who is truly related to Christ through saving faith responds gladly to His Word. Conversely, the person who has no interest in hearing, much less obeying, God’s Word gives evidence that he does not belong to Him.

“If you abide in Me,” Jesus promised, “and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples” (John 15:7). In his first letter, John writes, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10; cf. 2:24; 3 John 11).

Just as it is the inner desire of the believer to know and obey God’s Word, it is the natural desire of the unbeliever to disregard and disobey it. Although unbelievers sometimes refer to certain passages of Scripture to support their own beliefs, standards, and objectives, they do not cherish it and submit to it as God’s authoritative Word. At best, it is simply one resource among many others they may or may not agree with but will use to their advantage when it appears noble or seems helpful. Because of Scripture’s deep and convicting truths, they naturally rebel against it, since it exposes their sinfulness, lostness, and condemnation under God. “Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so [unbelievers typically] oppose the truth, [because they are] men of depraved mind, rejected in regard to the faith” (2 Tim. 3:8). They are like Alexander the coppersmith, who vigorously opposed Paul’s teaching in Ephesus (see 2 Tim. 4:14–15). Like the various bad soils in Jesus’ parable—those on the roadside, on rocky places, and among thorns (Matt. 13:18–23)—unbelievers ultimately reject the gospel along with the rest of God’s Word. They reject His truth with their minds and with their hearts. Consequently, “Salvation is far from the wicked, for they do not seek Your statutes” (Ps. 119:155).

The Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah did so because they refused to believe the inspired Scriptures they had been divinely given. Jesus made it unmistakably clear to them that

the Father who sent Me, He has borne witness of Me. [But] you have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form. You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:37–40)

A short while later, He said, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me” (John 6:45). Still later, Jesus excoriated His enemies, telling them unambiguously: “You seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. … Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. … He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God” (John 8:37, 43, 47; cf. 10:26–27). Belief in God’s Word and belief in Jesus Christ are inseparable. To believe in one is to believe in the other; and to disbelieve one is to disbelieve the other.

So the believing mind and heart receives and submits to God’s truth. It is not that believers can merely sit back and passively understand, appreciate, and apply His truth without sincere determination and effort. Just as the Lord did not save us apart from our initial trust in Him, neither does He bless our lives as believers and give us spiritual growth apart from our continuing trust in Him. And just as the Word was the power of our new birth, so is it the power of our new life. Consequently, James reveals three attitudes that are necessary for believers to rightly receive God’s Word: willingness to receive it with submission (James 1:19–20), with purity (v. 21a), and with humility (v. 21b).

Willingness to Receive the Word with Submission

This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (1:19–20)

This you know refers back to the truths just expressed: first, the general truth of the power of the Word in regenerating believers in the early church and making them entirely new creations; and, second, the subsidiary and marvelous truth that those believers became, in fact, “the first fruits among His creatures” (v. 18). From the apostle’s teaching as well as from their own experience, they knew what it was to be transformed by the incorruptible seed of the Word and given eternal life in the very family of God as His own child (cf. 1 Pet. 1:23–25).

At this point, James makes a clear transition in emphasis. Because we have experienced the transforming power of God and have been made new creatures, we are to continually submit to His Word, allowing it to continue its divine work in and through our lives. In James 1:18, Scripture is called “the word of truth”; in verse 21, “the word implanted”; in verse 22, simply “the word”; in verse 23, figuratively, as “a mirror”; and in verse 25, “the perfect law, the law of liberty.”

Scripture not only is given to bring men to salvation but also is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). By the continual, faithful hearing of the life-giving and life-sustaining Word, our divinely indwelt hearts are stimulated to obey the Word with willing submission to its teachings and truths. We exult with David that “the law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps. 19:7–8). “I have inherited Your testimonies forever,” another psalmist writes, “for they are the joy of my heart” (Ps. 119:111).

By addressing his readers as my beloved brethren James clearly indicates his deep compassion and concern for them. Like every wise Christian teacher, he is not simply trying to convince their minds in a purely intellectual way but also is trying to reach their hearts. His affection for them is equally as strong as his obligation to them. Few things can make a teacher’s work more effective than a genuine love for those being taught. Love can break down barriers—intellectual as well as spiritual ones—that no amount of fact and reason may do. And no matter how well the mind may understand and acknowledge a truth, it will be of little spiritual benefit to the believer or to the kingdom if the heart is not inclined to personally embrace and submit to it.

In the second half of verse 19, James gives three important commands for the believer who is willing to receive God’s Word with submissiveness. All three are deceptively simple. First, we must be quick to hear, that is, be a careful listener, making sure that we pay attention in order to get the message right. “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise,” the writer of Proverbs observes; “when he closes his lips, he is counted prudent” (Prov. 17:28). In another place he asks rhetorically, “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 29:20). In any field of knowledge we learn by listening, not by speaking (cf. Ps. 119:11; 2 Tim. 2:15).

James’s appeal is for believers to seize every opportunity to increase their exposure to Scripture, to take advantage of every privileged occasion to read God’s Word or to hear it faithfully preached or taught. The sincere, eager desire for such learning is one of the surest marks of a true child of God. When he is specially blessed, he turns to the Word to find passages of thanksgiving and praise. When he is troubled, he searches for words of comfort, encouragement, and strength. In times of confusion, he searches for words of wisdom and guidance. When he is tempted, he searches out God’s standards of purity and righteousness for power to resist. The Word is the source of deliverance from temptations and trials. It becomes the most welcome friend, not only because of what it delivers us from but also because of what it delivers us to—glorious, intimate, and loving communion with our heavenly Lord.

Periodically, every Christian should do a personal inventory regarding his hunger and thirst for God’s Word. He should ask himself with determined honesty, “Is my real delight, like the psalmist’s, truly in the law of the Lord; and do I meditate on it day and night?” (cf. Ps. 1:2); and, “If we miss reading Scripture before the day begins, do we notice a difference in the day and in ourselves?” Can we sing with Charles Wesley,

When quiet in my room I sit,

Thy book be my companion still;

My joy Thy sayings to repeat,

Talk o’er the records of Thy will,

And search the oracles divine

Till every heartfelt word is mine.

  1. A. Motyer has perceptively written,

We might wonder why the ever-practical James does not proceed to outline schemes of daily Bible reading or the like, for surely these are the ways in which we offer a willing ear to the voice of God. But he does not help us in this way. Rather, he goes deeper, for there is little point in schemes and times if we have not got an attentive spirit. It is possible to be unfailingly regular in Bible reading, but to achieve no more than to have moved the book-mark forward: this is reading unrelated to an attentive spirit. The word is read but not heard. On the other hand, if we can develop an attentive spirit, this will spur us to create those conditions—a proper method in Bible-reading, a discipline of time, and so on—by which the spirit will find itself satisfied in hearing the Word of God. (J. A. Motyer, The Message of James [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1985], 64–65)

The true believer will be marked by such an attentive spirit, which will find a way to be in Scripture regularly, not for the purpose of filling an allotted devotional time but to grow in the knowledge, understanding, and love of the truth—and through and above that, to grow in the knowledge, understanding, and love of the Lord Himself. He will be eager to attend Bible preaching and study, so that his heart and mind can again be exposed to God’s truth. He will be eager on the Lord’s Day to fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ and to worship Him.

Second, the believer who willingly receives the Word with submission must be slow to speak. That characteristic is a companion of the first. You cannot listen carefully while you are talking, or even while you are thinking about what to say. Many discussions are fruitless for the simple reason that all parties are paying more attention to what they want to say than to what others are saying.

In this context, therefore, it seems that slow to speak includes the idea of being careful not to be thinking about one’s own thoughts and ideas while someone else is trying to express God’s. We cannot really hear God’s Word when our minds are on our own thoughts. We need to keep silent inside as well as outside.

The primary idea here, however, is that, when the appropriate time to speak does come, what is said should be carefully thought out. When we speak for the Lord, we should have the gravest concern that what we say not only is true but is spoken in a way that both edifies those who hear and honors the Lord in whose behalf we speak. We should pursue every opportunity to read the Word ourselves, to hear it preached and taught, and to discuss it with other believers who love, honor, and seek to obey it. At the same time, we should be cautious, patient, and careful when we have opportunity to preach, teach, or explain it to others. It is doubtless for that reason that James later warns, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).

After many years of preaching and teaching the Word, I must confess that, although the exercise of preaching is the manifestation of my spiritual gift and certainly brings rich satisfaction, I cannot honestly say that I relish preaching and teaching or bask in the light of it. I do not rush into the pulpit with any sort of personal exhilaration or joy. There is always a certain reluctance in my heart, not a reluctance to fulfill my calling but a reluctance based on the great weight of responsibility to handle accurately and proclaim the truth of God (2 Tim. 2:15).

According to one of his biographers, when the great Scottish Reformer and theologian John Knox was first called to preach, “He burst forth in most abundant tears, and withdrew himself to his chamber. His countenance and behavior from that day until the day he was compelled to present himself to the public place of preaching, did sufficiently declare the trouble of his heart” (William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], 50).

When a famous Roman orator was asked by a young man to teach him the art of public speaking, the young man continued an incessant flow of meaningless talk that allowed the great teacher no opportunity to interject a word. When they finally reached the point of discussing a fee, the orator said, “Young man, to instruct you in oratory, I will have to charge you a double fee.” When asked why, he explained, “Because I will have to teach you two skills: the first, how to hold your tongue; the second, how to use it.”

It is tragic when new converts, especially celebrities, are immediately encouraged to begin speaking publicly, not simply to give testimony to their salvation, but to begin giving advice and counsel about other aspects of Christian doctrine and practice for which they are not biblically or experientially prepared. Not only does it tend to foster pride and false confidence in the new convert but almost inevitably offers shallow, and often erroneous and spiritually dangerous, ideas to those who hear them. Well aware of that danger, Paul warned Timothy that an overseer, or elder, should not be “a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6). Later in that letter he adds, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others” (5:22; cf. Ezek. 3:17–18; Acts 20:26–28; Heb. 13:17).

Judging from James 1:26 and 3:1, some believers in the churches to whom James wrote were accustomed to saying and teaching whatever happened to come into their minds, without giving it careful thought or checking it against Scripture. Many of the would-be teachers were perhaps sincere but poorly taught and unprepared. Some were proud and arrogant (see 4:6) and enjoyed hearing their own voices and being considered teachers and leaders. Some, being discontent, were given to criticizing and wrangling with each other (see 3:14; 4:1–2, 11; 5:9). And, although James does not mention the problem specifically, it would seem certain that there were also unbelieving false teachers who were deceptively undermining the doctrine and faith of church members, causing great confusion and damage.

The man of God whom God has anointed to preach and teach His Word is compelled to do that with both willingness and joy. But he also is to do it with a sense of awe, always making sure—by careful and patient study, preparation, and prayer—that he says nothing in God’s name that does not accurately reflect God’s Word.

Third, the believer who willingly receives the Word with submission must be slow to anger. Anger is a very natural emotion that is an all but automatic response—even for believers who are not spiritually prepared—to anything or anyone that harms or displeases them. Orgē (anger) does not refer to an explosive outburst of temper but to an inner, deep resentment that seethes and smolders, often unnoticed by others. It is therefore an anger that only the Lord and the believer know about. Therefore, it is a special danger, in that it can be privately harbored.

In this context, James seems to be speaking particularly about anger at a truth in the Word that displeases, that confronts sin or conflicts with a cherished personal belief or standard of behavior. It refers to a disposition hostile to scriptural truth when it does not correspond to one’s own convictions, manifested—even if only inwardly—against those who faithfully teach the Word.

As already noted, anger also was reflected in the general discontent and dissension within some of the congregations to whom James wrote. “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?” he asks. “Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (4:1–2). People desired to have their own opinions confirmed, their own ways approved, their own likes and dislikes accepted by others. Self-will was supreme, personal hostility was rampant, and the spiritual damage was enormous. Instead of working together in love in each other’s behalf, they fought each other to have their own ways, regardless of the consequences to Christ’s church or to their own spiritual well-being.

But James’s emphasis here seems to be on those who hear the truth and resent its exposing their personal false ideas or ungodly lifestyles. Paul asked believers in Galatia, “So have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal. 4:16). In the minds of some church members, the answer doubtless was “yes.” In reality, of course, Paul’s persistently telling them God’s truth, without compromise or omission, was the kindest and most helpful thing he could do for them. That is the kindest and most helpful thing anyone can do for someone else.

But throughout the history of the church—in fact, throughout the history of fallen mankind—even believers have resented God’s truth and the messenger who brought it. Sometimes a pastor must therefore be severe in challenging and rebuking that resentment. “Now some have become arrogant,” Paul told the church at Corinth, “as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power. What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:18–21).

In a similar but somewhat less specific way, James was trying to contain and defuse the personal resentment and hostility that plagued some, perhaps all, of the churches his letter would eventually reach. Many of the believers in those churches would have been under his pastoral care in Jerusalem before the church there was scattered after the martyrdom of Stephen (see Acts 8:1; 11:19).

There is, of course, a just anger, a holy indignation against sin, Satan, and anything that dishonors the Lord or assaults His glory. Jesus was intensely angry when He saw His Father’s house, the holy temple in Jerusalem, turned into “a place of business,” and He expressed His anger twice by driving out those responsible for the desecration (John 2:14–16; cf. Matt. 21:12–13).

But mere personal anger, bitterness, and resentment can never serve the cause of Christ, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God, that is, does not accomplish what is right in God’s eyes. That is especially true when the hostility is against the truth of God’s Word, for that in reality is against God Himself.

Willingness to Receive the Word with Purity

Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, (1:21a)

As will be discussed further in the next section, the main verb of this sentence is receive. And because this verb (dechomai), as well as the related participle (from apotithēmi, putting aside), are in the aorist tense, the action of the participle is understood to precede that of the main verb. In other words, putting aside [more literally, “having put aside”] all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness is a condition for receiving the word implanted. Before God’s Word can produce His righteousness in us, we must renounce and put away the sin in our lives that stands between us and that righteousness.

Paul uses the same figure several times in his letters. He admonishes believers at Ephesus: “In reference to your former manner of life, you [must] lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:22–24). To Christians in Colossae, he says, “Put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him” (Col. 3:8–10). The writer of Hebrews declares, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Similarly, Peter writes, “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet. 2:1–2).

Filthiness translates rhuparia, which refers to any sort of moral defilement or impurity. It is closely related to a term used of wax in the ear, which impairs hearing, and is therefore especially appropriate in this context. Moral filthiness is a serious barrier to our clearly hearing and comprehending the Word of God.

Wickedness is from kakia, which denotes moral evil and corruption in general, especially in regard to intent. It pertains to sin that is deliberate and determined. It may reside in the heart for a long time before being expressed outwardly, and may, in fact, never be expressed outwardly. It therefore includes the many “hidden” sins that only the Lord and the individual are aware of.

Although perisseia can carry the idea of remains, or surplus, in this context it seems better rendered as the “abundance,” “excess,” or “prevalence” of wickedness. The idea is that of confessing, repenting of, and eliminating every vestige and semblance of evil that corrupts our lives, reduces our hunger for the Word, and clouds our understanding of it. When that is done, we can indeed receive “the word of God, … not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in [us] who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13).

Willingness to Receive the Word in Humility

in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. (1:21b)

Finally, James declares that true believers willingly receive God’s Word in humility. Humility translates prautēs, which is often rendered as “meekness” or “gentleness.” The adjective form is most commonly rendered “meek” or “gentle,” as in the third Beatitude (Matt. 5:5). But humility seems most appropriate here, because the idea is clearly that of selfless receptiveness, of putting self, as well as sins, aside. The noted Greek scholar W. E. Vine describes prautēs as “an inwrought grace of the soul; and the exercises of it are first and chiefly toward God. It is that temper of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting” (An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words [New York: Revell, 1940], 3:55).

Among other things, humility includes the very important quality of teachableness, which obviously is of utmost importance in regard to hearing and understanding God’s Word. The faithful Christian is to receive the word implanted with a submissive, gentle, and teachable spirit, cleansed of pride, resentment, anger, and every form of moral corruption.

Implanted is from emphutos, which has the literal meaning of planting a seed in the ground. Here it is used metaphorically of God’s Word being implanted and taking root in the heart of a believer (the “good soil” of Matt. 13:8, 23) at the time of salvation. With the Holy Spirit to interpret and empower, it becomes a vital element in the new spiritual life of the child of God, for “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Word of God is the gospel in its fullness and “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

Yet, despite its already being within us, we must continually receive it, in the sense of allowing it to direct and control our lives. It was in this way that the noble-minded Jews of Berea “received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things [preached by Paul and Silas] were so” (Acts 17:11).

Able to save your souls first refers back to our initial salvation, in which the Word brought the truth of the gospel to an unsaved heart, showing us the way of salvation and saving us from the penalty of sin (cf. 1 Pet. 1:23). It is also able to save by being a constant resource of God’s truth that the Holy Spirit uses to guard believers’ souls from being snatched out of God’s family by protecting us from the power and dominion of sin. Finally, it is able to lead us to ultimate and complete salvation, when we are glorified with Christ in heaven, forever separated from the presence of sin. It is that comprehensive truth that Paul declares in assuring us that “now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed” (Rom. 13:11). It is the divine power behind the truth of Scripture that is able to initiate salvation, keep it alive and growing, and finally bring it to final glory, complete and perfect. We have been saved (justified) through the power of the Word of God; we are kept saved (sanctified) through the power of the Word; and we will be ultimately, completely, and eternally saved (glorified) through the power of the Word. [4]


19a The first part of v. 19 presents us with several difficulties. For instance, the form of iste can be understood either as an imperative (“know this”) or an indicative (“you know this”). The NIV takes the former position (“My dear brothers, take note of this”) and the NASB the latter (“This you know, my beloved brethren”). Since in the vast majority of the cases in James where the author addresses his readers as “brothers” the imperative form is used (e.g., 1:2, 16; 2:1, 5; 3:1; 4:11; 5:7, 9–10, 12), the NIV probably has it right in this case (Martin, 38, 41; Nystrom, 89; contra Johnson, 198–99). Also, there is a question whether this exhortation sums up what goes before (vv. 16–18; so Martin, 38, 41; Johnson, 198–99) or introduces what follows (vv. 19b–21; so Dibelius, 109; Nystrom, 89). The position taken in this commentary is that the exhortation forms a parallel conclusion with 16a, the conclusion of the previous unit, and should be translated “remember this, my dear brothers,” or, with the NIV, “take note of this.”

Notes

17 These words have caused a great deal of discussion and have a number of variants in the earliest manuscripts. For the discussion, see Davids, 87–88.

19a Some ancient manuscripts have the word ὥστε, hōste (“so that,” or “therefore”), which is much smoother than ἴστε, iste (“you know”). Most commentators understand the latter to be the correct reading. In textual criticism the more difficult reading is seen as more likely, since an ancient scribe would have been more likely to “smooth out” a reading than make it more difficult.

  1. Righteous Living through the Word (1:19b–21)

Commentary

19b The triple exhortation “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” is proverbial in nature. The virtue of being a ready listener who knows how to control the tongue, and the corresponding moral danger of being a hothead, hasty talker, are widespread in both Hellenistic and Jewish literature. Davids, 92, suggests that pas anthrōpos (GK 476), translated as “everyone” by the NIV, points to a Jewish background, and passages such as Proverbs 13:3 immediately come to mind: “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (see also Pr 15:1; 29:20; Ecc 7:9). Yet this triple challenge also brings to the surface James’s deep concern over the divisiveness among the people he addresses. Time and again James deals with the proper use of the tongue in the community, which is a hallmark of one walking according to God’s way of wisdom (e.g., 2:12; 3:1–12; 4:1–3, 11–12; 5:9).

20 James then offers a basis for the exhortation: “for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (NASB). Passionate outbursts of anger do not “achieve” or “bring about” or “carry out” God’s righteousness. The verb has to do with work or effort of some kind. However, what does he mean when he speaks of “the righteousness of God,” for at least four interpretations are possible. The phrase could refer to God’s character as righteous, his justification, his eschatological justice (cf. 5:7), or his standard of right living (Laws, 81; Davids, 93). Of these the final option is to be preferred, since it is only in living according to God’s standard that human beings can “accomplish” or “work” his righteousness (Moo, 84). Consequently, the idea here is that when we allow anger to control us, spewing out poisonous emotional garbage onto our fellow believers, this falls far short of what God has designed for our relationships in the community of faith.

21 The “Therefore” (dio) at the beginning of v. 21 is very strong and shows that what this author is about to say is inferred from the previous statement. James is saying, “Based on this need to live up to God’s standard by being self-controlled in our interactions with one another, here’s what you need to do,” and he follows first with what needs to be put aside and then with what needs to be embraced. The word translated “get rid of” (NIV) is, in reality, a participle, which the NASB translates more accurately with “putting aside.” This term was used at times in the ancient world to refer to taking off clothes, but it occurs in the NT in a figurative sense of “laying aside” something spiritually bad, such as lying (Eph 4:25), malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander (1 Pe 2:1), or anything that would hold us back from following Christ fully (Heb 12:1). Accordingly, “moral filth” (rhyparia, GK 4864) translates the figurative sense of a term that literally refers to dirt or filth. In its figurative uses it can connote bad behavior, moral uncleanness, greed, or sordid attitudes or actions. The “evil that is so prevalent,” which is also to be laid aside, Laws, 81, translates pointedly with “the great mass of malice” and refers to the malicious and vulgar wagging of the tongue with which the author is concerned (3:1–12; cf. 1 Pe 2:1; Davids, 94). These community-corroding attitudes and actions must be done away with, for they are out of line with God’s righteous standard and, therefore, inappropriate for his community.

On the other hand, we are to replace these filthy rags of wickedness with something: “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” The term rendered “humbly” connotes a posture of gentleness or meekness, as opposed to an aggressive haughtiness that forces its opinion and desires on others. Given the context and James’s emphasis on community dynamics, the term as used here might carry the nuanced sense of courtesy or being considerate of others. In its one other use in the book, the word is contrasted with envy and selfishness, which bring about evil and disorder (3:13). Thus in James’s putting forth of this concept, it has to do with living life well relationally in the community of faith, which is a manifestation of God’s wisdom.

It is not surprising that James integrates humility with receptiveness to God’s word. In v. 18, James has already pointed out that we were “birthed” by the word of truth. He now challenges us to an attitude of ready openness to the “word planted in you.” The term rendered “planted in you” is an adjective modifying “word” (logos, GK 3364) and can also carry the idea of “inborn,” which fits with the imagery of v. 18. The word God used to give us birth is now a part of who we are as people (cf. Jer 31:31–34). Although Davids, 95, asserts that “inborn” is unrelated to receiving, the same could be said of something already “implanted.” What James has in mind here is a heart that the dictates of God’s wise word may influence. This word “can save,” alluding to the future aspect of our salvation. The word is able to bring us all the way to the consummation of our salvation at the end of the age.[5]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 167). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 56–57). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 2222–2223). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 65–77). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 224–226). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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