“If any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (James 1:23–24).
Always respond immediately to what you know to be God’s will for you.
Men, have you ever been at work and touched your face, only to realize that you forgot to shave? Perhaps you were distracted by your wife’s call to breakfast or by one of the kids. Ladies, have you ever been out in public and suddenly realized that you forgot to apply some of your makeup? Those are common occurrences that illustrate what it means to hear God’s Word but fail to respond.
James 1:23 says, “If any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror.” “Looks” doesn’t refer to a casual glance but to a careful, cautious, observant stare. This person is taking a good, long look at himself. Hearers of the Word are not necessarily superficial or casual in their approach to Scripture. They can be serious students of the Word. And yet, the fact is, some seminary professors or Sunday school teachers are not true believers. Some even write commentaries and other Bible reference works. Your response to the Word—not your depth of study alone—is the issue with God.
Despite the hearer’s lingering look, he failed to respond, and the image reflected in the mirror soon faded. That’s reminiscent of Jesus saying, “When any one hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart” (Matt. 13:19). The Word was sown, but it bore no fruit. The man looked into the mirror, but he made no corrections.
Perhaps there’s something God’s Word is instructing you to do that you’ve been putting off. If so, delay no longer. Don’t be a forgetful hearer!
Suggestions for Prayer: Ask God to teach you to be more disciplined in responding to the dictates of His Word.
For Further Study: Read Matthew 13:1–23, noting the various soils and what they represent.
1:23, 24 Anyone who hears the word but does not change his behavior is like a man who takes a fleeting glance in the mirror each morning, then completely forgets what he saw. He derives no benefit from the mirror or from looking into it. Of course, there are some things about our appearance that cannot be changed. But at least we should be humbled by the sight! And when the mirror says “Wash” or “Shave” or “Comb” or “Brush,” we should at least do as we are told. Otherwise the mirror is of no practical benefit to us.
It is easy to read the Bible casually or because of a sense of duty without being affected by what we read. We see what we ought to be but we quickly forget and live as if we were already perfect. This type of self-satisfaction prevents spiritual progress.
- Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror24. and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
- A striking example
A picture, especially one that portrays us as we are, is worth a thousand words. We see ourselves daily in the reflection in a mirror: before we leave the house in the morning, during the course of the day, and several times in the evening. Mirrors are part of life. But the repeated returns to the mirror establish the point that our memories are like sieves.
James uses the illustration of a mirror. In fact, his illustration approaches the parabolic form of speech Jesus used during his earthly ministry (compare Matt. 7:26). Mirrors in the first century were not made of glass but of metal that was polished regularly. The mirrors rested horizontally on tables so that the person who wished to see his reflection had to bend and look down. Then he would see but a poor reflection of himself (Job 37:18; 1 Cor. 13:12; 2 Cor. 3:18; Wis. 7:26; Sir. 12:11).
Here is the point of comparison. The person who looks into the mirror to see his own image and promptly forgets is like a person who hears the Word of God proclaimed but fails to respond to it. He sees his reflection in the mirror, quickly adjusts his external appearance, and walks away. He hears the gospel preached, makes minor adjustments, and goes his own way. But the gospel is unable to penetrate his heart and cannot change the internal disposition of man. The mirror is an object used to alter man’s external appearance; the Word, however, confronts man internally and demands a response.
Why does a person forget what he looks like almost as soon as he walks away from the mirror? That seems incredible and yet it is true. Many people hear a sermon on a given Sunday and a week later cannot remember a single word of that sermon. The person who only listens to the Word goes away and fails to respond to its demands.
Willingness to Apply the Word Without Deception
who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. (1:22b–26)
Any response to the Word other than faithful, unqualified obedience is self-deceptive. Paralogizomai (delude) literally means to reason beside, or alongside, and therefore refers to incorrect reckoning or reasoning, often including the idea of deliberate false reasoning for the purpose of deceiving. In mathematics, the meaning is that of miscalculation. Professing Christians who hear the Word without obeying it make a serious spiritual miscalculation, which causes them to delude themselves. They are self-deceived. An old Scottish expression speaks of such false Christians as “sermon tasters who never tasted the grace of God.” Any response to the gospel that does not include obedience is self-deception. If a profession of faith in Christ does not result in a changed life that hungers and thirsts for God’s Word and desires to obey that Word, the profession is only that—a mere profession. Satan, of course, loves such professions, because they give church members the damning notion that they are saved when they are not. They still belong to him, not to God.
In order to explain this self-deception, James uses a simple analogy: If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.
Katanoeō (looks) is a strengthened form of the verb noeō, which means simply to perceive, or look at something. The compound verb James uses here, however, carries the additional idea of careful, cautious consideration of what is being looked at. The hearer of the word who is not also a doer is like a person who carefully observes his natural face in a mirror, yet, as soon as he is finished looking, has immediately forgotten what kind of person he has just observed himself to be.
In New Testament times, mirrors were typically made of highly polished brass or bronze, although a wealthy person could buy one of silver or gold. But even the most expensive mirrors were primitive compared to glass ones, which were not developed until the fourteenth century. Consequently, those early mirrors gave a dim and distorted reflection of the person using them. But by carefully turning the mirror and finding the best light, a person could eventually see a fairly accurate image of his face, and that is the idea James has in mind. By careful and patient observation, as indicated by katanoeō, he could eventually discover what he actually looked like. But, for whatever reason, when he stops looking at himself and [goes] away, he immediately forgets what he has just seen. It is that forgetfulness which is the point of the analogy. Whether because of distraction, not being pleased with what was seen, or simply because of a poor memory, all the careful looking suddenly becomes wasted. Whatever the original purpose was for looking at oneself, what is seen is quickly forgotten.
A person who looks at God’s Word, even if it is carefully and accurately done, and yet does not apply the truths he has discovered to his own life, is like someone who immediately forgets what he has just seen in a mirror—except that the consequences are immeasurably worse. He sees his sin portrayed for the horrible evil that it is and he also sees God’s gracious provision in Christ for a remedy, yet he goes on his way as if he were never exposed to those realities.
Conversely, however, the one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. James here uses an even stronger verb for looking than in verse 23. Parakuptō (looks intently) means to bend over and carefully examine something from the clearest possible vantage point. It is the verb used by Luke to describe Peter’s looking into the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24:12) and by John of both Peter’s and Mary’s looking into the same tomb (John 20:5, 11). The person who looks intently at God’s Word, the perfect law, the law of liberty, examines it to discover its deepest and most complete meaning. For him it is not a mere exercise of curiosity, as with the forgetful person just mentioned. When he discovers a truth, he abides by it, understanding that this is the purpose for the Lord’s revealing it to men. God did not reveal His Word simply to be learned, but to be obeyed and applied. The key to James’s analogy is this: The faithful hearer and doer of the Word does not study the mirror itself but rather what the mirror reveals, namely, God’s revealed will and truth.
The perfect law, so called because Scripture is inerrant, sufficient, and comprehensive (cf. Ps. 19:7–9), encompasses all of God’s revealed Word. But by referring to it as law, James laid particular emphasis on the Lord’s commands to men, His requirement for the genuine and positive response of obedience to those commands. And by referring to the Word as the law of liberty, James focused on its redemptive power in freeing believers from the bondage of sin and then freeing them to righteous obedience (John 8:34–36). It allows us to serve God not out of fear or mere sense of duty, but out of gratitude and love. One day it also will free us from this world and its corruption; from our fallenness; from our flesh; from temptation; and from the curses of sin, death, and hell.
God’s law is thought of by some as bringing bondage; but in reality it brings great liberty. That truth is expressed clearly and succinctly by Paul in his letter to the church at Rome.
Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Rom. 6:16–18)
Later in that letter, the apostle exults, “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption [and freedom] as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (8:14–15).
Being saved solely by God’s grace through saving faith does not in the least revoke or diminish the requirements of His law. Forgiveness for past breaking of the law does not remove the present obligation to obey it. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” Jesus declared;
I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17–20)
God’s law still reflects His holy will and His standards for human conduct. It provides all the truth and guidance we need to live godly lives. It is consummate, flawless, without error or omission, and will meet every need, touch every part of life, fulfill every godly desire of true believers, the children of God. As we look to that law, it liberates us to forsake sin and to pursue righteousness. The true believer abides by God’s perfect law … of liberty because that is His heavenly Father’s will, and above all else he seeks to please and honor Him. He therefore willingly and eagerly abides by His divine and holy law, enabled by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:4).
Implicit in James 1:23–25 is the idea that one’s motive and attitude in studying God’s Word become evident by the response to what is learned. A person who pays no heed to what he learns from Scripture proves his motive for studying it is not godly. At best, he is interested in mere factual knowledge, and even that he soon forgets. In doing so, he brings even greater judgment on himself than a person receives who has never been exposed to the Word. He also gives strong evidence that, despite a profession of belief in Christ, he is not really saved.
One of most serious and pervasive obstacles to salvation is fallen man’s natural aversion to serious spiritual thought. He may love to study philosophy and man-made religions and theology. But he is not inclined to seriously search for God’s truth, realizing, even if subconsciously, that his life falls short of divine standards and that God will demand more than he is willing to give. Men are not naturally inclined to look at themselves honestly, to perform a self-evaluation under the bright and perfect light of God’s Word. They know instinctively that their pride, self-will, and love of sin will be exposed under the Lord’s righteous standards.
On the other hand, the person who humbles himself, by figuratively stooping over to get a better look at the Word, proves his right spiritual motive and attitude. His concern is not with bare facts but with divine truth, and he therefore obeys what he learns. In doing so, he is blessed and God is glorified. He also detests the reflection of himself that he sees in the mirror of the Word, and his overriding desire is to have every sin, every spiritual and moral blemish, removed and replaced with God’s righteousness. Seeing himself as he really is, he says, in effect, “Lord, continue to expose my ugliness, my hopelessness apart from You. Draw me to Yourself and cleanse me from my sins and fill me with Your truth, Your love, and Your purity.” Such a person is not … a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer and will be blessed in what he does. The genuine believer sees things as they really are, and his will is brought into union with God’s will. He loves to do what the Bible commands him to do, because that is the will of his heavenly Father.
God’s blessing results from a believer’s obedience. Through Joshua the Lord commanded and promised: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Josh. 1:8, emphasis added). The only way to a spiritually blessed and prosperous life is through faithful study and application of God’s Word, to “meditate on it day and night,” and “to be careful to do according to all that is written in it.” The hearer and doer of the Word discovers that its demands are just as Jesus said: the “yoke is easy” and the “burden is light” (Matt. 11:30).
Obviously the distinctions between right and wrong attitudes about and responses to God and His Word are not always clear-cut, at least to our human eyes and understanding. Some unbelievers make a strong effort to act like believers, acknowledging that Scripture is inspired and true, attending church regularly, giving lip service to worship of God, and outwardly acting morally. In a similar but opposite way, true believers do not always live up to their understanding of Scripture, sometimes falling into serious sin. But James is speaking of the heart commitment to God’s Word or the lack of it. The unbeliever cannot keep up a spiritual facade indefinitely, and the true believer cannot be content to remain in sin indefinitely.
Moving away from the analogy of the mirror, James makes clear that the doer of the Word is not simply someone who is involved in religious activity. If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.
Religious is from thrēskos, which refers to external religious rituals, liturgies, routines, and ceremonies. The famous Jewish historian Josephus used the word to describe worship in the temple at Jerusalem. Paul used the noun form of this term when speaking of his former life as a zealous Pharisee (Acts 26:5). By contrast, the word most commonly used in the New Testament for genuine, God-honoring and God-pleasing worship is eusebeia, whose basic meaning is that of godliness and holiness.
Such things as attending church services and activities, doing volunteer work, following various rituals and ceremonies, saying prayers, and even having right theology have no spiritual value in themselves apart from true saving faith and honorable motives to glorify the Lord. The person who trusts in those outward things sooner or later will expose his faithlessness with his mouth, because he does not have the inner power to bridle his tongue. Trusting in those things to please God and receive His blessing are deceptive and worthless. Even if a ritual or liturgy is biblical in its wording, it is as futile as pagan idolatry unless the heart is right with the Lord. A corrupt and unholy heart eventually will be exposed by corrupt and unholy speech.
The tongue is not the only indicator of true spirituality but is one of the most reliable. It has been estimated that the average person will speak some 18,000 words in a day, enough for a fifty-four-page book. In a year that amounts to sixty-six 800-page volumes! Many people, of course, speak much more than that. Up to one-fifth of the average person’s life is spent talking.
If the tongue is not controlled by God, it is a sure indicator that the heart is not, either. Jesus told the self-righteous Pharisees, “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. … For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:34, 37). Religion that does not transform the heart, and thereby the tongue, is totally worthless in God’s sight.
23–24 James now offers an analogy as an explanation for why hearing without doing is unacceptable: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror.” The “face” is, more literally, the “face of his birth,” or the “face with which he was born,” and what James has in mind is what the person really looks like. Looking in a mirror, he sees his own face as it really is. Yet “after looking at himself, [he] goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” In other words, when he gets away from the mirror, which provided a point of reference for a true evaluation, that true picture of his own face fades in his memory. What is inferred is that, in light of the face given him at birth, this person has a higher opinion of his own appearance than is warranted! Thus he deceives himself, because the truth does not stay with him to change his perspective.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 174). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 2223–2224). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 60–61). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 83–88). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 227). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.