The Pulpit Commentary

James 1:19-27 (James 1:19-27)

EXHORTATION

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James 1:26 (James 1:26)

Seem ( δοκεῖ ); seems to himself rather than to others; translate, with R.V., thinketh himself to be. Vulgate, Si quis Putat se esse. Religious ( θρῆσκος ) . It is difficult to find an English word which exactly answers to the Greek. The noun θρησκεία refers properly to the external rites of religion, and so gets to signify an over-scrupulous devotion to external forms (Lightfoot on Colossians 2:18 ); almost "ritualism." It is the ceremonial service of religion, the external forms, a body of which εὐσεβεία is the informing soul. Thus the θρῆσκος (the word apparently only occurs here in the whole range of Greek literature) is the diligent performer of Divine offices, of the outward service of God, but not necessarily anything more. This depreciatory sense of θρησκεία is well seen in a passage of Philo ('Quod Det. Pot. 'Jus.,' 7), where, after speaking of some who would fain be counted among the εὐλαβεῖς on the score of diverse washings or costly offerings to the temple, he proceeds: πεπλάνηται γὰρ καὶ οὖτος τῆς πρὸς εὐσεβείαν ὁδοῦ θρησκείαν ἀντὶ ὁσιότητος ἡγούμενος ( see Trench on 'Synonyms,' from whom the reference is here taken). "How delicate and fine, then, St. James's choice of θρῆσκος and θρησκεία ! 'If any man,' he would say, 'seem to himself to be θρῆσκος , a diligent observer of the offices of religion, if any man would render a pure and undefiled θρησκεία to God, let him know that this consists , not in outward lustrations or ceremonial observances; nay, that there is a better θρησκεία than thousands of rams and rivers of oil, namely, to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God ( Micah 6:7 , Micah 6:8 ); or, according to his own words, ' to visit the widows and orphans in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world'". Bridleth not ( μὴ χαλιναγωγῶν ). The thought is developed more fully afterwards (see James 3:2 , etc., and for the word, cf. Polyc., 'Ad Philippians,' c.v).

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James 1:19-27 (James 1:19-27)

Deeds, not words.

1. The right spirit for the Christian is the receptive ; ready to hear, and to receive with meekness the engrafted Word, which is to be as the seed falling on the good ground (comp. Matthew 13:3 , etc). A heathen philosopher has noted that man has two ears and only one mouth ; showing that he should be more ready to hear than to speak.

2. A receptive spirit is not alone sufficient. Action must follow. Holy Scripture is a mirror, in which a man may see his own image reflected. The man who merely listens to it sees his own likeness, perhaps, but "goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was." Without doing, what is the good of hearing sermons? Knowledge without obedience only increases condemnation. So our Lord's severest denunciations were for those cities which had known most of his mighty works; and "many stripes" were reserved for that servant who knew his Lord's will and did it not ( Luke 12:47 ). (On the subject of James 1:22 , see a good sermon of Bishop Andrews, 'Sermons,' vol. 5. Serm. 9)

3. Government of tongue may serve as a test of a man's religion, it being "a most material restraint which religion lays us under; without it no man can be truly religious." Sins of the tongue include not only such flagrant ones as lying, swearing, filthy conversation, etc., but what Bishop Butler calls "unrestrained volubility and wantonness of speech," which is the sin more particularly alluded to by St. James, and which is "the occasion of numberless evils and vexations in life." "If people would

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James 1:26-27 (James 1:26-27)

The true ritualism.

These two verses enforce by an example what those immediately preceding illustrate by a simile. The words "religious" and "religion" denote external religious service—the body, or outward attire of godliness, rather than its inward spirit. The apostle indicates in these two sentences the "work" of which every one who truly "receives" the gospel is a "doer."

I. AN EXAMPLE OF VAIN RELIGIOUS SERVICE . ( James 1:26 ) This statement points back to the exhortation of James 1:19 . The tongue is an unruly member; it requires to be "held in with the bit and bridle" of Christian principle. A man's words are a true index or evidence of his character; and they also react upon that character, and tend to confirm it for good or evil. Should, therefore, a person who has been for many years a member of a Christian Church indulge always, without restraint, in evil-speaking; should he be in the habit of soiling his tongue with impure, or malicious, or false, or foolish words; what other conclusion can be drawn about his character than just that he is not a true Christian? Such a man is a "hearer only," and therefore either a self-deceiver or a hypocrite. He may cherish some of the sentiments and instincts of religion; but the most sublimated sentiment is quite worthless, if it cannot be translated into everyday life. Where there is no government of the tongue, what avails love for the Church and its services? "This man's religion is vain;" it is an idle, empty, useless, unreal thing—a counterfeit of genuine worship. The apostle's language here is exceedingly strong; but it is the language of inspiration, and it runs parallel with what we read in other parts of Scripture ( Matthew 12:36 , Matthew 12:37 ). Many professing Christians may well tremble when they read this verse. How prone we all are to sin with our lips! How constantly we are tempted to idle speaking! Let us guard against the sin of slander, of depreciating goodness, of imputing selfish motives; and against every other form of uncharitable speech. If we do not "keep our mouth with a bridle" ( Psalms 39:1 ), we "deceive our hearts" as to our spiritual state before God; in which case there is danger that all our psalm-singing and sermon-hearing may only help to drag us down to a deeper perdition.

II. AN EXHIBITION OF TRUE RELIGIOUS SERVICE . ( James 1:27 ) James here submits a rubric for the ritual of the Church. It is to this effect, that the services which God loves are not ceremonial observances, but habits of purity and charity. The moral in our Church life is infinitely more important than the liturgic. Indeed, the moral and spiritual are the great end which our fellowship contemplates, and to that end rites and ceremonies are but the means.

1. The true ritual consists in the maintenance of personal purity in a world of sin. The Christian is a man who, having been once washed all over in the blood of atonement, must labor in the strength of God's Spirit to keep himself from fresh defilement, tie is to guard himself against the contaminations of the world, its pursuits, ambitions, counsels, and its grosser pleasures. He must not become an ascetic or a hermit; rather, he is to show to his fellow-men that he can live in the world an unworldly life. It is hard to do so, doubtless; it requires rare moral courage to resist evil, and. to brave the contempt and persecution which such resistance entails. Yet this is the worship to which God calls us. He will not accept our "devotions" if we refuse him our devotion. A holy life is the most beautiful of psalms. It is the blossom and fruit of all other praise. It is grander than the finest cathedral service, for it is the perfect realization of the Divine ideal of worship.

2. The true ritual consists in the exercise of active benevolence in a world of suffering. Christ, when on earth, "went about doing good;" and every Christian is an imitator of Christ. "A doer that worketh" (verse 25) finds his chief sphere of social activity in kindness to the poor and suffering. We are joined together in the fellowship of the gospel that we may be helpful to our fellow-Christians and our fellow-men who are in affliction and poverty. All our public worship is "vain" if no hearts are made happier, and no firesides warmer, because of it. The Church exists that its members may be inspired to become a fountain of spiritual sympathy to the widow, and a ministry of moral help to the orphan. A congregation can offer no comelier praise than the music of constant acts of loving-kindness and tenderness and self-sacrifice. Where this worship is not rendered, the grandest sanctuary, so called, will be rather only a sepulcher of souls, and the most aesthetic church-service a "vain oblation." The true gospel cultus lies in personal acts of sympathy and kindness, done to the poor out of love to Jesus, and because the poor are his " brethren " ( Matthew 25:34-40 ). Every professing Christian should therefore try the reality and strength of his piety by this test: Does he give himself to the celebration of the true full ritual of Christ's house—that which lies in a life of purity and charity?—C.J.

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James 1:19-27 (James 1:19-27)

The law of the new life.

"Ye know this, my beloved brethren;" viz. that ye have been begotten again by God. But now, from this vantage-ground, he presses the necessity of a consistent life. They have espoused, by God's grace, a new ideal of character and conduct; let their whole life show forth its power. This is the topic of the whole passage, and it divides itself very naturally into the related subjects of—meekness, self-knowledge, and practical religion (see Punchard, in Bishop Ellicott's 'Commentary').

I. MEEKNESS . There is evidently a reference, in James 1:19-21 , to the deportment of the Jews in their religious gatherings, to which we have more direct reference in James 1:23 and in James 2:1-13 . And the words of warning are aimed at one of their most besetting sins; they were clamorous, accusing, wrathful. What examples we have of this spirit, as manifested at their public gatherings for worship, in the accounts of our Lord's first proclamation of his mission in the synagogue of Nazareth ( Luke 4:28 , Luke 4:29 ), and of the first setting-forth of the gospel by Paul in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia ( Acts 13:45 )! So perhaps it was also at the Jewish-Christian gatherings; they would contradict, and accuse. Yes; they were impatient of hearing, eager to speak, wrathful in speech; rebutting what seemed the blow of the truth against themselves, turning that blow against others, perhaps against the speaker. What a Babel of confusion! And all this in the thought that they were doing God service! As opposed to this spirit of censorious anger, James urges a quiet, gentle humility in the hearing of the Word.

1. For what was this Word? It was God's Word, his message to the heart. Yes, with whatever of human alloy it might sometimes be mixed, through the infirmity of the speaker, there it was, a thing Divine! There should be, then, in its presence, a certain awe of silence: "Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak." And as this Word was the searching Word of the living God ( Hebrews 4:12 ), there should be the meekness which hears for one's self, not for others—Is there any wrong in me? For this Word was "able to save:" with what solemn gladness should they welcome its healing, cleansing power!

2. Oh, how opposed to all the intended influence of the Word of God was the spirit of passionate assertion and accusation! How it defiled the nature, as with filthiness, making it an utterly unfit receptacle for God's holy truth! And how the " overflowing of wickedness" bore back the living germ of the truth, which being implanted in the heart would save unto the uttermost! Yes, man's wrath, so far from working God's righteousness, utterly hindered that working. The truth was "able to save," but only if the conditions of true humility in the hearer were fulfilled.

II. SELF - KNOWLEDGE . But the very hearing may become a snare: we hear the Word, we "feel" its power, and delude ourselves with the notion that therefore the Word is ours.

1. What is this, but a mere transient sentiment? Like the man with the mirror, beholding a while, then going away and forgetting; so we may gaze into the marvelous mirror of the Word, which shows us so wondrously the fair ideal of truth, the beauty of holiness, and, in contrast, the deformity, the unholiness of our real self. But so likewise, being charmed with the ideal beauty, and equally loathing our sin, we yet may go away and forget what manner of men we are.

2. What is required of us is an abiding practice of the perfect law, that can only result from a continued gazing into its excellence of beauty and consequent knowledge of our own distance kern its perfectness. So Psalms 1:2 , which sets forth the Law of God as the very element of the good man's life. For it is a Law which is a living power, evermore working its perfection into our imperfect life. A Law, therefore, of liberty, making us free from sin, as being a law of holiness; and free from servile fear, as being a law of perfect love. Well may the man who abides in the doing of such a Law be designated blest! For while merely to hear the Word and feel its power, and then to go away and forget, is to be drugged as with an opiate that makes us insensible to our danger; on the other hand, to hear and to do, and to abide in the doing, is to realize the bounding gladness of the full flow of living health (see also the beatitude of Psalms 1:1-6 ).

III. PRACTICAL RELIGION . There is an easy transition, in verses 26 and 27, kern the hearing of the Word to all the cult of worship. For just as some of these Christian Jews might be satisfied with the mere hearing of the truth as distinct from its practical realization in the daily life, so many of them might rest satisfied at least with the ceremonial cleanness and " service " on which their old training had led them to set such exaggerated value. They were "very religious" because of their multiplied religious observances, their θρησκεία , their ritual of service; and this "religion' was pure, undefiled, no taint of ceremonial pollution attaching to its performance. And yet the filthy wickedness (verse 21) of the unbridled tongue? Vain, indeed, is the religiousness of such a one! Nay; the cult of Christianity is the religion of the life, and the ceremonial cleanness is cleanness of conduct and heart.

1. The ritual. Doing good. So Romans 12:1 ; Hebrews 13:16 . A concrete instance is given here, viz. the visiting of the fatherless and widows in their affliction, but only as an instance of the ritual of the law of love. And notice the immense significance of the words," before our God and Father." Such as he is we must be, viz. "pitiful, and of very tender mercy" (see James 5:11 ).

2. The cleanness. "Unspotted from the world." An evil world, the evil of which was so exhibited by these " clean " men in their clamorous evil-speaking. Would they be really clean? There are no works like works of love to hush the anger of the heart. We learn for ourselves, in this age, that no ritual of religion is of any worth as such. Collective " worship " truly is good, as a means to an end, viz. the replenishment of our life-power, and maintenance of loving relationship with the Father. But as for any cult, as such, Christianity knows none, save that of a holy and loving life. Your ritualism, as Christians? Doing good!

In conclusion, the faith that humbly receives God's saving Word, the faith that abides in the knowledge of that Word day and night., the faith that works itself out in the religiousness of a holy love—this is the sum of the whole matter, this is the very essence of the religion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Lord, evermore give us this faith!—T.F.L.

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