Epistle of Ya’akov (James) ~ 1:17-27

 

Testing of Our Trust [1] (Faith) ~ Part 3

17 Every good act of giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father who made the heavenly lights; with Him, there is neither variation nor darkness caused by turning.

Heavenly lights … variation … darkness caused by turning – astronomical language: either eclipse or phases of the moon. Ya‛akov’s cosmology was more Copernican than Ptolemaic; the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of Galileo (recently corrected) was inconsistent with this verse. The meaning, of course, is that God does not change. [2]

18 Having made His decision, He gave birth to us through a Word that can be relied upon, in order that we should be a kind of firstfruits of all that He created.

Having made his decision of His own free will, by grace and not because He owed it to us, God gave birth to us through a Word that can be relied upon (see Rom. 10:17). The Word of Truth is Yeshua the Messiah; this is taught most clearly by the Gospel of Yochanan (see Yochanan 1:1, 14; 3:5–8; 15:26; 16:7–15; also 1 Yochanan 5:4–8). We are a kind of firstfruits of all that God created, as can be inferred from Rom. 8:19–23, 29; 1 Cor. 15:20, 23.

Ya’akov now turns to appropriate ways to deal with testing (1:2–18). The Zealot-like model, which was gaining popularity in Isra’el and ultimately led to Yerushaliyim’s destruction, was inappropriate. Ya’akov condemns not only violent acts but also the violent rhetoric that incites them.[3]

19 Therefore, my dear brothers, let every person be quick to listen but slow to speak, slow to get angry;

This is one of my favorite verses. I have to be mindful of it every day so I don’t get myself in trouble, which I occasionally do.

Let every person be quick to listen but slow to speak (compare 3:3–12), slow to get angry (compare Ecclesiastes 7:9). [4] Can modern psychology match this advice for improving interpersonal relations? When someone does or says something that would typically provoke quick angry speech, invite him to explain more clearly what he has done or said; listen carefully to him, trying to understand him and his situation; and respond in love, aware that, like you, he was made in the image of God (3:9, Genesis 1:27).

20 for a person’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness!

The history of Judeo-Christian relations is riddled with the sad consequences of Believers’ failure to heed this verse. If Jews have tenaciously refused to trust in Yeshua, it is partly because frustrated Believers have attempted to accomplish God’s righteousness through their anger. It cannot be done. Jews receive God’s righteousness through Believers’ mercy, not their anger, through their humility, not their arrogance.

The overall theme of the remainder of Chapter 1 is having received the new birth through a Word of God (v. 18), we should receive it (v. 21) and do it (v. 22). True religion involves not only hearing but doing (vv. 22–27). The entire letter emphasizes deed over creed, action over the profession, and the usual Jewish approach to religion, morals, and life.

21 So rid yourselves of all vulgarity and obvious evil and receive meekly the Word implanted in you that can save your lives. 22 Don’t deceive yourselves by only hearing what the Word says but do it! 23 For whoever hears the Word but doesn’t do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror, 24 who looks at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But if a person looks closely into the perfect Torah, which gives freedom, and continues, becoming not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work it requires, then he will be blessed in what he does.

Someone who looks at his face in a mirror, who looks at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like – instead of grooming him or herself to face the day – is failing to use the mirror correctly, that is, actively instead of passively. The perfect Torah is the Believer’s perfect, complete mirror; it perfectly, ultimately reflects their ungroomed (i.e., sinful) condition – as Sha’ul puts it,what Torah really does is show people how sinful they are” (Ro 3:20). The Believer uses the perfect mirror’s assessment of his spiritual condition to correct and groom their behavior. As with the bathroom mirror, they continue to use it this way throughout their lives.

26 Anyone who thinks he is religiously observant but does not control his tongue is deceiving himself, and his observance counts for nothing.

Anyone who thinks he is religiously observant. Greek thrêskos in this verse and thrêskeia (“religious observance”) in the next connote zeal in performing religious acts, whether in connection with true religion or false. In Jewish terms, one could say, equivalently, “Anyone who thinks he is “dati” (“religious”) or “frum” (Yiddish, “pious”) or “shomer-mitzvot” (“one who observes the commandments” of the Torah) but does not control his tongue is deceiving himself. [5]

27 The religious observance that God the Father considers pure and faultless is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being contaminated by the world.  ~ Ya’akov 1:17-27 (CJB).

This verse, apparently based on Isaiah 1:15–16 (quoted in Ya’akov 4:8), sums up the burden of all the Prophets, who zealously insisted that true religion must consist not in mere external observances but good deeds flowing from a sound spiritual condition. In reducing the Torah to two commandments – the one urging a practical expression of self-giving love toward those who can offer little or nothing in return, the other concerning the inward spiritual and outward ethical purity prerequisite to right action – Ya‛akov entered a time-honored Jewish tradition of epitomizing the Torah, as is seen from the well-known Talmud passage, Makkot 23b–24a, quoted in Ga 5:14N. This verse, like the book of Galatians, is a warning to Believers who become enamored of specific observances at the expense of the weightier matters of the Torah—justice, mercy, trust” (Mt 23:23).

We will learn a little more about Ya’akov as we dig into what he says about the Sin of Partiality.

Click here for the PDF version.

 

[1] Recall that the Complete Jewish Bible translates the Hebrew word for faith as trust.

[2] Stern, D. H. (1996). Jewish New Testament Commentary.

[3] Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Jas 1:19–27).

[4] I really like how frequently Brit Hadashah authors refer back to the Tanakh.

[5] Ibid.

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