God’s Word for You
James 1:19-21 Quick to listen
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, July 15, 2020
19 Understand this, my dear brothers: Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. 20 For a man’s anger does not bring about God’s righteousness.
James warns the scattered Christian Jews about what they say in every chapter of this letter. Here in chapter 1, he cautions them: “Be slow to speak.” In chapter 2, he will urge them to “speak and act like those going to be judged” (James 2:12). Chapter 3 has a long section about taming the tongue (James 3:1-12), and chapter 4 has a warning about boasting (James 4:13-17). Finally, there is an encouragement about the best way to use your words in the last chapter as James encourages us to pray, confess our sins, forgive one another, and call each other to repentance (5:13-20).
By beginning with “Understand” (or “Remember,” EHV), James is urging them to rely on their intuition, on the beginning of knowledge. He does not mean that this is something they could only find out by experience (a different verb would be used, ginosko rather than oida), but that this should be one of life’s basic truths.
Be quick to listen. Listening poorly or not at all is the number one problem in almost all relationships, and especially in marriages. If our words convey what is in our hearts, shouldn’t we listen to the words coming from the people we love?
Be slow to speak. I have never regretted holding my tongue, but I have often regretted speaking too soon. If our words can be like fire (James 3:6), and if we would be careful with flames, we should also be careful with our words. I have known people who made it their business to stir up bad feelings and by driving a wedge even between married couples by ‘innocent’ questions spoken at gatherings or family reunions. A woman who provokes her sister to argue with her husband just to see what happens is guilty of a wicked sin against the Sixth Commandment (despising marriage) every bit as much as against the Eighth.
Be slow to become angry. But didn’t Jesus get angry with the money changers in the temple (John 2:14-15)? True, but the Son of God had been patient with the money changers for centuries and showing up in person was not just a flareup of a bad temper. Anger is a dangerous emotion, the connecting point between fear and hatred. When anger comes out of responsibility (I’m angry because you keep hitting your brother) then it is tempered with love. When anger comes out of righteous or noble motives (I’m angry with you because you invaded the Crimean Peninsula and have committed an act of war) then it is justifiable. But if anger comes from hatred or fear (I’m angry with you because you’re different from me) then, in Jesus’ words, it is murder (Matthew 5:21-22). If you feel anger rising up, consider: Where does it come from, and how can I cool it down before I might change or endanger someone’s life?
From depths of woe I cry to you;
Lord, hear me, I implore you.
Bend down your gracious ear to me;
My prayer let come before you.
If you kept record of my sin
And held against me what I’ve been
How could I stand before you?
My soul is waiting for the Lord
As one who longs for morning;
No watcher waits with greater hope
Than I for his returning.
I hope as Israel in the Lord;
He sends redemption through his word.
We praise him for his mercy. (Christian Worship 305:1,4)
21 So after humbly getting rid of all impurity and overflowing wickedness, receive the word planted in you. It is able to save your souls.
I won’t go into the details of the challenges of the Greek text of this verse, nor will I claim that mine is the only right translation, or that I have placed “humbly” in the best possible position in the sentence. What we need to do is take the three main points and apply them. First, get rid of (“be done with”) all impurity and overflowing wickedness. For a believer, turning from sin is an act of the will that is already walking with Christ. It is not something that an unbeliever can do, but a Christian can with the help of the Holy Spirit. Young men, throw away your pornography and don’t stare at the waitress who makes you stop thinking about your wife or your girlfriend. Young women, throw away your trashy romance novels. Old men, stop hoarding your money as if you’re trying to “keep it laid away wrapped in a piece of cloth” (Luke 19:20). Old women, stop gossiping about everyone who does things differently than the way you do them (Proverbs 16:28). After all, what would it be like if the person in charge started to publicly put down and destroy the reputation of everyone who disagreed with him?
Second, receive the word planted in you. Remember that James is already talking to believers, people who have heard the word of God and know it already. Dechomoai means to receive, accept, or welcome something. It’s what you do when someone hands you a wrapped gift, not a time bomb. It isn’t so much a life-altering choice as it is simply taking what has been so generously and freely given.
Third and finally, with regard to that word: “It is able to save your souls.” Here is our coach James, shouting to us from the sidelines, “This will save you!” Don’t neglect the word of God.
This is an important moment to consider what James means by “the word planted in you.” Our best estimate is that this letter from James is, with the possible exception of Matthew’s Gospel, the earliest document of the New Testament to be written. Therefore James is not talking about the Gospels and the Epistles we cherish and know so well, but he does mean the word in its three basic conveyances: (1) The written word of the Old Testament Scriptures, the word that prophesied the coming of Christ (Deuteronomy 18:15), his crucifixion (Isaiah 53:4-5), and his resurrection after three days (Hosea 6:2; Psalm 16:10). (2) The preached word, from James himself, the apostles, and other pastors now taking care of the Jewish Christians James calls “the twelve tribes who are scattered abroad” (James 1:1). The preached word stands upon the written word, but is also valuable to us and builds up our faith. “And this is the word that was preached to you” (1 Peter 2:25). (3) The word of the gospel promise that comes along with the sacraments. Without the word of God, baptism is just a meager bath, and without the gospel of Christ, the Lord’s supper is nothing but a paltry meal. But together with the earthly elements, the word of God makes these sacred acts the channels and means of God’s grace like the tube of an I.V. in a patient’s arm or hand, carrying the life-giving medicine of the gospel to those who need it.
Don’t tear out the I.V. tube. Receive the grace of God that comes through his word, and put it into practice in your life, whether you are a young woman or an old man, a young man or an old woman, or someone somewhere in-between. We are all walking the same path with Jesus to everlasting life.
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to thee
Take my moments and my days;
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. (Christian Worship 469:1)
Pastor Timothy Smith