Our Battle With Hypocrisy
Rev. Bryn MacPhail
Have you ever doubted the relevance of the Bible--that it has anything meaningful
to us in 1998? Have you ever complained that the Bible is not a very practical book--that
it is predominantly old stories and complicated doctrines?
If you have ever thought this way, I trust the Epistle of James will put an end to
your doubting. Last week James spoke to our need to rejoice in the midst of our trials--to
choose rejoicing in order to avoid sin and build endurance.
Surely this is practical advice.
We ALL face trials of many sorts. And we ALL struggle to rejoice, and to trust in
God when things are going poorly.
Well, today in James chapter 1, verses 19-27, we have again some very practical
exhortations--exhortations that we can APPLY in just about any context.
James begins his exhortations in a very interesting manner. Your translation might
have, "Know this"--an imperative phrase, but the more accurate way to begin verse 19 is, "This you
know, my beloved brethren". James is doing what I often do in a Sunday sermon. I recognize that I am not telling
you anything new--that I'm not telling you something that you haven't heard before--but
this is a REMINDER.
In the same way, James begins this exhortation by essentially saying, "You already
know this to be true, but I'm saying it again because it is very important that you
James says to these congregations, "But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak
and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God"(v.19, 20).
I am sure you will agree that this is sound advice. And I am sure, that this is not
the first time you have heard that advice. As James has said, I know that you know
this--but I'm still interested: How are you doing?
Are you "quick to hear"? Or do you have trouble paying attention to what others are saying? Are you "slow
to speak"? Or are you always ready with a quick reply? Are you "slow to anger"? Or do the smallest difficulties upset you?
I don't know how you would rate your minister according to these categories, but I
can tell you that I used to be awful in this respect. I can remember, as if it was
yesterday, what my grade 4 teacher wrote on my report card: "Bryn, must learn to
think before he speaks".
I don't remember many report card comments, but that one has governed my speech ever
since. And every time I read James I am again reminded--think before you speak, "be
slow to speak".
Now James has a great deal more to say about what is Christian conversation, but for
that we must wait until chapter 3. For now, we are prepared by the simple exhortation,
"be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger".
James says that anger "does not achieve the righteousness of God". "Righteousness" here is not salvation, but "right living"--the type of living that God approves
of. Anger is not something God generally approves of. Nor does being slow to hear
and quick to speak .
"Therefore", James says, "putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in
humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls"(v.21).
The phrase "putting aside" is a very common Greek phrase. The phrase almost always
is used to describe the action of "taking off" ones clothes. James then, has us imagine
our sins--our bitterness in trial, our lack of faith, our critical tongue--as a "filthy" garment that we must remove. James, I am sure, would not like the common response
where we shrug our shoulders and say, "I'm only human". For this implies that my
sinning is ok because everybody does it.
That is only half true. Every person does sin. But sin is never ok. We must rise above
this apathetic "I'm only human" philosophy, and strip off our filthy garments of
bitterness, anger, and lack of faith.
James not only instructs us to dispose of the negative, but he gives us instruction
to appropriate the positive. James tells us to " in humility receive the word implanted,
which is able to save your souls".
James moves here from clothing imagery to farming imagery. Just as Jesus likened our
heart to soil, and seed to the Gospel, so does James. This again, is helpful imagery.
James, I mentioned last week, is concerned that these communities are not applying
their faith, but are merely content with being "saved".
It is true. When the Gospel is planted in a heart that is prepared as "good soil"
we do become Christians. But it doesn't take a farmer to explain what happens when
seed is "implanted" in good soil--IT GROWS. James is reminding us that growth is the natural result
of seed in good soil.
Once we are "saved", Christians are not supposed to merely hang on until the Second
Coming--we are to "run the race", we are to "fight the good fight", we are to "prove (ourselves) DOERS of the word, and not merely hearers who delude
Sunday is our real life enactment of this text. This morning you are HEARING a great
many things. James gives us a measuring stick. Are we DOING what we are hearing?
When trials came last week, did you choose to rejoice in the Lord and in your salvation?
For that is what you heard last Sunday. But hearers that aren't doers "delude themselves", James tells us.
They are "like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; and once he has looked
at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was"(v.23, 24).
The key word here is "looks". The Greek word does not mean "to glance". Quite often, I glance at my watch, someone
then asks me what time it is and I have to look again because it never registered
when I glanced what the time was. This is not
what is meant by James' analogy. The Greek word could safely be translated "examines". James is talking about a man who EXAMINES himself and then forgets what he looks
like. Isn't that absurd?! To look closely at something and then forget what you see?
That is James' point exactly. Isn't it absurd that we would listen intently to the
words of Scripture and then NOT DO THEM?
James challenges us to be the type of person who "looks intently at the perfect law,
the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an
What does James mean by "the perfect law"? The language of new birth in verse 18 provides a clue. So does the talk of salvation
in verse 21. And even in verse 25, "the perfect law" is qualified as "the law of liberty"--this law has something to do with freedom--this "perfect law" is the Gospel.
The Gospel that Jesus died--not only to save us from our sins--but also to DELIVER
US from our sins. The death of Christ is not meant to be reduced to "fire insurance"
or our "ticket into heaven", the death of Christ was intended to transform us
In the 15 Sunday's I preached from the Gospel of Matthew, I reiterated over and over
again, that the commands of Jesus were for our own good
. They were not meant to weigh us down, but to free us.
James says much the same. Notice James doesn't say, "the doers will be tired from
doing". He doesn't say, "doers will get into all sorts of troubles". No, James says,
the doer "will be blessed in what he does"(v.25).
Do you desire God's blessing in your life? Do you wish to experience His abundant
blessing day after day? Then be a "doer" of the word.
What is required of "doers"? James gives us a sample. Begin by listening and examining intently--for we don't
want to be doers of just anything, but "doers of the word". So we must listen diligently to the word proclaimed and we must examine carefully
the word written. Only as we engage in these practices can we be confident that we
are doing the right things.
James warns us to guard our anger(v.19) and to "bridle our tongue"(v.26). James the concludes this section by exhorting us to "visit" those in need--and he names "orphans and widows" as examples(v.27). Finally, James tells us to "keep (ourselves) unstained by the
"To keep oneself unstained by the world" summarizes James' thought and is, perhaps, our most difficult challenge. We live
in the world, yet we are told not to be stained by it. The reality is, however, that
we are all stained by the ideals propagated in the world.
You often hear people talk about "their beliefs". I'm curious, where do these beliefs
come from? The Phil Donahue show? The Toronto Star? Your upbringing? The philosophy
course you took in college? There is no shortage of "beliefs" in this world. The
trouble is many of them are false
and even harmful
. They "stain" us, as James say.
What are Christians to do? Live a life based solely on an examination of the Gospel.
"Bridle" your critical tongue. Help those in need. In short, care for others more than you
care for yourself. If you don't, James says "(your) religion is worthless"(v.26). If you do this, James says "you will be blessed"(v.25).
Won't you choose today to experience the blessing of God by obeying His word. Amen.