From: A Torah Commentary on James 3-5 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2014
A Torah Commentary on James,
Interpreting the Text in Light of
Its Old Testament Roots
Roland H. Worth, Jr.
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Overview: How the Themes are Developed
Third Test of Our Faith:
Controlling What We Say
Being a Teacher of God’s will Carries with It
A Stricter Standard of Judgment by God
ATP text: 1 My fellow comrades: let only a minority of you become teachers; you already recognize that such individuals will be judged more strictly than others. 2 We all make sinful mistakes in many ways. If anyone manages to avoid stumbling in what is said, such is a spiritually mature person and able to control all the body’s attitudes and actions as well.
Development of argument:
The misuse of the tongue is mentioned twice in the preceding chapter. From the standpoint of outsiders, we read of those “who blaspheme” the name that believers were called (2:7). In -26 it was the misuse of the tongue by God’s own people--to express noble sentiments and to do nothing about them. If these are abuses, then what is its proper use?
The first twelve verses of chapter three zeroes in on this question and stresses the need to use one’s speaking abilities in a constructive and beneficial manner. It begins with the example of teachers, but uses that only as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion of the issue of verbal self-control.
Why, then, is there this stress on teachers? As one commentator has correctly observed, “Words are the principal, almost the only medium whereby personalities come into meaningful touch with each other. Hence, they contribute vitally to the development and formation of the character of the speaker, as well as vitally influencing the lives of the hearer.” This is true of all of us as individuals; it is even more so of teachers to whom “words” are their stock in trade.
The potential for both a positive and negative impact of speech had clear implications for James’ readership. The Christians he wrote to had significant local problems and the potential for major conflict among themselves (4:1-4). Indeed, the [Page 4] seriousness of some of the issues he alludes to may well argue that they were already at that later stage and that his rather “low key” presentation was intended as a means of discussing the problems without causing the situation to further disintegrate by the hurling of fierier rhetoric—language which may make the speaker feel better but which will not necessarily change minds or behavior.
Be that as it may, there can be no realistic question that the local teachers were in a pivotal position to exploit disagreements and create needless division. It is hard to see how they could be very effective teachers unless they were readers of the sacred text and that required literacy. Indeed a person who wished to be a leader had an automatic advantage if he possessed the talent since most did not.
Teaching and literacy. It is estimated that only 10% of the ancient population was literate, though one should be careful in ruling out the probability that a significantly larger percentage were “semi-literate” and could “sound out” the words. They simply had little or no regular use of their far more limited exposure to “reading and writing.”
By the nature of the situation, one would anticipate literacy to be a more urban phenomena due to population concentration and with rural areas having a more dispersed one and far lesser chance at educational opportunities—either in fundamentals but, far more so, in advanced studies. To the extent it was available it would be limited to the basics.
Though one should remember that there is a major distinction between literacy and the ability to write the language—the scribe’s function—especially in a “hand” that would be decipherable by others. Hence “scribes” came to represent a distinct employment niche of its own.
[Page 5] This was only natural. Even my twentieth century generation, which had a heavy emphasis on “penmanship,” found only a minority who were really good at it. Virtually everyone could “read” (if they wished to take the time and had the interest), but few could “write” well.
One might gain one’s limited or full literacy in the ancient world in the context of home study (by tutors), schools, or the synagogue--which included synagogue sponsored schools. The Jewish desire and insistence that their children be educated in the contents of the Torah takes for granted the encouragement of at least a rudimentary literacy so that one could, when given opportunity, be able to follow the wording of the text oneself.
The great expense of manuscripts would have encouraged memorization as well, however, among those who wished to cultivate an in-depth knowledge of scriptural topics. Economics made large libraries a rich man’s indulgence.
The Biblical texts themselves clearly assume a widespread level of at least minimal literacy among the bulk of the population and a higher level among (at least) most who were deeply envolved in religious studies. As Edward L. Bromfield concisely sums up the evidence,
The Bible expected the common people to be
able to read and write. For example, when Moses led
[Page 6] Concerning the 1st century, one of the favorite sayings of Jesus in rebuttal to his accusers was: “Have you not read…” This not only implied literacy to his opponents, but also to himself and to his apostles whom he taught, for why would he use the phrase against his accusers, if they could turn around and cast his own words in his teeth to point out the illiteracy of his followers? Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:6-7) implied literacy in the normal course of business in the Jewish society.
This is also borne out in some archeological finds dating to the 12th century BCE where Israelite inscriptions are found on pottery and artifacts showing literacy was not exclusive to the elite (Aaron Demsky and Moshe Kochavi, “An Alphabet from the Days of the Judges,” Biblical Archaeological Review,. 1978, 23-25).
Moreover, just before the Jewish revolt,
the high priest Joshua ben Gamala (cir. 64 C.E.) declared that teachers would
be appointed in every town of every province throughout
“Automatic” opportunities for leadership by those with literacy and Biblical knowledge. If one had developed to the level where one was fluent in reading and oral presentation, that obviously conveyed considerable social and religious prestige. Such individuals might not be right in a religious judgment, but they were ones expected to be right. And the ones most able to present their views with skill and precision.
In a church service context, such folk were the ones most likely to have the opportunity to use the tongue in a negative fashion, through destructive “sarcasm, self-display, the crushing reply.” Hence the special caution urged upon them in the current chapter and James’ earlier rebuke of misuse of the tongue (James ).
On the other hand, no century—yea, no decade—is free from some religious or cultural “issue” that can raise tempers, especially if intentionally agitated and used to pressure others into conformity on an “agree or else” basis. Not to mention the “housekeeping chores” that inevitably arise over time and can prove incredibly divisive in their own right: Do we really want that color a carpet? Is that design for additional classrooms “superb” or “horrible”? Is it time to increase the preacher’s salary?
Note how James’ wording can cover all of these and many more. For James the question does not even rise to the issue of “what” the issue is, but of behavior concerning any and all controversies.
Since matters would without doubt arise that were potentially divisive, everyone needed to be reminded to watch what they said. Even when justified, they could still needlessly inflame a difficult and trying situation—driving it from “difficult” into “uncontrollable.” A mere quick reading of the text shows that, though teachers are specifically targeted, the logic has inevitable application to everyone else as well, whether involved directly in teaching or simply an “everyday” member.
[Page 8] And this is intended to benefit—rather than merely “limit”--each individual: by gaining control over what we say, we have a foundation to build on in gaining mastery over the rest of our life (1:2b). We have shown that we have a “handle” on what seems beyond control and that demonstrates that other problem areas can be dealt with as well.
James is concerned with the “what” is said and the “how” it is said and the consequences that can easily occur if one is not using wisdom and self-control in what is said. This could easily be misread by the skittish teacher as a reason for silence or for saying only something vague and without any substance. If one does not understand a Biblical text that is the best course! Or, at least, to make one’s uncertainty clear so the listener will not place the same value on it as the rest of what is taught.
In other cases it is not so much a matter of not “understanding” a text, but understanding it all too well—and being concerned with how others will react. As one writer concisely expressed it, “Many times the problem is not so much what is said, but what should be said and isn’t.” How one overcomes the reluctance to speak reveals how dedicated a teacher we are and how we handle what comes next shows how capable a teacher one really is.
To not share God’s word candidly is cowardliness. But to pour verbal gasoline on it to make the teaching the most provocative and insulting we can possibly make--that is something far different. It is to use God’s word as an excuse to unleash the “inner cobra” under the disguise of being spiritually stalwart.
[Page 9] And it is in the stress of dealing with controversial doctrines, practices, and just plain strange human behaviors that we run into one of the greatest dangers of the misuse of the tongue—that it, rather than our insight and self-control, takes over our handling of the situation and makes an uneasy situation uncontrollable. James’ actual argument hits hard on the principle of controlling what one says, surely for this very reason—whether as student or teacher we can strip a scriptural discussion into a “grudge match” in which both truth and the congregational welfare is lost sight of. Not to mention providing the encouragement and support for change that the morally compromised so badly needs.
If we act so precipitously in such a situation, are we likely to act with self-control in dealing with others with whom we do not even share the bond of mutual faith?
Nor should we overlook this startling fact: this anonymous prototype of teachers is conspicuously not labeled as a false teacher or heretical. So far as know, not one thing is wrong about what he teaches as truth on any matter. But he makes a mockery of his faith and becomes an obstacle to faith because of the lack of control.
Those who (rightly) put a great emphasis on sticking with Bible doctrine need to learn this lesson well. Having doctrine right doesn’t give you a Divine carte blanche to run over the feelings and principles of others. There is a vast difference between trying to get others to see the truth and rolling over them with a verbal bulldozer. If you’ve chased people away “because of the truth” is it really the truth that is driving them or your hot temper?
Totally independent of real or imagined doctrinal issues, the tongue can also be abused by a teacher in other ways as well. It can manifest arrogant superiority to others. You can make people feel dumb due to the “what” and the “how” you say it. You may also distort, misrepresent, or outright lie not to strike out at others but to keep from having to admit that you yourself have either done wrong or made a grievous error in behavior or reasoning. And special indignation is easily dumped on you as a teacher or preacher because if you had been anyone else there would have been less shock that a high standard of conduct had been ignored.
The ancient rabbis mention such cases as this and how the honorable post of teacher is dishonored as the result and how the man is scorned by his listeners,
If a man devotes himself to study, and
becomes learned, to the delight and gratification of his teachers, and yet is
modest in conversation with less intelligent people, honest in his dealings,
truthful in his daily walks, the people say, “Happy is the father who allowed
him to study God's law; happy the teachers who instructed him in the ways of
truth; how beautiful are his ways; how meritorious his deeds! Of such an one the Bible says, ‘He said to
me, Thou art my servant; oh,
But when a man devotes himself to study, and becomes learned, yet is disdainful with those less educated than himself, and is not particular in his dealings with his fellows, then the people say of him, "Woe to the father who allowed him to study God's law; woe to those who instructed him; how censurable is his conduct; how loathsome are his ways! ‘Tis of such an one the Bible says, 'And from his country the people of the Lord glorified.’ ”
[Page 11] The basic point is that he loses both credibility and followers. And, if he is only mildly unlucky, the message he preaches also suffers collateral damage for it has had no impact upon actual behavior. (Which brings us back to the reality of “faith (claims) and (actual) works” being interlocked, as is discussed in chapter two!)
Small Things Control both Horses and Ships,
So It Should Come as no Surprise that the
Tongue Can Produce Disproportionate Results as Well
ATP text: 3 We put bits in horses' mouths to make them obey us, and we can turn their entire body in any direction we wish. 4 Look also at sailing ships: even though they are very large and are driven by fierce winds, they are still turned by a very small rudder in whatever direction the pilot desires. 5 Similarly the tongue is also only a little part of the body and yet brags about greatness. See how huge a forest a little fire can burn!
Development of Text:
“Disproportionality” is the theme of this section: A tongue is so modest in size you would think it could do little and certainly not create huge, overwhelming negative consequences. He uses three illustrations to convey his point that the tongue has far more power than its mere appearance would suggest. Each of these was commonly used in the ancient world, sometimes in conjunction with one or more of the others.
Ben Witherington III rightly sees in this James’ determination to be a constructive and beneficial teacher to his listeners—to which I would add, in implicit contrast with the want-to-be teachers (verse 1) who too easily used whatever ability they had and let it “run loose” and risk harm to others (verse 5). As Witherington expresses it,
That many of these ideas and illustrations [in the book of James, RW] are stock items in Greco-Roman wisdom shows not only the scope of James’s knowledge, but his effort to speak a wisdom to his Diaspora audience with which they will be familiar. While it is probably right that James is adapting earlier adoptions of Greco-Roman wisdom into Hellenistic Jewish ways of discoursing, nonetheless he is creative in the way he handles the material. It was the task of the sage to reformulate things in a way that was coherent and congenial with the author’s own manner of teaching and the audience’s capacity for learning. In other words, he has made the material his own, whatever its source.
James begins with a horse. Their size will vary from type to type, of course. Furthermore, it is usually assumed that ancient horses were significantly smaller than modern ones.
For one thing the Roman cavalrymen were trained to be able to leap on their mounts while fully armored and even when they were running and that would certainly have limited their preferred height! The size of horses used seems to have increased in the first century in spite of this and it is sometimes assumed (quite reasonably) that the officers’ mounts were deliberately chosen to be larger for prestige reasons if nothing else.
But one thing all horses have in common, then or today: they are huge in comparison with the bits placed in their mouths to control them (3:3). Yet control them it does, disproportionate “influence” or not. “We can turn their entire body in any direction we wish” (ATP); “we are able to make it go where we want” (TEV).
James next moves to something even larger. First century B.C. and A.D. sailing vessels
could be of surprisingly large size. The smallest in the Egyptian-Rome grain
trade were in the 100 ton capacity range and we have literary and
archaeological evidence of larger ones--300, 400, and 500 tons. “We must wait until the sixteenth century
before we see vessels of similar tonnages plying the waters of the
[Page 14] One thing these—and other sailing vessels carrying other products—all had in common: a rudder tiny in size compared to the entire boat. Even when it was the kind of boat James emphasizes, a “large” one (3:4).
“Fierce winds” could drive a boat, of course (3:4), but that is to be expected because they are so powerful; no other result is imaginable. But that small rudder could easily turn the vessel (3:4), exercising a huge influence in spite of its comparatively minor size. It could also precisely control the course and direction of travel on a calculated basis that even the storm could never duplicate. The storm was “raw” power; the rudder was “controlled power.” (Potentially at least.) So is the tongue when we use it.
Invoking the image of a forest fire comes next (3:5). It begins as little or nothing. Sometimes just sparks. Other times a small cooking fire. But give it the opportunity to spread and it mushrooms far out of proportion.
Some have noted that the word for “forest” simply means “wood” and stress has been placed on the fact that forests in our western sense are uncommon in the Near East. On the other hand Palestinian hills often had much in the way of brush coverage and if that “wood” catches fire, the result would be the same—a small origin and a large devastation.
Major damage would be expected in such
cases even by a highly urban audience little acquainted with rural conditions. The classic illustration comes later than James,
in the situation when
[Page 15] Narrow streets, shoddy construction,
a multitude of wood structures made it easy for even a small fire to get out of
hand and burn down several buildings or more.
It was a routine danger. At least
The lesser fires occurred commonly enough for every resident to recognize how vastly a small fire could spread into a major conflagration. In a rural setting they would automatically recognize that stopping it would be even more hopeless. For fire watches would not be in existence.
There is a great difference between these other small objects that create disproportionate impacts and the human tongue: the human tongue loves to brag of what it can do: “it boasts great things” (3:5). It brags and points to the speaker’s supposedly great accomplishments. Hence the ATP’s “brags about greatness” and the BBE rendering “it takes credit for great things.” The God’s Word translation: “it can brag about doing important things.”
Since James’ stress is on the negative things the tongue can do, his point is likely that what the tongue can brag the most about—if it dares—is the evil it can inflict! The last thing anyone would normally admit to.
[Page 16] (On the other hand, some have carved out long-lasting reputations as “defenders of the faith” by the gut-tearing they’ve done with tongue and pen. Sad as it is to say.)
In contrast bits and rudders, don’t brag: they simply “do,” producing an intended “good” by their action (the right direction, the right course). In contrast, the fire produces only one thing and that is destruction on some level. So in its destructive potential its “role model” is clearly the fire that rages out of control.
A different ancient approach: Since James specifically has in mind teachers who provide de facto if not de jure leadership of the congregation, some have argued that what James really has in mind is how the church is properly controlled by the effective use of their teaching. They turn “their whole body” (3:3), a term that in Pauline usage is applied to the church. Furthermore the imagery of the boat as being controlled brings up the imagery of the church as a boat in the church fathers, an image that some imaginative souls have tried to squeeze into the boat/ark of Noah’s day (1 Peter 3:20) and into the boat where Jesus was with His disciples (Matthew 8:23-26).
Of course this is an interpretive reach—with a vengeance. There is nothing obvious that would make one expect a borrowing of Pauline image and the logic stands quite well on its own feet without such borrowing. (The “war in your members” in 4:1, though, is surely a reference to our individual internal conflicts and not to congregational ones—though the eruption of such can certainly create the latter as “fallout”!)
Furthermore, “ships” and “bits” is James’ language. We would not anticipate such “plural” usage when, in reality congregations in the singular are under consideration. Admittedly this might be an effective sermonic application of James’ words, but certainly not his actual object.
Although James is orientated toward stressing the potential negative impact of the tiny tongue, if we stop to think about it that small instrument can have a huge positive impact as well--when it is used to express the moral excellence and character that should dwell in our soul. And when it is used to encourage the development of such in others as well.
The ancient Plutarch worded it this way (utilizing the same images of James!), “And again. ‘’Tis character persuades and not the speech.’ No, rather it is both character and speech, or character by means of speech, just as a horseman uses a bridle, or a helmsman uses a rudder, since virtue has no instrument so humane or so akin to itself as speech.”
How many great revivals have been sparked by men who were recognized as sincere, virtuous, and powerful examples of what it meant to be a Christian—by the use of that same tiny tongue that others use to divide, humiliate, and destroy? Hence the tongue is very definitely the proverbial “two edged sword.” It can sweep aside danger or it can be used to create the danger.
James, however is not yet concerned with explicitly presenting that side of the situation. He is apparently faced with such manifest abuse of speaking abilities that the destructive side has to be put front and center--the readers being rhetorically “beat over the head” to make them fully aware of the kind of folly that their misuses could create.
And probably had already. He is determined to leave them no hiding place. So he doesn’t even implicitly get to the positive use of the tongue until verse 13.
Uncontrolled, the Tongue Produces Vast Evil
Yet It Can Never Be as Completely Controlled
As It Should Be
ATP text: 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it can defile the entire body. It sets on fire the course of our life and is itself inflamed by hell. 7 Every type of beast and bird, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, can be tamed and has been tamed by humans. 8 In contrast, no one can bring the tongue fully under control. It is a disruptive evil, filled with dangerous poison. 9 With it we praise our God and Father and yet we also use it to denigrate mortals, who have been made in the likeness of God. 10 Out of the same mouth comes both blessing and cursing. My fellow comrades, this ought not to happen!
Development of argument:
Building on the image of the vast devastation that can be produced by what began as only a small fire (3:5), James stresses that the same thing happens in the human experience: What the tongue says may seem insignificant—what terrible things can come from something so insignificant in size? Yet it can result in “defiling” our own body and inflaming our own inner embers as if they had been lit by the fires of hell itself (3:6).
For the word here is Gehenna and the linking of it to fire is also found in Jesus’ personal teaching. He warned of those who “shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew ) and of how it would be better to enter eternity physically maimed than to be full intact and “be cast into hell fire” (Matthew 28:19). The very nature of Gehenna is destructive and when Gehenna (figuratively speaking) is poured out upon the earth its results are what James describes—massively destructive.
Literally speaking, Gehenna
Ever hear of any one building an expensive home in a garbage dump? Or brag of it to others?
Hence to make His point James reaches out to the worst possible location he can: not the fire cooking the food or the fire keeping the room warm. From those sources the [Page 20] “fire” imagery would have a positive aspect for they produce a beneficial result. Instead he selects a place of fire that is so repugnant that any “fires” that it might produce are assumed to stink to high heaven of the refuse and garbage. And these fires are, symbolically speaking, produced by “lighting the fire” of their tongues!
But in the real world the fires of the dump got rid of the trash. But these fires destroy the good, the wholesome, the desirable. Everything gets destroyed on the altar of our pride-driven tongue! It doesn’t even have the “virtue” of the physical dump which gets rid of human wastes!
James makes the point that our tongue has a “nature” far different than anything else in the created world. Looking around us, “every kind” of animal that walks on the earth, flies in the sky, or lives in the sea seems tamable if we set our minds to it. Indeed they have been so mastered both today and in the past (“is tamed and has been tamed,” 3:7).
Note to those who like to make mountains out of molehills: this is a generalization. I have no doubt that he would have conceded that certain creatures had not been tamed—assuming he had heard of some of the more exotic ones you and I take for granted but which would have been unknown to his experience. The point is that one would have been hard pressed to find any animal that failed to meet that standard of “tamability.” As such it creates a valid basis for an argument and a generalization.
The human problem is that we can’t control our own tongue. Everything else we can conquer; we are defeated by ourselves. Worst, it never seems satisfied for it is “an unruly evil” (3:8; “a restless evil,” ESV, NIV, RSV; “an uncontrollable evil,” GW, ISV; “a disruptive evil,” ATP).
[Page 21] When we are doing this, we are really making a situation worse and worse. It is sometimes described as “digging a deeper hole for ourselves.” The tongue does that all too easily. Rather than shutting up while we are still ahead or we haven’t made a total fiasco of the situation, it keeps going and going making it even worse.
Verse 9 contains a touch of what might be called religious humor or satire for it would be irrelevant to the irreligious: “With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God.” Oh, we are religious. We have the greatest love and affection for “our God and Father:” for we freely “bless” Him (“praise,” CEV, GW, NIV; “give thanks to,” TEV; “give praise to,” BBE).
But when we turn to those who are “made in
the similitude of God” and toward whom we would naturally expect parallel
consideration, it is something very different (3:9). (“Similitude:” “Likeness [of God],” ASV, GW, ISV, NASB, NIV,
Toward God, absolute courtesy and respect; toward our fellow mortals, absolutely no restraint. If you will: God is to be feared; man is to be destroyed. Hence in our ATP we word it, “Out of the same mouth comes both blessing and cursing,” good and bad, praise and condemnation in the widest sense of both.
[Page 22] Clearly James regards this as morally unhinged; one may claim to be a follower of God’s will, but one is giving the lie to it by one’s behavior.
Aside: Was the “city dump” the physical model for Jesus’ and James’ language of Gehenna? The vast bulk of commentators say so, but there is another current of opinion that asserts that the archaeological work from the area provides no evidence of massive burnings and that the earliest literary reference to the dump scenario only comes from the Jewish scholar Kimichi (c. 1200 A.D.).
However, human sacrifices were
offered in the valley by fire to the pagan god Moloch. Of King Ahaz we read, “But he walked in the
way of the kings of
Jeremiah specifically indicates that the place was the valley of Hinnom and that it would be filled with the dead bodies of those perishing when God’s wrath was unleashed, “And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart. Therefore behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Tophet, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Tophet until there is no room” (Jeremiah 6:31-32).
Hence the valley would be full of dead bodies in the same place that their children had been burned to death as idol offerings. It seems easy to see how this would, conceptually, easily translate into “they will be thrown into the place where their children were thrown into the fire” as if they themselves were also being thrown into it as well. It would be a natural rhetorical development whether the valley was used as the city dump or not. After all, in ancient days human bodies had been literally put into fires at that site.
[Page 23] It should also be considered that if one were deciding to build such a facility (refuge dump), what better—or more likely--place to put it than a valley that had been repeatedly defiled by the fires of human sacrifices? A desecrated site for a necessary but distasteful and vile side-effect of life—getting rid of the wastes. In other words, probability works in behalf of a / the dump being in that location.
Furthermore, Jesus speaks as if the allusion to Gehenna would be one easily understood by His listeners. Unless it had a reasonable connection to some local point where fires were regularly burning (like a dump) how could He possibly have made this kind of argument?
Does it not require some local
identifiable site that they would believe is being used to make a spiritual
point? Hence we are back to where we
began—if He doesn’t refer to the then current usage of the
We concede that its past historical--rather than current--usage might have been referred to, but that seems significantly less probable. It’s the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) at work: make the allusion obvious and easily identifiable. Current usage would work better to assure that.
Furthermore, the same local allusion seems clearly intended in the eternal fire language of the Old Testament. In Isaiah 66, the prophet speaks of a place of burning where the evil would be disposed of in the time of God’s triumph, “23 And it shall come [Page 24] to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me, says the Lord. 24 And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
Can we read this—or Jesus—without believing that a local site is clearly the jumping off point for the prophet’s imagery? A place that was already being used for burning. Again, the “city dump” scenario—whatever spiritual applications may be intended to be grafted upon top of it.
We Should Imitate Nature:
It Never Brings
From the Same Source
ATP text: 11 Does the same spring send out both drinkable water and bitter tasting from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree, my comrades, bear olives or a grapevine bear figs? Similarly, no source of salt water can also pour out drinkable water.
Development of argument:
To illustrate how (spiritually) insane it is to treat God with honor but those created in His image with verbal (and presumably other) contempt, James argues from nature. It is flat out unnatural.
Take a spring that is pouring forth its water. It is not going to simultaneously be pouring forth both “fresh” water and “bitter” water (3:11), that is “salt water” (3:12). It simply is not going to happen.
Some translations of 3:11 shift this a little in an effort to bring a clearer understanding: instead of “fresh” and “bitter,” we have “sweet” and “bitter” water” (BBE, Holman, TEV, Weymouth, Young’s Literal), “fresh and brackish” (ISV), or “drinkable water and bitter tasting” (ATP). A few opt to bring out the moral overtone: “clean and polluted water” (GW) or “clean water and dirty water” (CEV). But here we clearly get into the conclusion James wants us to draw rather than the argument based upon which we are to reach that conclusion.
The reading in verse 12 continues the argument that has just been made, but a significant number of manuscripts have a shift from what a spring does to what a pond does, producing this type of translation: “Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (ESV). Hence making the same basic argument, once from the standpoint of a spring and then from the standpoint of a pond. In both cases the “type” of water is going to be uniform. Likewise a Christian’s speech should be uniform—in a good direction and not a destructive one.
Next James switches to fruit-bearing trees: “Can” (i.e., is it possible at all?) for a fig tree to grow olives or for an olive vine to produce figs ()? The answer is so clear cut he doesn’t even bother to answer the question this time. It simply isn’t going to happen.
Hence James introduces a double argument—from water and from agricultural products—both of which are firmly grounded in nature and what is natural and unnatural. So unnatural it can’t be expected and it simply can’t be done. Period. Yet Christians, in their (unintentional? unthinking?) arrogance, think they can “flow forth” with two incompatible ways of treating people and that there is nothing wrong with it.
At times they are soothing spiritual counselors attempting to help you deal with your difficulties and weaknesses. At other times they are tearing your heart out with savage innuendo and insult. Worse yet, with some people you aren’t fully sure which it will be till the words start coming out of their mouths.
In contemporary argument of today, this is probably the point where the author would have added, “Are you stark raving insane?”
Similar incongruity arguments—i.e., how can both possibly occur?—are found in ancient Greco-Roman philosophers:
Plutarch, arguing that an individual should remain content with one’s naturally suited role in life, states: “We do not expect the vine to bear figs, nor the olive grapes.” And again, Epictetus exclaims, “For how can a vine be moved to act, not like a vine, but like an olive, or again, an olive to act, not like an olive, but like a vine? It is impossible, inconceivable.”
Finally, Seneca states this same principle: “Do you think a sane person would marvel because apples do not hang from the brambles of the woodland? Would he marvel because thorns and briars are not covered with some useful fruit?”
The precedent for James’ incongruity analysis rests directly and most immediately, of course, upon Jesus having utilized the same kind of argument. Jesus warned His listeners that a good test of whether a prophet was true or not was whether the actions were consistent with the claims:
15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them (Matthew 7).
Indeed, He Himself argued from the incongruity of claiming to be a follower of God while all types of horrible evil comes out of the mouth:
33 Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. 34 Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. 36 But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12; cf. the parallel account in Luke -45).
With such a vigorous precedent to remember, is it any surprise that James’ argument should be present in forceful and “undodgable” language as well? Both wanted to root out any chasm between claims and practice.
Fourth Test of Our Faith:
Manifesting the Right Attitude in What We Do
There is far more to life than what comes out of the mouth--though that can either heal or make things worse. Hence, James next turns to a discussion of how true wisdom requires a destruction of self-centeredness (-16) and a cultivation of the positive virtues that breed unity and well-being (-18). As in the discussion of faith and works in chapter two, James sees discipleship as a matter of “this” and “that”--both being essential. He never falls into a one dimensional definition of discipleship, recognizing that the full spiritual life requires the cultivation of many positive virtues as well as the suppression of many destructive traits as well.
The Underlying Principle: How We Act
Demonstrates the Motives and Attitudes
In Our Hearts
ATP text: 13 Who is wise and well-instructed among you? Show by good conduct that your behavior is motivated by the humility that comes from wisdom.
Development of argument:
Everyone wishes to be thought of as intelligent and, perhaps, well educated in addition. Even the person who lacks “book learning” wants to be regarded as fully competent and able in their individual career choice, preferably a step above the competency of everyone else doing the same thing. It’s a matter of self-respect and establishing one’s ability. Not (at its best) running someone else “down,” but building oneself “up.”
James raises the tender question of how one proves our intellectual success. He argues that we demonstrate it not by the scholars and experts we can quote, but by how we treat others. In his—and our—culture, to say that a person is “wise and understanding” easily becomes a euphemism for saying he’s puffed up and egotistical and occasionally visits planet earth to mingle with the unwashed heathen who are his brethren.
In contrast, James defines intellectual success not as mere book learning but in terms of how we treat those we regard as less wise and less perceptive. That proves what we really are. Just as character is proved by action and not claim, likewise true knowledge and insight is verified in the same manner.
Note that he doesn’t say we are actually smarter than they are. Merely that we think we are or claim we are. This seems to carry unspoken freight: if you aren’t really the perceptive and well instructed person you perceive yourself to be . . . then, of course, you are going to act boorish. You stand self-indicted by the gap between your pretensions and your behavior.
[Page 31] Either way—genuinely smarter or not--they stand self-condemned. Even if they have true wisdom and perceptivity they should know better for they haven’t been using it in their relationship with others. Unused talents are worthless talents, aren’t they?
First century society highly commended humility—if you were a slave or if your social status was not high. Among those who were free or of significant societal “standing,” humility would normally be considered as out of place and a needless denigration of one’s own status. Hence to expect all church members to show such restraint would have been a major rewriting of the “social rules” anticipated in Greek influenced society.
Especially would this be the case of the teachers with which James began the chapter. By the nature of their “calling” they occupied a de facto special status since few would actually be such. Hence with their limited numbers came a certain prestige and “standing,” at least within the Christian community. Yet they, too, were expected to exercise a generous standard toward all others, both because they were Christians and because of the special influence they would have.
Being “wise and understanding” envolves two overlapping areas. First, how we act when we are routinely going about our business without any special involvement with others; secondly how we interact with others. The first consists of our demeanor when we are in “neutral” so to speak: we are just “doing what we would normally be doing” and nothing is specially happening in regard to other people. Nothing beyond, perhaps, a nod and a smile.
[Page 32] Like
the Pharisee and the sinner Jesus refers to as going into the
We discover, virtually inadvertently, just how much their faith actually shaped their lives when they are simply “being themselves.” And it should be exhibiting a major effect. One commentator suggests a possible intended verbal tie-in with the Old Testament and it fits in well here,
James was steeped in the Old Testament, and the Hebrew word for “wisdom” has the nuance of skill. Specifically, the kind of wisdom that the Book of Proverbs exhorts us to seek is the skill to produce an attractive life in God’s sight. James may have had in mind Job 28:28, which in the LXX uses the same Greek words for wisdom and understanding. It reads, “And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’”
True wisdom is based on knowledge, but it is more than knowledge. It is the ability to live in a manner pleasing to God because you understand His truth and you live in constant submission to His Spirit, applying that truth to all of life.
And then there is the area of life that James is centered upon and which grows out of that individual relationship with God that we should have fully developed: Our actions toward others. The poorer. The richer. The ones we like and the ones we dislike. Humility and consistent courteous treatment of others was clearly one of the practical fundamentals of a proper lifestyle in James’ mind. Without it our pretensions to true “status” are useless. No matter what official or unofficial “post” we hold or how prestigious are our intellectual credentials.
What Is Manifested in Our Behavior
If Our Motives Grow Out of
Envy and Self-Centeredness
ATP text: 14 But if you have bitter envy and self-centered ambition in your heart, do not brag about yourself and so betray the truth. 15 This wisdom does not come down from heaven, but is of earthly origin, self-centered, demonic. 16 Why do I say this? Where envy and self-centered ambition exist, there is turmoil and every moral failure.
Development of argument:
Unfortunately many of the “smart folk” in the world—even in the church—have the wrong attitude toward both others and themselves.
In their heart they are full of “bitter envy” (3:14; also in ATP, BBE, Holman, NIV; “bitter jealousy,” ASV, CEV, ISV, NASB, RSV; “bitterly jealous,” GW; the TEV, interestingly, lists the two items separately, perhaps to emphasize that each is wrong in and of itself: “jealous, bitter”). It’s not necessarily that they don’t have what they need to be happy and content. They often have enough to make most folks (and themselves when they are in a better mood) quite satisfied.
But to see someone else have something different, but which they emotionally misinterpret as “better,” that galls them. For some this is a departure from their normal level-headedness.
For others it is chronic: they always find someone else having a possession, ability, or respect that they do not enjoy. It would (just temporarily, unfortunately) make them feel better if it was where it “belonged,” i.e., with them—that is, until they come across another appealing [fill in the blank] that would then meet their “joy high” for another few days, weeks, or months. Because they find in others rather than themselves what they seek, they are doomed to perpetual discontent.
[Page 35] And it inevitably affects both what they say and how they say it: The description of them as “bitter” suggests that the teachers sharing in this fault “were ferocious, emotively expressive, harsh, and angry. . . . However foreign it might be to the Western Christian world, we should not ignore the possible physical violence involved in this language (cf. 4:2; see also ).”
They have mixed two negatives together: to the nasty cooking pot of envy they have stirred in bitterness—making the resulting “stew” even nastier. Or, as one writer has put it, “If ‘envy’ is desire for what another has, ‘bitter envy’ must mean a person wants something so much that he is angry and hateful over it. Bitterness is a child of anger and resentment.”
Can the result be anything else but
hateful—even if hidden behind pious rhetoric?
Unfortunately some become masters of using their piety to cut the other
to the quick—out of the most “dedicated motives,” of course. Sometimes such people actually believe what
they are saying (and self-deception gets added to the bitter stew); it becomes
a religiously sanctioned way of getting in the dagger. In other cases there is an element of
conscious misuse of position and influence.
Either way it remains sinful.
The second characteristic they have is being permanently “self-seeking” (3:14; “selfish,” TEV; “selfishness,” CEV; “selfish ambition,” Holman, NASB, NIV, RSV; “self-centered ambition,” ATP, GW; “rivalry,” ISV, Rotherham, Weymouth, Young; “desire to get the better of others,” BBE). It isn’t wrong to wish to advance one’s interests. It is wrong when it becomes an obsession or is done to the harm of others. When it is the “I” who is the only one who counts.
[Page 36] Can one be self-seeking in the negative sense without regarding others as rivals? Does it not too easily become a “zero sum” game, in which there is no room for both of us be successful but only one of us—myself of course! Hence “envy” must go hand-in-hand with “self-seeking,” for it is through the latter that we try to assuage and remove the envy—by obtaining what is sought.
Envy carries with it unadmitted freight, however: if they really do have something so much more important and better than us, they must be more important and greater than us! The insightful pagan ancients were well aware of this. Pliny once spoke of how, “Envy always implies conscious inferiority wherever it resides.” Or as the mid-twentieth century evangelical C. S. Lewis wisely put it, “We dislike the Big Noise at the party because we want to be the Big Noise.”
James warns his readers that if they exhibit these two character faults, they are the last people who should “boast” about themselves (3:14; also: NIV, RSV; “boasting,” ISV, Rotherham; “boastfully,” Weymouth; “brag,” ATP, CEV, Holman; “arrogant,” NASB). They must puff themselves up to make them look as if they are greater than they really are to compensate for their perceived lacks. Nothing external is really compelling them to do it; only the fires of their own ego.
In doing this they inevitably “lie against the truth” for to establish themselves as what their fantasy would make them out to be, they have to misrepresent and distort the truth—about both themselves and others.
Perhaps other translations bring out a bit better this element of distorting reality: these folk “lie to cover up the truth, CEV; are “false to the truth,” RSV; “talking falsely against what is true,” BBE; “showing yourself false against the truth,” Rotherham; “lie in defiance of the truth,” Holman; “speak . . . falsely, in defiance of the truth,” Weymouth; “lying against the truth,” ISV; “deny the truth,” NIV; “betray the truth,” ATP).
[Page 37] To be blunt, they are not going to let something as “unimportant” as truth and reality stand in the way of their delusions. (Think of politicians when they have to go from hyperbole to outright fantasy to attempt to justify themselves in doing something unsavory.)
To the extent that this kind of behavior can be an expression of “wisdom” at all, it certainly is not of Divine origin; it does not come “from above” but originates in the “earthly, sensual, demonic” (3:15). The first half of the argument is to strip such behavior of any claim to having God’s approval. It doesn’t have it. This kind of behavior can not and will not be endorsed or encouraged by Him.
Commentators have often suggested that this trio of evil “form a climax, each one indicating greater alienation from God.” With “demonic” at the end of the list, one can easily see the reasoning behind the approach. More likely the point is to be all inclusive, i.e., there is no good place to have gotten these traits from.
It is as if James is saying: Your self-centered ego has betrayed you. Which of these negative sources would you prefer to admit is your true motivation? Obviously none of these are complimentary! Furthermore, whichever one they might choose, it is still a totally inadequate justification for their behavior—and they full well know it. It is simply indefensible.
[Page 38] It is almost as if there is an undercurrent here, flowing beneath the text: “You think there is some other way to justify yourself? They either all come down to one of these—or if you can somehow come up with a different alternative--to one that is equally inadequate.”
He justifies his highly negative selection of unconscious motivations on the simple ground that they explain what is actually happening: where these are present you can’t stop negative things from happening. “Every evil thing” is present ()—or will be.
He seems to be saying that, “I’m pulling my punches. You’ve got a bad situation. I know it and you know it. The kind of examples I give touch just the edge of it.”
We see here a very perceptive arguer. Sometimes it does absolutely no good to “hit a person over the head” with every dumb or foolish thing they’ve done. For one thing, many are going to stop listening. For another, the longer the list, the more likely you are going to have something on it that they can find a self-justifying rationale around.
So he limits himself to a few characteristics that virtually no one can question—in particular, treating the poor with contempt in church services and neglecting the destitute (chapter 2) and outright mistreatment of them (chapter 5). The wise teacher argues from where the unwilling listener is most vulnerable and most unable to dodge the criticism. The aim being: “Learn the lesson here and it won’t be half as hard applying it to other matters.”
A. T. Robertson suggests that the personality pattern being described is one that could be “justified”—in their minds—by the religious “motive” they claimed was behind it. Actually, it let the teachers build up their own egos by tearing down others—all in the name of being steadfast defenders of the gospel . . . not to mention that the same thing happens today both out of these reasons as well as misguided over-enthusiasm,
“The whole of Christianity of many a devotee consists only, we may say, in a bitter contempt for the sins of sinners, in a proud and loveless contention with what it calls the wicked world” (Stier). The point of James is precisely this.
The very contentiousness which they regarded as supreme proof of their qualifications as exponents of the faith is here urged by James as absolute proof that they are disqualified for the position of teachers. Their bitterness makes it improper for them to talk about love and gentleness. Sometimes the very fierceness of one’s contention for orthodoxy drives some people into heresy. It is a sad outcome when one’s high and holy ambition to teach the things of Christ is frustrated by a Christless spirit of wrangling and personal abuse.
To many preachers of the gospel, to denounce sin seems virtually equivalent to triumphing over it—even when few or no one is changing behavior due to their harshness. “Steamroller religion” can make a pulpiteer feel good; it can unleash his most creative (and destructive) talents. But when ferocity is effectively defined as “success”--rather than repentance being such--what has really been gained?
In all fairness, there were times in my preaching career when I suspected that there were more than a few listeners who defined orthodoxy as this teaching style and felt most comfortable when matters were approached this way: The sermon was to be their “weekly spanking” so they could feel appropriately guilty—and go out and continuing doing the same thing over again. If was their “penance” for their sin.
What is Manifested in Our Behavior If
Our Motives Are What They Should Be
ATP text: 17 But the wisdom that originates from heaven is first pure, then peace seeking, gentle, open to persuasion, full of kindness and good deeds, consistent and without pretence. 18 Now the harvest of being acceptable with God is planted in peace by those who aim to maintain peace.
Development of argument:
Paul asks: What is love (1 Corinthians 13)? James asks: What is wisdom? What is prudent and reflects true insight? Yet the answer to both questions reflect the same essential conclusions. Love and wisdom create similar repercussions and “fall out” from their existence: Just and fair treatment of others.
[Page 41] How can people know that what they are doing reflects the best course, reflects the greatest possible “wisdom?” James argues for the standard being wisdom “from above,” an obvious euphemism for “from heaven” (ATP, BBE, NIV) or “from God.” Or as Proverbs 2:6-7 puts it, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly.”
And that wisdom is shared with us through His word: “For the commandment is a lamp, and the law a light; reproofs of instruction are the way of life.” Or as Psalms 119:104-105 expresses much the same idea, “Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
In short, want to have true wisdom? Then listen to His revealed word. It will become the “operating manual” for life in this world.
There are two basic divisions in James’ list. The first one concerns the inward nature we have—or should have--developed as believers. The second division concerns how they are expressed in concrete behaviors. Brent Kercheville develops the analysis in this manner,
Verse 17 is very interesting, not only for its meaning, but also for its literary style. Much of the verse is in alliteration and rhyme. These things are lost, of course, as the Greek is translated into English. The [first] three characteristics James lists . . . are: eirenikos (i-ray-nee-kos), epieikes (ep-ee-i-kace), eupeithes (a-yoo-pe-thace). The ESV reads, “peaceable, gentle, open to reason.” These are three characteristics that describe the wise person’s disposition. . . .
[Page 42] The second set of qualities reveal the wise person’s actions. James says that those with godly wisdom are full of mercy and good fruits. In Greek, these words have some rhyme to them. The Greek reads: mestos eleos kai karpos agathos. In the ESV, the English is “full of mercy and good fruits.”
. . . The final couplet is found at the end of verse 17. These final two words in the Greek also have alliteration and rhyme. The Greek reads: adiakritos (ad-ee-ak´-ree-tos) kai anupokritos (an-oo-pok´-ree-tos). The ESV reads, “impartial and sincere.” These final two words describe the steady constancy of the one who has godly wisdom. The NASB reads, "unwavering and without hypocrisy." I think this reading matches the intended idea best.
Of course, in real life disposition and actions inevitably overlap, one influencing and “bending” the other. James wants them to both overlap in a positive and constructive direction, reinforcing each other for the good. James tells us that the Divine wisdom wishes us to be--
(1) “Pure” (similarly, ATP, CEV, GW,
Holman, ISV, NASB, NIV, RSV,
Hence our behavior is motivated by “pure” intents and purposes—not preferring one above another or using our benevolence as cloak for self-serving enrichment (either financial or from the appreciative praise of others). Whatever faults we surely will have, they will not be controlling what we say and do.
This is explicitly labeled “first” on the list—not merely because it is numerically listed in that place, but because it is the foundation that the others are built upon. And without which the others have their value diminished—or even eliminated.
Of what value is peace and gentleness, for example, if it is purchased at the price of tolerating and even endorsing anything and everything? Then there is peace because there are no standards and no demand for purity at all. The challenge is to seek both without compromising either.
(2) “Peaceable” (similarly RSV; “peace seeking,” ATP; “peace-loving,” Holman, ISV, NIV; “peaceful,” GW, TEV, Weymouth; “full of peace,” BBE; “friendly,” CEV).
We speak of people who walk around “with a chip on their shoulder.” They have an agenda and they expect to accomplish it—period. Everyone else is supposed to get out of their way. This assures conflict. The only question is how much and in what form. The combative mind frame: “My way or the highway.”
[Page 44] And it isn’t necessarily even an “issue centered” difference. It doesn’t have to be a matter of perceived moral principles of right and wrong, but simply what the aggrieved insists must be done to keep him, personally, happy. With Biblical texts appropriately “massaged,” perhaps, to “prove” why it is necessary. (Some don’t even feel the need for that camouflage.)
This mind frame of “restrained aggression 24 hours a day” may exist but it doesn’t reflect God’s will or His preferences. His agenda is to seek out accommodations where it is honorably possible. Paul put it this way, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans ).
Peacefulness envolves giving everyone as much “elbow room” as possible short of violating the scriptural norms. But are your standards actually a matter of personal preference rather than something required by the texts? You may well, voluntarily, choose to live a life with more “thou shalt nots” than plainly demanded by revelation. That is your freedom and your right. But don’t harshly “come down on” those who have not made the same decision!
In other words, within this area of peace-seeking must be blended in the fact that there are some things I may not be able to do in good conscience, but someone else can. Paul dealt with this problem in regard to those who would attempt to undermine that person’s aversion and encourage him to eat meats he would regard as sinful (Romans 14:1-23). Not objectively sinful, but sinful in his own eyes. Don’t undermine him by ridicule or snide remarks was Paul’s response (Romans ).
[Page 45] In turn, avoid eating meats impure to him when it is obvious what you are doing: remember Paul’s warning about eating meats on social occasions in pagan temples where it would be obvious that the meats were “dedicated” to alien gods (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). But note that even here it is prudential care for the other person rather than any absolute wrong in our own behavior that is envolved.
In short, seek peace—but maintain one’s moral integrity. And allow the other person to do so as well.
(3) “Gentle” (similarly, ATP, BBE, CEV,
GW, Holman, ISV, NASB, RSV, TEV; “considerate,” NIV; “courteous,”
The one who is “gentle” is the one who pulls the punches, who attempts to achieve the desired goal with the least amount of damage. The zeal and any (hopefully constructive) ambition that is driving the person is tempered by “gentleness” that steers him or her away from excess and toward finding a way of maxim acceptability to all. We are willing to compromise what we personally would prefer in order to obtained what we all need.
I rather like the way one unidentified commentator worded it, “It carries the meaning of moderation without compromise, gentleness without weakness. Carl Sandburg described Abraham Lincoln as a man of ‘velvet steel,’ a good description of biblical gentleness.”
[Page 46] In other words, we exercise such virtues, “but not because of weakness. Rather, power and strength exists but it has been placed under control.” This is because we know we are in the right and that we don’t need to intimidate anyone. Only error has to use coercion.
We know that moral decisions must be made voluntarily and not out of compulsion or they won’t last—or the old evils will be maintained as hypocritical sins. And what good does that accomplish any one? We aim to win the hearts of men and women rather than merely produce a superficial outward conformity.
(4) “Willing to yield” (also ISV; “reasonable,” NASB; “open to reason,” RSV; “readily giving way in argument,” BBE; ATP; “sensible,” CEV; “compliant,” Holman; “friendly,” TEV; “not self-willed,” Weymouth; “submissive,” NIV; “obedient,” GW). That doesn’t mean he is going to reverse himself just because you want him to. It doesn’t mean for a second that he is supposed to be gullible or blind to the evidence.
You are going to have to give him or her a good reason. With that in hand, he won’t permit his stubbornness to keep him from giving way. He’s evidence driven, not emotion driven.
The caveat is essential: God calls on us to treat the needs and concerns of others with understanding—not to permit ourselves to be unilaterally abused by them because they simply “want” something different. They need to have better reasonable cause than we do.
[Page 47] Divine wisdom pleads for accommodation, honorable accommodation, when it can be obtained. Human stubbornness should yield to flexibility. That means one must be able to distinguish between what is insignificant and what is important and between what is important and what is vital. Winning the “war” and needlessly chasing the man or woman away from the faith puts our personal pride of accomplishment over the good of the other person.
Some find here a fascinating distinction between “gentle” and “willing to yield.” In Greek usage, the former often has the connotation of someone higher in status cutting leeway for one lower in importance, wealth, or power. “Willing to yield” is associated with the actions of that other person and his willingness to accept a course rather than digging in his heels and refusing to cooperate.
Call it whatever you will in a given society. It remains a mind-frame essential for the prosperity—and even survival—of a congregation. You don’t rest on your “rights” real or imagined. You seek what is best for the general welfare and for each other individually. You cut each other “slack” so that self-respect can remain.
(5) “Full of mercy” (similarly, BBE,
Holman, NASB, NIV, RSV; “filled with mercy,” GW; “kind,” CEV; “full of
kindness,” ATP; “full of compassion,” ISV, TEV,
It also involves cases when someone just simply needs help. (Think the poor and hungry church members in chapter 2.) Nothing of our own ego or pride is directly involved here. It is a pure example of our willingness to be helpful to those who stand in its need.
[Page 48] “This is compassion that moves a person to act or aid the other person. This is true even when the person in trouble has brought it upon himself.” In this context we might well think in terms of how often “mercy” is used of God’s relationship to us struggling mortals who find ourselves in dire situations. Not just out of injustice or bad fortune but sometimes out of pure stupidity.
My teenage grandson went to court the day I wrote the above paragraph and the defense attorney warned him that he was likely to get two weeks in jailed detention. By the narrowest of good fortune the judge was “full of mercy” and gave him several non-detention substitutes—and a scathing lecture on his needlessly failing grades. “Mercy” but not at the cost of denying the foolishness or trying to get him to straighten out his life while there is time.
“Full of mercy” does not mean that you necessarily like the person. Rather the emphasis is on your doing what the person needs—either to survive or better himself. Like the judge did to my grandson.
Skip Moen develops the argument at length that the Greek word used here must be interpreted in such a manner and the emotional aspect reduced to a secondary emphasis if even that. He does so on the grounds that the Old Testament—in Greek—used the word in the sense of describing behavior rather than attitude. Hence that would have played a decisive role in James’ use of it in writing to a Jewish-Christian audience living in the Diaspora,
In Greek, “mercy” is eleos. In Greek thought, mercy is a pathos; an emotion that arises from encountering undeserved suffering in another. . . . Emotion overpowering reason is the worst possible situation. Greek thinkers do everything possible to avoid these situations.
With this background in mind, it is clear that James cannot be using eleos in the Greek sense of the term. He uses eleos the way the LXX uses eleos, and that means he is thinking of hesed, not the emotion of mercy. Over and over, the LXX translates the Hebrew hesed as eleos. But if this is true, then James is not thinking about emotions at all! He is thinking about the godly actions of hesed. Divine wisdom from above produces a life of hesed; a life dedicated to relational, reciprocal, transitive obligation in demonstrable action. For James, it doesn’t matter how you feel. It only matters what you do!
If emotions become envolved, that is fine (we are not, after all, mere robots!), but the behavior should be the same whether they are there or not.
(6) “Full of . . . good fruits”
(similarly, Holman, ISV, NASB, NIV, RSV; “good deeds,” ATP; “harvest of good
deeds,” TEV; “filled with . . . good deeds,” GW; “full of . . . good works,”
BBE; “helpful,” CEV; “kind actions,”
Vague and wide covering language. Anything that is beneficial and helpful comes under the description.
[Page 50] Hence this lifestyle can manifest itself in an ever-changing array of ways as a multitude of different problems are encountered. No two are likely to ever be exactly the same. Our actions will be shaped by the specific situation, what our own resources and skills are, and the problems our coreligionists encounter.
For example, taking a lonely elderly person out to dinner is fine, but if we know they are in need of house repairs which they can’t afford—but which we have the talent to help with—anything we can do in regard to that problem would be even better.
To be “full of” means that it is not to be stopped; it is to be a consistent and ongoing way of life. That requires a periodic re-evaluation of how we are acting and living. Have I allowed some desirable behavior to atrophy out of boredom? Am I simply blind to what is happening around me because I drifted out of the habit of having concern?
Have others “de-evolved” from persons into mere “objects” that drift across my course of life and who are of as little importance as driftwood? Am I “hiding” in a large congregation so others won’t notice what I’m doing—or, in this case, not doing?
There is no need to be hypercritical or ever seeking out some “unmissed” fault in ourselves. That would be as wrong as seeking them out in other people! But we do need to conduct occasional “spiritual health checks” on ourselves lest we allow weaknesses and unconcern to creep in unnoticed.
To be “full of good fruits” means we have to stay alert to the opportunities. Not only today, but ten years from now. It avoids becoming a burden because we don’t dwell on the “ten years from now” but on the eternal “now” that represents our daily lives and opportunities.
(7) “Without partiality” (“without a trace
of partiality,” ISV; “impartial,” GW, NIV; “without favoritism,” Holman;
“without uncertainty,” RSV; “unwavering,” NASB; “consistent,” ATP; “genuine,”
CEV; “free from prejudice,” TEV; “free from favouritisim,”
When need is present it doesn’t matter who that person is. It’s also needed regardless of our personal relationship in the past. In the context of chapter 2’s discussion of the treatment of the poor, he surely has particularly in mind those who have less than we and who can be assisted by our actions and intervention.
There is nothing wrong with “lending” to a person whom we can expect a fat contract back in future years. But there is nothing wrong with flat out “giving” to the person who can benefit us in no way, at no time. The first “lending” comes out of self-centered interest (at least in large part); the second out of the desire to do good for those who need a helping hand they can not provide for themselves.
“Without partiality” is a principle fully applicable to whatever leadership role we come to occupy within the congregation. As Bobby L. Graham worded it some thirty years ago,
Elders and deacons must be impartial in their determination of which men to use, in decisions of whom to help, and in the exercise of corrective discipline. Bible class teachers ought to show impartiality in their treatment of their students; preachers in their selection of lessons and forming of friendships; and all Christians in their encouragement, visiting, hospitality, help, and general treatment of others. . . .
[Page 52] In the selection of elders and deacons and teachers, impartiality should guide our efforts. The elite have no priority with God, nor do the less conspicuous. The spiritual credentials make a difference with Him. The same context (1 Timothy , 21) emphasizes fairness in the condemnation of sin. Heinous sins or sins of the less powerful are sometimes severely denounced, while the "respectable" sins of the mighty (gossip, social drinking, materialism, and worldliness) are ignored.
Or today we would perhaps word it, “Sin only exists for the powerless and the unesteemed. Something close to a quiet ‘blank check’ is given to everyone else.” Quite likely he would have been willing to word it that way himself back then.
(8) “Without hypocrisy” (similarly,
Holman, ISV, NASB; “free from . . . hypocrisy,” TEV; “without pretence,” ATP;
“without . . . insincerity,” RSV; “free from . . . all sincerity,”
To some charity and good endeavors are a thin veneer. Done because, to be blunt, it is expected. You associate with “the great unwashed” (to use an expression from not that long ago) not to benefit them, but to create the right public image for ourselves. You do it not because of what it benefits them, but how it benefits you in non-monetary terms of public prestige and praise.
[Page 53] In one sense, it’s good that it’s done even under those false pretenses. After all, the needy are helped even if they serve as nothing more than animate image builders. On the other hand, nothing of spiritual benefit is being accomplished by the giver. All the “repayment” that they can ever be expected to receive is in the present praise.
It’s rather like the hypocritical fasters of Jesus’ day who were only
concerned that their public religiosity be noticed. Jesus gravely rebuked their practice with the
words, “I solemnly tell you that they already have their reward”
Hypocrisy can come in a number of forms. It can come in the form of self-deception: we con ourselves into believing that there really is a legitimate reason why we violate Divine behavioral mandates. Hence we feel no conflict while coming down harshly on others who do the same. Possibly even committing the identical sin!
Hypocrisy can also come in the form of a conscious and knowing double standard. We know right from wrong and no longer care. If we are an able preacher, we may not want to lose a comfortable position. If we are a long-term member, we may simply feel content to follow in the same visible path as established by decades of practice; it is easier to pretend than to admit a radical change of heart. Why go through the discomfort of admitting that our heart is no longer in it? We are now a member of God’s flock in nothing but membership on the church roll. Whatever the rationale, God still knows what is going on. We can’t deceive the All Knowing One.
Verse 18 informs us that these types of motivations and behaviors are what create and maintain peace: “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
This verse is often used as a text advocating international peace and peacemaking. Although there is certainly nothing wrong with that ideal, it is still totally alien to the intent and purpose of the passage.
It is “proof texting”—in the bad sense—with a vengeance, often (though not exclusively) coming from those with a theology that looks upon the Scriptures as neither objective Divine revelation given in a comprehensive and comprehensible form . . . nor which is required to be obeyed by all mortals. But this fundamental hostility to Scripture is ignored because it is a passage that can be easily bent to their politico-theological preferences and provides a “Christian” veneer for it.
This is also an utterly inappropriate means to use the sacred text regardless of one’s personal theology and politics. Just as sadly, by “internationalizing” the application of the passage, we provide a ready excuse to avoid the personal application that James is anticipating and demanding.
Indeed, if there is to ever be national or international peace, surely it begins with efforts to have such a relationship with those we ourselves come in contact with. We cannot change the world, but we can do much to change our working and living environment.
 McKnight, James, 269.
 Ibid., 269-270.
 [Anonymous,] “Ancient Literacy.” At: http://thriceholy.net/literacy.html. [January 2013.] This site provides a well-reasoned and excellent in-depth article, quite effectively arguing that the anti-Biblical biases of religious liberals has led them to dramatically underestimate the true amount of literacy in the ancient Gentile and Jewish worlds.
 Edward (Eddie) L. Bromfield. Smoodock’s Blog. At: http://smoodock45.word press.com/2010/09/09/were-most-ancient-jews-illiterate/. [April 2014.]
 I. J. W.
Oakley, “James 3:1-12.” Sermon notes
 Harry Bethel, “The Art of Almost Saying Something.” At: http://www.bethelministries.com/ART.htm. [July 2012.]
 Robert Wall, Community of the Wise, in the New Testament in Context series (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1997), 174.
 Specific source not identified, as quoted by Polano, “The Law and Its Study.” texts.com/jud/pol/pol27.htm. [January 2013.]
 Moo, 152.
 Witherington, n. 275, page 481.
 Cluny Jane Johnstone, A Biometric Study of Equids
in the Roman World (PhD thesis,
 Ibid., 74; cf. 76.
 For working estimates for reconstruction of Roman legion resources, see Gary Brueggeman, “[Roman] Army Animals,” © 2003. At: http://garyb.0catch.com/ animals/animals.html. [April 2014.]
[Page 56]  Giulia Boetto, “Merchant Vessels and Maritime Commerce in Roman Times” (translated into English by Claire Calcagno). At: http://www2.rgzm.de/navis/Themes/Commercio/CommerceEnglish.htm. (April 2014)
 Moo, 155.
 For examples of contemporary scholars doing so and citations of the “church fathers,” see McCartney, 181. He also provides an analysis of ways that such an approach might make it easier to understand the logical arrangement of the epistle (181-182).
 For a discussion of these and other objections see McCartney, 182,
 How to Study Poetry, 12, as quoted by McKnight, James, 277.
 As quoted by Lockett, Purity and Worldview, 125.
 Witherington, 499.
J. Cole, “Wisdom for Harmonious Relationships (James -18).” Dated
 McKnight, James, 304.
Gagne, “Bitter Envy.” Dated
 Quoted by [Anonymous,] “The Impact of Envy on Our
Relationships with Others, and with God.”
 Greenlee, 153.
 Robertson, 178.
 Brent Kercheville.
“James 3:13-18, Two Kinds of Wisdom.”
 [Anonymous.] “The Right Kind of Wisdom: James 3:13-18.” At: http://horizoncentral.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/james-3-13-18.pdf. [May 2014.]
 Kercheville, “James -18.”
 Witherington, 503.
 In contrast Blomberg and Kamell, 176, believe that it refers to one who is being mistreated and willingly gives up further resistance.
 Cf. Gil Raugh, “Wisdom from Above--James -18.” 1977-1978. At: http://www.biblebb.com/files/gr772.htm. [April 2014.]
 Gil Raugh, “Wisdom from Above--James -18.” 1977-1978. At: http://www.biblebb.com/files/gr772.htm. [April 2014.]
 Skip Moen, “99 and 44/100th Percent.” Dated
 Bobby L. Graham, “The Sin of Partiality.” Guardian of Truth (April 18, 1985). At: http://www.truthmagazine.com/archives/volume29/GOT029112.html. [May 2014.]