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James 1:19 by Robert Dean
Series:James (1998)
Duration:1 hr 6 mins 56 secs

The Interpretive Key to James; James 1:19

Verses 19-21 comprise a paragraph:  "{This} you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak {and} slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and {all} that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls."

It may not appear to us a first gland but this is one of the most important and significant passage in this epistle. That is because how you interpret this determines how you will interpret the rest of this epistle. So it is important for us to slow down a little and to take a detailed analysis of these verses. We need to ask the question, what is the connection of verses 19-21 to the previous 18 verses? Furthermore, how is this going to relate to the rest of the epistle? Remember, any application of doctrine always is built on a correct interpretation. There is only one interpretation of every passage of Scripture, but there are many different applications. But application, what you do with it, is determined by what the passage means. Interpretation involves two things. It involves determining the meaning of the author. There are two authors in Scripture, though. There is the human author and there is the divine author. So we need to determine what James means and what God the Holy Spirit was communicating to us through James. This is derived at through a combination of various different exercises. It begins with exegesis which looks at the grammar of a passage. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, in conjunction with other passages such as Matthew 5 where Jesus says that no jot or tittle will pass away until all will come to pass, is that every word, not only in terms of the word itself but its form, is significant—whether it is plural, singular, present tense, aorist tense, or whatever, we have to look at the form. We have to do lexical studies and determine the word meanings. Then we have to do textual studies at times, that is, investigating what was written in the original MSS. Remember that when we define the inerrancy of Scripture it is the original writings (autographs) that were inerrant, infallible; it is not the translations. Textual problems mean that some MSS might have one word, others might have another word, so we have to compare MSS and another of other factors and determine what the original reading of the passage is. This is called the science of textual criticism. Once we go through all of this then we have to relate the verse to its overall context. For example, verse 19 here is part of a sentence that includes verse 20. So we have to relate the context of verse 19 to verse 20, and then to the overall paragraph, then to the subsection, the major division within the epistle, and then the message of the epistle itself.

The reason we are going through all of this is that when we go through the process of determining what Scripture says, sometimes we spend a lot of time focusing in some very minute information, and this is always critical. The role of the pastor is to get into the Word of God and study it and teach it. Too often, because of a lot of cultural and historical factors, we have lost that in the pastorate. What happens is the pastors spend all their time going out and visiting and working through all kinds of different activities and trying to figure out what kinds of programs to run in the church, whatever it may be, rather than spending their time doing what the Lord has said they are to do; that is, to equip the saints through the teaching of God's Word.

How does all this relate to James? It relates to James because we are getting ready to study one of the most disputed passages in all of the Bible, one of the most misunderstood passages, and it comes up at the end of chapter two. But it is part of a section in James and that section begins in verse 22, so as we approach verse 19 which sets everything up we have to make sure that we pay attention to the minutia, because it is the minutia that is overlooked by almost every commentary and most theologians, and would cause a completely false interpretation of James. Commentaries have had had one thing in common: they have treated the epistle of James as if it were the New Testament's Proverbs. That means that it is just a series of collected wisdom sayings or collected applications but there is no inherent unity to James. If we start off with that as our assumption of the epistle, that there is no inherent unity and that it is just a series or collections of wise sayings or admonitions to believers and unbelievers, then when we come to some of these difficult passages we are going to completely misunderstand them. We have to do some precise homework here and we have to look at what is really being said, to pay attention to these details and then relate them to the whole. James has a very tight unity, it is very well organized, and if we approach James as a unity, that it is written to believers, then we are going to avoid a lot of these traps. So we have to pay attention to these details.

In the NASB verse 19 starts off, "{This} you know, my beloved brethren." That translates a word in the Greek New Testament, ISTE [I)ste]. The KJV translates, "Wherefore, my beloved brethren." The KJV is based on the Textus Receptus, the collection of Greek MSS available in the 17th century when they translated it. The reading in the KJV is from the Greek word HOSTE [o(wste]. Immediately a similarity is seen between ISTE and HOSTE, but they are two completely different words. But then the issue is, which is in the original? That is what is called a textual problem. Not only do we have a textual problem here but we have a morphological problem. (Morphology refers to the study of the structure and the form of words in a language, including inflexion, derivation and the formation of compound) ISTE is a verb and we have to determine what the parsing is of that verb. In this case the same form is used for both the present active indicative, which is a declarative statement of fact (which is how the NASB has interpreted this)—notice: translations are based on the interpretations of the translator—and therefore should be translated as a declarative statement of fact. But this same form is also the perfect active imperative of the verb OIDA [o)ida] which means to know, to come to know, to learn something, to have knowledge of something. So is this a present active indicative, a declarative statement, or is it a mandate? We have to determine that, but first we have to determine which word it is. Is it ISTE based on OIDA or is it the particle HOSTE which is a word of conclusion, drawing a conclusion or inference, meaning therefore or wherefore? These little details ultimately affect the overall interpretation of the passage.

The evidence in the text for ISTE comes through a group of ancient MSS called Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Alexandrinas. When these three MSS are in agreement many scholars say that that is the original meaning of Scripture. The problem is that these three MSS all derive from the same geographical area, northern Egypt. They all date back to the late second to mid third centuries, so they are very ancient MSS. The assumption is that older is better. But northern Egypt was also the seed bed of many heresies, so there are a lot of other factors that come in. Also, a MSS that was written in the 9th century can be a very accurate reflection of a predecessor which was written at the very beginning of the 2nd century that would be older than one of these. So though older is better sounds good, once we begin to take it apart it is not always so good. The other theory in textual criticism is what is called the Majority Text. To simplify this, the reading that is found in the majority of ancient documents is the original reading. The Majority Text has this view but the textual evidence is not always that clear, we have to look at the internal evidence. By internal evidence it meant the style of the writing.

James uses eleven different commands in these first 21 verses. The way he uses these commands is very interesting. He starts off in v. 2 with a second person plural command: "Count it all joy." If we were to translate that we would render it, "You all count it all joy." He begins with an imperative followed by "my brethren." Then in v. 4 he says, "Let endurance have its perfect result." This is an imperative but it is a 3rd person singular. In verse 5 he says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God." There we have another 3rd person singular imperative. In verse 6 we have, "Let him ask in faith." That is a 3rd person singular. Then in v. 7 a negative, "Let not that man expect that he will receive anything from the Lord," also a 3rd person singular. In v. 13, "Let no one say when he is tempted," and that is a 3rd person singular. Then we return to another 2nd person plural in v.16, "Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren." Notice: a second person plural plus the phrase "my beloved brethren." Then in v. 20, if it is the imperative form it is the 2nd person plural, perfect active imperative, "Know this, my beloved brethren." Every time he mentions "my brethren," or "my beloved brethren" notice his style. It is preceded by a command. That goes all the way through this particular epistle. "Know this," and then it is followed by three commands: "Let everyone be," v. 19, is a 3rd person singular imperative. So there are three mandates expressed by a 3rd person singular imperative.

What does all of this mean? When we look at this we realize that there is a very interesting stylistic pattern here. James wants us to learn something. These 2nd person plurals are addressed as a whole. These are the general principles related to the spiritual life. We are to count it all joy. Well how do we do that? What are the mechanics for counting it all joy? These are expressed by the 3rd person singular to the individual in specific situations. The 3rd person singular imperatives express the mechanics, the details of how to carry out the general mandates for the spiritual life which are expressed by the 2nd person plural imperative.

       Some observations

1)  So first of all we see that James has a very distinctive use of imperatives, a very distinctive pattern throughout the prologue.

2)  James uses imperatives to begin his paragraphs and he never begins a paragraph in the entire epistle with "wherefore" or "therefore," the Greek word HOSTE. It never appears anywhere else in the epistle.

3)  Verse 19 does not appear to be a conclusion derived from v.18. The KJV translates it "Therefore/wherefore," and that would be a conclusion, but it is not related that tightly to v. 18.

4)  There seems to be a certain parallel structure between vv.16-18 and vv. 19-21. It begins with the 2nd person plural, the vocative "my beloved brethren," and then an explanation. Verse 19 begins with an imperative, then the vocative "my beloved brethren," and then an explanation.

5)  The vocative—form of address, "my beloved brethren"—is generally associated with an imperative in this epistle. Nine time "brethren" [a)delfoi] follows an imperative, a command, a mandate. Twice it precedes a mandate. One time it introduces an imperative clause, and twice it is uncertain. Only once in the whole epistle does it introduce a declarative sentence.

So the first word is going to be an imperative, it is a perfect active imperative. Now we have another problem. It fits but it is an imperative as opposed to a declarative, so when we are looking at the NASB and it translates it "This you know," it is interpreting that to mean, Well you have been taught this in the past with the result that you know it in the present. It is simply a declaration of fact. James would be reminding them of something they already knew. But if this is a perfect active imperative then he is commanding them to learn something, to learn a principle and to apply it to their spiritual life. This tells us by inference that he is relating this to the spiritual life of believers and this is sanctification doctrine, not salvation doctrine. That is so important, and that is further emphasized by the phrase "my beloved brethren." But the problem that we have is that a perfect imperative is extremely rare in the New Testament, so if we are solving a textual problem and the ultimate reading is a perfect imperative (rare) then we have to scratch our head and ask why in the world would James use a perfect imperative? The answer is simple. How long it takes to find a simple answer! James is writing to Jews and this is simply a Hebraism. It is an idiom that is a holdover from his native Hebrew or Aramaic. It is not a normal expression in Greek. But the perfect imperative emphasizes the importance of learning this right now, of making these principles a part of our life.

In conclusion, what we see is that is that the proper reading of the text is the verb form OIDA: "know this." It is a command. "You all know this." It is a mandate, and because this is the 2nd person plural following the structure of the introduction we know that this is going to give us a basic mandate for the spiritual life. It will be followed by the specifics related to the mechanics of the spiritual life. That is exactly what we find: "You all know this, my beloved brethren." The emphasis here is on knowledge.

We live in an era when knowledge is being rejected. Along with rejection of rationalism and empiricism people, are rejecting knowledge and are emoting over everything. Even secularists are beginning to observe that one of the major problems facing our whole culture is that we are emoting too much, are too concerned about expressing our emotions, and we are not thinking, not exercising self-discipline and self-control, and as a result we are fragmenting as a culture. So the future decade is going to be a decade of extreme confusion. James is giving us just the opposite. He says we need to know something, we need to go through the process of learning. Romans 12:2 emphasizes the fact that the spiritual life is a life of thought, it is not a life of emotion, mysticism and subjectivity; it is a life that is based upon learning the Word of God.

2 Timothy 2:15 KJV "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."  We have to learn it, we have to study. The word there is the Greek is SPOUDAZO [spoudazw]which has as its root meaning, diligence. When that is applied to the Word of God it means to study. So the old KJV translation is really more precise than the NASB because it takes into account the context, that we are to be involved in a detailed study of God's Word.

Romans 12:2 NASB "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect." We cannot apply what we do not know. The trouble today is that seminary students have been taught that when they go into the pulpit they have to give people application and that the worst thing to do is give a lot of detail because it is going to bore people, they won't understand and it will be over their heads. But it is dumbing down the church, dumbing down evangelicalism, dumbing down Christianity, and what is does is if you teach people application or what to do without them understanding the why, and the how, and the basis in theology and in doctrine, then what you have done is you have reduced Christianity to nothing more than morality, following certain principles and certain mandates without understanding the mechanics related to the spiritual life and the power of God the Holy Spirit. It seems that the greatest sin today in the church is to address anything to thinking Christians. The past thing in this world they want to do is think, they just want to emote.

The goal is to change the innermost thinking of our souls, which the Bible calls the heart. Heart refers to the innermost core of something, the innermost part of our thinking. The Bible uses another word which in the Greek is NOUS [nouj], for mind. When we begin to learn doctrine what happens is that the pastor teaches/communicates the truth of God's Word. As he teaches that it goes in our ear and God the Holy Spirit makes it understandable to you under the term PNEUMATIKOS [pneumatikoj]. The Holy Spirit makes it understandable, He doesn't understand it for you. It is very important to understand that distinction. The believer has to apply his positive volition and think about it. It is what the Old Testament calls meditation. You have to think about these things, which means you don't just sit in Bible class, take notes, put them in your notebook and think that somehow you are growing to spiritual maturity because you have a doctrinal notebook. What matters is that you have thought about it and internalized it in part of your soul and you understand it. The reason Christians fall apart is because they never really understood the doctrine. They can talk the talk, they know the vocabulary, they can regurgitate it back, but they don't really understand it. The Holy Spirit makes the Word understandable and then He transfers it into the mind where it becomes GNOSIS [gnwsij], which is academic knowledge. Everything in life begins with academic knowledge. Then we have to use volition again as to whether we believe it or not. But it can't become academic knowledge unless it is understood. That means we have to think about it what has been taught. So we believe it, exercise positive volition, an it circulates in the mind into the inner lobe of the soul, the heart, the innermost part where God the Holy Spirit circulates it. That is the process of renewing the mind and what James is referring to when he makes the command, "Know this, my beloved brethren." 

Then he gives the specificity: "let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger." Verse 19 is the interpretive key to the entire epistle of James. When we get into this we will see that from verse 22 of chapter one, down through the end of chapter two, James is going to develop the whole concept, what it means to listen to the Word of God, that it doesn't just stop with getting it into your notes but culminates with application, in action. Hearing without application is fruitless, vanity. We are to be slow to speak, dealing with the sins of the tongue (chapter three); slow to anger (chapter four through 5:6), where the issue is mental attitude sins.

The theme of this whole epistle is how to correctly handle adversity. We start by hearing the Word of God; we have to get the Word of God into our soul. We cannot apply what we don't know. Then we have wrong responses. In adversity we always want to talk too much instead of listening. Instead of taking our time and listening to the Word of God we want to get self-absorbed and tell everyone about all our problems. The other problem that we often have when we encounter trials is that we respond in anger. Whenever we respond in anger the first thing we ought to see is that we are not getting our way, things aren't going the way we want them to go. Whatever it might be we respond in anger because we are basically self-absorbed and operating on arrogance. Anger ultimately leads to bitterness and a whole array of mental attitude sins which are destructive to the soul.