A Key to Understanding James

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;” (James 1:19 ESV)

If you are like me you are probably familiar with the verse which heads this page. If you are like me you were probably instantly convicted by it. If you are like me you have probably even used it to encourage, exhort, or admonish someone you love. And, if you are like me you probably know little (or at least not enough) about the context or thrust of this verse. In this post I want to accomplish two goals 1) I will argue and persuade you that this verse is the key to the book of James and 2) I want to whet your appetite for James so that you want to go read it yourself. Here we go.

James 1:1-18 which leads up to our text masterfully deals with trials and temptations and James 1:21-4:11 which leads away from our text wonderfully expounds and explains our text. Let me try and prove this second observation since I have already done so with the first in a previous blog post (see my blog post on The Difference Between Trials and Temptations).

James, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us the first command as a positive, let every person be quick to hear. From chapter 1 verse 21 through the end of chapter 2 James explains what it means to be a true hearer.

A true hearer has the following characteristics

  • They put aside all filthiness and wickedness and humbly receive the Word (v.21)
  • They don’t merely hear the Word, they are doers of the Word (v.22)
  • They are not forgetful hearers, but doers who act on what they have heard (v.25)
  • A true hearer then acts and visits orphans and widows and keeps themself unstained (v.26)
  • A true hearer does not show partiality (2:1)
  • A true hearer acts, James chapter 2 outlines the necessity and attributes of such action which is preceded by being a true hearer

Next James gives two negative commands the first of which is let every person be slow to speak. James chapter 3 expounds this point and is very detailed in explaining why every person must be slow to speak and the dangers of the tongue.

Every person must be slow to speak because

  • those who teach will be judged more severely (3:1)
  • if you are able to bridle your tongue you can bridle your whole body (implied is the fact that the tongue is most difficult) (3:2)
  • bridling your tongue is like putting a bit in a horses mouth (3:3)
  •  the tongue is like a rudder on a ship (3:4)
  • the tongue is a small member yet it boasts of great things (3:5)
  • the tongue is a fire (3:6)
  • humans able to tame all animals but not able to tame the tongue (3:7-8)
  • with our tongue we bless God and curse people (3:9)
  • from same mouth blessing and cursing, should not be so (3:10)
  • a spring can not pour forth fresh and salt water, neither should your tongue (3:11)
  • a fig tree cannot bear olives, neither should your tongue (3:11)

Finally, James give a second negative command, let every person be slow to anger. James 3:13-4:11 then goes on to explain the reasoning behind this.

Every person must be slow to anger because

  • the wise and understanding are meek (3:13)
  • those who have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition are false to the truth (3:14)
  • where there is jealousy and selfish ambition there is disorder and every vile practice (3:16)
  • a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (3:18)
  • passions (lusts) are source of quarrels and fights (4:1)
  • desire and do not have so you murder (4:2)
  • you covet and do not obtain so you fight and quarrel (4:2)
  • friendship with the word is enmity with God (4:4)
  • Cleanse your hands, purify your hearts, mourn and weep (4:8-9)
  • humble yourself before the Lord (4:10)
  • do not speak evil against one another, if you do you speak against the law (4:11-12)

So as you can hopefully see that statement in James 1:19 is then more fully realized and more thoroughly explained throughout the rest of the book.

So when you want to know what it means to be quick to hear meditate on James 1:21 through the end of chapter 2. If you want to know why you need to be slow to speak look at James chapter 3. If you want to know why you need to be slow to anger study the end of James 3 and the whole of James 4.

This is a beautiful book and I hope that this helps frame it in a helpful way and makes you want to dive in yourself. If the whole book is not an option I encourage you to run to these sections for help in a time of need.

Grace and Peace.


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