James continues his instruction from the previous verse where he exhorted his listeners to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” Not only is his community to open themselves up to the word of God, but they are to be careful to “do” the word.
This is an idea with a long history in the Jewish tradition. When Israel came out of Egypt they were thirsty in the wilderness after days without water. When they came to the spring of Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter. In desperation Moses cried out to the Lord who showed him a log or a tree which Moses threw into the spring with the result that “the water became sweet” (Exodus 15:22-25a).
There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer” (vv. 25b-26).
In this story the Lord uses the Israelites’ thirst and experience at Marah as an object lesson that they should listen to and obey God’s voice. The following statement has a doubled emphasis on listening and doing, giving ear and keeping all the Lord’s commandments, together with the promise that such faithfulness will result in divine blessing. This pattern of doing God’s words is repeated in the covenant ceremony in Exodus 19:4-8 and 24:1-8, and in the descriptions of covenant blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 15 (see also: Deuteronomy 29:29; 31:12; Joshua 1:7-8; 23:6; 2 Kings 17:34, 37; cf. Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”). Scot McKnight (147-148) suggests that since Torah and “do” (‘asah) appear together so often in the Hebrew Bible, we ought to see in James’ instruction a distinctively Christian form of Torah observance.
More directly, the call to do the word echoes Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:21-27 and Luke 6:46-49 (see also Luke 11:27-28; John 8:31-32). Jesus’ parable of the builder distinguishes between those who simply hear his words without doing them, and those who hear and do his words. The difference between the builders is only finally observed when the storm arises and the one who has done what Jesus says stands firm.
Thus James instructs his community to “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers” (Ginesthe de poiētai logou kai mē monon akroatai). Although most English versions translate the particle de as “but,” it may be better to read it as “and,” thus emphasising the continuation of thought of this verse with what James has just said in verse 21 about receiving the word. The imperative ginesthe may be understood in the sense of “become” doers or “continue being” doers of the word. If James’ exhortation in verses 19-21 is directed to a divided community riven with strife and malice, it may be better to read the first sense. Poiētai usually means to make, construct or compose something, but here is likely a Semitism based in the tradition of “doing the Law” (so Vlachos, 58).
What, precisely, does it mean to “do the word”? Initially it simply means to enact it, apply it and obey what it says. This is more easily understood when a direct command is in view. Much of Scripture, however, does not take the form of command, and so a broader interpretation of “do” is appropriate. The community of God’s people is to inculcate the vision and ethos of Scripture, obey the specific commands of Scripture, embody the values of Scripture, and take its place in the ongoing narrative of Scripture.
It may be, however, that James has an even sharper perspective. Verse 18 indicates that the community has been brought forth by the “word of truth,” that is, the gospel, and it may be that James intends that his hearers be doers of this word specifically. Davids suggests that it was a simple transition in the early church from thinking in terms of “doing the Law” to “doing the Word,” especially when Jesus’ teaching was understood as a new kind of law. Thus for Davids, James is calling the community to obey the gospel, which primarily has to do with Jesus’ ethical teaching (96; cf. Matthew 7:24 “the one who hears these words of mine”).
Those who merely hear the word without doing it “deceive themselves” (paralogizomenoi heautous): their faith is not authentic, but pretense, or at least, as yet immature and not fully formed. Such people may believe they are Christians, and so part of the eschatological community of God’s people, but in James’ view, they are mistaken, or more strongly, self-deceived. They are presuming on God. That the self-deception has to do with eschatological salvation seems likely given the call to repentance in verse 21. They have not actually received the saving word or carried repentance through to its conclusion. They are like Jesus’ builder who builds on the sand and so whose house collapses when the storm of judgement is unleashed. For James, this teaching must be taken with utmost seriousness: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
In this text, then, we have a foreshadowing of the theme that James will develop more fully in 2:14-26, that is, faith without works is dead. James has already acknowledged that his listeners have been “born again” through the gospel, but also allows no place for complacence or presumption. True faith is active, issuing in a life of persevering obedience to the will of God, resulting in the realisation of “the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (v. 12).