Scripture on Sunday – James 1:25

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:25
But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

Finally, the point of James’ little parable becomes clear. James has exhorted his listeners to be doers of the Word and not hearers only, for the one who is only a hearer and not a doer is like a person who upon looking at their image in a mirror, goes away and immediately forgets what they look like. Literally, they forget what kind of person they are (vv. 22-24). “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty,” says James, “and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” The point of the parable revolves around the contrast between hearers who forget and doers who act. It is this particular contrast which draws together the language of the previous verses and so unites the whole passage.

Another contrast has been suggested. Some commentators, for example, contrast the “momentary glance” into the mirror with the sustained and persevering study of the Scriptures. The language James uses, however, does not allow this. In verse 23, the word used for looking into the mirror is katanoounti which means to “take note of, consider, to study,” or as Moo notes, the word regularly connotes thoughtful, attentive consideration. So, too, the word used in this verse, parakyptō, literally has the sense of “to bend over to look at more closely, to peer” (Zerwick-Grosvenor, 693; Moo, 83). Thus the contrast between the two persons is not in the manner of the looking, but in the doing as opposed to the forgetting. The person who merely hears the Word gains no more lasting benefit from the Word than they do from looking at themselves in the mirror (Moo). The person who perseveres in the Word and is a doer, however, is blessed in their doing.

The details of this verse are worth pondering. James shifts his language in this verse from that which he used earlier. In verses 18, 21, 22 and 23 he refers to the “Word,” whereas in verse 25 this Word has become “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (nomon teleion tov tēs eleutherias). Further, instead of “doers of the Word” as in vv. 22-23, the person is now a “doer who acts,” or literally, “a doer of the work” (poiētēs ergou).

What does James mean by his first shift? The first thing to note is that for the Jew, the law signified God’s revealed and authoritative will. That the Jews considered the law to be good and perfect is clearly seen in such passages as Psalms 19:7-10 and Romans 7:12. That James saw some continuing validity in the law is seen in 2:8-12 and 4:11-12. In James 2:8-12 James again refers to the “law of liberty” (v. 12) as well as referring to “the royal law” when citing Leviticus 18:19. Further, in this text, the law as a principle and not simply as a rule, is still valid. If a person keeps the whole law, but fails in one point, they become accountable for the whole. In 4:11-12 James refers to God as the lawgiver and judge, thus emphasising the divine authority which lies behind the law.

Is James therefore teaching in verse 25 that the believer must diligently persevere in the Old Testament law in order to be blessed? The matter is not quite that simple. Although James certainly sees the continuing validity of some aspects of the law (see, e.g. 2:8, 11), it is likely that he is reading the law not simply as a Jew, but as a Messianic Jew, that is, as a follower of Jesus in whom the law has been fulfilled (Moo, 50). This is seen most obviously in the flow of James’ argument to this point. The “Word” which James has been referring to throughout this section is the word of truth (v. 18), that is, the gospel. When he substitutes the phrase “the perfect law of liberty” James does not simply jettison the gospel and substitute the Mosaic law as the basis of Christian life and blessing, but reads the law “in a Jesus kind of way” (McKnight, 158), or as Davids expresses the same idea, the “perfect law of liberty” refers to “the Old Testament ethic as explained and altered by Jesus… [i.e.] the teaching of Jesus” (100). James, together with other early Christians—including Paul—viewed the law as fulfilled and perfected in Jesus, and so Jesus as the giver of a new or renewed law (Davids, 99). This, perhaps, is the point of Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, especially in Matthew 5:17-48. Paul, too, can refer to “the Law of Christ” in Galatians 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 9:21, where it likely has reference to the love commandment which fulfils the law (Romans 13:8-10), and is thus the equivalent of James’ “royal law” (2:8), and an echo of Jesus’ second great commandment (Mark 12:31). James’ point is simple: the good news of the gospel includes an unavoidable and searching demand for obedience (Moo, 84). Put theologically, the gospel does not supersede the law but includes the law, though the law fulfilled and radically reinterpreted and refocused by Jesus.

James’ second shift is from “doers of the Word” to “doers of the work.” While it is probably better to translate poiētēs ergou as a “doer who acts” in order to maintain the contrast with the “hearer who forgets,” we do well to pause over James’ use of ergon here, given that “work” and “works” constitute a major theme in his letter, and his use here presages the major treatment of the theme which he will undertake in 2:14-26. Further, in verses 26-27 James will bring this section to its climax by identifying three particular kinds of “work” or activity he intends his listeners to engage in, including especially the work of controlling the tongue, as well as works of mercy and holiness.

James, then, understands the law of liberty in terms of obedience to Jesus’ teaching as he reinterprets the law, and so as a word which makes free (cf. John 8:31-32). The believer is to “persevere” (kai parameinas) in this liberating Word as a doer who acts and thus as a doer of the work. Although Zerwick-Grosvenor (693) suggest that the perseverance is in the activity of looking into the perfect law of liberty, it is better to understand it in the sense of practicing what one finds there, as James goes on to say. In this way one becomes a “doer who acts” rather than a “hearer who forgets” (ouk akroatēs epilēsmonēs alla poiētēs ergou), and so one who also “will be blessed in their doing” (houtos makarios en tē poiēsei autou estai). Estai is future and so suggests that the blessing will be eschatological (cf. v. 12). Nevertheless, the “doer” will be blessed “in the doing” suggesting that a blessing will also accompany the actual act, and so the blessing may have a temporal as well as an eschatological aspect.

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