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James 1:19-21 - Receiving the Word

James 1:19-21 "My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you."


In verses 19-21, James presses on with the theme of the word of truth, which he introduced in verse 18. And, as we proceed with our study, we will see that he continues to focus heavily on this topic throughout the remaining verses of his letter – specifically in calling for obedience in how to properly respond to the word of God.

As we remember, in verses 1-18, we were encouraged to respond properly to trials, tests, and temptations. In these next sections, we will be encouraged to respond obediently to the truth—the truth of God’s Word through which He chose to give us birth.

James begins this passage again by identifying with his audience, “My dear brothers and sisters.” He then makes it clear that what was to follow was of great importance: “take note of this,” or “know this,” he says. The goal of maturity in Christ and pursuing Christlikeness, which was laid out at the beginning of his letter, requires an adjustment to our listening and speaking.


Getting straight to the point, James admonishes his readers to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. While these commands are very important in interpersonal relationships, if we read this verse in the context of the surrounding verses, we see that James relates these commands to responding appropriately to the word of truth. He explains how Christians should receive or take in God’s Word—the Gospel.


We are told to hurry up and listen or quickly pursue listening. Then, in stark contrast, James adds that we should be “slow to speak.” The indication here is that we are to hesitate before we speak. Why? So that what we say is well thought out, edifies those who hear it, accurately reflects the Scriptures, and honors the Lord.


If we talk too much, we may be prone to listen too little. Additionally, it may seem that we think our ideas are much more important than others. James wisely advises us to do the opposite. We should listen more and speak less.

Being angry can also be an obstacle to receiving the word properly, as it can hinder us from looking at the word from the right perspective. When angry, we don’t always process information in the correct way. So, James says we are to be slow to anger. We should, especially as Christians, search our hearts for any privately harbored anger, we must be slow in allowing it to build up, then, as we are aware of it, deal with it so that it doesn’t fester and grow into deep-seated wrath.

Notice that James does not command us to never feel anger. Anger is a human emotion that everyone, at one time or another, experiences, and sometimes, it can be justified. There is such a thing as righteous anger which may be given cause when someone mistreats others, lacks compassion, or takes advantage of those weaker or less fortunate. We see an example of Jesus exhibiting actions due to righteous anger on one such occasion in Matthew 21:12-17.


Again, James does not command us to never feel anger. But his instructions here make it clear that we can learn to control—or at least slow down—our angry responses so that they don't hinder our receiving God’s Word.

In verse 20, we are told that “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” The righteousness James speaks about here refers to righteous living. We must not confuse this with what the apostle Paul writes in his letters about righteousness through Christ. The righteousness of Christ that Paul refers to is given to us by God as a gift and is secured through Christ’s death on the cross and our conversion. His righteousness is credited to us as ours. It’s a gift given freely by our loving God.

James is talking about a righteousness that we play a part in producing – a righteousness that’s lived out in conducting one’s life by the will of God, according to God’s standards. James wants his readers to understand that our lives must reflect God’s character. And remember, this is the goal that God wants for us– a righteous life with the goal of Spiritual Maturity and Christlikeness. That’s how we started our study. That’s how James began his letter. In verse 4, James sets the goal of spiritual maturity and Christlikeness, “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Therefore, if anger is a barrier to the righteousness that God desires, and if anger is also a barrier to receiving the word of truth, anger simply needs to go. If anger needs to go, so does the filth and evil that are so prevalent in our lives. We are to “get rid of all moral filth and evil,” James says.


The word translated here, “get rid of,” carries the idea of taking off a garment, in this case, a filthy garment. This imagery, common in New Testament exhortations, is used to portray the laying aside of pre-Christian patterns of behavior, and this may be the imagery that James is drawing on here. James wants his readers to have put aside “all filthiness/dirtiness and excess/abounding wickedness. James says to get rid of all of that which is so prevalent in the world. Take off your worldliness.


Now, you will notice James doesn’t say, “Pray about it.” He says, “Get rid of it!” To take off something is a choice, a conscious action. To live in moral filth, to participate in the evil all around us, is common for many humans and is also a conscious choice and/or action.


James wants his readers to picture wickedness as dirty clothes that must be stripped off in order to put on something pure and clean. Put off the dirtiness and excess wickedness, James commands, and put on the "word planted in us," which we are to "humbly accept." Why? Because, James says, it can save you.

He is not saying that we save ourselves by cleaning up our spiritual acts. We simply cannot do that! He is saying that putting off sinful ways exposes us to the influence of the word that’s been planted within our hearts and thereby transforms the way we think and live. When we humbly accept the word of truth, we accept all the commands and promises that accompany it.


In conclusion, we should be quick to listen…we need to hurry up and listen…to the word of truth—the Gospel. We need to not hinder receiving the word by speaking too much (v. 20) or harboring anger that stunts our spiritual maturity and the production of the righteousness that God desires in our daily lives.


Because God chose to give birth to us by the word of truth, we must get rid of…lay aside…, and put away…all dirtiness and excess wickedness and replace that with…put on… the word that is planted in us, which we are to accept with humility (v. 21). 


Why is it so important that we accept this word? Because, James reminds us, it is as we humbly accept the word that is planted in us that we are saved.

The word is the tool that points us to Jesus Christ and His saving power. It shows us our hopelessness. It points us to our only hope, Jesus Christ as our Savior. It points us to salvation in Jesus Christ and a personal relationship with Him. It takes us down the road of maturity and, one day, completeness. Don’t underestimate its power and its importance.

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