Self-deception of hypocrites
James has been giving counsel on how to obtain the good gifts that are available in abundance from the Father of lights, as he calls our heavenly Father in verse 17. He has taught that by asking in faith, we can obtain wisdom. By enduring trials, we can gain the crown of life. And by receiving the Word of Truth, we can appropriate a power capable of saving our souls. Yet in the verses we will now consider, he shows that he conceives of this Word as an instrument not only for saving us, but also for transforming our hearts and minds and deeds.
So that the Word will work in us with full effect, without hindrance, we must, however, do more than obey James’s instruction in verse 19. There he exhorts us to be swift in hearing the Word, slow in raising questions about it, and slow in making it a center of controversy. We must also do more than obey James’s instruction in verse 21. There he tell us to receive the Word with meekness. Besides these good responses, another is crucially important. We must let the Word shape our conduct (v. 22). Giving assent to it is not enough. The Word lays out complex and complete instructions on how we should live. In response, we should be "doers of the word, and not hearers only." We should put into practice all the moral precepts we find in the Word. In the opening verses of James, we have learned some of those precepts, such as the necessity to pray in faith and the requirement to resist lust, and we will learn others as we go through the book.
Hearing the Word without applying it is, as James says, a form of self-deception. We imagine that God will be pleased just because we give His Word our attention and our assent, even though we neglect to give it our obedience. Lip service without a corresponding lifestyle is just hypocrisy. James is right in warning us that a typical hypocrite is self-deceived; that is, he has no insight on his true condition. He genuinely feels right with God, even though sin clutters his life and clouds his conscience.
The classic example of hypocrisy is the Pharisees. The Jewish people held them in high esteem, allowing them seats of honor in the synagogues and at banquets, calling out respectful greetings to them as they walked by in the marketplace, and addressing them as Rabbi, a title full of prestige (Matt. 23:5-7). The Pharisees had no less esteem for themselves. Jesus tells us how one Pharisee prayed in the Temple. "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess" (Luke 18:11-12). The irony in this boasting is that Jesus held the Pharisees guilty of the very sins they saw in others.
He specifically mentions "extortion" (Matt. 23:25, the Greek word referring to stolen goods), accusing them of devouring widows’ houses (Matt. 23:14). We are not sure exactly what evildoing He was describing. It is possible that in deciding inheritance, Jewish courts gave preference to male relatives, so that if a man died without sons, his house and other possessions might pass to a brother or nephew rather than to his widow. The widow, as a result, might be evicted from her home. Pharisees were responsible for her loss whether they claimed the inheritance or sat on the court deciding against her.
Jesus also accused the Pharisees of failure to be just (Matt. 23:23). And in the Sermon on the Mount, He taught that the law against adultery forbids divorce, a common practice of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:31-32). One school of rabbis believed that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, even if she served him a bad supper, or even if he found a prettier woman to take her place.
Hypocrisy has never ceased to plague the work of God. In one of His Kingdom parables, Jesus warned that tares—that is, hypocrites—would exist in the church alongside the wheat—true believers—until the end of the age (Matt. 13:24-30, 37-43). We see here that the ultimate fate of hypocrites will be no less horrific than the fate of outright sinners. They will be cast into a furnace of fire, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. God’s wrath against the self-satisfied Pharisees was so great that Jesus threatened them not only with hell (Matt. 23:33), but also with greater damnation (Matt. 23:14). The worst judgment awaits the man who poses as a minister of the gospel but who abuses his trust by harming God’s people and living in self-indulgence. He will be cut to pieces before being cast into hell (Matt. 24:48-51).
Doers contrasted with hearers
To make more vivid the difference between doing the Word and not doing it, James compares two men who look at their reflections in a mirror (vv. 23–25). "Glass" is a mistranslation, since the mirrors used in the ancient world were not glass, but handheld plates of polished metal, generally bronze. What is the mirror these men use? It is the "perfect law of liberty"—literally, "the perfect law, that of freedom." But although they both view the same picture of self, they react differently. One looks with no more than a glance. After beholding his face and noticing some flaw needing a corrective touch, he goes away and forgets what he saw. He saw the flaw, but did not think it very serious, or else he would have remembered it and done something to remove it. The second man looks at his face more carefully. The words "looketh into" suggest that he stoops over and gives it close inspection. Then he "continueth," meaning that he does not stop examining himself. His purpose is to let the law of liberty expose all his faults and sins.
What is the perfect law of liberty—that is, the perfect law that brings freedom? The answer appears a few verses later, where James employs "law of liberty" as a name for the requirement to love our neighbor (James 2:8-12). This requirement is indeed a perfect law, in the sense that it gives precisely the right guidance for every moral decision affecting the people around us. Jesus said that it is the summation of the law governing relations between man and man (Matt. 22:37-40). The same requirement is also the law of liberty. It is liberating in two ways: first, because it simplifies our moral duty by eliminating the need to consider any narrower regulations. We need not work our way through a long rule book to find a rule tailored to our specific problem. We only need consider what is the loving thing to do. Second, it is liberating because to act always in love is a life of freedom not only from sin, but also from any sense that God is oppressing us with His demands. Obedience is no longer a grim necessity, but a joyful opportunity. It is a wonderful privilege to feel and show love. To live in such a way that we never fail to love our neighbor is a happy life.
Gazing intently into the mirror of God’s Word shows how God sees us. Then we have a choice. We can go away and forget what we saw, resuming our normal habits as if we were already good enough in God’s eyes. But if we take that direction, we will continue in our sins and act the part of a hypocrite. Or we can respond by remolding our life according to God’s will. If we become doers of the Word we have heard, we will gain a great reward. We will be, as James says, blessed. In a previous lesson, we discussed what blessedness means. It means to experience nothing but good forever. Now the blessed get up every morning and go through the day as children of the King. Someday they will inherit the Kingdom itself, where they will stand in line for any treasure in God’s storehouse that they might fancy.
The main question that this lesson presents for your consideration is obvious. Are you a doer of the Word? Yet to help you come to a good answer, we will be more specific.
The last question is even more unpleasant to consider, but again I have no choice but to include it.