From Faith, Love & Hope: An Exposition of the Epistle of James, AMG Publishers, 1997.
"Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness…" (James 1:21a).
Last month we studied the second part of James 1:21, which constitutes the actual command, namely to receive the implanted Word which is able to save or keep our souls. Before we can do that, however, there is a necessary prerequisite, which is given to us in the first part of the verse.
If we are to continue to be receptive to this Word which we first accepted on the day of our regeneration, we must lighten ourselves of certain burdens. The translation as we have it in our English King James Version does not convey the real meaning at all. Like the second part, it makes this also a command when it says: "Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness." Well, the original Greek text does not say so. It contains no command at all. It is a conditional sentence which declares that, if you do this thing, then you will be able to accept the Word and thus keep your souls safe. If this part of the verse were to be faithfully translated, here is what it would say: "Wherefore, having laid aside [or having put away from yourselves] all filthiness and the abundance of malice or wickedness in meekness, receive ye the implanted word which is able to save your souls."
There are several intriguing words here in the Greek which we must consider if we are fully to understand the meaning of this important verse. First of all, the word apothémenoi, which means "having put off from yourselves." This leads us to believe that when Christ comes into the heart of a man, there is a terrific struggle between the things of the world and the things of God's kingdom. There are some bad habits, some little words, some shady thoughts, some extra luggage that we have brought along from our sinful lives which we must get rid of. They are all unnecessary. There was a time that they were part of us, but now there is no room in our hearts for both the things of God and the things of the world. We cannot with one breath sing praises unto the Lord and in the next be angry because He does not seem to give us all we want and demand of Him.
There is a great temptation that comes to every Christian and that is to minimize the sinfulness of sin in his own life. Temper, anger, wrath, what are these, anyway? It is so easy to put all these sins into a class by themselves. We are prone to talk about big and little sins, thinking that the big sins are what matters while the little ones-a "white" lie, an angry word, an offensive remark-are all right. There is an Indian proverb which says, "There is no distinction between big and little when talking about snakes. They are all alike-snakes." That is why James tells us in this verse that, if we are to be receptive to the Word of God, we should lay aside "every filthiness," and by that he designates every sin, small or big.
It is really amazing to see what the Apostle Paul commands the Colossians to put away from themselves, as if it were a filthy garment. Listen to the list: "Put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him" (Col. 3:8-10). Did you notice that every one of these sins actually has to do with the heart and the mouth? It is easy to forget that just being angry with someone within the very confines of our own souls, without letting the steam blow off in violent action, is as sinful as physically assaulting a person. The law, the human law, considers only the deed as a transgression, while the divine law counts even the evil thought, the evil desire, as a sin equally worthy of punishment. It is filthy, whether it has been carefully guarded within or whether it has manifested itself outwardly.
Thus we see that the renewing of our spiritual knowledge, our reception of the Word of truth, has a prerequisite, and that is putting off of every bit of filth from our hearts and lives. A holy God cannot dwell in a filthy heart. When we believed and accepted Jesus Christ as our own personal Savior, that is exactly what happened; God came to dwell within us. But is that all there is to it? He has done the cleansing of our hearts in the first place; He has washed them in the blood of the crucified Savior, but there is some cleansing that we should keep doing ourselves.
Now I am not preaching justification by works. Christ does the cleansing, the redeeming, for His blood cleanses us from all sin, but the participle used here by James definitely means that you and I are to do some work. It is "you having put away all filthiness." God gives the means, but we have to get busy and use these means. God does His share, but He expects us to do ours. Ours would be ineffective without His, however. He must keep busy after we have received Christ by faith.
Works should come after faith, but they can never come before it. A Christian who attended prayer meeting faithfully always confessed the same things during testimony time. His prayer was seldom varied. "O Lord, since we last gathered together, the cobwebs have come between us and Thee. Clear away the cobwebs, that we may again see Thy Face." One day a brother called out, "O Lord God, kill the spider!" You know very well that you may sweep the webs away, but if you leave spiders in the room you will have webs again tomorrow morning. The old Christian should rather have said, "Lord, help me to kill the spider."
There are certain things which God does not choose to do for us. We are supposed to exercise every bit of our will and determination, through the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, to put away filth from our lives, be it drink, lying, gossip, or any other sin. Next time the temptation comes to us to gossip, we should just say "No" to ourselves and ask God to help us as we say it. Let us not willingly succumb to sin and then complain that God did not help us overcome it.
Peculiarly the word rhúpos, from which comes this word rhuparía meaning "filth," strictly speaking is used of wax in the ear. With what great wisdom every word is placed in the Scriptures. Why not use another word (and there could be many other Greek words with the same meaning)? Because there is a lesson here that the Holy Spirit wishes to teach us. Sin in our lives is like having wax in our ears; it prevents the Word of truth from reaching our hearts; for if it cannot penetrate through the ear, it will not come down to the heart. Thus we see how all the thoughts here join together. We as Christians must take the wax out of our ears, so that the Word may influence our lives. I believe definitely that James here speaks of the born-again Christian whose sin may be like wax in his ear preventing him from hearing and doing the Word of God.
There is something else that we are supposed to have put off if we are going to be able to receive the Word of truth. In the King James it is the "superfluity of naughtiness," which does not really convey the meaning of the original Greek. If I were to translate it, I would put it thus: "the abundance or surplus of malice." Now what does that actually mean? There is a great variety of opinions among commentators concerning this. In my opinion this is what James wants to convey to us: He has spoken to us concerning the necessity of putting off moral filth, all external sin which is a hindrance to our acceptance of the Word of truth.
But just a minute, he hurries on to say. Do not think that external sin has no roots within. What shows externally as wrath and anger has its roots deep in the heart of man. It is nothing but the overflowing, the surplus of the tendency of the heart to do evil. When the will of the heart to do evil becomes great enough, it bursts out into all kinds of external manifestations. James tells us it is not only the outward garment of sin that we ought to get rid of, but also the very intentions and tendencies of our hearts; for as our blessed Lord Himself declared, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." Since this is the case, we ought not only to rid ourselves of evil deeds, but to cleanse our evil hearts.
Now for a last thought found in this verse: as we put off the evil deed and the evil root of that deed we should not do it with pride, as if it were because of our own strength. We could never do it on our own. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to do it. Therefore, do it in meekness, James says. Spiritual pride among the children of God is one of the worst things on earth. God wants us to become holier as the days go by, but let others speak of our holiness, instead of ourselves. "Therefore, having put off from yourselves every filthiness and surplus of malice in meekness, receive the implanted word which is able to save or to keep your souls."
Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009) served as president of AMG International for over 40 years, was the founding editor of Pulpit Helps Magazine (Disciple's predecessor), and authored dozens of exegetical books.