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No. 76: Baptismal Imagery in James 1:21

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 76
August, 1995
Copyright 1995, Biblical Horizons

James hooks the different sections of his epistle together by using the same or a similar word at the close of one section and the opening of the following section. James 1:1 ends with the word "greetings" (Greek, chairein), and his first exhortation is to "consider it all joy" (charan); 1:4 ends with the phrase "lacking in nothing" (en medeni leipomenoi) and the next section begins with "if any of you lacks wisdom (ei de tis humon leipetai); in the Greek, 1:26 ends with the word "religion" (threskeia), which is the same word that begins verse 27.

This same device is used to connect 1:17-18 with the section on "doing the word" (vv. 19-27). Verse 18 refers to the "word of truth" which has given birth to James’s readers as the firstfruits of the church, and a few verses later he refers to the "implanted word" that brings salvation (v. 21). This connection of verses 18 and 21 shows that the intervening verses (19-20) also have to do with the reception of the word of the Lord. In context, the exhortations to be "quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" specifically refer to the proper response to the gospel. (Of course, since God’s word often comes to us on human lips, the exhortations also have a more general application.)

The tight interweaving of these verses also suggests that the "filthiness and abundance of wickedness" of verse 21 specifically refers back to verses 19-20. James is not speaking of the kinds of sins (primarily sexual sins) that we modern evangelicals normally associate with "filth." Refusal to hear the word, being quick to speak in criticism of the word, anger at the word–these are the sins that James characterizes as moral "filth."

James says that these sins must be "put off." The logic is that the implanted word will not grow and produce fruit unless the ground is cleared and the filth put off. The verb for "put off" is sartorial language, and Zechariah 3, where Joshua the high priest puts off filthy garments and is reclothed, is in the background. Some commentators have suggested further that the "putting off" has reference to baptism. Clothing imagery is used of baptism in Galatians 3:27, where Paul states that believers have "clothed yourselves" with Christ in baptism. If there is a baptismal reference in James 1:21, the emphasis is not on the once-for-all clothing in Christ (as in Galatians 3:27), but the continuing obligation of those clothed with Christ to put off the old clothing of the flesh.

According to Ralph Martin in the Word Biblical Commentary on James, the word for "filth" is related to a technical medical term for earwax. This fits well with James’s emphasis on hearing and doing the word. The filthy sins of communication described in verses 19-20 must be cleared out if we hope truly to hear the word, and for James true hearing of the word includes doing as well. Unless our ears are opened, cleared of the sins that inhibit our hearing, the word will not penetrate. Unless the filth is cleared out, we shall be "mere hearers."

This combination of reclothing and ear-opening recalls the priestly ordination service of Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8-9. In their ordination, the priests were invested with new clothing, the garments of glory and beauty described in Exodus 28. Moreover, during the rite of ordination, some of the blood of the ram of ordination was spread on the right ear lobe of the priest-to-be, as well as on the right thumb and right big toe. The priest’s bloody ear should be interpreted in connection with the boring of the ear lobe of a permanent slave (Exodus 21:1-6). As James Jordan explained in The Law of the Covenant, the permanent slave’s ear was bored or "circumcised" as a sign that his ear would thereafter be open to the voice of his master. Similarly, the priests’ right ear lobe was symbolically circumcised by the application of blood as a sign that the priest, a permanent servant in God’s household, would listen to his Master. Permanent slaves and priests had their ears opened so that they would be not mere hearers but doers of their master’s word.

It is remarkable that none of the imagery of Aaronic priestly ordination is employed in ordination rites in the New Testament. Elders are not re-clothed, washed, or anointed; instead, they have hands laid on them. The imagery of the Aaronic ordination is picked up in the New Testament’s theology of baptism. In this light, the combination of reclothing and ear-opening in James 1:21, with its subtle allusions to the ordination of priests, fits nicely with a baptismal interpretation of the verse. It provides evidence that the New Testament writers understood baptism as ordination to the royal priesthood. All the baptized are incorporated into the priesthood; they have not only been clothed with Christ, but have had their ears opened to hear the voice of the Word Incarnate.