James wrote his letter to Diaspora Jews who had become Christians (1:1). As Jews living outside Jerusalem, they had developed a great appreciation for listening to the reading of the Law in the synagogues, especially because they could not attend the temple services. They considered hearing the Law to be a proper substitute for the temple sacrifices. After becoming Christians, it appears, they continued to think in the same way: to hear the Word of God in their meetings was enough for them to remain God’s people.
James, however, says to them that merely hearing the Word will not save them:
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (James 1:22–24)
If the people did not practice what they regularly heard in their meetings, they were deceiving themselves. “To deceive” here means to make an erroneous assessment of something and then lead someone else to error through this assessment (Col. 2:4). James’ readers were deceiving themselves by having misjudged the value of hearing the Word, as if merely listening to sermons could save them. The Word is powerful to save, and when the Word saves people, it causes them to bear the fruit of obedience. However, because they did not make this assessment, they were content with being mere hearers. They were deceiving themselves.
James exhorts them to be “doers” of the Word. Doers go forward with something, as part of what they believe. Doers obey the Word of God, putting His teachings into practice, in contrast with someone who is content at merely listening to that Word.
James introduces a comparison to explain the uselessness of hearing the Word without acting on it. There is a similarity between the mere hearers of sermons and someone who looks in the mirror and soon forgets his face. Both the mere hearer and the forgetful contemplator do nothing about what they have heard and seen. Therefore, the hearing and seeing do not result in anything. They are useless and fruitless exercises, even if done with great attention and dedication.
What is the use of hearing the Word of God if we are not corrected and encouraged to do what is right? How can we have been saved if we do not practice what we hear? Through the prophet Ezekiel, God denounced His people under the old covenant for exactly the same mistake: “They hear what you say, but they will not do it” (Ezek. 33:31–32). The Lord Jesus compared the one who hears His words and does not do them to a house without a solid foundation (Matt. 7:26). Many Christians do not so much need to learn new things but need instead to put into practice what they have already heard and learned.