I wonder whether you’ve heard this comment from people. It goes something like this, “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.” Or maybe they say, “I’m SPIRITUAL, but I’m not into ORGANISED RELIGION.”
Often what they mean is they like the IDEA of having some sort of relationship with God, but the WAY THAT WORKS OUT IN PRACTICE puts them off.
And it’s often because they’ve been put off by people in churches.
Perhaps they’ve been burned by ABUSIVE LEADERSHIP. Leaders who’ve TALKED about serving and humility and building God’s kingdom. But who’ve been more about building their OWN kingdom, and manipulating people to SERVE THEM.
Or maybe they’ve experienced HYPOCRISY in the church. People who TALK about values and honesty and morals. But who live a secret double life of dishonesty and deception. And when the whole tangled web of lies unravels it just leaves a nasty taste in the mouths of people looking on.
Or maybe they just know people who SAY that God’s the most important part of their life. But you’d never KNOW it by looking at their lives. They’re just as greedy and self-obsessed and quick-tempered and materialistic as everyone else.
And so these people look at organised religion – the external LIVING OUT of belief – and decide they want NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.
I think what they’re really saying is they want to see AUTHENTIC RELIGION. They’re not interested in belief that MAKES NO DIFFERENCE to HOW YOU LIVE.
And you know what? NEITHER IS GOD! What GOD wants to see from people who say they follow him is TO SEE IT WORKED OUT IN PRACTICE. He wants to see AUTHENTIC RELIGION TOO.
So what does authentic religion LOOK LIKE? Religion that God approves of?
The answer James gives is that it’s SURPRISINGLY SIMPLE.
It’s a question he’s got a particular interest in. Because he’s writing to a group of people who are EXPERTS at the question of RELIGION. At how to LIVE OUT your faith. The JEWS.
The James who wrote this letter was the brother of Jesus. He wasn’t a disciple. In fact, from what we can tell he didn’t even BECOME A FOLLOWER until after Jesus’ resurrection. But by the time of Acts 15 – perhaps 20 years later – James was the leader of the whole Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem.
And he’s writing his letter to Jewish Christians, not in Jerusalem, but who’d been scattered all over the world. See it there in v1 of Ch 1?
1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To THE TWELVE TRIBES scattered among the nations:
And, living in Jerusalem, he would have seen plenty of examples of RELIGION. The public practice of faith in God.
Like in Acts 21, when he welcomes the Apostle Paul to Jerusalem, he describes the church in Jerusalem. He says there are many thousands who’ve believed (Acts 21:20). And they’re ALL ZEALOUS FOR THE LAW. In other words, they’re committed to the authentic practice of religion.
It’s what the WHOLE JEWISH CULTURE was about. Authentic religion. ESPECIALLY in Jerusalem where the temple was.
EVERYTHING Jews did was RELIGION. Everything was connected to their relationship with God. Food, holidays, how you worked, when you worked. Who you could and couldn’t work with, or touch, or eat with. How you raised your family. What you wore. How you washed. What things mattered, and what things DIDN’T.
And it wasn’t just keeping what was written in the Old Testament. The WRITTEN Law. But it was all the OTHER laws the experts had ADDED to it. Another 613 ORAL regulations. Rules you kept so you wouldn’t get anywhere NEAR breaking one of the WRITTEN ones.
But now many Jews had become Christians. And things had changed. Because Jesus came to FULFIL the law. To perfectly KEEP IT. To be its goal and its target. The one it all pointed towards.
And Jesus declared all food clean. “Eat whatever you like!”
And he replaced the temple as the place to meet God.
And he died as the ULTIMATE SACRIFICE, so no more offerings had to be made.
And he set people FREE from the demands of the law.
And so NOW AUTHENTIC religion wasn’t about ANY of that stuff. It was about IMITATING Jesus instead. The TRUE word of God. The TRUE IMAGE of God. The lived-out perfect expression of what trusting God looked like. Walking, talking authentic religion himself.
Perhaps James saw it as a particular problem for the Jewish Christians he knew. A temptation to try to please God with the old religious law-keeping. A temptation to focus on the EXTERNAL trappings.
Whatever the reason the book of James is about AUTHENTIC RELIGION. How to live out your faith in a way that’s REAL.
And what James says is in complete contrast to the old Jewish law. Especially the Oral Law. Which made things SO COMPLICATED. And so DIFFICULT that no one could KEEP it.
James, on the other hand, makes it SIMPLE. Look at what he says about religion – v26 – down near the end of our reading.
26 If anyone considers himself RELIGIOUS…
And every one of James’ Jewish Christian readers would have got interested at that point. “YES! That’s me,” they’d think. But here’s where it gets interesting.
26 If anyone considers himself RELIGIOUS…and yet DOES NOT KEEP A TIGHT REIN ON HIS TONGUE, he deceives himself and his religion is WORTHLESS. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as PURE AND FAULTLESS is this:… to LOOK AFTER ORPHANS AND WIDOWS IN THEIR DISTRESS and to KEEP ONESELF FROM BEING POLLUTED BY THE WORLD.
If you want to be RELIGIOUS says James, if you want to be accepted by God. If you want to be found PURE AND FAULTLESS. It’s not about keeping 613 laws. It’s much SIMPLER than that.
Three simple characteristics. Not difficult. You don’t need to be an expert. It’s possible even for ORDINARY people.
Watch your tongue
Look after people who need it
Don’t get stained by the world.
It almost seems too easy, doesn’t it? Watch your tongue. Look after people who need it. Don’t get stained by the world.
So, is James saying that’s ALL God requires us to do? That we can live anyway we LIKE, do and say ANYTHING. As long as we do THESE things?
No! What James is saying is that these things are A MEASURE of authentic religion. They don’t MAKE you right. They MEASURE you right.
They’re a thermometer, not a thermostat. A thermometer MEASURES temperature. A thermostat SETS the temperature
These three things are like the canary in a coal mine. Before gas detectors, coal miners would take a canary down the mine with them. As long as the canary was singing, the air was clean enough for them to breathe. But if the concentration of the deadly, odourless and colourless coal gas began to build up, the canary would stop singing. And eventually die. And the miners knew it was time to get out.
The canary would die before they knew anything was wrong. It was the early warning system of danger.
And that’s what James is giving us here. An early warning system for authentic religion. If there’s no self-control of your TONGUE. If there’s no interest in HELPING THOSE WHO NEED IT. If there’s no desire to SEPARATE from the pollution of the world. Then “Look out! DANGER ahead!”
It’s possible your religion, no matter how good it looks in OTHER areas, might be WORTHLESS.
Your religious practice can look impressive in all sorts of ways. Your attendance is exemplary, your donations are generous, your theology is reformed, your quiet times are regular, your Bible memorization is studious!
But if you ALSO abuse people when you’re tired. Or you gossip, or you blurt out the first thing that pops into your head instead of listening to others. Then that’s a WARNING SIGN – a MEASURE – that, maybe, all the REST is WORTHLESS!
During WW2, there was a saying in America “Loose lips sink ships.” In other words careless words could give away secure information that the enemy could use.
But here the consequences are EVEN WORSE. Loose lips make your religion WORTHLESS. No use before God. And no use before MEN.
But not just your WORDS. Your ACTIONS, TOO. If you have NO interest in helping people who are helpless. If you just drive past people when you should stop. If you say you’ll PRAY for someone who needs it, but never actually INCONVENIENCE yourself for them. Then that’s a MEASURE of the authenticity of your religion. That it’s all talk and no walk. All air and no substance.
Or PURITY. If you do all those GOOD things, but at the same time walk in secret a very DIFFERENT path. If you’re ONE person Monday to Friday. And someone very different on Sunday.
If you have a secret, shameful, polluted, HIDDEN life. Plunging into the same rotten cesspool the people around you swim in. (Anger, dishonesty, lust, pleasure-seeking, idolatry, greed.) Then God’s not going to ACCEPT the GOOD STUFF you do. It’s all WASTED. Cancelled out. OTHER people mightn’t see it. But GOD does.
All that BAD stuff shows the TRUE MEASURE OF THE AUTHENTICITY OF YOUR RELIGION.
And it’s not just before GOD, EITHER. It’s all wasted before OTHER PEOPLE TOO. Non-Christians watching your life go deaf very quickly to your WORDS if your ACTIONS and ATTITUDES are drowning them out.
If you have the sharpest tongue in the workplace at criticising people, or are the first and loudest to complain. Or your shouting at your kids can be heard at the end of the street. Or if you ignore the neighbours who are doing it tough. Too busy to stop and help. Or if you’re the slowest payer of bills in your town, or the most creative with the truth in writing invoices.
People won’t notice what you SAY if you’re not LIVING it.
No WONDER people say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not into organised religion.”
When it’s better to receive than to give (19-21)
We’ve actually started at the END of this section. Because that’s where James talks about RELIGION. But that’s just the external application of an INTERNAL ATTITUDE.
If you jump back to the top of the passage (v19), you can see what PRODUCES authentic religion.
Authentic religion is the practical outworking of your attitude to God’s word. Which in turn, reflects your attitude to GOD HIMSELF.
Authentic religion is never a matter of making up your OWN rules, But of LISTENING CAREFULLY TO WHAT GOD’S WAYS ARE. Of letting him be LORD and KING. Look at v19.
19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
We normally say, it’s better to give than to receive. But here, it’s better to RECEIVE than to give.
Better to RECEIVE words than to GIVE them. Be quick to listen, and slow to speak. There’s a reason we’ve been given TWO EARS and only ONE MOUTH. Listen twice as much as you talk.
And the context shows that it’s not just listening IN A GENERAL SENSE. It’s about listening to GOD’S words. As they’re read and taught.
In the verse just BEFORE this one, v18, we learned that God makes us born again THROUGH HIS WORD OF TRUTH. We understand how to become his children through the Bible. If that’s TRUE, then (v19) it makes sense that we should be quick to LISTEN to it.
And then, down in v21, James says to HUMBLY ACCEPT the word planted in you. Another way of saying the same thing. God’s word needs to be HUMBLY ACCEPTED. Not standing over it in judgment. (Deciding which bits you like or don’t like.) But letting it judge YOU. That’s humbly accepting it. Better to receive GOD’S word, than to give YOUR opinion.
And if you keep that attitude, it SAVES you (v21). You BEGIN your journey by God’s Word. (It gives you BIRTH v17). And you’ll see the END of your journey by God’s Word TOO.
But you’ve got to humbly ACCEPT it if it’s going to SAVE you. Like the emergency instructions on a plane. Listen to the instructions. Watch the demonstration. Don’t think you know better. Don’t be smug. Don’t listen to your iPod, or read the paper. It could save your life. So humbly accept the words you’re told.
How much MORE important is it to humbly accept the words that give ETERNAL life!
Be quick to listen and slow to speak. That’s the attitude to have to GOD’S WORD. But it’s also a godly approach to HUMAN relationships as well. BELIEF WORKS ITSELF OUT IN AUTHENTIC RELIGION. Being quick to listen and slow to speak about God’s Word means you’ll be quick to listen and slow to speak to OTHERS.
Authentic religion means we’ll show care for people by LISTENING to them. It shows HUMILITY – that others have something to contribute, not just you.
And by being slow to speak and quick to listen, you’re less likely to JUDGE people. To jump to conclusions about why they make certain choices. You’re more likely to be able to hear things from THEIR point of view. Perhaps a way of thinking about something you haven’t thought of.
And being slow to speak means you’re more likely to say something HELPFUL when you DO speak. Because you’ve listened carefully to exactly what the person’s saying.
And it gives you more time to pray for God’s help as you listen. Praying that he’ll give you something WORTH SAYING.
And James goes on. Often a quick word comes because its connected to ANGER. “Be slow to SPEAK and slow to become ANGRY.”
We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Someone says or does something that UPSETS us. We feel embarrassed or hurt or unappreciated. And we want to GET EVEN. We want to hurt the way we’ve been hurt. And so we bite back. We say something hurtful or sarcastic or cruel.
Verse 20 sums it up. That sort of anger doesn’t bring about THE RIGHTEOUS LIFE God desires. In other words, it’s not AUTHENTIC RELIGION. It just leads to bitterness and resentment and unforgiveness and broken relationships.
But we can cut that process off. If we LISTEN before we speak. And if we’re SLOW to anger. If we give people the benefit of the doubt. If we assume the BEST of someone, rather than the WORST. If we leave the judging up to GOD. He’s much better at it than WE are.
And rather than GIVING someone a piece of your mind. Do the OPPOSITE. RECEIVE a piece of GOD’S mind. (Better to receive than to give).
Rather than dazzle everyone with YOUR words, humbly accept instead GOD’S WORDS. There in v21.
“Humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
Do things GOD’S way. Recognise it as better than YOUR way.
It hardly seems worth saying. Especially when we think about James’ audience. JEWS. If there’s ANY group who’d be listening to, and studying, God’s Word, it’s the JEWS.
But James wants to say it’s not enough just to be READING it, or STUDYING it. Or even MEMORISING it as lots of Jews did. You need to HUMBLY ACCEPT it. Which might be something ENTIRELY DIFFERENT.
V22. Humbly accepting it means not just LISTENING to it. But DOING WHAT IT SAYS. That’s the measure of your attitude to it.
V23. To just LISTEN to God’s Word and then IGNORE it is like someone looking in a mirror. How silly to notice a big blob of shaving cream on your ear, or a big blob of mascara on your eyelash. And then just walk away and FORGET ABOUT IT.
Then for the rest of the day you walk around with everyone sniggering behind their hands as you walk by.
No! When you look in the mirror and see something not right. You DO something about it. You can’t see it on your own, the mirror points out the problem. You FIX it.
Whether it’s a mirror, or God’s Word. V25.
25 But the man who looks intently into the PERFECT law that gives FREEDOM, and continues to do this, NOT forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-he will be BLESSED in what he does.
God’s Word shows us what we’re really like. What we need to change. So we should CHANGE IT. Not IGNORE it.
It’s such a temptation for us evangelicals. (To forget what we’ve heard). We evangelicals value the Bible. We value clear Biblical preaching. We’re expert sermon CRITICS. We’ve got a sensitive EAR, just like Matt Preston from Master Chef has a sensitive PALATE.
We order and read the latest Christian books.
We podcast the highest rating preachers from around the world
We’re proud of how long, and how in-depth our Bible studies are.
We never miss a quiet time.
It’s like having the best and clearest and brightest mirrors. We’re proud of our mirrors. How clearly they show our spots and blemishes and skin cancers. And we focus all our attention on making sure they stay clear and shiny. And never actually doing anything about fixing up our face.
We walk around in this bible bubble. Thinking our knowledge, or our heritage, is enough.
But we never get around to LIVING IT OUT. To being AUTHENTIC. To watching our tongues, or looking after those who NEED it. Or keeping PURE from the world.
The word we SAY we value so much is PERFECT says James. It gives FREEDOM. And doing it leads to BLESSING.
But we don’t BELIEVE that. At least not enough to LIVE IT.
Instead, says James, “Make sure you reflect on your reflection.” Look INTENTLY. CONTINUALLY. Don’t FORGET. And then DO IT. Simple. That’s where the blessing comes. That’s when authentic religion comes. Religion that’s acceptable to God.
Religion that OTHER people will NOTICE. Will be ATTRACTED to. And will want to live out TOO.
May we be a church community like THAT!