As you know, I grew up in the Garden State. Though most people I meet from outside of New Jersey seem to think the state is comprised mostly of dangerous cities like Newark and Camden with an endless array of turnpikes between highly congested areas, in fact, much of the state is quite agrarian. The soil is indeed incredibly fertile. Growing a garden there was sure a lot easier than doing the same in my backyard here, and it was multiplied times easier than when I lived in Texas (where only hot peppers grew well!).
Speaking of peppers, that is something I have never been able to get to grow here in Maryland. Well … I’ve gotten the plants to grow beautifully, but they never really produce anything for some reason. The plants looked nice and gave me hope each season that this year would be different, but, nothing came of it in my soil. So what good were those pretty plants?
That is a picture of the main idea rising from our passage today about the Word of God. The encouragement of James throughout his letter is that his listeners should not just have some nice understanding of truth, but then not have that truth affect the way they live. What good is a life like that? Verse 22 here in chapter 1 could well serve as the key verse of the entire book: Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
I have a particular relative who has a habit of not actually hearing what you say. While talking to her, you can see that she is not truly listening beyond getting just a basic idea of the topic under discussion. Actually, she is thinking about what she is going to say next. People who talk quickly and listen slowly tend to fail in living well and producing a life of righteousness…
James 1:19 – My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
When it says in verse 21 to “get rid” of filth and evil, the verb there in the Greek language is one that speaks of shedding garments … of taking off the encumbrance of extra clothing when preparing for action. Rather than being weighed down, the listener to God’s word is one who plants it within their lives. They look toward seeing fruitful application and results from the life of salvation in Christ (this is not about gaining salvation … James is writing to those who are already believers).
James gets very specific …
James 1:22 – Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
James here is saying that a person should not just listen to the word in cursory fashion and then quickly forget it, for there is no value in that. Rather, the believer should “look intently” into it. Let me “go Greek” on you again by talking about this verb. It means to stoop down to look at something very carefully and in great detail. It is used elsewhere in the New Testament to talk about how John and Mary stooped down into the empty tomb of Christ to examine it closely. It is also the verb used by Peter to describe how the angels long to look into the details of salvation as foreshadowed by the prophets and fulfilled by the work of Christ. That is how we should study the Scriptures and then put them into practice, and this causes blessing in all we do.
James 1:26 – Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their 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.
James finishes this section by returning again to the theme of controlling what one says. And again, he also follows it quickly with more comment about what one does. The mention of serving orphans and widows is not to say that such is the only or best way to show true faith, but it is a prime example of how genuine faith naturally flows to reach out to those who are in the greatest distress of life circumstance. This is not earning salvation, it is proving it. Over the centuries, God’s people have excelled in such ministries.
Nearly a century ago in the Christian church in America there was a controversy and a resultant splintering within many denominations. An incipient, theological liberalism began to define doing such social services as the means to gaining righteousness and genuine standing with God, rather than rightly seeing it as the resultant outcome that naturally flows from true religion. The more evangelical branches tended to sadly drop many of these endeavors so as to not confuse them as “works salvation” rather than “grace through faith salvation.” I fully understand the need for the distinction, yet dropping involvement in ministries of mercy and social activism was likely too much of an overreaction.
A theme of the #ForOurCity campaign is to re-awaken the appropriate godliness of practical, social service involvement that can open doors for the teaching of the truth that truly fills and satisfies the deepest need in each person’s life. I am so proud of the families in our church who have taken on the challenge of such work as foster care. It is a huge commitment, but it is also a huge demonstration of faith and true religion. And it is good for all of us to have a revival of means by which our faith may naturally flow to fill human needs toward the end of the proclamation of the gospel.