Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pure and Undefiled

Week 3 in our 6 week study of the book of James at Alive Student Ministry

This third lesson begins to explain what our lives look like as we begin to become “doers” of the Word. James addressed speech, ministry, and purity in this passage. As God’s Word becomes an integrated part of His followers’ lives, their religion becomes an active faith instead of empty religious motions. Much time will be devoted to the power of words in the fifth lesson and therefore will not be significantly addressed in this lesson. God desires a faith that spurs believers to minister to the oppressed and needy and separate themselves from the world.

James 1:26-27 (ESV)
26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Supporting Passages: Deut. 15:11, Mark 7:6-13 and 2 Tim. 2:21-22

True faith is evidenced both outside and inside a person. Simply considering oneself to be a religious person is not enough. Religion that God, the Father, considers valid is evidenced by both an outer expression of compassion for orphans, widows, and all those in lowly positions as well as an inner character that remains unpolluted by the temptations of the world. Maintaining a healthy body comes from eating healthy and regular exercise. Both activities are required in order to stay active and vital. You could not simply work out regularly and eat only fast food and expect to be healthy. Neither could you eat healthy food but spend all day on the couch and expect to be healthy. You must do both. They go hand in hand. 

False religion is revealed through self-deceiving speech (Jas. 1:26).

James was aware that a true relationship with Christ changes a person from the heart. Therefore, the change that takes place in one’s heart is revealed through his or her words and speech. James boldly stated that a person who thinks that he is religious but who speaks words that do not honor God is simply deceiving himself––his tongue reveals his true nature. True religion not only consists of a changed heart but also a controlled tongue. The litmus test is the process in which litmus paper is used to test whether a solution is acidic or alkaline. If the solution is acidic, then the litmus paper will turn red. If the solution is more alkaline, then the litmus paper will turn blue. In the same way, our tongue can be used as a gauge to determine how meaningful our faith is. If we consider ourselves religious but cannot control our tongue, we deceive ourselves, and our faith is false. Gossip, slander, lying, cursing, and bullying are all examples of a loose tongue that display a lack of meaningful religiosity. Consider how you speak to your friends, parents, brothers and sisters, teachers, those in positions of power over you, and those in positions subordinate to you. Do you use your words to build up or tear down? Do you speak to the popular students in school differently than the unpopular ones? What you say and how you say it is like a spiritual barometer that can measure the worth of your religion.

2. True religion cares for the lowly and oppressed (Jas. 1:27a).

James stated simply that true religion is revealed through the way that Christians care for others. In other words, religion is worthless when it does not involve caring for those who are oppressed economically or socially. James previously instructed his audience to be doers of the Word. Here, he informed them that being a “doer” involved ministering to others. Religion that is pure before God loves people the way that He does. You may have heard the phrase, "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck." The implication is that you can determine the identity of something by its actions. Although there are people in the world who do “good” things for others even if they aren’t a Christ-follower, a believer cannot separate his faith and his actions. They must always go together and give evidence of one’s true identity in Christ. This truth is easy to understand and believe, but it is hard to live out. We must care for the lowly and oppressed the same way that Jesus did. That boy at school with no friends––become his friend. That girl that sits by herself at lunch––sit with her. Volunteer at a local homeless shelter; sponsor an international child through a reputable charity like Compassion International; or go visit residents at the nearest nursing or assisted living home. Brainstorm with other youth to think of ways that you can put your faith into action by ministering to others in need.

3. True religion remains separate from worldly influences (Jas. 1:27b).

James taught that true religion is not only the outer expression of faith exhibited by caring for those in need, but it is also the inner state of your character in relation to the polluted world. James had been clear to his audience that followers of Christ are to put their faith into practice and also that they are to be different from worldliness that surrounds them. He did not mean that they are to physically remove themselves from living among nonbelievers; rather, he instructed them to be set apart from the sinfulness that abounds in the world. You might have heard when you were studying the food pyramid in school the following saying: "You are what you eat." This saying, of course, means that if you want to keep a healthy body, you must consume healthy food. The same applies to your soul. If you want to keep a healthy soul, then you cannot consume the polluted things of the world. The things that we consume affect who we are. The music we listen to, the television we watch, the books and magazines we read, the people with whom we spend time, and the products we buy all affect our walk with Christ. We are to look different from the world, so we must guard our eyes, minds, hearts, and bodies from sinful influences of the world. Try to find a friend of the same gender to whom you can be accountable and discuss these issues. Set up boundaries for the Internet, phone, and texting that will guard your purity. Talk with your friends and parents about how to help guard your life in practical ways.

So what's the big idea of the passage?

True religion is defined both by what comes out of our lives and what goes in. Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is exhibited both by outer actions of
compassion and mercy and by the inner lack of sinful, worldly pollution. Christians are to be in the world but not of it. In other words, we must be actively working for the purposes of Christ for the world (compassion and mercy) while at the same time remaining unstained by the pollution of the world. Altruism (good deeds toward others) without holiness is meaningless. Holiness without altruism is worthless.

While there has been some debate in scholarly circles about the identity of the author of the epistle titled James, the general consensus is that the letter was written by James the half-brother of Jesus rather than James the son of Zebedee. From the correspondence of the apostle Paul, we learn several things about James. First of all, James was a key leader in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-21) and was considered to be a pillar of the church (Gal. 2:9). James was among those who were privileged to see Jesus after His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). Paul interacted with James on several occasions, including his first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion (Gal.1:19) and his final visit before his death (Acts 21:18). Undoubtedly, James was an influential member of the early Church.
James’ letter is general in nature and was written to a broad audience of Jewish Christians rather than to a particular house church. These believers were likely scattered outside of Palestine and enduring poverty as well as persecution. Although conflict among factions is clear within the letter, the subject matter of James’ letter is general in nature rather than a direct response to a specific situation. James wrote about Christian ethics and urged believers to live righteous lives that please God. As one commentary noted, James was concerned “with morals rather than manners”. In this passage, James focused his ethical teaching on three key issues: the control of the tongue, acts of charity, and pure living. James called members of the Body of Christ to practice a pure and undefiled faith.
James 1:26 James used the Greek words threskos and threskeia, translated respectively as "religious" and "religion." They occur only three times, all in verses 26 and 27. The word pistis, translated as "faith," is used many times throughout his letter. The words threskos and threskeia carry the meaning of ceremonial worship as well as fear of God. Assuming that James was writing to a predominantly Jewish-Christian audience, this verse may be seen as an attack on the pharisaic/legalistic form of religion that Jesus also condemned.
Earlier in his letter, James urged believers to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry”. In this verse, James revisited the issue of speech. One commentator observed, “James says here that even if someone appears to be doing the good works of faith, which he has learned he ought to do, none of this matters unless he restrains his tongue from slanders, lies, blasphemies, nonsense, verbosity and other things which lead to sin” (Bray, 19–20). God-honoring speech was a critical issue for James because with just a few unguarded words believers can render their Christian witness ineffective. He will return to this subject later in his letter (Jas. 3:5-6).
James emphasized that people who speak without being sensitive to the power of their words may be able to deceive themselves into believing that they are religious, but they aren’t fooling God. Their words betray the true condition of their hearts. In Isaiah, the Lord critiqued the hypocritical behavior of His people, noting that “they honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”. In Jeremiah, the Lord referred to the tongue as “a deadly arrow” that “speaks with deceit”. The psalmist likewise warned against unregulated speech: “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:12-14). Jesus observed that a person’s speech reveals what lurks in the depths of the heart: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). If religion is to be of value when it comes to following in righteousness, then a controlled tongue is necessary.
James 1:27 James asserted that a pure and undefiled religion is demonstrated when a believer cares for orphans and widows in their distress––populations emblematic of all those who are afflicted by poverty. When a woman lost her husband, she also lost the protection and legal status that she was afforded through marriage. Orphans, likewise, lacked protection and legal status and depended upon the charity of others to survive, must less thrive.
In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, God’s special concern for widows and orphans is abundantly evident. The psalmist asserted that God was “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Ps. 68:5). According to Mosaic Law, every three years the Israelites were to bring their tithes of produce into town so that the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows could come and eat (Deut. 14:28-29). In Malachi, the Lord threatened judgment against an assortment of sinners, including those who oppressed widows and the fatherless (Mal. 3:5). In Isaiah, the prophet decried those who preyed on the widows and robbed the fatherless (Isa. 10:1-2).
The care of widows was also a specific concern of the early New Testament Church, and the disciples chose seven men to ensure that all widows would get a fair share of the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1). Caring for these struggling groups of people was not only obedience to the Law but also a demonstration of the love of Christ. James knew that to speak religious words but deny care to another negated the letter and the spirit of the Law.
Earlier in his letter, James urged believers to “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” (Jas. 1:21). In 1:27, James continued along this line of thinking, emphasizing the necessity of avoiding the pollution of the world. Commenting on this verse, one of the early Church Fathers observed, “In this verse the ‘world’ refers to the common and ungodly people who are led astray by their lusts and errors” (Bray, 20). If the Word of God is firmly implanted in a person’s heart, then the believer will seek to live a pure and undefiled life, embracing God’s high ethical standards because Christ’s followers are called to live consecrated lives that are set apart for God’s service. This call to avoid defilement by the world can be traced back to the Old Testament. The Levitical laws were designed to help the Israelites live as a holy nation in the midst of an alien, pagan culture: “Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 18:30). In Ezra there is another reference to spiritual pollution: “The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other” (Ezra 9:11). James challenged his audience to avoid being changed by outside, worldly forces. Instead, they were to allow the Word of God to transform them from the inside out. According to James, pure and undefiled religion cannot be attained any other way.
James was blunt: Don’t just listen to the Word of God––do what it says. In this passage, James provided believers with specific examples of what it looks like to be a doer of the Word of God rather than merely a hearer. Doers of the Word carefully monitor their speech, for they know that their words can undermine the effectiveness of their witness. Doers of the Word share God’s concern for the needy––particularly widows and orphans––and seek out opportunities to minister to them. Doers of the Word recognize that they have been set apart from the world by God, and they guard their hearts and minds against worldly influences. Think about your own spiritual life: Is your “religion”––your faith lived out on a daily basis––pure and undefiled?
This passage is a call to active faith as opposed to the practice of empty religious acts. Help your students evaluate their own spiritual health. By what ethical standards are they living? Are they simply acting religious, or are they truly seeking to live out a pure and undefiled faith? Challenge students to consider their patterns of speech. Are they keeping a tight reign on their tongues––and are you setting an example for them with your own speech? Encourage students to take advantage of opportunities at church and in the community to minister to those in need. Urge students to live consecrated lives, guarding their hearts and minds against the pollution of the world. Help your students to identify empty religious behavior in their lives. Encourage them to be doers of the Word of God and not hearers only.

Small Group Questions:

  • Who are the orphans and widows that you should take care of in your life? at home? at school?
  • How are you taking care of those in need in your life?
  • What are some different ways that you might become polluted by the world?
  • What are some worldly pollutants that are common temptations to students?
  • What are some practical things that you can do to keep from giving in to these tempting pollutants?

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