Last week I was praying and asking the Lord for a topic for an article. He led me to James 1:26-27,
“If anyone thinks to be religious among you, yet does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is vain.
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world”
from the Modern King James Version, or in the Easy-to-Read Version it says:
“You might think you are a very religious person. But if your tongue is out of control, you are fooling yourself. Your careless talk makes your offerings to God worthless.
The worship that God wants is this: caring for orphans or widows who need help and keeping yourself free from the world’s evil influence. This is the kind of worship that God accepts as pure and good.”
I realised the Lord was following on from the theme of recent articles, concentrating on those things which are important to Him, things which we must know, understand and most of all, do.
As I researched the two verses, I found that the Greek words for ‘religious’ θρῆσκος or thrēskosis, is only found once in the bible, in James 1:26. Similarly, the word for ‘religion,’ θρησκεία or thrēskeia, is only found three times in the Bible, twice in James 1:26-27 and once in Acts 25:6. These words, written by James the brother of Jesus, therefore have a special and specific message for us. This is not a passage of generalities for Christians.
When James writes “If anyone thinks to be religious among you….,” he is really saying, “If you think you are outwardly religious…..” In other words, this is not so much to do with the heart, or the mind, but the external demonstration of that which is inside us, as exhibited by our actions. It means the ceremonial service of religion. It related (at the time of James) to, for example, the various public observances practised by the priests, such as wearing linen, circumcision, shaving, etc. Thus the adjectival use of the word here means an outward zealous and diligent performance of religious services.
But what James warns us here is that while we may think we outwardly demonstrate ourselves to be “good Christians,” yet if we cannot control our own tongue, then all our good deeds and offerings to God are rendered worthless. Jesus also said much the same thing in Matthew 15:11,
“(It is) not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man; but that which comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
But what is the ‘religion’ to which James here refers? Whether to the Jews of the Christians, it is the same, it means complying with that which is stated above as ‘external’, but more importantly, it also includes the internal aspects of religion as well, as required by the Lord in His word. These Godly requirements of us are summed up in a number of bible passages in principle and in detail. Micah 6:7-8 says.
“Will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does Jehovah require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?”
Mathew 23:23 puts religion in focus from the very mouth Jesus as He says:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and you have left undone the weightier matters of the Law, judgement, mercy, and faith. You ought to have done these and not to leave the other undone.”
However, it is James 1:27 which I believe pulls it all together for us, saying clearly and simply:
“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world“
James is saying there that if we believe ourselves to be religious, in other words, we observe the offices and customs of our denomination and Church, we must recognise that these outwards observances are nor ranked compared to being just and merciful, as we humbly visit and help the fatherless, the widows, the sick and the needy. James does not mean that the offices and the ceremonial traditions of our denominations and Churches are the great essential or even the sum total of religion. Instead, the Christian Religion, is the very service of the Gospel. At all times, we are to act with mercy and holiness and with a caring attitude towards the needy, while humbly keeping ourselves untainted by the world.
The Christian Religion to which James refers here is the very light of God which ends darkness; for darkness is nothing but the absence of light. True Christian Religion, as Matthew Henry says,
“… teaches us to do everything as in the presence of God. An unspotted life must go with unfeigned love and charity. Our true religion is equal to the measure in which these things have place in our hearts and conduct. And let us remember, that nothing avails in Christ Jesus, but faith that works by love, purifies the heart, subdues carnal lusts, and obeys God’s commands.”
Likewise, John Darby, another noted Bible commentator says of the Christian Religion,
“Pure religion before God and the Father is to care for those who, reached in the tenderest relationships by the wages of sin, are deprived of their natural supports; and to keep oneself untainted by the world. Instead of striving to exalt oneself and gain reputation in a world of vanity, afar from God, our activities turn, as God does, to the sorrowful, who in their affliction, need succour; and we keep ourselves from a world in which everything is defiling, and contrary to the new nature which is our life, and to the character of God as we know it by the word.”
Jesus also alluded to the basic and fundamental works which Christians must do, as he summed it all up in Matthew 5:32-41 saying
“And all nations shall be gathered before Him. And He shall separate them from one another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. And indeed He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats off the left.
Then the King shall say to those on His right hand, Come, blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you took Me in; I was naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.
Then the righteous shall answer Him, saying, Lord, when did we see You hungry, and fed You? Or thirsty, and gave You drink?
>When did we see You a stranger, and took You in? Or naked, and clothed You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and came to You?
And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you have done it to Me.
Then He also shall say to those on the left hand, Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.”
Our religion is vain, all our efforts are vain, if we do not have control of all the faculties of the body and the mind. A life time of service amounts to nothing, if we spoil it all by a loose and wrong word.
James makes it clear here that there are many evidences of our piety which we may use to demonstrate our Christian religion to others. However, as it was with the Pharisees, our piety, our zeal and our efforts do not in themselves prove we possess a true Christian religion. We many pray continually, we may learn the Bible from cover to cover, we may demonstrate unmatched self-denial, we may be fervent evangelists, we may heal the sick, raise the dead and drive out demons (Matthew 7:22-23) and still, there may be no true Christian religion in us.
If our tongue is not subdued, or if any sin is indulged, this shows that we are still of this world; it shows that evil still has a hold on us, it shows that our soul as not been brought into subjection to the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word.
For a Christian, as Matthew Henry says “True religion teaches us to do everything as in the presence of God; and to seek his favour, and study to please him in all our actions.” We do this, and indeed we do all we do, in agape love, remembering always that we are to treat our neighbours, as ourselves.