The Book of James, Part 18:
The Distinctiveness of True Disciples:
We Need to Be Lights


Last week, we dealt with what is probably the core message of James Letter to the new Christians disbursed across the Middle East, but more importantly, to us. He said we need to live our Christianity, live in a manner worth of our calling. Just do it.

To live like a Christian is not limiting, it is freeing. Remember what Henrietta Mears said:

"A bird is free in the air. Place a bird in the water and he has lost his liberty. A fish is free in the water, but leave him on the sand and he perishes. He is out of his realm. So, the Christian is free when he does the will of God and is obedient to God's command. This is as natural a realm for God's child as the water is for the fish, or the air for the bird."

To follow her logic, which seems pretty sound to me, we would find that:

A Christian is free when he is doing what God wants him to do. When he is not following God's plan for him, he is like a fish out of water or a bird in the water. In this analogy, we are not ducks.

I am afraid that many of us spend a lot of time like a fish out of water or a bird under water. Maybe that explains why life is as tough as it is.

So far James has taught us that:

    1. We Need To Listen
    2. We Need To Learn
    3. We Need To Live It

Now we are ready for Number Four.

4. We Need To Be Lights:

If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. --James 1:26-27
Remember Matthew 5:16? Jesus said,
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. --Matthew 5:16
In these last two verses of Chapter 1, James highlights for us three specific areas of obedience. Of course, there is much more to being a disciple than these three commands, but these are important. And each of these is a powerful witness to the irreligious people who live all around us.
If anyone thinks himself to be religious... --James 1:26
Thinks - from the Greek word dokeo. Its most basic meaning seems to be "to have an opinion". So James is talking to any Christian who considers himself to be religious. Given Wayne's teaching against "religion", you might think that this lets you off the hook. Sorry.

Religious - "Religious" and "religion" are used three times in these two verses. The words are only used four other times in the entire New Testament: (Acts 17:22, 25:19, 26:5, and Colossians 2:23). This is the only place where the words are used to refer to faith in Jesus.

We don't think of faith in Jesus as "religion". We understand that religions are man-made efforts to reach up to God. But what Jesus brought was God's way to reach down to us. It's a relationship not religion.

Maybe an appropriate translation, in terms that we relate to, (though not literal) would be "spiritual". So James is saying, "If anyone considers himself spiritual...".

Maybe better yet is "If anyone considers himself to have a close relationship with Jesus…."

So James highlights for us three characteristics of a Christian who is living like one.

  1. The need for control:
    If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue... --James 1:26
    The first mark of living like a Christian that James points to is controlling our speech. He's going to talk about this in much greater detail in Chapter 3.

    Speech is a powerful testimony to others. Our words can be a positive or negative witness. There seems to be a timelessness to this issue. Christians struggled with controlling their speech in the first century and every church and every Christian has the problem today.

    There's an important implication of this command that we keep a "tight rein" on our tongues and that is this: our tendency is to say the wrong things. Our tendency is toward ungodly speech. So we need to vigilant, always careful about what we're about to say.

    What are some sins of speech that many Christians struggle with?

    There are so many passages about speech in the Bible that we could spend weeks on this subject. Here are some I picked:
    When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise. --Proverbs 10:19

    There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing. --Proverbs 12:18

    The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; The one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin. --Proverbs 13:3

    A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit. --Proverbs 15:4
    The closer people are to us, the greater the impact of our words and therefore, the more careful we need to be of what we say. This is especially true of what we say to our family and especially our children. Think of how our words can "crush the spirit" of a loved one.
    Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent. --Proverbs 17:28
    If the gravity of this discussion is not sinking in, listen to what Jesus had to say about it:
    But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. --Matthew 12:36

    Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. --Ephesians 4:29
    Studies have shown that negative, critical comments have four to five times the impact of positive comments. This means that one critical word can undo four to five statements of praise.
    And there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. --Ephesians 5:4

    Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person. --Colossians 4:6
    The next thing James tells us is:


  3. The need for compassion:
    Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress... --James 1:27
    The second quality that James highlights as a mark of true spirituality is compassion. Compassion is caring for those who are in need and having a desire to help. Of course, the greatest example of compassion in the New Testament is Jesus:

    Can you think of some different groups of people to whom Jesus showed compassion?

    Let's see what James meant when he says "visit orphans and widows in distress".

    To visit - is a translation of the Greek word, episkeptomai, which can be translated "to inspect, to see, to visit, to look after". It includes more than seeing, it includes doing something about what you see.

    Jesus used this same word in a story He told:

    Then the King will say to those on His right, "Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;  naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me." Then the righteous will answer Him, "Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?" The King will answer and say to them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." --Matthew 25:34-40
    This passage provides a powerful incentive for compassion.

    James' teaching raises the question: Is there something special about orphans and widows? The social conditions in the first century were very hard on such people, for there were not agencies to protect or aid them. Their only help was to be found among their fellow Christians.

    Of course there were many other groups of people that are also needy, so why did James highlight orphans and widows? I think it was because they tended to be the most vulnerable, most needy. Without family, who was going to help them? First Timothy talks about widows:

    Honor widows who are widows indeed; --1 Timothy 5:3 [KJV]
    The church should care for any widow who has no one else to care for her. 1 Timothy 5:3 [NLT]
    The uniqueness here is that there is no alternative support. Fellow Christians are the safety net.

    Max Lucado tells a story about a friend of his who was recently trying to teach his six-year-old son how to shoot a basket:

    The boy would take the basketball and push it as hard as he could toward the goal, but it always fell short. The father would then take the ball and toss it toward the basket, saying something like, "Just do it like this, son. It's easy." Then the boy would try, and miss, again. My friend would then take the ball and make another basket, encouraging his son to push the ball a bit harder. After several minutes and many misses, the boy responded to his father's encouragement by saying, "Yeah, but it's easy for you up there. You don't know how hard it is from down here."
    That's the problem with a lot of us when it comes to compassion. We can't understand why they can't manage on their own, like we have had to. Why do they need our help? Why can't they straighten their own lives out? The problem is that we don't know how hard it is down there. We don't know, or maybe have forgotten, what it's like to be them.

    James says we should help them In their distress. - The word distress is from the Greek word thlipsis. It can be translated "affliction, anguish, tribulation, distress, trouble". It comes from a verb thlibo meaning "to press, pressure".

    There are people all around us in distress. And Jesus wants us to care about them. And more than that, Jesus wants us to do what we can to help them.

    Why do you think that Christians today tend to be hard-hearted rather than compassionate?

    William Hybels, in his book "Who You Are When No One's Looking", says:
    Empathy [or compassion] does not come naturally to us hardhearted people. We have to slow down and make a determined effort [which includes asking for God's help] to put ourselves in other people's shoes. We need to ask ourselves how it would feel to be in their situations:
    • How would it feel to be handicapped, unable to stand up, walk or drive?
    • How would it feel to be unemployed and have a mortgage to pay and children to provide for?
    • How would it feel to be Black in a White community that is not particularly sensitive to minorities?
    • How would it feel to be divorced, to be widowed, to lose a child or a parent?
    • How would it feel to be poor?
    • How would it feel to have cancer or M.S. or Alzheimer's?
    We can't "look after" everyone in need but we can look after some. James says that Christians do.
  4. The danger of compromise:
    Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. --James 1:27
    There's something in all of us that tries to have it all - we want to be devoted to Jesus without giving up the world. But it can't be done.

    The NIV translates this verse:

    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 1:27
    The world pollutes (NIV), stains (NASB).

    Pollute or stain comes from the Greek word aspilos which means clean or spotless and comes from a root word meaning dirt. I don't think James is talking about sinless perfection here. I think he's talking about spiritual compromise, about worldliness.

    Someone said that multitudes go to church and call themselves Christians; yet their lives are essentially worldly. They freely spend a thousand times more time and money on self-indulgent activities than they grudgingly give to God.

    There are many, many verses in the New Testament that warn against the danger of compromise and worldliness:

    Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; --Luke 21:34

    Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. --Colossians 3:2

    ...instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age... --Titus 2:12

    You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. --James 4:4

    Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. --1 Peter 2:11

    Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. --1 John 2:15-17
    The good news at this point is that God cleanses us. He is continually at work in the process of purifying us. There are wonderful promises about this in the Bible. How do we become clean of all our stains? He tells us that he will take care of it.
    Come now, and let us reason together," Says the Lord, "Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool. --Isaiah 1:18
    The New Living Translation of the middle part of this verse reads,
    No matter how deep the stain of your sins, I can remove it.
    None of us are "stained" or "polluted" beyond Jesus' ability to cleanse.

    Jesus told us that his word cleanses us.

    You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. --John 15:3
    The more time we spend in The Bible, the more it cleanses our hearts and minds. Picture water running into a dirty cup. The longer the water continues running into and out of the cup, the more dirt it carries away.

    We are also cleaned by confession:

    If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. --1 John 1:9
    Notice that it says "if" we confess. The responsibility here is ours. Getting clean is up to us.

George MacDonald said:

"Don't tell me what you believe about God or even what you think you believe. Tell me what you didn't do today that you wanted to do, but you didn't because you love God. And tell me what you did do because you love God."
As we finish our study of this passage at the end of James Chapter 1, let's read back over what Jesus says to us through James, his brother. Ask yourself:

Am I living my life in a manner worthy of the title Christian? If not, why?

Stormie Omartian said:

"Trust that God has your best interests in mind and be willing to do what he asks of you, even if you don't understand why. Obedience starts with having a heart that says yes to God."