Willingness to Apply the Word Without Selfishness
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, (1:27a)
The second proper reaction to the Word of God is the willingness to apply it to one’s life without selfishness, with genuine concern for the welfare of others, especially those in great need. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is to serve them with love and compassion. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Katharos (pure) and amiantos (undefiled) are synonyms, the first emphasizing cleanliness, the second denoting freedom from contamination. James is not speaking of what may seem best to us, best to the world, or even best to fellow believers, but what is best in the sight of our God and Father. The genuineness of anyone’s religion is not determined by his or her own qualifications or standards but by God’s. The greatest spiritual mistake of the scribes, Pharisees, and other Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus was in that very regard. They had replaced God’s standards in the Law with their own man-made traditions. Of such men Jesus said, “You invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me’ ” (Matt. 15:6b–8).
Episkeptomai (to visit) means much more than to drop by for a chat. It carries the ideas of caring for others, exercising oversight on their behalf, and of helping them in whatever way is needed. It is from the same root as episkopos, which means “overseer” and is sometimes translated “bishop” (see the nasb and kjv texts of Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25). Episkeptomai is used frequently in the New Testament of God’s visiting His people in order to help, strengthen, and encourage them (see, e.g., Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16; Acts 15:14 kjv; the nasb reading uses the expression “how God first concerned Himself about”; and Heb. 2:6 kjv; the nasb reading uses the expression “concerned about”).
In speaking of the separation of the sheep and goats in the day of judgment, Jesus used the word to describe those who truly belong to and love Him, saying, “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” (Matt. 25:35–36, emphasis added). Actually, all of those ways of ministering could be included broadly under episkeptomai. To visit in a way that is pleasing to our God and Father is to meet as best we can all the needs of orphans and widows and any others in their distress.
Generally, the neediest people in the early church were orphans and widows. There were no life insurance or welfare programs to support them. Jobs for either group were scarce, and if they had no close kin, or at least none who would help them, they were in desperate straits. But the principle applies to anyone in need. Because such people without parents and husbands are unable to reciprocate in any way, caring for them reveals true sacrificial love.
God has always had special concern for orphans and widows and has commanded His people to reflect that same concern. David affirmed that “a father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows, is God in His holy habitation” (Ps. 68:5). The Mosaic Law included the instruction, “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan” (Ex. 22:22), and,
“At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do” … “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” (Deut. 14:28–29; 27:19)
Through Jeremiah, the Lord declared to Israel, “If you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever” (Jer. 7:5–7).
Loving, selfless service to others, especially fellow believers, is also a frequent New Testament theme. Paul gave the command to “honor widows who are widows indeed” (1 Tim. 5:3), which included bestowing financial and any other help that was needed. John declares that
the one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.… By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.… We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.… We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. (1 John 2:10–11; 3:10–11, 14, 16)
Later in 1 John, he says,
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7–12)
True Christianity is manifested from a pure and loving heart by the way believers talk and by the way they act. It is manifested by how they love and care for those who are in need, not by how they love and care for those they prefer, those who are close to them, or those with whom they share common traits and interests. Love is to be the central and most visible manifestation of salvation. And, as John makes clear, love for God cannot be separated from love for others, especially for fellow believers and most especially for those who are in … distress. The professed Christian who does not show such compassion has reason to doubt that he is born again. A truly redeemed heart reaches out to others (cf. Matt. 5:43–48; John 13:34–35).
Willingness to Apply the Word Without Compromise
and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (1:27b)
The third proper reaction to the Word of God is the willingness to apply it to one’s life without moral or spiritual compromise.
To keep translates a form of the Greek verb tēreō, indicating regular, continuous action. In other words, keeping oneself unstained by the world is the perpetual obligation of Christians, allowing for no exception or qualification. Those who belong to God are to be characterized by moral and spiritual purity, by unstained and unblemished holiness. Peter admonishes believers to “conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:17b–19).
Neither James nor Peter is speaking of sinless perfection, a human spiritual condition solely manifested by Jesus in His incarnation. “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth,” the writer of Ecclesiastes assures us, “who continually does good and who never sins” (Eccles. 7:20). Although Paul could honestly say, “I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day” (Acts 23:1; cf. 24:16), he also confessed, “I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:4), and “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (Rom. 7:18–19).
Every Christian falls short of the Lord’s standards. Like Paul, we find ourselves doing things we know are wrong and not doing things we know are right (cf. Rom. 7:14–25). Even the most faithful and loving believer does not always show as much compassion as he should, love his fellow believers as he should, or love God as he should. James is speaking of the basic orientation of our lives, of our central commitment and allegiance. If that allegiance is right, then our deepest desire will be to love and care for others and to confess our selfish sin to the Lord when we do not. The genuine Christian cannot be happy or content when he fails to show compassion for others. It is not our perfection that proves our salvation but rather our hating our imperfections and seeking, with God’s help and power, to correct them. In his inmost heart, the genuine Christian longs to speak and do only those things that are holy, pure, loving, honest, truthful, and upright, things that are uncorrupted and unstained by the world.
On the other hand, a person who does not have compassion for others, who is not concerned about living righteously, and whose satisfaction is found in his sin, cannot be a true disciple of Christ and child of God.
Kosmos (world) has the basic meaning of order, arrangement, and sometimes of adornment. In the New Testament it is used figuratively of the earth (see Matt. 13:35; John 21:25) and the universe (see 1 Tim. 6:7; Heb. 4:3; 9:26). But most often it is used to represent fallen mankind in general and its ungodly spiritual systems of philosophy, morals, and values (see John 7:7; 8:23; 14:30; 1 Cor. 2:12; Gal. 4:3; Col. 2:8). That is the sense in which James uses the term in the present text. (See discussion below on 4:4.)
With that meaning of world obviously in mind, John warns, “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” (1 John 2:15–16). Love of God and love of the world and the things of the world are totally incompatible and mutually exclusive. The phrase “the things of the world” does not pertain to such things as participating in business, being involved in social activities, or buying and using the material necessities of life. It is the overriding love of and allegiance to such things that are ungodly and come between men and God.
Godly religion, that is, biblical Christianity, is a matter of holy obedience to God’s Word—reflected, among other ways, by our honesty in regard to ourselves, by our selflessness in regard to the needs of others, and by our uncompromising moral and spiritual stand in regard to the world.
27 By contrast, what then is “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless”? The term “pure” has a wide range of meanings and could refer to being clean from dirt, guiltless in terms of morality, or, in terms of religious ritual, something fit for offering to God (cf. Lev 18:22–27). The other adjective, translated by the NASB as “undefiled” and the NIV as “faultless,” is a synonym used elsewhere in the NT only in three places. Hebrews 7:26 speaks of Christ’s character as a perfect high priest; in Hebrews 13:4 the author stresses the importance of sexual purity in marriage; and the Christian’s inheritance is said to be “undefiled” in 1 Peter 1:4. Thus the religion James has in mind is not corrupted by the sin of neglecting the disadvantaged, nor by enmeshing oneself in the world’s immorality.
The admonition to care for widows and orphans expresses a widely held virtue of Jewish piety. God’s concern for the poor and distressed, his taking their cause of justice and basic sustenance as his own, must extend to the person who is God’s follower in the world. Widows and orphans especially had little means of provision for basic needs other than the care and generosity of their broader communities. Thus the person who claims to be religious in the best sense must seek to address the plight of the poor and most vulnerable (Isa 1:17). Further, true religion takes morality seriously. Here James may be echoing his exhortation of 1:21, which, as we have already suggested, probably refers to malice and conflict with others in the community. This form of wickedness and its contrast with wise living receive generous treatment in James (3:1–12; esp. 3:13–18; 4:1–12; 5:7–12). Thus James concludes his introduction with exhortations that lead into critical concerns in the letter’s main body.
Caring for the needy (v. 27)
James tells his readers to visit the orphans and the widows in their trouble. These two groups of people were the most helpless in that time. So James was calling for his readers to show compassion to the most helpless.
There is something here that we must not allow to slip by. James was writing to people who had troubles of their own! And yet he tells them that they must not forget to show compassion to others! One of the very best things we can do for ourselves when we are in trouble is to help someone else who is in trouble.
There are all kinds of aching, hurting people around us, and we must not simply turn our heads and pass by.
One of the saddest dimensions of our day is that so many Christians are so absorbed with their seminars, charts, notebooks, study groups and discipling techniques that they don’t have the time to bake a pie, send a card or mow the grass for the sick, the elderly and the lonely. It’s easy to be a very good Pharisee while the world cries for a good Samaritan.
By the way, James is not alone in making this emphasis. We can find it in several other Scriptures, one of which is from the apostle John:
But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him.
(1 John 3:17–19)
Separated from the world (v. 27)
James calls his readers to keep themselves ‘unspotted from the world’. The word ‘unspotted’ can also be translated ‘unsoiled’ or ‘unpolluted’.
To be unstained from the world is to maintain both personal integrity and moral purity. It’s to refuse to allow the world to set the standards for our beliefs and our conduct.
This is a polluting world! It can pollute our thinking, our speaking and our doing. Many who profess to be Christians give evidence of that pollution. They have set aside the clear teachings of the Word of God because they do not want to be out of step with what the world says. The authority for these people is not the Bible. It is the latest opinion poll!
And many who profess Christ have been polluted in their speaking. They talk just like everyone else. They would rather run the risk of offending God than sound different!
And many who suppose themselves to be Christians have polluted behaviour. They order their lives in exactly the same way as those who make no profession of faith at all.
There was a time when Christians considered it to be essential to be different from the world. They believed that only by showing the difference could they hope to attract unbelievers. Now, in a crazy flip-flop, the church is often saying the opposite. The church is trying to attract the world by being just like the world, not realizing that if Christianity is not different, there is no need for it! We can’t hope to influence the world for Christ if we allow it to influence us in our thoughts, words and deeds.
As we have noted, we shall find James developing later in this letter his points about controlling the tongue and caring for the needy. The same is true on this matter of being separated from the world. Here is one of his most telling and biting statements about the world: ‘Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God’ (4:4).
So James has set quite an agenda before us. Controlling the tongue! Caring for the needy! Staying separate from the world!
Is it possible to be saved and fail in these areas? Sure. But it is not possible to always be failing in these areas and be saved! May God help all of us to search our own hearts.
For further study
- Read Ephesians 4:29–5:7. What does Paul teach here about Christian speech?
- Read John 17:14–17. What does Jesus say about the Christian’s relationship to the world?
To think about and discuss
- Are there people you know (or know of) who are in need? What can you do to help them?
- What can you identify in your speaking, thinking or acting that indicates that you are too much influenced by the world?
1:27 / In contrast to the pious person with the sharp tongue, the religion that God our Father considers pure and faultless is not primarily ritual and pious practices but looking after orphans and widows in their distress and keeping oneself from being polluted by the world. The first characteristic, that of active charity and concern for the helpless and weak, is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament (Deut. 14:29; 24:17–22) as well as the New (Acts 6:1–6; 1 Tim. 5:3–16). The orphan and widow, along with the foreigner and Levite, formed the traditional poor of early Israel. True piety, then, will help the weak, the poor, for God is the helper of the helpless (Deut. 10:16–17).
The second characteristic focuses on the world, a designation common in Paul and John for human culture, mores, and institutions (1 Cor. 1–3; 5:19; Eph. 2:2; John 12:31; 15:18–17:16; 1 John 2:15–17). True piety is not conformity to human culture but transformation into Christ’s image (Rom. 12:1–2). For James this means specifically rejecting the motives of competition, personal ambition, and accumulation that lie at the root of a lack of charity and an abundance of community conflict (e.g., 4:1–4). In declaring this alone to be true religion in God’s eyes, James declares that conversion is meaningless unless it leads to a changed life.
1:27. Two evidences demonstrate pure religion: deeds of compassion and inner purity. This does not reduce Christianity to mere benevolence. True religion has more features than James has mentioned. The emphasis here is that for God to accept our worship it must be accompanied by loving ministry and a holy life. Both Christians and non-Christians could see and understand this type of evidence.
To look after orphans and widows demanded demonstrations of concern and active involvement. The psalmist pictured God as a defender of orphans and widows (Ps. 68:5). Christ used the word for look after in Matthew 25:43 to describe the ministry of caring for those in prison. Obeying this appeal calls for more than an occasional visit. It demands genuine compassion and true engagement.
(Not) polluted demands a freedom from contamination by the world. Peter used this word to refer to Christ as “without … defect” (1 Pet. 1:19). Christians are to model their purity after that of Jesus.
Some months ago I assembled a small playset with a sliding board and some climbing sections. I placed it in my backyard for my grandchildren to use. Although the process was not difficult, I constantly referred to the instruction book so I would know where to fit each piece. The writers of the book know how their product should fit together. I needed to follow their directions.
We must follow God’s instructions devotedly if we want to produce a lifestyle honoring to God. Obeying God’s Word demands control of the tongue, a compassion for others, and a separated life. These are the identifying marks of pure and faultless religion.
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.
Scripture is not a book with concise definitions that can be applied to specific instances. The Bible teaches us the way of life that is pleasing to God and to our neighbor. Thus, James gives us not a precise definition in this verse but rather a principle.
- “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless.” When James says “God our Father,” he immediately introduces the family concept. We are God’s children because he is our Father. He expects us to pay due respect and love to him, to our brothers and sisters in God’s household, and to all people (Gal. 6:10). Within the family of God love is the prevailing characteristic because God himself is love. God sets the example.
Here are a few random Scripture verses that illustrate this characteristic:
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling. [Ps. 68:5]
The Lord watches over the alien
and sustains the fatherless and the widow. [Ps. 146:9]
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien. [Deut. 10:18]
For the pagans run after all these things [physical needs], and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. [Matt. 6:32]
If, then, God sets the example, he expects his children to do what he does. If they follow God’s example, they demonstrate religion that is “pure and faultless.” These two adjectives show the positive (pure) and the negative (faultless) aspects; together they denote the essence of religion. And how do we practice our religion? James gives two examples:
- The first example pertains to the social circumstances and conditions of his day: “To look after orphans and widows in their distress.” Social conditions in ancient times were such that orphans and widows were unprotected because they had no guardian and breadwinner. God himself, therefore, filled that role. He exhorted the Israelite to be a protector and provider for the orphan and the widow (for example, see Deut. 14:29; Ezek. 22:7; Acts 6:1–6).
The person who exhibits true religion visits the “orphans and widows in their distress.” He puts his heart into being a guardian and provider, he alleviates their needs, and shows them the love of the Lord in word and deed (Matt. 25:35–40).
- “To keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Even though James urges us to become socially involved in helping needy people around us, at the same time he warns us to stay away from a sinful world. Do we have to isolate ourselves from the world? No, we are always in the world but not of the world (John 17:14).
Therefore, we ought not to imitate the ways of the world; rather, we ought to practice godliness. Writing about the coming of the Lord and the end of the world, Peter says, “So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with him” (2 Peter 3:14; and see 1 Tim. 6:14). In a sense James repeats what he said earlier, “Get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent” (1:21). Members of God’s family have the word holy written on their foreheads. They “know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God” (James 4:4). They love and serve the Lord truly and sincerely.