"Doers of the Word"
(Delivered Sunday, December 31, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
One of the most practical books in the New Testament is the Book of James. Its author stands out as one of the most notable pastors in the history of the church. One reason was that he was the half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ—being the physical son of Joseph through Mary. But another reason he stands out is that he was also pastor of the first church—the church in Jerusalem.
James was a great and godly pastor. He was deeply concerned for the spiritual nurture and growth of the people under his care. And so, his short New Testament letter is remarkably filled with good, godly counsel and instruction. As a pastor, I've learned to not only read James' letter for my own spiritual instruction, but also as a guidebook for the sort of concerns I should be showing for our church family in my own ministry.
One of the concerns I have for this church family is that each member maintain a habit of reading and studying God's word daily. It is, I believe, one of the most important habits a follower of Jesus can have. And as we have approached the new year, I have been presenting the challenge that each one of us commit ourselves to developing and maintaning this habit in our lives.
But one of the things I learn from James' letter is that it is not enough for the people of God to merely “read” God's word on a regular basis. There are some additional things that needs to happen in order for the word of God to have its intended impact in our lives. And so, to show you what those things are, I ask you to turn with me to James 1:21-25. There, we read these words of exhortation from one of the godliest and greatest pastors in all of church history:
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One of the things that I love about this passage is the wonderful ways it describes God's word. We tend to think far too casually about the remarkable fact that we hold a copy of God's written word in our hands. And yet, there truly is no other book like it in the world. I do not hesitate to affirm that it alone is the book from God. Some of the things that James says in this passage encourages us to think rightly about the Bible and appreciate what a wonderful thing it is.
Look, for example, at how he repeatedly calls it “the word”. He calls it “the word” (that is the logos) three times in the passage I have just read to you. And in verse 18, James has said that God the Father has “brought us forth by the word of truth”. That's what the Bible is—God word of truth.
And then, in verse 21, James urges us to listen carefully to the instruction of the word of truth, because it is “able to save your souls”. What a marvel the word of God is. It is able to lead a man or woman to salvation—not only complete redemption from sin, but complete wholeness as a person. The apostle Paul taught us the same thing. He wrote that the Scriptures are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). No other book can do for you what the Bible—the word of God's truth—can do for you.
He also calls it “the implanted word” (v. 21). The Bible isn't like other books of mere human origin. You can read them as an external, objective thing. You can study them; and if you study them long enough and carefully enough, you can 'master' them. But you don't 'master' the Bible. Rather, it 'masters' you; because God's word is “living and powerful” (Hebrews 4:12). It gets down into you and transforms you from the inside out. Through careful study of it, you are “transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2). The Holy Spirit seeks to work the word of God into you in such a way that it comes to “dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16).
James calls it “the perfect law” in verse 25. It is God's law to us—the only rule for our faith and conduct; and it is, in every respect, a perfect law. It is complete in that everything we need is found in it; “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). And it is perfect in that it will never fail. Jesus Himself has promised that “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18).
What's more, James calls it the perfect law “of liberty”. It's God's “law”; but it's a law that sets us free. God's law first “confines” and “restricts” us in that it shows us the truth about our sin and helps us to realize that we are sinners in disparate need of a Savior. But then, it shows us the Savior that God has given to save us from our sins—Jesus Christ, His own Son; who took our sins upon Himself and died in our place. It drives us to this Savior and teaches us who He is and what He has done for us. It calls us to place our trust in Him. And once we trust Him, He sets us free! He Himself said, “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). And once that happens—once we are established in the liberty of Christ—the law never again becomes something that confines us. It becomes the law we delight to keep—out of a spirit of gratitude to God, and out of love for our neighbor. It's the law that liberates us! As the psalmist says in Psalm 119:45, “And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts.”
Nothing else can do for us what the word of God can do for us. How dull of spirit we would prove ourselves to be if we don't pick our Bible's up with a sense of reverent awe. How ungrateful we would be if we didn't thank God for it, and cherish it, and expose ourselves to its blessings every day.
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But here's where good Pastor James' instruction becomes most crucial to us. It isn't enough to simply pick the Bible up and become exposed to it.
Many folks think that's enough. Many folks already have a habit of reading the Bible everyday. Many folks listen to years and years of great preaching from the Bible, or study commentaries on different books of the Bible, or hear it read to them over and over—in different translations—through tapes or CDs or Mp3 files. Many folks have made it their profession to study the texts of Scripture. And yet for many of those same folks—sadly—the Bible will fall short of being the life-transforming blessing that God intends it to be.
Don't let yourself be one of those folks. James is one of the greatest pastors in church history; when he gives instruction and counsel on the Christian life, we ought to listen. And here, Pastor James' teaches us that the blessing of God's word comes from something more than merely being exposed to it. You might say that, coming to us, the word of God must be received by us in a certain way; and then, having been received by us, it must be responded to by us in a certain way. And it is only when God's word is received by us rightly, and put into practice by us as it should be, that it will prove to be the blessing to us that God means for it to be.
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Now, James begins by telling us about “receiving” the word of God. That's the main command of his instruction to us—to “receive” the “implanted word”. God puts it in us; and we are to take care “how” we receive what He puts in.
And so, notice how he shows us . . .
1. THE TEACHABLENESS WITH WHICH GOD’S WORD IS TO BE RECEIVED (V. 21).
Notice that he says, “Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (v. 21). Pay special attention to that word “therefore”. This lets us know that what James says in verse 21 is a result of what he says in verses 17-20.
In verses 17-20, James said,
God, our good heavenly Father, is wiser than us. He knows us better than we know ourselves; and He understands our needs better than we understand them. He only intends—and only does—what is good for us. Apart from His grace, we are dead in our trespasses and sins; and yet, He, in great love and out of His own will, brought us into new-birth in Christ by the message of the gospel. He intends that we become more and more matured in Christ, and has willed that we, ultimately, be glorified in Christ eternally. His divine purpose for us is a rich and glorious one.
And for that reason, we should learn to have a humble, listening spirit—not trusting in our own wisdom and in our own passions, but looking instead to God to guide us and teach us toward the fulfillment of His purpose for us. James says,
If I may put it plainly, I take this to be a call for us to 'shut up and listen' when God speaks through His word. Don't be so quick to blab-out your own ideas about what ought to be done for you. Don't be so quick to justify your anger about this and that. Instead, quiet down, embrace a child-like humility, and be “quick to hear” what God's word is telling you.
One of the great attitude-changes we must undergo in order to gain the benefit from God's wisdom—one of the greatest steps into maturity we must take—has to do with how receptive we become to what He has to say to us. We must learn to crucify our prideful tendency to exalt in our own wisdom. We must learn that all of our so-called 'wisdom' is nothing more than foolishness before God. If we truly want wisdom, we must listen to Him. We must trust in the Lord with all our heart, and lean not on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
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And it's in this spirit that James tells us what he says in verse 21. We must discipline ourselves to rightly receive God's word.
Look closer at what he says in this verse. He tells us in it to “receive . . . the implanted word”. It's interesting that James calls the word “implanted”; because it makes us think of gardening. One of the features of gardening is that the ground must be properly prepared in order to receive the seed. You have to take out the rocks and the weeds; and you have to drive away the gophers. You have to spend almost as much time taking things out of the ground to prepare it as you do putting things in it. And so, James tells to do the work necessary to prepare the soil for the reception of God's word.
He tells us, first of all, to “lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness”. Sometimes we cannot receive God's word rightly, because we have an agenda in our hearts that prohibits the word from taking root in us and accomplishing in us what God intends. We have sin in our lives that we are not willing to forsake; and the implanted word will not take root in us if that's the case. And so, it's our duty to prepare ourselves to receive Gods' word by confessing and repenting of all known sin in our lives.
He calls us to lay aside “all filthiness”; and this refers to moral uncleanness and impurity—that is, all the sins of the old-life that characterized us before we came to Christ. And he also calls us to lay aside all “overflow of wickedness”; and this refers to even the after-effects—the 'residue' of the old habits and practices of sin. Paul wrote,
Those are the old “grave-clothes” of the old life of sin. They're no longer appropriate to the woman or man of God, made new in Christ. So long as we hold on to them, God's word cannot do the work in our lives that He intends. And so, one aspect of humbly receiving His word is that we lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness. As Peter wrote;
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Second, he calls us to receive the word with “meekness”. We must have a truly teachable spirit in order to receive instruction from God's word.
“All Scripture,” Paul tells us, “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness . . .” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bibel tells you what is wrong in your life, tells you where you should be instead, and guides you through the steps of getting there and staying there. Now, that kind of instruction requires that you crucify your pride. You can't respond to God's instruction by getting into an argument with His word. As James teaches us later in his letter, if someone sets themselves up as a judge of the word of God, then they short-circuit their readiness to be a doer of it (James 4:11).
James calls us to receive God's instruction in His word with “meekness”; and this doesn't refer to the idea of “weakness”. It doesn't mean that we're to be wimpy when we approach His word. Rather, it means that we're to be “reigned in”, as it were, and brought under the willing control of God. We're to be like a mighty, powerful horse that brings all of its strength into obedience to its rider's will.
This is important because of the fact that James says that the word is able to 'save' our 'souls'. That implies that our souls needed saving in the first place. It means that we recognize that we are fallen beings; that we are not where we should be in respect to God's good will for us. It recognizes that, apart from God's grace to us in Christ, we are lost. It recognizes that God's agenda for us is higher and greater than our own agenda for ourselves. It recognizes that He saved us in order that we should grow up “to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
Such meekness before God would cause us to open our Bibles and pray, “Father; not my will, but Your's be done. I will not trust in my own wisdom, or in the wisdom of men, but in Your wisdom alone. Cause Your word to do in me what You desire for it to do, so that I become all that You want for me to be in Christ.”
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Now; that's the attitude with which we should receive the word. How much would be accomplished in our lives if we only did that much!
But there's more. James next teaches us . . .
2. THE EARNESTNESS WITH WHICH GOD’S WORD IS TO BE APPLIED (VV. 22-25).
James is a practical, no-nonsense pastor. He goes on to say, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only . . .” (v. 22a).
In the time that James wrote those words, “hearing” the word of God was the only way most people could come into contact with it. People did not have copies of the Bible to read at their leisure, as we do today. Many of them could only hear the word of God being read to them out loud, as they gathered together with their brothers and sisters in Christ. But today, we should understand “hearing” to refer to whatever modern means the word of God is brought to us—whether through hearing it in public readings or through tapes and CDs and on an MP3 player, or reading it on the printed pages of our Bibles, our hearing it expounded in a sermon or a class or in a Bible study group.
The “hearing” of the word speaks of its reception. But James says that we're not to be hearers only, “deceiving” ourselves (v. 22b). We fool ourselves if we think that we have gained all that there is to be gained by simply “hearing” God's word. James goes on to tell us what such a person is like;
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Have you ever thought about how many times in the course of a day you look into a mirror? Perhaps some of us look into mirrors more often than others; but we all look into a mirror far more often than the number of times we actually do anything about what we see. Usually, we do something about what we see the first thing in the morning; and from then on, it's only for a periodic “mid-course correction”.
James describes a man who looks into a mirror somewhat casually. He perceives his natural face. It shows him the truth. Perhaps he sees some things that are wrong—things that that need a little work. But the man gives only a passing glance to what he sees in the mirror. He looks; then walks away; and then completely forgets all about what he saw.
That's how many people read the Bible. God's word shows them the truth about their need. It shows them areas in their lives that need to be changed. And yet, they look; and then they walk away; and they completely forget about what they saw. When they will pick up their Bibles and read from it tomorrow, they won't even remember what it was that they read in it today.
James contrasts this man with the man who truly gets a blessing from the word of God. He says, “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does” (v. 25). And here, we see three contrasts:
First, there's a difference in how the blessed man looks into the word. The other man simply “observes”1. But the word that is used of the blessed man is different2. He “looks into” the word in an intense way. The word that is used was the same word that was used to describe how Peter looked into the tomb of Jesus after He had risen from the grave. The Bible tells us that Peter literally “stooped down” (Luke 24:12), in order to look intently. And that's how the blessed man looks into the word; that is, with great effort and eagerness—stooping down, as it were, to gaze intently into the word of truth.
Second, there's a difference in how the blessed man processes what he sees. The other man looked and then went away. But the blessed man looks into the perfect law of liberty “and continues in it”—that is, remains and abides in that instruction. He meditates on it. He thinks about it. He memorizes it. He allows the Holy Spirit the time it takes to bring the implications of it to bear on his conduct and behavior. He looks—and keeps what he sees!
And third, there's a difference in what how the blessed man responds. The other man looked at the same word; but then walked away and forgot about it. The blessed man, however, stooped down low to look intently, continued in it, and then arose and did what the word said. He obeyed it.
I heard something that was once said about a famous pastor from the Seattle area. He used to do a lot of youth work; and some of the young people he worked with once asked him how he memorized Scripture. He said, “I don't try to memorize it. I just get up and obey it.” Personally, I think that's the way to get God's word permanently embedded into your mind and heart—get up and do what it says. That's what James is talking about. That's the best translation of the Bible, by the way—when the Bible gets translated into action.
And it's not only what James talked about; but also what our Lord Himself taught. Jesus once said,
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So, Pastor James' instruction—instruction to us to help us gain the greatest possible blessing from the times we spend in the word—is first a matter of how we receive it, and then a matter of how we apply it. We must make sure that we receive it with a spirit of humility and teachableness, and apply it with a spirit of earnestness.
And it seems to me that these two aspects of our responsibility toward the Bible need to be viewed as two sides of the same coin. If we do not truly receive the word of God with a genuine spirit of teachableness before God—if we approach it pridefully, or harbor sin in our lives, or are not genuinely humble and meek in our hearing of it—then we are clearly not obeying it. And if we do not do what it says—if we merely give it a passing glance, and walk away, and forget what it told us to do—then we're not receiving it with teachable humility. Jesus Himself said, “But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; let's heed the instruction of God to us through Pastor James. True blessing in the reading and study of God's word comes not from merely being exposed to it, but from receiving it in a teachable spirit and following it up with active “doing” of the word. May we be thus be among those readers of the Bible that James speaks of when he says, “[T]his one will be blessed in what he does.”
1Katanoeo; to perceive, apprehend, discern.
2Parakupto; to stoop beside; to stoop down (in order to take a closer view).
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