The very thought that worship may be in vain or worthless is not something agreeable to all people. For is not all worship acceptable to God? Could there possibly be Christians who worship God in vain?
The idea that worship of God may be futile is not of our own invention. It is the prophet Isaiah who suggests such a thought. Note in Isaiah 29:13, “And YHWH has said, ‘This people draw near to Me with their mouth, and they honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. So it is worthless that they worship me, teaching the commandments and doctrines of men.” [LXX] Thus, the worship of these Israelites -- God’s chosen People -- was in vain because human doctrines had removed the hearts of the Jews away from God.
That matters had not changed over 700 years later is shown when Jesus quotes this very text of the Hebrew Bible and applies it to the Jewish hierarchy of his day. Matthew 15:6-9 records this confrontation with Jewish clergy: “And so you have invalidated God’s Word by means of your [Jewish] traditions. You hypocrites, Isaiah fittingly prophesied about you [Jews], ‘This [Israelite] people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far removed from Me. It is worthless that they continue to worship Me, because they teach human commands as doctrines.’” Thus, our Lord makes it clear that doctrines of human origin can render worship of God a useless act.
A close, related disciple of Jesus, James, also writes about formal worship that may be rendered worthless. In the process he lists three matters which could render Christian worship vain or useless. He does this in James 1:26, 27: “If anyone considers themselves to be a formal worshipper and does not bridle his tongue -- but continues deceiving his own heart -- this person’s worship is worthless. Pure and undefiled worship before The God, even the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their oppression, [and] to keep oneself unspotted from the worldly social order.” The Greek threskos means ceremonially religious and has all the sense of a Jewish form of worship. The word is used two other times at Acts 26:5 where it is the Jewish religion and at Colossians 2:18 where it is a form of Gnosticism -- it is organized, formal and rigid in its ceremony.
Here James introduces the control of the tongue as an important and vital element in “pure religion.” The word “tongue” occurs 165 times and most often in the Psalms [38 times] and Proverbs [21 times]. This is the first occurrence out of 5 in James and is the subject he takes up with detail in the next chapter as well as infers it regarding “teachers” in chapter 3. He uses the word “mouth” once. The spirit of this theme is again from the Nazarene’s Mountain Teachings. [See notes on MT 5:21-24] For James it is impossible to divorce “pure religion” from the use of the tongue. In what manner does he mean this bridling control? Largely he has in mind that negative judgmental and critical speech -- often inflammatory and murderous -- which is slanderous. The metaphor of the horse’s bridle he takes up again in JA3:3. The bridle does not shut the mouth but directs the horse. This is speech at once controlled but also directed to that which is upbuilding and constructive. It is the Nazarene who teaches [Luke 6:45] “out of the heart's abundance his mouth speaks” and who warns, “I assure all of you that every idle work that people speak they will give an account for it on the Day of Judgment.” [See notes on MT 12:36.]
The Nazarene showed that peace with one’s brother came before worship. [see notes on MT 5:24] Most often the worshipper realizes that another worshipper has something against him, either in the form of a “debt” or something said which was either damaging, hurtful or divisive, or, in fact, true. It honorable to approach God with one’s offering in a clean conscience, having “committed no offense against God and men.” [Acts 24:16] However, worship can be “futile” or in “vain” for several reasons. In JA1:27 it is “pure religion from God’s stand point.” God, as the object of worship, has the right to determine how He is to be worshipped and what is acceptable to Him. The Nazarene speaks to the woman of Samaria, “True worship is offered in spirit and in truth for God looks for this true worship.” [John 4:22-24] In saying “true worship” he infers there is such a thing as false or erroneous worship. Again, quoting Isaiah, the Nazarene warns the religious hierarchy, “It is in vain you people worship Him because of your traditions.” [see notes on MT 15:9] Isaiah also thunders in the voice of Yahweh, “You are completely sick. Your formal ceremonies are worthless. I hate your religious festivals.” [Isaiah 1:5, 11-14] It is a fearsome prospect that all one’s worship -- with its prayers, hymns, inspirational poems, church attendance, and donations -- is completely worthless if the tongue is not controlled.
This is the second requirement of divinely approved worship. This charitable and humanitarian activity is classified by James as part and parcel of true religion though it is not part of what others might consider formal religious ceremony. God has fixed his vision on the orphan and widow and pays strict attention to how they are treated for he Himself shows concern for them. [Proverbs 15:25; Psalm 68:5] Job is falsely accused of ignoring widows [Job 22:9] but this is not true. [Job 29:13] The word “widow(s) occurs almost 100 times, the first in Genesis 38:11 regarding Tamar and most often in Deuteronomy, 14 time; but in the Christian Bible it occurs 7 times Luke and 7 times 1 Timothy. The person who ignores orphans and widows wastes precious time in ceremonial worship no matter the religion. James uses the Greek episkeptesthai for visit, care for or look after. This is exactly the same word the glorified Son of Man uses at Matthew 25:36 epeskepsasthe when he tells the Sheep of their good deeds to “one of the least” of his brothers. Jesus’ use of “least” means the youngest, oldest, or sickest, particular among women. There is no political value in these non-entities of orphans and widows who are so poor they must rely on others. The Goats of this parable are cast off into “everlasting pruning” [lit Greek] for the sin of omission.
James writes, “Keep oneself unspotted from the worldly social order.” Or, KJV: to keep himself unspotted from the world; NEB: untarnished by; TCNT: uncontaminated by; GDSP: unstained by; BER: free from the smut of. The Greek often rendered “world” is kosmos, which means a systematized arrangement characterizing humankind in general. This “world” has as its “god” the Devil [2 Corinthians 4:4] and it is the Wicked One who is in control of the world. [see notes on 1JN5:19 and EP6:12] The “world” [religious, political, commercial] is characterized by blindness to the truth and ignorance of godly morality. [see notes on EP4:17-19] Greed and fleshly desire drives the world.
James states, “Spotless.” There is the Christian community and then there is everything “outside” in the world. In his Passover Teachings with his disciples in the upper room the Nazarene taught them: [John 15:19] “If you were part of the world the world would love you because you would belong to it But, because you are no part of the world you are hated by it.” The he prays for his disciples: [John 17:14] “These [apostles] are no part of the world just as I am no part of the world.” James expresses this thought differently: “Adulterers, are you not aware that worldly friendship makes you an enemy of God?” [see notes on JA4:4] Paul stresses separateness from worldliness: (2 Corinthians 6:17) “Get out from their midst and separate yourselves. ... Do not touch the impure thing. ... Then I will receive you.” The Greek aspilos means unspotted or without blemish and occurs only here and at 1 Timothy 6:14; 1 Peter 1:19; see notes on 2PE3:14. It is a synonym for “blameless.” It is the state unto which a godly husbands attempts to bring his submissive wife. [see notes on EP5:27, spilon]
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
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