Worthless Religion and Dead Faith

Who Determines “True Worship”?

God is the One who determines how He is to be worshipped. Some worshippers believe THEY can determine how to worship God and He will just have to accept that. They go to the “church of THEIR choice.” God becomes something like a cafeteria buffet where one can pick and choose what pleases them.

When confronted with this exact context, Jesus Christ the Nazarene made it clear where true worship and salvation could be realized. Read the account in John 4:9-24: [New International Version]

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." 20 [She said] Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." 21 Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

Jesus made it clear there were “true worshippers,” which infers there are also false worshippers, or those who worship amiss, or in vain. Did Jesus teach this elsewhere?

The Nazarene and Worthless Worship

When the Jewish hierarchy confronted Jesus and his disciples over a ceremonial law on cleanliness, the Nazarene quoted Isaiah against them: “You have invalidated the Word of The God by your own tradition. Hypocrites, Isaiah gave a good prophecy about you when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips but their heart is distant. Their worship is worthless because they teach human commandments as doctrine.’ [Matthew 15:6-9 NCMM]

Jesus charged that these religious teachers had “invalidated the Word of The God.” [Other versions render this: MOF: you have repealed the law of God; GDSP: you have nullified what God has said; PME: empties the commandment.] Jesus then quotes Isaiah 29:13 which is the utterance of his Father Yehowah when he condemns the whole nation of Israel, not just its religious leaders. Because they followed the doctrines of human leaders their worship had become “worthless” or “in vain.” No matter how many sacrifices they made, no matter how often they raised their palms to God in prayer, no matter the sincerity of their hymns of praise - their worship was worthless. Or as the Williams translation puts it, “Their worship of me is an empty show.”

Some want to apply this “worthless worship” to just the scribes and Pharisees in the context. However, it should be noted that God himself in Isaiah 29:13 applies it to all Israel. A bit later Jesus responds to the hurt feelings of the Pharisees: “Then the disciples approached Jesus and told him: ‘Are you aware that what you said offended the Pharisees?’ Jesus answered them: ‘Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be uprooted. Leave [the Pharisees] alone. They are blind guides. Therefore, if a blind man tries to lead another blind man, both will stumble into the ditch.’” [Matthew 15:12-14] Thus, persons who are already spiritually blind and who attempt to follow blind religious leaders suffer together with them.

Did any of Jesus’ disciples preach the same message? Did any other inspired writer indicate worship - even Christian worship - could be in vain?

James --- Vain Worship and Dead Faith

The disciple James - at one time the presiding elder of the Jerusalem church - wrote words that echo the Nazarene. He writes that formal worship or service to God can be rendered worthless for three reasons. Anyone who wishes to become a “true worshipper” should show a heightened interest in what James said. Consider James 1:26, 27 [Nazarene Commentary©] -

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.

Let us examine these two verses and note the three items, which could possibly make Christian worship “worthless.” First in James 1:26 we note James mentions “a formal worshipper.” What does he mean? If a Latin root is preferred the Greek may be “religious.” [KJV] The Greek threskos means ceremonial worship or religion, and has all the sense of a 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. It 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 Matthew 5:21-24 in Nazarene Commentary 2000©] 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 James 3:3. 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 word that people speak they will give an account for it on the Day of Judgment.” [See notes on Matthew 12:36 in Nazarene Commentary 2000©.]

James says such a person, “Continues deceiving his own heart.” [Or, TAY: is fooling himself] As in James1:22 self-deception in religious matters is a real and serious element to James’ letter. In James 1:22 it was concerning -- not just words -- but doing; and now it is not just doing but words.

James draws the harsh judgment that such a person’s “Worship is worthless.” The Nazarene showed that peace with one’s brother came before worship. [See notes on Matthew 5:24 in Nazarene Commentary 2000©] Most often the worshipper realizes that another worshipper has something against him. This is either in the form of a “debt,” or, something said, which was either damaging, hurtful or divisive. It is 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 James 1:27 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 Matthew 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.

On the other hand there is “pure religion” [KJV] identified by two factors here in James. He calls this, “Pure and undefiled worship.” [Or, KJV: pure religion; ABUV: undefiled religious service; TCNT: religious observance.] The Greek threskos is shown above to apply to the religious form and ceremony of either Jew or Greek. But, there is a religious form God approves. It includes three characteristics: 1] the controlled use of the tongue; 2] charity; and, 3] spiritual purity.

Having considered the first item, we note the second. James identifies true worshippers as those who “Visit orphans and widows in their oppression.” 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. In the Christian Bible it occurs 7 times in 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, particularly among women. There is no political value in the 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” [literal Greek] for the sin of omission.

The third and final criteria for “pure religion” James describes: “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 1 John 5:19 and Ephesians 6:12] The “world” [religious, political, commercial] is characterized by blindness to the truth and ignorance of godly morality. [See notes on Ephesians 4:17-19] Greed and fleshly desire drives the world.

James means, “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.” Then 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 James 4:4] 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, and 2 Peter 3:14. It is a synonym for “blameless.” It is the state unto which a godly husbands attempts to bring his submissive wife. [See notes on Ephesians 5:27, spilon]

To James, not only is worship worthless that ignores charity, such faith is also dead. The disciple writes:

James 2:14-17 My brothers, what is the profit if anyone says, “I have conviction,” but does not have works? Is just his conviction able to save him? [For example], if a brother or sister is living without adequate clothing and lacks daily food, and anyone of you says, “Go in peace. Keep warm and well fed” -- but do not give them their bodily necessities -- what is the profit? Just so, conviction without works is dead by itself.

James uses a practical example -- perhaps an experience he actually knows about -- or an observation he has made many times with regard to the rich. He has heard this. Again he uses “a certain one,” but the Greek “you” is in the plural so this no single incident. The example is pure charity -- or lack thereof. The object of the need is a fellow believer -- a brother or sister -- and the need is immediate and serious. This is not a case of taking care of someone long-term but that requirement for that particular day. The Greek is different from Matthew 6:11 but the spirit is the same -- daily bread. Whereas the rich will make great plans to make profits over the period of a year in a distant city, they do not respond to the daily needs of those whom they profess to be related to in the faith.

John uses a similar example in 1 John 3:17 and both seem familiar with the parable of the sheep and goats. [See notes on Matthew 25:31-46] James writes of the same subject as Paul. [1 Corinthians 13:2, 3] It is interesting James does not amplify or attach additional riders to this simple demonstration of faithful works. For example, he does not clarify by saying, “Of course, the most important act of charity is providing for one’s spiritual needs.” Nor does he once launch into a desertion on the disciple-making commission of Matthew 28:19. Here he is dealing with those within the Christian community and their urgent material needs. This is the same spirit of Galatians 6:10. [See notes on Romans 12:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; Titus 3:8; 1 Corinthians 13:2; Job 31:19-23; Isaiah 58:7; Matthew 25:35-36; Luke 3:11; Deuteronomy 15:7, 8]

Just as worship can be worthless, faith is dead without positive action. Dead faith is unconscious, sleeping, lifeless, non-existent. It may be active in other areas but if faith forgets basic human need and dignity it is completely worthless and will make no impression on God Almighty. The Father is the epitome of charitable caring as the Nazarene teaches [Matthew 5:45] and any who profess to be His worshippers must be characterized by those attributes of the kindly Samaritan. [Luke 10:33; Compare also Luke 3:11; Deuteronomy 15:7, 8; 1 John 3:17; Matthew 7:22, 23; Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 5:14.]

In conclusion, judging from both the Nazarene and James, we learn that we cannot take our worship for granted. If God could reject the worship of His chosen People Israel, he can also refuse to accept Christian worship. We do well to pay attention to four matters: a] doctrine based on the Bible; b] control of the tongue; c] look after orphans and widows; and, d] remain unspotted from the world. Surely every day our prayers will ascend to the Father by our Lord Jesus that we remain watchful. If we fail in one of these matters we are quick to repent and correct our error. How grateful we are to have His Word to guide us, rather than following “blind guides.”

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Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller

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