Pastor Note #120: James 1:27 & the Essence of the Christian Life

[Note: The text below is the script for a video/audio teaching I posted to my Facebook page and my YouTube channel.  If you’d like to see the video version, follow the instructions in the material below.]

How can human beings live flourishing and authentic lives in this complicated and troubled world?  That’s the question that James wants to answer in the New Testament book that bears his name.  In this session, I’m going to return to our study of the book of James to learn more about his answer to that question.

Photo by GAC

I’ve created a number of Bible study series on my Pastor Gary’s Video Notebook over the past couple of years.  Some of them have been organized around some topic.  But I have enjoyed best producing Bible study series that work progressively through an extended passage of the Bible.  I have one on the Lord’s prayer.  I have one that digs in deep into Romans 12 and another into Colossians 3.  Each of those series is collected in its own playlist both on my Facebook page, which you’ll find if you search for on Facebook for “Gary Chorpenning’s Notebooks” and on my YouTube channel, which you can find by searching on YouTube for “Pastor Gary’s Video Notebook.”  Look for the “playlist” tab on each of those platforms, and that will take you to those playlists on the Lord’s Prayer, Romans 12, and Colossians 3, as well as a bunch of other playlists, too.

If you’re listening to the audio version of this study on my podcast, both of the series on Romans 12 and Colossians 3 are also available in audio on “Pastor Gary’s Audio Notebook.”  You just have to scroll down to earlier episodes to find them.

I had started another more ambitious study aiming to work through the entire New Testament book of James.  That series also has its own playlist on my Facebook page and on my YouTube channel.  By July 2021, I had gotten almost all the way through James chapter 1.  Then my life and ministry got complicated, and I set that study aside for a while.  Now, I’m picking my James study back up.  I want to finish James 1 and work on further into James.  I may take an occasional brief break to talk about some current issue or some other topic.  But I hope to work at least through James 2 before any major breaks.  In any case, I will continue to collect these studies of James into the James playlist, so that they’ll all be easy to find whenever you want.

I don’t remember exactly what I said at the beginning of my video venture into James, so at risk of repeating myself let me say I love the book of James and have ever since I first led a small group Bible study on the book almost 45 years ago when I was in college.  It is a warm, rich, practical letter about how to live out the Christian faith in a complicated and difficult world.

In fact, I’d say that if you were looking for a good one-word description of James’s letter, the term “practical” would do that very well.  One of the categories of writing that we find in the Bible is often referred to as “wisdom literature.”  Wisdom literature is writing that attempts to teach us what it means for human beings, who are created in the image of God, to live wisely in a world that was created by God.  The wisdom literature in the Bible seeks to answer the question that I asked right at the beginning of this session: How can human beings live flourishing and authentic lives in this world, which was created by God but which is also now fallen, broken, and distorted from God’s original vision for it?  How can we live that flourishing life?

Photo by GAC

You can find that question being dealt with all throughout the Bible, but in the Old Testament, it is especially in Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes where that question is the main focus.  In the New Testament, that question provides the main focus of James’s letter.  It’s not entirely wrong to think of James as the New Testament version of the book of Proverbs.

Well, as I said, when I left off this study of James way back when, I had gotten to chapter 1 verse 27.  That’s a great verse to pick things back up with our study of James, because in many ways it really captures the heart and soul of the core message of the whole letter.  Here’s what James 1:27 says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their adversity and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” [NIV]

I’m going to come back to this verse again in the next episode to look at the fine detail of what James is saying.  But for now, I just want to look at the big theme here.  The word that is translated here as “religion” is a pretty broad term.  It generally refers to the worship and service to God or to a god.

Now, for James, it wasn’t as if we have a religious part of our lives and then all the other parts of our lives.  For James, and all the Bible writers, everything is religious.  Religion in this Bible sense of the word means to live in service to some god.  That might be the one true God.  Or it might be some other kind of god.  Jesus thinks that the other god we are most likely to serve is ourselves.  We make ourselves into the god we most like to serve.  James would have agreed with that.

Photo by GAC

Here in verse 27, James is telling us what is the true essence of the kind of service that pleases the one true God.  And what is that?  It is taking care of orphans and widows.  Does it surprise you that James thinks that serving orphans and widows is the essence of true service to God?  It might help if I explain that the phrase “orphans and widows” was a sort of catch-phrase that would have included more than just people who were literally orphans and widows.  In the ancient world, and still today, orphans and widows represented some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in a society.  And so, we are meant to understand that the phrase, “orphans and widows” is meant to include all of the most weak and vulnerable people in society, for example, such people as the disabled, the foreign refugee, the landless poor.

James then is saying that true and pure service to God means taking care of the weak and the vulnerable ones around us.  Why would he say that?  Well, because for James, the purest form of service to God is to live in such a way that our lives imitate God.

What is the gospel?  It is the fact that God, the powerful One, bends down to take care of the weak and needy ones—that is, us.  That’s the gospel.  In Jesus, God bends down to provide for us in our sin and weakness and need.  Then God says to us, “You do the same thing for the weak and needy ones all around you.  Then when the world sees you doing that, they will see me in your actions.”

That’s true religion.  That’s the service that truly pleases God.  Let’s give ourselves to that kind of service.  Let’s show the world what God is like.

© 2022 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.


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