Listen: Simon Manchester presents Christian Growth.
In this episode, Simon teaches from the book of James, exploring his teaching on “hearing the word”, “doing the word”, and “showing the word”.
Follow this series at Lessons From The Book of James — A ‘Christian Growth’ Series
Welcome again everybody – we are in our third morning, in case you are a visitor, in a little New Testament book called James.
And I think today we come to a fascinating practical section. I want to remind you that James is seeking to equip his readers. Just as a Physiotherapist will work with somebody who is recovering or needing to make progress, and without berating the person will work carefully and slowly and practically and realistically, trying to help them make progress – James is working with Christians to try to help them make progress.
Two weeks ago we saw that his helpfulness was in the area of facing trials – how to assess them – how to see that they may be God’s instrument for good.
And last week we saw how to face temptations which also come at us, and how to stand and how to trace them and know where they have come from, and know what God is like in the midst of them.
So he is very much talking to converted and transformed people, and you’ll see in verse 18 that he’s talking to people who have received the Word of truth, which has brought new and eternal life into them; people who are re-born. And he is also extremely caring, and what we would say “pastoral” – chapter 1 verse 16, “Don’t be deceived, dear brethren”. Verse 19, “My dear, brethren take note of this”. So he is, as we have heard, a half-brother of Jesus, and he is bringing to the readers of churches around the world a great deal of love and a great deal of truth.
“If you are a Christian who longs to make some progress in the Christian life, James gives a wonderful word to help you…”
My suggestion a couple of weeks ago is that because he did grow up, it seems, as a cynic and as an unbeliever resistant to his half-brother Jesus, and stayed that way until the Resurrection when Jesus rose from the dead and went to see his half-brother James – and that seems to have been a turning point in James’ life – it’s quite possible that James is now writing a letter which is basically commending to the wider world the reality of Jesus, the transforming change that he brings. So he’s not interested in kind of ‘part-time’ Christianity or ‘do-nothing’, fake Christianity, surface, superficial Christianity. He’s teaching the real thing.
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Now this word, this message, this gospel which has come in the ear of everybody here, and has penetrated the heart of maybe everybody here, maybe not everybody here; and has changed the life of maybe everybody here, maybe not everybody here – this word is not only able to bring you salvation, but it’s also able to bring you progress. And if you are a Christian who longs to make some progress in the Christian life, James is not going to give you a stick to beat yourself with but, he is going to give you a wonderful word to help you to make some progress, so that your faith will be stronger, and your hope will be richer, and your love will be deeper, and your joy will be greater, and the way in which he is going to do this is in the verses today from chapter 1, verses 19-27.
He is going to talk to us about hearing the word, doing the word and showing the word and so those are the three things this morning: Hear, Do, Show.
We Need to Really Hear God’s Word
The first is Hear the Word (verses 19-21) and you may think this is pretty obvious – you know that I would need to stand up and say “hear the word” and you’ll think to yourself – well we know that, hear the word, that’s why we are sitting here patiently to hear the word – but you know as well as I do that it is possible to sit in a pew – I’ve sat in pews listening to sermons, and my head is just completely on another planet. I am working out difficulties, I am working out conversations, I am wondering where that person nearby got that strange shirt or hat or something, my mind is all over the place. And I know that your minds can be all over the place, and the proof of this is when I come down to you at morning tea and say, “Can you give me the three points of the sermon this morning?” – (hear the word, do the word and show the word) – you’ll look completely blank: “Was I in church this morning?” you’ll say. So let’s be honest, we need to hear the word.
Verse 19 – “Dear brothers, know this, be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry”. Now James is not just jumping to a new topic. He doesn’t have ADD, ADHD, he’s actually still thinking about what he is saying. The word of God which has brought new life, he says, is able to help you to grow – but you need to hear it. And there are things that will prevent you from hearing it.
Obstacles to Hearing God’s Word
1 – A Bad Attitude
The number one thing that will prevent us from hearing God’s word, (I know this because I am a sinful man), is a bad attitude.
I’m perfectly capable of coming and giving all the appearance of being in the church and as pious as everybody else, but my attitude is bad – and yours may be the same. We are perfectly capable of this. Attitude is crucial.
2 – Too Much Talking, Not Enough Listening
The question we have to ask, James says, is this: are we able to listen and just stop streaming the words which are coming from us, which interest us so much, but are actually going to be counter-productive?
It is estimated that the average person speaks 18,000 words a day. That is two, 200-page paperbacks produced every week. Two 200-page paperbacks every week, of words. 230 books a year. One fifth of the average life, it is estimated, is talking. And you can imagine how this spikes for a radio announcer or a preacher?
I once, when I was a student at Moore College, was asked to comment on a verse in the book of Revelation, chapter 8 verse 1, which says “When the eighth seal was opened there was silence in heaven for half an hour”, and I didn’t know what to say. And so I said (this is pre-political correctness), that “this may well prove that there won’t be women in heaven”.
And I got a red line through this, with a zero beside it, and the lady who marked it didn’t think it at all funny. Now it is a terrible thing to say, it’s a terrible thing for a preacher to say – yak, yak, yak, preaching, and to be rude about somebody else is terrible.
We know that our words are plentiful and you remember the famous quote: “We have two ears and they are permanently open; we have one tongue which is safely kept (as somebody has said) behind two white picket-fences of teeth”. But the $64,000 question to ask is: what’s our attitude to the word of God, as we weigh it up with our own words? Which do we think is the most interesting? Which do we think is the most important?
Test your self: do you actually have times, may be on a regular basis, where you just want to shut up and listen to the word of God? Or do you have times when you would basically like to say to the word of God –“Shut up, because I am much more interesting and much more important”?
There is one block – too much speech, too little listening.
3 – Anger in Our Relationships
The other block, in verse 19, is the “angry attitude”. Be slow to anger. What does James mean by this? It may mean that he is concerned that in the fellowship there are not bad “horizontal relationships” ruining spiritual sensitivities. Later in the letter, he is going to talk about bitterness and fights and quarrels. And we know that in the fellowship those are the sort of things that can prevent us from being sensitive to the word of God. Many of us will know the experience of being out of fellowship with somebody and therefore being in a bad way to hear the Word of God, and many of us will know the flip-side which is to see a breakthrough in fellowship restored, which opens up a huge new joy in listening for the word of God.
My daughter and son-in-law were telling us through the week that in San Diego they recently went to a Communion Service where they laid out all the tables in the shape of a cross and before they took the bread and the wine, they asked everybody in the church to go around and to connect with everybody in the building, and if there was any tension, and if there was any tension and if there was any difficulty, to see that restored, to ask for forgiveness, to confess things, and to see a new harmony in the fellowship – which they did for half an hour. And there was a huge amount of hugging and some tears and some reconciling, and they sat down to take the bread and wine. So James is aware of the possibility that horizontal tensions will affect vertical listening.
4 – Anger at God
It’s also possible however that the anger problem is because of the trials and the temptations which he has been talking about. It is possible that as troubles have been coming they in a way naturally make us angry and may be angry with God so we are not listening. It’s as if we strike a mental bargin with God which is: “If you make everything great, I will listen to you, but if you don’t make everything great, I won’t listen to you”.
And James’ exultation is to be very careful of whatever causes you to be deaf to the word of God. You need to ask his help to remove those things that deafen us.
Hear God’s Word With Humility
And the last of the things to do with hearing the Word of God, in verse 21, is that we’re to “listen with humility, get rid of moral filth and evil that’s prevalent, and humbly accept the Word”. The posture that we take when we read our Bibles, sitting in a Bible study group or come to church, the posture that we take is crucial. If you sit in a high chair like a judge, it will profoundly ruin your listening. If you sit in a low chair like a learner, it will profoundly bless your listening. And in every church, every church, sadly, tragically, there are people who sit in the high chair, they own the goalposts. It doesn’t matter what gets read or said or sung or commanded or preached, doesn’t matter. It all goes through the filter of their tastes and their likes and their dislikes and that’s why they listen so with such difficulty.
Now because we’re capable of this, I want to urge you that if you sense that your attitude is just a little bit opinionated or angry or proud, that you specially ask God to rescue you, perhaps to meekly bow your head and ask God to put you in a good position, a good posture for hearing the Word of God. Because without that, you’re going to miss everything, and huge blessing will just come and go. So James’s first point is that we need to hear it. We need to hear the Word.
Be Doers of the Word
The second thing he says, verses 22 to 25, is that we need to do it. Perhaps the most famous verse in James is 1:22 which says, “Don’t merely listen and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says”. Isn’t that interesting? I hear the sermon, I dismiss it. Well, that preacher lost, didn’t he? No, no, no – you lost! You deceived yourself. “Oh, God missed out. I didn’t do what He told me to.” No, no – you missed out. You deceived yourself. “Don’t merely listen,” says James, “do what it says.” This is the key to Christian growth – or a great key to Christian growth.
I want us to work for a minute or two on this idea of the mirror. We’ve all heard this before, but I’ll read it again to you. It says, “Anyone who listens to the Word but doesn’t do what it says,” verse 23, “is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror. And after looking at himself, he goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” Now, I was thinking about this in preparation for this morning and I was thinking to myself, what is James getting at? The reason I found this illustration, at first, dissatisfying is because of this: if you come up to me and say, “Simon Manchester, if you listen to the Word and you don’t do it, well, you’re like a man who’s shaving in the morning, sees himself, walks away, forgets what he looks like.” And I say to you, “I don’t care. He’s just silly. That’s just stupid. So if you’re telling me that by hearing the Word and not doing it, I’m going to be silly, I’m going to be a silly Billy — I don’t care that much.”
So I thought to myself, James has got to be saying something more serious. He can’t just be saying, “You’re a bit forgetful. You’re a bit silly.” And I remembered that when Jesus wants to teach the same principle in the sermon on the mountain – remember there are huge links between the sermon on the mount and James – when Jesus wants to teach the difference between hearing and doing, and hearing and not doing, do you remember his illustration? The man who hears and does, puts his house on rock. And when the judgment comes, because that’s what the flood is in the Bible, he survives the judgment. The man who hears and doesn’t do the Word of God is like the man who builds his house on sand. And when the judgment comes, he doesn’t survive the judgment. It’s a momentous illustration that Jesus uses. So I can’t believe that James is using just a silly illustration when it comes to hearing and doing or not hearing and doing.
“The plan of God is to grow you in depth and breadth and height and length in the love of Christ…”
So this is what I want to suggest to you, and you might like to think about this and tell me whether we’re on the right track here, because I think this is the way James is going. I don’t think he’s just saying, verse 23, 24, one man looks in the mirror, but verse 25, another man looks intently into the Word. It’s true, the words are different. Look into the mirror is just to look, look into the law of the Word is look intently. It’s a different word, but I don’t think that’s the issue. I don’t think he’s even concerned that you’ll be forgetful. Don’t think that’s a huge problem to be forgetful. I think – and again, I’m asking you to work with me and work out whether you think I’m on the right track here – this is what I think: I think James is saying that the difference is that a mirror is a two-dimensional instrument which has got no depth, no power. And you can look and you can leave and it’s no big deal. It’s not all that important if you forget what you look like.
But when you look into the Word of God, verse 25, that is the Word of God. That is a three or four-dimensional instrument. It’s a seed which gets into your mind and your heart and your life and it changes you so that you become a reborn person, part of the harvest of God, which is getting ready for eternity, and he wants you to progress all the way until you get there. That is not a small issue. I don’t exactly know how to illustrate this, but it’s a little bit like me saying to you, “I’m going to show you a picture of the Hunter Valley,” and you look at it and say, “It’s nice. Okay, got it, forgotten it.” But then I drive you to see the whole wine industry of the Hunter Valley, and I want to show you exactly what’s happening. That’s the difference.
One, look at it, forget it if you want to. But when I’m showing you the whole agricultural industry of God, you can’t just look and walk away. If you do just look into the Word of God and then just walk away and forget it, you’ve partly treated God’s Word as if it’s two-dimensional. Well, that’s a mistake. You’ve partly committed yourself to superficiality. That’s a tragedy. There are too many people in churches who are just two-dimensional. You’ve partly missed the plan of God. That’s a tragedy because the plan of God is to grow you and grow you and grow you in depth and breadth and height and length in the love of Christ until you become like Christ and see him face to face.
Failing to Do God’s Word is to Miss His Plan and Purpose
So you see, if you hear and fail to do the Word of God and you think, well, that’s pretty harmless, James says, “No, to hear and fail to do the Word of God is to miss the whole plan of God, the whole purpose of God”. It’s a life and death issue.
I was reminded this week, with some other students in a class that I was at, that the great Jonathan Edwards, who’s considered by many people to have been the greatest mind that America has ever produced, and Jonathan Edwards was a pastor, theologian and writer in the 18th century, and you know what he used to pray for his congregation when he was a pastor? He used to pray that in the course of singing the hymns and hearing the reading and joining in the prayers and hearing the Word of God preached, he used to pray that the affections of his congregation would be turned to God. That’s a great thing to pray. So he wasn’t just praying, “I hope this is interesting. I hope this as helpful.” He’s saying, “Heavenly Father, I’m praying that there’ll be a miraculous and profound work so that the affections of my people will turn to You and that all sorts of sins and stupidities will look really dumb and really ordinary.”
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience. I’m sure you have, if you’re a Christian. You just happen to have come to some particular event, function, service, convention, and God has profoundly turned your affections towards Him. And you’ve walked out of there… It’s not been a superficial experience. It’s not been a look in the mirror, check the hair, check the makeup, and walk away. Something so profound has happened that you’ve almost gone home and said, “Well, let’s get rid of some rubbish in my heart and soul.” And that’s what James is concerned about.
We must pray for this. We must praise God when it happens. But we do have a role to play, which is to hear and do the Word of God. Because the progress of the Christian is not automatic, we can regress so easily. It’s not chronological. Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’re spiritually mature. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you’re spiritually immature. People can join churches, become a contact, become an attendant, become a member, become a partner, and it’s all superficial. It’s just busyness. There’s no profound change in the heart.
So James says, “We must latch onto what we know and do it.” I want to encourage you this morning just to simply, as you go out, don’t overwhelm yourself, don’t berate yourself, don’t beat yourself, just say, “As best I can with what I know of God’s Word, I’m going to try and put it into practice. Instead of steeling myself against something, I’m going to go with it. I’m gonna put it into practice. I’m going to do the Word of God.”
“Showing” the Word of God, Display Our Changed Lives
The third thing this morning, in verses 26 to 27, is where James calls on us to show the Word of God. These are quite brilliant, these last two verses. This is a succinct call from James to reveal or display that our life has been changed. And these illustrations that he uses about speech, widows and orphans, and then keeping ourselves from the world, these are not comprehensive descriptions of the Christian life. They’re just brilliant illustrations of how we might display that life has changed.
I was reading this week that they’ve decided, in Paris, to set up a five-meter bronze statue of the footballer, the soccer player Zinedine Zidane. And he’s, of course, one of their heroes. But this five-meter bronze statue, which is going to be outside one of the great centres in Paris, will be seen by millions of people, displays the moment in the 2006 World Cup where Zidane headbutted an Italian player. There is the captain, in the headbutting moment, for which he was sent off. There is the symbol – what a strange symbol – people are up in arms about it.
Now, how you are going to display that you’ve got a new life, that you’ve heard the Word, you’re seeking to do it, and it’s changed you? Well, James has three suggestions, three quick examples: one relates to you, one relates to how you treat the fellowship, and one relates to how you act in the world. The one to do with yourself, verse 26, the sign of new life which affects you is that there is a new bridle on your tongue. Your speech, your chatter, your witness has been affected by God. I think this is a very good and searching test because God is the God of the Word. He’s put His Word into us.
Your Speech is Transformed, Your Love Grows
Now, James says, “What are the words like out of you?” The second relates to the church. It’s your love for the really needy members of the church. He identifies the widows and the orphans. You remember in the Old Testament that God was deeply committed to the widow and the orphan. And now James is saying, “If God is your Father and you’re part of God’s family and you’re one of God’s children, that His love is going to be seen in your life. There’s going to be something in your life which is also interested in the needy and the frail of the family.”
This doesn’t mean, verse 26, 27 doesn’t mean that we, as a church, can fund the problems of the world. We cannot. We can care for those who come into the fellowship. And as individuals, we’re all gonna go home in different directions. We can all play a practical and, where possible, sacrificial role in looking after people. When we visit the needy, the frail, the widow, the orphan, this is a loaded Word in the New Testament, the Word “to visit,” God visits His people, it means He profoundly blesses them. And we who seek to visit or care for the frail or the needy, we go with the resources of God to, if possible, profoundly bless them.
“Here is the test for the Christian… You are like a soldier dropped in behind enemy lines… Will you be loyal to your commanding officer even in an alien country?”
And the last mark of being a new person is how you relate to the world, verse 27. This is the third sign and it is a new carefulness, that as you live in the world, you don’t want to be polluted, infected, or destroyed by the world. Has James not just told us in verse 17 that God is light, that He’s not a God who plays with evil, He’s above evil, He’s above it in position, He’s above it in character? Of course, when Jesus came into the world, He placed Himself in the face of temptation, without sin. But here is the test for the Christian. You are like a soldier who has been dropped in behind enemy lines. You live in the world but you don’t really belong to the world. And the question is will you be loyal to your commanding officer even in an alien country? Because that’s what we’re being called to here.
So you see how clever this is. Just a few brush strokes from James, in verses 26 to 27, God is the God of the Word, what are your words like? God is the father of a family. What’s your attitude to the family like? God is a Holy God. What’s your worldly situation like?
Here is a great appeal from James, in verses 19 to 27, this whole section, for a transforming Christianity, a wonderful, wonderful transforming Christianity, where you hear the Word. Oh Lord, please help me to hear it, save me from deafness, and to do it. What’s the practical step right in front of me to do? Help me to do it. And how will I show, in speech, in family, in the world, that I have a new life and it’s come to me through the Lord Jesus?
And I don’t think we could have a more wonderful illustration as we hear about the work that Andrew and Stephanie Browning are doing in East Africa with the Fistula Hospital. Because here is a hospital which provides healing and help freely for the person who knows their sickness and their need and their stink. And when a person wakes up to themselves in East Africa with great trouble and grief and takes themselves to this very wonderful hospital refuge, again and again, this solution comes together. That is a beautiful picture of the Gospel, I think, because a person in the world, every person in the world is dying. And there was One who – like a doctor in a remarkable hospital, called the Lord Jesus Christ – is able to give that person new and eternal life, which he paid for himself.
And we who have listened this morning to a little bit of this wonderful work that God is doing among the patients of East Africa, when we’re asked in the next few days, “What have you done lately,” we may be wanting to say, we may be willing to say, we may be able to say that we’ve heard something of this great work that’s being done, like Christian doctors and nurses, and what a great picture of the Gospel it is because the person who has a need, which is all of us, and comes to this great physician called the Lord Jesus will receive all that they need in eternity.
Hear the Word, do the Word, show the Word. Let’s, again, ask for God’s help. Let’s pray.
Now, Father, we thank You for this searching reminder. We remember this morning that, again and again, we miss what You say. We’re more interested often in our own speech. Please forgive. Help us to be good hearers of Your Word. Please remove anything which is a block to hearing. And we pray too that You’d help us to be doers of Your Word. We ask You’d forgive us for the great gulf between what we know and what we do. We pray that You would enable us, step by step, hour by hour, to do Your Word. And we pray, too, our Father, that You would help us to show or demonstrate, not only in our own home, but also in the church and in the world that You have made us new, saved people. We ask You for this and we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
- Follow this series at Lessons From The Book of James — A ‘Christian Growth’ Series