Do You Listen or Obey? (James 1:22-25)
In the first war of Silesia, King Frederick decided on a crucial alteration of war plans. So he ordered that under pain of death, neither fire nor candle should be burning in the tents after a certain hour. He went around the camp himself to see that his orders were obeyed.
As he passed by Captain Zietern’s camp, he perceived a light. He entered and found the captain sealing a letter, which he has just written to his wife, whom he loved dearly. “What are you doing there?” asked the king. “Do you not know the orders?” Zietern threw himself at his feet and begged for mercy. “Sit down,” said the king, “and add a few words I shall dictate.” The officer obeyed, and the king dictated: “Tomorrow I shall perish on the scaffold.”
Zietern wrote it, and he was executed the next day.
I wonder how many of us are just like Zietern—we know the orders, but we just don’t obey. We know the law, but we just don’t obey it.
James wrote about those who hear the law but don’t follow it. This morning, we want to ask the question: “Do you listen or obey?”
The Danger of Listening Only, vv 22-24
James says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
If you’re reading from the King James Version, you notice the word order is different: “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” I don’t know why the New International Version translators put obedience at the end of this sentence, for it comes fir in the Greek, as it is in the King James Version. In English, the order of words in a sentence is largely determined by their function. Not so in Greek. In Greek, you know how a word functions in the sentence by the ending of the word and word order is largely based on emphasis—what a writer wants to emphasize, he puts at the beginning of a sentence.
James wants to emphasize obedience to the word. The tense in Greek calls attention toa repeated action; to paraphrase, James is saying, “Make obedience your way of life and make it a habit.”
You ow how important it is to make obedience our way of life. When Saul claimed he had taken the spoil of the Amalekites to offer to God as sacrifices, contrary to God’s instructions, Samuel told him, “Does the LORD delight I burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21).
Francis of Assisi—commonly known as St. Francis—took with him into the garden one day, a couple of novice monks to assist him in planting cabbages. He commenced by setting out the vegetables with their heads in the earth and their roots in the air. One of the novices ventured to do differently—the right way to plant cabbage—and said to Francis, “Sir, that is not the way to make cabbages grow.” “My son,” interrupted the older monk, “you are not fitted for our order,” and dismissed him on the spot. Francis was trying tot each these novices obedience.
Are you obeying the word of the Lord? Are you making that obedience your way of life?
These are some who merely listen to the word and deceive themselves. We must listen to the word; you know how important it is that we listen to the word. “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out” (Prov 18:15). In interpreting the Parable of the Sower, Jesus said, “The one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matt 13:23).
James cautions us against only hearing the word. Do you ever feel with your children that you might as well be talking to a wall? What you say just goes in one ear and out the other. Your child’s ear drums are picking up the waves of your voice, transmitting the signal to the brain, but there’s nothing happening. Wil is a great deal like that—It doesn’t matter what you say, what the punishment’s going to be, that child is going to do what he wants to do.
James is here cautioning us not to be like that. On a certain level, it’s endearing when it’s a four-year-old child acting that way, but it becomes less and less endearing the older a child gets. Just think of how not-so-endearing it is to God when we hear what he says but we don’t do what he says.
Such a person is like one who looks at himself in a mirror and immediately forgets what he looks like.
It seems strange to us that someone would look at himself in the mirror and forget what he looks like. However, few people owned mirrors in James’ day. The best mirrors were made of Corinthian bronze, but even the best mirrors could not produce the accurate images we know today. The well-to-do people of Paul’s day had their own mirrors and they commonly used them when they fixed their hair. If James has such people in mind, he speaks of the sheer stupidity of looking into Scripture but not obeying.
Yet, it seems more likely that James is speaking of those who didn’t own mirrors—they couldn’t afford them—and they saw their reflection only rarely. These folks didn’t really know what they looked like—they’d see themselves on occasion, but they had difficulty recalling what they looked like. If James is speaking of these folks, he’s saying that we can’t just glance at Scripture and expect to conform our lives to it—but we need to spend time with it that we might know how to live.
The person listens, but he doesn’t obey. You have certainly known many folks like that. They know well what Scripture teaches about their need to assemble with the saints, but they fail to do so. They know well what Scripture teaches about the proper use of their tongue, but they don’t use their tongue in any such way. They know well what Scripture teaches about the proper way to treat their wives, but they don’t come close to treating their wives in such a way. They know well what Scripture teaches about baptism, but they wouldn’t dare obey the Gospel.
It’s easy to point fingers and talk about how everyone else doesn’t obey the scriptures they know to obey. But what about us. Are we listening or obeying?
The Blessing of Doing, v 25
There’s a man who looks intently at Scripture. “Intently” in Greek literally means to bend over a mirror to examine the reflection minutely. The idea is really that Scripture is put under a microscope, not just to dissect it, but to grasp what it teaches for our lives.
When I was growing up, our family physician was a thorough person. If you went to him with an ailment, he was going to examine you until he found out the problem, and if he couldn’t find it, he’d send you to someone who could. I never will forget one Sunday morning that Dr. McLaughlin called us. I had been to him the previous week for an ailment which had him baffled, and he couldn’t uncover the root cause.
He was in his study on Sunday morning reading through some medical journals, and he found a guy in Louisville who had done some work in that area. Dr. McLaughlin called Dad at church on Sunday morning in the middle of services to tell him that he thought he had found the problem. He was looking intently at the problem and trying to solve it.
We need to look intently into Scripture that we might appropriately examine our lives by it. The psalmist asked, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word” (Ps 119:9)—If I don’t look intently at Scripture, I will not be able either to keep my way pure or live according to God’s Word. “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4)—If I don’t look intently at Scripture, I won’t have either encouragement or hope. How intently do you look at Scripture?
You know how James refers to Scripture here: “the perfect law that gives freedom.
Scripture is that perfect law. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7). In what way is that law perfect.
The law does not need to be amended.
When the Framers finished the Constitution, they established a way to amend the document. They understood that document wasn’t perfect and it would need to change. Were it not for the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—the document probably never would have been ratified.
Not so with God’s Word: “Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Ps 119:89). God’s Word doesn’t need to change—God’s Word isn’t going to change.
The law perfectly tells us what God expects of us.
“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3). The law is perfect, for everything I need to know to please God is contained in Scripture. Not one thing is lacking.
Notice that Scripture is referred to as a “law.” There are some who want us to believe that the Bible isn’t a law, that it might set forth some solid principles, but it doesn’t seek to restrict behavior. The Lord’s brother, however, referred to the Word of God as “law.” The Word does tell us how we must live. The Word does prescribe right behavior and restrict wrong behavior.
What’s so interesting is that this law brings freedom. That’s a totally different way to look at law. We typically think of law as taking away freedom. Each time the United States Congress or our state legislature passes a law, our freedoms become less real and more restricted.
Scripture, while it is law, brings freedom.
Scripture frees us from sin.
Entrapment to sin is a quite real possibility: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (Rom 7:14). if an apostle of Christ felt entrapped by sin, you’d better bet we can be.
Yet, through the Word of Christ, we have freedom from that sin. Notice again the words of Paul: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1-2). “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).
Scripture frees us from the fear of death.
Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb 2:15). Because Jesus came and revealed the way of the Father to us, we have no reason whatsoever to fear our deaths. “Give me the Bible, lamp of life immortal, Hold up that splendor by the open grave; Show me the light from heaven’s shining portals, Show me the glory gilding Jordan’s wave.”
A person needs to continue to do this, i.e., continue to examine Scripture. Some folks tend to have the idea that once they know basically what the Bible teaches that they don’t need to study continually from it. James here refutes that idea and says that we need to continue to examine Scripture.
That’s why Bible study is so important. We need to do a better job here about attending Bible study both on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. Not nearly as many turn out as they ought. Does not our absence really say, “I don’t need to study the Bible. I know Scripture so well that I don’t really need to go?” There’s not a one of us in that boat.
We need to study Scripture privately. The amount of time we spend as a body in Bible study is never going to inoculate us with enough Scripture to withstand the wiles of Satan.
The person who doesn’t forget what he has heard but does it will be blessed.
We’ve heard the Word of God. For most of us, we’ve heard the Word since we were knee-high to a duck or even long before that. We heard the Word of God proclaimed well last week during our meeting.
We don’t need just to hear, though, James says we need to do. Doing the will of God is so very important. Jesus called the doer a wise man: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt 7:24). Jesus called the doer part of his family: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50).
John Kenneth Galbraith, a well-known economist, writes in his autobiography about the obedience his family’s housekeep, Emily Gloria Wilson, showed him.
Dr. Galbraith had had a horrible day, and he asked Ms. Wilson to hold all his phone calls while he took a nap. Shortly, the telephone rang. The voice on the phone said, “Get Ken Galbraith. This is Lyndon Johnson.” Ms. Wilson said, “He’s sleeping, Mr. President. He said not to disturb him.” “Well, wake him up. I want to talk to him. This is the President of the United States.” Ms. Wilson replied, “No, Mr. President. I work for him, not you.”
When Galbraith called the President back, he says that President Johnson could barely contain his delight. Johnson said, “Tell that woman I want her to come work at the White House.”
How seriously do we take the commands of God? Do we view them as absolute, that we are going to do what he says, regardless—like Ms. Wilson took Dr. Galbraith’s instructions? Or, do we think it’s up to us to change those commands?
God blesses the obedient. What a blessing it’s going to be when we stand before the Judgment seat of Christ and hear him say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matt 25:34). Is that what you expect Jesus to say to you? Will your obedience to the Father’s will give Jesus cause to call you blessed and give you an inheritance in his Father’s kingdom? Do you need to come this morning?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.