Study 14            True wisdom and false wisdom

James 3:13-18

13. Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

14. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambitions in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.

15. This wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.

16. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exists, there will be disorder and every vile practice.

17. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and wood fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.

18. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

These verses are some of the most interesting in the entire book. Once again James has latched onto his theme of true wisdom that he opened his book with. (1:5) There is no separation for James between grace and wisdom. If you have accepted Jesus as your personal Savior then you will walk in the wisdom that is afforded to you through the Spirit for growing in your spirituality. Again, let me remind you that James never equates God’s righteousness and our salvation with works and deeds. He is simply telling us that a person who has been saved and is being saved by the grace of God will reflect that salvation in the life that he lives. I don’t think any Christian should have a problem with that concept. It is only when we drop in the ditch of a sort of once saved always saved so now I can live as I please that reflects, in reality, a lack of an understanding of grace that we run into problems. Equally treacherous are the pitfalls of believing that works has merit towards our salvation.

Verse 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James asks the rhetorical question who is wise in your group. He is asking those people who think they have special understanding regarding spiritual matters to reveal themselves so that he can analyze their claim. He may be referring back to the teachers of verses 1 and 2 though he may be thinking of the Christian community as a whole.

This verse may seem insignificant in the scheme of the Bible but it is quite an interesting verse never the less. If you see yourself as having wisdom and understanding in spiritual matters you will notice that James doesn’t question your credentials. He is not the least interested in your theological background, but he is interested instead in the practical side of your faith. You can be theological sound but if that is not carried out in your life and your witness then you really are theologically bankrupt.

The word meekness harkens back to 1:21 and the importance of meekness in all that we do as Christians. James also is reflecting us back to the Abraham illustration in 2:18 where he challenges us, “show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” Good conduct is the basis upon which we reflect wisdom in our lives. (also see 1 Peter 2:12) Remember, this good conduct is always the response to grace and not what brings grace. The bottom line is true wisdom produces true works and those works are carried out in humility.

Verse 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambitions in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.

Bitter jealousy and selfish ambitions are the opposite of humility. If a Christian is producing those qualities in her life then she is not wise or meek. Wisdom and meekness are qualities of the converted heart and jealousy and selfishness are, of course, reflections of the non-converted heart. Notice, James mentions that jealousy and selfishness are both rooted in the heart. The word boast used in this text can also be translated “put confidence in” or “take pride in.” (See Jeremiah 9:23, 24) A man has nothing to boast about when his life is filled with jealousy, envy, and selfishness. I can’t help but think about how we idolize celebrities who carry out the worse behaviors and boast about them. People like this, according to what James wrote, are far from being wise and humble so why do so many Christians follow their careers and lives with such devotion?

Verse 15 This wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.

Selfishness, envy and jealousy are not from God but stem from Satan. These qualities of character are in opposition to humility and wisdom.

Verse 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exists, there will be disorder and every vile practice.

The evils of jealousy and selfish ambition are evident in the misery and destruction that they bring into a person’s life. When people hold these attitudes the result is disorder and every vile practice. The word that James uses for disorder has the connotation of a restless and unsettled state. (Notice how Luke uses it in 21:9 to describe the events of the last days)

The sad part of this verse is once again a number of commentators believe James is referring to the leadership of the church or those who would be teachers. When selfish ambition to rise to the top of a church structure becomes the sole reason a pastor continues in ministry something is wrong. When jealousy rules and people are passed over in ministry because of it something is wrong. True humility and wisdom brings leaders together for the betterment of the church. When the leadership is divided over petty differences, teachings and envy something is wrong.  The result is every vile practice comes into the church and disorder rules.

Verse 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.

Notice the difference between true wisdom and verse 16. True wisdom produces a true life of following Jesus. All of the qualities listed in verse 17 are not natural to man but the fruit of the grace of God working within the heart. (See fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23)

Peaceable can well be translated as peace loving and is the quality within the church that is so needed. So much strife, envy, and jealousy can be combated when the leadership of a church portrays peace. All of the virtues listed reflect on the character of the person who claims to be a Christian. They are all from above (the gifts of God), and they all bring unity and peace into the life of the Christian community and into the life of the person who displays such humility and wisdom.

Verse 18 And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

James finishes this section of his letter by summing up what humility and wisdom really bring to the life of a person as well as the Christian community. We may walk in peace. The harvest that stems from a Christian who is at peace and lives that peace out through the fruit of his life is that there will be a harvest of righteousness. A Christian grows in her relationship with God through peace that dwells within her because of her assurance and trust in the grace of God. The fruit of her life is manifested in wisdom and meekness that brings peace to the life. People who walk with God are open to wisdom and not closed minded, they have a gentle spirit that does not look for confrontation over every little thing and they are full of mercy and compassion for others. There is sincerity in their lives that draw us to them and enables us to put trust in their leadership. In other words, their life reflects the inner love they have for Jesus. (see Ephesians 3:14-20 for a wonderful insight into God working in the inner man)

In short, I think James is saying that a Christian life is quite knowable and is a simple reflection of what a person really believes way down deep in the heart. A person who loves God will show that love in the life they live. A person who tries to win our loyalty and respect through their knowledge of spiritual things but doesn’t show compassion, love and kindness may not be the person he thinks he is. True wisdom regarding God leads to humility and that humility leads to peace and assurance that we are safe in the hands of God.

Thanks for reading and invite a friend to read along. Next study we will be starting chapter four and the first verses deal with our friendships. This is very interesting reading.