Who Is Wise & Understanding?
Sermon from James 3:13-18 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on July 3, 2016
Who is wise and understanding? That’s the question of the day. And James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, will give us God’s answer to that question. Let’s read it together beginning in verse 13 and pray.
13Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
“He’s not being very wise; he’s being foolish,” shouts my son, Levi. “Yeah, he’s not being very wise; he’s being foolish,” repeats my son Luke as we were driving down the highway. I didn’t know what they were talking about at first, until a fella on a motorcycle passed by. “Why’s he not being wise,” I asked. To which they responded, “Because he’s not wearing a helmet.” Based on what they were taught—and even based on their own face-to-face encounters with concrete—my boys were able to discern the motorcyclist’s foolishness.
People have a desire to be wise. People will often talk about an unwise financial decision, or an unwise decision at work, or an unwise use of time. Not too many people want to be known for foolishness. But people also have various criteria by which they judge what is wise. Based on our upbringing, our culture, our personal desires, our teachers—we have criteria by which we judge what’s wise.
The problem, however, is that our criteria for discerning what is truly wise is all out of whack because of sin. Our homes are broken, our culture is rebellious, our personal desires are wayward, our teachers are imperfect—and that means our understanding of true wisdom is greatly lacking. The Bible’s answer is that wisdom must come from outside us. True wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord and a love for his word. James is saying something similar for the church. He’s teaching the whole church what true wisdom looks like. He’s building into us a criteria by which we measure true wisdom, in order that we might pursue it more wholeheartedly.
Who Is Wise and Understanding?
The main question he seeks to answer in verse 13 is this: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” When we covered 1:5, we developed a definition of wisdom according to James: wisdom is the God-given ability to act and speak according to God’s word and thereby reflect God’s character in every situation.
The other word that he uses—the word “understanding”—carries a similar meaning. It’s not that you’re just knowledgeable about a particular subject. It has more to do with that knowledge being exercised from day to day. The same pair of words—“wisdom and understanding”—were applied to Israel’s leaders and Israel as a nation (Deut 1:13, 15; 4:5). Their knowledge of God’s law was supposed to transform their day to day living so as to leave an impression on the surrounding nations for God’s glory (cf. Dan 1:4; 5:11). If you didn’t live out what you knew from the law, then you didn’t really understand it. True understanding of God’s word was demonstrated in action.
Which means that when James asks us, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” we cannot think in terms of who knows the most, or has the most Scripture memorized, or who is the oldest, or who is the smartest, or whose been to seminary. No, true wisdom and understanding has a moral and ethical component to it, especially in how it affects our relationships with others.
Wisdom Produces Good Works in Humility
He makes this even clearer as he tells us what the wise person looks like in comparison to the one who just thinks he’s wise. He introduces us first to the wise person in verse 13. “By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”
James has given a great deal of attention to faith being demonstrated in works. The same is true for wisdom. True wisdom will demonstrate itself in good works—not works that seek to earn favor with God, but works that flow from a relationship already established with God by grace. True wisdom will produce good conduct evidenced by works. Just as I mentioned with Israel, the one who is wise will leave an impression on others for the glory of God. People will recognize the life devoted to God’s glory.
But notice that such a wise person will also do the works with meekness. One dictionary describes meekness as “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance.”[i] When true wisdom produces works, the person doesn’t act to be seen by others. The wise person isn’t saying, “Hey, I’m going to show everyone how humble I am by doing good works.” No, the wise person isn’t even aware that he’s serving others. He’s not taking notes on how committed he is and how great that work was. He’s totally other-oriented and self-forgetting. His meekness suffocates all desires to be noticed and praised by man; his reward is with God.
This is a real test for us, isn’t it? How long can you serve others without compliments? How many tasks do you perform where there isn’t some desire for someone to recognize them, someone to praise you for them? Or, is there ever a time when you’ve been serving a lot while others are doing very little, and you begin to have thoughts about how much more you do, how much better you are? Perhaps you even begin to pick apart a person’s character in your mind, in order to prove to yourself why you deserve the position instead of him.
Such an attitude reveals a lack of true wisdom. And apparently some even in the church are lacking this meekness-producing wisdom. We’re introduced to this person in verse 14: “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.” Meaning, don’t boast as being wise when the truth shows that you’re proud. True wisdom produces humility, meekness, self-denial, not jealousy and selfish ambition.
False “Wisdom” versus True Wisdom
And this is where James begins to develop the nature of true wisdom. Sometimes we gain a deeper appreciation of what’s good only when we compare it to what’s bad. The lines become sharper. The color becomes more vibrant. The picture becomes clearer. In this case, James holds two kinds of wisdom before us—a false “wisdom” and true wisdom. And he’s going to compare them in three ways: where it comes from, what’s it like, and how it affects others.
The nature of false “wisdom”
He starts by developing the nature of false “wisdom.” He shows us where it comes from. Verse 15, “This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” James says that it’s earthly. That’s not a knock against the goodness of God’s created order. Rather, it has to do with all that’s warped by sin and untouched by grace. Paul even gives us a list of things that are “earthly” in Colossians 3—sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness (Col 3:2, 5; cf. Phil 3:19). It’s not of the realm where God dwells in holiness, in other words. It’s from the realm of self-centered gratification.
He also says that it’s unspiritual. To be “unspiritual” refers to our natural fallen condition untouched by the Holy Spirit’s saving activity. Paul uses the same word for the person who doesn’t accept the things of the Spirit of God—he is a “natural” or “unspiritual” man (1 Cor 2:14; cf. Jude 19). False “wisdom” comes from the unredeemed fleshly nature. And even worse, he also says that it’s demonic. It’s like when Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan…For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt 16:23).
Basically, James says that false “wisdom” originates with the world, the flesh, and the devil. But what’s it like? What characterizes it? How can you discern it? James says that bitter jealousy and selfish ambition characterize false “wisdom.” These two are the opposite of the Christian life. Paul says in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition…but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Bitter jealousy. It’s that resentment we experience when another person enjoys more success than we may be experiencing. And O how many different ways it can express itself! You might resent that other people get chosen for a task that you wanted. You might resent someone else’s gifts or competency. Maybe you resent that another church has something we don’t. You might resent someone else’s marriage, or someone else’s pregnancy, or someone else’s health, or someone else’s gladness even.
Jealousy also rears its ugly head when we feel easily threatened by other people and their criticisms. Perhaps we experience jealousy when we’re overlooked and others are praised for things that we helped with.
This kind of jealousy goes hand in hand with selfish ambition. It’s the opposite of the self-denial that Jesus calls us to. It has to do with measuring everything in life by the way it will affect “me, myself, and I.” It’s very self-calculating about decisions. Someone asks you to do something and your mind starts reeling with how much it will inconvenience you. It’s the inward desire that seeks to promote self in front of others or protect self when put down by others. It’s life lived for self-glory instead of God’s glory.
Wherever these two characteristics rule our hearts, James says that the result will “be disorder and every vile practice” (3:16). That’s how it affects others. When people seek their own glory, it inevitably leads to disorder and evil. Just read the Bible. Satan wants glory for himself and causes disorder among angels. Adam and Eve want to take God’s place in determining good and evil, and it causes disorder. Cain gets jealous of his brother’s sacrifice, and murders his brother Abel. Absalom wants his father’s throne and sweeps Israel into chaos. The church in Corinth start boasting in various leaders and bring disunity in the church.
You know this disorder. We see it in the world all the time. We’ve seen all kinds of disorder with the elections. We continue to witness disorder and vile practices in the civil courts, which often fail to uphold justice. Maybe you’ve experienced disorder in your home and in your marriage this week, maybe in your extended family. All of that disorder comes from below and is the result of selfish passions in the heart vying for its own way. It’s the result of a false “wisdom.”
The nature of true wisdom
But there’s an alternative. James now holds up the nature of true wisdom. And he answers the same questions. First, where’s it from? He says in verse 17 that true wisdom is “from above.” Where have we seen that before? Chapter 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” Jesus uses the same word to speak of the new birth in John’s Gospel (John 3:3, 7). You must be born again, Nicodemus—literally “born from above.”
In other words, true wisdom cannot be gained simply by life experiences. It cannot be gained simply through study in school. It cannot be gained simply with time. It must first be given from above, through the new birth, through the gift of a new heart, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Grace must give this wisdom. The Spirit makes a person wise.
And what’s his wisdom like? First of all, James says in verse 17 that it’s pure. One of James’ main points has been that we keep ourselves unstained from the world (Jas 1:27). We don’t participate in the world’s moral rebellion. Whether it’s in the area of money or food or sex or vocation—the wisdom from above is morally pure (cf. 1 Tim 5:22; 1 Pet 3:2). It’s free from all the earthly appetites that contradict God’s will.
The wisdom from above is also peaceable. Some translations have peace-loving. It’s conducive to harmonious relationships. Some people are experts in causing strife; they feed off sarcasm and personal jabs. This is the opposite; and we have some brothers and sisters strong in this area. They can patiently walk people toward a charitable understanding of others and toward a peaceful resolve in the Lord.
True wisdom is also gentle. That is, it doesn’t insist on its own rights. It makes allowances when the circumstances would suggest to the world that you react harshly, that you put your foot down, that you prove your point. Even in the face of suffering, it doesn’t become so preoccupied with its own agenda and own comforts that it retaliates, in order to have it. One study said that gentleness is “a humble, patient steadfastness, which is able to submit to injustice, disgrace and maltreatment without hatred or malice, trusting God in spite of it all.”[ii] The days ahead will be tougher for Christians in this country, and we’ll need to take stand on issues that will make the offense of the cross clear; but O for there to be a gentleness about us when we do.
Next, true wisdom is also, the ESV says, open to reason. But other translations, like the NIV, have “submissive” or “obedient;” and that seems closer to the mark. The Greek word doesn’t appear elsewhere in Scripture, but other sources use it in the sense of “ready obedience” to God’s word.[iii] That seems to fit James’ letter: we’re supposed to be quick to hear God’s word (Jas 1:19), be a people receiving God’s word (Jas 1:21), and also doers of God’s word (Jas 1:22). So, true wisdom is characterized by the humble desire to conform our lives to God’s will in Scripture. It’s obedient. And even if you choose the translation, “open to reason,” it seems best to take it in the sense of a humble, readiness to stand corrected for the sake of God’s word.
True wisdom is also full of mercy and good fruits. Apart from grace, Paul says that we’re “full of all manner of unrighteousness” (Rom 1:29). But James says that one with wisdom will be full of mercy. Mercy is kindness expressed to someone in need. It’s not just feeling pity for someone in need, but acting to meet the needs of that someone. And this seems to be why James ties it so closely to being full of “good fruits.” Good fruits seem to be the good deeds that must occur in loving your neighbor. Love without limits, as Wes taught us a couple weeks ago from the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Finally, James says that true wisdom is impartial and sincere. The two words complement one another. That’s better seen in translating the first as “unwavering.” It’s the opposite of the doubting and double-minded person we’ve seen elsewhere in James—the one wavering in his loyalty to God. And the second word, sincere, means without hypocrisy. So both words together are getting at one thing: wisdom resolves to live in single-minded devotion to the glory of God and love of neighbor.
Those are its characteristics. Those are the things that fill the heart of the wise man, the wise woman. Now what of its results? How does it affect others? Verse 18 goes on: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
When you hear the word, “peace,” don’t just think, absence of strife. The Bible’s presentation of peace is more robust. Peace has more to do with the presence of God blessing the world with his perfect rule. It has to do with wholeness, where everything is put in its proper order under the rule of Jesus Christ. This is what the wise person longs for and works toward in his relationships with others. Others look at his/her life and can see glimpses of the peace that’s coming with the new heavens and earth.
And the result of this peacemaking labor is a harvest of righteousness. Back in 1:20, we were told that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Now he’s telling us what does produce the righteousness of God. Sowing seeds of righteousness in peace, so that it produces a harvest of righteousness in the lives of others. That happens primarily through us preaching the gospel to ourselves and to others. We plant. Others water. And God causes the growth. So instead of disorder and every vile practice, the wise person’s life brings peace and righteousness.
True Wisdom Embodied in the Person of Jesus
What a beautiful alternative to the false “wisdom.” True wisdom comes from a beautiful place and leads to a beautiful life with beautiful results. And of course, James’ goal in all this is to build into us a love for this kind of wisdom. And where it’s lacking, James is urging us, commanding us, to grow into this true wisdom. Why? Because to grow into this true wisdom is to grow into Christ.
Let’s pretend for a moment that James is a sketch-artist. And let’s pretend that James invites us over to his drawing board. He wants us to watch him sketch a portrait of a person with true wisdom. This whole time we’ve been looking over James’ shoulder watching him sketch-in the pieces of his portrait. The dark realities of false wisdom surround the border of the page. But in the middle of his portrait is glowing brightness. He sketches in purity and peace. He sketches in gentleness and obedience. He switches pencils and sketches in mercy, good fruits, and an unwavering devotion to God’s will.
Piece by piece we’ve watched him sketch; but now the picture is complete. And what we see when we step back is the person of Jesus Christ. The apostle John says that Jesus is pure in 1 John 3:3. Hebrews says that he was tempted in every way though without sin. He is pure. Also, Jesus wasn’t simply peaceable, but he could say, “Peace, be still!” and calm the storm, or “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
Second Corinthians 10:1 says that Jesus is also meek and gentle. Jesus himself says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29).
Then all throughout the Gospels he lives a life of ready obedience to his Father’s will. Even in Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood, he shows unwavering devotion to God: “not my will but yours be done.” And Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus humbly obeyed even to the point of death on a cross. Hebrews 2:17 says that this makes Jesus a merciful and faithful High Priest.
John 12:24 says that Jesus’ death produced fruit: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” It’s the fruit of the nations being saved by his death and resurrection. It’s the fruit of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation being ransomed for God. Jesus is full of mercy and good fruits.
And another fruit of his life, death, and resurrection is our peace with God and our peace with one another (Rom 5:1; Eph 2:14-17). Jesus is the ultimate Peacemaker. And his work has also assured a harvest of righteousness in his people. Revelation 19:7-8 even pictures the church sitting at the marriage supper of the Lamb and it’s “granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”
Jesus is the embodiment of true wisdom. Everything Jesus does in his life and ministry is the way of wisdom itself (Matt 11:18-19). It’s more glorious than what Solomon was able to express (Luke 11:31). In Jesus are hidden all the treasures of God’s wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3). Through his cross and resurrection, Jesus becomes our wisdom and power for salvation (1 Cor 1:18-31). Jesus became wisdom from God in the flesh to save us from all our foolishness.
And now James is urging us into true wisdom, and by doing so, urging us into Christ—because Christ is from above, and Christ is beautiful, and Christ will produce a harvest of righteousness. He is our only hope for wisdom! But you must be united to him first, and that happens by putting your faith in him. It happens by trusting his word every day and relying on him alone to rescue you.
You can’t become wise and understanding on your own. It must be given from above. It comes through Christ our Savior, conversion by the Spirit, and communion with God. Christ is our Savior. He became wisdom for our salvation. But you won’t know that wisdom truly until you’re converted, until God gives you a new heart.
This is chapter 1:18 all over again: “of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” Wisdom comes from above because the new birth is from above. We must have Christ, and in order to have Christ we must be converted, born again. God does this when you hear the word of truth and believe. Don’t ignore it this morning. Believe it. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved; you will know true wisdom because you will know God.
And then grow into that wisdom through communion with God. James has laid out two very practical parts of communion with God already—the word and prayer. Chapter 1:21 says, “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Chapter 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given to you.” The word and prayer is how we commune with God and grow into Christ-like wisdom.
The word of the gospel is what changes the heart. James’ focus is on changing the heart—“bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts,” he says. How does that heart change? First it changes through conversion. God must make it new. Then it changes through communion. We read the word, we pray, and the Spirit progressively makes us more like Jesus. Devote yourself to the word. His reveals his wisdom there. And then pray to receive it. Our God is generous to give it.
So what is the answer to James’ question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” His answer is the person who walks in humility before God and devotes himself to all that pleases God in relating to others. But when we set his answer within the broader framework of the gospel, we see that it’s the person who imitates Jesus. The wise person carries a cross. He denies himself in order to glorify God and love others. It’s the person who, through communion with Jesus, acts like him in relation to others.
The Lord’s Supper is a tangible reminder of our Savior’s wisdom. The world concluded that Jesus’ humiliation on the cross was foolish. But the resurrection tells us otherwise. It truly is the wisdom of God for our salvation. It’s where our sin was exchanged for his righteousness. As you eat this morning and you drink, remember Christ, our wisdom from God. Remember that his death has covered all your foolishness. And then look with hope to that future day when he will come again to make you like himself.
As a way of expressing our unity with one another as we come to this Supper, let’s also read our church covenant together. And let’s read it today as a reminder, as another portrait of the wise life. Wes will then come and lead us.
[i]BDAG, s.v., “praut?s.”
[ii]R. Leivestad, “‘The Meekness and Gentleness of Christ’: II Cor. X.1,” NTS 13 (1965-66), 158.
[iii]Cf. 4 Macc 5:16; 9:2; 15:9.
other sermons in this series