James has explained about the importance of the tongue (v.1-2) and has provided several dynamic illustrations to communicate the truth about the tongue (v.3-12). Now James will give instruction about wise use of the tongue. Still working in the context of teachers (v.1), James will address the difference between earthly wisdom and ethereal wisdom.
James 3.13-18 (ESV)
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.
15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.
16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, 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 good fruits, impartial and sincere.
18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Earthly Wisdom (v.13-16)
James begins by asking a very pointed question: Who is wise and intelligent in the church to which he is writing? Every reader or hearer of this epistle should have asked “Am I wise and intelligent; do I lack wisdom?” Wisdom here is pertaining to the tongue and the ability to bridle and restrain it by the power of God. Connected with this is the idea of intelligence or understanding which is the knowledge that an expert would have, in this case an expert teacher. Anyone like that “among you,” James asks. He then tells them how the wise and understanding can be identified – “By his good conduct.” The wise and intelligent teacher’s conduct will be a manifestation of the works of wisdom done in meekness. This kind of good behavior the wise man will put it on display daily. Meekness is not weakness; rather, meekness is strength under control. It is a mild and calm disposition which exercises patience and self-restraint. These are all marks of true or heavenly wisdom. False wisdom would be none of these.
One great Old Testament illustration of “the meekness of wisdom” is Moses. Scripture tells us that he was “very meek, more than all people who were on the face of earth” (Numbers 12.3). Here is one of the meekest men to ever live and yet when he comes off the mountain with the Ten Commandments and finds the people engaged in gross idolatry, his “anger burned hot” and he ground the golden calf into fine powder, dumped it in the water, and made the people of Israel drink it (Exodus 32.19-20). Is that wisdom’s meekness? One commentator put it this way: “Moses was very meek in his own cause, but as hot as fire in the cause of God” (Pulpit Commentary 50).
The greatest illustration of “the meekness of wisdom” is the Lord Jesus Christ. Here is the wisdom of God incarnate, come from heaven to dwell with man. He says of Himself, “I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11.29). Yet we find Him on more than one occasion turning over tables and driving out money changers from the temple (John 2.13-19; Matthew 21.12-16). Is that wisdom’s meekness? With Jesus as with Moses, the answer is yes. The teachers of James’ day who were in the church to which he writes were hot as fire for their own cause and very meek for the cause of God. They had it all wrong and so James’ admonition is that if teachers are not going to display true meekness of wisdom in their daily life, then they are not wise and understanding and ought not to be teachers.
The Substance of Earthly Wisdom (v.14). We get a glimpse of the heart of the teacher who is displaying earthly wisdom. In the heart of the worldly wise is “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.” First, the word for jealousy (Gk. zealon) is the word from which we get the English words “zeal,” “zealot,” and “zealous.” While not always a bad thing, coupled with bitterness or resentment it is an ugly thing. It is a conceited, contemptuous, contentious spirit which is unkind. Second, the idea of selfish ambition is rooted in the practice of electioneering or running for office. One wants to get as many votes as possible so he is put forward and seeks to win men over to his party. Here is what the unwise teacher does – he seeks to win people over to his party and is therefore divisive and factious. Unity is not his goal which puts him diametrically opposed to Christ who desires for His people to be united (John 17.20-21). This is an unhealthy desire to be preeminent and first. James says that if that is what is “in your hearts,” they should not boast against and lie against the truth. It seems James may be making a point about how these unqualified teachers were treating the truth and distorting it to their own destruction. James could be read as telling his brothers to not despise even (by) lying against the truth. In other words, the truth does not fit their agenda to promote themselves so they hate it and seek to degrade it (as though they could) and part of that process is to lie against and speak falsely toward the truth (or Truth, i.e. Jesus Christ). This is the nature of these teachers.
The Source of Earthly Wisdom (v.15). But what is at the root of lying against the truth? The origin of this kind of earthly wisdom is not from the mind or heart of men. While it may take up residence there, earthly wisdom originates in the pit of hell. Every good and perfect gift is from above (cf. 1.17) but this earthly wisdom is not from above. It is first earthly. It takes its origin from this world. Go to any non-Christian and you can find this wisdom. Even the heathen possesses this so-called wisdom. It is next unspiritual. Some translations say “sensual.” The idea is that it originates in the physical realm, even in the flesh. The spiritual realm did not birth this worldly wisdom; man did. It is then demonic. Here we have the final true source of this earthly wisdom. Even as the tongue is set on fire by hell (v.6), so the heart of these teachers is aflame because of this wisdom. This wisdom is demon-like, not God-like or Christ-like. “These three adjectives correspond to our three great spiritual enemies. Earthly wisdom has its origin in the world; natural wisdom, in the flesh; demoniacal wisdom, in the devil” (Pulpit Commentary 51). True wisdom comes from God (Proverbs 2.6) and clearly based upon the description of James the wisdom these teachers have is not from the Lord.
The Side-effects of Earthly Wisdom (v.16). James spells out the consequences of such wisdom from such teachers. “There will be disorder and every vile practice.” These are not marks of a healthy church. Instead, these are traits of a dying church which is a synagogue of Satan (cf. Revelation 2.9; 3.9). Riotous rebellion to the authority is a result of earthly wisdom taught in the church. It begins by unsettling the hearts and minds of Christians. Unsettled Christians will lead to tumult and turmoil in the congregation. Eventually, this tumultuousness gives way to full blown abandonment of the faith and every vile practice. Wickedness slips in unchecked even to the point that the church becomes offensive to the world because she allows activity that even pagans would not permit (cf. 1 Corinthians 5.1). Moo says, “Where the hearts of individual Christians are wrong, an unlimited variety of sins will be found also” (134).
Ethereal Wisdom (v.17-18)
James has shown that the teachers about whom he is writing are not only a danger doctrinally but also stand morally and motivationally wrong. What is needed is wisdom which comes from above. Not a base, earthly, rationalistic, physical, even devilish wisdom. True wisdom from God must be and is greater than that. The origin of true wisdom is God. “The LORD gives wisdom” said Solomon (Proverb 2.6). James has instructed his readers that if they lack wisdom, pray (1.5). God hears that prayer and gives liberally. True wisdom from the ethereal realms will produce Christian character. True wisdom also brings peace.
Holiness (v.17). To demonstrate that God’s wisdom will promote a holy life, James gives seven (7) characteristics of wisdom from above. First, wisdom from above is (indeed) pure. The Greek word (hagne) for pure has the same root as the word for holy (hagios). This is moral and ethical purity. This stands in stark contrast with earthly wisdom. The pure wisdom from God is free from everything earthly, carnal, unspiritual, and demonic. Second, God’s wisdom is peaceable. It seeks peace among men and peace between men and God. It loves and brings peace. Next this wisdom is gentle (NIV “considerate”). This is forbearance and courteousness. It is equitable, mild, and fair. Also, this wisdom is open to reason (NASB “reasonable”). This means it is willing to listen and ready to obey. It should be noted this is the only time this word appears in the New Testament. In addition, this ethereal wisdom is full of mercy and good fruit. Mercy has been called “practical help” (see A. T. Robertson on this verse in Word Pictures of the New Testament). This wisdom has mercy in abundance and is constantly engaged in helping those afflicted ones. Further, this wisdom is full of good fruits. No doubt this is in connection with the mercy aspect. John Gill says this is “compassion and beneficence to the poor; feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the widows and fatherless in their affliction; and doing all other good works and duties, both with respect to God and man, as fruits of grace, and of the Spirit.” The wisdom from above is impartial (NASB “without wavering”). God does not show partiality (Luke 20.21; Romans 2.11) and therefore His wisdom would not either. It is free from prejudice and never divided. Note also that this is the only time this word is used in the New Testament. Finally, God’s wisdom is sincere (KJV “without hypocrisy”). It is genuine in character and “never wears a mask” (Lenski). It should go without saying that those who possess this ethereal wisdom will likewise possess these qualities.
Harvest (v.18). As mentioned, the true wisdom of God will produce peace. Man’s earthly wisdom produces strife, tumult, and chaos. Therefore, God’s heavenly wisdom is needed for that alone can cause strife to stop, turn tumult into tranquility, and cause chaos to cease. The notable absence of peace among these brothers was also a tell-tale sign that wisdom from above was likewise absent. The “harvest of righteousness” or “fruit of righteousness” does appear elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Proverbs 11.30; Amos 6.12; Philippians 1.11). Here James seems to have in mind the beatitude from his half-brother’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5.9). This harvest of righteousness is contrasted with “every vile practice” and seems to sum-up all the qualities listed in verse 17. All this righteous fruit will belong to those what pursue peace by sowing in the atmosphere of peace they promote.