Who wants wisdom? Everyone should raise their hand. I have not met anyone who said that they were not interested in having wisdom. No one wants to be a fool. No one wants to be perceived as a fool. So we seek after wisdom. Sadly, the wisdom we care about is usually the wrong wisdom. We care about how we look when we buy a car that looks ugly or performs poorly. We care about people’s perception of us. But do we care about what God thinks of us? Do we care about not being foolish in respect to God? James is going to point out to us that we frequently are seeking the wrong wisdom. James is going to teach us that there are two kinds of wisdom.
Actions Reveal Wisdom (3:13)
James begins with a question: Who is wise and has understanding among you? Do you have wisdom and understanding? People cannot merely think they have wisdom. Wisdom must be shown in action. The evidence of humble, meek wisdom is shown in good conduct. To state the point more sharply: we prove which wisdom we have by our actions. James is asking us to evaluate who not only knows what is right but also practices what is right. Good conduct is the inevitable outgrowth of true wisdom. Wisdom is revealed by the way one lives his or her life.
Not only are we to have good conduct, but we are to practice this good conduct in meekness. "Meekness" (Greek prautes) is a fairly complicated and multifaceted concept. It is difficult to put one word on the idea. The BDAG says of prautes, "The quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance." Therefore, some translations use the word "humility" to explain the concept. However, humility is not all of what is being described. In classical Greek, the word was used of people who were gracious and mild. Further, when this word was used of things, it meant "gentle." It was used of a gentle voice or a gentle animal. Therefore, some translations use the word "gentleness." The word was even used of a horse that had been broken. So the Greeks said the word meant "power under control." So we need to bind these ideas together when we think of meekness (and is probably why some translations simply stay with the word "meekness"). It carries the idea of humility, gentleness, and mildness, but not because of weakness. Rather, power and strength exists but it has been placed under control. Humility, gentleness, and mildness comes from the fact that power has been put under control.
Now come back to verse 13. We show our good conduct with the attitude of humility, gentleness, and mildness that is derived from power placed under control. The writer of Proverbs states a similar point. "When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom" (Proverbs 11:2 ESV). James is really going to challenge us. Our relationship with God is revealed by the life we live. Just as works showed us what kind of faith we have (James 2), so also works show what kind of wisdom we have. James is going to show this point fully in the upcoming verses.
Wisdom of the World (3:14-16)
James begins by showing us what the wrong wisdom looks like. "But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice." If a person has envy, jealousy, and selfishness in the heart, that person is living a lie. Did you see that in verse 14? "You are false to the truth." You are claiming to be wise, but you are living in a way that denies the claim. Acting with jealousy and envy shows that we do not have godly wisdom. Do we see how these attributes are in contrast to meekness? BDAG said of meekness, "The quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance." What does envy, jealousy, and selfish ambition come from? These come from having a sense of one’s self-importance. These attitudes come from believing that we must look out for our own interests. These attitudes come from seeing others receive what we think we ought to have. Worldly wisdom says, "I will take care of myself." Worldly wisdom says, "I deserve this" and "I demand that." "I demand respect." "I deserve attention." This is how the world teaches us to think and act. But James condemns such thinking.
James says that this wisdom is not from above, but it is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. When we act and think like this, we are acting like we are people of this world, and not of Jesus. We are no longer thinking godly. We have limited our vision and thoughts to the things on this earth. We are ignoring the riches of heaven and are merely thinking about the temporal things of the earth.
Further, James calls this wisdom "unspiritual." We are not acting or thinking spiritually, but naturally. Paul used similar language to condemn carnal, worldly thinking (Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 3:1-4). You are not looking at life through godly standards, but worldly, unspiritual standards.
Finally, James calls this worldly wisdom "demonic." What a statement! You think that you are of God when you act like this! You are not of God, you are demonic. You are of the devil, not God. Stop fooling yourself! Stop lying to yourself! Are we getting the important point? Godly wisdom is not the wisdom of the world. Godly wisdom is nothing like the wisdom that comes from this earth.
In verse 16 James describes the result of this worldly wisdom. When we have jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition, there will be disorder and every vile practice. We are seeing the truth of this teaching. As the world rejects the gospel, there will be an increase of disorder and every vile practice. Why is crime increasing? Crime is increasing because the gospel is being rejecting. Rejecting God does not make us more civilized, as these pundits and philosophers want to claim. Rejecting God causes us to be more disorderly and more wicked. When we reject the wisdom that comes from above and accept the self-centered life, our lives will become more wicked. Our families will become more disorderly and broken. Relationships will be damaged. Our society and relationship simply become more destructive as we focus on ourselves and stop focusing on God. We are making a mess of our lives and making a mess of the world around us the longer we remain selfish and reject the wisdom from above.
Wisdom From Above (3:17-18)
James is going to describe for us various characteristics that will test us to see if we have the wisdom that comes from above. The first characteristic above all else is purity. The pure life is clearly a life that is obedient to godly wisdom. Nothing shows wisdom from below than a life of impurity. We are lying to ourselves if we think we have wisdom and understanding but are living an impure life. You do not have wisdom. You do not have understanding. Further, why would we listen to the "wisdom" of people who are leading impure lives? How foolish to listen to their instructions! Pure living shows godly, spiritual wisdom.
Verse 17 is very interesting, not only for its meaning, but also for its literary style. Much of the verse is in alliteration and rhyme. These things are lost, of course, as the Greek is translated into English. The next three characteristics James lists have alliteration and nearly rhyme. The three in Greek are: eirenikos (i-ray-nee-kos), epieikes (ep-ee-i-kace), eupeithes (a-yoo-pe-thace). The ESV reads, "peaceable, gentle, open to reason." These are three characteristics that describe the wise person’s disposition. If we truly have wisdom, the wisdom that comes from above, the wisdom that is not destructive and unspiritual, then we will be peaceable, gentle, and open to reason. Consider that these are other valid words to describe what meekness looks like. Those with the wisdom from above listen to others. They are teachable. They have power under control. They are gentle, humble, and peaceable.
The second set of qualities reveal the wise person’s actions. James says that those with godly wisdom are full of mercy and good fruits. In Greek, these words have some rhyme to them. The Greek reads: mestos eleos kai karpos agathos. In the ESV, the English is "full of mercy and good fruits." The first three qualities described the wise person’s disposition. These two characteristics describe the wise person’s actions. We do not have the wisdom of God and cannot claim to have godly understanding when our lives are not full of mercy and good fruits. Can your life be described as "full of mercy?" Can you life be described as full of good fruits? Remember how James began this teaching in verse 13. Your good conduct shows the meekness of wisdom in your life. So where is the good conduct? Where are the merciful acts? Where are the good fruits? We must think about being full of mercy and good works today. When we rise tomorrow, Lord willing, we must think about what good works and merciful acts can I do today. This will show that God’s wisdom is at work in our lives.
The final couplet is found at the end of verse 17. These final two words in the Greek also are alliteration and rhyme. The Greek reads: adiakritos (ad-ee-ak´-ree-tos) kai anupokritos (an-oo-pok´-ree-tos). The ESV reads, "impartial and sincere." These final two words describe the steady constancy of the one who has godly wisdom. The NASB reads, "unwavering and without hypocrisy." I think this reading matches the intended idea best. The Christian is not fake or wavering in the face of challenges. Christians are sincere and true in their actions. This is in contrast to the double-minded man that James spoke of in James 1:8 who is unstable in all his ways.
The fruit of these qualities is righteousness sown in peace by those who make peace. James stated, "The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God" (1:20). We noted that this meant that our anger does not produce the righteous living that God demands from his people. James points out here in James 3:18 that when we have godly wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy, good fruits, unwavering, and sincere, then we are producing the righteous life that God demands. But that righteous living only comes to those who make for peace. This matches the contrast James made earlier where he taught us that worldly wisdom leads to disorder and every vile practice (3:16). But listening to the wisdom of God leads to the righteous life that God requires.
Which wisdom leads your life? Are you following the wisdom from above or the wisdom from below? It is easy to know which one you are following. Look at your life conduct. Look at your character and attitude. If you have jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition, then you are lying to yourself if you think you are following God. You are following the wisdom of the world. Those who follow God show it by their good conduct that is full of purity, peace, gentleness, and mercy. Live the righteous life that God demands from you.