James 3(13–18)


Verses 1 to 12 of James 3 were about the tongue and how we use it. And we looked at those verses a few weeks ago. And they fit in with everything else James has been writing, because the book of James is a very practical book. It’s about how we should live and how we should treat one another and it’s about the kind of life we ought to live as those who believe in Jesus Christ and belong to his church. So, it’s a very practical book; and along the way we’ve noted a number of things we ought to do.

Today we’re moving on to consider verses 13 to 18 of chapter 3. And the topic of these verses is wisdom. Now, back in chapter 2, James taught us that there are two kinds of faith. There’s a faith which works; and there’s a faith which doesn’t work. One faith leads to action. And the other kind of faith does not. One kind of faith — a true, saving faith — leads to obedience; whereas a false faith, a dead faith, does not. So, there are two kinds of faith. And in today’s passage we learn that there are two kinds of wisdom. There’s a wisdom that comes from above, or from heaven And there’s a wisdom that does not. There’s a wisdom that is heavenly, says James. And there’s a wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual, and of the devil, says James. So, there are two kinds of faith. And there are two kinds of wisdom. And that’s what today’s passage is about.


This isn’t the first time James has mentioned wisdom. He mentioned it back in verse 5 of chapter 1 where James said:

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.

When we were studying that passage I made the point that wisdom in the Bible is always a very practical thing. King Solomon, from the Old Testament, asked the Lord for a discerning heart to be able to distinguish between right and wrong. And the Lord was pleased with his request and assured Solomon that he would give Solomon a wise and discerning heart. And that’s so important. To be wise means being able to tell the difference between right from wrong, and to be able to know what’s the right thing to do in every situation, so that in our lives we’ll do what’s right and not what’s wrong. Joseph in the Old Testament was also known for his wisdom, because he knew what was the right thing to do in order to prepare for the coming famine in the land of Egypt. The Apostles in the book of Acts needed to appoint deacons who were full of the Holy Spirit and who were full of wisdom so that they would know what to do in order to care for the needy widows in the church at that time.

Wisdom in the Bible is a practical thing. It’s about knowing right from wrong so that we’ll do what’s right and we’ll avoid what’s wrong. And so, when we were thinking about this a few weeks ago, I talked about how we need wisdom for all the different roles we have in our lives. You need wisdom to be a good child. You need wisdom to be a good husband or wife. You need wisdom to be a good parent. You need wisdom to be a good friend. You need wisdom to be a good church member. You need wisdom to be a good leader in the church. You need wisdom for whatever job you do. We need wisdom from God for all of the different roles and responsibilities we have in life. Wisdom is a very practical thing.

Verses 13 and 14

In verse 13 of today’s passage, James asks a question. He’s asking his readers:

Who is wise and understanding among you?

We’d love to know a little of the background to this question, wouldn’t we? Were there some among the believers James was writing to who were claiming to be wise and full of understanding? Certainly, as we read the book of James, we get the impression that there were some among the believers James was writing to who were causing problems. For instance, chapter 3 began with a warning that not many should become teachers. So, were there some among the believers James was writing to who were going around, saying that they wanted to be teachers? Were there some going around, saying ‘I could do a better job than him’? Were they going around saying: ‘Just let me into the pulpit and then you’ll see what real preaching is’? And then we had that section about the tongue and how we misuse it so easily and so frequently and because of what we say, we stir up trouble in the church. So, were they some among the believers James was writing to who were going about, complaining and criticising, and making things difficult in the church?

And now he’s talking about wisdom. And we’d love to know: were there some among the believers James was writing to who were going around, boasting about their wisdom and their understanding and how they knew better than everyone else? Certainly that’s the impression we get as we read what James wrote. But whether or not something like that was going on in the background when James wrote this letter, it’s what happens in so many churches. People who think they know better than everyone else and who demand that they’re heard and that everyone should do what they say.

So, what does James say? Well, he says to the person who thinks he’s wise and full of understanding:

Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

In this one verse, James is making two points about true wisdom. He says, first of all, that true wisdom produces a good life. And secondly, he says that true wisdom produces humility. And then, in verse 14, he describes the opposite and he shows us what false wisdom produces. So, listen to verse 14:

But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.

On the one hand we have true wisdom and it produces a good life and humility. Well, when James refers to ‘a good life’ we’re to think about the kind of life which the Lord Jesus lived: a life devoted to serving God and other people; a life which was characterised by kindness and compassion and selflessness and a graciousness. You know, all kinds of people felt able to come to the Lord Jesus to seek his help, because that’s the kind of person he was and there was something good and appealing in him which people recognised. And, of course, he was also humble, wasn’t he. Do you remember his words in Matthew 11? He said:

Come to me, all who labour and are 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.

The word ‘gentle’ can also be translated as ‘humble’. In the King James it’s translated as ‘meek’. So, the Lord described himself as being humble or meek and lowly in heart. And, of course, that’s what he was, because even though he’s the Eternal Son of God, who ruled and reigned in heaven, he was willing to humble himself and come down to earth as a man and to suffer and die for us and for our salvation. Well, says James, true wisdom produces in the person who has it a good life, the kind of life the Lord Jesus lived. And true wisdom produces in the person who has it a humble heart, the kind of heart that the Lord Jesus possessed.

By constrast, false wisdom produces something very different. It produces bitter envy and selfish ambition. The person who has this bitter envy in their heart is jealous of another person’s success. Or, since we’re thinking about the church, then it’s about being jealous of another person’s position in the church. You know:

Look at him. Look at her. How did that person get to do that. I could do better.

So, this bitter envy, this jealousy which James refers to, is a kind of rivalry; and it goes along with the second thing James mentions, because this false wisdom produces selfish ambition. This person wants to run things in the church.

To those who claimed to be wise and full of understanding, and who perhaps wanted to promote themselves as teachers and leaders in the church, James says:

Do you think you’re wise? Well, show us that you’re really wise by living a good life and being humble and gentle like our Saviour, because the person who wants to take over and run things in the church is not wise.

And James adds at the end of verse 14 that the person who possesses this bitter envy and selfish ambition in their hearts should not boast about it and deny the truth. Now, it’s not entirely clear what James means here, but I think that what he’s saying is this:

Don’t by boastful. Don’t boast about yourself.

And we can imagine this person, who is full of bitter envy and selfish ambition and who wants to run the church, is probably a boastful person. We can imagine this person, standing up and boasting about what I’ve done and why everyone should pay attention to me. And, at the same time, this person is denying the truth. In other words, he’s denying, she’s denying, the truth that they don’t possess real wisdom, true wisdom, the heavenly wisdom that comes from above. The truth is that they’re really very foolish, and they don’t realise it. They don’t realise it.

I was watching The Apprentice the other evening. And there you have it, displayed in front of you on your TV screen, to see for yourself: there we have a clear display of this false wisdom, because in The Apprentice you have all these people, who are competing against one another. And, if you haven’t seen any of it, every week there are two teams. And one member of each team is chosen to be the Manager who has to manage the rest of the team on some project they’ve been assigned. And every week, it’s always the same: You see the bitter envy and rivalry and selfish ambition, because there’s always one or two or three or more in the team who think they know more than the Manager, and they want to run things, even though they haven’t been appointed Manager. And you see them, complaining and criticising and fault-finding, and running the Manager down, and promoting themselves and what they know and what they’ve done and how things would be so much better if they were in charge. It’s all there for us to see. But it doesn’t only happen in realty TV programmes; it happens everywhere. And it happens even in the church of Jesus Christ. And so, James is writing to warn us about it.

Verses 15 and 16

In verse 14 James described what this false wisdom produces in the person who has it. In verse 15, however, he identifies it. He says, first of all, that it does not come from heaven. So, even though he’s writing to believers, who have been raised with Christ to live a new, heavenly life, nevertheless the way some of them are behaving reveals that no matter what they claim they know, their wisdom is not from God. And then he says this false wisdom is earthly, unspiritual and it’s of the devil. So, it’s earthly, not heavenly. In other words, it’s origin is not in heaven, where Jesus Christ is seated and where everything is glorious and perfect, but it’s origin is this fallen world, with all its sin and shame. And it’s unspiritual which means it’s got nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has nothing to do with this kind of wisdom. And that’s important, because this person may think he’s very spiritual, she’s very spiritual. But once again, they’re completely deceived, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Lord Jesus and he will only ever produce in us the likeness of Christ; and the Lord Jesus never, ever displayed this bitter envy or selfish ambition in his life, but he was always, always meek and lowly. And then, this false wisdom which is earthly, not heavenly, and unspiritual, not spiritual, is also of the Devil. Think about the beginning of the Bible. Adam and Eve were in the Garden. And along came the serpent. And what was the serpent saying to Eve? He was saying:

Don’t listen to God. Listen to me! Don’t obey God. Obey me!

He was bitterly envious of God and he was full of selfish ambition and he wanted to take over the running of the world. And whoever has the same kind of envy and selfish ambition and the desire to take over the running of the church is only doing the same kind of thing the Devil once did.

Well, says James in verse 16, where you find this envy and selfish ambition, there you’ll find disorder and every evil practice. Now, the word which the NIV translated as ‘evil’ can also mean ‘worthless’. You see, this person thinks that what they’re doing is very worthwhile. This person thinks that what they’re doing is important and necessary and vital. But really, it’s worthless. It’s of no value to the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s useless. And this kind of person only creates disorder and division.

It’s interesting to compare what James writes here to what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians chapters 1 to 3. This could be some homework for you: read through 1 Corinthians 1 to 3 and see if you can spot some of the parallels with what James wrote, because Paul was also writing about the difference between the wisdom of the world and God’s wisdom. And the thing is: because members of the church in Corinth were following the wisdom of the world, there were all kinds of divisions in the church. Well, says James, this earthbound, unspiritual, demonic wisdom only produces disorder in the church.

Veres 17 and 18

Having identified and described this false wisdom, this worldly wisdom, James moves on in verses 17 and 18 to describe true wisdom. True wisdom is from above; it comes to us from God. And first of all, it’s pure, says James. A child goes to pick up a sweet from the pavement, and the mother says:

Don’t touch! It’s dirty.

The false wisdom James has been describing is like that. It’s dirty. It’s unpleasant. It’s nasty. You don’t want anything to do with it. But the wisdom from above is pure; it’s good and it’s clean and it’s wholesome and it can’t be faulted in any way.

And then, says James, this wisdom — or the person who possesses this true wisdom — is peace-loving, considerate and submissive. Well, the person who possesses worldly wisdom creates division and disorder, but the person who possess wisdom from above is peaceable: he doesn’t want to stir up trouble in the church. And this person is considerate, which means they’re gentle. And this person is submissive, which is perhaps not the best translation. ‘Open to reason’ is probably better. I’m sure you’ve met people who are so stubborn, they won’t listen to anyone. But the person who is wise is willing to listen.

And then the person who possesses this wisdom from above is full of mercy and good fruit. Whereas the worldly wise person is envious of others, this person is kind to others. Whereas the worldly wise person’s life is marked by every evil practice, this person’s life is marked by good fruit so that you can tell by the way they live and the things they do what kind of person this really is.

And then the person who possesses wisdom from above is impartial and sincere. So, this person is kind and good to all, and is completely sincere so that there’s no pretence or hypocrisy and he doesn’t play a part to try to impress people. No one likes fakes. You buy something online, but when it comes and you take it out of the packaging, you see right away that it’s a fake and it’s no good. Well, there’s nothing fake about the person with wisdom from above. There’s no pretending. He’s completely open and transparent and honest and true.

Once again we can say that James is describing the Lord Jesus, because the Lord Jesus is all of these things, perfectly. And that’s the way we want to be as well, isn’t it? And so, we need this wisdom from above in order to become like the Lord Jesus Christ.

And look how the chapter ends. James refers to ‘peacemakers’. The person with the wrong kind of wisdom only stirs up trouble in the church. But the person with wisdom from above is concerned for the peace and order of the church. And the person who sows in peace — in other words, the person who is working for the peace of the church, and is not sowing seeds of division and disorder and dissent — such a person will produce a harvest of righteousness. So, think of the farmer, who sows his seed, and afterwards you look into his field, and everywhere you look, there’s corn growing. Well, James is describing a person who works for the peace and unity of the church. And afterwards, you’ll see the result of their work, and it will all be good and right and pleasing to the Lord. By contrast, the person with worldly wisdom, whose heart is filled with bitter envy and selfish ambition, will leave behind only destruction. The church will be scorched and black and laid waste.


Here’s the thing: James has been writing to believers. But it seems he’s been writing to believers who were living in a worldly way, and not a heavenly way. Even though they’ve been united to Christ through faith and raised with him to live a new, heavenly life, even though they’ve been raised up with Christ to sit with him in the heavenly realms, they’ve acting as if they’re still earth-bound and of the world. And so, instead of displaying in their lives this wisdom from above, the heavenly wisdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, they were displaying in their lives this worldly wisdom which is earthly, unspiritual and of the Devil.

And so, what did they need to do? And what do we need to do to ensure that our lives are shaped and formed by this heavenly wisdom? Well, first of all, we need to repent and seek God’s forgiveness if our lives have been shaped by this worldly wisdom, and if there’s been in our hearts that bitter envy and selfish ambition and that desire to take over and run things ourselves. We need to repent and seek God’s forgiveness. And the good news is — that for the sake of Christ who died for sinners — God will pardon us, as he has promised, for every ungodly attitude in our hearts.

And then, secondly, we need to do what James has already told us to do. Do you remember? In chapter 1, he said that if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. We need wisdom from above, don’t we? We need this heavenly wisdom so that our lives will be good lives and full of good deeds, done in humility. And we need heavenly wisdom which is pure, and peace-loving, and considerate and open to reason, and all those other qualities James mentions here. We need heavenly wisdom, so that instead of causing division, we’ll leave behind us a harvest of righteousness. We need heavenly wisdom, the wisdom that only God can supply. And the good news is that our loving Heavenly Father is willing and able to give it to all who come to him through Jesus Christ the Saviour and who ask him for it, so that while we go on living on the earth, our lives will reflect the life of heaven above.