Summary: The Test of Wisdom (James 3:13) 1) Earthly Wisdom (James 3:14-16) 2) Godly Wisdom (James 3:17-18)
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms begins by affirming that "Canada is founded upon the principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law." This week’s minor controversy about God’s presence in the preamble--was set off, indirectly, by a Quebec ruling upholding a Catholic high school’s right to set its own curriculum. The Constitution describes not only who we are--matters of history -- but also who we ought to be--matters of aspiration. This is likely what those who object to the "supremacy of God" find difficult. In their Earthly Wisdom, they think that such language excludes from the Canadian project those who do not believe in God. Yet even those Canadians should welcome God in the preamble. Something, after all, has to be supreme. And if it is not God, then what is it? Fearsome it would be to live in the land where the works of man alone are supreme. The "supremacy of God" is shorthand reminding us that our laws, even if duly passed, must conform to principles of justice, the service of the common good and the truth about the human person. That is Godly Wisdom.
Written to groups of Jewish Christian house churches outside Palestine, James, the brother of Jesus, writes to Christians that have fallen into worldly lifestyles (James 1:27; 4:4) and as a result, have become “double minded” wavering between God and the World (1:8; 4:8). Earlier in his letter, James gives us guidance in how to ask for wisdom from God. He assures us that as we ask, we shall receive (1:5). Now he helps us to understand what wisdom from above is and how it should be used in The Test of Wisdom. Those who possess 1)Earthly Wisdom, will demonstrate by their lives that they have no saving relationship to Jesus Christ and no desire to worship, serve, or obey Him (vv. 14–16). Those, on the other hand, who possess 2) Godly Wisdom, will have genuine saving faith (vv. 17–18). (Cedar, P. A., & Ogilvie, L. J. (1984). Vol. 34: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Volume 34 : James / 1 & 2 Peter / Jude. The Preacher’s Commentary series (72). Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc.)
The Test of Wisdom (James 3:13)
James 3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. (ESV)
The who in verse 13, like this entire section from verses 13–18 apply to everyone in the churches to whom James was writing, true believers and mere professed believers. James is seeking to identify who is truly skilled in the art of righteous living. “In what way are you wise?” he is saying, in effect, “and in what way are you understanding? The answer will reveal not only your inner character but the spiritual condition of your soul.”
It is hard to find a self-professed fool. Most people have an elevated and unrealistically high opinion of their wisdom, although they might not say so. They believe they are just as “savvy” as the next person and that their opinion is usually better than anyone else’s. In this day of relativism, such perception is virtually universal.
The coupling of the two words “wise and understanding” has in view the truth and its application. The objective truth is that God is gracious (cf. 4:6), and subjective application is that the wise humble themselves in obedience (cf. 4:10). Both are embodied in the wise man or woman.
Wisdom knows the good and knows how to do the good. Understanding has seen how good wisdom in action is and knows why wisdom is good. Understanding knows why wisdom is good in its well-doing because it has seen how good wisdom is in its effects on others (Richardson, K. A. (2001). Vol. 36: James (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (162–163). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)
Although the two terms seem to be used synonymously here, wise and understanding carry a shade of difference in meaning. Sophos (wise) is a general word, often used by the Greeks to designate speculative knowledge, theory, or philosophy. For the Jews, it carried the deeper meaning of careful application of knowledge to personal living. Epistçmôn (understanding) appears only here in the New Testament and carries the idea of specialized knowledge, such as that of a highly skilled tradesman or professional.
Let him show translates an aorist imperative, making the verb a command. In essence, “put your money where you mouth is” or “prove yourself”, “back up your claims”. “If you claim wisdom and understanding,” he is saying, “show it first by your good conduct or behavior, your exemplary lifestyle.” As with faith (2:17), wisdom and understanding that are not demonstrated in righteous, godly living are devoid of godly value.
Second, and somewhat more specifically, James admonishes readers to show their wisdom and understanding by their good (implied) works or deeds, by all the particular activities and endeavors they are involved in.