Summary: James contrasts two kinds of wisdom.
Most of us probably know some people whose lives always seem to be in chaos and disorder. It seems like they are always just moving from one crisis to the next. And we also know other people who face equally difficult circumstances and yet have lives that are peaceful.
As we continue our study in the book of James, James is going to help us understand these two ways of life and help us understand how to live a life of peace regardless of our circumstances. So go ahead and open your Bibles to James chapter 3 and follow along as I read beginning in verse 13:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 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. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
(James 3:13-18 ESV)
Obviously the key word in this passage is wisdom. The words “wise” and “wisdom” are used four times. So it seems like a logical place for us to begin this morning is to define what James means by wisdom.
Let’s define wisdom
Let’s begin with a dictionary definition of wisdom, since that is probably how most of us think of wisdom. This week I went to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary where I found these definitions of wisdom:
• accumulated philosophic or scientific learning
• ability to discern inner qualities and relationships
• good sense
• generally accepted belief
Those definitions actually come pretty close to the way the Greek word for wisdom – sophia – was used in classical Greek literature. The Greeks used that word to describe speculative knowledge, theory and philosophy.
However, since James is a Jew, writing to a Jewish audience, there is little doubt that his understanding of wisdom was based much more on the Hebrew concept of wisdom. The Hebrew word for wisdom is often translated “skill”, especially in Exodus when describing the workmen who would construct the tabernacle and all its furnishings. So wisdom for the Hebrew involved skill in applying God’s principles to daily life.
That is certainly borne out by our passage where James links wisdom with conduct. This is another in a series of tests that James gives to help us determine whether or faith is genuine and mature. Since we’re a little over halfway through his letter, this seems like a good time to take a moment to review the previous tests that James has set forth:
• The first test is how we handle trials. A mature Christ follower finds joy in the midst of trials, knowing that God is using those trials to help him or her mature in their walk with Him
• The second test is how we handle temptation. The mature believer understands the process of temptation and sin and takes action to short circuit that process as early as possible.
• The third test is what we do with God’s Word. The mature believer welcomes God’s Word into his or her life and attempts to put it into practice.
• The fourth test is how we treat others who might be different than us. A mature disciple of Jesus looks at others through the lens of the gospel and puts their interests ahead of his own.
• The fifth test is whether our actions are consistent with the faith that we proclaim with our words.
• The sixth test is what we do with our words. The mature believer consistently speaks words of life that build others up.
Here in this seventh test, James begins by pointing out that there is an unbreakable link between the kind of wisdom we possess and our conduct. He begins with a question:
Who is wise and understanding among you?
And my guess is that every single person who read that question immediately answered “I am.” After all, who doesn’t want to think that that they are wise and understanding? But then in the very next sentence he says that a person’s conduct will demonstrate what kind of wisdom is operating in his or her life. So we can accurately conclude that in terms of the way James uses the term in this passage…
• Wisdom = lifestyle
In Biblical terms, wisdom is much more than just intellectual knowledge. It is how we put what we know into practice. So in effect, wisdom is synonymous with our lifestyle. With that background in mind, we are now ready to examine…