Wisdom from Above

March 24, 2024 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: James

Topic: Wisdom Scripture: James 3:13–18

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.

Last week, as we began to study the third chapter of James, we were introduced to what James teaches about “speech ethics.” This is a subject that James will stay on all the way into the next chapter. Here, in these verses, he brings up the topic of wisdom as part of Christian speech ethics.

When we think of wisdom in the Bible, we might immediately think of Solomon, the king of Israel who was particularly known for being wise. Wisdom is something we want and demand of those who would lead us. We want wise leaders, wise rulers. The hope for the kingdom of God is the hope for God’s world to be ordered wisely. And since we Christians believe that Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom of God on earth, and that we have been made a part of this kingdom, then it is also imperative that we be wise people.

How, then, might we be learn to be wise? And what does the story of Jesus—and especially the events of Holy Week that we enter into on this Palm Sunday—what does that story have to do with wisdom and its presence in the world today?

James helps us with these sorts of questions here as he teaches about the importance of wisdom, the need for wisdom, and the evidence of wisdom.

The Importance of Wisdom

We begin in verse 13, which starts with a rhetorical question. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” If that question were asked to us, I wonder if any of us would raise our hand and say, “I am.” You want to be wise, don’t you? Certainly you don’t want to be foolish.‌ James would like us all to be wise, because wisdom, biblical wisdom, is important for our gospel witness.

The Witness of Wisdom

You can be wise about certain things while remaining foolish about other things. You might struggle relationally or be really bad at managing time even though you are wise with your money or with your words. What kind of wisdom is James talking about?‌

Notice he pairs wisdom with understanding. These two words are frequently found together throughout Scripture. One example is in Deuteronomy 4. There we read of God requiring Israel to live by his words, never adding or subtracting one word from any of it. And then he said this to them:

Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut 6:4).

The kind of wisdom that God wants us to have is a careful keeping of his way so that the world takes notice. Biblical wisdom isn’t something you can simply claim for yourself; it is something that is recognized by others, even by non-Christians.

It is also true, of course, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1, that many in the world will view the gospel we preach as utter foolishness. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” we read in 1 Corinthians 1:23. But this is not to offset what we are reading in this passage. Because what the world is supposed to see in the Christian community is a glimpse of a different kind of humanity, a different way of being in the world, a way that works, gives hope, and is life-giving. That’s what it means to be wise and understanding. It is to possess insight into the ways of God, and ways that all people would find desirable, even if they reject the beliefs that undergird that wisdom.

Showing Your Wisdom

We see then that wisdom is not only about the beliefs or the knowledge that a person has. As James would say, faith alone makes no one wise. Those who are biblically wise will be known by their fruit. Their wisdom will be seen by their works.

After the initial rhetorical question, James issues something of a challenge. If a person is truly “wise and understanding,” then there should be plenty of evidence to be seen in his life. “By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” Notice: “let him show” his wisdom by his life. It does not say, “let him share” his wisdom in a lecture.‌

Those who possess this kind of insight into the ways of God will naturally share such things with others. In the Christian community, we would hope that those who serve as elders and overseers—as pastors—would be counted among the wise and understanding within that particular fellowship. But it is not their knowledge of facts, not their systematic theology, not their philosophical apologetics that ought to put them on the radar for formal office. It is their conduct. It is the way they live.

The qualifications for church leaders in the New Testament are overwhelmingly character qualifications. It’s not that church elders can be excused for being ignorant about the Scriptures. Those who are wise and understanding will surely know their Bibles well enough to be “able to teach” others. But even this qualification for elders, “able to teach,” ought not be isolated from what James is saying here. To be able to teach others means you do not neglect to teach yourself (Rom 2:21). “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13). That’s Paul, not James, who said that by the way.‌

And here’s what Peter says, in 1 Peter 2:12. “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Here it is again. Those who possess biblical wisdom demonstrate their possession of it by how they live, a way of living that is commended even by those who do not agree with their beliefs.

Different and Desirable

Now let’s step back for a moment and remember what the biblical story line is all about. God, who made heaven and earth, chose a people for himself who are to live in such communion with him that they stand out in the world and are noted as the “wise and understanding” people. That’s how we are to be known. When the world examines our lives, they should see that we are different, but they should also see this difference as something desirable.

So, you see, when we talk about the Christian expectation for “good conduct” and “good works,” this has nothing to do with earning one’s way into a right standing with God. That’s just not the issue here. But it does have everything to do with knowing what a “right standing with God” is all about. It’s all about wisdom. It’s about knowing how to live in a troubled world in a way that shows there is an alternative way, a way that is available to all through Jesus.

The Need for Wisdom

‌Because without Jesus and the wisdom he gives, what does the world look like? Without true wisdom, the only wisdom we’ve got is actually utter foolishness. In verses 14-16, James speaks to this foolish state, highlighting why we need true wisdom, the wisdom from above.

Zealous and Ambitious

‌First, he says that one of the tell-tale signs that true wisdom is lacking is the presence of “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” in our hearts. The two words together tell us something about the particular concern James has in our passage. Jealousy is the feeling you might get when someone challenges your ideas and persuades people to accept theirs instead.[1] If you experience that feeling, it indicates the fact that what you really want is for people to follow you and your way rather than God and his way.

The word jealous is the same word in Greek as zealous. Both words communicate the idea of extreme loyalty to a belief or a cause. So, it is good to be jealous for God and his kingdom, to be zealous for the wisdom and way of God. The problem is that this zeal can be a cover for “selfish ambition.” Ambition, like zeal, is not inherently a bad thing, but the Greek word here refers to those who are seeking to bring about their own agenda, who are interested in their own well-being even if that comes at the expense of the well-being of others.[2]

When you are zealous for your own agenda, you will be tempted to use whatever means necessary to achieve it. When two of Jesus’s disciples took offense that Jesus was not well received, they said to him, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus turned and rebuked them (Lk 9:54-55).

When zeal and selfish ambition are put together the result is hostility, factionalism, and rivalries.[3] The appearance of these things proves that the wisdom from above is lacking and some other “wisdom” is being employed.

The Wisdom from Below

We might as well call this false wisdom “the wisdom from below,” though James describes it as that which is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” This false wisdom is empowered by the world, the flesh, and the devil.[4] It is the prevailing wisdom that is common to all people, so common we often think of it as natural, what we ordinarily want to do. The Apostle Paul calls these things “the works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20, which is what you have wherever the “fruit of the Spirit” is absent.

But we Christians know where it comes from. It comes from the vicious lie of the serpent in Eden. “Did God say? Oh, come on, that’s not true. God is holding out on you. Go ahead and do what feels right to you.

“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate (Gen 3:5-6).

And so, brothers and sisters, whenever we live by the same fallen wisdom that informs everyone else in the world, we are living the lie, just like they are. We are being “false to the truth,” as James says at the end of verse 14.

Division and Disorder

And “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,” verse 16 says, “there will be disorder and every vile practice.” The word disorder is a form of the word James uses to speak of the problem of doubleness, the double-minded in James 1:8, and the double-tongued in James 3:8. They are unstable, restless, and now, disordered. That may be the natural state of things, but only because it is the state of things untouched by the creative power of God.

The people of God cannot be satisfied so long as those things are present. The one place above all that such things simply cannot be tolerated is in the church, in the Christian community. That is what James is primarily concerned about. In the world, under the dominion of the powers of darkness, what else would we expect? But here? Among us? We claim to be under the rule of a far superior power, a Holy Spirit for crying out loud! The same Holy Spirit who hovered over the chaotic primordial waters in Genesis 1:2 and began to create, bringing order and peace into the universe.

Such order and peace is what we ought to expect to find within the kingdom of God, which Christians claim to have entered through faith in Jesus. This is why the Apostle Paul wrote so boldly against any appearance of chaos in the worship of the Christian community, saying in 1 Corinthians 14:33 that “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”

Those who possess the wisdom of God know how to keep and promote peace among the people of God.[5] What James cares about is the unity of the Christian community, starting with the local church but also extending to the greater church. Unity is never easy to achieve, not unless we settle for a false unity that anyone can achieve by dividing over and over again until all that is left is a small group of people who share the same opinion on just about everything.

But that’s partisanship, not peace. Partisanship needs no explanation, but peace is supernatural. It can only come by the wisdom that is from above. And that’s why we need that wisdom.

The Evidence of Wisdom

So, how do we get it? And what is the evidence that we have it?

Courage for the Kingdom

Well, let’s begin with this: it will take a tremendous amount of courage to receive the wisdom from above. Courage or faith, however you want to frame it. The wisdom of God comes to us as an alternative to the either-or factions that divide people in all kinds of different ways. The wise way of God is always the “third way” that makes no sense in a divided-up world. It will take courage to choose that way.

Courage requires zeal. The courageous will not tolerate compromise of the truth. They will fight against the enemy who opposes the truth. We have a kingdom to contend for here. But the “third way” of the kingdom of God is distinguished by its zeal to unite rather than to divide. If in our zeal for the truth, we end up dividing the Christian community, then we have marked ourselves as being an enemy of the cross.

Clearly, James sees this as a danger that Christians can succumb to. ‌That’s why we have to scrutinize apparent acts of courage that cause division and sow disorder and admit every vile practice. Those who divide the community are sometimes seen as commendable and courageous, but James calls it a crime.[6]

The Character of Wisdom

There are times in which the wise do have to take a stand, do have to divide, and must break fellowship. But this should only bring us grief and come from a very heavy heart and with careful prayer and biblically-informed consideration. We must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath. To separate from another professing Christian is always like taking a hit against your credit. It must never be our default position, and what we are known for. ‌

We ought to be known for what we are for, not what we are against. We are the people of Jesus, who believe in the power of resurrection. Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it (Jn 3:17). In spite of all that is wrong in our world, there is still so much beauty and love and goodness that we who calls ourselves Christians ought to be known for our celebration of it and our contribution to it.[7]

To be Jesus people means that we pursue the character of God that we see in Jesus of Nazareth. Back in verse 13, James urges us to be “meek”; the word may also be translated humble or gentle. That is what Jesus is like. He is gentle and lowly of heart (Matt 11:29).

It is a “third way” to be sure. The pagan world in which Jesus lived had no value for such virtue and character.[8] But it was prized by the early Christians who valued the character of Christ. So, what is sometimes called Christian “good conduct” because it stands up for truth has to be disqualified because it is lacking in humility or gentleness. Of course, to possess these qualities does not mean you can be weak on truth. This quality is not opposed to difficult, truthful confrontation, but is the spirit in which it is to be done (1 Cor 4:21; Gal 6:1). It is not the same thing as politeness, which hides hatred in the heart with hypocritical acts of kindness. But it is the spirit in which correction must be carried out (Eph 4:2; 2 Tim 2:25. 1 Pet 3:15). It knows the difference between a fruitful argument and a quarrel which it will always seek to avoid (Tit 3:2).

Humility or gentleness is also one of the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. And when we read about how James describes “the wisdom from above” in verse 17—pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere—we get the sense he’s talking about the very same thing. In fact, it may well be that James, who never directly mentions the Holy Spirit, speaks of wisdom in the same way that Paul talks about the Spirit.[9]

Receiving God’s Wisdom‌

If so, then we know the only way to get it is to ask for it, and then to receive it as a gift. True wisdom is “wisdom from above,” and James has already told us that if you lack it, you must ask God for it (Jas 1:5). But, remember, you must ask in faith, “with no doubting,” which means without intending to use it for your own kingdom agenda rather than for God’s.

How do you know if that is what is in your heart? Just look at the evidence that comes from the wisdom from above. In verse 18, James says, “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”[10] This is the reason why Jesus could say, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be [known as the children] of God” (Matt 5:9).

So, as we enter into Holy Week, with Easter coming and New Creation Monday on its way, let us remember who we are. As the people of God, we are people of peace, people of hope. We pursue this “wisdom from above” because this is the point of this “embarrassing time between baptism and the resurrection” in which we are meant to be shaped into the character of Christ himself, and so to be fitted for God’s eternal kingdom. I mean, there is a celebration to have, a party to enjoy.

So let’s get to work restoring spaces and places, bring hope to people in need of hope. But for that, we need God’s wisdom. What can I do to receive it? Ask for it, pray for it. Perhaps memorize James 3:17 and pray those words every day for 40 days, saying them slowly in reverent, hopeful prayer. Make it a devotional habit and ask God for his strength to see it come to fruition even in the most surprising places.

Because, after all, the God we worship loves to give good gifts to his children and has promised to give generously and without reproach the wisdom that we are seeking (Jas 1:5).


[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Second edition, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), 215.

[2] H. Giesen, “ἐριθεία,” Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990), 2:52.

[3] Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, trans. and ed. James D. Ernest (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 2:71.

[4] Moo, Letter of James, 218.

[5] Ibid., 209.

[6] Dale C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle of James, International Critical Commentary, ed. G. I. Davies and C. M. Tuckett (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 574.

[7] Tom Wright, Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John, and Judah, New Testament for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 24.

[8] N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 240.

[9] As many scholars claim. See Moo, Letter of James, 219.

[10] The citation is from NT Wright. Though I cannot find it in any of his printed publications, this is one of the key points he addresses in his book, After You Believe.

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