Who is Wise and Understanding Among You?

Sermon preached on James 3:13-18 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/11/2021 in Novato, CA

Sermon Manuscript

The book of James is often described as New Testament wisdom literature. This is seen with its emphasis on the importance of wisdom. It is also seen in how it deals with various practical topics that the Old Testament wisdom literature also deals with, like last time with the tongue. Here then we come to a passage that speaks a lot about wisdom directly. Our pew Bibles even give it the heading “Wisdom from Above”. That being said, a closer examination will see that this passage is not so much about wisdom per se, but about wisdom as it relates to peacemaking and the folly of the opposite of peacemaking. Yet, this is also typical to wisdom literature – to see the far-reaching moral and spiritual implications of godly wisdom. That is what this passage is doing. While talking so much about wisdom, it is not giving us a wholistic definition of wisdom. It is rather delving into one specific fruit of wisdom at it relates to how a Christian might interact with others, especially in temptation to conflict and quarreling with others. So then, our actual topic for today will focus on these aspects of biblical conflict resolution and peacemaking, but we will do it in the context of wisdom as James would have us to do.

Notice how he starts off getting us to think this way. He starts with a question. Who is wise and understanding among you? That’s a call to self-examination. The Bible holds out this emphasis on the tremendous importance of wisdom. Wisdom is painted as something more than just one commendable character trait among many. Wisdom is so often described as something that characterizes the whole of someone, like in the book of Proverbs the contrasting labels of the wise versus the fool are repeatedly used. So then, here James asks for some self-evaluation. Do you think yourself wise? Notice then what he calls us to do if we think we are so wise. He calls us to show ours wisdom by our conduct. In case you missed this, this is very similar to what he did back in chapter 2:14 with faith. He called us to examine our claim to faith by seeing if we are showing that we have a true faith by how we conduct ourselves. So, James is doing something very similar here now with wisdom. Do you fancy yourself wise? Well, then there should be certain fruit that comes from that wisdom. Here, he doesn’t go into all the fruit that will come from wisdom. He focuses on the fruit as it relates to promoting peace between people.

By the way, it seems clear that he is focusing on such peacemaking because the people he is writing to are struggling with conflicts and quarrelling. He’s touched briefly on that back in chapter 1. He’s hinted to it earlier in this chapter when he spoke about the tongue. Next passage he will directly speak against such quarreling. So he is addressing this teaching on peace between people because it was a real problem they were having. And this is not an unknown problem today either. May the Lord bless our reflection on it today and find the wisdom from above to implement its counsel.

Let us then in our first point about such wise peacemaking consider the wisdom of meekness versus its alternative. This is in verses 13 and 14. There we find the meekness of wisdom being commended to us if we think we are wise. This is saying that it is wise to be meek. It is saying that this is something the true wisdom brings out in our lives, meekness. If we are wise, we would be meek. Being meek is one of the way wisdom promotes peace in a relationship and seeks to dispel conflict.

What does it mean to be meek? It is to be gentle and mild of character. It is an expression of humility. Some have foolishly disdained meekness thinking incorrectly that it is weakness. But Jesus described himself as meek in Matthew 11:29, and surely Jesus was not weak. Rather those who are mature in wisdom recognize that meekness is not only right in keeping with humility, but will serve you well in your relationships with others.

Meekness gives a gentle answer to turn away wrath. Meekness loves someone who shows them hate, feeds a hungry enemy, goes a second mile with someone who forces them to go one, and turns the other cheek. Meekness shows honors to others, even opponents. Meekness is kind and charitable, not arrogant or rude, not rashly demanding, but quick to look to other’s interests and put other’s interests ahead of their own. Meekness is a wise ally when it comes to dealing with our tricky human relationships.

In contrast, James compares meekness with the bitter jealousy and selfish ambition mentioned in verse 4. Jealousy, in itself, is not inherently wrong. Righteous jealousy, by definition, is when you are looking to protect what rightly belongs to you. But it becomes sinful when we demand rights for ourselves that aren’t actually ours to demand. And when we keep angrily demanding those things in bitterness, then we are doing something opposite meekness. Likewise, the Greek word here for selfish ambition refers to a resentfulness that develops in your rivalry or jealousy. It is an idea very similar to the wording of bitter jealousy. Both are getting at this idea of how you are wrongly responding when there is something you want and can’t have or think you deserve but aren’t getting. It results in a bitterness and strife that shows how self-centered and prideful you are. These qualities are so opposite to meekness. And these qualities are so much going to stir up conflict and work against peace in the relationship.

So, James points out that people might think themselves wise but yet be having these destructive qualities coming out and poisoning their relationships with others. To that, James is basically saying in verse 14 don’t boast of your supposed wisdom because it’s actually not true. You aren’t wise if you are acting like that. You see, in these verses when he speaks of the meekness of wisdom, the wisdom is contrasted in verse 14 with the boasting of what is false to the truth. In other words, he’s saying that the person who thinks themselves wise but are living in such angry selfishness and self-centeredness, they aren’t actually wise but a fool. Isn’t this how Proverbs describes the fool – someone who not only doesn’t recognize they are a fool but they foolishly boast about how wise they think they are. James here would challenge any who are falling into that trap to awaken in humility to the truth, and in so doing find true wisdom.

That leads us then next consider true versus false wisdom. James speaks of this in terms of wisdom from above and wisdom that is not from above. What I will do is have us first consider this wisdom that is not from above in our second point. Then in our last point for today, we’ll consider wisdom from above. So then, let’s consider this wisdom not from above. That’s in verses 15 and 16. James begins by describing the character of this wisdom that is not from above. He uses three descriptors. First, he calls such wisdom “earthly”. That is to say that it is not heavenly. It doesn’t come from the exalted heavenly places where God is enthroned, and thus doesn’t come from God. It comes from down here on earth. We can think of how many humans try to think themselves wise in peddling manmade wisdom. Like how Colossians 2:23 speaks of how some human ideas have an appearance of wisdom, when they aren’t. Such is this earthly wisdom.

Second, James calls such supposed wisdom “unspiritual”. That is a rather interesting translation because the word in the Greek is more literally translated “physical” or “natural”. Yes, that would be unspiritual, and that would be I how would go on to describe it. But the word is literally about describing this carnal quality to it. In fact, such wisdom that is concerned about someone’s self-centered demands indeed has a very carnal component to it. In a conflict, to harshly demand people satisfy your desires and wishes typically has some sort of physical or material concern in focus. It is not the concern of godliness or righteousness or piety. In other words, such wisdom not from above is not concerned with spiritual matters.

Then third, James calls such supposed wisdom “demonic”. He doesn’t hold back with that description. If someone thinks they are wise but go around selfishly quarreling and angrily demanding things that aren’t theirs to demand, James says that comes from the devil. He says this so-called wisdom is really part of the scheme of the devil to destroy and tear down. As verse 16 says, that when there is not biblical peacemaking going on, but instead this sinful jealousy and evil demanding is happening, then it will result in all sorts of other vile practices too. And when that happens, we can recognize that was indeed the wisdom and strategy of the devil to tear apart and destroy relationships. How especially sad when that happens among Christians, that we should be so foolish to fall into such wisdom from Satan and believe his lies and end up ruining relationships.

But in contrast to all this earthly, carnal, and demonic so-called wisdom, we turn now in our third point to this wisdom which is from above. How sweet it is that God holds out to his people such wisdom from above. How joyous that the Lord calls us to pray and ask for such wisdom, wisdom that can bear the fruit seen here and wisdom of the qualities describe here. Look with me at this left of qualities of such heavenly, spiritual, and godly wisdom. We see this list of qualities in verse 17. Let’s walk through them.

First, he describes this wisdom in the most general way as “pure”. This is a word or purity, even chastity, and innocence. It is similar to holiness. It is good and right and in keeping with godliness. We can drink of such pure wisdom from our merciful God who freely offers it to us.

Second, James describes the attitude of this wisdom with the attributes of peaceable, gentle, and open to reason. Peaceable wisdom is wisdom that loves peace, wants peace, seeks peace, and does what makes for peace. Gentle wisdom is very similar to the meekness mentioned before. This gentle wisdom is forbearing and considerate of others. It thinks of the other person’s position and their concerns and tries to accommodate itself to the other person as it can. Wisdom that is open to reason is one that is willing to have a conversation with the person. They actually listen to the other side. They are willing to compromise or give in to others. They don’t always have to have their own way. Realize that these attitudes will help keep a conflict from forming in the first place. And if you are in a conflict these attitudes will help you to resolve the conflict. Wisdom says pursue peace. Wisdom says be gentle. Wisdom says be open to reason and maybe even to give in, depending on the circumstances.

Next, James describes the kinds of actions that such wisdom from above produces. He says that it is full of mercy and that it is full of good fruits. To be full of these two things means that one is doing those two things. Wisdom is regularly showing mercy and doing merciful things toward others. Wisdom is regularly bringing good deeds into a relationship, regularly doing good things toward others. Again, think of how this will either prevent a conflict or help one get resolved. If instead of trying to demand what you can get from someone, you are instead looking to bless the other person, they will likely appreciate that and aren’t likely to be upset with you or to harbor anger against you. Instead of giving into the relationship instead of demanding from the relationship, you will surely promote peace and harmony in it. James says this is wise!

Next James describes the kind of judgments that wisdom from above makes. He says such wisdom is impartial and sincere. Impartial refers to be being without prejudice or favoritism. We should immediately remember back to last chapter where James exhorted against sinful partiality that, for example, disgraced poor people. People usually will be able to tell when you are sinfully discriminating against them or showing prejudice against them and it will stoke conflict not prevent it. As for wisdom that is sincere, the word is literally the word for “without hypocrisy”. Such a person is genuine and true to their word when interacting with others. We can imagine how conflict will otherwise arise when someone is two-faced, saying one thing in front of the other person, and then doing or saying another thing behind their back. So then, being without prejudice and without hypocrisy is not only the righteous thing to do in a relationship, it is also the wise thing to do.

So then, we’ve seen James describe this wonderful wisdom from above. It is clear that such wisdom is put in terms of how to promote peace and wellbeing in our relationships with others. As Christians, we are called to seek such wisdom of peace. He told us to pray for it in chapter 1. Here James commends such wisdom to us. And the wonderful news is that our God is eager to give us such wisdom from above. That is clear when we remember that God has already sent down the greatest expression of wisdom from above when we think of Jesus’s first coming. Under the Old Testament, if we thought about receiving wisdom from above, we might have thought of how the wise King Solomon received such. But Jesus said in Matthew 12:42, that now something greater than the wisdom of Solomon had come. He was speaking of himself. Jesus Christ is wisdom from above sent by God!

And what did that wisdom tell us? Among many things, he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Our God is a peacemaker. That is why God even sent his Son to this world, to make peace with his elect to save them from their sins and to reconcile them to himself. And so when God sent Jesus he not only promoted peace but through such wisdom from above he healed these broken relationships that existed between him and his people.

That then is what we are called to pursue as well. In doing so, we show ourselves to be sons of God, as Jesus said, because that is what God does. We thank God that not only have we been told to pray for such peacemaking wisdom from above, but we find it in Jesus Christ the ultimate expression of such wisdom from above. And that is why Jesus even now pours our his Spirit upon us his people. So we can be grown in such heavenly, spiritual, divine wisdom. And what a joy as it produces peace in our midst.

In conclusion then, I point us to the final verse that summarizes this all so well. There, James speaks of a harvest of righteousness that is sown in peace by those who make peace. He’s using agricultural metaphor there. He’s saying that if you want to “grow” righteousness it needs a “soil” of peace. Righteousness can grow and thrive in an environment of peace. It will be stifled in an environment of conflict and quarreling. May we know the wisdom of God that promotes peace. And may that peace promote righteousness. And in all this, may we recognize God’s sanctifying work in our lives and in the church.

I think of various applications this can bring to us. Sometimes certain reformed presbyterians have sadly earned for themselves a reputation of being contentious and quarrelsome when it comes to doctrine. May we not lose our zeal for sound doctrine. But let us also hold our convictions and promote them with meekness. Because we’ve been reminded that Satan’s wisdom would otherwise like to use our zeal against us by sowing conflict and division in the body of Christ.

Likewise, I think of all the differing convictions among Christians when it comes to COVID-19, and the public health orders, and the church’s response, and now the vaccines. Christians have held differing views in good conscience on these matters. Some churches have been greatly torn apart in conflict over these things. Surely, this has been a strategy of Satan. Our officers here at Trinity have been so thankful for the ways our church members have sought to bear with one another graciously on people’s differing convictions. But let us take heed lest we fall, because we know Satan would yet seek to sow suspicions and judgments and breed conflicts among us. Let us be renewed today in the meekness and peacemaking of wisdom from above. If someone holds a different view than yourself, let us not impugn their motives or make sinful judgments against them. If wisdom gives you an opportunity to talk about your convictions with someone who differs from you, do some in kindness and love and gentleness. Let us be meek peacemakers as sons of God.

In such peacemaking, we are walking in step with the Spirit of God and his wisdom in seeking a glorious harvest of righteousness. One day Christ Jesus will return to reap that harvest in the full. Let us look to be peacemakers by his grace until that great and final day of harvest! Amen.

Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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