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Wisdom from Above | James 3:13-18

As preached by Timothy O'Day.

Do you think you are wise? God leads James to help us examine our hearts to see if we are truly wise.

1. What is wisdom? An awe-struck preoccupation with God that changes the way you live.

2. What is false Wisdom? An inward preoccupation with self that changes the way you live.

3. What does wisdom produce? A life that is growing in godliness.

Wisdom from Above

James 3:13-18

The Sixth Sermon in a Series through the Book of James

The story of the birth of Christ is remarkable. But one aspect of the story comes to my mind in particularly today as we look at James 3:13-18. It is the visit of the wise men to Jesus, found in Matthew 2:1-12. These are men who came from the east saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (2:2). There are many questions that come to our minds as we read about this event, but I want to focus on one this morning: what made the wise men wise? Was it simply their knowledge or something else?

I ask this question not simply because it is Christmas but because it is a natural question to ask as we read James 3:13-18, for in our passage this morning God leads us to contemplate what wisdom is.

You can probably see how this topic of wisdom fits in well with all of the topics that God has brought to our attention through the book of James thus far. Already James has made it clear to us that what is real is what counts and not mere profession. You might claim to be hospitable, but if your hospitality is simply partiality toward those who can reward you, then you are not really loving your neighbor. You might say that you have faith, but genuine faith always blossoms and manifests itself in obedience to Jesus. You might say claim that you are capable of teaching, but if you aren’t careful with your words then you have no business seeking that influence over others. And here, in James 3:13-18, you might claim to be wise, but are you actually wise with God’s wisdom? Many people want to be wise in that they want to be revered as wise, but the desire does not make one wise. What does? That is the topic that James leads us to consider in these verses.

James is inviting us again and again to investigate whether or not our inner self aligns with our outward claim. Today, God leads us in James 3:13-18 to examine what real wisdom is and to ask ourselves, “Are we really wise?”

We are going to consider what this passage tells us by asking questions of it and then laying out the answers that we find in these verses. So let’s get started.

What is Wisdom? (13)

Wisdom is an awe-struck preoccupation with God that changes the way you live.

The passage begins in verse 13 with a question that can also be interpreted as a challenge. James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” He is asking everyone who claims to have wisdom and understanding to step forward and make themselves known. Why? Because, as he goes on to say in the next half of verse 13, he has a test for them. He says, “By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. That is to say, a claim to wisdom can be tested. Just as faith is seen in works (2:18), wisdom is seen in one’s conduct. The word “conduct” here refers to a manner of living, one’s behavior. It is the life watched over a stretch of time. It is in this manner of living that a wise person produces works that fit with the meekness—that is, humility—of wisdom. To put that differently, James is saying that wisdom produces a type of meekness that then manifests itself in acts that come to define your whole life.

Wisdom humbles you; being humble changes what you do; what you do shapes your manner of overall living.

Verse 13 is telling us, then, that the test of wisdom is not in what you know or what you can explain. The test of wisdom is in how you live. You can say wisdom and live wisdom, but if you merely say wisdom and do not live it, then you are not wise.

Why Does Wisdom Make Us Meek?

But all of this should lead us to ask the question, “Why does wisdom make us meek?” The answer to that, I think, is found in examining how wisdom is described elsewhere in the Bible. You have probably heard Proverbs 1:7 before, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” We could add to this Proverbs 2:6, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” We could also look at Proverbs 9:10 which reads, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

These verses, and many others like them, show us that knowledge, understanding, and wisdom not only come from God but come in a certain way: through fearing the LORD.

What is fearing the Lord? Much could be said in answer to this question, but for now let’s explain it like this: Fearing the Lord is seeing and being preoccupied by his magnificence. When you come to taste and see his glory, then everything else changes for you. When you are preoccupied with his glory, then you view everything else around you differently. [Share my Yellowstone cliff experience] If you have ever been up on a cliff and able to view a vast expanse than you might have an idea of what I mean. On the cliff you get a different view. You can see further than you are able to usually see, and in such seeing you might even get a little dizzy because it seems like too much to take in.

Similarly, when we taste and see that the Lord is good and how he is good, there is something overwhelming about this for us. We see his glory and inevitably feel our smallness. Yet, this smallness becomes a pleasure because we are before his fullness.

Such fear is the beginning of wisdom because in knowing God we know ourselves. And how could one help but be humble—meek—in experiencing God?

Wisdom, then, is a preoccupation with God that changes the way you live. How could it not?

The point of verse 13, then, is that wisdom has ramifications for how we live and the reason it has ramifications for how we live is because it comes from fearing God. We pay attention to what we fear, what we admire, and what we desire. Our lives cannot help but be conformed to what has our attention and our regular gaze.

What is false Wisdom? (14-16)

False wisdom is an inward preoccupation with self that changes the way you live.

James moves on from stating what the test of wisdom is in verse 13 to giving a warning that begins in verse 14 and carries through with explaining of the warning in verses 15-16. What is laid out for us in these verses are the characteristics, sources, and results of false wisdom. Let’s look at each in turn.

The Characteristics of False Wisdom

The characteristics of false wisdom are laid out in verse 14. What he is saying in verse 14 is that if you have—that is possess and harbor—bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in you hearts, then do not boast of having wisdom because that is false to what is true.

While jealousy is not always a negative characteristic—there are right forms of jealousy—that this is negative is made clear by the fact that it is modified with the word “bitter.” Bitter jealousy can be summed up as envy. It is a desire to have what is not ours. The reason it is “bitter” is because when we do not have what we think we should have, then we grow bitter toward those who have it. You can be bitter toward someone when they get the promotion that you think you deserve, or toward the person who has the easy marriage that you deserve, or the person that has the respect that you deserve, the attention you deserve, the well behaved children that you deserve.

Along with bitter jealousy, we see selfish ambition. Again, ambition on its own is not wrong, but here it is paired with the word “selfish,” showing us that it is sinful ambition. Selfish ambition is, simply put, a desire to assert your own priorities and interests over against others.

These characteristics, as it says in verse 14, are in our “hearts.” No one else may see these things, which is why it is important that you take time to examine your heart.

The Sources of False Wisdom

Verse 15 lays out the sources of false wisdom by saying that the claimed wisdom of verse 14 is not from above because it doesn’t find its origin in God and the fear of God. Rather, its source is stated as earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. What do these three sources refer to?

First, earthly refers to the world in rebellion against God. If you harbor bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, it is because you are looking to the world for examples of how to practice wisdom. You can be shrewd and get what you want in this world. You can talk a good game and trick people into thinking you are wise, but God wants you to know that he knows your heart and he knows that you are not wise.

Second, unspiritual refers to the opposite of your spirit, the flesh. Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition are rooted in a desire to satisfy your desires in the here and now. It is not living in light of who God is and what he is doing with you. It is merely trying to accomplish what you think will satisfy your desires without checking your desires against what God is wanting to do in you and for you in Jesus Christ.

Third, demonic refers to how demons act. Satan and his demons live with disregard and anger toward the glory of God. When we do the same, we are not living as unique individuals. We are imitating devils. Just like lying, gossip, and slander are taking the torches of our tongues and lighting them on the fires of hell and spreading about those flames, so acting in bitter jealousy and selfish ambition is imitating and spreading rebellion against God. This kind of thinking, this kind of wisdom, isn’t original with you. Do you realize who you imitate?

The Results of False Wisdom

Verse 16 spells out why false wisdom is such a serious issue. The fruit of false wisdom is destructive to the church. James spells out two results of false wisdom that is characterized by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.

First, it results in disorder in the church. When false wisdom is rampant in a church, there will be instability. Selfish ambition means that people will be fighting for power. Bitter jealousy means that there will be backbiting and no peace and rest. Small issues turn into big fights. This is inevitable when people are consumed with their own interests.

Second, it results in every vile practice. Do you notice how broad this is? Every vile practice. When you have people in the church consumed with being known as wise but are really just jealous and selfishly ambitions, the you will end up seeing every kind of vile practice in the church. Doesn’t that sound outrages at first? But brothers and sisters, you read about such things@ We have heard about such things@ You hear stories of pastors who are in the ministry for years committing sexual abuse. You read about servants in the church who embezzle money. Perhaps you have even been a part of Bible studies and prayer groups which are really slander and gossip sessions.

How can these thing happen? They happen when we call ourselves wise and seek to be known as wise but are living by the rules of the world, seeking to gratify the flesh, and (knowingly or not) omitting the demonic.

Putting All of This Together

What is false wisdom? It is a preoccupation with the applause of the world, the gratification of our immediate passions and desires, and the ways of the devil. And this wisdom devastates the church. Brothers, we cannot claim to be wise when we are seeking the applause of people first and foremost, have a desire first and foremost for our own pleasures, and imitate the demonic.

What Should We Do?

Do you have bitter jealously? Do you have selfish ambition? Do not claim to be wise while you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. You can say the right things, but that isn’t wisdom. Wisdom is a life and you will not have that life as long as you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. What do you need to do? Confess this bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. Wisdom comes by laying aside what you think you need and instead is found in looking to God to understand what you need and to find it. In short, we are jealous when we confuse our desires for our needs and our just rewards (what we deserve). What we need is to look at God and see that, as sinners, we deserve death and hell. What we need more than anything else is forgiveness. In Jesus Christ we have it. In Christ, you will not get what you deserve. You will get forgiveness, new life, and wisdom planted in your heart that will grow into the life you live.

What Does Wisdom Produce? A life that is growing in godliness (17-18)

True wisdom is from above (verse 15), which means it has its origin from God. So it is no surprise that it produces godly conduct. This godly conduct is described as resulting in four things in verses 17-18.

First, it results in being at peace with others. Specifically, it results in purity that leads to peace, gentleness and reasonableness. Look at verse 17. There we read that the the wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason… Wisdom from above brings first purity that then leads to peaceableness, gentleness, and reasonableness. That is to say, wisdom turns our hearts further away from wickedness and toward God. Proverbs 8:13 says, “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.” When we turn from sin and trust in Christ, we are saying, “Lord, I believe you when you say that this sin is evil, so I am turning from it.” Growing in wisdom is saying, “Lord, I am started to feel that this sin is evil, so I want you to help me be done with it all the more!” Wisdom further matures us in purity by loving peace, meaning that we do not pick fights but fight to be at peace with each other. One way you do that is by practicing gentleness, meaning that you do not bring to bear all of your power on a person or a situation. You instead consider what is appropriate. This will then manifest itself in reasonableness, meaning that you are willing to yield and not domineer people when you disagree on areas that are core theological issues. You person growing in wisdom doesn’t throw a fit when someone disagrees or insults them. He does not make demands saying, “I’m older than you so you should listen to me,” or “I know what I am talking about here so you should listen to me,” or “that person shouldn’t have done that and I am going to make sure he knows his place.”

Second, it results in being full of mercy and love. The characteristics of “mercy” and “good fruits” are proceeded by the description, “full of.” In James 2:8-13, we saw that love and mercy overlap. In that passage we see that mercy is love for your neighbor that is shown through the way you treat them. And our good works are just an expression of our love for God and others. The person who is growing in wisdom is finding himself increasingly full of mercy and good fruits. He does not say, “I’ve done enough for him,” or, “I have forgiven him but I don’t want anything to do with him.” Rather, he finds himself full of mercy because he is preoccupied with the mercy of God shown to him. Since God gives to him mercy that never runs dry, he is full of mercy.

Third, it results in our counseling one another.This is the idea behind the characteristics of impartiality and sincerity. The one growing in wisdom does not make distinctions and show favoritism, so you know you can trust his counsel. He is genuine and transparent with you, so you want to trust his counsel. He does not give you advice that he himself does not keep.

Fourth, it results in making us peacemakers. Not only are we at peace with one another as we grow in wisdom, but we can actually become peacemakers within our church. That is what is meant by verse 18. Those who have wisdom from above make the good of their church their concern. Those who are growing in wisdom are pure, peaceable, gentle, and open to reason, which makes them prime candidates for helping others settle disputes. And as peacemakers make peace, righteousness is sown in the church, which means that seeds for righteous works—meaning works that please the Lord—are sown by peacemakers in the church. When you are able to enter into a dispute and help someone see his need to ask for forgiveness or to help someone see her need to extend forgiveness, how do you think God views that? He loves it! It is so pleasing to him.

Wisdom is Imitating Christ by Beholding Christ

As you practice and grow in these qualities, do you see whom you are imitating? Not the demonic or the patterns of this world. You are imitating Christ. Consider Matthew 11:28-29

“Come to me, all who labor 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 wise end up imitating Christ in that they are gentle, offering rest to the weary.

Or consider Philippians 2:6-8, saying of Jesus

“Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Or consider Mark 10:45 where Jesus says,

“For even the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As we consider these realities, we see that wisdom is imitating Christ, who is the wisdom of God embodied (cf 1 Corinthians 1:24).

What Does It Mean to be Wise?

Let’s return to our opening question, “what made the wise men wise?” It wasn’t merely what they knew but what they did: they came to worship the Messiah, the Son of God who assumed human flesh in order to live, obey, and die as a man so that all who trust in him would be spared from the death that they deserve for sin. They were wise because they set their gaze upon Jesus and oriented their lives around him.

How Do We Live Wisely?

First, wisdom comes from above, and we know it when we look at Jesus Christ. He is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. He came to make peace by the blood of his cross so that we would be counted as righteous and so that we would grow in righteousness. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep but have now returned to the shepherd and overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:27-28). Wisdom comes by looking to Christ and seeing God, as it is written in John 1:18, “no one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Do you want to know God? Do you want to know yourself? Then look to Christ and receive him as your Lord and Savior.

Second, Jesus is our Savior and he is our teacher. “Come to me, all who labor 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.” Our rest comes not only from trusting in Christ and finding in him alone forgiveness for sin. We rest all the more as we become like him by learning from him. Bitter jealously and selfish ambition never lead to rest. That makes you weary! Obedience, conforming to the likeness of Christ, that is rest. Doing the hard work of making peace, that is rest. Enter into it all the more today. Do you have bitter jealousy? Confess it. Do you have selfish ambition? Renounce it! Burn the bridges and seek to be satisfied in serving in the ways that you can now. Look to Christ for your worth and not what mean think of you


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