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James (2011)

Wisdom and the Law

James 3:13 - 4:12

Lesson audio

Wisdom Described

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

(James 3:13-18 NASB)

Wisdom Personified

It comes as a surprise to many readers of the Scriptures that wisdom, as a concept, is described as a person. In particular, she is described as being female. We see her as having specific functions, such as:

·         (Proverbs 1) — being female implies that she is both subordinate to God (who is always described as male) and that she is a created person. Her function is shown to be speaking to the naïve, the scoffer and the fool. In a very personal reaction, she laughs at those who do not accept her.

·         (Proverbs 2) — she is to be sought as if she were silver. Those who seek your find that she brings discernment from the fear of the Lord.

·         (Proverbs 3) — she brings blessings: long life and peace. In this chapter it is also stated that the Lord founded the earth "by wisdom." So there is something intrinsically bound up in the universe with wisdom.

·         (Proverbs 8) — by her kings reign; rulers decree justice. She is said to be the first of God's works.[1] She is portrayed as being a master workman, rejoicing with God at the creation. What this says about the creation, I leave to the reader.

·         (Proverbs 9) — perhaps this chapter will give a somewhat of a clue about wisdom. Here she is said to have carved out her house with the seven pillars. The significance of seven pillars is not particularly obvious to this particular teacher. But it made a great title for Lawrence of Arabia. Perhaps it may be said that like the church wisdom is subordinate to but greatly desires her Lord.

Wisdom Shown or Lacking

There is a difference between being wise and being smart. How do you know when you genuinely have wisdom, rather than just learning or native intelligence? One way to find this out is to look for good behavior and gentleness. The gentle spirit, behaving well, is a sign of wisdom.

What happens when you don't have that? Why is wisdom lacking in so many?

·         It is caused by jealousy and selfish ambition — in short, "me first."

·         You see it — in yourself or in someone else — by arrogance and by lies. Lies may even if there be those that are spoken, or those that are lived.

·         James describes this as being earthly. That is to say, being under the control of this world ruler, Satan. If your view of life is that everything must be done in this world, and the next world is of no importance, you can be sure that your attitude is earthly.

·         Sometimes this spreads to a group of Christians, even to an entire church congregation. You see this by the disorder in that congregation, and the evil nature of its members.

Nature of Heavenly Wisdom

So, just what does the opposite wisdom look like? James gives us a pretty good description here:

·         First, it is pure. The wise man has no hidden agenda; what you see is what you get. It works for computers, and amazingly enough it works for human beings too.

·         As you might recall from our last lesson, it is peaceable, gentle and reasonable. Just the kind of person you like to get along with.

·         Life for the wise is not an untroubled paradise. They're going to need to be full of mercy, as they will encounter sin quite frequently. It's great to be merciful, but do understand that mercy comes from the position of one who has been sinned against. This merciful attitude should also show up in the fruit of your life.

·         Of course, this means the wise are prohibited from engaging in hypocrisy; they must be unwavering for the truth.

·         They are to be a righteous sort of folk — as shown in their peace. As we shall see later, righteousness does not thump on the Bible. Righteousness is best propagated in peace; those who spread righteousness must therefore do it in peace.

Quarrels and Humility

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: "He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us"? But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, "GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE." Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

(James 4:1-10 NASB)

James now takes up the subject of why we have quarrels and conflicts. He identifies this as due to our pleasures making war. If you think about it, this makes sense. Often enough your desire for something conflicts with the desire for something else. If you've ever had to care for small children, you know that what they want varies by the minute. Some adults never grow past this, and therefore are constantly at war with themselves as to just exactly what it is they want this very minute. If they think they're good Christians, they will go to God in prayer about it.

That, of course, brings up the question of, "why doesn't God answer my prayers?" Well there are two possible answers to this:

·         One reason is that you simply don't ask. The main reason that you don't ask is of course that you are ashamed to ask. All you had to do is take a look at your prayers and you realize you're asking for something you should be asking for. Did you honestly think that God is going to break up someone else's marriage so you can marry the residue?

·         Some of us get past that. We do ask. We should be ashamed of ourselves for asking, because our motives are clearly not pure. What this says about her sense of shame is something we don't want publicized.

Friendship with the World

There is a fundamental decision each Christian must make: which side are you really on? If you think that this world is the complete answer, you are neglecting the kingdom of Christ. May I suggest to you that you consider the following items?

·         Consider first the lilies of the field. Do you honestly think God is not capable of providing your needs?

·         Perhaps even more stridently, Christ consistently offers us the option of saving our lives or losing them. Apparently, the decision to live the Christian life is more important than being a life-and-death decision. We can't do it half way.

·         Which brings up the question: just how much good doesn't do for one of us to focus on this world and its goods? Is it really smart to throw away your eternal life just so you can have a better, more financially profitable life in this world?

·         It would be very convenient if that question popped up in your mind as a yes no, black and white decision. It doesn't. It comes up gradually, as the worries and desires of this world choke out the spiritual life. This is what we need to be aware of.

Ultimately, there is a judgment to come. You will stand before the Lord God Almighty and give an account concerning all the things he gave you and what you did with them. I am merely suggesting that you had best have a pretty good answer for that occasion.

Draw near to God

It's a simple paradigm: the closer you are to God, the further you are away from the world. So if you're going to be successful at this, you need to know how to draw near to God. One of the keys to any successful personal relationship is having a clear understanding of who the other person is. That clear understanding is called, "humility." If you know who he is, then you will know that he tolerates no sin in his presence. For that he has provided repentance as a route back home. Even at the lowest levels — such as the Pharisee and the tax collector — it is still true that if you humble yourself, he will lift you up. He modeled that for us as servant leadership.

Judge the Law

Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

(James 4:11-12 NASB)

The Dilemma

There is a definite dilemma in the question of judgment. It is simply this: if you see evil, should you speak out against it — and run the risk of being considered judgmental? Or should you say, "judge not" and be quiet? To understand the correct answer (which is rather subtle) we need to look at one thing first. It is the context in which this remark is made. James is speaking to the Jews, in particular those Jews who have decided that they are learned enough to teach the Gentile Christians what to do.

Notice something please: what James is doing is correcting an abuse. Let me give you an example. Suppose you're trying to teach someone how to drive, and your teaching method consists entirely of sentences that start with the word, "don't." As in, don't hit that pedestrian, don't drive on the wrong side of the road, don't do 190 miles an hour down the freeway, etc. All of those things are good things in the way of prohibitions, but no collection of them can be said to be training in how to drive a car. It's easy to correct an abuse; you identify it and prohibit it. It's hard to train someone in the right way.

That's why the early church very often held that this particular passage applying to slander. Calvin was of the same opinion. That means of which were dealing with was something that was at least partly false. It also meant you were dealing with one of the great sense of Satan: accusation. Satan is our accuser before God; therefore we are taught not to accuse our brethren. It seems the job is already occupied. Since this deals with Satan, it involves the sin of pride — through which he fell. I leave this to the reader as a possible interpretation — but with a little more to say.


Let's review the warnings that we are given with regard to judgment:

·         First, whatever standards we use for judgment will be used on us.[2]

·         We must beware of judgment is a form of hypocrisy.[3]

·         The weaker brother problem — as explained in Romans 14. In particular, I would draw your attention to the 13th verse. We are told not to the stumbling block in front of our brothers because of our judgmental attitude. Recall that we are dealing with the weaker brother, the one with a more complex set of rules and regulations. This is an extraordinary leap away from judgment.

·         Finally, there is the matter of waiting for the Lord to judge.[4] It is very presumptuous for us to judge, when we know the Lord will do so likewise.

As you can see, we have a fairly significant set of limitations on our own judgment.

What Should We Do

It is also very clear that we are not to remain idle and do nothing in such a situation. In particular, I would draw your attention to three particular instructions which relate to this problem of judgment:

·         First, we still have an active role to play in our brothers sins. As James will tell us in the next chapter,[5] we are to take an active part in covering the sins of our brothers. Our purpose is to restore them to fellowship with God, not to condemn them. It's all the difference between taking the sick to the hospital, and shooting a lame horse.

·         In so doing, we are to speak to our brother in all kindness and gentleness — remembering that we are sinners too.[6]

·         And at all times we must avoid the trap of being those who hear the law and reason upon it, but don't do anything about it. We are to be doers of the law if we are to help at all.[7]

I must tell you that this is rather difficult. One of the things that has been most cheering to me is the concept of waiting for the Lord to judge. I am one of those people who likes to fix things — to get things straightened out. It is comforting to hear that there are things I cannot fix and cannot straighten out in the church, and so therefore God will take care of it. In the meanwhile, walk the talk.

[1] The word processed in verse 22 can also be translated created.

[2] Matthew 7:1-2

[3] Romans 2:1-4

[4] 1st Corinthians 4:1-5

[5] James 5:19-20

[6] Ephesians 4:31 – 32

[7] Romans 2:12-13

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