James 3:13-16


Bible Study Notes
Wisdom and Understanding
James 3:13-16


The following text is taken from a sermon preached by Gil Rugh, Senior Pastor at Indian Hills Community Church in Lincoln, NE. The text has been edited and condensed by IHCC staff for use as a Bible Study aid.

Intro. - James' concern in this letter is to stress the importance of manifesting our faith in Jesus Christ through the way we live. A living faith changes the life and produces good works (cf. 2:17). We must be concerned with obeying the Word of God, not just hearing it (cf. 1:22).

A major area of concern expressed by James is the use of the tongue. This is because our words reveal our character (cf. Matt, 12:33-37). James touched on this in 1:19,26, but gives it full consideration in chapter 3.

In chapter 3 James shows the tremendous power and potential of the tongue and draws attention to the fact that our words reveal our character (3:11,12).

In this same vein James moves on to a discussion of the matter of wisdom. Some connect this directly to what he said regarding teachers in 3:1, as though he were now telling teachers how to teach with wisdom. While teachers are certainly included in what is said here, there seems to be no reason to limit the discussion to them.

Consistent with his emphasis in this letter, James shows that the real test of true, godly wisdom lies in a person's conduct. After an opening exhortation (3:13), he demonstrates the sharp contrast which exists between earthly wisdom (3:14-16) and heavenly wisdom (3:17,18).

The first nine chapters of Proverbs form the background for what James has to say in this section. A careful reading of these chapters will give a much clearer understanding and appreciation of James' teaching concerning wisdom and understanding.

3:13 -
The opening question challenges the reader to consider carefully whether he is what he claims to be; that is, wise and understanding. James does not say he is not, but encourages the reader to examine himself and consider whether he is.

"Wise" (sophos) The idea behind this word seems to be the ability to apply knowledge to the life. For the Jews, wisdom involved the ability to perceive the proper conduct necessary in light of the knowledge one possessed. James referred to this need of wisdom in 1:5.

"Understanding" (epistemon) This word is basically synonymous with wisdom. If there is any difference to be drawn, it may be that there is more of a stress on the intellectual element in this word.

True wisdom and understanding begin with a proper relationship with God (Prov. 9:10). It is God who gives true wisdom and understanding to those who trust Him (Prov. 2:6). There is great blessing for the person who has wisdom and understanding from God (Prov. 3:13).

"Let him show" (deiknumi) - Wisdom and understanding are to be demonstrated or manifested in the life. This is the proof of true wisdom.

"Good behavior" (kalos anastrophes) - Neither words nor intellectual prowess are the true tests of wisdom; rather it is our manner of life. Our conduct is to be characterized as good ("excellent," "noble," "beautiful" cf. 1 Pet. 2:12; 3:16).

The true demonstration of wisdom is our deeds (ergon) - our works. In effect James says, "Show your wisdom by your works." However, this true wisdom is not. characterized by arrogance and pride, but by humility.

"Gentleness" (prautes) - "Gentleness" is a good translation of this word which is often translated "meekness" or "humility." We should not associate it with weakness or passive resignation. It is the opposite of arrogant self-assertion and is sometimes characterized as "strength under control." It is demonstrated by a patient submissiveness even when wronged.

It is with this attitude that James exhorts us to receive the Word in 1:21. This is a characteristic of Christ Himself (Matt. 11:29), and is clearly exemplified in the way that He responded to abuse (cf. 1 Pet. 2:21-23).

It is produced in the life of the believer by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 8:23), and is to characterize us in all we do (cf. Eph. 4:2; 2 Tim. 2:25; Titus 3:2; 1 Pet. 3:15).

3:14 -
James now turns to consider the situation when one does not have "gentleness of wisdom."

"Bitter jealousy" (zelon pikron) - Some would translate this "harsh zeal." The idea is that of a bitter determination to have one's own way.

Selfish ambition" (eritheian) - This is a self-seeking attitude that has as its goal that of gaining advantage and prestige for oneself or one's group (Rom. 2:8; 2 Cor.12:20 [disputes]; Gal. 5:20 [disputes]; Phil. 1:17, 2:3).

"In your heart" - This is where the problem is really centered. Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition come from a heart that is centered on self.

"Arrogant" (katakauchasthe) - means to boast against or glory over something. When they boasted of their wisdom against others they were lying against the truth.

"The truth" is a reference to the Word of God (cf. 1:18; 5:19).

3:15 -
James has already made clear that true wisdom comes from God (1:5,17). However, wisdom that lacks gentleness and is characterized by jealousy, selfishness and boasting is not from God. James identifies it in 3 ways:

"Earthly" (epigeios) - It is tied to this earth and the things associated with it. Paul contrasted the "wisdom of the world" (1 Cor. 1:20,21; 2:5,6) with the "wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24; 2:7).

"Natural" (psuchike) - This adjective is used five times in the New Testament, always in reference to that which is in opposition to the spiritual (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14; 15:44 [two times]; Jude 1:19). It is man apart from the work of God.

"Demonic" (daimoniodes) - This wisdom is demonic in character; that is, it is the kind of wisdom demons have and is produced by them. James has referred to the influence of demons in 3:6 (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1).

These closely parallel the three problem areas for the believer:

  • The World - Earthly
  • The Flesh - Natural
  • The Devil - Demonic

3:16 -
A heart filled with jealousy and ambition produces problems of many kinds.

"Disorder" (akatastasia) - This word means "disorder," "disturbance," "trouble," "instability." The self-centeredness of the person apart from God produces all kinds of turmoil and confusion. The adjective form of this noun was used in 1:8 and 3:8.

"Every evil thing" - Things which are worthless, bad, evil, and base (phaulon) are produced by this wisdom.

Instead of bringing people together, it drives them apart. Instead of producing peace, it produces strife. Instead of producing a fellowship, it produces a disruption in personal relationship. . . . It is a sobering thing to remember that the wisdom that that man possesses is devilish rather than divine, and that such a man is engaged on Satan's work and not on God's work" (Barclay).

True wisdom begins with, and centers in, God and His Son Jesus Christ: "Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24).

If your wisdom centers on yourself and your selfish ambitions, you need to believe in the Savior who loved you and died for you.

If you profess to know Him, then these characteristics have no place in your life. By your willing submission to the Spirit of God, the beauty of His character will be produced in your life.

Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977. All quotations used by permission.

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Permission was received from Indian Hills Community Church for the posting of this file on Bible Bulletin Board. Our gratitude to the Holy Spirit for leading Pastor Gil Rugh to preach/teach messages that are bold, and doctrinally sound—they are so needful to this generation.

Tony Capoccia
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