13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
In these verses James speaks to us of the two kinds of wisdom from which we must choose. And the two kinds of wisdom represent the fundamental choice of the ages. Will we love and follow God, represented by wisdom from above? Or will we hate and reject God, represented by earthly wisdom? It is this fundamental choice that must be made by each person for themselves. No one can choose for another.
The choice is posed in many ways and in many circumstances throughout Scripture. But at its core, how we choose is always a matter of life or death. It is a matter of eternal destiny. No other choice in life is as important. And all other choices in life are impacted by this fundamental one. By which wisdom will we choose to live our lives?
This morning we are going to look quickly at three examples of how the Lord lays out the two choices for us.
15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. 16 The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
Everything that Adam needed, God had provided. He had also given Adam meaningful work to do and great freedom.
“From any tree of the garden you may eat freely” – we can only imagine the wonderfully delicious choices Adam and Eve had to freely choose from. So they could love God, follow God, not eat from the forbidden tree, and live. Or they could reject God, eat from the tree that was forbidden, and die. We all know what they chose, and how the consequences of their disobedience affected not only themselves but all of mankind.
A second example is from Deuteronomy. Moses, speaking as the Lord’s instrument, says:
15 “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity;
16 in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it.
17 “But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it.
19 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, 20 by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”
Again, the choice to follow or reject God is one of life and death. And again, we know what the children of Israel chose – rejecting the Lord to love and follow after false gods. We also know the death and suffering that followed as they were taken into captivity.
One more example, this one is from the New Testament. Jesus says:
13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14 “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Here the choice is between the wide gate and wide road leading to destruction, or the narrow gate and the narrow road leading to life.
In these three examples the choices are clear. The benefits are overwhelmingly desirable, and the consequences are most disastrous. But time and time again most will choose unwisely. Most will choose not to love and follow the one true God. Most will choose to reject Him and love and follow a false god or gods. The false gods in the Bible were made of wood, stone, and precious metals. But today our false gods may be false religion, or the love of money, or work, or the pursuit of pleasure, just as a few examples. Our minds and hearts are expert and very imaginative at making for themselves false gods.
We looked at these three examples this morning so that we may realize the seriousness of this issue of wisdom. And how the wisdom we choose to follow is a matter of life and death and has eternal consequences. Will we follow the wisdom of God, which leads to life, or will we follow the wisdom of this world, which leads to death?
So with that in mind, this morning we are going to focus on verse 13 of James chapter 3, which asks a profound question, and surely not a question to be taken lightly: “Who among you is wise and understanding?” As so much of this letter does, James is calling us once again to self-examination. This question of who is wise is not about us looking around to see who we think is wise. It’s about us evaluating our own life to see if we are wise. And the wisdom James is speaking of here in this question is godly wisdom. We know this because this kind of wisdom is made known by good behavior and deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. He also contrasts it with worldly and false wisdom in verses 14-16. Here James is speaking of wisdom and understanding as a way of life. That is, the pattern of the wise person’s life is one of wisdom and understanding.
I have never in my 54 years on this earth, that I can remember, heard someone confess to be a foolish person. Sure I have heard people acknowledge that what they did was foolish, or that they have a foolish habit, or speak of an area of their life that they need some help or wisdom in. But I have never heard someone confess that their whole pattern of life is foolish or unwise. I am not saying that there are no people who see themselves as fools on the whole, I just have not met them. I know this is not a scientific study, but let’s say for the sake of argument that what I have experienced is true for most. That is, most people see themselves as living their lives in mostly a wise manner. But as we have seen from Scripture this morning in the three examples I read, most people do not choose to love and follow God, and they do not choose to live lives that are wise.
So when James asks, “Who among you is wise and understanding?” How can we know if we are truly wise and understanding, or if we are deceiving ourselves? How can we test it? First, we need to know what wisdom and understanding are, and then we need to know how to get them. We are going to look at how we get wisdom first, because it will give us some insight into what godly wisdom really is as well.
Godly wisdom is not about us. It is about God. Wisdom is His gift to us. As James says in verse 3:17, godly wisdom is from above. We did not have it, and we didn’t desire it. God had to give us a desire for godly wisdom, and then He had to give it to us. God has given us His wisdom through His Word by His Spirit. It is the Spirit of God that helps us to understand the Word of God. Jesus, speaking of the Holy Spirit, says:
13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 “He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.
Without the Holy Spirit we would have no desire or ability to understand the Word of God. And without the Word of God, we could not know God or His wisdom. And we could never comprehend who we are as sinners, or our great need for Him.
The Lord also helps us to grow wise by giving us teachers and preachers of His Word to equip us or train us for the work of service (Ephesians 4:11-12). And the Lord helps us to grow wise through serving others. The Lord uses our service to others to teach us about Christ’s humility, compassion, heart of service, and His love. We grow wise in our understanding of Christ as we serve others. He also reveals to us our own tendency toward selfishness, pride, arrogance, laziness, etc. as we serve others. This includes all the ways He has called us to serve others – at home, at work, in our communities, and in the church. If you are not serving others in all the places where God has placed you, you are cheating yourself of opportunities to grow in wisdom.
The Lord also imparts His wisdom to us through trials. For example, when I learned to drive at 15 and a half, I took a driver’s education class. The first few weeks of the class were spent studying the handbook with all the rules of the road – how to change lanes, when to use turn signals, what the road signs meant, etc. All the info I needed about the car and the road was in the book. I got to the point where I could pass the practice exams without getting any of the questions wrong. Do you think I knew how to drive at that point? Absolutely not! I knew a lot about driving, but I did not know how to drive. But I began to learn how to drive when I got in the car with the instructor and I put into practice all the things I had learned from the handbook. And I also had to be willing to follow the driving instructor’s directions.
You and I must study the Word of God and we must be taught the Word of God by pastors and teachers, and we must be willing to receive the wisdom God imparts to us through our brothers and sisters in Christ, iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17). But the Lord also uses our serving others and our trials to impart to us His wisdom as we take what we have learned and apply it to serving others and navigating through our trials. Just as I had to take everything I learned in the driving handbook and apply it to actually driving.
We also gain wisdom by request. One of the wonderful things about our trials and serving others is that we become very aware that we need more wisdom than we have. Whenever the deacons and elders meet, a frequent request in our prayers is that the Lord would give us wisdom. Serving the body of Christ keeps us humbly aware that we need the wisdom of the Lord and not our own. So we go to the Lord in prayer and ask for more wisdom than we have.
5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
So that’s how we gain wisdom. But what is wisdom? To get at the heart of what true wisdom and understanding is, we must turn to the Word of God for the Lord’s definition.
10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
The beginning of wisdom is to reverence and be in awe of God. To have understanding is to know God as He has revealed himself in His Word.
28 “And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; And to depart from evil is understanding.'”
So wisdom begins and ends with our reverent, awe-filled relationship with God. He is the Alpha and Omega of wisdom. And to turn from sin and to follow Him, that is understanding.
12 For wisdom is protection just as money is protection, But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.
Wisdom protects and preserves life.
16 How much better it is to get wisdom than gold! And to get understanding is to be chosen above silver.
Wisdom is precious, it is not to be undervalued, dismissed, or overlooked.
For us who love the Lord and want to follow Him, wisdom is a lifelong pursuit, it is a lifelong journey. Because the wise will be humble and teachable. How are you doing at receiving instruction from others?
5 A wise man will hear and increase in learning, And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel,
9 Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, Teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning.
The wise are keenly aware that they still have much to learn. If you are a believer, if you love and desire to follow Christ, you are becoming wise.
How are we doing at becoming wise? How are you doing with studying the Word? Are you involved in a Bible study with others, so that your iron can be sharpened by others? Is church attendance a priority for you? Do you see coming to church as a time when you hear the wisdom of the Lord? Do you come expecting that the Lord will speak to your life’s circumstances what you need to hear through the preaching and teaching of His Word? Do you see opportunities to serve your brothers and sisters on Sunday as important, and do you see your time of corporate worship as precious to you? Are you taking what you are learning through your study of the Word and putting it into practice through serving others and as you go through trials? If we love Christ and we are following Him, we have a measure of wisdom and it should be growing in our life.
Wisdom should also be evident to others by how we live our life. James says that the one who is wise and understanding, “Let him show it by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.” What James is talking about, by relating the living out of our godly wisdom to our good behavior and our deeds, is not just the keeping of rules. If we reduce the Christian life to a list of things we do, and a list of things we don’t do, and if all that being a good Christian means to us is that we follow the list of dos and avoid doing the things on the don’t list, then how are we any different than the Pharisees, and the legalists that Jesus repeatedly rebuked?
We are called to obey the moral law of God. The commandments of the Lord reflect His character and His goodness towards us and they are best for us. But the Lord is not only after changing the things we do. He is also after changing our attitude, and the reason for doing what we do. The Lord is wanting to change our heart.
What James is getting at in verse 13, by speaking of our good behavior and our deeds, is that he is talking about a lifestyle, a way of living that will naturally produce good behavior and good works.
Because we love God and we want to imitate Christ, we live lives focused on learning about Him. So we study His Word individually, and collectively in Bible study classes, and we hear His Word preached, and through the Spirit of God we gain some wisdom and insight from the hearing and studying of His Word. And we take what we have learned and we apply it to our life in service to others and as we encounter trials, and we grow wiser as we see the Lord using us as His instrument in service, and we grow wiser as we seek God in our trials. And as one of the commentary writers said, we get to live a beautiful life, because our life is so focused on Christ, who He is, and what He wants us to do, that good works and good deeds are a natural outcome of loving and following Him.
So when Paul says in Ephesians 5:1-2, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” He is not just commanding us to imitate God, walk in love, and imitate Christ. It is a command, but it is also more! It is an invitation into a deeper relationship with God by remembering His great love for us, that we are His beloved children. That God the Father so loved us that He sent His Son to save us. And Jesus so loved us that He suffered and bled and died to save us. And Paul here is inviting us to imitate the love, and compassion, and the humility, and loving obedience that we see in Christ the Son of God as He offers Himself up on the cross to God the Father on our behalf.
We are invited to respond to God’s love for us by our love for Him, and we express our love for Christ by our desire to imitate Him, following Him, wanting to be like Him. And if we are living our life that way, we will be living a life of wisdom and understanding. Not our wisdom, but God’s, and the glory and the praise will all go to Him as it should. And good behavior and good deeds will be the natural outcome.
I love that James adds this part about gentleness. Because one of the things that can happen to people who love God, unfortunately, is that we can become ungentle, and arrogant, because God has done so much for us. We can get to the point where we think, “I’m pretty decent, I’m pretty good!” And we lose our gentleness, we lose our sweetness. James wants to point us back to that. If we are like Christ, we will be like that.
3 “A bruised reed He will not break
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
If we are on this road to wisdom, we will be like Christ. We will be gentle, not harsh with people. We will not use the Word of God as a hammer or club, because He has said it is a sword. We will be gentle like Christ.
So the question for us this morning is, first, are you trusting in Christ? Have you been set on this road to godly wisdom? If the answer is yes, then how are you doing with that? If the answer is no, I hope you have received the warning this morning from our three examples of where this way of life leads you. The three examples from Scripture are crystal clear of the loving benefits God provides, and the disaster that awaits those who will not love and trust Him.