James 3:13-4:3;7-8a - Living with Real Wisdom
James 3:13) Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14) But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15) Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16) For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17) But the wisdom from above is first, pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18) And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. 4:1) Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2) You want something, and you do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so, you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have because you do not ask. 3) You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 7) Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8a) Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.
About the book of James: James is one of the most controversial books in the NT and was one of the last to be included in the canon of Scripture. Tradition ascribes the authorship to the brother of Jesus. It is written in the style of the OT wisdom literature and may have been a series of sermons that was edited into a literary letter. In James there is no mention of the Holy Spirit, the redeeming work of Christ or the resurrection. The name of Jesus is only mentioned twice. Martin Luther argued vehemently against its inclusion in the Bible calling it a “book of straw.” Mercifully he did not prevail! James is not a ‘missionary’ book. The author is not trying to convert anyone. It is an in-house document designed to help Christians make decisions about their behavior that will result in a transformed character, transformed relationships and a transformed world. When reading James, it is important to remember that it is written in a revolutionary style. It is written to be viewed from the bottom to the top. It is a work that comes out of poverty and critiques power. And it is about what internal spiritual, and external behavioral qualities must be claimed to live rightly in the midst of challenge.
The Situation in Jerusalem: The church in Jerusalem was made up of a series of small house churches, or Christian synagogues, ranging in membership from about 20-60 persons. They met for worship and teaching modeled on synagogue worship. They observed the Jewish festivals and many still attended Temple services. The church was directed by one or more elders presided over by James. Deacons were appointed to collect charitable contributions and distribute the proceeds to the poorest members. Many were very poor. The rich didn’t want to be associated with them or any religion of which they were a part. In addition, Jerusalem was in the midst of bad economic times due to famines and a corrupt political environment. People were in dire straits. Those who were well off were afraid of becoming less well-off and looking for others to blame for their fears and insecurity. People who were poor were afraid of never having what they needed and looked at the wealthy with both envy and disdain. How is a Christian to live in times like those? We want the answer to that question ourselves!
Themes in James: James is a challengingly contemporary work. The major themes are relationship between wealth and poverty, the nature of wisdom, relationship with the ‘world’, the relationship between doing and being, and the dilemma of trials. Today’s lesson begins a section that deals with wisdom and discernment of what is truly wise.
Vs. 13 – The author is dealing with the problem of false teachers inside and outside the community of faith. He is also dealing with spiritual blindness and arrogance from within the church itself.
Show – indicates that both wisdom and understanding, internal virtues, can only be discerned by outward action
Gentleness – humility, giving up the need to establish a reputation among others.
Vs. 14 – bitter envy – from the words for brackish water and zeal, refers to zeal that has gone astray and become obsessed with jealousy, or unhealthy rivalry.
Selfish ambition – this word in Greek originally meant ‘those who could be hired to do spinning.’ Then it came to mean ‘those that work for pay.’ Then it came to be applied to ‘those who work only for what they can get out of it.’ Finally, it was applied to ‘those who sought political office merely for personal gain.’ (Barclay)
In your hearts – at the core of one’s being
Do not be boastful and false to the truth – those who are filled with the sense of envy and rivalry should not deny it and thereby compound the wrong.
Vs. 15 – earthly – This is not necessarily bad except when it claims to be of God.
Devilish – that which is possessed or under the control of evil.
Vs. 17 – wisdom – this word is not about the content of knowledge but rather about moral virtue and practical goodness.
Pure – cleansed of all ulterior motives
Peaceable – the quality that produces right relationships between people
Gentle – this word in Greek means ‘to be equitable and to make allowances for others’ rather than insisting on the letter of the law.
Willing to yield – willing to be persuaded, open-minded
Full of mercy and good fruit – compassion extended in concrete and specific ways to those who deserve it and to those who do not.
Without a trace of partiality – literally undivided, the opposite of to vacillate.
Hypocrisy – to live with pretense, to act or be disingenuous.
Vs. 4:1 – conflicts and disputes – literally wars and battles, long term conflicts, not sudden explosions
Cravings – literally ‘pleasures’. This refers to pleasure that springs from the wrong source and possesses a person in the pursuit of its fulfillment
Within you – the conflict is internal, between the part of a person that is controlled by the Holy Spirit and the part that is controlled by the world.
Vs. 2 – commit murder…covet – frustrated desire responds by lashing out in anger and abuse. It responds with jealousy to those who have what it wants.
You do not ask – one reason for this frustration is the lack of prayer
Vs. 3 – spend – the same word used to describe the extravagant and foolish behavior of the prodigal son in Luke 15
Vs. 8 – Cleanse your hands – originally referred to ritual cleansing. Here it is a symbol of the sort of inner purity God desires.
Sinners – those whose life-style is more characteristic of the enemy than Christ.
Double-minded – trying to have it all, trying to have it both ways, trying to hold two mutually incompatible views at the same time or trying to live two opposing lifestyles at once.
Questions for Personal Reflection
1. In what ways do you struggle most to put your faith into action?
2. Which of the character traits mentioned by James do you see at work in your life? Which do you need to nurture more?
3. In what ways are you frustrated with your faith? How might you commit to deeper more disciplined prayer?
4. Do you ever find that you struggle to submit to God? What are the circumstances where you find that most difficult?