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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
James 3

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 3. The Uncontrolled Tongue In Contrast With True Wisdom.

Having demonstrated that showing partiality and ignoring the requirements of the poor and needy are both evidences that a man lacks true faith in Christ, James now goes on to demonstrate that the same is true of anyone who has an uncontrolled tongue. For this too men will be judged and brought to account, and what is discovered will demonstrate whether they have true faith, and the wisdom which goes with it (James 1:5). Here James is expanding on his thought in James 1:18-19. There it was in the light of the unchangeable Father who gives to men endowments and gifts as He begets men through the word of truth so that they may be His firstfruits. In response they are to be swift to hear and slow to speak in order that they might be what He requires and grow as a result of the implanted word. Now James will expand on that important injunction, slow to speak. If men are to respond to God’s goodness they must control their tongues, and be thoughtful in what they say. It is important that that word of truth be rightly dealt with and not be utilised rashly, carelessly and even harmfully. Here he now presses home that fact.

So he begins by warning Teachers to watch their words for which they will have to give account, and he then goes on to warn all against the dangers of a careless tongue. It is quite clear that what men and women were saying was causing great problems in the churches. Careless words were acting like the very fires of Hell, and like poison in men’s souls.

By this James is continuing the ideas broached in James 1:19-21 where he warned against being too eager to speak, and against words spoken in anger and about thereby not working the righteousness of God. Much of the problem clearly lay in men revealing in their words verbal jealousy, for orators were treated with great respect and awe (James 3:14), divisive argument, because people fought over minor interpretations (James 3:14) and wordy arrogance, because some thought that they were superior to others (James 3:14 - do not glory) resulting from or in great anger (James 1:19), to say nothing of their fawning on the rich (James 2:3) and showing contempt for the poor (James 2:3). And the solution to the problem was to be found in finding true wisdom from above.

This passage follows a remarkable sequence of key ideas which we have sought to bring out by the use of capital letters. Each idea is repeated in the next ‘verse’.

Analysis.

A Do not many of you be teachers, my brothers, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment, for in many things we all STUMBLE (James 3:1-2 a).

B If any STUMBLES not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to BRIDLE the whole body also (James 3:2 b).

C Now if we put the horses’ BRIDLES into their mouths that they may obey us, we TURN ABOUT their whole body also (James 3:3).

D See, the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by rough winds, are yet TURNED ABOUT by a VERY SMALL rudder, wherever the will of the steersman directs (James 3:4).

E So the tongue also is a LITTLE member, and boasts great things. See, how great an area of brushwood is kindled by how small a FIRE! (James 3:5).

F And the TONGUE is a FIRE.

G The world of iniquity among our members is the TONGUE, which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the WHEEL (ROUND OF EXISTENCE, COURSE) OF NATURE, and is set on fire by hell (James 3:6).

H For every kind of BEASTS, AND BIRDS, OF CREEPING THINGS AND THINGS IN THE SEA, is tamed, and has been TAMED by mankind (James 3:7).

I But the tongue can no man TAME. It is a restless evil, it is full of deadly poison. With it we BLESS the Lord and Father, and with it we CURSE men, who are made after the likeness of God (James 3:8-9).

J Out of the same mouth COMES FORTH --- BLESSING and CURSING. My brothers, these things ought not to be so (James 3:10).

K Does the fountain SEND FORTH from the same opening SWEET water and BITTER?


Verse 1-2

‘Do not many of you be teachers, my brothers, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment. For in many things we all stumble. ’

James’ initial warning is against the natural desire that many have to teach others. They feel that they have a truth worth passing on and want to convince others. That is all very well if they are well taught and truly understand the Scriptures, and have the right attitudes and are loving and caring. But in those early days there was no New Testament, and many who had been converted had little knowledge of the ‘new way’ and of the Apostles’ teaching. Thus James is warning of the danger of setting themselves up as Teachers, lest they turn out to be erring teachers. For to be a Teacher of the word brings great responsibility, and even the best stumble.

We get the impression from this that large numbers wanted to be Teachers, and very few to be listeners. So James warns them what a solemn thing it is to be a Teacher of the word. This was especially so when they only had the Old Testament to teach from. For by being Teachers, without a full knowledge of what Jesus had taught, or of what the Apostles taught, they could easily lead men astray into false ideas or unsatisfactory ways. Let them therefore be quick to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19). For it was one thing to teach others privately what they had learned, and what they believed, as they ‘gossiped the Gospel’, it was quite another to be set up as an official Teacher in the assembly and be responsible for the flock, or to stand up to teach or prophesy in the assembly without proper inspiration, prayer and spiritual preparation. It would seem that there were a number indeed who took up such a position for personal aggrandisement, or even in order to attack and criticise others. But in those early days not many would be qualified to be official Teachers, having neither heard Jesus, nor been taught by the Apostles, nor having become sufficiently knowledgeable about their teaching. It was good then that they be wary of making claims beyond their present ability, for the tongue was a powerful instrument, and by it they could do great harm. It was good therefore that the churches be careful whom they appointed, and that people themselves did not set themselves up to teach what they were in fact ignorant of, or themselves unfit to teach. In the same way Paul had to warn against those who taught without having any knowledge of what they were talking about (1 Timothy 1:6-7).

James therefore wants even those who have been appointed, and all who would aspire to teach alongside them, to be aware of the responsibility that they carried. For one day they would have to give account for what they had taught and would be judged accordingly. And he warns them that even an experienced teacher like himself, and like the Apostles, can stumble in teaching the word if they are not prayerful and watchful. How much more then those who have newly come to faith in Jesus, and have not been taught by Him, and are therefore still very much involved with their old ideas in spite of having become Christians. For he wants them to appreciate that to lead men into error or false ways would be a grievous sin.

And then there was the question of the way in which that teaching was being carried out. It could be done censoriously, or even with bitterness, or it could flail men as a result of a savage tongue. It could undermine confidence, and weaken faith, or even give false confidence. Its aim could simply be with the aim of self-aggrandisement. And it could stir up wrong emotions.

But on the other hand James would recognise that it could be life-giving and sustaining and encouraging. It could thus help to maintain unity of the people of God. He was not trying to prevent men from teaching, but warning that it was not a task to be taken on lightly. For the alternative was that it could destroy instead of building up. Many depended on the reliability of the Teacher of the word. It was therefore not a position to be taken up without due consideration. And all needed to be aware of their own inadequacy.

‘Knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment.’ In Ezekiel 34:1-10 the faithless leaders of the nation are condemned for being neglectful and abusive shepherds of God's people, and God declares that He will require it of them. In Matthew 5:19 the one who relaxed the commandments of God is least under the Kingly Rule of God, while those who teach what the Scribes and Pharisees teach will not even enter it. In Matthew 18:6 comes the warning of what will happen to those who cause the humblest believers to stumble. ‘For to him that has will more be given, but to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away’ (Luke 19:26).

‘For in many things we all stumble.’ James recognises man’s weakness, including his own. All, even the best, come short and fail. But that is all the more reason for men not to push themselves forward until they are spiritually adequate.


Verse 2

‘If any stumbles not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also.’

Taking up the thought of stumbling he now points out that if any Teacher never stumbles in what he says, or how he says it, then he is indeed a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body, exercising total self control. He is a kind of paragon. This may be intended to be ironic, really indicating that ‘none of us Teachers are perfect, so that we all need to be very much aware of our weaknesses’. Or he may be indicating that such ‘perfect’ and mature teachers, who are mature in the faith, are rare, and it is they who should be sought for and appointed, for they will have control of both their tongues and their lives.

He then points out that the unwise or unruly tongue can affect the whole body, and/or is a manifestation of how that body will behave. Mouth and behaviour tend to go in tandem. What we say, unless we are being hypocrites, is what we do. The thought may either be that what a man says affects his behaviour, or alternately that what he says reveals what his behaviour will be like.

Being able to bridle the whole body may thus be saying:

1) That the Teacher who is true to the word ensures that his body does not interfere with his message. And he can do this because he is able to control it with an iron grip and never let it get out of hand. Thus he never preaches ‘in the flesh’, but always ‘in the Spirit’. He never panders to people’s tastes because ‘his body’ (he himself) wants popularity or praise. And he never lets exhaustion make him say something that is unwise, nor allows his passions to control his preaching. He can control his tongue because he can control himself.

2) That this Teacher always practises what he preaches. Control of his tongue results in control of the whole body. And because he has full control of his body and its emotions and desires, he will not, after preaching, be drawn into acting contrary to how he has preached, for his life is well controlled by the reins of God.

3) That this teacher never lets his tongue run away with him, or becomes unnecessarily angry or sarcastic or hurtful when he is preaching (compare James 1:19) because he has a tight control on himself.

4). That the tongue is such a clear manifestation of how the person will behave as a whole, that the ability to control the tongue indicates that such a person will be able to control their whole body.

The fact is that men’s tongues reveal their sinfulness and that is why none can teach without stumbling, for all men are sinful. As the Scriptures remind us, "None is righteous, no not one -- for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:10; Romans 3:23). "If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). "There is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins," (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

One way or another then James is declaring that the way a man speaks and the way that he behaves go hand in hand, and that one who would teach must first ensure that he has control of himself, with of course the help of God. Otherwise being a teacher will bring him into grater condemnation.


Verse 3

‘ Now if we put the horses’ bridles into their mouths that they may obey us, we turn about their whole body also.’

The thought of bridling the body now brings to his mind an illustration, and that is that the purpose of a bridle is in order to control the horse. The whole reason for putting a bridle (i.e. the bit) into their mouths is to make them obedient. And with that bridle the experienced rider can turn the horse in whichever direction he wants it to go. And that is what the good Teacher can do, always steer himself in the right direction and keep himself under control (as a result of God at work within him). A controlled tongue will mean a controlled person.

The tongue can be a beneficial bridle or a harmful one, and the Teacher has to ensure that he makes it beneficial. The idea comes from Psalms 32:9, ‘a horse or mule without understanding --must be curbed with a bit and bridle, or else it will not keep with you’. Compare also Psalms 39:1, ‘I will guard my ways that I might not sin with my tongue, I will bridle my mouth so long as the wicked are in my presence.’

The word for ‘turn about’ both here and in James 3:4 is a strong one. The bridle and the rudder are, as it were, seen to take the horses and ship and treat them as prisoners being transported. The word is used for the "transferring" or "transporting" of prisoners, or a major ‘turning about’ in government. It is also used of turning men to having a better mind.


Verse 4

‘Behold, the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by rough winds, are yet turned about by a very small rudder, wherever the will of the steersman directs.’

The thought of ‘turning about’ now brings to mind a second illustration and that is of a steersman steering a ship. He has but a small rudder, but with such a small rudder a good steersman can make the large ship do precisely what he wants, even when being driven by rough winds (that is, by what a landlubber like James thought were rough winds). So in spite of the largeness of the ship, and the fierceness of the winds, the small rudder is still able to control it.

His point is that the church too is large, and faces fierce storms, but if those who exercise authority in teaching do so wisely the whole church will move forward in the direction in which God wants it to go. But let their teaching once become marred, then the church will begin to suffer and begin to find itself at the mercy of wind and storm.


Verse 5

‘So the tongue also is a little member, and boasts great things. See, how great a an area of brushwood is kindled by how small a fire!’

He now brings their thoughts back to the tongue. The ‘small’ rudder of that ship is like that other ‘little’ member, our tongue. Both are very similar. For like the rudder the tongue is only a small member of the body, but the problem is that it can boast great things (for ‘boasts’ compare James 1:9. It can be positive or negative). For it can sway men to do its will, or it can lead them on a downward path. It can encourage them or destroy them. And how quickly men begin to boast about themselves and their own ideas (compare 2 Corinthians 11:12-13), offering people what is not really true. They can begin to make much of themselves and to lead men astray with their teaching, and begin to make out that they are some great one and thus go astray themselves. They become proud of their ability to sway men by their oratory (see 2 Corinthians 10:10) and offer them worldly wisdom and controversial ideas. And then before anyone knows what is happening fires of dissension and false teaching and partisanship and bitterness are lit, and kindled into a large flame, and the whole church is put in disarray. And all as a result of that little tongue! How dangerous the tongue is. (Compare 1 Corinthians 1:11-12; 1 Timothy 6:4; 1 Peter 3:9)

Its effect is similar to the way in which a small spark of flame can set off a great brushwood or woodland fire. (The word can mean timber and be used of woodland, but rarely, if ever, means forest). One moment a spark, and shortly afterwards it is as though the whole world were ablaze. And how often muttered words spoken behind people’s backs, or rash words that are spoken in haste and ignorance in public, have spread and spread, and have weakened the effectiveness and blessing of a whole church and have ‘set it on fire’ in a harmful way.


Verse 6

‘And the tongue is a fire. The world of iniquity (or the article may suggest that we translates as ‘the world of the unrighteous’) among our members is the tongue, which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the wheel of nature (or ‘the course of nature or existence, or of the genealogical sequence’), and is set on fire by hell.’

For following on from the picture of the brushwood and woodland fire lit by a spark, the tongue also is like a fire. It sets things aflame. "A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire" (Proverbs 16:27). It is almost as though in that tongue lies hidden the sinful world outside the church (the world of iniquity, or of the unrighteous, is the world of greed and covetousness, of boasting and arrogance, of lust and dissension, of backbiting and gossip, and of envy and jealousy), only for it to be brought into the open when the tongue begins to speak, even within the assembly, through careless teachers. And by its words the tongue thus defiles the body of its owner by what it says, both because it reveals that it is sinful and because it arouses its owner to passion and lust and anger and folly as he exercises his tongue foolishly, and it defiles others by doing the same to them, (compare the phrase about the foul nature of malice in James 1:21), and it thus sets on fire the ‘wheel of nature’ which is within each one of us and among us all, setting it rolling on its uncontrolled way. And when it does so, let us be in no doubt as to its source. It is set on fire by that very place of destruction that awaits all sinners, and just longs to bring Christians down into it (Gehenna - the place of the lost). That place is, as it were, seeking to bring the lust of the flesh or the mind into the Christian assembly so as to drag it back into the world, and finally into its own clutches.

Or there may be the idea that through the ages the tongue has set on fire men from one generation to another, affecting ‘the continuing wheel of existence’ that continues on through history, and that it is still true of our own generation. And if we are not careful such a tongue can even today bring into the assembly by its words the foolish and sinful world outside, ‘the world of the unrighteous’, with all its sinful ways. For nothing demonstrates more that our bodies are still subject to that world than our tongues. By them we give ourselves away. (You only have to stop and listen to church members talking to know which world is most important to some of them). And by them we introduce that world to others, when their minds should rather be set on Christ, forcing their minds back to the desirable things of the pleasure ridden world, or offering them what is not good for their souls. It may even be that Christian ‘prophets’ were saying such foolish things, and stirring up the feelings and emotions of the whole congregation in the wrong way.

Alternatively what follows in the next verse might be seen as suggesting that the ‘the cycle of existence’ (or wheel of nature) refers to the world of nature red in tooth and claw which has to be tamed (as Genesis 1:28 informs us), including all kinds of beasts and birds and creeping things and things in the sea which need to be subdued and dominated (see next verse), thus needing a tamer. But it is rather a world which has been stirred into being untamed by the activities of men within nature as a result of their unruly tongues. This might connect back with the great brushwood and woodland fires (James 3:5), seeing them as caused by advancing armies as so vividly described in the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 8:18-19), with their devastating effects on nature as animals driven wild by fear, and totally uncontrolled, make for any haven that they can find. Thus instead of taming them, man by use of his tongue (giving instructions and inciting others to violence), has driven them wild. In the same way men’s foolish words can set ablaze the church making them similarly untamed, following the behaviour of untamed and unruly beasts (1 Corinthians 11:17-22; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 2 Peter 2:12-22; Revelation 2:20-22).

Or it may refer to the world of sinful man through the ages which alone out of all the round of nature has rebelled against its Creator, and indeed by use of its tongue has regularly set on fire that round of nature, sometimes literally by stirring up war which affects all living things (see James 4:1-2), and more often by stirring up trouble and local dissension. And it does this because it itself has been set on fire by Gehenna.

Or it may refer to ‘the world in its sin’ which, stirred up in its ‘round of existence’ by foolish tongues, persecutes and harasses the people of God, being drawn in to its harmful activities by foolish things said by the tongues of unwise Christians.

Or the idea may be of the wheel of nature from birth to death with the idea that the tongue affects men through the whole of their lives, introducing them if they are not careful into a world of iniquity and sin.

But whatever way it is the tongue is seen as violently destructive and as being a causer of great distress and harm.

‘The cycle of nature.’ This was a concept found in Greek philosophy, but it was the kind of phrase that could easily be taken up and reinterpreted. Christians did not think in terms of a cycle of nature in the sense intended by some Greek philosophers, they believed in time stretching from the beginning to the consummation, and then on for ever. And they would see such a ‘cycle’ or ‘wheel’ or ‘course’ as controlled by God. We can compare how Paul regularly takes up philosophical concepts and gives them a new meaning in the light of the Gospel.


Verse 7

‘For every kind of beasts and birds, of creeping things and things in the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by mankind.’

This verse would favour interpreting ‘the round of existence’ in terms of the living creatures mentioned, for ‘every kind of beasts and birds, of creeping things and things in the sea’ is the key phrase looking back to the previous thought of the wheel of nature, just as ‘tamed’ looks forward to the next thought (see analysis above). Otherwise this verse is breaking the chain of connected ideas and forming a new one, which is unlikely.

But the writer draws the lesson from it that all these creatures are tameable in the end, and indeed have at times been tamed, whereas man’s tongue appears to be untameable, and can turn men, and even those creatures, wild again.

‘Every kind’ simply means many different kinds, whether large or small animals; differing kinds of birds, such especially as hawks and pigeons, or parrots; creeping things like snakes under their charmers and tamed snakes kept in Temples; and fish such as dolphins and porpoises and in ancient times even wider varieties, both sacred and otherwise. And even the wilder ones have been kept in place and restrained


Verse 8-9

‘But the tongue can no man tame. It is a restless evil, it is full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made after the likeness of God.’

For the one thing that is untameable is the tongue. It is a restless evil, ever at work doing harm and causing problems, and in the end making men spiritually ill and permeating their whole being with poison (compare Psalms 140:3 - ‘they make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s and under their lips is the poison of vipers’. See also Romans 3:13, "With their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips"). It may sometimes appear to be tamed, but its wildness will soon manifest itself if it is taken off the bridle.

And how inconsistent the tongue is. At one time it blesses ‘the Lord and Father’, the Lord of creation (Malachi 2:10; compare Malachi 1:6; Isaiah 64:8), and then at another time, sometimes very soon afterwards, it curses the very lords of creation whom God has set in place, who have been made in the very likeness of the God they bless (Genesis 1:27-28). They can even curse those who are the very representatives of God. James is using a powerful word in ‘curse’ but it covers anything which is said to the detriment of others, right up to the worst of all, the actual curse. Compare John 7:49. Here are doubleminded men indeed (see James 1:8).

This idea of ‘blessing’ was especially relevant to a Jew, and therefore to many Jewish Christians. Whenever the name of God was mentioned, a Jew had to respond: "Blessed be He!" Furthermore three times a day the devout Jew had to repeat the Shemoneh Esreh, the famous eighteen prayers called Eulogies, every one of which begins, "Blessed be You, O God." God was indeed , The Blessed One, (‘eulogetos’), the One who was continually blessed. And yet the very mouths and tongues with which they frequently and piously blessed God, were the very same mouths and tongues with which they cursed their fellowmen. James found this quite unacceptable. He considered it as unnatural as for a spring to gush out both fresh and salt water or a tree to bear opposite kinds of fruit.

But note that it is man who is unable to tame the tongue (see also James 3:14-15). Once God steps into the equation things are very different (James 3:13; James 3:17-18). See also Ephesians 4:29-31, ‘let no evil communication come out of your mouths but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear --- let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’


Verse 10

‘Out of the same mouth comes forth blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.’

So the same mouth produces blessing and cursing. How treacherous the tongue is. One moment it is full of joy and praise, singing in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and the next it is spreading poison and doing dreadful harm. And the question is how can the same spring produce both life-giving water and brackish water? It is unnatural. As James says, ‘These things ought not to be!’

‘My brothers.’ Indicating that he is now coming to a kind of summary of what he has been saying.


Verse 11

‘Does the fountain send forth from the same opening sweet water and bitter?’

The writer now illustrates the matter in different ways. The ‘coming forth’ from the mouth and the ‘blessing and cursing’ now leads on to the ‘sending forth’ from a fountain or spring, and the idea of ‘sweet, thirst-quenching water and bitter water’. Can a fountain or spring from the same opening (or crevice in the rock) produce both sweet water and bitter? Nature is not so inconsistent. Only man behaves in such a foolish way.

Not having water on tap all James’ hearers knew how important it was whether a spring was drinkable or not. The spring could be a thing of blessing or a thing of cursing, a thing of great joy and refreshment, or a huge disappointment. But it could never be both. So those from whom should come springs of living water (John 7:38) must not also be the means of poisoning the minds and hearts of their brothers and sisters.


Verse 12

‘Can a fig tree, my brothers, yield olives, or a vine figs? Neither can salt water yield sweet.’

And he closes off the series with an illustration. Each thing in nature produces according to it nature. The fig tree produces figs, the olive tree olives. (Compare here Matthew 7:16). And salt water cannot produce sweet without treatment. So should the Christian from his mouth produce the good fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and not the inedible and poisonous fruit of the flesh. The salt water probably has in mind the salt water springs around the Dead Sea which were unusable to man. Note that here the contrasts have ceased. The final word is intended to bring out the bitter saltiness of the tongue


Verse 13

‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom.’

These words take us back to James 3:1 and to what is required of the ‘perfect’ Teacher, and also to James 1:17-19 in considering God’s good giving and perfect gifts from above. Note the contrast in James 3:13-14 between the wise one who reveals the truth through his good life (James 3:13), and the one who as a result of bitter jealousy, selfish ambition and self-assertiveness, lies against the truth (James 3:14). For those whose wisdom is from above (James 3:15; James 3:17 compare James 1:5; James 1:18) are wise and understanding. They reveal the fruit of their lives in wise humility and gentleness, living ‘good lives’, that is, lives that reveal goodness in their behaviour (kales anastrophes). For the effect of such good lives see 1 Peter 2:12. They ‘take thought for what is noble in the sight of all’ (Romans 12:17; compare 2 Corinthians 8:21).

‘Meekness of wisdom.’ This is probably a Hebraism signifying ‘wise meekness’, or meekness that arises out of wisdom. The word for meekness occurs in non-Biblical literature to describe a horse that someone has broken and has trained to submit to a bridle. It is ‘meek’ or ‘broken in’. But meekness here is not weakness (compare Matthew 5:5; Matthew 11:29). It is subjection to the Master and therefore the opposite of arrogance, of discord, of thrusting oneself forward, and of a desire to lord it over others. It is seeing the truth about oneself. It is being ‘meek and lowly in heart’, gentle, self-controlled, considerate, humble, peaceable, aware of spiritual inadequacy (dependent on the Holy Spirit Who gives wisdom from above), and thoughtful for the needs of others (Matthew 11:29). They are ‘eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3). It was John Calvin who said that there were three requirements for a preacher, humility, humility and humility. It is the people who recognise this and live by it who will reveal the wisdom of God.

Note that as ever in James it results in ‘works’. Those who are wise and understanding finally reveal it in their actions and their activities.


Verses 13-18

What Is Required Therefore Is Not Earthly Wisdom But Wisdom From Above (James 3:13-18)

Having warned against the unruly tongue, James now explains how men can ensure that their tongues are under control by receiving wisdom from above. We were informed in James 1:17-18 of the giving and the gifts from above, and the effect of the word of truth, now these are to be expanded on and contrasted with what the earth offers. There is a wisdom from above which produces peace and righteousness, and is reasonable, full of mercy and productive of good fruits. It is a wisdom that will produce right teaching. But in contrast is the wisdom of the world, which produces selfish ambition, jealousy and disorder, and results in every useless and worthless practise.

Analysis.

a Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom (James 3:13).

b But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not glory and do not lie against the truth (James 3:14).

c This wisdom is not a wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish (James 3:15).

b For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every worthless deed (James 3:16).

a But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without variance, without hypocrisy, and the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace (James 3:17-18).

Note that in ‘a’ reference is made to wisdom and understanding and the living of a good life, and in the parallel we have wisdom and good fruits and righteousness. In ‘b’ we have reference to jealousy and selfish ambition, and in the parallel we have the same. Centrally in ‘c’ is the contrast between the wisdom from above and that which is earthly and devilish


Verse 14

‘But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not glory and do not lie against the truth.’

In contrast to this wisdom from above is man’s wisdom, which results in jealousy, discord, divisiveness, rivalry and selfish ambition (eritheia). Such people are not of the truth, and the word of truth (James 1:18) has not been effective in their hearts. They have nothing to glory in and any claims that they might make to truth are lies against the truth. For it is possible to destroy the truth of what is said by the spirit in which it is said. Note how those in James 3:13 are basically swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19). Those in James 3:14 hear little and speak much.


Verse 15

‘This wisdom is not a wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.’

And the source of such wisdom is not the Father of lights (James 1:17) but earthly wisdom and even the Devil. Such people lack the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge (Job 28:28; Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 9:10), and are unresponsive to the word of truth. For it is very possible to speak of heavenly things from an earthly motive, and to turn what is heavenly into what is base. ‘Earthly.’ Very much based on earthly values and aims. ‘Sensual.’ Resulting from the unrenewed mind, and determined by the values of the flesh. The attitude of the ‘natural man’. ‘Devilish.’ Deceitful and misleading, for he was a liar from the beginning.


Verse 16

‘For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every worthless deed.’

For jealousy and selfish ambition and self-assertiveness simply produce confusion and worthless, useless and vain practises and a church at war with itself (contrast 1 Corinthians 14:33). Jealous people and people who are selfishly ambitious make the truth secondary to the fulfilment of their desires.


Verse 17-18

‘But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without variance, without hypocrisy, and the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.’

In total contrast to all this is the wisdom that has come from above, in those who have been born from above (James 1:5; James 1:17-18; John 3:3). There is here an indirect reference to the Holy Spirit (compare 1 Corinthians 2:11-16). This wisdom is pure (hagnos) and free from all defilement, besmirchment and divisiveness, for its eyes are fixed on God and it seeks only to know His thoughts and His will (Matthew 5:8, compare 1:28).

o It is ‘peaceable (eirenikos)’, encouraging peace and ensuring it (compare Matthew 5:9). Eirene means peace, and when it is used of men its basic meaning is of right relationships between man and man, and between man and God. True wisdom produces right relationships. ‘There is a kind of clever and arrogant wisdom which separates man from man, and which makes a man look with superior contempt on his fellows. There is a kind of cruel wisdom which takes a delight in hurting others with clever, but cutting, words. There is a kind of depraved wisdom which seduces men away from their loyalty to God. But the true wisdom at all times brings men closer to one another and to God.’

o It is ‘gentle (epieikes).’ Epieikes means ‘befitting, suitable, equitable, fair, mild, gentle’. Aristotle defined it as "what is just beyond the written law" (and thus the spirit of the law and not the letter) and as "justice and better than justice" and as "whatever steps in to correct things when the law itself becomes unjust." The man who is epieikes is the man who is aware ‘when it is actually wrong to apply the strict letter of the law. He knows how to forgive when strict justice gives him a perfect right to condemn. He knows how to make allowances and when not to stand on his rights, how to temper justice with mercy, always remembers that there are greater things in the world than rules and regulations.’ It is to be ‘sweetly reasonable’. ‘It is the ability to extend to others the kindly consideration we would wish to receive ourselves’.

o It is ‘forbearing’ (eupeithes), thoughtful and considerate, and ever willing to understand. It is compliant, approachable and responsive.

o It is ‘merciful’ (eleos) and compassionate (Matthew 5:7), as God is merciful and compassionate, to both the worthy and the unworthy, and it produces good fruits.

o It is ‘adiakritos’, that is, undivided. That means that ‘it is not wavering and vacillating; it knows its own mind; it chooses its course and abides by it’. It is without discord and dissimulation, and not divided in mind, being to some extent like God in His unchangeableness (James 1:17).

o It is genuine and without pretence and show (anupokritos). It is aiming at genuine perfection even as our Father in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). In James 1:20 we learned that man’s anger does not work the righteousness of God. But the wisdom that is from above does, and results in blessing and peace for all.

o And finally it is itself the fruit of righteousness, and also produces the fruit of righteousness in the godly living, behaviour and right attitude of those who receive that wisdom (see Matthew 5:16). It is known by its fruits (Matthew 7:20). The ‘fruit of righteousness’ may be the fruit that results from righteousness, or the fruit that results in righteousness, or indeed both.

‘The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.’ And this fruit of righteousness comes from a peaceable heart, and offers continual peace, to those who are peacemakers, that is, God’s true people (Matthew 5:9). Isaiah also similarly tells us that ‘the work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness quietness and peace for ever’ (Isaiah 32:17), while Hebrews speaks of ‘the peaceable fruit of righteousness’ (Hebrews 12:11). See also Proverbs 11:30; Amos 6:12. It comes from a heart at peace, and benefits all who are of a peaceful heart. Such are those who have been begotten from above through the word of truth (James 1:18).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on James 3:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/james-3.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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