Home » Various Sermons » James 3.13-18: The Duality of Wisdom and Percival Seeker of the Holy Grail?

James 3.13-18: The Duality of Wisdom and Percival Seeker of the Holy Grail?


“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.  This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” – James 3.13-18

I am reminded of another knight of King Arthur’s here.  There once was a young man by the name of Percival, who had been raised in the quiet country by his mother.  Percival had grown up relatively naïve since his mother had wished to keep him from knights, quests, and all that are entailed by those sorts of things.  However as any good adventure goes, Percival found out and so his mother gave to him a number of different bits of wisdom.  In short she tells him “if he ever meets a maiden in need of help, that he should offer his help right away to serve those weaker for that the honorable thing to do, that if he was to court a young woman to remember a kiss means a lot to a young lady and if she offers him one take nothing more from her or all together kindly refuse.  When he meets new people to be courteous to them and find out what type of manner of man they are, but above all to go to church and to serve God and his savior honorably and faithfully.”

Now Percival excited only half listened to his mother and thus her motherly wisdom got all tangled in his mind and his naivety only worsened matters.  On his way to Camelot Percival ends up coming to a beautiful tent in the woods and mistakes it for a church.  In truth, it was actually a tent of some young maiden.  Percival enters the tent and soon discovers the girl, Now Percival had remembered that his mother had told him to always greet ladies, so naturally he introduced himself.  The maiden not pleased however asks him to leave right away, but Percival remembered also that his mother talked about always getting kisses from maidens so before he leaves he knows that he must kiss her.  To which the girl again refuses, but Percival forces the issue and so forces a kiss (no less than twenty)!

Percival’s wisdom was all mixed and while he thought he had straight and that he was doing his mother right he was doing everything all wrong.  Often we think we have true wisdom and understanding for things of God, but because of a combination of things we get it all mixed up and often we find we don’t have true wisdom after all.  James in this portion calls us to the Wisdom from above, and to avoid envy from those who have when we don’t, but above all to show our wisdom as true by our deeds.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” James 3.13

James begins this portion of scripture with the phrase basically of “Who among you.”  This phrase is one which connected vividly with the Old Testament and Jewish mindset which such verses as Isaiah 50.10 “Who among you fears the Lord, and obeys the voice of his servant?  Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” Or Judges 3.7 “Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is [or Who among is] fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.'” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained[1].” And also in Sirach 6.34 where the question is indeed connected to wisdom “Stand in the assembly of the elders.  Who is wise[2]?  Cling to him.”

If we remember this chapter began by pointing things to teachers, what is good or what is bad, now however James has come unto the Wise and here as before he continues the wrongness of being “double-minded[3].”  James challenges his reads to stand up before everyone and let their claim to wisdom be checked if it’s a real claim, or if James can dismiss them[4].   He is trying to prove that just because you may be wise, or better yet think you are wise you can have the wrong type of wisdom!

To think your wise and not be so, shows your “arrogance,” and James will point out in the rest of this passage what true wisdom is, (as evidence by the Old Testament Wisdom Literature)[5].  Moreover we told to be meek in our wisdom, but in showing pride we show our lack of real wisdom and a “subtle evil[6].”  Moreover we are reminded of Paul’s words to the (1) Corinthians (8.1-3) “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.  If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.  But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.”

James asks his people stand up and show their wisdom, but he then says let me see your “conduct,” and once more “show me your wisdom.”  He doesn’t care what people think they know, what their knowledge would let them do, he wants real wisdom that they know and do what Yahweh wants of them[7].  In the end this verse calls believer to once again show a life (by our deeds and conduct) that comes from biblical wisdom, God’s wisdom[8].  Wisdom thus concerns conduct; true wisdom then gives us a desire to do the deeds of God, to “grow in understanding[9].”  As (1) Peter says (2.12) “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

Remember I said that James here is calling us to Biblical wisdom, real wisdom, and is after all to Fear Yahweh to know rightness and justness and to walk rightly[10].  As the proverbtist says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Probers 1.7) “Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path;” (2.9) and (2.20) “So you will walk in the way of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous.” Something that Greek Wisdom literature stood against, which instead as Moo puts it “prized intellectual ability and knowledge of divine secrets – sometimes to the detriment of the moral life[11].”

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.  This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” James 3.14-15

Now James really hammers down on what true wisdom is not.  Here we see the double-mindedness of it all, on the one side we have earthly wisdom which has no good in it, just “bitter jealousy” and “selfish ambition…” this is earthly wisdom, or “non-wisdom[12].”  The Truth should remind us of James 1.18 “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures,” If we aren’t wise we shouldn’t be false to God, to his word[13].  If you say you have wisdom, but then look at someone and wish for their wisdom, you’ve missed the point.  James warns us to not be envious of someone who exerts true wisdom, who shows to understand the Truth in a way we do not[14].

This jealousy, this envy is something which is always looked down upon in the New Testament such as 2 Corinthians 12.20 “For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder[15].” And it harkens once more to the intertestmental ideas of wisdom as shown in Wisdom 6.23 “neither will I travel in the company of sickly envy, for envy does not associate with wisdom.”  If we want to be wise we must away from ourselves jealousy and envy, for God’s wisdom is one which begins with the fear of Yahweh and striven to follow his precepts.   For to forget and to let envy have her way one finds that it does nothing, but “destroy relationships within the church[16].”

Ultimately however one should remember the words of Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”” 9.23-24

James moves on in verse 15 and he doesn’t deny that they have a form of wisdom, just not the correct wisdom, not heavenly, biblical wisdom instead they a mere shadow of what true wisdom is, thus “non-wisdom[17].”  With this term of “wisdom from above,” James once more asserts where he thinks true wisdom come from, the “world of Torah[18].”  For example Job comments “”From where, then, does wisdom come?  And where is the place of understanding?  It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air.  Abaddon and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’ “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.” (28.20-23) And Proverbs 2.6 calls it Yahweh’s gift “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;”

James contrasts this heavenly wisdom with that of earthly wisdom, and we see in here earthly in the sense of being the opposite of heavenly[19].  His audience thought that they had the right wisdom, but James instead is insists that apart from Yahweh’s wisdom, you have the opposite, you have Satan’s wisdom.  Note after all Philippians 3.19 “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”  Instead of focusing on God when we focus on the wrong type of Wisdom, and focus on earthly wisdom we miss the point.

Thus again I’ll repeat that we are to strive for Yahweh’s wisdom, that is Fear Yahweh, do his precepts and strive for Rightness as seen through his word.  Instead of following our ideas of what rightness details.

“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” James 3.16-18

James begins here with the word “For,” [20]and this connects this verse with the prior one, and in a sense James said man’s wisdom was evil, because of “jealousy and selfish ambition and so on.”  One can also remember the verse which was quoted earlier in 2 Corinthians 12.20 and here we see that in both lists similar ideas of what were considered “Vile practices[21].”  Moreover this another point where James calls his readers who attest to his wisdom as “double-minded,” the Greek word of “disorder,” just being another form of the word which James had previous used in 1.8 and 3.8[22].

By choosing to follow non-wisdom instead of Yahweh’s and yet still attest to doing the will of God we have once again become double minded.  We’ve missed the point.  While these words of James applies to the whole community James may have the leaders “especially,” in view, since they even more so can mess up the way the church ought to work[23].  And in another sense when James speaks of every vile practice we must remember that he’s speaking of believers once again that we choose to mess up its different from when someone with “no pretense of biblical faith,” messes up this sin of ours in essence produces its own kind special brand of sin[24].

We should now know what James does not think what heavenly wisdom is, but now in James begins to move into what it is[25].  In seventeen James now begins to point out what non-wisdom isn’t and what Biblical wisdom is.  That is namely a “lifestyle,” which shows that’s been “influenced,” by Yahweh’s wisdom[26].   In another way of putting it, James is showing what not what Yahweh’s is, but what “wisdom that comes from heaven does[27].”  We should be noting how similar true Wisdom is that of the true faith which James had mentioned already, that is that like true faith, true wisdom is something that is done, something that follows Yahweh’s command[28].

As James goes about this he harkens once more this brothers words of wisdom in the Beatitudes “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5.3-10 And also Paul’s words to the Galatians “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires[29].” 5.23-24

Wisdom moreover is thought of prior to the New Testament as having these characteristics for example[30] As a Psalm of Wisdom says “” (19 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;” (19.8) or Proverbs 3.17 “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”

James finishes this portion by telling us what is that Yahweh’s wisdom grant to us, peace.  Jesus once taught in Matthew 7.16 “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” and in this same sense that if one has true wisdom then they will show that in life, it be evident that if one has biblical wisdom that they are striving toward rightness, striving toward following God[31].  Moreover James is in a way hoping to prove that having this true wisdom is better than having the non-wisdom of man, it helps the community so much more[32].

By striving for peace we strive for toward the “heart” of what Jesus thought and wanted in his disciples[33].  Remember James’ words in 1.20 that we cannot be righteous have “human anger,” so therefore it would reason then in peace however rightness would grow[34].  These words of James once more harkens to the fact that in harvesting (by doing) our deed lead more to peace moreover in his talking about peace one could remember Isaiah’s words in 32.17 “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever[35].”

In Conclusion:

In the beginning we talked of how Percival got it all wrong, because he had misunderstood what his mother’s real wisdom was.  However in time Percival had begun to understand and he followed what his mother had told him correctly.  Our source for wisdom of course comes from a greater source then our mothers, it comes from God himself.  And while at first we may not fully understand it, we have the ability to access what God has written at any time.   While we may have the wrong type of wisdom we can hope to gain Yahweh’s wisdom quickly enough.

After all isn’t it better to see and feel the effects of God’s Wisdom?  To feel peace?  Or would you prefer to go it your own way, to follow the non-wisdom of man and fell its effect?  To feel envy?  Peace or envy it in the end comes to up to a choice, yours choice, my choice.  To follow God and do, or to follow man and sit.

[1] Johnson 270

[2] ESV has elders and cling to their wisdom, but has the above in the footnote

[3] Richardson 162

[4] Moo 169

[5] Leahy 374

[6] Nicott 455

[7] Moo 169

[8] Durken 779

[9] Richardson 163

[10] Moo 170

[11] Moo 170

[12] Durken 779

[13] Leahy 374

[14] Johnson 271

[15] Johnson 271

[16] Richardson 164

[17] Moo 172

[18] Johnson 272

[19] Moo 173

[20] Johnson 173

[21] Leahy 374

[22] Moo 174

[23] Moo 174

[24] Richardson 168

[25] Moo 174

[26] Durken 779

[27] Moo 174

[28] Moo 174

[29] Leahy 374

[30] Nicott 456

[31] Durken 779

[32] Moo 177

[33] Richardson 171

[34] Moo 178

[35] Johnson 275


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