“My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).
It may be easy to listen to a minister as he or she leads a Bible study and think, “I’d like to do that.” After all, a good teacher is generally well-respected. Quality Bible teachers are often treated with honor and dignity, at least within in the church. And of course, helping others to understand and apply God’s Word is a gratifying and fulfilling work. However, James 3:1 alerts us to an important consideration for anyone who may wish to assume the role of “teacher.”
The position of “teacher” is one of a number of spiritual offices (1) that have been established by God for a specific reason: “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 ESV). These various job responsibilities share one important mission- to edify and prepare God’s people to serve in various capacities.
The teacher’s role involves communicating the Scriptures in a way that others can understand, remember, and apply within their daily lives. In this manner, the teacher helps prepare his or her audience to impact others with the truth of God’s Word in whatever area of ministry God has assigned to each individual listener.
While the position of “teacher” may seem attractive, a person who makes the commitment to teach the Scriptures must also accept the accountability that goes along with it. That accountability can be found here in James 3:1: “…we who teach will be judged more strictly” (NIV).
You see, it is possible for a sincere and well-meaning teacher to cause great spiritual and/or emotional damage in the lives of others. Lives may be ruined, churches may be adversely affected, and cultic organizations can get their start if someone begins teaching the Scriptures when he or she really shouldn’t do so.
James 3:1 tells us that a teacher who abuses his or her authority, misrepresents God, or teaches something that is Scripturally unsound will give an account for such actions- and the judgment will be very strict. In addition, a teacher should also expect to be called to account for his or her motivation in seeking to teach the Scriptures and whether he or she actually followed the Scriptural precepts contained within each message.
Therefore, James 3:1 should serve as a cautionary message for anyone who may wish to pursue the office of a teacher in its various forms.
“My friends, not many of you should become teachers. As you know, we teachers will be judged with greater strictness than others” (James 1:1 GW).
In Ephesians 4:11 we read, “…Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers…” (NIV). This tells us that the ministry of teaching involves a calling, a reality that should impact the manner in which we approach this crucial work.
This is important to remember in light of James 3:1 for as one commentator observes, “It would seem… there were many among the first readers of this Epistle in particular, of whom the author knew or at least was afraid that they were more fond of speaking than of hearing, more fond of teaching others than of receiving instruction themselves.” (1)
This is not meant to dissuade someone from engaging in this worthwhile and valuable ministry but it does illustrate the need to count the cost before pursuing such work. Anyone who does not sense God’s calling to teach should think twice before assuming this important responsibility.
You see, the role of a teacher often involves long hours of study and preparation. It may involve learning ancient languages or studying the nuances of particular words to effectively communicate their meaning. It may sometimes mean living with the unrealistic expectations of those who assume that every teacher should possess the ability to instantaneously offer a detailed exposition of an obscure verse or is a subject matter expert in the application of Biblical truth to virtually any topic imaginable.
A person who aspires to this position should also be aware that God may require the teacher to develop a personal acquaintance with various Biblical truths before he or she presents them to others. For instance, a person who is preparing to teach through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount might be placed in a position to implement Jesus’ own teachings from that passage in advance.
The teacher must also live with the humbling realization that he or she is inadequate to fulfill the responsibility of ministering God’s Word without His assistance while guarding against the opposite extreme- the danger of knowing the Biblical material so well that he or she is no longer dependent upon God to effectively communicate it.
Despite these things, a person who is truly called to teach will never be happy doing anything else, for in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “…His message becomes a fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones. I become tired of holding it in, and I cannot prevail” (Jeremiah 20:9 HCSB).
(1) John Peter Lange, The Epistle General of James: an Exegetical and Doctrinal Commentary, pg. 102
“My friends, not many of you should become teachers. As you know, we teachers will be judged with greater strictness than others” (James 1:1 GNB).
The format of a first century worship service often provided an opportunity for those in attendance to publically address the other members of the congregation. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that Paul the Apostle made use of one such opportunity as recorded in Acts chapter thirteen.
This congregational structure may help to explain the admonition of James 3:1 for in the words of one source…
“The Christians carried this opportunity over into the meetings of the early church (cf. 1Co 14:26-33). Consequently there were many in James’ audience who, though not qualified with ability, aspired to teach others publicly for the sake of prestige or some other motive.” (1)
Another commentator expresses this issue more succinctly: “From the general tone of this chapter we suspect there must have been many presumptuous, quarrelsome, worldly-minded men, of uncontrolled temper, putting themselves forward as leaders and teachers.” (2)
This would serve to account for the cautionary prohibition of James 3:1. Its possible that James sought to avoid a recurrence of the same attitude displayed by a number of Old Testament teachers of his generation, an attitude that Jesus soundly rebuked: “…Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Mark 12:38-40 NIV).
Even though it is a tremendous privilege to be used of God to help others grasp the meaning and application of His Word, it is important for a teacher to be honest and realistic concerning his or her motivation for doing so. For instance, are we really interested in honoring God by leading others in a study of the Scriptures or are there other, not-so-good motivations that are hiding behind a veneer of spirituality?
Finally, while it is certainly true that teachers will be held accountable before God, that does not necessarily mean that He will serve as the teacher’s only judge. You see, a teacher will also be subject to judgment among others as well. One teacher spoke with the voice of experience in this regard when he said, ”A doctor buries his mistakes, but a teacher’s mistakes walk around and talk about him.” (3)
(1) Constable, Thomas. DD. “Commentary on James 3”. “Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable”. “http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/print.cgi?bk=58&ch=3&vs=1“. 2012.
(2) Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook Chapter 3:1-12. The Tongue pg. 659
(3) Dick Woodward, New Testament Handbook, The Letter of James Chapter Three: The Sources of the Forces pg. 455
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1 NIV).
Before we leave this portion of Scripture, we should pause to consider one final observation. Although James 3:1 is clearly directed towards those who might seek to assume the role of a teacher, it helps to remember that everyone is a teacher to some degree.
You see, everyone teaches others in a variety of different ways. For instance, musicians teach through their lyrics, leaders teach through their interaction with subordinates, and everyone teaches others by example. Our words, actions, choices, and decisions all serve to instruct and influence our friends, colleagues, and associates for they all teach others about our priorities in life and the things we feel are right and important.
To illustrate this idea, let’s take the example of a Christian who genuinely seeks to honor God with his or her life. In general, a person in this position is likely to make the kinds of decisions that will impact others in a positive manner. In the words of Paul the Apostle, he or she will naturally tend to influence others to “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” in the choices and decisions of daily life. (1)
On the other hand, a person who says that he or she honors God but chooses to live in a manner that fails to live up to that assertion teaches others something very different. James spent much of the previous chapter of this letter admonishing a similar type of mindset- and in this instance, we might appropriate another (but far less encouraging) statement from Paul: “No wonder the Scriptures say that the world speaks evil of God because of you” (Romans 2:24 TLB).
This is an important consideration for virtually everyone possesses a circle of influence, a group of friends or acquaintances who are impacted by our actions or opinions. This degree of influence -however small- can be used to teach and lead others in whatever manner we choose.
So even though someone may not be known or recognized as a teacher, the reality is that everyone serves to teach and instruct others through the example of their lives. Some teach others what to do and some teach others what not to do. The question is, what lessons are others learning from us?
“For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2).
This portion of Scripture continues with a point that any reasonable person would concede: “Indeed, we all make many mistakes” (NLT). For those who may be tempted to object to this self-evident truth, James 3:2 continues by affirming that statement with an undeniable fact: “A person who never said anything wrong would be perfect.” He then concludes by observing, “Someone like that would be able to control their whole body too” (ERV).
So a person who was never at fault in anything that he or she said would be someone with a perfect level of self-control. The following verses then go on to illustrate how such an ability would impact other areas of life by using the visual illustration of a bit in a horse’s mouth or a rudder on a ship…
“Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires” (James 3:3-4).
The idea is that the things we say will help to direct and influence the course of our lives. For example, a person on a ship without the control of a rudder is likely to end up in a place where he or she was not expecting to go. The same can be said for the self-destructive words of a person who cannot control his or her tongue- that person’s words are sure to eventually lead to a negative result.
But a person who cannot control the things that spring from his or her mouth does not live in a vacuum, for that person’s words have an effect upon others as well. For instance, how many people have been injured because someone foolishly said the wrong thing at the wrong time? How many fights, misunderstandings, and disagreements have occurred because someone could not control his or her tongue?
Remember that Jesus said, “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matthew 12:34-35). A person who cannot control the things that he or she says and subsequently brings forth any evil that is stored within is like a rudderless ship that is sure to eventually run aground.
“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go” (James 3:3-4 NIV).
The imagery found within this passage serves to remind us that something very small can influence the direction of something much larger. The same is true for the words we say as well. For instance, the wisdom books of the Old Testament discuss a few of the directions that our words may take us for better or worse…
“The wicked are trapped by their own words, but the godly escape such trouble” (Proverbs 12:13 NLT).
“Smart people keep quiet about what they know, but stupid people advertise their ignorance” (Proverbs 12:23 GNB).
“A wise person’s heart controls his speech, and what he says helps others learn” (Proverbs 16:23 GW).
“The words of a wise person win him favor, but the words of a fool are self-destructive” (Ecclesiastes 10:12 NET).
These Scriptures remind us that our words have an impact on those around us and build a legacy for others to follow or avoid. The New Testament book of Jude provides us with another illustration of this idea in more negative terms..
“These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage” (Jude 1:16).
…while the book of Philippians encourages us to speak and act in a manner that exerts a much more positive influence:
“Do everything without grumbling and arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God who are faultless in a crooked and perverted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15 HCSB).
Just as a ship’s rudder or a bit that is placed in a horse’s mouth are comparatively small when compared to the whole, the ability of the tongue to influence the direction of our lives seems out of proportion to its size. Yet each is capable of inflicting great damage if left uncontrolled. Therefore, we would do well to prayerfully seek the “steering influence” of the Holy Spirit in directing the course of our speech- and the words of Psalm 19:14 help provide us with a valuable guide in that regard…
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength and my Redeemer.”
“Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6).
While this passage primarily relates to the things we say, the reality is that this portion of Scripture may carry an even greater implication when we stop to consider it. You see, its possible for someone to say a lot without ever speaking a word.
For example, have you ever written something in anger and later regretted your choice of words? In that instance, we might modify James 3:6 to read, “the pen is a fire, a world of iniquity.” Or perhaps we may have pressed the “send” button on an email or text message in a moment of frustration and can no longer take back what was written. Someone in that position might readily agree that “the keyboard is a fire, a world of iniquity.”
A person with any degree of online experience certainly understands the truth behind this passage as well. Virtually anyone who participates in an open, online forum will surely find a world of evil (BBE), wickedness (CJB), or injustice and unrighteousness (AMP) among the comments of those who participate.
Since it is often difficult (1) to associate a real person with an online identity, the social, cultural, and societal restraints that are normally associated with face-to-face interaction cease to apply in such instances- and if someone believes that he or she is just an anonymous person on the other side of a wifi connection, then whatever is already inside that person has an opportunity to emerge.
Unfortunately, this often leads to “flame wars” or comments that feature personal attacks, hostile criticisms, racial slurs, and every kind of vicious, argumentative, and malevolent speech- and James tells us why: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (NIV).
For better or worse, the Internet shows us who people really are when the restraints are off. To quote Jesus once again from Matthew 12:34-35, “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
(1) But not always impossible, as some have discovered to their regret
“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6 NIV).
In referring to the “…the course of human existence” (NET), this passage makes reference to the circle of life that is initiated at birth. As one progresses around this circle from birth to death, the evil contained within an unregenerate tongue often serves to enflame both itself and others who may fall within its sphere of influence
As for the use of the word “evil” or “iniquity” in this portion of Scripture, one source observes, “‘Iniquity’ means that which is wrong or unjust, an act of unrighteousness. Because there is such a wide variety of ways that the tongue can sin against God and offend others, it is a ‘world’ of iniquity” (1)
This passage also identifies the source of this capacity for evil when it says that the tongue “…is set on fire by hell itself” (NLT). The word “hell” is translated from the word Gehenna, the Greek form of a Hebrew word that means “the valley of Hinnom.” In the New Testament era, the Hinnom Valley served as something of a centralized garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. All the waste and refuse generated by the city eventually found its way there.
This was the place where dead animals and the bodies of executed criminals were disposed of. It also served as a kind of municipal cesspool that accommodated the human waste generated by the residents of the city. Fires burned continuously within the Hinnom Valley in order to consume this tremendous amount of daily waste, thus making it suitable for use as an illustration to represent the concept of hell
In addition, “hell” is also described within the Scriptures as a lake of fire burning with brimstone (Revelation 20:10), a place of outer darkness (Matthew 25:30), a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12), and a place of torment (Revelation 14:11)
In remarking on the use of a word that evokes such horrific images, one commentary states, “If men object to the concept of hell fire, they must realize that, if these fires are not to be taken literally, it is because the reality which they represent is so terrible that it can only be visualized as everlasting fire, where “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever (Revelation 14:11).” (2)
(1) Caldwell, Bob James 3 The Untamable Tongue v.6
(2) Institute for Creation Research, New Defender’s Study Bible Notes James 3:6 http://www.icr.org/index.php?module=home&action=submitsearch&f_submit=Search&f_context_any=any§ion=bible&f_search_type=bible&f_keyword_any=James+3:6
“For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7-8).
Traveling circuses often feature daring individuals who have trained fearsome lions to perform dramatic stunts. Snake charmers can subdue venomous cobras with the ability to strike and kill at any moment. Aquatic theme parks feature whales, dolphins, and other sea creatures that have been trained to perform for the entertainment of an audience. Each of these examples serves to validate the basic truth of the passage quoted above.
Yet despite humanity’s ability to tame these impressive members of the animal kingdom, James 3:8 tells us, “…no one has ever been able to tame the tongue. It is evil and uncontrollable, full of deadly poison” (GNB). To support this assertion, James goes on to provide us with some clear evidence…
“With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).
One excuse given among non-Christians to justify not going to church is that there are too many hypocrites in the church. While this objection may sometimes serve as a pretense to avoid the real issue, perhaps we might benefit by considering this criticism more closely in light of James 3:7-8.
For instance, how many people speak one way at church but another way at school or on the job? How many people interact with those outside the church in one manner but act very differently while in church? James identifies a similar kind of double-standard when he says, “Praise and curses come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, this should not happen!” (GW)
Since no human being is fully capable of subduing an unruly tongue, its important to remember Jesus’ message from Luke 18:27: “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” Any attempt to do so cannot succeed unless we prayerfully seek God’s power to initiate such change. As the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians reminds us…
“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5 NIV).
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3:9-10 NIV).
How have human beings been made in God’s likeness? Well to answer that question, we must go back to the beginning…
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground'” (Genesis 1:26-28).
As used in the passage quoted above, the word “image” refers to a “resemblance (or) representative figure” while “likeness” means “(to) model.” (1) So the word “image” involves the idea of appearance and “likeness” implies a kind of similarity. When taken together, this portion of Scripture tells us that human beings were created to resemble, model, and represent the God who created us.
With this in mind, we can identify a number of areas where human beings serve to reflect the image and likeness of God. For instance…
- The God of the Scriptures possesses consciousness, or awareness, as do human beings. This would include such things as moral consciousness (being aware of what is right and wrong), self-consciousness (an awareness of ourselves as individuals), and social consciousness (or the proper way to interact with others).
- God has a personality that expresses itself in those things He loves, hates, approves, enjoys, and so forth. In a similar manner, every human being maintains his or her own distinct personality as well.
- God possesses the qualities of knowledge, will, and emotion. Human beings possess these attributes too.
- God can love, and humanity resembles God in the sense that human beings also possess this capacity.
Since human beings have been created God’s image, we have the ability to interact with our Creator in a meaningful way. This also implies that every human person has a basic, inherent, fundamental value that is worthy of respect. This explains why it is inappropriate to “…curse those who are made in God’s likeness” (ISV).
(1) H6754 tselem, H1823 demuth, Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries
“Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh” (James 3:11-12).
James 3:11-12 provides us with a few illustrations (three familiar agricultural commodities along with drinkable and undrinkable water) to emphasize the fact that our actions should be consistent with what we profess to believe. Jesus made use of a similar concept in the Gospel of Matthew when He said this…
“You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16-20).
The Scriptural concept of “fruitfulness” is often used to illustrate the result (or effect) that is brought about by something else. These results may be good or bad depending on the cause. For instance, just as a tree is identified by the fruit it produces, a person may also be known by the result or “fruit” that his or her actions produce.
In general, a God-honoring person is someone who should demonstrate God-honoring characteristics (see 1 Corinthians 13). In addition, the fruit that our lives produce will have an impact upon others for better or worse. Just as a spring cannot produce drinkable and undrinkable water at the same time, we can expect the “fruit” or result of our choices (and their consequences) to have a beneficial or adverse impact upon others. (1)
One effective way to help ensure that our lives produce the right kind of fruit can be found in Jesus’ message to His disciples from the Gospel of John…
“…No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing…
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:4-5, 7-8 NIV).
(1) Of course, this is not to say that we can’t learn a good lesson from someone’s negative example but it’s certainly better to watch and learn from a positive influence than a negative one.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth” (James 3:13-14).
This passage re-introduces a familiar theme that will carry us through the remainder of James chapter three- a theme that occupied a significant portion of James chapter two and concerns the good works that should identify a man or woman of God.
As mentioned earlier, the idea of “wisdom” refers to insight, common sense, and the use of good judgment in the application of knowledge. Wisdom not only refers to a good intellectual grasp of the facts; it also includes the qualities of understanding, perception, and discernment as well.
In an Old Testament sense, this word carries the idea of skill or mastery in the art of living in accordance with God’s expectations. (1) Here in James 3:13, the word “wise” is associated with both spiritual and practical wisdom. (2) So wisdom (or the lack of it) carries an impact that affects our decisions in virtually every area of life.
While the acquisition of wisdom may seem unattainable for someone who is struggling to make good decisions, a message from earlier within the book of James is something that bears repeating.. …
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5 NIV).
Its helpful to remember that God is the source of all true wisdom and that He is willing to share that wisdom -generously- with those who are willing to ask Him. As we’re told in the Old Testament book of Psalms, “To obey the LORD is the fundamental principle for wise living; all who carry out his precepts acquire good moral insight. He will receive praise forever” (Psalm 111:10, NET).
James then goes on to use the word “meekness,” a word that is sometimes identified as a synonym for weakness in our 21st century vernacular. This word may be best understood as a reference to “power under control” and describes a person who chooses to defer to an authority instead of insisting on his or her own way of doing things.
In addition to this God-honoring type of wisdom however, there is another type of wisdom that produces some very different results- and James will go on to examine that kind of “wisdom” next.
(1) chakam OT:2450 Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers. See Ecclesiastes 12:9
(2) sofós NT:4680 Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers.
“…But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth” (James 3:14 NIV).
As implied in the passage quoted above, the qualities of bitter envy and selfish ambition are two types of “wisdom” that are in conflict with a God-honoring way of life.
For instance, “envy” involves a feeling of disapproval when others are blessed or successful. We might think of a bitterly envious person as someone who is not only content to win but also desires to see other individuals lose. If an envious person cannot obtain what someone else has (such as peer recognition, approval, or an accomplishment for example), then he or she may seek to belittle or diminish those things in the eyes of others
“Selfish ambition” is a quality seen among those who are primarily concerned with their own success. In commenting on the use of this term, one source tells us that selfish ambition “…refers to self-seeking that engenders antagonism and factionalism. The Gr. word came to describe anyone who entered politics for selfish reasons and sought to achieve his agenda at any cost (i.e., even if that meant trampling on others).” (1)
These motivational forces of bitter envy and selfish ambition are sometimes driven by an internal desire to obtain preeminence over others. They may also serve to mask a basic sense of insecurity or need for affirmation. Knowing this, its good to prayerfully seek to determine if we are driven by a sincere desire to honor God with our talents, skills, and abilities or if there are other motivations involved in the choices and decisions of our daily lives
James provides us with another important reason for doing so next…
“This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3:15-16).
If we are motivated by a self-seeking desire to demonstrate the amount of knowledge, insight, or understanding we possess, then we would do well to consider the source of such “wisdom.” And while the path of selfish ambition may appear to help us attain those things we desire in life, such achievements are limited at best- and a person who makes use of the type of wisdom that finds its origin in the philosophy of God’s enemy will not be in an enviable position when he or she stands before Him to give an account.
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Jas 3:14). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
“That kind of wisdom doesn’t come from above. It belongs to this world. It is self-centered and demonic. Wherever there is jealousy and rivalry, there is disorder and every kind of evil” (James 3:15-16 GW).
The Scriptures tell us that there are certain types of “wisdom” that are built on sources that are worldly, unspiritual, and/or demonic. For instance, let’s take the example of a person who utilizes the kind of “wisdom” that does not accept the existence of God or an afterlife. A person who attempts to live his or her life under that premise is someone who makes a foolish choice- and choices lead to consequences for better or worse. (1)
You see, a person who rejects the kind of wisdom that “comes from above” must deal with the impact of that decision on a daily basis. This means that a person who subscribes to this kind of life philosophy is someone who will have to confront the ramifications of that belief: jealousy (ASV), selfishness (ERV), rivalry (GW), disharmony (CJB), confusion (KJV), disorder (ESV), and every kind of evil (HCSB).
This kind of philosophy represents a type of wisdom that cannot co-exist with the God-honoring wisdom that James will go on to detail in the following verses. The New Testament book of 1 Corinthians explains this issue in the following manner…
“I know very well how foolish it sounds to those who are lost, when they hear that Jesus died to save them. But we who are saved recognize this message as the very power of God. For God says, ‘I will destroy all human plans of salvation no matter how wise they seem to be, and ignore the best ideas of men, even the most brilliant of them.’
…God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never find God through human brilliance, and then he stepped in and saved all those who believed his message, which the world calls foolish and silly. It seems foolish to the Jews because they want a sign from heaven as proof that what is preached is true; and it is foolish to the Gentiles because they believe only what agrees with their philosophy and seems wise to them” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19, 21-22 TLB)
As one source observes, “There is a form of “wisdom” in our world’s fallen reasoning. But the world’s wisdom… does not take into account the eternal consequences for our life’s actions. James still calls it ‘wisdom,’ but he categorizes it as wisdom ‘from below.'” (2)
(1) Psalm 14:1
(2) Caldwell, Bob James 3 The Untamable Tongue v.15
“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:17-18).
James chapter three closes with a short list of God-honoring characteristics that should serve to influence our interaction with others. The primary virtue associated with this “wisdom from above” is purity, an attribute that sets the foundation for the qualities that follow.
“Peaceable” represents a characteristic that serves to direct our conversation away from arguments, quarrels, and disputes. This does not necessarily mean that we should refrain from engaging with those who are adversarial or confronting those who are wrong but it does mean that we should abstain from personal insults, ad hominem attacks, name-calling, bullying, and similar negative behaviors in our interaction with others.
Gentleness is an quality that can serve to diffuse a potentially confrontational situation. To be reasonable (or willing to yield) involves a willingness to listen and consider another’s person’s point of view and modify our own opinions when it is appropriate to do so
The best commentary on the use of the term “good fruits” can be found in the New Testament book of Galatians: “…the fruit that the Spirit produces in a person’s life is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these kinds of things” (Galatians 5:22-23 ERV).
Then there is the term “without partiality,” a phrase that recalls James’ denunciation of favoritism and prejudice from earlier within this letter. “Without hypocrisy” is another concept that was touched upon earlier within the Epistle of James and serves as a reminder to guard against the tendency to present ourselves as something different from who we really are.
These Godly characteristics should govern the manner in which we interact with others, even those who are combative, adversarial or those with whom we may vehemently disagree. As Jesus once said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9 NIV)
To borrow the terminology of James 3:18, those who act as reconcilers, peacemakers and mediators sow the kind of seed that produces the fruit of righteousness. As one commentator has observed in this regard, “These two types of wisdom and all of their manifestations not only have sources, but they have seeds, and they can be sown in our lives… And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (1)
(1) Dick Woodward, New Testament Handbook, The Letter of James Chapter Three: The Sources of the Forces pg. 455