Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
We have seen the destructive results of faulty wisdom, and now James highlights for us the constructive results of wisdom from above. Here in verse 17 James gives us a list of things that characterize wisdom from above. When James refers to this wisdom as “wisdom from above” he is making two things clear. First, this wisdom is real wisdom, in contrast to the false wisdom he has just described. Second, this wisdom is from God. This wisdom is God’s own wisdom which he has made available through His grace. In Matthew 7:24 Jesus said that “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to the wise man…” What is interesting is that when we look at the words that Jesus was talking about we see that he was talking about salvation. In verse 14 he spoke of the “narrow gate” and in verse 23 we see him emphasizing the importance of a relationship with him. There can be no wisdom from above apart from Christ. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 1:24 Christ is called “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” As we look at this list of traits that characterize godly wisdom it will be helpful to remember that the wise person will conform to the ultimate revelation of wisdom, Christ himself.
In 2:14-26 we saw that true faith is identified by the quality of life that it produces. The same is true with regards to wisdom. Here we have a list of what wisdom results in. The number one characteristic of godly wisdom is purity. Purity is to be free from sin, innocent, and blameless. This is an even stronger term than the word translated as “pure” in 1:27. This word, “pure,” comes from the Greek word for holy. The problem is that no one can live up to this moral standard. No one is pure; everyone has been stained by sin. How do we attain this purity? 1 John 3:1-3 answers that question. When our hope is fixed on Christ, who is pure and holy, we will be made pure through the forgiveness of our sins. This hope is the first step in attaining wisdom from above; the result of this hope is purity. The remaining seven characteristic on James’ list are all qualities that describe a life that is pure. James uses organizes these remaining characteristics into three groups by using alliteration in the first and third group.
The first three terms peaceable, gentle, and reasonable all start with the same letter and have similar endings. Really this is the opposite of what we saw in verses 15 and 16. Again, James’ teaching reflects that of Christ. In Matthew 5:9 Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.” This word translated as gentle conveys the idea of being ready to yield to others without consideration of what you think that your own rights are. This means that it does not matter whose fault something was you are willing to help with the solution. You will never point fingers. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit for something. This is a wise person. This is what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 5:10-11, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” On top of being peaceable and gentle the wise person is also reasonable. This is not a hard concept to understand. To be reasonable is to be willing to learn. It is the ability to keep your mouth shut, even if you think you are right, long enough to know what someone else is saying. To be reasonable is to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” (1:19) All three of these characteristics will promote unity in within the Church; which had proved to be elusive for James’ original readers. In 2:1-13 we saw that their local church body was not unified, but rather divided by social class. In chapter 4 we will see that they had all sorts of problems with unity. In 5:1-6 we see, again, that the rich were taking advantage of the poor. Unity was a serious problem, and the only cure was God-given wisdom.
I will highlight the last two groups of characteristics that describe a pure life tomorrow.