James 3:13-18

True and False Wisdom

James begins with a penetrating question, Who is wise and understanding among you? (v.13)  The answer to this question is not as obvious as it might first appear.  How would you answer this question?   Are you wise and full of understanding?  How do you know?

Some commentators believe that this question is not pulled out of the blue but rather is addressed to the teachers that James referenced back in verse 1 of the chapter.  Remember he began the chapter by warning those who were considering stepping forward to teach in the church to do some soul searching first, as teachers will be judged more strictly than others.  If this question is in fact addressed potential teachers, it highlights for us the difficulty of determining who is wise.  There are occasions when we have little difficulty is discerning between good and evil, right and wrong, black and white.  But when it comes to the topic of who is wise, we have more difficulty.  Charles Spurgeon once observed in a sermon, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”
We feel this when we come to the topic of wisdom.  The difference between true and false wisdom is sometimes not as clear as right versus wrong but more about right versus almost right.

James will show us here that there are two kinds of wisdom.  One wisdom we should do all we can to get and one that we should do all we can to avoid.  These two kinds of wisdom are distinguished in where they come from, what they look like, and what they accomplish.

#1 Where They Come From

There is a wisdom we settle for and a wisdom we receive.  The wisdom we settle for is described in verse 15 as earthly, unspiritual, demonic.

EarthlyAs opposed to the wisdom that comes down from above (v.15), this wisdom is worldly.  It is easy to come by because it is rooted in this world.  This is the “natural” wisdom Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”  This is the wisdom that Solomon wrote about in Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”  We are all too familiar with this wisdom.  It’s easy to get.  It makes sense.  But in the end it leads to death.

Unspiritual. This false wisdom does not come from the Holy Spirit but rather is unspiritual coming from the flesh.  Again the apostle Paul reflects on the spiritual nature of the wisdom we have received from God in 1 Corinthians 2:12-13: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”

Demonic.  Just as James told us of a demonic faith (James 2:19), so here he tells us of a demonic wisdom.  Certainly it doesn’t appear on the surface as demonic, but James tells us that this is exactly what is going on.

Taken together this false wisdom is of the world (earthly), the flesh (unspiritual) and the devil (demonic).  By contrast there is a true wisdom that does not come from ourselves but is heavenly, spiritual, and divine.  It is the wisdom that comes down from above (v.15).

#2 What They Look Like

Not surprisingly heavenly wisdom and earthly wisdom look very different.  Remember that it was Jesus who said in in Luke 6:43-44 that “no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit.”  If my heart is filled with heavenly wisdom, good fruit will result.  And conversely the opposite is true, when I am filled with worldly wisdom.  

False Wisdom

Worldly wisdom manifests itself in bitter jealousy and selfish ambition (v.14) but even these are difficult to detect as James says they are in your hearts.   This jealousy and ambition is a perverted form of zeal that is to be a defining mark of the children of God.  But rather than being zealous for the glory of God, this person is zealous for his own glory.  This wisdom is a self-centered wisdom.  Often it comes across as confidence, and the world respects confidence, even if it is an arrogant confidence.  

True Wisdom

On the other hand, the wisdom that comes to us from above, from the Holy Spirit is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere (v.17).  This is remarkably similar to how Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.  Paul says there are certain signs, or fruit, that make themselves known in someone who possess the Holy Spirit — things like love, joy, and peace.  Here James says there are certain signs, such as purity, peace, gentleness, that will be apparent in the life of the one who possesses real wisdom from God.  This is theme that we have seen in James so far.  We’ve already seen that real faith will demonstrate itself in good works.  Here James says that the one who has real wisdom will show it by his good conduct (v.13).  Real wisdom will actually make a difference in my life!  Bible commentator J.A. Motyer puts it this way:

There are those who live closely to God, see more clearly into things than others do, and just know how to manage life’s varied circumstances.  They are godly in character, sharp in discernment and helpful in their advice and counsel.  (The Message of James, p.130)

#3 What Happens as a Result

So what happens if my life is filled with one kind of wisdom rather than another?  James tells us.  Those who possess worldly wisdom and nature jealousy and selfish ambition, will see all around them disorder and every vile practice (v.16).  Again we are are reminded of Jesus’ words that good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit.  As Moses once said to the tribes of Israel, “your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).  

And conversely, for those who submit to and are filled with heavenly wisdom will see good fruit produced: a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (v.18).  Rather than disorder and vileness, peace and righteousness is the end result of heavenly wisdom.


And so we return to the question James asked, Who is wise and understanding among you?  Are you wise?  Which wisdom are you pursuing?  Don’t settle for worldly wisdom, but rather pursue the wisdom that comes down from above.  Cling to the promise  James spelled out in the opening lines of his letter: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (1:5)

Discussion Questions

  1. According to verse 13 how does someone demonstrate wisdom and understanding?
  2. What is the relationship between meekness and wisdom?
  3. In the passage James describes true wisdom and false wisdom.  What are some evidences of false wisdom?
  4. What effect can bitter jealousy and selfish ambition have on a person’s life?
  5. How can we put to death the bitter jealousy and selfish ambition that exists in our hearts?
  6. How does James describe true wisdom?  What are the evidences of this true wisdom?
  7. Read verse 17.  Of all these characteristics of true wisdom, which one do you most need?  Why?
  8. In what area of your life do you most need to ask God to give you true wisdom?
  9. What is one thing that you will do as a result of studying this passage?


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