James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
In 2:14-26, James emphasized works as an essential outgrowth of faith. He noted that, when we encounter someone who is hungry, they need food––not just high-sounding words. He then says, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself” (2:17).
He spoke of Abraham and Rahab, who were “justified by works” (2:21, 25). He concluded that section by saying once again, “Faith apart from works is dead” (2:26).
In 3:1-12, He spoke of the great power of the tongue––too often destructive. He compared the tongue to the bit in a horse’s mouth that controls the whole animal––and to the rudder of a boat that steers the whole ship––and to a small fire that can destroy a great forest. The little tongue also exerts great pull on the direction of our lives.
Now in 3:13ff, James encourages “deeds …done in gentleness of wisdom” (3:13)––and speaks disparagingly of boasting and lying (3:14). He speaks of “the fruit of righteousness (which) is sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:18).
He goes on to speak of “wars and fightings among you,” which stem from lust and covetousness (4:1-3). He inveighs against “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition,” and warns that, “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (4:4). He tells us to resist the devil, but to draw near to God (4:7-8).
It would be easy to see these as discrete bits of wisdom, suffering from a lack of connection. However, that isn’t the case. His major theme is faith that produces good works, and the rest are practical applications of that principle.
JAMES 3:13-18. WISDOM AND UNDERSTANDING
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds are done in gentleness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and don’t lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every evil deed. 17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. 18 Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” (v. 13a). This is a challenge––raise your hand if you believe you are wise and understanding. Be prepared to answer a few questions. If you are truly wise and understanding, you will understand that we will scrutinize your claim. If you aren’t truly wise and understanding, you can be sure that our questions will reveal that.
“Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds (Greek: erga––works) are done in gentleness (Greek: prautes) of wisdom” (v. 13b). This is analogous to James’ emphasis on faith producing good works. Now he suggests that wisdom and understanding will produce good conduct––with wisdom’s gentleness.
The word prautes is related to the word praus, which is usually translated gentle or meek. Those words suggest weakness or timidity, but Matthew describes Jesus as praus (Matthew 11:29; 21:5), and Jesus was neither weak nor timid. He upended money changers’ tables and used a whip to drive animals from the temple. He lashed Pharisees with his tongue. He exercised authority over illness and demons. He taught with authority. Hardly meek as we usually think of meek!
When James tells us that wisdom and understanding produce works done in gentleness (prautes), the image that comes to mind is a strong man bending to comfort a crying child. When God gives us wisdom and understanding, we will find that we have also been blessed with that kind of gentle strength.
“But if you have bitter jealousy (Greek: zelos) and selfish ambition (Greek: eritheian) in your heart” (v. 14a). In verse 13, James called for deeds done in gentleness and wisdom. Now he shows the other side of the coin––”bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.”
The word zelos (zeal, fervor, jealousy) can be good or bad. When Jesus cleansed the temple, it was counted to him as zeal for the Father’s house––good zeal (John 2:17). But zelos is often used in a bad sense, as when the high priest and his colleagues, filled with jealousy (zelos), arrested the apostles (Acts 5:17-18).
Eritheian refers to the kind of selfish ambition exhibited by those politicians who are more concerned with keeping their office than for the welfare of the nation. That sort of selfish ambition isn’t limited to politics, but rears its head in almost every walk of life.
“don’t boast and don’t lie against the truth” (v. 14b). Jealous and/or ambitious people have no right to boast of their wisdom and understanding (v. 13). To make such claim would be lying––speaking contrary to the truth.
“This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic” (v. 15). The kind of “wisdom” characterized by “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” doesn’t come down from above. It isn’t a gift from God, but is instead earthly (this-worldly), sensual (natural as opposed to spiritual), and demonic (evil).
“For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every evil deed” (v. 16). In verse 13, James encouraged the wise and understanding to show their good conduct by deeds done in gentleness of wisdom. That was a call for them to allow their good gifts to produce good fruit.
Now he outlines what we can expect from wisdom that does not come down from above––earthly, sensual, demonic wisdom. That sort of wisdom creates confusion (or instability) and evil deeds.
“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (v. 17). The wisdom from above produces that which is good:
- Pure (hagnos)––chaste, guiltless, morally pure, without corruption.
- Peaceful (eirenikos)––disposed to keep the peace.
- Gentle (epiekes)––appropriate, lenient, tolerant.
- Reasonable (eureithes)––easy to get along with.
- Full of mercy (mestos eleos)––ready to extend grace––––to give––to forgive.
- And good fruits (agathos karpos)––see Galatians 5:22-23.
- Without partiality (adiakritos)––not showing favor to one group over another.
- Without hypocrisy (anypokritos)––not putting on a false face.
“Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (v. 18). Jews thought of righteousness as conforming to Torah law. We might think of it as conducting ourselves in accord with God’s will. The person who does this will sow the fruit of righteousness in peace.
JAMES 4:1-3. WHERE DO WARS AND FIGHTINGS COME FROM?
1 Where do wars and fightings among you come from? Don’t they come from your pleasures that war in your members? 2 You lust, and don’t have. You kill, covet, and can’t obtain. You fight and make war. You don’t have, because you don’t ask. 3 You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures….
“Where do wars and fightings among you come from? Don’t they come from your pleasures (Greek: hedone) that war in your members?” (v. 1). But, although James has spoken of peace in 3:18, peace is often elusive. Nations are divided, often violently. Sadly, we all too often see “wars and fightings” even in the church.
James asks rhetorically where these wars and fightings come from. He answers that question, saying that they have their source in our pleasures (hedone) that war within us.
In the New Testament, hedone is always associated with physical pleasure––eating, drinking, and making merry. It is where we get our word hedonism, which involves the over-emphasis on personal pleasure.
In a church, hedone might express itself as too much self-indulgent behavior––perhaps expressing itself as too much emphasis on getting our own way. Any time more than one person is engaged in that kind of behavior, “wars and fightings” naturally follow.
“You lust, and don’t have. You kill, covet, and can’t obtain. You fight and make war” (v. 2a). James spells out the results of “pleasures that war in your members” (v. 1). People who engage in that sort of behavior find themselves unfulfilled––unsatisfied. While they might gain the pleasure that they sought, that pleasure won’t fill the hole at the center of their lives.
“You don’t have, because you don’t ask. You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures” (v. 2b-3). Asking in this instance refers to asking in prayer. One fault would be failing to pray. Another fault would be praying selfishly. We cannot expect God to answer prayers that are not in accord with his loving will for us.
JAMES 4:7-8a. RESIST THE DEVIL––DRAW NEAR TO GOD
7 Be subject therefore to God. But resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8a Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
“Be subject (Greek: hypotasso) therefore to God” (v. 7a). The Greek word hypotasso means “to place in order” or “to place in submission.” The natural order of things calls for us to subject ourselves to God––to allow God to be the king of our lives––to live in compliance with God’s will.
“But resist the devil (Greek: diabolos), and he will flee from you” (v. 7b). Here is the other side of the coin. We are to make ourselves subject to God, while fleeing the devil.
The Greek word diabolos (devil) is the equivalent of the Hebrew word satan. In the Old Testament, Satan is an accuser in the heavenly court. In the New Testament, the devil takes on the character of a tempter here on Earth (Matthew 4:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 3:5).
Peter warned, “The devil walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8)––an apt metaphor. Lions might roar, but they also stalk––quietly and with great stealth. In like manner, the devil pursues us relentlessly––skillfully assessing whether we might be most easily tempted by high things or low––whether we might be most easily persuaded to go an inch in the wrong direction––or a mile.
James promises that, if we resist the devil, the devil will flee from us. If we subject ourselves to God and resist the devil, God will grant us victory over the devil.
We shouldn’t assume that the devil will never return to tempt us––but each time we resist the devil, we will grow a little stronger in our ability to resist. We can expect there to be a next time, but we can also expect that we will find our resistance a little more robust after successfully resisting this time.
“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (v. 8a). Once again, James shows us the other side of the coin. If we resist Satan, we can anticipate that he will flee from us––but if we draw near to God, we can be sure that God will draw near to us.
Drawing near to God involves traditional spiritual disciplines: Prayer, the reading of scripture, private and corporate worship, involvement in the life of the church, and helping those who are vulnerable. It also involves obedience (subjecting ourselves to God’s will) and resisting the devil.
The promise is that, if we run toward God, we will find God running toward us. The parable of the prodigal son comes to mind. When the son returned home, pleading to be restored, not as a son but as a servant, the father “was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). That was the beginning of a great celebration for the son who was dead but was now alive again (Luke 15:24).
We too are guilty, but God remains the loving Father who is looking down the road, hoping to see us return. We can be sure that he will draw near to us when we seek to draw near to him.
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Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan