This passage contains the phrase that gives the title to this entire series of messages, the phrase “the wisdom from above.” But this wisdom from above is not an abstract set of rules. Never forget that our wisdom from above has a name, and His name is Jesus. He is the wisdom from above.
“My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole
body . . .” (Jas. 3:1-18).
Summary of the Text
James tells us here that not many should want to be teachers (v. 1) because teachers come under a stricter judgment. We all stumble in many ways, including in our words, and teachers do it up in front of everybody (v. 2). If a man controls his tongue, then that means he is able to control himself entirely (v. 2). A bit is a horse’s mouth is small, but can direct the whole animal (v. 3). A ship of great size, and in a great storm, is still directed by a small helm (v. 4). The tongue is small but influential in the same way (v. 5). The tongue is a fire, a cosmos of iniquity, which is set on fire by Hell, defiles the whole body, and sets the entire wheel of life on fire (v. 6). Every kind of beast has been tamed by man (v. 7), but the tongue not so much (v. 8). The tongue is schizophrenic, blessing God and cursing the image of God (v. 9). Blessing and cursing gush out of the same mouth (v. 10), which is not fitting. Does a fountain do that (v 11)? Does a fig tree bear contrary to its nature? Does a vine (v. 12)? Neither does a fountain.
The tongue is a helm. Who is the helmsman? If we want to know who the wise man is, we look for a good way of life and meekness of wisdom (v. 13). But if envy and strife is residing in your heart, then stop vaunting in your glory, and stop lying against the truth (v. 14). This wisdom (for some call it “wisdom”) does not come down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and devilish (v. 15). Where this heart is, then confusion, disorder, and every vile practice follow (v. 16). The wisdom that does come from above, and which Jesus is the perfect embodiment of, is pure, peaceable, easily entreated, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and honest (v. 17). Those who make peace are sowing peace, and the harvest is righteousness (v. 18).
Where We Actually Are
Whenever a minister announces that he is going to preach on “tongue,” the response is this: And all God’s people said uh oh. But we often hide our real problems under a veil of hyper-sensitivity to the wrong things. This passage is not at all describing a couple of church ladies chatting about who might get engaged next. Why do we always assume this is about gossip? Gossip isn’t even mentioned here. This is all about ambition, power struggles, envy, strife, in-fighting, cursing, throwing elbows, and so on. And before we say something like, “Oh, that’s a relief then,” we need to do a little spiritual inventory. James seems to think this problem is far more common than we tend to think.
Not Many Teachers
Teachers operate in a stand of trees; their calling puts them in a forest. And on top of that, teachers labor with their tongues, with words. This means that if the “unregulated fire” of their words gets loose, the result is a forest fire.
Claimants to Wisdom
James is not just comparing two kinds of people. He is comparing two kinds of people, each kind claiming to be the rightful possessor of something called “wisdom.”The question is “who is the wise man?”Who has true knowledge? The answer is that real wisdom is meek (v. 13). There is a kind of wisdom that isn’t, that wants to glory in its envy and strife, wants to lie against the truth, and still call it wisdom (v. 15). James calls it wisdom too, after a fashion, but he says that it is earthly, sensual and devilish. And like a squid spraying ink, it frequently gets away with this response because when everything gets disordered and confused enough, nobody can tell who did or said what.
Real wisdom, the kind that comes from above, is peace-seeking, gentle, full of mercy and sweet reasonableness. It is marked, not by claims to impartiality, but by impartiality. It is marked, not by claims that it is easily entreated, but by being easily entreated. Real wisdom does not conjugate the verb this way—I am firm, you are stubborn, he is pig-headed. In the final analysis, if you want to know what was planted, look at the harvest.
Wisdom from Above
Remember the perfections of Jesus, and marvel at this crowning perfection—the fact that He was not totally exasperated all the time, in every conversation He ever had. But look at how He lived. He emptied Himself, took the form of a servant, and was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Not only did He spend His time with us, He spent His life for us.
Envy and strife do not set their face to go to Jerusalem to be crucified by the chief priests and scribes. They don’t see any future for self in that. Self-centered glory does not set a child in the midst of disciples jockeying for position and tell them that they must be like that. Self-centered glory rather tries to keep the children away. Devilish ambition does not teach us to take the lowest seat so that God may be the one who promotes us. Devilish ambition cannot help itself, and must seek its own glory.
Jesus is the wisdom of God, and lest you assume that this meekness means becoming a doormat in the face of evil, remember that this meekness from God cleansed the Temple with a whip, rebuked the Pharisees with high satire, and was enough of a firebrand that the authorities had Him crucified as a public menace.