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So Are You a ‘Wise Guy’ by God’s Standard?

Sam Horn | August 25, 2022
Theology Thursday

“Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks Pastor James in chapter 3, verse 13 of his epistle.

A fairly straightforward question by today’s standards. Most of us would go along with the Oxford Languages1 definition of “having or showing experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Or even by the standards of James’s day: knowledgeable about the fables and foibles of Rome’s pagan gods, conversant in the Roman Empire’s laws and values, and familiar with Greek poets and philosophers.

Naturally, in verses 14-18, James pokes holes in such notions with God’s more complex and higher standards as to what true wisdom is about, where it comes from, and how it is obtained.

And no wonder: James is often described as the “Proverbs” of the New Testament, given its two direct mentions of wisdom supplemented by more than 40 allusions to Old Testament wisdom literature.

What are God’s standards for true wisdom?

1. True wisdom is spiritual and not earthly.

Just as James contrasts “living” and “dead” faith (2:14), he exposes two kinds of wisdom: spiritual wisdom “from above” (3:17) and “earthly” wisdom that is “unspiritual and demonic.” James’s reference connects back to the “wisdom and understanding” uniquely bestowed upon Israel in Deuteronomy 4:5-6: the means of their success before God and distinction from surrounding nations.

2. True wisdom is inherently relational — fear of YaHWeH.

The apostle’s reference to the “meekness (πραΰτητι) of wisdom” recalls the admonition in Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Thus, “fear” is actually “knowledge of the Holy One.” The same word in 1:21 describes how we are to receive God’s implanted, saving Word. True wisdom is available to those who meekly receive His truth and are in right relationship with Him.

3. True wisdom is primarily moral and ethical.

James describes the opposite of true wisdom as “bitter jealousy,” “selfish ambition,” boasting and untruth. Which recalls Job 28:28 (“The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding”) and Proverbs 2:6–8 (“For the LORD … stores up sound wisdom for the upright”). Wisdom results from cultivating moral character lived out in ethical behavior before God and others.

4. True wisdom is experiential rather than intellectual.

Just as faith is demonstrated by works, James insists wisdom is verified in “good conduct” (v. 13). The term “conduct” implies a consistent way of life as opposed to an occasional act, and “good” implies the idea of being beautiful or beneficial, pointing back to God’s own works when He declared all His Creation “good.” Psalm 111:10 also states all who “practice” wisdom “have a good understanding.” James accordingly exhorts believers to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only (1:22) — living in ways that please God and advance His purposes.

So, what conduct reflects true wisdom?

  • Humility (3:13c): the opposite of an arrogant, caustic, self-serving or self-advancing spirit that resists God, rejects His Word, and desires to rule over others.
  • Pure/whole character (3:17a): an undivided heart (not “double-minded”) that thinks as Christ thinks, values what He values, and responds like He responds to people and circumstances.
  • Other Spirit-filled fruits, including being peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere (3:17).

5. True wisdom is oriented to, and produces, righteousness and peace (3:18).

“Sowing seed” is orienting oneself to please God by doing His will, embracing His values and advancing His Kingdom, with the goal of reaping righteousness in our lives as well as others’.

Many of James’s readers were operating instead based on “wisdom from below.” They were striving to obtain their own desires and get others to do their will, leaving their lives and relationships as “disordered” and “vile” (3:16) as those living in the kingdom of darkness. In contrast, a person operating from God’s wisdom will experience internal peace of mind and heart and relational peace with others — the full-orbed “shalom” God desires His people to live for and strive after.

6. True wisdom comes from God and His Word — but not automatically.

True wisdom is “from above”: it comes from God and belongs exclusively to Him. It’s articulated in “the Word of truth” (1:18), the “perfect law of liberty” (1:25) and the “royal law” (2:8). And it’s implanted by God in our hearts, accessible to every believer willing to receive it with meekness (1:21).

BUT true wisdom is available only to those who ask God for it with an undivided heart (1:5)! James tells us we won’t obtain wisdom on our own or even by reading our Bibles. We must beseech God to open our eyes and reveal it to us from His Word, which He will only do for those who

  • Know Him truly, possessing a living faith.
  • Love Him wholly, with an undivided loyalty.
  • Live for Him unreservedly, with an undoubting mind.
  • And follow Him unwaveringly, for all of our days in all of our ways.

So: are you a “wise guy” or “wise gal” by James’s — really God’s — standard? You know now how to pass the test.

As discussed by Sam Horn on The Steve Noble Show on August 25


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