13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. 

There are three prongs of wisdom, the skill of godly living. Wisdom must be factually in the head, fearfully in the heart, and practically in the hands. In this passage, James speaks primarily about the heart and hands. He exhorts us to examine our motives and then pursue peace amongst the church. It is by motives and practices that we can discern true wisdom from false wisdom.

False wisdom is shown by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. These two are the opposite of loving neighbor and loving God, respectively. Bitter jealousy causes us to hate others for what they have and be discontent with what God has given to us. Selfish ambition is a love for self that quenches a love for God. Wisdom can never arise from bitter jealousy and selfish ambition because “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition do not produce wisdom; they produce earthly, unspiritual, and demonic disorder and vile practices.

Proverbs 1:7 opens the books of Proverbs because Solomon knew that true wisdom starts in the heart. All the practical tidings of Proverbs are useless with a love for God and love for neighbor. God has ordered the world in such a way that correct practical conclusions can only reliably come from godly inward affections.

True wisdom is also shown by its root and its fruit.

The root of true wisdom is pure. This purity can refer to the right content of wisdom, but in context, it refers to purity of heart. Wise practical considerations do not always produce peaceableness, gentleness, openness to reason, etc. But a pure heart, one that loves God and loves others, will be able to produce these righteous, beautiful fruits. James says the wise and understanding person shows his works by his good conduct. The good conduct in view here isn’t necessarily a right-versus-wrong kind of conduct; it refers to a beautiful, attractive conduct. A pure root with fruit that is peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere is a beautiful thing in the Church. 

I will close by saying this, it is impossible to love God and love others outside of Christ and the power of His Spirit. When James asks the question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” we ought to think of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is “the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24)

This question prompts two natural responses in our minds: 1) I am a pretty wise and understanding person; or 2) I am not wise; I’m dumb. One reveals our pride, the other reveals our self-deprecation, but they both reveal our tendency to measure wisdom in terms of knowledge.

To the first response, our human wisdom is a paltry wisdom when compared to God (1 Corinthians 1:25). What we consider ourselves wise, we reveal our selfish ambition and bitter jealousy. Your bitter jealousy and selfish ambition condemn you a fool before God. You may know everything there is to know in this world, but it will all be for nothing if you do not know God. 

On the other hand, maybe you do not consider yourself wise and understanding…then it is a good thing Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God. All the treasures of wisdom are hidden in Christ. Whether you consider yourself wise or foolish, hear the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Repent of your sins and believe in Jesus Christ. 

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