Monthly Archives: February 2021

Scripture on Sunday: James 3:17

James 3:17
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

In this verse James sets the ‘wisdom from above’ (hē de anōthen sophia; ἡ δὲ ἄνωθεν σοφία) in stark contrast with that wisdom which is ‘earthly, unspiritual, and demonic’ (v.15). The ‘from above’ echoes 1:17, and shows that this wisdom is one of the good gifts given by the father of lights. In fact, the verse picks up many themes already mentioned in the letter, showing that the whole of James’ letter is a sample of that ‘wisdom which is from above.’ If true religion is ‘pure’ (1:27) and gentle (3:13), so also is wisdom. Just as mercy ‘triumphs over judgement,’ so this wisdom will be merciful in its judgements. It is unwavering (1:6-8) or impartial and without hypocrisy (chapter 2).

I noted in my comments on verse 13 what wisdom is: “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). In this verse James will describe what wisdom does, or perhaps better, the effects true wisdom produces in the life of the one who embraces it (Moo, 135).

James speaks of wisdom not in terms of speculative insight into the mysteries of the world or the divine, nor pragmatic wisdom for success in life, but in terms of virtue. The virtues listed include some which are relational in nature (peaceable, gentle, and reasonable) and others which refer to the character or works of the agent (pure, merciful, unwavering, without hypocrisy, and full of good works). Together they provide a perspective into what characterises a wise and virtuous life.

The first and primary characteristic of wisdom is its purity (prōton men hagnē estin; πρῶτον μὲν ἁγνή ἐστιν), a term which for Moo connotes moral blamelessness (135), and for Davids, the unmixed motives of the single-hearted person who serves only God (154). Moo interprets the word in accordance with its use in the New Testament generally, where it refers to the inner purity and moral excellence appropriate for God and for his people. It is noteworthy that the Stoics also referred to the wise as the agnoi (BDAG, 11-12). Nevertheless, in view of the immediate context in which James challenges those who only appear spiritual but who in fact serve with impure motives, and in view of the reference to the ‘double-minded’ in 4:8, it seems better to follow Davids here, though without dismissing Moo’s insight that purity is also a key concern for James (cf. 1:27). That James refers to purity first and subsequently develops his list with a then (epeita; ἔπειτα῎), not only suggests that purity is the first in a series, but also the head waters from which the rest of the virtues flow (see Vlachos, 125).

The next three virtues listed by James (peaceable, gentle, willing to yield) all begin with an e sound, while the final two terms (without partiality and without hypocrisy) all begin with an a sound. James is presenting an alliterative and rhythmic list probably with the intent of rendering it memorable.

The first, ‘peaceable’ (eirēnikē; εἰρηνική) simply means peace-loving and is set in contrast to the disorder and contention spoken of in verse 16 (see NIDNTT, 2:780). It is a characteristic ‘conducive to harmonious and salutary relationship’ (Danker, Bibleworks). ‘Gentle’ translates epieikēs (ἐπιεικής) which BDAG gives a range of possible meanings: yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant (292; also Vlachos, 125 who suggests that in essence it denotes noncombativeness). The final term is eupeithēs (εὐπειθής), translated in the NRSV as ‘willing to yield’ or as ‘open to reason’ in the ESV, perhaps indicating a readiness to listen or to engage in dialogue, though see BDAG (324) where it is rendered obedient or compliant. Wisdom is peaceable because it is gentle and open to reason (Moo, 136). James certainly is not referring to contexts where false teaching is in play, or to a person without convictions, but the character of the wise and understanding person of verse 13 whose life displays this ‘meekness of wisdom.’

The second set of virtues mercy and good fruits (eleous kai karpōn agathōn; ἐλέους καὶ καρπῶν ἀγαθῶν) are coupled together with the word mestē (μεστὴ), ‘full of.’ If the uncontrolled tongue is ‘full of’ deadly poison (v. 8), wisdom is ‘full of’ mercy and good fruits. James has already spoken of mercy as that practical love which shows itself in action, in ‘works’ (2:8-13, 14-26). He uses the word fruit here in place of works perhaps to indicate the organic effect of wisdom, though the use of erga (works) in verse 13 clearly shows that the two terms are functionally equivalent.

A final couplet completes the list: ‘without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy’ (adiakritos, anupokritos; ἀδιάκριτος, ἀνυπόκριτος). These terms also clearly refer to the material dealt with in the second chapter: those who would be genuinely spiritual leaders cannot fall into the failures and sins addressed there. Adiakritos, however, might also be translated ‘unwavering,’ and so refer to the unstable person of 1:6-8. Both terms refuse any form of duplicity in one’s own character and in one’s relations with others.

The overall impact of James’ list is that the wisdom which is from above is characterised by relational virtues and practices that build community, foster relationships, make space for others with forbearance and gentleness, and is open to listen, reason, and dialogue. This wisdom seeks to benefit others at the expense of self, and as such is the equivalent of the love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. Many commentators note that what James attributes to wisdom in this passage functions as the Spirit does in Paul’s writing (e.g. Davids, 154; Moo, 135). Earthly, natural, and demonic wisdom tears at the fabric of community, abusing relations and chooses rather to serve self. In contrast, the wisdom which is from above is an active wisdom, responding to the needs of others in mercy and generous service, without partiality, prejudice, or discrimination, and without pretence or insincerity. This is a wisdom that conforms the wise and understanding person to the life and priorities of the one God, and of the kingdom which is above. The wise person is meek and peaceable, good and generous, exhibiting the gracious character of the God from whom this wisdom comes, all the while exhibiting also the holiness and purity that befits his children.

Scripture on Sunday: James 3:16

James 3:16
For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

In this highly compressed saying James reiterates and summarises the point he has made in verses 14-15 where he warned his listeners that jealousy and envy, selfish ambition and rivalry are a form of wisdom ‘from below’—‘earthly, natural, and demonic.’ The Greek text has no verbs and so heightens the emphasis on place: ‘for where (hopou gar; ὅπου γαρ) jealousy and selfish ambition, there (ekei; ἐκει) disorder and every evil thing’ (Vlachos, 124). There is a sense of inevitability in the admonition, a warning of an unbroken link between cause and effect. Wherever this kind of ‘wisdom’ is operative there will also be these effects which are destructive to the life of the community, and a contradiction of its essential nature.

The first of the effects is disorder (akatastasia; ἀκαταστασία), also translated in some versions as ‘confusion’ (NKJV) or ‘disharmony’ (NJB). The term is used in an adjectival form (akatastatos; ἀκατάστατoσ) in 1:8 and 3:8 to describe the instability of the double-minded man, and the restlessness of the untamed tongue. In 1 Corinthians 14:33 Paul uses it to argue that God is not the author of confusion (akatastasias; ἀκαταστασίας) but of peace, and in his gospel Luke uses it with reference to ‘tumults’ (Luke 21:9). Instead of a community life that is peaceable and well-ordered, there may be instead a fracturing of harmony with outbreaks of disturbances and dissension.

A second result of jealousy and selfish-ambition is ‘every evil thing’ (pan phaulon pragma; πᾶν φαῦλον πρᾶγμα), or perhaps, every evil practice (ESV, NIV). All manner of evil accompanies the outbreak of disorder in the community.

So, too, envy is particularly deadly. James, in these verses, may be influenced by Wisdom 2:24: ‘It was the devil’s envy that brought death into the world, as those who are his partners will discover’ (NJB). So, too, Matthew notes that ‘Pilate knew it was out of jealousy’ that the chief priests and elders of the people had handed Jesus over (Matthew 27:18). The final command of the Decalogue acts to counter the problem of envy. If Paul finds in the love of money the root of all evil, James sees it more fundamentally as the fruit of envy. The two concepts are not far removed from each other, and while James’ emphasis appears to be on would-be teachers and leaders in the community, their motivation is often the acquisition of status and the financial rewards that accompany such elevation.

Lockdown and Location

Image by Queven from Pixabay

Over the last year, we in Perth have looked on with some degree of horror at the suffering experienced by so many in different parts of the world, and even Australia, as a result of COVID-19. For most of us here in Perth, we have been only slightly inconvenienced.

Then this morning, after ten months of an almost COVID-free life, we find ourselves in a five-day hard lockdown. Things can change overnight!

Of course, we hope that the lock down will only go for five days, but much will depend on the results of testing and contact tracing over the next few days. But whatever happens, we are not alone, we are never abandoned, we are always accepted, and we are ever cared for by God. That’s part of the grace of being a Christian.

In Philippians 4:1-9 we are reminded that we are deeply loved and rejoiced over. Just as Paul loved and longed for his friends at Philippi, so God loves and rejoices over each of his children. We are loved with a love that is eternal, unconquerable, and deeply personal; we are loved.

Knowing that we are so loved by God is wonderfully liberating. Being so loved, we don’t have to expend endless energy seeking affirmation and validation or employ endless strategies of self-promotion and self-protection. Being so loved, our hearts can be liberated to trust and to serve. Being so loved we can, as Paul exhorts, stand firm in the Lord, agree in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord, and be at peace in the Lord.

The people of Western Australia have had a sharp reminder that we live in uncertain times. This is true. But while our times and circumstances are uncertain, God’s steadfast love is never uncertain, nor his faithfulness, nor his power. Whenever we are troubled or anxious, whenever we are challenged by circumstances beyond our control, we can turn with prayer and thanksgiving to the God who loves us and cares for us, and promises to be with us on this journey of life.

And nor is his love limited merely to us, for his love embraces the whole of creation, humanity, and history. And so with hearts liberated by love we can turn to God not only with our own concerns and anxieties, but also on behalf of those around us.

Paul is encouraging his friends—and us—to see, understand, and live our whole lives in the Lord. Certainly we live in the world and share all of its vicissitudes, joys and sufferings, but our citizenship is in heaven (3:20), our identity in Christ. We live in the world in accordance with the grace given us in Christ. As Jesus also said: “…in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

And so, wherever you are, and whatever your circumstances:

May the peace of God that passes all understanding
guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,
and the God of peace be with you.

Photo Credit: https://www.vperemen.com