The Gospel for the Rest of Us: Genuine Wisdom for Daily Life

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on January 21, 2017

James 3:13-18

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As you’re taking a seat, if you would take your Bibles and turn with me to the book of James. We’re finishing up chapter 3, tonight in our study in this wonderful New Testament book. James 3, and we’ll be looking at verses 13 to 18. You’ll find that on page 1012 if you’re using a pew Bible. And if you’re a visitor, great to have you with us. We’re glad you’re here with us tonight. And again, as David said, if there’s anything we can do please don’t hesitate to ask. James 3, beginning at verse 13. This is God’s holy, inspired, and therefore inerrant Word, so lets' pray and ask His blessing upon it as we read it. Let’s pray!


Father, now wisdom is what we need. We’ve got a lot of voices around us claiming to be wise counselors. If they’re not of You and they’re not based on what we’re about to hear, please shut them out and show us Him in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden, for we pray in Jesus’ matchless name. Amen.


James 3 beginning at verse 13:


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


Thus ends the reading of God’s Word. May He add His blessing to it?


I just read this week that one of the fastest growing careers the past year was the career of Life Coach. And the author I read who was talking about this, he said basically a Life Coach is somewhere between a really good friend and a counselor. So people hire a Life Coach for financial things; if you’re an executive you might hire one. Basically, their job is to help you live life more skillfully. They charge about $300 per hour so it’s not on the cheap. And when you stop and think about it, it’s really easy to see why that’s a fast growing career. How many times this week have you faced a decision and said, “Boy, I wish I had some help to make that decision. I wish I had some wisdom beyond myself”? How many times have you felt overwhelmed that the circumstances that faced you were beyond your wisdom and you said, “I really wish I had somebody to talk me through this”? And maybe you did and maybe you wished you had somebody else. We find ourselves stumbling along. And here’s what James does tonight. He says, “I’m going to tell you about the best Life Coach ever. Here is wisdom, the wisdom you need, and it’s on offer for free. So if you want it, come and get it.” That’s what he’s saying.


Now let me just again set the context as we finish here chapter 3. James started in chapter 2, the heart of his epistle, this contrast that’s going to run straight through to the end of chapter 4. He says there’s this faith that is genuine and then there’s demonic faith. And then last week he said there’s this speech that is right and good and true, then there’s this speech that is set on fire by hell. And tonight he continues that same contrast and says there’s wisdom from above and then there’s earthly, unspiritual, demonic wisdom. In each case, he is setting before us a contrast. He is saying there are two and only two ways to live your life. You will be more or less consistent on one end of those spectrums – two and only two ways. And so the main point of what he says to us tonight is that genuine faith will always, always result in genuine wisdom in daily life. Genuine faith will always result in wisdom in genuine wisdom in daily life. We’ll look at this text under two headings. In the first place, hellish wisdom, and in the second place, heavenly wisdom. So two “H”s – hellish wisdom versus heavenly wisdom.


“Hellish Wisdom”


Look back there at the text with me. Notice how James begins. We’re going to skip verse 13 and go right to verse 14; we’ll come back to verse 13. “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” So James begins this section and the next with a question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Then he goes on to explain that. As I said, we’ll come back to it. Then he immediately begins this contrast and he says, “There’s this kind of ‘wisdom’ which is not really wisdom at all but it appears to be that way.” And when we read through that list, did it not read like the headlines of today’s newspapers, news feeds? This is what we see all around us. Let’s pick it apart phrase by phrase.


He talks about bitter jealousy and selfish ambition and the words here has the connotation really of somebody who is completely focused on himself or herself and it totally miserable. And this is, it reminds me of a routine by a comedian by the name of Brian Regan. You need to Google this! He does this routine about the “Me Monster” okay? This is the person at the party who always has the best story. I won’t ruin the punchline, but he’s got a great punchline for, “How do you overcome the ‘Me Monster’”? You know that person who wants to tell you that his vacations are better than yours, his car is better than yours, his life is so much better than yours, his Twitter feed is better than yours – Me, Me, Me, Me, Me, Me, Me! Bitter, jealousy, and selfish ambition – that is what marks out first of all this wisdom from below.


Selfish People Are Boasters by Definition

And then James says, “If this is in your heart, do not boast and be false to the truth.” We could also translate what he writes here this way. “Do not boast about your worldly wisdom because to do so is to deny the truth even more clearly.” In other words, James is making a progression here. He’s saying if you are all about you and you’re focused on you and you’re miserable – and here’s the crazy thing that sin does – you begin to boast about that. Selfish people, by definition, are boasters. If you’re all about you, you’re all about you all of the time and you want to make sure everybody knows all about you all of the time. And James says if you do that, you’re just denying the truth you know deep down inside which is, very simply, life is not all about us. You’re boasting and being false to the truth is what James says.


Three Characteristics of Wisdom from Below:

It’s Earth-Bound

And then he gives three characteristics to kind of sum up what this wisdom from below looks like. First of all, it’s earth-bound. It is totally concerned with the here and now. I am willing to bet the majority of the advertisements we saw or heard this past week said to us, and maybe not blatantly but the under-the-radar message that was communicated by all of them was this, “This life is all there is. Live it up.” And that’s not new, is it? Paul talks about it in Corinthians. He said that the philosophy in his day by one of the Greek philosophers was, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” That’s earth-bound wisdom. That’s what we hear all around us. “Just live for the now, man!” That’s what we hear.


It’s Unspiritual

And then James says it’s unspiritual. And he’s using this phrase here in a very particular way. You could actually capitalize the “S.” In other words, what he’s saying is, “This is the ‘wisdom’ that is opposite of the wisdom that the Holy Spirit produces.” Because it’s earth-bound, because it’s from below, it has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. It’s not focused on spiritual things. It’s focused on itself, this life, and really doesn’t care about spiritual things. It’s apathetic towards them. And friends, that’s maybe where you are tonight. That’s what we see all around us. If you’re a Christian, so many people disengaged, really don’t care what we have to say. Sometimes that’s our fault; we’ve got to own that. But this is a kind of lifestyle that says, “Yeah, I’m just not interested in all that Jesus stuff.”


It’s from Demons

And James then puts a fine point on it and brings us to the apex as it were the mountain peak. He says, again to continue that theme, “Where does this come from? Where does this kind of thinking originate?” And he tells us it’s from demons. Now as we did last week, let’s take a step back and think about that for a second because in movies and in popular literature and on websites and everything else, demon possession is all about kind of crazy sounds and weird sights and phenomenon. And maybe that’s part of it, but James is telling us the way that we’re most likely going to see demonic activity in our lives is by our speech and by so many who buy into this kind of a lifestyle, who buy into thinking this is the right way to live your life, that this kind of “wisdom” is the way to go about living. And James says the source of that, when people are bewildered by this when people are taken in by it, the source of that is the very pit of hell itself.


The Nature of Demonic Activity

Demonic activity, in other words, does not look like we think it does. It can be subtle. And that’s part of the problem with it. As David unfolded for us in the book of Revelation when we talked about the demonic activity in this world, it’s in the structures that are behind the scenes. It’s in the subtle, everyday ways that we live our lives that become so much like the world around us that we don’t even notice it. Don’t you feel that? Haven’t you seen that where it’s almost like the atmosphere you breathe? And indeed, that’s what happens, James says. There are results! Notice what he says. “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exists, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” That word for “disorder” is the opposite word from 1:18 where James talks about somebody being unstable. It’s the same word; I’m sorry! It’s this instability that results from this kind of awful wisdom. Disorder and every vile practice. Remember, Satan hates order because order was established at creation by God. He wants to do whatever he can to bring chaos and disorder all around our lives and the way he does that is to make us all into Me Monsters; to make life all about us, all about the here and now, all about what we want, what we feel, what we think is best instead of what God tells us.


Here's how one psychiatrist describes our lives. He says this. “In everyday life, we are continually soaked in this unhealthy atmosphere of mutual criticism.” This unhealthy atmosphere of mutual criticism. Isn’t that how our lives looked this week? Somebody criticizes us and instead of responding with “a soft answer that turns away wrath” like Proverbs 15:1 says, we fire right back. Guilty. This is how all of us begin to think like this. “It’s all about me. I need to stand up for myself, protect my rights; make sure everybody knows how great I am.” And it seems right. It seems intuitive. And James says that’s the problem! And if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll always get what we’ve got. And so James says you’ve got to make your choice – keep doing the same old way, live in that unhealthy atmosphere of mutual criticism, live there, or if you’re tired of that, if you’re tired of this kind of a lifestyle of disorder and every vile practice just impinging on you, James says, “Stop, take a breath, look up, let me tell you about something better.”


“Heavenly Wisdom”


That’s what he does in the second place here with heavenly wisdom. Go back to verse 13. “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” Notice what James says. He says, “Who is wise and understanding? By his good conduct…” Literally translated this says, “By his lovely life.” His lovely life. Back in the fall, I was out in California and I had a chance to meet a church planter in San Diego who was planting a church in the second-most populated homosexual area in the state of California which is downtown San Diego, right behind San Francisco. And one of the things that his church did was that they had this great motto that stuck with me as soon as he said it. His motto for his church was, “Christianity is not just true, it’s beautiful.” Why that stuck with me is because of what James is saying here to us. It’s not just that what James is telling us is true. It’s God’s Word; of course, it’s true! But James is saying when we have this meekness of wisdom, really the meekness that results in a wise life, it becomes attractive and that goes right back to what he’s been dealing within our innermost being. He’s been dealing with our hearts, hasn’t he? He’s been saying that if you want your speech to change you must start with your heart. You must have a superior affection in your heart. You must love different things. And he says that “If you want to see how that works itself out if you want to have a life that makes a difference in this world for the glory of Jesus, listen to what I’m going to say!” That’s what he says to us. And when we do, we begin to see that Christianity is not just true, it’s beautiful. That’s so important for us to see.


Wisdom’s Character Traits

And James is going to work that out for us, so let’s work through what he says here. Notice he’s not telling us so much what to do as what it is to “be.” These are character traits. Let’s work through them. He says, “The wisdom that comes from above,” verse 17, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” Now those first few words all rhyme or all are alliterated in the Greek. They all begin with the same word. And James is giving us kind of a progressive list here. And when he talks about this purity it’s a very rare word in the New Testament. It stands in contrast to the double-mindedness James has talked about. There’s no double-mindedness in the purity that comes from the meekness of wisdom. Then he says it’s peaceable. Now we could translate this that it’s “peace-making.” He’s going to return to that in verse 18. But this kind of peaceableness is the opposite of the strife and discord he’s just mentioned.


He goes on to say that this is someone else who is gentle. What does this gentleness mean? Literally, the word means “someone who is not quick to demand anything.” You can’t do that if you’re a Me Monster, right? Me Monsters think always, “I need everything my way right now.” The person who is gentle is so forbearant, so willing to give in when he can or she can. It is someone who is not demanding of others; is seeking to bless others rather than demand from them. And then James tells us this kind of meekness leading to wisdom is open to reason. Someone who is willing to listen; someone who is intuitive about others’ needs. Don’t you want friends like that? If you’re married, don’t you want to be a spouse like that? Intuitive of others’ needs. And here’s how one commentator put it. He said this. He said, “This is someone who is willing to get along with others, works hard at getting along with others.” This is somebody who is not self-protective. In other words, we’ve got our own little kingdoms we’re building all the time and we want to keep everything to our self and make sure that nobody else encroaches on our territory, our little fiefdoms. And James says that is the opposite of what it means to be open to reason.


And then he gives this summary statement. It’s “full of mercy and good fruit.” It just shows itself, in other words, in ways that are undeniable. And that leads to the result that it’s impartial and insincere. And this word for impartial is only ever used here in the New Testament. It’s the opposite of the hypocritical faith we saw back in chapter 2 where there was partiality shown. James says the person who has this kind of wisdom is the very opposite of what we studied in chapter 2. It’s without hypocrisy, impartial, and sincere.


The Results of Genuine Faith and Wisdom

And what’s the result here? Remember earlier we just said with this demonic wisdom the result is “discord and every vile practice.” Look at verse 18. “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” Here’s what he’s saying. Genuine faith leading to genuine wisdom always produces results. And what does he mean by peace? Well, James is a Jewish guy and the word for peace here doesn’t really capture what’s behind that word. We think of peace simply as the opposite of strife, but what James is after here is the wonderful Hebrew concept of “shalom,” which does include peace but it’s more than that. It’s wholeness, it’s everything right for a second in this fallen world; it’s a life that is integrated and full and all things make sense, even if just for a second. Have you got those places in your life where you’ve experienced that? Maybe at the birth of a child? Maybe on your wedding day? Maybe when you’re out by yourself? Maybe a walk on the beach? Whatever it is, you’ve experienced that where things are just right for one second and everything is whole. And the whole point of wholeness is that it’s temporary here but there’s a day coming when that shalom will reign throughout the universe. And James says, as Christians who live in this meekness of wisdom, this meekness that produces wisdom, we can have a foretaste of that in our lives.


But did you notice what he did with both of these, this harvest that produces righteousness, which is the wisdom that we receive? That’s what happens! This righteousness sown in peace is the wise, lovely life James has been telling us about. But did you notice what he did with both, both the hellish wisdom and the heavenly wisdom? He told us that whichever one we follow neither one stays air tight. They’re always worked out in community. Hellish wisdom works itself out in social settings. There are disorder and strife all around us in all of our relationships. And then James turns around and says, “Yes, but if you follow this, if you sow this harvest of righteousness in peace by those who want to make peace,” then he says, “that too will have a communal effect.”


Let me ask it this way! Don’t we want our church to look like this? Don’t we want our church to be a community full of peacemakers? Don’t we want a place where people are willing to listen, intuitive of others’ needs, willing to share the burdens of life together, willing to be a place where we can offer and mean it sincerely the one thing the world offers and can never give? Peace! Wholeness! Where you can come inside these doors or the doors of a church member’s home or the doors of a fellow Christian’s home and know that you can take off the mask or you can shut out the den and the folly of the hellish wisdom that surrounds us all week long and come and hear about reality. Isn’t that what we want? How do we get there?


All of Us Are Looking for Wisdom

Two things to say as we close here in application. First, all of us, all of us are looking for wisdom; all of us are looking for shalom, that wholeness, that sense of peace. And the way we usually go about it is we go after wisdom from anywhere else but the Bible. Guilty. Aren’t you amazed at how quickly you will listen to bad counsel, over and against picking up God’s Word and doing that novel thing, praying, and asking God to help us? I do that so often. I’ll catch myself through that process and go, “Maybe I should stop and pray about this?”


We’ll look for wisdom in all the wrong places but we’ll look for peace in all the wrong places. Don’t we? How does that show up? Self-medicating. It doesn’t have to be with pills; it might be with pills. Maybe it’s with food? I am a big fan of comfort food, okay? Let me just put that out there. My wife makes awesome fried chicken and it’s not good for me, but I love it! And there are times when I’m tempted to not just enjoy the good gift from God is fried chicken, but to make that my peace. And that might be a trivial example, but that begins to show up, doesn’t it, where we look to other things to medicate away our pain – whether it’s drink, pills, food, exercise, relationships, all of that to say, “I need peace and you or it will give it to me,” and as David prayed in the beginning of the service, it lets us down. It’s a sham!


Christ is Wisdom Incarnate

And so what does James tell us to do? He says you need to face the fact that you and I so often live in the first list. We so often live according to that hellish wisdom. And so he says to take off the mask! No more excuses! Don’t try to medicate it away. Own it! And then do this, he says – then look and realize that everything he described in that second list was about his older, half-brother Jesus. Did you notice that list echoes almost perfectly the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5? Peacemakers, pure in heart, meek inheriting the earth – all of that’s right there. James had listened well to that sermon, but notice what he’s done. He’s shown us this ideal and that will crush us if we don’t look and see who is described here. What does Paul say? That Christ, in him, is hidden all the treasures, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He is wisdom incarnate who came down and lived among us. Foolish people that we are, He gave us a life of wisdom. Even the critics of the New Testament want to retain some notion of Jesus as a wise teacher because no matter how much of the New Testament you cut out if you keep any of Jesus’ words they’re full of wisdom.


Christ Lived a Life of Meekness

And then consider the fact that He lived His life in meekness. Did He not? When you walk through the pages along those dusty roads of Palestine and ancient Israel with Jesus, what do you see? You see a life of perfect meekness. He who could have called legions of angels to come to His aid is the one who submits to prostitutes and tax collectors! What kind of meekness must it take for God to submit Himself to sinners? And that culminates in the cross where the very folly of our human race was on full display for everyone to see when wisdom incarnate was nailed to the cross by the foolishness of men. And Jesus is also never double-minded. He’s pure. He never wavers on His commitment to you. Do you know that? He never says, “Boy, I made a mistake with that one. Maybe I need a mulligan with that life.” He never wavers. When we waver, when we fail, He does not. He’s never double-minded about us. He never has a bad day with us. He never says, “Maybe I need to re-think that.” And that again is also evidence in the cross. “Come down!” they said. And He didn’t come down because He was never double-minded. Once He set His face like a flint to go to Jerusalem He never backed down, precisely because He loves us.


And what else does He do? He never abuses His power! He is peaceable. Do you realize the Savior is peaceable that He wants to be reconciled to sinners? That He is following hard after you before you even think about turning to Him? “This is love: not that we chose Him but that He chose us,” the Bible says. He comes and makes the first move. He is open to discussion. He is open to reason with us in prayer. What other god is there in the pantheon of the history of the human race where you can reason with him in prayer, you can petition with him, you can wrestle with god in prayer? There’s no other god like Him! He’s unique! He’s categorically different than anything else or anyone else you will ever meet. He perfectly embodies what James described for us.


But we must not lose sight of the greatest thing Jesus did for all. Think about His life of peace, my dear friends. He is the Prince of peace. And when He came to this earth it was announced that peace had come on earth, that the Prince of peace had come. And when He walked through His days on this earth He showed us what that coming “shalom” would look like, following as it were, in a train behind Him as He cast our demons and sickness and disease and death and brought hope and life to sinners like us! And as He walked and brought that shalom train behind Him, He said to His disciples, “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give to you, but I leave you My peace.” And then when He rises from the dead, what does He say to them when He comes to them in the Upper Room? “Peace.” And then He tells us one day that He will bring that wholeness, that peace which is not simply the absence of strife, but when all will be right, when Saturdays never end, when all the sad things come untrue, when all the disintegration, all the vile practices, all the disorder are gone, purged, and a new heaven and a new earth is here in which the Prince of peace and all of us at peace with one another and all of us living in that wholeness just worship and take Him in.


So how do we do it? What can we do? What does it mean for Monday? We do this. We first of all take it. It’s on offer. Not $300 an hour; free. All you have to do to get this wisdom, to get this lovely life, is say, “God, I’m tired of where I am right now.” One of the best things about being a Christian is you can start right where you are. Whatever you’ve done this week, however bad you’ve messed it up, however unwise your choices have been, you can start right now and meet Him and He’ll meet you and promises to make you wise. And one of the ways that that’s going to happen is as we dwell with Him. What do I mean by that? I mean that as you go through this week, we need to have such a sense of His pleasure, His favor towards us, His delight in us, His willingness to reconcile with us when we sin, His willingness to be near us and to help us and to counsel us that we meditate on that, that we start there, that we begin to look in the pages of this blessed Book and see Him and take Him in and just be infatuated with the loveliness of Jesus. And that will do some things for us here, for all of us. It means we’ll be less defensive. We’ll be more willing to make peace with others; we’ll stop holding grudges. It means that we will keep extending grace to people even when we know they will let us down. We let a lot of people down, don’t we? I do. And when we get this, what James is talking about here, we keep going after people; we keep extending grace. We stop being so judgmental – that harsh spirit that’s always looking for the wrong in people. We begin to give them the benefit of the doubt.


The Social Effect of Peace

And the social effect of this shalom, this peace – peace always cares about justice and the greatest injustice going on in this land today, I think it’s absolutely inarguable that the greatest injustice going on right now is what we remember on this Sunday – the sanctity of life. One child aborted every 1.8 seconds, 157 per day, 125,000 per year worldwide for a grand total of 60 million people; or, thirty times the population of the state of Mississippi. No society has ever survived and let alone experienced shalom that does not care about the weakest among us, those who have no voice. And we are so hard on the generations of the past who put up with slavery or racism and we like to point fingers. My greatest fear is that when Garner’s children are born they’ll look up at me and say, “Grandpa, I learned today that there used to be millions of kids killed in the US every year. What did you do about it?” And with shame, I’ll have to say, “Not enough, because I was self-protective and I cared more about me than the weakest among us.”


You see, when you know this kind of peace and shalom it will spill out, it will have effects on everybody around us. And never underestimate the power of one person to do that. One of the great stories in Church history illustrates this. The story of Telemachus the monk who came to Rome towards the waning days of the Roman empire, around 391 to 404. We don’t know when he was born. He was from the East and he came to Rome and he was horrified by the gladiatorial contests that kept going on. And so one day he went there with the expressed purpose to preach. We don’t know where it was. Some traditions have him in the Colosseum at Rome. As with any great story, there’s been a lot of embellishments. What we do know, the basics, are these. He went and he saw the gladiators begin their gruesome sport and he said, and shouted, “In the name of Christ, forbear!” Well the people around him in the Colosseum laughed a little bit. And he kept shouting, “In the name of Christ, forbear!” Well eventually, everybody began to pay attention and so they brought him out into the arena and he made his way to stand between the gladiators and said, “In the name of Christ, forbear!” And as soon as the words left his mouth they began to stone him and he was stoned to death. And it seemed like that was the end of him. But the Roman emperor that day sat and watched and the best we can tell that was the last time that the gladiators ever fought in Rome. So touched was he by the example of this one humble Christian, who in the meekness of wisdom came and lodged his protest and said, “In the name of Christ, forbear!” He knew the peace of Christ which passes all understanding so he showed it. It went forward. It had an effect.


And that’s what it is for all of us. When we know it, we want it to spread. And that’s because of the wholeness that only wisdom offers, that only comes because Jesus was broken in our place. And being broken in our place He is now risen again, whole, to make us whole people whose whole lives spill out into the world around us.


Let’s pray!


Lord, we need this wisdom. Would You give it to us? We need this wholeness. Make our lives whole. We need more of Christ and less of us. Slay our Me Monster; replace it with Jesus, the One in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden. For we pray in His name, amen.

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