A keystone is a wedge-shaped stone block that locks all other stones into position. It bears the weight of arches and vaulted windows. James 3.13-18 is the keystone passage for the letter. Everything preceding this paragraph in the letter rests upon it. Everything after the passage also rests upon it.
James echoes Job 28.12 when he asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Whether it be teachers or those they teach, that obedient believer must “show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.” The theme of James is the pursuit of wisdom, namely heavenly wisdom as opposed to earthly.
There is a gentleness and lowliness which belongs to those who have wisdom from above – received from the Father of lights (James 1.5, 17). The self-important have a wisdom which emanates from below. Paul said, “It is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1.19-20). Later in the chapter he continues, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.” (1 Corinthians 1.25-27). He continues in Chapter 3: “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their own craftiness’; and again, ‘The LORD knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” (1 Corinthians 3.18-20). The self-important have the wisdom of this world. They’ve paid an enormous price for that worldly wisdom, namely they are now blind to the revelation of God.
Earthly Wisdom (3.15-16)
There is a counterfeit, earthly wisdom. James describes it with three words in verse 15:
- Earthly – It is not heavenly. It is weak, imperfect, and passing away. It is bound to this earth and the temporal plane. It belongs to the enemies of Christ who have their minds set only upon earthly things.
- Sensual – It is not spiritual. It is natural and fleshly. It is a wisdom contrary to the grace of God.
- Demonic – It is not godly. It is a wisdom that advances self even as the fallen angels or demons do. This is intelligence set on fire by Hell itself (compare with James 3.6). This counterfeit wisdom will not submit to or drawn near to God. It will not resist the devil, but is in league with him (James 4.7-8).
Notice that the adjectives earthly, sensual, and demonic line up with the world, the flesh, and the devil. This counterfeit wisdom is fueled by all that opposes the cause of Christ. And “where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion (not peace) and every evil thing are there” (James 3.16).
We are given three descriptors in verse 15, now we are given three results of appropriating and manifesting this counterfeit wisdom: Envy, self-seeking, and confusion. When these characteristics are present, you find every evil thing. Jesus said, “Everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3.20).
Heavenly Wisdom (3.17-18)
“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield [open to reason], full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy [sincere].” (James 3:17)
Heavenly wisdom is the real deal. Harmony and peace characterize heavenly wisdom while chaos and confusion characterize earthly wisdom. James writes carefully using alliteration and elegance in the original language. He does this to indicate a contrast between chaotic counterfeit wisdom and peaceful, true wisdom.
- It is pure. It is not morally defective, but morally and ethically pure. It is unmixed by anything which would cause double-mindedness and instability
- It is peaceable. Chastening and suffering are roads to this wisdom. This wisdom yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness. This is our goal in life. We must demonstrate the righteousness given to us by God for His glory.
- It is gentle. It is forbearing, fair-minded, and not quarrelsome. It belongs to those who are truly humble. It is the ministry of pleading rather than coercion and manipulation.
- It is willing to yield. It is open to reason and not stubborn. It is compliant in words and actions. It comes from the heart with a happy spirit.
- It is full of mercy and good fruits. This wisdom is not full of deadly poison like the tongue set on fire by Hell. The mercy here is not just an inward disposition. It’s a mercy that acts. The good fruits are good inwardly to be expressed outwardly. These come down from the Father of lights (James 1.17).
- It is without partiality. It truly non-partisan.
- It is without hypocrisy. It is sincere; not pretentious. It belongs to a person who acts in a consistent manner toward all people not just a select and favored few
Wisdom comes down from Heaven …down from our Father who is in Heaven. It is a gift we receive rather than choosing to manifest an earthly, fleshly wisdom. This wisdom comes to the natural man and is his default setting.
“Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:18)
This verse summarizes well verses 13-17, but it also forecasts the next section in James (4.1-10). Earthly wisdom or heavenly? Peace or war?
Righteousness is sown in peace. Discipline yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness. Our peaceful actions result in the demonstration of righteousness. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5.9). The Spirit-filled life is the life of wisdom and the life of peace.
Peace ties James 3.13-18 to James 4.1-6. Who is wise and understanding among us? We ought to demonstrate the reality of wisdom through meekness and good conduct (James 3.13). If we are indeed wise, our wisdom will not be characterized by envy, self-seeking, and disorder (James 3.14-16). This is not peace. Our wisdom is above all peaceable (James 3.17).
As William Varner writes, “Seeds of righteousness never grow in a soil of conflict.” If we are responsible for strife and bitterness in the church, then we alienate ourselves from the gift of God’s wisdom. This is the whole message of James’ epistle. We have either a wisdom that comes from above or a wisdom emanating from below. We need true wisdom rather than its counterfeit. If we try to have it both ways, we are double-minded and unstable in all our ways.