Faith at Work

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Are your ambitions pure?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 3:13-18

Verse 13. Who is wise and knowing among you? Let him show by the good behavior his works in meekness of wisdom.

Who returns us to the teachers of 3:1, as speech and wisdom are both liable to abuse (Robertson 45). While “who” may point specifically to teachers, church members at large are included. The problem is that some people who believe they were endowed with superior wisdom and understanding have divided the church because of their teaching; such is a sin of the tongue (Martin 128).

Wise in the Jewish context does not point to a speculative philosopher but a person who possesses practical, moral wisdom (Rienecker 388). Knowing is to possess expert or professional knowledge (Rienecker 388). Good behavior points to the entire manner of life (Johnson 270). Good in this context connotes not only excellence and beauty, but moral purity.

Meekness is submission to God, the opposite of arrogance. Paul warned that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Wisdom produces works, and is characterized by meekness (Martin 129). Jesus called himself “meek” (Matthew 11:29), and exhorts his followers to display the same character (Matthew 5:5). Wisdom is a desirable quality in the community (Romans 16:19; 1 Corinthians 3:10; 6:5; Ephesians 5:15; Johnson 270), and so requires the model of leaders.

Verse 14. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not exult over and lie against the truth.

Jealousy is “zeal, ” a fierce desire to promote our opinion or agenda to the exclusion or detriment of others (cf. Rienecker 388-9). It can be good: “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me'” (John 2:17); or bad: “the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the part of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17). Aristotle defines the word as the sorrow one experiences because someone else is in possession of what one is not. The word denotes the desire to acquire by taking something from another (Johnson 271).

Selfish ambition is the vice of a leader who creates a party for his own pride (Rienecker 389). This was the very problem in Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ'” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12).

The term is found only in Aristotle before its appearance in the NT; to him it means “a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means” (Martin 130).

Do not exult could be translated, “stop exulting.” To exult over is to put ourselves over others, to claim that we are superior. James’ opponents could not exalt themselves unless they lie against the truth, for the truth would condemn their “wisdom” and attitudes. Jeremiah gives the lie to all such attitudes: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me'” (9:23-24).

Verse 15. This is not the wisdom from above coming down, but earthly, beastly, devilish.

What follows is a negative progression (Johnson 272), proceeding from the natural to the demonic.

Earthly contrasts with heavenly, that which is spiritual; “sensual” (NEB) may be the best translation (Adamson 152). James is not rejecting the flesh, but dealing with the “unspiritual” (RSV). Paul contrasts the “spiritual” and “unspiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15); Jesus makes the same contrast: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:12)

Beastly could be translated “natural,” that which is unspiritual since it is of our lower nature. Devilish calls to mind Paul’s warning: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). It is instigated by the demons themselves (Martin 132).

Verse 16. For where jealousy and contention, there is confusion and every foul deed.

Confusion is disorder, disturbance, trouble. The word often carries political connotations such as “anarchy”; here it relates to the dissention created by those who demand their own rights and exercise a party spirit (Rienecker 389).

Foul deed could be translated “mean practice,’ and could have a lawsuit in mind (cf. James 2:6; Johnson 273). However, James seems to leave the phrase deliberately ambiguous, so that all sins are included: “The wrong kind of wisdom brings about just about every kind of evil practice that one could name” (Moo 174).

Verse 17. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, forbearing, yielding, full of mercy and good fruits, not partial and not pretended.

James is writing well before Paul, and before a theology of the Holy Spirit had been worked out by the church. Nonetheless, the similarity between his list and Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) is noteworthy.

First points to “pure” as “first in rank and time” (Robertson 47) or most important. Without it, nothing else James lists can follow.

Pure implies integrity of character, that which is sincere, moral, and spiritual (Rienecker 389). Peaceable or “peace-giving” is admirable only when it is conditioned by purity; peace at any price is not worthwhile. The word means not just freedom from strife, but wholeness and health, “shalom.” It describes God’s gentle and kind disposition as King (Burdick 191), and suggests the ability to get along with others (Johnson 274).

Forbearing translates epiekes, considered by Barclay (95-6) to be the “most untranslatable” word in the Greek NT. He describes this person as “the man who knows when it is actually wrong to apply the strict letter of the law. He knows how to forgive when strict justice gives him a perfect right to condemn. When knows how to make allowances, when not to stand upon his rights, how to temper justice with mercy, always remembers that there are greater things in the world than rules and regulations.” This person manifests “humble patience, steadfastness which is able to submit to injustice, disgrace, and maltreatment without hatred and malice, trusting in God in spite of all of it” (Rienecker 389); Adamson renders the word “humane” (155).