(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

In the early part of the chapter James deals with one of the cardinal weaknesses of teachers namely a failure to control the tongue. In the remaining verses he highlights the danger of learning itself. He asks the question: Who is wise and understanding among you? He is simply asking rhetorically, 'Who has learning?' Asked in the context of a University it would by the professors, readers and lecturers. Asked in the context of the church it is the theologians, bible scholars, bible teachers and preachers.

James does not consider that all learning is worthwhile. Like money it can be put to good or evil use. Heavenly wisdom, learning of which God approves, is exercised in humility to produce good deeds. Knowledge and understanding that God despises has been acquired for purely selfish ends.

(B) The learning that is not pleasing to God.

Wisdom and understanding can be used to acquire and preserve status. A man may use his scholarship as a way of measuring his worth and gaining the respect of others. It can then be wielded to keep others in their place and to stifle dissent. This is a great danger in academic and church circles. Learning of this sort is associated with:

    (1) Selfish ambition.
    Douglas J. Moo writes that Aristotle uses this word to describe the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians.

    Selfish ambition has been all too evident amongst scholars. Why is there such a rush to be the first to publish a new finding in a given field of scientific research? Why is it that credit is often withheld from others who contribute to a scientific break through?

    At the time Jesus was on earth the Scribes and Pharisees used their expertise in the Law to build their reputations. Jesus said of them: "Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the market-places and to have men call them 'Rabbi'." Mt23v5to7.

    In some Christian circles the membership of what C.S Lewis calls the 'inner ring' is a powerful temptation. There are magazines and publications devoted to what I would call factional interests. It is possible by writing in these publications to become a leading exponent of a narrow doctrinal position and thereby gain entry into the inner councils of those who really count. I fear that there are some very unlovely groups on the 'ultra-reformed' wing of the church - various illiberal Presbyterian causes.

    (2) Bitter envy.
    If a person's status depends upon the correctness of his opinions he is liable to react with bitter hatred to anyone who challenges those opinions and to envy those afforded higher honour than him self. This has resulted in shameful behaviour amongst scholars of all types but especially theologians.

    Dr Stewart wrote that the arguments of Pascal with the Jesuits reminded him of Alan Breck's fight with the crew of the Covenant in Stevenson's, 'Kidnapped': The sword in his hand flashed like quick silver into the middle of our flying enemies, and at every flash came the scream of a man hurt. The correspondence between Luther and his opponents, Calvin and his detractors and Wesley and Whitefield over their differences does not make for gracious reading!

    Pride in being right leads Christians, including myself, to write in a nasty, abusive way to those we disagree with. Philip Yancey in his book, 'What's So Amazing About Grace?' describes the reaction he got to an article entitled, 'The Atrocious Mathematics of the Gospel': Response letters scorched the inside of my mailbox. "Philip Yancey, you do not walk with God or with Jesus!" wrote one irate reader; "This column is blasphemy." Another condemned my "antichristian, intellectualised philosophies." Yet another reader labelled me "satanic." "Are there not enough review editors on your staff to weed out such sophomoric tripe?" he asked the editor.

    C.S. Lewis describes the bitter enmity that can exist between the self-appointed guardians of Christian orthodoxy at the end of 'Screwtape Proposes a Toast.' Screwtape raises his glass to propose a toast to Principal Slubgob and the College for Tempters and says: "What is this I see? What is this delicious bouquet I inhale? ..... I see, and smell, that even under wartime conditions the College cellar still has a few dozen of sound old vintage Pharisee. Well, well, well. This is like old times. Hold it beneath your nostrils for a moment, gentledevils. Hold it up to the light. Look at those fiery streaks that writhe and tangle in its dark heart, as if they were contending. And so they are. You know how this wine is blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden, and fermented together to produce its subtle flavour. The types that were most antagonistic to one another on earth. .... The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel and denigration its litany. ... . "

    (3) Boastfulness.
    It is rarely helpful to show off our learning. Sometimes we have had a preacher at our chapel who is undoubtedly very clever and wonderfully knowledgeable. He has preached above the head of the congregation. It does his listeners no good; they just feel uneasy, inadequate and vaguely resentful. I have the greatest admiration for a man like Professor William Barclay who used his great scholarship to get clear in his own mind what a passage of Scripture meant and then communicated that meaning in terms most could understand. His commentaries remain among the most engaging and readable there are.

    It is easy to use superior knowledge and understanding to put another down. I can remember going in the depths of winter to Durham University for an interview to study Chemistry. Wet snow fell on a grey day in a grey city. At my interview there was a particularly unpleasant sour-faced man who asked me questions I couldn't answer. He gave me no help but led me further and further into the mire. I have rarely felt more wretched. Needless to say I never studied Chemistry at Durham University.

    Very learned men with the best degrees in Theology do not necessarily understand the encounters Jesus had with members of the public any better than I do. This is because insight into the personal interactions of John's Gospel requires not only knowledge of Greek but also knowledge of human nature. All of us who study the Bible, and who employ special skills to elucidate it, must bear in mind Jesus words: "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure." Lk10v21.

    (4) Deny the truth.
    Whenever a man's authority depends upon his learning it is always difficult to admit to error. This is why new ideas in Science have often been resisted. It is the reason why dangerous errors are so persistent within the church. It is just so hard for Christian leaders to admit that they and their denomination are wrong about anything.

    One of the most gracious things Peter did was to acknowledge he was wrong to withdraw from fellowship with Gentile Christians in Antioch after the arrival of legalistic Jewish Christians from Jerusalem. Paul opposed Peter to his face over this matter. At the Council of Jerusalem Peter spoke in support of Paul. See sermons on Acts15v1to5 and Acts15v5to21.

    The persisting divisions in the church are the product of the wisdom that is not from God.

James says that where learning is acquired for status and therefore is associated with selfish ambition you find disorder and every evil practice. Restlessness, turbulence and discontent are inevitable where men and women are jockeying for power and influence. We see this in the church at Corinth where individuals boasted of their superior knowledge and divisions threatened the unity of the fellowship. Paul's message to the Corinthians was: Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no-one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God - that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written; "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

Those who teach and preach in the church must be careful not to do so for status. If we do then all sorts of sins will result. Even my dear old father was not above making the occasional disparaging remark about a preacher more popular than himself. Jealousy will keep us from giving praise where it is warranted. This is a kind of theft. The pastor who fears being outshone will keep the pulpit for himself. All this is a far cry from Paul's advice to the Philippians: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Phil2v3and4.

James denounces the wrong kind of wisdom as earthly, unspiritual and devilish in its origin. It is inferior as the earth is inferior to heaven. It has more in common with the animal kingdom than the Kingdom of God. The wisdom of the wolf pack ensures only the strongest, meanest and most ruthless is leader. It is encouraged by Satan who in his malice and spite enjoys fomenting hatred, bitterness, resentment and jealousy in humans.

(C) The learning that is pleasing to God.

The heavenly learning is embodied in the life and teaching of Jesus - in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Col2v3.

James describes some of the characteristics of this wisdom:

    (a) Purity.
    First of all it is pure. This means it has not been obtained and it is not used from base motives. A man must use his knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures for his own edification and to benefit others but not in any way to further ambition or advance his own selfish interests or to gain a reputation. A teacher whose motives are pure will be as happy instructing the few as the many, children as adults, the ignorant as the learned, women as men, old as young, strangers as the well known, his critics as his fans. Just consider the example of Jesus. He taught thousands by the lake and just one woman of Samaria, Zacchaeus the tax collector and Nicodemus a ruler of the Jews, deputations of scribes and Pharisees and two on the road to Emmaus, his twelve disciples and poor mad Mary. Paul was cast in the same mould. When he reviewed his ministry in Ephesus Paul could say: You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. Acts20v20and21. See exposition: Blessed are the pure in heart.

    (b) Peace-loving.
    Wisdom that is peace-loving brings men closer together and closer to God. It helps men to live in harmony and promotes unity. Paul displays this wisdom in his letters to the Corinthians. The apostle wrote: 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. 1Cor1v10.

    It is not easy to promote unity! One day I got quite an angry letter from the mother of Angela who was in my form. Three boys, Willy, Billy and Philly, were tormenting her. Angela's mother had taught these boys in Primary School where they had played her up. Willy and his two mates taunted Angela with her mother's incompetence. This was a very cruel thing to do. Angela's mother said that unless I put an end to the bullying she would remove her daughter from the school. I didn't rant and rave at those three boys whom I knew very well. I spoke to them quietly and simply. I indicated that it was very spiteful to belittle a mother in the eyes of her daughter. I then asked them how their own mothers would feel about their behaviour. Well, on the whole, they were decent lads and their unkind remarks stopped. Eventually I received a letter of thanks from Angela's mother and she stopped in the school and did well.

    It is vitally important to have wise peacemakers in the church - those who speak well of people, show appreciation, encourage, entertain and take an interest. See exposition on blessed are the peacemakers.

    (c) Considerate and submissive.
    The Greek word rendered 'considerate' in the NIV is, according to Professor William Barclay, very difficult to translate. I think it can mean sweet reasonableness or, even, merciful. The Greek term represented as 'submissive' can also mean open to persuasion. So the heavenly wisdom is open to persuasion and merciful. It does not insist upon its rights.

    It was my misfortune to teach Helen. She had hard blue eyes and an abrasive manner. She was at loggerheads with her authoritarian father whom she feared. I must admit that my sympathy was with the father. On the whole I considered they deserved each other. After a long spell of indifferent work from Helen I issued her with a red concern slip. This was a report on a red sheet of paper that a pupil had to take home and get signed by his or her parents. Helen was greatly distressed and went to her form teacher with fear and foreboding at how her father would react. Many tears were shed and there was wailing and gnashing of teeth! So Helen's very nice form teacher came to me in some trepidation and wondered if I could possibly rescind the red slip. Was I open to persuasion? Was I merciful? On this occasion I was because I guessed correctly that Helen's form teacher would ensure that her work improved.

    I was not always so sweetly reasonable and open to persuasion. I reacted badly when one of my best students gave up Geography to study Drama instead. She went behind my back, engineered the switch with the support of her parents and connivance of the deputy head, and presented me with a fait accompli. I was furious because I had not been consulted. It was not heavenly wisdom that led me to row with the girl, her mother and the deputy head. It didn't change a thing but just made for ill will.

    I cannot look back with tremendous pride upon my teaching career. However, as I review my long association with the church at Brockley I have been merciful. My advice has been ignored and I have not always received the support I deserved but this has not affected my commitment to the fellowship.

    (d) Full of mercy and good fruit.
    The heavenly wisdom helps a man in trouble and out of trouble.

    In October I spent a few days with my brother Paul and his wife in London. On Tuesday Paul and I decided to explore Highgate Hill and Hampstead Heath. We left Clapham North station for Archway in a very crowded, stuffy train. It wasn't long before a dark-haired, drawn-faced, youngish man burst into our carriage. He was selling the Big Issue. The young fellow was in a terrible state. He had just been sworn at and he took his anger out on us. For two or three minutes he harangued us bitterly. His burning resentment was all too evident as he accused us of not looking at him, not caring that he slept rough or did his best to earn an honest living by selling the Big Issue. His tirade was met with a sullen silence. He was ignored. No-one offered to buy a magazine. Eventually, to everyone's relief, he stormed out of the carriage.

    I said to my brother afterwards, "That's no way to sell the Big Issue. He antagonised us all. If he had been pleasant and agreeable ...... ." I thought a lot about that young man during the day. It dawned on me that he needed grace. Nobody showed him grace. I didn't show him grace. Why didn't I buy a magazine? I could have made him happier and restored his faith in human nature.

    The Christian with heavenly wisdom would have helped the highly disturbed man out of his bitterness and anger. It would only have taken a few friendly words and 50p - the price of the Big Issue. Sadly neither I, my brother, nor any one else in our carriage bore good fruit that morning.

    (e) Impartial and sincere.
    'Impartial' doesn't quite capture the meaning that James intended. James is saying that the true learning is decisive. It is not wavering, hesitant or vacillating. It is also 'sincere' or without hypocrisy. There is no deceit in it. The heavenly wisdom is honest.

    Do we act decisively and honestly? Some years ago our young pastor and a few of his close friends thought it would be a good idea to build an extension to our chapel. Now I believed it was a bad idea and said so. The majority of our members were of the same opinion as myself, but said nothing. They did not want to disappoint the enthusiastic and personable young pastor and nor did they want to be accused of lacking faith. So, as church secretary, I went through all the procedures necessary to build a new hall. I got quotations, planning permission and promises of money. Everything was in place. We were ready to start. All that was needed was a decision from the church to instruct the builder to commence. When the crunch came the members said, "No." I knew they would!!! It almost made me laugh! But a lot of people's time had been wasted because the Christians at my church lacked heavenly wisdom - they were neither decisive or honest.

    I am afraid that one of the great failings of nice Christians is the desire to be well thought of. It results in many ills. One of the outstanding characteristics of Jesus, which even his enemies recognised, was that he feared no man. Jesus was decisive and absolutely honest in all his dealings with the Jews. He desired only the approval of his Father in heaven.

James concludes with these words: Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. v18. He is summarising all that he has written about the heavenly wisdom. It cares about good relationships and works for good relationships within the church. People who cultivate love in their Christian fellowships will reap a harvest of righteousness. What a difference from the wisdom ot the wolf pack that produces disorder and every evil practice.

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