Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

[To see the first pass at this Bible lesson, go here.]

Verse-by-Verse Comments
3:13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.
(1) As we've pointed out several times in the weeks we've been looking at James, wisdom is God's gift to those who submit to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. (What it looks like is discussed in James 3:17.)

(2) The verse begins with a rhetorical question and is followed by how one can be seen as wise and understanding. In the kingdom of God, greatness isn't measured by who pushes others around the most, but "works" that display "gentleness born of wisdom."

This is similar to a point made by Jesus in a famous incident recounted in Matthew 20:20-28:
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
(3) Chris Haslam notes that the word gentleness, prayte in the original Greek of the New Testament, is found in:
  • Galatians 5:23 (Note the link between gentleness and self-control; without the help of God and His gift of wisdom, we're under the control of the demonic.);
  • Galatians 6:1 (Even the correction of those who have wronged others in the fellowship of the Church is to be done with gentleness);
  • Ephesians 4:2;
  • Second Timothy 2:25;
  • Titus 3:2;
  • First Peter 3:16 (Our witness about Jesus Christ is to be done with gentleness and reverence for those whose views may be different from our own.)
  • Matthew 5:5 (The word translated as meek is the same one that's rendered as gentle here.);
  • Matthew 11:29.
The gentleness that comes from surrender to Jesus Christ contrasts with the physical and emotional violence which is the world's standard operating procedure. The world's way doesn't work, James asserts. Besides, we have the capacity, through Christ, to live differently. So, why, he wonders, would Christians live according to the wisdom of Satan, rather than the wisdom of heaven? As he observed in last week's lesson, "My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so!" (James 3:10)

For a fuller understanding of this rich Biblical term, see here.

14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But 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.
(1) William Loader notes:
The wisdom of James continues with a challenge to the hearers not to embrace a polarising and fractious stance towards people. Many people who most want to be known as wise are anything but peaceable. History abounds with people who think they are right and are prepared to die or kill for their truth. On the other hand, James is not advocating that Christians become doormats. Clearly the writing itself shows that the author is assertive and prepared to challenge others.

The gentleness being advocated is not abdication of responsibility. It is an attitude which comes from a different kind of purity (3:17). That purity consists not in pure doctrine nor in pure anger, but in pure love. Notice how the author contrasts the two approaches in 3:15 and 3:17. Wisdom is about purity and purity is about wholeness, singleness, oneness. That oneness is held together by being full of compassion and produces genuine goodness towards others (3:17). There is no phoney-ness. The word righteousness (which also means justice and goodness) rightly belongs here. Rightness or righteousness is about being in right relationship with God and with oneself - and so also with others.

Notice that the author is not just giving a moral lesson about fractiousness and division, but addressing it at its roots. The image of fruit, used already in 3:12, reappears in 3:17 and in the image of sowing in 3:18. Wisdom comes from above (3:17). It is an echo of that Jewish tradition, first attested in Proverbs 8, that wisdom is like God's companion and makes visits to earth seeking people in whom to dwell. As such this wisdom is sometimes identified also as God's word and as God's Spirit. Christians drew on this image when they identified Jesus as the Word who came down to his own (see John 1:1-14; Colossians 1:15-20 and also Hebrews 1:1-4...). Here in James the image is used as it was in the Jewish tradition: of wisdom. It was a way of speaking of how God comes to people.

All this means that the matter of whether you take a compassionate attitude towards people and behave accordingly is much more than a matter of doing what is right or being good. It is about embodying the wisdom which comes from God; it is about embodying God. Notice the the chief thing about God is being found in such compassion. The opposite leads to disintegration and chaos, as 3:16 suggests.
(2) In its willingness to yield, the wisdom described by James is akin to Paul's description of love, not an emotion, but a way of life:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (First Corinthians 13:4-7)
Of course, any objective perception of our human nature will lead to the conclusion that, in our own power, we can't love or be wise. (James says that, "all of us make many mistakes" [James 3:2] and, echoing the Old Testament, Paul asserts that all have sinned, falling short of glorifying God [check out Romans 3].) This is why dependence on Christ is essential.

More verse-by-verse comments tomorrow, I hope.

No comments: