James 3:16-4:6


Verse 15 speaks about the wisdom which is "not" from above. Verse 17 speaks about the wisdom which IS from above. The former is of the devil, as verse 15 points out. The latter is of Christ. In fact, Christ is the very embodiment of wisdom. The NIV puts quotation marks around the word wisdom in verse 15. This indicates that it really is not wisdom. It is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. But the heavenly wisdom is its very opposite. This is very helpful in explaining 4:1-6. And it also helps us in understanding next week's text which has to do with repentance.

James 3:16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

In verse 15 James lists three adjectives which have a descending order: earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. He is practically saying: "Such wisdom is of the devil." That explains verse 16.

Where you have envy and selfish ambition there you are bound to have anarchy and every kind of wicked thing. Envy is displeasure and anger over the success of others. Selfish ambition is the very opposite of true love. Envy and selfish ambition result in every kind of evil practice.

When Jesus came to earth he found these devilish characteristics among His people. Evidently there were people among James' hearers who by their false wisdom troubled the believers. They may have been Judaizers. We do not know. But, whoever they were, envy and selfish ambition led to every evil practice. When this kind of demonic spirit finds its way into the Christian community, great harm is done and much offense is given.

James 3:17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

The main characteristic of true wisdom is that it is pure. It is pure in it nature and pure in its effects. There is no sin in it. And its effect on man is a holy effect. It is devoid of tricks and traps. Purity is a characteristic of God.

Franzmann: The seven adjectives sound like a description of the Christ of the gospels, who is 'The Wisdom of God,' 1 Corinthians 1:24.

A good observation. Out of this purity come three other characteristics: peaceful, yielding, easily persuaded. Note that in the Greek these three adjectives begin with epsilon. We have alliteration. These three characteristics reminds us immediately of Jesus. We think of John 14:27 and Matthew 11:29 at this point.

Rienecker: 'Peaceful,' promoting peace; 'Yielding' a humble patience, steadfastness which is able to submit to injustice, disgrace, and maltreatment without hatred and malice, trusting in God in spite of it all; 'Easily persuaded' willing to yield, compliant.

The is followed by "full of mercy and full of good fruits." Note that the last three words in the verse begin with an alpha in the Greek. Another instance of alliteration. James was not only a good teacher, but also a capable writer.

The first means "without hypocrisy," that is easily understood. The next is not so easy. Some translations have "without partiality," others "without uncertainty, without doubts, non-vacillating."

Davids: The person with true wisdom is apparently nonpartisan: instead he is pure and absolutely sincere in his opinions and actions.
The true Christian is stable. He need not be partisan because God is his refuge and strength. He avoids partisan politics. This verse reminds us of the Old Testament thought: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom " Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7. It reminds us of Proverbs 8 which describes Christ, the eternal wisdom of God. It reminds us of the Gospel which is the "wisdom of God," 1 Corinthians 1:24. When the preacher is carefully preaching Law and Gospel he is preaching the very wisdom of God.

James 3:18 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

Lenski: It is an elaboration of the fruit of peace, 'peaceable' being the first great operative quality of true wisdom.

It is the very antithesis of verse 16.

Davids: James now adds what may well have been a proverbial saying to sum up the virtues.

It forms a bridge to the thought in chapter 4. Note Matthew 5:9!

All of life is nothing but sowing and harvesting. All people are constantly sowing and harvesting. They harvest exactly what they sow. Look at Galatians 6:7-8.

"Harvest" is either appositional or subjective genitive. Either the righteousness is the harvest, or it "causes" the harvest. RSV: "And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace." This is appositional genitive.

The peaceful person sows peacefully.

James 4:1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?

The tenor of verses 1 though 4 shocks us. This epistle was written in about the year 45 A.D. It was only about a dozen years since our Lord ascended into heaven. The recipients of this letter were primarily Jews, converted Jews. They had obviously already lost their first love. They were treating each other like animals. But that is often the situation in congregations today too. The writer is not speaking about international conflicts. He is speaking about personal and congregational conflicts. Wars and conflicts are waged to destroy others, not to edify them. These things happen in congregations.

The writer asks two questions. The second is rhetorical and answers the first. The second elicits a positive answer.  "Fights, quarrels, and battles." The "fights and quarrels" denote the broader and narrower conflicts among people.

"Among you" means "in your physical members." These desires are those whereby people please themselves. They are selfish desires. These desires conduct a war right in the bodily members of Christian. If not stopped this leads to self-destruction. Look at Galatians 5:17.

Lenski: The readers have followed the earthly, unspiritual, devilish wisdom.

Perhaps the writer is also including the party spirit caused by false teachers.

James 4:2 You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.

The first four words set the stage for the rest of the verse: "You desire but you do not have." That's always the way it is with sinful desire. It does not lead to lasting or good gratification. All the verb forms in this verse are in the present tense.

"You covet" has caused much comment. Erasmus conjectured that it should read "you envy," but there is no manuscript evidence for this reading. RSV, NEB, JB and NASB try to solve the problem by placing a period after the word. TEV suggests: "so you are ready to kill. "The best suggestion is that murder is here equated with hating as in Matthew 5:21-22 and 1 John 3:15.

Note the verbs in this verse:  "Lust, murder, envy, fight, make war."  The latter two remind us of what is said in verse 1. This verse reminds us of the works of the flesh enumerated by Paul in Galatians 5:20 and following. It is a gruesome picture. But what does it all amount to? Twice he says: "you do not have." Why not? "You do not ask  for yourselves." They pray but they do not pray in their own true interest.

James 4:3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

James 5:14-18 has some wonderful things to say about prayer. That is similar to what Jesus said in John 14:13-14. But here James is not speaking of that kind of prayer. He is speaking of prayer unanswered because it is from wrong motives or for wrong reasons. He says: "You ask for yourselves from wrong motives, or for wrong purposes."

In verse 1 we are told that the personal conflicts arise out of the lusts and wrong desires. Here we are told that prayers are unanswered because people want God to pamper their personal lusts and desires. It is a wonder that nothing is said about God's judgment and punishment on that kind of attitude. God truly wants us to bring all our needs to His throne of mercy. Jesus promises to answer prayer which is according to His will. But that is not what James is speaking about here.

James 4:4 You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

KJV and NKJV follow the Majority text here which reads:  "You adulterers and adulteresses." This was evidently an attempt by a scribe to include the men. But in the Old Testament the figurative "adulteress" was applied to the covenant people when, like an unfaithful wife, they had become guilty of spiritual adultery, which is idolatry. Look at Psalms 73:27; Matthew 12:39 and Revelation 2:22 on this thought.

How would a husband react to an unfaithful wife? How should God react to unfaithful Christians? By the way, James addresses his hearers a number of times with "brothers." How can he now address them as "adulteresses"? Evidently they had not yet become guilty of apostasy.

"World" is used here as in 1 John 2:15-17 and Galatians 6:14. Everything that is opposed to Christ and His Gospel is "world." 

"Don't you know" clearly implies that the hearers can answer the question themselves, based on their own knowledge.

God is not a respecter of persons. "He makes himself an enemy of God." God is never responsible for the waywardness of man.

James 4:5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?

This verse in its entirety and the first half of verse 6 involve us in a number of difficulties. Punctuation is one of the problems. Look at all the English versions to see the variations in punctuation.

Another problem is whether we translate "live in us" as does the KJV, NKJV, or as all the other English versions. Does the word means "dwells "or "caused to dwell"?

Another problem is the meaning of 5b. Does it means that God is jealous over the wayward spirit in man? Thus AAT, NKJV, RSV, JB and NASB. Or does it means that man's spirit turns itself toward envy and jealousy? Thus TEV, NIV, NEB and KJV.

And, finally, if Scripture is being quoted, whence the quotation? The Nestle Greek text asks "What's the source?" This baffles commentators. Lenski does not think that a specific passage is being quoted, but that James is giving a general tenor of Scripture. He and Kretzmann agree in their understanding here.

Kretzmann: The Lord watches over the behavior of the Christians with jealous envy.
Lenski: That Spirit yearns jealously and is grieved when we become friends of the world and thus begin to be enemies of God.

However, Kistemaker understands as do NIV and others.

Kistemaker: The spirit of man longs for the pleasures of this world and perversely seeks its friendship.

Davids feels that the text is saying that when man's spirit turns toward the world God's jealousy is aroused. However, the difference between these two ideas should cause us no problem because both are true and in keeping with what Scripture says. We are not saying that Scripture has a "double "meaning. We simply cannot be dogmatic in this instance as to the precise intended sense.

James 4:6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." 

If verse 5 speaks disparagingly of man's spirit, then "but" is in order. If verse 5 speaks of God yearning for man's spirit, then the first word should be translated "therefore." 

In any case verse 6a is very comforting. Despite man's sinfulness God gives more peace. Where sin abounds the grace of God abounds so much the more. God prefers salvation to destruction. He takes no delight in the death of the sinner. He gives more grace.

As proof of this James quotes Proverbs 3:34 which is found again in 1 Peter 5:5. James changes the word "Lord" in the LXX to "God."

God is opposed to the impenitent, but He is very gracious to the repentant. This twin thought permeates both Testaments. James is plainly using this thought as an invitation to his hearers.


(Adapted from "Exegetical Notes Epistle Texts, Series B, Sundays after Pentecost,"
by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1987, pp. 73-75)

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