A Bible Study exploring all the 3:16s in the Bible as they illuminate
- the Human Condition
- God’s Revelation of His Plan
- God’s Fulfillment of His Plan
- Our Response (Current location of study)
“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” – James 3:16
Oh how powerful words can be. In today’s world of 24/7 news cycle, social media, and big tech, the words anyone speaks or writes has the potential to influence, or at least be read/heard by a great number of people. James addresses this in all of chapter 3 and the first 12 verses of chapter 4.
James (the son of Mary and Joseph) was the brother (or half-brother) of Jesus. After Jesus’ resurrection, James became a believer and leader in the early Jerusalem church. This letter was probably written in the first decade after Jesus’ resurrection and was addressed to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion,” meaning that copies were probably circulated through much of the Mediterranean to emerging house churches among the Jewish population.
This week’s 3:16 verse falls within the broader context of the passage mentioned above, so let’s jump in and see what James has to say to the church!
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”
It is one thing to voice an opinion, but it is much different when you take on the desire and responsibility to become a teacher, or one to whom others look for guidance and instruction. (And, yes, I understand that by writing this I am placing myself in the role of teacher and this applies to me!) James says, “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” People who take on the role of teacher (whether formally/vocationally, or even in an informal manner (like social media), must realize that they will be held accountable for what they teach.
Jesus, in explaining some parables to his disciples in Luke 12:47-48 said, “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” I believe this indicates that not only will our words be judged, but also the level of influence that our words have. If we lead many people astray with our words, we will be judged more severely than if we lead only a few astray. James continues by painting several word pictures for us. I’m not going to elaborate on them – they speak well for themselves.
“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”
All these pictures emphasize the power that our words can have on others, and our tendency to so easily lose control of our speech. James says, “these things ought not to be so.” Earlier he had said, “we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” Of course, James’ reference to perfection in speech is only ultimately achievable in our fully redeemed bodies in heaven apart from the influence of sin, but it is a worthy goal nonetheless.
James now turns to the statement that includes our 3:16 verse for this study (bolded below). He is speaking about how to be wise in our speech.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.“
Note that after posing the question “who is wise and understanding“, James proceeds to frame a definition of godly wisdom around a discussion of how ungodly wisdom becomes apparent. He points out the godly wisdom will be apparent through our conduct and through “meekness.” Meekness, a word also often translated as “gentleness”, is defined more fully in the latter part of the description. But first, he says that ungodly wisdom is associated with bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, boastfulness, and falsifying truth, and that these will produce disorder and vileness. Does that sound like the conversations we see/hear/have today on social media?
He then goes on to more fully define the “meekness of wisdom” by saying that expressions or evidence of godly wisdom is first pure (or blameless). In other words, it is true to holiness and godliness – an expression of God’s desires and will, or morally right. Then with that foundation, it has the further qualities of being “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” How great would it be if, before we write or speak, we would ask ourselves:
- Is what I’m about to say in line with God’s word (truth) and morally right?
- Am I saying it in such a way as to foster peace, e.g. am I being a peacemaker?
- Are my words coming across as gentle (as opposed to harsh or antagonizing)?
- Am I giving the impression that I’m willing to listen to and engage with those who differ with me?
- Am I willing to show mercy to others?
- Are my actions falling in line with the words I’m writing/speaking?
- Have I removed evidence of bias or partiality from my assertions?
- Finally, do I really believe in what I am saying?
All of these questions can and should be answered without giving up on our biblically-based godly convictions. Note that James identifies that the goal of our speech should be a “harvest of righteousness, sown in peace.” He goes on in the first part of chapter 4 to further address arguments and dissent.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'”
The key phrase in this passage related to quarrels and fights is James’ statement that “your passions are at war within you.” This is reminiscent of Paul’s description in Romans 7:15-25:
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Paul, like James, recognizes that Christians have a continual battle waging within them between our sin nature and our desire and ability to maintain holiness. And, as Paul acknowledges, this battle will continue until we die and shed our sin nature to be eternally united with (and resurrected to) our savior and redeemer, Jesus.
But, knowing that struggle exists and will always exist does not give us the excuse to give up and give in to it. On the contrary, James forcefully says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” In other words, STOP IT ALREADY! Don’t expect to live in harmony with God and God’s people if you don’t continue the fight within yourself to overcome those “worldly” passions that draw you down. He says, “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” The second scripture James quotes if from Proverbs 3:34, but the first scripture is uncertain. However, it points to the consistent characterization of God in the scriptures as being “jealous” for the hearts of His people. That’s why James, like many places in the Old and New Testaments, calls the people “adulterous”. They are not faithful to God but chase after their own desires. But God is jealous and will provide discipline to bring them back.
James finishes this section of his letter with the following admonitions:
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?“
In today’s increasingly uncivil society, our responsibility as Christians is to submit ourselves to God. When we accepted God’s gift of salvation through belief in the saving grace of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, that decision set our path for eternity. However, we must daily submit ourselves to God’s leadership and word in order to successfully wage the war within ourselves and amongst the attacks of evil forces in the world. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you!“
Our next 3:16 verse will come from 2 Peter.