Wisdom from Above

Wisdom from Above: A Study in James

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James 3:17–18
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.

There is a centuries-old saying, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, a cook can insist she has made something good. But the test of her success is when someone actually tastes the food. (Have you ever put food on your plate, only to find that it tasted far worse than it looked?) We can insist we are wise, but how we actually live—especially how we relate to others—is the true test. A wise man is identified by the quality of life he lives and the manner in which he handles life’s issues. In the verses following his description of wisdom from below, James unfolds in careful detail the specific qualities that reflect this heavenly wisdom.

The Divine Source of Wisdom

James 3:17
But the wisdom that is from above …


Wisdom—the moral skill based on divine principles that is necessary to live successfully

First of all, the “wisdom from above” originates with God (3:17). James has already stated that wisdom is found in God: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (1:17). God has also revealed that He delights to give His children wisdom in answer to their prayers: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (1:5). True wisdom does not come through intellectual effort but through humble and prayerful dependence.

The connection between wisdom and prayer surfaces frequently in Scripture. For example, when faced with the daunting task of governing Israel, Solomon asked the Lord for wisdom instead of riches, honor and fame. This prayer honored God and was favorably answered (1 Kings 3:3–14). Paul prayed this way for the Colossians, whom he apparently did not even know personally. He explains that his struggle in prayer is for them to have spiritual wisdom, which is found ultimately in Christ (Col. 2:1–3). James himself exemplified this kind of prayer life. Church history remembers him by the nickname “Camel Knees” because of the time he invested in praying on his knees in the temple. Wisdom is God’s gift to His people as an answer to their prayers.

The Essential Quality of Wisdom

James 3:17
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure …

Secondly, James lists a catalogue of virtues that result from wisdom. He heads the list with wisdom’s primary quality—purity. By singling out purity, James clearly distinguishes God’s wisdom with wisdom from below, which comes from impure sources—the world, the flesh and the Devil—and bears impure fruit: bitterness and animosity. In contrast, wisdom from above is pure in both a moral and a devotional sense.

Morally, this purity means freedom from all defilement, including jealousy, selfish ambition and sexual immorality. We as believers can experience this pureness only through the blood of Jesus Christ cleansing us from our sins (Heb. 9:14). As a result, God has imparted His own nature to us (2 Peter 1:4), and we now have a new spiritual nature with a new ability to live a morally virtuous life (James 1:18, 21; Eph. 4:22–24).

Devotionally, this purity entails a single-minded, passionate pursuit to know God and obey His Word. We experience continual cleansing through studying and meditating on the Scriptures (John 15:3; 17:17). As we grow in our knowledge of the Word, we develop an ever-increasing sensitivity to the polluting influences of the world’s thoughts, words and actions (James 1:27). The more we drink from the living streams of God’s holy Word (Ps. 1:3), the more renewed we will be by its purity (Ps. 19:8).

The Virtuous Evidences of Wisdom

James 3:17
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.

Thirdly, this heavenly wisdom is characterized by six qualities that concern our interpersonal relationships with others. These virtues further describe various aspects of the moral and devotional purity mentioned first. James uses an alliterated style by using e in the first four virtues and a in the last two. Notice the emphasis on peace at the beginning of this catalog in verse 17, as well as at the end of verse 18. James seems to be emphasizing the primary issue by which this congregation was demonstrating worldly wisdom. They lacked peace.

Six Virtues

  1. Peaceable (eirēnikē)—People of wisdom are peacemakers instead of strife-causers. They seek to settle disputes instead of provoking them.
  2. Gentle (epieikēs) — Wise people respect the feelings of others, make allowances for their weaknesses, and avoid being severe and stern when dealing with others.
  3. Easy to be entreated (eupeithēs) — A wise person is open to reason and willing to listen and cooperate when a better way is shown, as long as Scriptural principles are not being violated.
  4. Full of mercy and good fruits (eleous) — A wise person’s life is one of compassion in action. He seeks to help those who are needy or in distress with acts of mercy.
  5. Without partiality (adiakritos) — A wise person is straightforward and consistent in his positions without wavering. He treats people the same and resists showing favoritism to one group of people over another.
  6. Without hypocrisy (anupokritos) — A wise person is free from pretense and has no hidden agendas. He does not manipulate people to accomplish his self-centered purposes. He is willing to trust God to change people.

The Powerful Effects of Wisdom

James 3:18
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.


Fruit — harvest; result; outcome; product; this word refers to the seed which results in the fruit

Righteousness — doing what is right, what God requires; goodness; justice

Sown — distributed (as seed; refers to a customary practice)

Peace — tranquility; peace in the community

Make —to bring about; to practice; to cultivate (indicates characteristic behavior)

Finally, James reveals the powerful effects of this kind of wisdom. Using a farming metaphor, he describes the result of a wise man’s actions before he ever makes a single choice—sowing and cultivating. James is confident that there will be a guaranteed harvest of righteous living among God’s people if the congregation is guided and governed by peace. If we characteristically plant seeds of wise, gentle, sincere peace, the fruit that crops up will be practical righteousness in the likeness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:18; Eph. 4:24). Whereas wisdom from below results in “confusion and every evil work” (James 3:16), wisdom from above comes to fruition in peace and righteousness. The proof of the wisdom that guides us is in our response to life’s pressures, particularly in relation to believers around us.

This post is from Wisdom from Above: A Study in James by Steve Pettit. Copyright 2015 by BJU Press. Printed by permission of BJU Press.

This post is part of the study designed to correspond with the 2020 Spring Chapel Series. Watch the chapel message below:

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Steve Pettit traveled for many years with the Steve Pettit Evangelistic Team before becoming president of Bob Jones University. His ultimate goal for BJU is to prepare students to serve and love others, no matter their vocation.