Who Is Wise?

James 3:13–18,

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. [14]But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. [15]This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. [16]For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. [17]But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. [18]And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

So one thing to keep in mind as we are working our way deeper into the Book of James is that James did not write this letter to healthy churches — and if we’ve not picked up on that yet, it will get really clear for us over the next few weeks. The churches that James is writing to here were messy. 

This is one of the oldest books in the New Testament. The best scholars date it between 40–45, which means we’re talking about just 10–15 years after Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead — which is partly why there are so many similarities to the teachings of Jesus (as Joshua showed us last week). 

By the time this letter was written we know that there had been thousands who had believed the gospel and become Christians — the book Acts shows us this — but the church at this time was still trying to organize herself. The church was so new that she was still trying to figure out what it means to be Christians together, following Jesus in community.

And that’s one of the reasons I think that the whole of Chapter 3 is mainly about those who aspire to be teachers. So let me explain what I’m talking about before we get into the text. 

The Aspiring Teachers

First, everybody agrees that Chapter 3, verse 1 is about those who aspire to be teachers, because the verse says: 

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

So James in verse 1 is talking about those who aspire to become teachers and he is discouraging them from pursuing that because of the heavy responsibility that comes with it. And when James mentions “teachers” here, I don’t think he’s referring only to elders, but he’s talking about the gift of teaching and teaching in general that takes place in the local church. 

So just for clarity, in the local church, there is the office of elder and there is the gift of teaching, and the two are connected, but they’re not the same. 

  • The office of elder is made up of men who have been affirmed by the Holy Spirit and the local church to hold that office.
  • The gift of teaching is a gift given by the Holy Spirit to individuals for the building up of the local church. 
  • Now, to be qualified as an elder you must have the gift of teaching, but the gift of teaching is not what makes you an elder. 

The gift of teaching is a spiritual gift given to men and women for the good of the church — and typically, in our circles today, what we call the people who have this gift is simply leaders — Christian leaders. That’s our common designation for these folks. Christian leaders includes elders, but it also refers to more than elders — and I think that fits with who James is talking about here. He’s talking about anyone who teaches or really, anyone who wants to teach. 

And again, we know that James has them in mind in Chapter 3, verse 1 because he says it — but the question is whether he just mentions them in verse 1 and then moves on to something else, or whether the whole part on taming the tongue and the rest of Chapter 3 is actually for these aspiring teachers. 


I think it is for these aspiring teachers. The whole part on the tongue in Chapter 3 is part of James trying to convince these aspiring teachers to reconsider becoming teachers — which might seem strange to us, but this is where the timing of this letter is good to remember. See, at this point in the church’s life, while she was still trying to organize herself and figure things out, there would have been, some scholars says, an abundance of “teachers” trying to help. 

In other words, a lot of the leadership in these local churches was up for grabs and there were aspiring teachers who were asserting themselves to fill those slots — which is why James says what he says in Chapter 3, verse 1 and continues down to verse 12 — he’s trying to weed out some of these aspiring teachers. 

And that’s why he also says verse 13. He’s talking again about these aspiring teachers, and James says:

Who is wise and understanding among you?

He’s asking: which of you consider yourselves, and want to be considered by others, as wise? And all of the aspiring teachers would have been like: me. 

Leading to Verses 13–18

Okay, so that is the context that leads us into this passage, verses 13–18. I think it’s mainly about those who want to be Christian leaders, but it’s still relevant for everyone. So don’t let me lose you if you think this is only for Christian leaders. I’m saying it’s mainly about Christian leaders, but there is truth here that goes for all of us. And there are three things in particular I want to point out as we work our way through each verse. This is a three-point sermon. It goes like this:

  1. Character matters more than charisma. (3:13)
  2. Ambition is the root of anarchy. (3:14–16)
  3. Peace produces a harvest of righteousness. (3:17–18)

1. Character Matters More Than Charisma (3:13)

So James says in verse 13: “Who is wise and understanding among you?”

He asks the question, and then he gives two answers. In the first answer, he says, verse 13: “By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” 

That’s how we’re supposed to know who’s wise. So let’s break this down for a minute to get what he’s saying. Check out three words: show, conduct, and meekness.


First, the word for “show” is the single command in this verse. In the original word order, it’s actually the verb that comes first. James asks who is wise, and then he says, Let that person show it. And right away we should see a connection back to Chapter 2, verse 18. That’s when James says that he shows his faith not apart from his works, but by his works. So the action of showing is a testimony. It’s meant to verify something. And in verse 13, the wise are commanded to verify their wisdom.


Second, there’s the word “conduct.” This word basically means “way of life.” That’s how it’s translated in other places in the New Testament. It’s referring to the way someone lives, or their lifestyle. Which means, if we put these two words together — “show” and “conduct” — if we put them together, James is commanding the wise verify their wisdom by the way they live.

“Meekness of wisdom”

Now third, notice the phrase “the meekness of wisdom.” The word for meekness is sometimes translated gentleness, and it basically means humility. Some English versions, like the NIV, just translate it “humility,” which is right on. And what James is doing here is he’s giving us a little more detail about what it is in a “good way of life” that verifies wisdom. He says: Show your wisdom by your good way of life, and in particular, by humility.

Humility verifies wisdom — or really, as James says, it’s the humility of wisdom, which means the humility that comes from wisdom. So, James is saying the humility that comes from wisdom verifies wisdom. 

The Paraphrase of Verse 13

And if we put it all together, here’s my paraphrase of verse 13. James asks: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” His first answer is:

Let them verify their wisdom by the way they live, in particular, let them verify their wisdom by the works they do in the humility that comes from wisdom.

That’s what James is saying. That’s how we find out who’s wise. The wise among us are the people who live right and do humble things. 


And that might not sound very profound to us, but think for a minute about what James does not say here. Again, I think he is talking about aspiring teachers, and he asks, Who of you thinks your wise? Now, he does not say: If you think you’re wise, speak up and tell us about it. He does not say: If you think you’re wise, we’re going to have some opportunities for you to teach so we can see what you’ve got.

James says absolutely nothing here about skills and gifting, and compared to our value system in America, and in the American church, we should find this astonishing.

Our Broken Value System

In terms of the American value system, even without meaning to, we tend to value things based upon what they can do for me. This is a consumer mindset. And when that value system comes into the church, when that value system controls how we think about teachers, or Christian leaders, or pastors, it will make us reduce them to their skills and gifts. We will treat them like service providers; we will favor the ones we think provide us the best service, and we will make character a mere footnote. 

And this is not a matter of it will happen — it has happened. At large, in the American church, we have made skills and gifts the main thing.

And we should know that James, and the rest of the New Testament, does not think that way. 

And as best as we can, by God’s grace, here at Cities Church, we don’t want to think that way. Character matters more than charisma.

“I Don’t Care How Good You Are”

Back in the middle of the 1800s, in Scotland, there was a pastor named Robert Murray McCheyne. And when it comes to this topic for pastors, he is known for saying: “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” And when he says “personal holiness” he doesn’t mean just staying out of trouble, but he means walking through the moments of his day-to-day life close to Jesus. He’s talking about himself being changed to become more like Jesus — that’s what holiness is — and he knew that when it came to pastoral ministry, that was his most important need. As a pastor, the main thing is that he become more like Jesus.

And I want you to know that the pastors here at Cities agree with that. And it feels a little awkward to talk ourselves, but this is a way you can pray for us. We started doing this thing, going back a few months ago, where we say to one another, “I don’t care how good you are, be holy.” I’m talking, we look at each other, straight in the face, and I say to Joe: “I don’t care how good you are at [blank], be holy.” And he says it to me. And we all say it to each other. 

And the reason we do that is because of what James is saying here in Chapter 3, verse 13. Verify your wisdom, not by how good a preacher you are, but by how you live your life. Verify your wisdom by living in the humility that comes from wisdom. 

Character matters more than charisma.

2. Ambition Is the Root of Anarchy (3:14–16)

Now look at verse 14 for a minute. This is the second answer that James gives to the question about who is wise. If you are wise, verse 13, show it by how you live. Then in verse 14, 

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.

And when he says not to boast or be false to the truth he’s talking about claiming to be wise. James says that if you have jealousy and ambition in your hearts, don’t think you’re wise and understanding. Because you’re not. Jealousy and ambition disqualifies you from being wise — and if it’s in the heart of an aspiring teacher it means you’re cut. And in verse 15 James explains why. Verse 15: 

This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.

He’s straightforward here. The reason you should not claim to be wise if you have jealousy and ambition in your heart is because jealousy and ambition are not part of wisdom, but instead jealousy and ambition is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. 

Understanding Wisdom

And this verse marks a little change in the passage. Up to this point, in verses 13–14, James has been answering the question about who is wise: The one who is wise is the one who lives right and is humble, not the one who has jealousy and ambition intheir hearts. But then here in verse 15, he moves to the topic of what wisdom is — which he continues to verse 18 — and he explains what wisdom is by first saying it’s not jealousy and ambition. 

This means we need to press pause for a minute and figure out what exactly is jealousy and ambition. If jealousy and ambition is not wisdom, but is instead earthly, unspiritual, and demonic, then we should know what he’s talking about.

Let’s start with ambition, because that’s the linchpin. In most English versions, the word is translated “selfish ambition,” although in the original it’s just the single word “ambition.” And the reason we’ve added the adjective “selfish” is because our modern perception of ambition is very different from how it was understood in the Bible. The word “ambition” in these ancient times meant having a consuming desire for a result that serves the self. Basically, ambition was understood as selfishness on steroids. Every use of this word in the Bible is negative. For example, listen to how Paul uses it …

  • Philippians 2:3, he says “Do nothing from ambition or conceit…”
  • Romans 2:8, he says, “but for those who are ambitious (ESV says self-seeking) and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 
  • Galatians 5:20, Paul lists out the works of the flesh: “idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, ambition (also translated rivalries)… [Paul says] those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”


So according to the Bible, you do not want to be ambitious. 

Ministry Vision vs. Ministry Ambition

But the problem today is that we’ve put our own spiritual twist on the word. We’ve made ambition a synonym for ministry vision. We’ve made ambition another way to talk about radical faith. It’s another way to talk about Christians stepping out in bold, sacrificial acts of love. But I don’t think it’s helpful to do that — so I want us to know that there’s a difference between ministry vision and ministry ambition.

So speaking of ministry vision, I think it is right for us to have vision, and hopes and dreams for the glory of God in our lives and in our cities. And we do have them — because the apostle Paul had them. Paul said in Romans 1 that he was eager to preach the gospel in Rome (Rom. 1:15). He said, in Romans 15, that he made it his aim, his dream, to preach the gospel to people who had never heard of Jesus (Rom. 15:20). 

And I think we need more of that. We need more faith and confidence in God, not less. We need more sacrificial acts of love, not less. We need more vision and dreams and prayers about God’s glory being displayed and the gospel advancing in our lives and in our cities. That is good and right. We need more.


Ambition, on the other hand, when it comes to ministry, brings a self-serving distortion. Ambition, rather than being about God’s glory, is about personal glory, and when it comes to ministry, it’s about using God to puff up ourselves. And the dangerous thing about it is that from the outside, ministry ambition might look like ministry vision. So how do we know which it is?

How do we know if we’re for God’s glory or if we’re for the glory of Cities Church? How do I know if I’m for God’s glory or if I’m for my own glory? Ministry vision and ministry ambition are different, but how do we know which one is in our hearts?

Okay, so here’s one little test we might do, for all of us. Think about whatever your ministry vision is. What are the things that you want to see God do? We have these for our church, but we can also think about them at a personal level, even in your own relationships. Say you have a friend who has a need, and you know of a way that you want to serve that friend in their need. Now, what if your friend gets served in that way, but you’re not the person who does it — how does that feel? 

Or say, in terms of our church, what if there’s a lot of people who believe the gospel and are baptized this summer, but it’s not here. It’s at one of our sister churches down the street. How’s that feel?

Well, see, if ambition is in our hearts it means we get jealous, envious. That’s why James mentions here jealousy and ambition. They go hand in hand. If we’re all about our own glory (which is called ambition), we hate it when that glory goes somewhere else (which is called jealousy or envy). 

But, if we’re really about the glory of God — if it’s true ministry vision — then we just want to see God’s glory displayed whether we’re part of it or not. 

In ministry vision, the vision, the dream, the goal is the glory of God, not our participation. And we’d love to be part of it, but the main thing is just: God, you get your glory! That’s the vision. That’s what we want.


And we need God to search our hearts on this. We need to ask ourselves these questions. But there’s actually a simpler way to know if there’s jealously and ambition in our hearts. 

Ambition Manifests Itself

James says it in verse 16.

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.

In other words, jealousy and ambition will manifest itself. Jealously and ambition in the heart will ultimately be demonstrated in disorder and evil. The word for “disorder” means confusion, and the idea is between people. We’re talking about relational chaos. “Every vile practice” simply means, simply all kinds of evil. 

James is saying that wherever there is jealously and ambition, eventually it will lead to a corrupted, chaotic community where there is all kinds of evil. Basically, it’s Pandemonium — like in the John Milton sense. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Pandemonium is the capital city of Hell, and it’s the place where Satan and all his demons met, and it was a place of complete chaos and deception. It was anarchy. That’s where ambition will take you — ambition leads to disorder and evil. Ambition is the root of anarchy. 

3. Peace produces a harvest of righteousness. (3:17–18)

We see this in verses 17 and 18, which is the right side up of verses 15–16. In verse 17, James says, in contrast to jealousy and ambition, 

… 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.

And the main thing I want us to see here is contrast of outcomes. Jealousy and ambition produces disorder and evil, but godly wisdom produces a harvest of righteousness. 

But my question here in closing is: Why does James focus in on “peace”? Why does he talk about peace here?

The Depths of Peace

Godly wisdom — “the wisdom from above” — like we saw in verse 13, is characterized by humility, and each of the qualities that James mentions in verse 17 could be seen as an extension of humility. All of these qualities require humility — but the quality of peace is what James picks up in verse 18: 

  • the one who makes peace (the peacemaker), 
  • sows in peace, 
  • and then will see a harvest of righteousness — and by that phrase, James means an abundance of righteous deeds. 

“Harvest of righteousness” is contrasted with “every vile practice.” So James is talking about all kinds of beautiful, good, righteousness things being done by the church.


Now, I think one reason James goes here and talks about peace is because he’s setting up the disorder he’s going to talk about in Chapter 4, and we’re going to see that next week. But what I find really helpful about James landing on this quality of peace is the depths of what peace is.

If you think about it, peace is both a quality and a result. As a quality, we can be peaceable, verse 17, and then out of being peaceable we can do peaceful things we can sow in peace (verse 18). And when we do that — peaceable people doing peaceful things — it will lead all kinds of good. 

Don’t you want to be a person like that? Don’t we all want to be the kind of people who bring peace into a situation? I think James would say that’s essential for teachers, but we all want that.

In the past, Pastor Joe has called this “gospel presence” — it doesn’t mean we have all the answers, and it doesn’t mean we’re the silver bullet to solving problems; it just means that we’re the kind of people who live out of the reality of the gospel. We carry with us the quality of peace and we help bring about the result of peace

But see, here’s the thing: this will only be possible for us if we’ve been given the gift of peace. We don’t have peace and we don’t make peace unless we have experienced the peace that comes from outside ourselves.

The Only Way

Left to ourselves in sin, curved in on ourselves, self-centeredness will shrivel our hearts, and eventually, all we will have is disorder. Everything will feel precarious and fragile because everything is up to us. And if you live this way, you will either be in chaos or always one step away from chaos, and you won’t be able to fix it.

However, there is the God of peace. God is not a God of confusion, he is the God of peace. And since the very beginning of creation, he has been in the business of bringing order to chaos . . . 

. . . until eventually the God of peace himself suffered utter chaos so that we don’t have to.


When Jesus died in our place on the cross, bearing our sin, and taking the wrath we deserved, in that moment, as he was mocked, derided, and ridiculed by the crowd; in that moment when in some way he was abandoned by his Father; in that moment when in some other way he was disarming, shaming, and triumphing over Satan and his demons, in that moment Jesus faced the most extreme chaos to secure our peace — sins forgiven, his righteousness made ours, peace with God and then with one another. That’s the only way. 

Peace produces a harvest of righteousness, but it has to start here. And that’s what this Table is about. 

The Table

Here at the Lord’s Table we remember the death of Jesus for us. The bread represents his broken body; the cup represents his shed blood. And this morning as we take this meal together, we remember that Jesus died for us to give us the gift of peace, and as we eat the bread and drink the cup, it is Jesus by his Spirit giving us that peace again and again and again. He continues his peace for us. . . .