James has been continuously referring to two dominant themes in his epistle. Pretty much everything he has said up to this point stems from one or both of these themes. And I would say that both themes are closely related. Those themes are wisdom and what he calls our tongue, or to put it in our common vernacular, our speech.
Wisdom and speech are related in that our speech is the evidence of wisdom. Now he has taught us early on in this epistle that wisdom is from God. Wisdom is the knowledge and application of spiritual life which comes from God. And our speech is one of the primary means of applying that knowledge. Jesus said, “What is in the heart, comes out of the mouth.” And Paul said, with the mouth a man confesses what he believes in his heart. Romans 10:9-10 “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus [as] Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”
So it’s not enough to just believe, but you must say what you believe and your speech gives evidence of what you believe. But James tells us repeatedly that it’s possible to say one thing, but do another which shows that you actually don’t believe what you claim. James says in chapter 2:14 “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” And you will see that theme discussed again and again in all aspects of our life – this speech that belies our faith.
Now the context for what James is discussing in this section we’re studying today, is found in chapter 3, where James spoke of the tongue being a restless evil which cannot be tamed, and said that from the same fountain cannot come fresh and salt water at the same time, or good speech and evil speech should not coexist in the same mouth.
And of course, the source for that fountain is wisdom. According to James in chapter 3, there are two types of wisdom – the wisdom which is from God, and the wisdom which is of the world. And so your speech indicates which wisdom you have, and by which wisdom you are living.
The wisdom which is from the world is our default wisdom. That is the natural wisdom by which we operate under most circumstances. That wisdom is what we call science, or education, or human intuition, or being smart, or just good old common sense. But James says that the wisdom of the world is demonic in origin. It does not submit to God, but thinks itself smart enough and able to be independent from God. And according to chapter 3 vs 16, this earthly, demonic wisdom is characterized by jealousy and selfish ambition.
James 3:15-16 “This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”
Now to those evil characteristics of earthly wisdom, James speaks in the passage before us. He speaks of jealousy as characterized by slanderous and judgmental speech in vs 11 and 12. And then he speaks to selfish ambition in vs 13-16 which is marked by pride and arrogance, and then finishes this section with a summary statement about earthly wisdom as being sinful in vs 17 as he closes this chapter.
Let’s look at the first evidence of earthly wisdom then that is jealousy, which is marked by slanderous speech or judgmental speech. James says in vs 11, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge [of it.] There is [only] one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?”
There is in this verse an echo of Jesus’s teaching in His sermon on the mount in which Jesus said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.”
Now the way James speaks of judging is to say it is speaking against another person. But what he is really talking about there is slander. Slander is making a false statement about someone else to their detriment. It’s called character assassination. Jesus’s statement seems to be more broad than that, but I think that it’s more than likely that James gives us the correct interpretation of what Jesus meant by his statement. It means to judge with evil intent, to condemn, to damn.
It’s the same kind of attitude which James spoke of in chapter 2, when he said that when you give preferential treatment to the rich man you have become judges with evil motives. And then he says concerning that quickness to judge others, in vs 13, “For judgment [will be] merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”
It’s important that we understand correctly what James is teaching here concerning judgment. You often hear people rebuke a pastor or concerned Christian who raises questions about a person’s behavior, by saying, “Do not judge, lest you be judged.” However, right after Jesus spoke about not judging, He then went on to say beware of false prophets, and that you shall know them by their fruits. So in that sense, we are to judge others with righteous judgement, basing our judgement by their fruit, by their behavior.
James is also not telling us that we shouldn’t rebuke others who are sinning. That is a necessary part of evangelism, to tell sinners that they have fallen short of the kingdom of God, that their sin has condemned them to eternal punishment, and that there is a way of salvation for those who repent of their evil deeds. James speaks to that in the last verse of chapter five, saying, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
But the slanderer is not interested in saving the sinner, but in maligning someone. People tend to think that the way to exalt themselves is to put down others. So the idea that James is getting at here is the one who condemns with his speech another person, attacking him, speaking ill of him, maligning him, by that which is not necessarily the truth. When you slander someone, you’re not talking about them for their good, but to hurt them, to condemn them. James says this is devilish.
It’s interesting to note that in vs 7, when James references the devil, he uses the Greek word diabolos. Diabolos is interpreted as the devil, but literally it means the slanderer. And in vs 11, to speak against someone means to slander them.
In Rev 12:10 we see that description of the slanderer applied to the devil, saying, “And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.” Slander is the modus operandi of the devil. He accuses the Christian before God. And he uses other people to slander one another and accomplish that same purpose.
In addition to doing the work of the devil, James says that the one who judges with evil intentions puts himself above the law, and in effect, puts himself on par with God as a judge. Blind to his own sin, the slanderer is not aware of the seriousness of his error. Jesus said by what measure you judge, you will be judged. And so we need to leave judgement to God, and focus on removing the mote out of our own eye, before we focus on the speck in another’s eye.
James says there is only one lawgiver and judge, who, of course, is God. We all are going to be judged by God for every careless word that we speak. So if we understood the law properly, then we would all cry out for mercy. And our salvation is based on mercy, for by the keeping of the law is no one made righteous. If we depend upon mercy, then how much more should we be merciful to others, rather than to condemn them.
James says, “but who are you, to judge your neighbor?” By that question, he reminds us of the royal law, which is to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we loved our neighbor as we love ourselves, then we would not slander them, we would not condemn them, but we would show mercy towards them, because that’s what we desire for ourselves.
The next example of earthly wisdom that James discusses is what he called in chapter 3, selfish ambition. Selfish ambition is simply pride, and pride is marked by arrogant speech, which is boasting. James says starting in vs 13, “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are [just] a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, [you ought] to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”
Now again, it’s important to understand what James is saying, and what James is not saying. He is not saying that it’s wrong to make a business plan. He is not saying that it’s wrong to have goals. There are plenty of admonitions in the Bible about preparing for the future. Or how about the godly example of Joseph whose plan called for saving during the years of plenty for the years to come of famine? So the problem is not having a plan.
But what James is talking about here is the pride of man that makes plans and boasts as if he were the captain of his destiny and the master of his life. As if he has all the time in the world at his disposal. James is speaking of the ludicrousness of taking for granted the fragility of life, and that what you have in life is from God, even to the very next breath that you breathe.
James says the problem is that you make plans apart from the wisdom of God. You make plans according to the wisdom of the world which is sourced in pride. But James says, you don’t know what your life will be like tomorrow. As an example of that, I can’t help but think of what life was like before the virus. We took so many things for granted. No one could have imagined three years ago what life would be like today. No one could have imagined the freedoms that would be lost, the businesses that would be closed down, the lives that were lost, the effects on life and liberty that have come as a result of this virus.
I will confess that lately I have felt the effects of it more than ever. One thing that I’ve become more aware of is my own vulnerability. I used to think I was bullet proof to a certain extent. I don’t know if it’s my age or my health or a combination of both, but lately I feel vulnerable. I realize more than ever the fragility of life. We take good health for granted when we are healthy. And I will say we take our liberties for granted until we lose them. We take peace for granted in this country. I pray that we don’t wake up one day to the harsh realities that it seems we are headed for.
James says that it is arrogant to make plans as if God does not control the outcome of the world, as if we can make ourselves rich, we can make ourselves successful, we can do what we want without considering the Lord. Whether the world realizes it or not, everyone is totally dependent upon the mercy of God for their next breath. Paul said in Acts 17:28, “for in Him we live and move and exist.”
James says that your life is but a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. I’m sure you have all seen the early morning mist that hovers just above the ground on some chilly mornings. But when the sun comes up it disappears. It was just vapor. That’s a picture of the temporary nature of our life. By the time we start to figure it out, it’s over.
Moses wrote about that in Psalm 90, saying, ‘’ we end our days with a sigh.” He went on to say “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is [but] labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away.”
So instead of making plans in our arrogance, irrespective of God, instead we ought to say, “if it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” God is sovereign in our lives. He has numbered our days. He directs our steps. Proverbs 16:9 “The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.”
To say that “If it’s the Lord’s will…” is not a mantra that we tack on to our plans, like when we pray “in Jesus’s name, Amen.” It’s not a way to sanctify our own plans. But it means to submit to the sovereignty of God in every thing we do. The Scottish hymn writer Horatius Bonar put it this way; “no part of day or night from sacredness be free.” Everything we do we do for the Lord. Even things as mundane as your day to day work are to be done as unto the Lord. Even our submission to civil authorities is for the Lord’s sake. Even the love that spouses are to have for one another is to be as unto the Lord.
To say “If it’s the Lord’s will…” means simply to put the Lord first in your life. For the Christian, there is no separation between the secular and the sacred. There must be no distinction between my will and God’s will. Our will is to do God’s will. Whatever we do we need to do for the glory of God. Therefore, the Christian should accept the lordship of Jesus Christ in every aspect of our lives, living in obedience to the will of God as revealed in the word of God.
As Solomon’s wisdom tells us in Proverbs 3:5-6 “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.”
Finally, we come to a summary of this section on earthly wisdom in vs 17. The wisdom of the world produces sin. James says, “Therefore, to one who knows [the] right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” There is a wisdom that produces sin. It’s the earthly wisdom that is demonic, and produces every evil thing. There are sins of commission which we have looked at, such as pride and slander and boasting. But there is also a sin of omission, of neglect.
We have been given wisdom in the word of God. God speaks to us about what we should do, and what we should not do. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on what we should not do. Far too often we think we’re ok because we haven’t committed any of the gross sins of the flesh like adultery or murder or so forth. But there are also some things which we should do, and if we neglect to do them, after having been shown the truth, then James says that’s a sin. To neglect the commandments to love one another, to forgive one another, to edify one another, to pray for one another and other commandments like those, is just as grievous a sin as the sins of commission.
In our study on Wednesday nights we are looking at Revelation, and particularly the second coming of the Lord. The first coming of the Lord He came to show mercy, but in the second coming the Lord comes in judgment. And this is what the Lord Himself had to say about that coming, and the judgment which He will render; particularly the judgment He will give to those who knew His will, and did not do it.
Luke 12:42-48 “And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? “Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. “Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. “But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, [both] men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect [him] and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers. “And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know [it,] and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”
You have been given much this morning. You have been given the knowledge of God’s will. I urge you to show wisdom now and do it – to not just be hearers of the word, but doers of it. I urge you to submit to the will of God in your life, that the Lord will be sovereign over your plans, over your work, and over your life. Don’t resist the Lord in pride, thinking that you have plenty of time to serve the Lord later, but for now you want to live like you want. Don’t believe the false lies of the devil, and give place to pride and selfish ambition. But rather “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.”