Wisdom was an important thing to Jewish people. They realized it was not enough to have knowledge; you had to have wisdom to be able to use that knowledge correctly. All of us know people who are very intelligent, perhaps almost geniuses, and yet who seemingly are unable to carry out the simplest tasks of life. They can run computers, but they cannot manage their own lives! “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore, get wisdom” (Prov. 4:7).
James continued to exhort the people in the assembly who wanted to be teachers of the Word (James 3:1). It is not enough simply to stand before the people and say words; you must have something to say. This is where spiritual wisdom comes in. Knowledge enables us to take things apart, but wisdom enables us to put things together and relate God’s truth to daily life. All of us have heard preachers and teachers who say many good things, but who somehow miss the heart of God’s message and fail to relate truth to everyday life. It is this kind of “knowledge without wisdom” that James is writing about. He is contrasting true wisdom and false wisdom in three different aspects.
Contrast in Origins (James 3:15, 17a)
Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, sensual, and demonic.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is…
The true wisdom comes from above, but the false wisdom comes from below. In other words, there is a “heavenly wisdom” that comes from God, and there is a “man-made wisdom” that does not come from God. Whatever does not come from God is destined to fail, no matter how successful it may seem at the time.
The Bible contains many examples of the folly of man’s wisdom. The building of the Tower of Babel seemed like a wise enterprise, but it ended in failure and confusion (Gen. 11:1–9). It seemed wise for Abraham to go to Egypt when famine came to Canaan, but the results proved otherwise (Gen. 12:10–20). King Saul thought it was wise to put his own armor on young David for the boy’s battle with Goliath, but God’s plan was otherwise (1 Sam. 17:38). The disciples thought it was wise to dismiss the great crowd and let them find their own food; but Jesus took a few loaves and fish and fed the multitude. The Roman “experts” in Acts 27 thought it was wise to leave port and set sail for Rome, even though Paul disagreed; and the storm that followed proved Paul’s wisdom was better than their expert counsel. They lived to regret it, but they lived!
There is a “wisdom of this world” (1 Cor. 1:20–21). Do not confuse the world’s knowledge and the world’s wisdom. Certainly, there is a great deal of knowledge in this world, and we all benefit from it; but there is not much wisdom. Man unlocks the secrets of the universe, but he does not know what to do with them. Almost everything he discovers or devises turns against him. Over a century ago, Henry David Thoreau warned that we had “improved means to unimproved ends.”
The world by its wisdom knew not God, and in its wisdom rejects the very Gospel of God. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Any person enamored with the wisdom of this world ought to read the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians and notice how much Paul has to say about God’s wisdom and man’s wisdom. Man’s wisdom is foolishness to God (1 Cor. 1:20) and God’s wisdom is foolishness to man (1 Cor. 2:14). Man’s wisdom comes from reason, while God’s wisdom comes from revelation. Man’s worldly wisdom will come to nothing (1 Cor. 1:19), while God’s wisdom will endure forever.
This false wisdom has another source: it is “sensual,” that is, “natural.” The Greek word is psukikos, which comes from the Greek word psuke meaning “life” or “soul.” Our English word “psychology” is derived from it. In 1 Corinthians 2:14; 15:44, 46, psukikos is translated “natural,” referring to the opposite of “spiritual.” In Jude 19 it is translated “sensual.” The main idea is that man’s fallen nature is opposed to the new nature given by God.
This “wisdom that is from beneath” is also “demonic.” Beginning with Genesis 3, where Satan successfully deceived Eve and continuing through the entire Bible, there is a “wisdom of Satan” at work, fighting against the wisdom of God. Satan convinced Eve that she would be like God. He told her the tree would make her wise. Ever since that event people have continued to believe Satan’s lies and have tried to become their own gods (Rom. 1:18–25). Satan is cunning; he is the old serpent! He has wisdom that will confound and confuse you if you do not know the wisdom of God.
In contrast to the wisdom that is earthly, sensual, and demonic, James describes a “wisdom that is from above” (3:17). “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). The Christian looks up to heaven for all he needs. His citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), just as his Father is in heaven (Matt. 6:9). His treasures are in heaven, not on earth (Matt. 6:19). He was born from above (John 3:1–7) when he trusted Jesus Christ. The believer’s home is in heaven (John 14:1–6) and his hope is in heaven. He sets his affection and attention on things above, not on earthly things (Col. 3:1–4).
What is the Christian’s wisdom? Does he look to the philosophies of this world? No! To begin with, Jesus Christ is our wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24, 30). In Jesus Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). The first step toward true wisdom is the receiving of Jesus Christ as Savior.
The Word of God is also our wisdom. “I have taught you decrees and laws … Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations” (Deut. 4:5–6). The Scriptures are able to make us “wise for salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15).
James 1:5 indicates we find wisdom through believing prayer: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” The Holy Spirit of God is “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation” (Eph. 1:17) and He directs us in the wisest paths as we trust His Word and pray.
The origin of true spiritual wisdom is God. To get your wisdom from any other source is to ask for trouble. There is no need to get the counterfeit wisdom of the world, the wisdom that caters to the flesh and accomplishes the work of the devil. Get your wisdom from God!
In Part 2, we will look at the contrast between the operation of God’s wisdom and the operation of the world’s wisdom.