The Test of Wisdom
Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. (3:13)
Some interpreters believe the phrase who among you refers only to the teachers, or would-be teachers, addressed in verse 1. But it seems more probable that, like the intervening section on the tongue (vv. 2–12), this section on wisdom (vv. 13–18) applies to everyone in the churches to whom James was writing, true believers and mere professed believers. James is seeking to identify who is truly skilled in the art of righteous living. “In what way are you wise?” he is saying, in effect, “and in what way are you understanding? The answer will reveal not only your inner character but the spiritual condition of your soul.”
It is hard to find a self-professed fool. Most people have an elevated and unrealistically high opinion of their wisdom, although they might not say so. They believe they are just as “savvy” as the next person and that their opinion is usually better than anyone else’s. In this day of relativism, such perception is virtually universal.
Although the two terms seem to be used synonymously here, wise and understanding carry a shade of difference in meaning. Sophos (wise) is a general word, often used by the Greeks to designate speculative knowledge, theory, or philosophy. For the Jews, as noted earlier, it carried the deeper meaning of careful application of knowledge to personal living. Epistēmōn (understanding) appears only here in the New Testament and carries the idea of specialized knowledge, such as that of a highly skilled tradesman or professional.
Let him show translates an aorist imperative, making the verb a command. “If you claim wisdom and understanding,” he is saying, “show it first by your good behavior, your exemplary lifestyle.” As with faith (2:17), wisdom and understanding that are not demonstrated in righteous, godly living are devoid of spiritual value.
Second, and somewhat more specifically, James admonishes readers to show their wisdom and understanding by their good (implied) deeds, by all the particular activities and endeavors they are involved in.
Third, believers are to demonstrate wisdom and understanding by an attitude of gentleness. People who are wise in their own eyes are generally arrogant about it, which would be expected, because an elevated self-view is based on pride. As made clear in the following verse, selfish ambition is a common companion of arrogance.
Prautēs (gentleness) and its related adjective praus (gentle) carry the idea of tenderness and graciousness, and can be accurately translated “meekness” and “meek,” respectively. But unlike those English words, the Greek terms do not connote weakness but rather power under control. The adjective was often used of a wild horse that was broken and made useful to its owner. For believers, gentleness is to be willingly under the sovereign control of God. Numbers 12:3 (kjv) describes Moses as “very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” Yet that same Moses could act decisively, and flared up in anger when provoked.
Gentleness is a God-honored character trait, a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23). It is never bitter, malicious, self-seeking, self-promoting, arrogant, or vengeful. James has earlier admonished believers, “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility (prautēs) receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (1:21). Gentleness or meekness is to characterize everyone in the kingdom of God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Our Lord used it of Himself, saying, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:29; cf. 21:5).
In his excellent nineteenth-century commentary on James, Robert Johnstone wrote:
I do not know that at any point the opposition between the spirit of the world and the Spirit of Christ is more marked, more obviously diametrical, than with regard to this feature of character. That “the meek” should “inherit the earth”—they who bear wrongs, and exemplify that love which “seeketh not her own,”—to a world which believes in high-handedness and self-assertion, and pushing the weakest to the wall, a statement like this of the Lord from heaven cannot but appear an utter paradox. The man of the world desires to be counted anything but “meek” or “poor in spirit,” and would deem such a description of him equivalent to a charge of unmanliness. Ah, brethren, this is because we have taken in Satan’s conception of manliness instead of God’s. One Man has been shown us by God, in whom His ideal of man was embodied; and He, “when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, threatened not, but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously”; He for those who nailed Him to the tree prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” The world’s spirit of wrath, then, must be folly; whilst than a spirit of meekness like His, in the midst of controversy, oppositions, trials of whatever kind, there can be no surer evidence that “Jesus is made of God to His people wisdom.” …
We have here again what may be described as the central thought of this epistle, that where religion [the gospel] has real saving hold of a mind and heart, it cannot from its nature but powerfully influence the outward life; and that the more a Christian has of true wisdom and spiritual knowledge, the more manifestly will his life at all points be governed by his religion [faith]. Talk of orthodoxy and Christian experience, however fluent and animated and clever, does not of itself prove wisdom; the really wise man will “show his work.” (A Commentary on James [reprint; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977], 261–62; 259)
13 In the ancient world, to be “wise” (sophos, GK 5055) could refer to being skilled or experienced (e.g., 1 Co 3:10); but most often in biblical literature, the word communicates an understanding that results in right attitudes and right living, for God himself is wise (Ro 16:27; 1 Co 1:25) and therefore is the source of divine wisdom. James wants his audience to consider such godly wisdom, for he asks rhetorically, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” The term translated “understanding” (epistēmōn, GK 2184) has to do with being knowledgeable or expert in some area of life. It may be that there were strong personalities in the churches James addresses—people who boasted of their great learning and “wisdom,” insisting that their perspectives on certain matters be given the highest consideration. Yet James issues a reminder that true wisdom “speaks” loudest in one primary way: a life lived well and with an attitude of humility. Thus one must “show,” or demonstrate (deiknymi, GK 1259), “deeds” (ta erga, GK 2240) associated with a righteous pattern of life. This “good life” (tēs kalēs ana-strophēs, GK 2819, 419) constitutes high moral quality and excellence of conduct (Gal 1:13; Eph 4:22; Heb 13:7; 1 Pe 3:2). Further, true wisdom is the source of humility, so the “showing” of good deeds, which really stems from divine wisdom, will manifest itself in a humbleness of spirit rather than stimulating a boastful attitude. The word rendered “humility” (prautēs, GK 4559) by the NIV and “gentleness” by the NASB can also carry the meaning “courtesy” or “considerateness,” and, given the relational conflicts addressed in the passage, these nuances may be in line with James’s intention.
3:13 / James has already argued for simple, sincere speech; now he makes an appeal. Who is wise and understanding among you? At one level this is a question that simply asks if someone fits the description, but at a deeper level one remembers that 1 Corinthians 1–3 describes a church in which rival teachers claimed superior wisdom, and perhaps that was happening in James’ community as well. At the least, he knows that the teachers of 3:1 were claiming to be understanding, for how else could they teach? It is such persons, as well as those who aspire to understanding, whom James addresses.
How are such persons to show their wisdom? By clever refutation of those who disagree with their position? By no means; rather, show it by [their] good life. Jesus had taught that one would know true teachers from false ones by how they lived (Matt. 7:15–23). James is applying his master’s teaching. Lifestyle was absolutely critical for the early church. Elders were primarily examples (1 Pet. 5:3; 1 Tim. 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:10–11), secondarily teachers: Their qualifications stress their exemplary lives and only mention their teaching ability as one item among many (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). Lifestyle was an important witness as well (1 Pet. 2:12; 3:2, 16), for if it did not succeed in converting, it at least removed the excuses from the mouths of unbelievers at the final judgment. James states that not one’s orthodoxy (right preaching) but one’s orthopraxis (right living) is the mark of true wisdom. One must reject the teacher who does not live like Jesus; one discounts the profession that does not lead to holiness.
James stresses two marks of this lifestyle. The first is good deeds. Actions do speak louder than words (Matt. 5:16). The works one does show where the heart is really invested (e.g., Matt. 6:19–21, 24). James commends such practices as charity and caring for widows as marks of wisdom.
The second mark is performing these deeds in the humility that comes from wisdom. Unlike the hypocrites of Matthew 6:1–5, the truly wise know how to act out of humility: They are not building their own reputations. Like Moses (Num. 12:3) and Jesus (Matt. 11:29; 21:5; 2 Cor. 10:1), they are not interested in defending themselves. They avoid conflict and especially avoid advertising themselves. Humility is the mark of the truly wise.
A Challenge to Demonstrate Wisdom in Behavior (v. 13)
3:13. James 3:2–12 presents shortcomings of the tongue to which teachers and all individuals are vulnerable. 3:13–18 reminds us of our need to demonstrate genuine wisdom. The words particularly apply to aspiring teachers, but they have relevance to all believers.
The opening rhetorical question asks how we can show that we have wisdom. Wise refers to someone with moral insight and skill in deciding practical issues of conduct. Understanding pictures someone with the knowledge of an expert. We are to show the presence of wisdom by good deeds practiced with humility. Only obedient deeds, not mere talk, prove the presence of wisdom.
Humility refers to a submissive spirit opposed to arrogance and self-seeking. The person with humility is not a doormat for the desires of others, but controls and overpowers the natural human tendency to be arrogant and self-assertive. Non-Christian Greeks felt that this type of humility was a vice. Christianity made meekness into a virtue. “Meek” in Matthew 5:5 is the adjectival form of the noun translated here as humility. Jesus promised the “meek” they would inherit the earth. Jesus meant a believer who relates to God with dependence and contentment will reap God’s abundant blessings.
Even when you are involved in a disagreement, you must demonstrate a gentleness and kindness of attitude. You must banish all contentiousness and mutual accusation. The Bible calls on all Christians to show the presence of spiritual wisdom in their lives by deeds of humility and goodness.
13, Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.
James addresses the members of the church. He assumes that they pray to God for wisdom, that they possess this virtue, and that the world looks to them for leadership. Knowing, however, that these things are not always true of Christians, James wants his readers to examine themselves.
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” A wise and understanding person demonstrates in what he says and by what he does that he possesses wisdom. Whether James wants to designate the teachers of his day wise men is not quite clear. If this is the case, we see a direct connection between the beginning of this chapter (“Not many of you should presume to be teachers,” v. 1) and the rhetorical question here (v. 13).
James qualifies the term wise with the word understanding. This means that a wise person also has experience, knowledge, and ability. Wisdom consists of having insight and expertise to draw conclusions that are correct. An old proverb sums this up: “Foresight is better than hindsight, but insight is best.”
Countless instances prove that knowledgeable people are not necessarily wise. But when a knowledgeable person has insight, he indeed is wise. If there is a wise and understanding person among you, says James, let him demonstrate this in his life.
James encourages the wise man to show by his conduct that he has received the gift of wisdom. “Let him show it by his good life.” James seems to indicate that among Christians wise and understanding men are in the minority, for not everyone who belongs to the Christian community acquires wisdom. But those who have it are exhorted to demonstrate by word and deed that they indeed are wise. James uses the verb to show in the sense of “to prove.” Let a man provide actual proof that he possesses wisdom and understanding. Let him confirm this by means of his daily conduct.
What does James mean by the expression good life? He refers to noble, praiseworthy behavior. True, James stresses “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” But a wise man affirms his noble conduct in words and deeds.
“Actions speak louder than words.” This proverbial truth underscores the necessity of looking at a person’s deeds to see whether his actions match his words. What are these deeds? They are performed in a humble, gentle spirit that is controlled by a spirit of heavenly wisdom.
The emphasis in this verse falls on that characteristic of wisdom described as humility. This quality can also be described as meekness or gentleness. Gentleness comes to expression in the person who is endowed with wisdom and who affirms this in all his deeds.
In Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, the writer lists a few precepts on humility and says, “My son, perform your tasks in meekness; then you will be loved by those whom God accepts” (Sir. 3:17, RSV).
13 Τίς σοφὸς καὶ ἐπιοτήυων ἐν ὑμῖν, “who among you is the wise and understanding person?” The opening τίς (“who”: see BDF §298.4, and for the Semitic usage of מִי, mî, as interrogative, see Beyer, Semitische Syntax, 167) does not suggest that what follows is merely an abstract warning (Davids, 150); or that this interrogative (see 5:13, 14) necessarily introduces a new section (Dibelius, 208–9), as though 3:13–18 were no more than a parenthetical thought (see Form/Structure/Setting). The τίς may point specifically to the teachers (Adamson, 151), though the church members at large are not totally out of the picture. The problem seems to be that some self-styled chief people, thinking they were endowed with superior wisdom and understanding, had divided the church because of their teaching, which betrayed a misuse of the tongue. Such a scenario was not uncommon in the early church (Rom 16:17–18; 2 Cor 2:17; Gal 1:7–9; Eph 4:14; and the reference to ἑτεροδιδασκαλεῖν in 1 Tim 1:3–7). The term “wise” (σοφός) may relate directly to the teacher (the “wise teacher” is rabbinic: E. Lohse, TDNT 6:962–63 for תַלְמִיד־חָכָם, talmîd-ḥākām) but the term for understanding (ἐπιστήμων; a hapax legomenon in the NT) could also refer to anyone who claimed to have expert knowledge and esoteric understanding. The combination of the two terms in 3:13 reflects the influence of the LXX. These terms are close to being synonyms in Deuteronomy (1:13, 15; 4:6; cf. Dan 5:12). In the first two verses cited in Deuteronomy, the combination refers to leaders; the last Deuteronomic reference is to the people at large. Thus, the description of “wise and understanding” is not exclusively applicable to teachers, but may include all in the community. But it should be kept in mind that those who taught were prone to fall victim to the misuse of the tongue and were obliged to demonstrate their faithfulness to their calling. The opening words are thus a challenge to those whose business was with words spoken and intended to be received as authoritative. What James has in mind here is a wisdom that results not so much in what one thinks or says as in what one does (“practical wisdom”: see Ropes, 244). James will shortly contrast two types of wisdom, namely the worldly and that which comes from God. But before doing that he will recall an earlier theme—faith without works is dead (2:14–26)—by recasting this thought in terms of wisdom and the good works that confirm it.
δειξάτω ἐκ τῆς καλῆς ἀναστροφῆς τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ ἐν πραΰτητι σοφίας, “Let him demonstrate by fine conduct his deeds [done] in the humility that stems from wisdom.” V 13 is a challenge to James’ readers similar to 2:18 (δεῖξόν μοι, “show me”), where the interlocutor calls on James to demonstrate a faith without works. The verb at the beginning of the sentence (here and in 2:18) is emphatic, and the aorist imperative (δειξάτω), suggesting a once-for-all action, may be employed here to indicate that a sudden change of “manner of living” (Lebenswandel is Mussner’s expression, 170) is necessary. The urgency of this needed turnaround is seen because the tone of this letter implies that “actual and present evils” (Adamson, 149) prevail in the congregation to which James writes.
Two concepts relating to wisdom—namely, that wisdom produces works and that wisdom is characterized by meekness—appear to be awkwardly combined (Davids, 150; Moo, 132). The first thought is not completely out of place in the sense that James has already expatiated upon the need to back up a word-of-mouth confession by good works. Earlier James expected (and demanded) that a genuine faith should issue in good works (2:14–26; i.e., in deeds of charity). Now, true wisdom (wisdom from above, 3:17) should likewise be demonstrated by “fine conduct” (καλὴ ἀναστροφή; for the terminology see Gal 1:13; 1 Pet 1:15; 2:12; 3:2, 16; Heb 13:7: Bertram, TDNT 7:715–17). The idea that a person will exhibit good conduct if led by wisdom-Torah is quite consistent with OT teaching (Moo, 132), and is common in Jewishrabbinic parenesis (˒Abot 3:9b, 17b; 4:5a) and in later Christian literature (1 Clem 38.2: see Explanation).
Where v 13b becomes a little awkward is in the expression “his deeds [done] in humility.” The genitive construction here may be the result of Semitic influence (Hort, 80; Dibelius, 36–37). Yet this does not really obscure the meaning of the words. The Christian is to pattern his or her life after Jesus, who was meek (Matt 11:29) and who urged his followers to adopt this attitude (Matt 5:5). Meekness (πραΰτης) was considered a vice by some noncanonical writers of James’ time (see Laws, 160–61), and even today meekness is often looked upon as a sign of weakness, but in the NT this disposition is seen as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). The Christian is exhorted to be gentle or humble particularly in situations that have potential for conflict. This advice is especially urgent when it pertains to a church setting that is fraught with danger arising from members’ pride and dissension. The life that can be described as both wise and meek is one that is under the control of God, as the Qumran community acknowledged (1QS 4.22, 5.25, 11.1, cited in Mussner, 170, who also refers to Appian, Civil War 3.79 [§ 323], for terms that would translate as σοφία and πραΰτης = in mansuetudine et prudentia). Such control results in an attitude that surrenders selfish rights and disallows “pride” that destroys good relations with others.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 168–170). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 249). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Davids, P. H. (2011). James (pp. 87–88). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Lea, T. D. (1999). Hebrews, James (Vol. 10, pp. 306–307). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 117–118). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Martin, R. P. (1998). James (Vol. 48, pp. 128–130). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.