7 Aspects of Biblical Wisdom Jonathan Watson

November 16, 2016

The word “wisdom” may conjure up any number of images or thoughts in our modern minds (e.g., fortune cookies, a man meditating on a lonely mountain top, a philosopher in an ivory tower, or even a quiz show superstar). However, when reading James and other biblical writers a much different picture emerges. Here are seven aspects of biblical wisdom drawn primarily from the Letter of James.

(1) Biblical Wisdom is a Gift

According to James, the wisdom one needs to see life rightly and to live within God’s world fittingly is found in God alone. Therefore, one should direct his or her search for wisdom to the only one that can fulfill that search: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jam 1:5; compare “from above” in Jam 3:17 with Jam 1:17).

(2) Biblical Wisdom is Distinctive

Biblical wisdom is distinct from the wisdom of the world. James sets biblical wisdom “from above” against that which is “from below.” Wisdom from below “is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” and expresses itself in “jealousy,” “selfish ambition,” “disorder and every vile practice” (Jam 3:15­–16). In contrast, wisdom “from above” is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (Jam 3:17). Thus, we see that the character of biblical wisdom is distinctive.

(3) Biblical Wisdom is Practical

As one commentator notes, biblical wisdom is “practical wisdom.” While it includes knowledge, wisdom involves the skill of applying that knowledge in the varied contexts of life.

We see this expressed in the opening verses of James. Just before his exhortation to ask God for wisdom, James challenged his readers to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:2–4). Such a response to trials is counter-intuitive. How in the world might one “count it all joy” when life’s difficulties come? In verse 5, James answers by calling his readers to ask God for wisdom. Only with wisdom from above can one view the trials here below in this way.

(4) Biblical Wisdom is Tangible

The wisdom of which James speaks finds fuller exposition in chapter 3. Here James describes the wisdom as something that is demonstrated through good works and not merely words: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13). One may profess to be wise, but apart from wise, tangible action such so-called “wisdom” is hollow and ethereal.

(5) Biblical Wisdom Lets God be God

It is important to see that biblical wisdom recognizes God to be God. James does this implicitly in directing us to God for wisdom (see the point #1 above). He does this explicitly in texts where he emphasizes God as the Lawgiver. Foolishness (the antithesis of wisdom) across the Scriptures is equated with a denial of God’s proper place as the one to whom we all must give an account (Psa 14:1; 53:1). It is, therefore, improper to call wisdom “biblical” if it fails to orient one to God.

For example, when James writes about the proper use of our tongues, we are right to see him exhorting us to let God be God in our lives. “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:19; cf. 3:1–12). Thus, proper use of the tongue is part of living fittingly before God and with others.

Further, when James tells his readers to avoid partiality because it contradicts the law of love, he is exhorting them to wise living that lets God be God. After all, James reasons, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (2:10–11). In other words, James is reminding them to live in light of the reality that there is one God who has given us the law. To break one aspect of that law is to rebel against the God who gave that law. Persons may rebel against different aspects of God’s law, but ultimately they are all rebelling against the one, true God (Deut 6:4­–7). It is wise, then, James reasons, to recognize that God is the Lawgiver and every lawbreaker is accountable to him.

(6) Biblical Wisdom is Priceless

Biblical wisdom doesn’t just pop on the scene with James. There is a long tradition of wisdom within the Scriptures. James joins the chorus of biblical authors who extol the wisdom of God and call their readers to value it as priceless and pursue it at all costs. For example, in Proverbs we read, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Prov 3:13–15). Such wisdom is at odds with our intuitions and default values. In fact, if you read much of the Old Testament, you will find it striking that even God’s chosen people, the Israelites, ultimately proved themselves unable to embody wisdom rightly. The rarity of wisdom from above here on earth highlights its precious character and exceeding value. Biblical wisdom is priceless.

(7) Biblical Wisdom is Found in Christ

Finally, the composite picture drawn from James and the rest of the Scriptures does not portray wisdom as an abstract set of ideas. Rather, biblical wisdom finds its fulfillment and expression in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In light of the good news story of Jesus Christ, we understand that biblical wisdom cannot be abstracted from him. We cannot distill it into simple formulas and principles. Ultimately, biblical wisdom involves submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

How does one love God with “all your heart and will all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37)? How does one fulfill the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39; Jam 2:8)? In the end, such love and living are fulfilled in the biblical sense through Jesus Christ. K. S. Kantzer rightly notes, “The distinctive element in NT wisdom is its identification of Jesus Christ as the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24), who becomes the ultimate source of all the Christian’s wisdom” (1 Cor 1:30).”[1]

The implication of the biblical mosaic of wisdom is that only in the person and work of Jesus Christ do I see the severe rebellion of my sin against God and my hatred for others rightly. After all, in order to deal with our sin God poured out his judgment upon his Son, Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:21; Rom 5:6–8). In the cross of Christ, we are able to discern the great severity of our sin. The gospel grants us wisdom to see that only in Jesus Christ can our need for forgiveness of sins be met. Further, it is only by the Spirit of Jesus Christ (the Holy Spirit) that we are able to live in ways that faithfully represent him (Rom 8:9–11; Gal 5:16–24; 1 Cor 6:19–20). This is the kind of wisdom James directs us to pursue. May we have wisdom to ask God for the gift of his wisdom and may it be manifested in our hearts, minds, and actions more and more each day.

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[1] K. S. Kantzer, “Wisdom,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed.  (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), s.v.

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