“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But 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.“James 3:13-18
When you think of a Bible teacher, what do you see? How does he or she dress? How does he or she carry themselves? How do they talk? What goes on inside their heads?
One of the best Bible teachers I ever had, my sifu, his name is Mike. He’s really tall and skinny, he’s got big, ground glasses, and buzz-cut hair. He talks in a posh British accent, he likes chilling in the park, and I once put a knife through his coffee table, but that’s a story for another time. Mike loves Jesus so much, he knows Jesus so well, he knows his Bible so well, and he loves other people too. He taught me so much, without ever asking anything in return. But in the end Mike’s just a man. He met many troubles in his life, and he’s struggling with them even now.
And people like him, people like me, we’re the people that James is talking about in this passage. If we go a few sentences before this passage, he specifically talks about Bible teachers. He straight up tells his readers: you should think twice before becoming a Bible teacher, because being a Bible teacher is hard.
Before you even get to how well you know the Bible, you need to take care of something even more basic: what you say. James made it very clear just a few sentences before this passage, that no one can really control their tongue. In fact he said our tongues are full of evil and poison, and that they’ve been set on fire by hell itself. And if you’re any older than six, you know what James is talking about. We say awful things a lot. Who here can’t remember a time when we said something really mean for no good reason at all, and then the little man inside our head goes oooh… why did we say that? The only thing worse than that is when we’re just about to say it, and the little man goes yeah… how about we don’t say that? — but then we say it anyway. The guilt you feel for doing that… that doesn’t go away easily.
Which brings us to today’s passage. Our would-be Bible teacher with their horrible tongue now needs to take care of the next basic thing: where their knowledge comes from. Here James is saying that where your knowledge comes from is more important than what it is. A Bible teacher can know everything there is to know about the Bible, but if their wisdom is not from God, if they’re teaching the Bible just to make themselves look good, or to feel smart, or to prove themselves, that’s wrong. It’s more than wrong — James says it’s evil, it’s from the devil. Only when our wisdom comes from God, will it do any good.
It’s hard to be a Bible teacher. It’s hard to be a Christian. I want this picture to sink deep into your minds.
Christians, this is what it looks like to be a Christian, whether or not we teach the Bible. Being a Christian isn’t glamorous, it’s not a matter of being nicer, or stronger, or better, or smarter than other people. James shows us how desperate our situation looks: if we can’t even get the smallest things right — what our tongue does, where our wisdom comes from — what do we have left? Who do we have left? We have Jesus. We have Jesus — and he is our only hope for being in the right. Christians, being a Christian means being completely, desperately dependent on Jesus, because even the best of us can fail. But if we are in Jesus, no matter how bad things get, no matter how many times we fall and get up, and fall and get up, he is victorious for us.
Non-Christians, this is what it looks like to be a Christian. This passage is not here to tell you what it means to be a good person. Instead it shows you where a Christian’s hope lies. Not in the discipline of our tongues. Not in the smarts of our brains. It’s whether or not we’re in Jesus, how closely we follow him. If you want to see someone truly impressive, don’t look to a Christian; you’ll get disappointed sooner or later. Instead, look to the one that we Christians rely on, the one that we look to as well: the man they call Jesus, the Son of God.