We are here directed to a weighty matter in the believer's practical life, already but briefly noticed in Jam_1:19; Jam_1:26, now treated in full. It is opened with remarkable exhortation about "teachers," as it unequivocally ought to be. The connection with speaking confirms the required meaning, independent of philology though this of course admits of nothing else It would seem however that, in stages of our tongue now obsolete, "master" had not only the general sense of "superior" which is here quite out of place, but the special force of "teacher." So it was used in the English versions of the Gospels as the counterpart of the Hebrew "Rabbi." And so it is rendered here by Wiclif and a Wiclifite (Oxford, iv. 599), Tyndale, Cranmer, Geneva, Rheims, as well as the A.V. It was as natural for Jews to claim external honour in that position, as it became Christian teachers to follow their Master in the lowly love which led Him to serve and to give His life a ransom for many. Nor did our Lord leave this to spiritual inference from such words as these; He enjoined it explicitly on the most honoured of His disciples. "Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you; but whosoever would become great among you shall be your servant (or, minister), and whosoever would be first among you shall be your bondman" (Mat_20:25-27).
"Be not many teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive greater judgment" (Jam_3:1).
No Epistle in the N.T. is less ecclesiastical than this; no one has less before it the gifts of the Lord for the perfecting of the saints. The task which the inspiring Spirit enabled the writer to perform was to warn against empty profession and to insist on holy practice in speech, walk, and affections, conformable with the new life begotten by the word of truth. This makes it all the more striking, that he, like the great apostle of the circumcision, should in this hortatory preface use language which implies that liberty of ministry among the confessors of Christ, which fell to the greater apostle of the uncircumcision to develop with certainty, precision, and fulness. The Acts of the Apostles historically presents the unspeakably momentous fact which accounts for and explains that liberty.
Again the Epistles make plain that it was also a question of responsibility to the Lord Who gave to His own bondmen His goods, to each according to his several ability; as He will, when He comes, reckon with them on the use they made of His trust; and woe shall be to the wicked and slothful servant who traded not with the talent given, because he was afraid and distrusted the grace of the Master.
Here the openness of the church in apostolic times to receive instruction from all competent to impart it is beyond controversy. As gifted men were by that privilege bound to give it out, so were the saints bound to profit thereby. Thus we are taught in the capital seat of this fundamental truth for the assembly, 1 Cor. 12 - 14. There Paul lays down, in that great epistle of ecclesiastical order, the correction of their abuses about women's place, the Lord's Supper, and the assembly also. "If any one seemeth to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God." Human societies naturally fall into the inventions of men; not so those that believe God has revealed His mind for the church as authoritatively as for every other thing on which He has spoken.
If the Holy Spirit abide no longer with and in us, we are left orphans indeed. But it is not so. The Father, who in answer to the Son's request sent another Paraclete or Advocate, gave Him to abide with us forever. So abides the one body like the one Spirit. In 1 Cor. 12 we have this power shown in His varied activity in the members, as His presence is their uniting energy. Not of course that all is given which once abounded as signs of Christ's victory. Tongues and interpretations, powers and gifts of healings, did follow those that believed, as the Lord promised. But He never intimated that these were to continue "till the end of the age," or in any equivalent phrase elsewhere. But the gifts needful to complete what the apostles and prophets began. as the foundation, are guaranteed in Eph_4:12. In 1 Cor. 13 divine love is notably introduced, as requisite for the right exercise of this new relationship, and having its blessed scope there pre-eminently. And 1 Cor. 14 closes the teaching by the authority of the Lord in His word, directing and controlling the action of gifts in the assembly; so that an unbeliever might report that God was indeed among those gathered, and the believers be responsible that all should be done to edification, comelily and in order. Nor is there any other order for the church as such sanctioned of God. Can the church change it or correct Him?
But 1Pe_4:10-11 also furnishes a word of great price. "Each according as he received a gift, ministering the same one to another as good stewards of God's manifold grace: if any one speaketh, as God's oracles; if any one ministereth, as of strength which God supplieth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom is the glory and the might unto the ages of ages. Amen." Here is the same liberty and the same responsibility as elsewhere. Each gifted one is bound to act as a good steward of God's various free-gift. But the speaker is to speak as God's mouthpiece, as God gives then and there; and service of another kind is to be full of strength which He supplies, that (not man but) God be glorified through Christ Jesus Only the power of the Spirit could make either good. No creature ability could avail. It is alone through Christ to His glory.
Our text adds another and characteristic lesson. Though the door be open, the solemn caution is heard: "Be not many teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive greater judgment." Conscience is appealed to here, as faith by Peter. Let there be no haste, no levity, no self-confidence, no vanity in seizing the opportunity; but there lay danger, the capability of ready abuse. The guard however is no official restraint, as in Christendom generally, to shut out liberty, but the counsel in this case unmeaning, against many teachers, knowing as we do that we shall incur greater judgment Our Lord, denouncing every idle word and the account thereof to be rendered in the day of judgment, said "By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned;" so His servant here reminds us, that by thus speaking responsibility is increased. God is not mocked and remembers words lightly said, which might be urged on others, with little or no thought of our need. "Thou then that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?" In every way judgment becomes heavier if teaching flow not from love and in the fear of God. But the inspired writer never thinks of closing the open door as a divine remedy.
From the over-eagerness to teach, gift or no gift, we come in the next verse to a far wider range of caution, which is illustrated in the usual practical way, but with singular aptitude and force.
"For in many things [or, often] we all offend. If any one offendeth not in word, he [is] a perfect man able to bridle the whole body also" (ver. 2).
Thus the Spirit of God turns from the vain readiness to teach in public to the irrepressibility of speech in general. "For in many things we all offend." The word translated "offend" passes from physical stumbling to moral failure, as in Jam_2:10, the transition already being marked in Rom_11:11. Compare also 2Pe_1:10 with the double occurrence in our verse.
Without doubt each saint is responsible in all humility as regards himself, to speak for the Lord where His glory and will, grace and truth, are plainly revealed. Alas, how much is said that has no higher source than self, however veiled it may be! But self when opposed is apt to break out into strife and party-work, with all their deadly accompaniments and results. Nor are any souls more deceived than those who accredit themselves with the best motives, and fear not to assail with odious imputations those who reprove them. It is clear that James knew this deplorable evil but too well, as indeed the other inspired writers; nor did anyone perhaps suffer from bitter experience of the evil so much as the apostle Paul. It could not be otherwise, when we read of the state of the Galatians on the one hand and of the Corinthians on the other, and of his own responsibility to pronounce on such early departure from both divine truth and the ways of the Lord. For they are ordinarily associated with a self-exalting and rebellious spirit.
But these servants of the Lord did not refrain from the most trenchant denunciation of both errors and moral condition, any more than He Himself when here in perfect love, and because it was perfect. Who but He called Peter "Satan"? For he was an offence to Christ, because in the most amiable way he was minding the things of men, not those of God. How often too He had to mark and rebuke the rivalry of men, whom grace alone caused to differ from others, craving after their own honour, where He pointed the way to shame and suffering now (Himself alone entering its unfathomable depths), but to heavenly glory with Him shortly! Even after He rose, what could He say to the sorrow-stricken doubters, but "O senseless and slow of heart to believe in all the prophets spoke?"
Not less cuttingly does Paul remonstrate with the Corinthians as carnal and walking as men, to whom he gave milk, not meat as being not yet able to bear it. These were the men ready to sit in judgment on the apostle's authority and practice! Were not the signs of an apostle wrought out among them in all patience? The humbling thing to his heart was that he should have one word to say about it to saints so deeply indebted to him. But he does not fail to speak with severity, whatever the anguish it might be to himself. How little they knew what it cost him, when they winced under the reproof! How far from feeling the love according to God that lay beneath the truth, which did not flatter them but laid bare their lofty thoughts and low ways!
Just so the apostle reproaches other children of his in the faith, "O senseless Galatians, who bewitched you? . . . I am afraid of you, lest indeed I laboured in vain as to you .... of whom I again travail in birth, until Christ be formed in you .... The persuasion is not of him that calleth you."
Let us not forget what spirit it was that resisted of old such faithful men as Moses and Aaron, or taxed them with taking too much on them, "seeing all the congregation are holy, everyone of them, and Jehovah among them." It was their own self-sufficiency that left out His will and word in their eagerness to lift themselves up. And such gain-saying is not obsolete. It is the spirit of the age increasingly, and displays itself religiously yet more than in the profane world.
Yet even the most spiritual have to watch habitually and to judge self in this respect at least as much as in any other. "For in many things we all offend. If any one offendeth not in word, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also." It is trying to hear men talk of matters which they are incompetent to judge. And it is easy enough to overshoot the mark of a true and deserved horror of what no godly mind should tolerate; and all the more because true discernment is rare. Christ is the pattern. A perfect man is he who offends not in word, able to bridle the whole body also. May our word as the rule be always with grace, seasoned with salt. May we also, if by God called to the duty, be brave to overthrow reasonings and every high thing that lifts itself up against the knowledge of God, and to lead every thought into the obedience of Christ.
The figure of "bridling" in verse 2 suggests the illustration in verse 3, which again is strengthened once more in the verse that follows In the received text we appear to have an error exceedingly frequent among the copyists, who are apt to confound εἰ and ἰ where it does not affect the sense, and where here it does. Probably ἰδοὺ in the beginning of verse 4 led to the idea of commencing verse 3 with ἴδε but it ought rather to have induced hesitation, for why then vary the adverb? It would seem that εἰ δὲ was thus mistaken, and the more because the apodosis might easily be overlooked by being made part of the conditional protasis.
"Now if we put the horses' bridles (or, bits) in their mouths, that they may obey us, we turn about their whole body also. Behold, the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by rough winds, are turned about by a very small rudder, where the impulse of the helmsman may purpose" (vers. 3, 4).
The instances chosen energetically tell for the purpose in hand, being homely and familiar. It would be a palpable mistake to doubt the power of a given object, because its size is diminutive. Such are the bits we insert into the horses' mouths. Impetuous the animal may be; but thereby as the rule it is reduced to obedience. Nor is it only the mouth or head that is governed, but "we turn about the whole body also." Thus is complete contrast secured.
It is true that we ought not to be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, whose trappings must be bit and bridle for restraint, or they will not come near unto thee (Psalm 32). But this is restraint, and our shame where it is needed, as in the case supposed; for it is our joy, when walking in the spirit of obedience, to know God's guidance in the way we should go, counselled with His eye upon us. But if it be needed, He knows and fails not to restrain and to chastise.
In another form is pointed out a like principle on the sea, as we have had on the land, and in an inanimate object of immensely greater proportions. Let the ship be of ever so vast bulk and driven sometimes by a wind however rough, yet is it turned about by a very small rudder, whither the steersman's impulse may direct. The steering, if it could be questioned, is made evident in the sequel.
We may notice by the way how little avails either a powerful mind or ponderous learning for the just interpretation of scripture, when such a commentator as Grotius could understand "the body" in these verses as said of the church. No inspired writer but the apostle Paul ever employs that figure. James means simply the outer man. He is still dealing with the extreme liability to fail with the tongue. If one does not fail in word, this is a perfect man; for he had owned that we all do fail. This he follows up by two illustrations, which show the influence of a small thing in controlling a great even in the most difficult circumstances, to impress the importance and the duty of governing our speech. Blessed indeed is it, when the tongue, under the guidance of God, testifies to the whole body under His control! He who more than any other urges works, in evidence of reality in those who profess faith in the Lord Jesus, warns us of licence in our words, so influential for evil if not for good; and all the more seriously as indicative of the inner man and involving the outer.
Many there are in all ages disposed to take account of nothing but deeds. Freedom in speech seems a necessary prerogative of a man, and its excess of all things most venial. Far different was our Lord's estimate of words (Matt. 12), which yet more than deeds express the feelings and bent of the inner man And similar is the language of His servant here, couched in terse, severe, highly figurative, but all the more unsparing, terms. "So also the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. See how large a wood how little a fire kindleth! And the tongue is fire, the world of iniquity; the tongue cometh to be in our members that which defileth the whole body, and setteth in a blaze the course [lit. wheel] of nature, and is set in a blaze by gehenna" (vers. 5, 6).
That the tongue should be physically diminutive only gives the more vividness to its capacity for mischief beyond reckoning or measure. Who can conceive the destructive effects of an evil word? Yet the tongue, little as it is, boasts habitually and also great things and is so much the more readily enticed to persevere and grow bolder, if sin is limited to deeds of the body. It may be observed that the word ὕλη (here, as generally, translated "wood" or "forest") is often in philosophical writings used to express "matter," and by historians or others, like "materia" in Latin authors, the stuff or material of anything, timber, etc. The A.V. had ground for its rendering, even if the preponderance lean to that view which is presented here.
How energetic is the opening of ver. 6! "The tongue is fire." It is not only that a mighty conflagration ensues from an apparently trivial spark; but the tongue itself is "fire" morally. However free from open acts of unrighteousness he may be who gives it loose rein without God before his eyes, it is, without going farther, "a world of iniquity." He Whose ears are open to the cry of the righteous does not fail to mark unbridled licence of speech, which shrinks not from any imputation, however unjust, that ill-will can dictate.
The best witnesses, both MSS. and Vv., omit the "so" which smooths the way for the second time "the tongue" is introduced. It is most forcible as it stands simply. "The tongue cometh to be in our members that which defileth the whole body," and this is a sense which, prevailing in the best authors so that no detailed justification is necessary, seems to suit the clause, better than the bare "is" of the A.V. or "is constituted" as it frequently means. Here it is liable to give the erroneous notion of being divinely arranged to so evil an end; which is a thought impossible to a good conscience and wholly opposed to the truth. It is through the fall, and the self-will or lawlessness which characterises sin, that the tongue comes thus to be such a burning power of evil in the members. It is the defiler of the whole body, for there is no limit to its unrighteousness; "the world of iniquity," deeming itself to have immunity as long as it only injures in word.
But the latter clauses both enlarge the sphere of the evil, and deepen our sense of its source to the highest degree. For we are next told that "it setteth in a blaze the course of nature, and is set on a blaze by hell." The wheel or course of nature extends far beyond the whole body; and such is the inflammatory range for the malignant tongue. What then must be the spring? It is, as we lastly hear, "set on a blaze by hell." The evil one is a murderer as well as a liar; and unceasing antagonism to Christ in both respects is its flagrant proof.
Another consideration is now urged, and not a little humiliating to set souls on their guard in the allowance of the tongue, and to hinder surprise at the extravagance of its outbreaks.
"For every nature of both wild beasts and birds, of both things that creep and things in the sea, is tamed and hath been tamed by the nature of man; but the tongue is none of men able to tame: an unsettled evil, full of deadly poison" (vers. 7, 8).
Here the inspired writer alleges an indisputable fact. What savage brute has not yielded to the dominion of man? What has not been subdued and become his pet or playmate? What bird of the air fierce or timorous has not bowed to his superiority and obeyed his will? Serpents even, however wily, powerful, or venomous, have been often taught harmless familiarity; while creatures of the sea have made friends and rendered homage or service to him.
But where is the man that has truly tamed either his own tongue or another's? Here one can appeal to universal observation, though not less forcibly and painfully to personal experience. It may and ought to be a heart-breaking confession; but is it not most true? Who does not know how rapid and ready is the tongue to break bounds; how slow to seek or keep the peace? How vehement its invective, how irritating its insinuations, how bitter and unmeasured its revilings! Is any one too obscure or feeble to escape its assault? Is any so venerable or exalted as to overawe its audacity? What piety or godliness can suffice to shame its insolence, or to silence its malice?
It is indeed, as it is here called, "an unsettled" or unstable "evil, full of deadly poison." Nor is the poison ever more attractive and dangerous than when administered in a gilded pill. Good words and fair speeches to make the worse appear the better reason is a favourite device of the enemy, and peculiarly fitted to deceive the hearts of the guileless.
Does this seem a too highly coloured picture of the tongue? It is from One Who knew what is in man, and needed none therefore to bear witness of him. And He Whom James served in this Epistle as in his life-ministry knew what it was to have a human heart and tongue, both bearing good and sweet fruits continually to His God and Father. It is to Him that the believer looks and on Whose grace he counts. For underneath the gloomy description of a still gloomier reality, there is a streak of light divine. Is it written that absolutely none is able to tame the tongue? By no means. None "of men" can tame it. Ah! we can thank God. He is our desire, our expectation, and our strength. It were a wholly unchristian thought to subjugate our own tongue. It is our confidence to look up to God for that which is altogether beyond our capacity. And He works His wonders in every thing through Christ our Lord. If all the rude men of Nazareth bore Him witness and wondered at the words of grace which proceeded out of His lips, does not our God and Father use these to humble and to transform and to invigorate, so that the tongue, that once was our shame, should be by His grace truly our "glory," according to the Hebrew phrase? Christ indeed was here perfect. "Never man spoke like this man," said the officials who were no friends, to their superiors who were His foes. But we are His; and as He is our life, may we learn of Him in this respect as in every other.
From this point our Epistle takes up the ground of manifest and gross inconsistency. None but the most heedless can regard lightly a fault so self-condemnatory; nor can God either originate or sanction so plain a disorder and misuse of that excellent possession, the speech, conferred on man by His Creator. Least excusable is the inconsistency in such as own their relationship with God and the Lord.
"Therewith we bless the Lord and [the] Father, and therewith we curse men that are made according to God's likeness. Out of the same mouth cometh blessing and cursing. Not so, my brethren, ought these things to be" (vers. 9, 10).
There is the article, and but one, to "Lord and Father." Grammatically therefore the phrase admits of meaning "Him Who is Lord and Father," no less than "the Lord and (the) Father" brought together under that link of objects united here expressly though in themselves distinct. This they could not be fittingly unless there were a common nature and glory. So we may see in such a phrase as "the kingdom of Christ and God." Far be it from the heart or mouth to question in the least that Christ is God, which is declared comparatively so often. But ask for instance if we must, whether Eph_5:5 means this, though the single article brackets together both terms. So we may see in "the apostles and prophets" of Eph_2:20, combined for the foundation, but given separately in Eph_4:11.
The idiom is common enough even with proper names, as when the man in Act_3:11 held fast "Peter and John" thus united, though in vers. 1 and 3 both names are presented historically without the article to either. Such is the reading of ample and good authority. But the Sinai, the Vatican, and the Alexandrine with half-a-dozen cursives insert the article before John, which if right would individualise, instead of combining in a special way, the two apostles. In Act_4:13; Act_4:19, there can hardly be a doubt that they are thus joined together. Both cases occur with Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13, 14. Acts 15 is instructive from varieties of form, each employed with exquisite propriety. Ver. 2 presents Paul and Barnabas, first severed, and then without emphasis as simple fact, as also in ver. 12. But in ver. 22 they are expressly combined in unity as in 25 (the order changed), as in ver. 35 the fact is merely stated historically.
There seems no sufficient ground then for doubting that "the Lord" in the usual acceptation of the term is here combined with "the Father" as objects united in our praise. That it is unusual, all admit; but so it is in many a phrase of holy writ, that our narrowness of thought may be corrected and enlarged out of the fulness of divine truth. On the other hand no one should stumble at predicating "Lord" of the Father, if such were the aim of the inspiring Spirit here. For though the crucified Jesus was made by God both Lord and Christ (Act_2:36), and He is in distinctive office one sole Lord, as the Father is simply in His nature one sole God (1Co_8:6), it does not follow that "Lord" may not be applied to the other Persons in the Godhead. Thus in 2 Cor. 3 it is predicated of the Spirit in the last clause of the last verse; as it is of God rather than of Christ (Who is distinguished as His Anointed) in Rev_11:15. It was the rarity of the combination, however taken, which no doubt led to substituting "God" (as in the common text, following the more modern MSS.) for "the Lord." But if we accept the ancient reading, our language, we must bear in mind, does not, like the Greek, admit but one article.
The grand principle is plain beyond all question, that no inconsistency can be more gross than to employ the tongue, now in blessing the Supreme, now in cursing men that are made according to God's likeness. We are objects of His loving counsels, begotten of Him by the word of truth, and should be the last to curse any, as being blessed ourselves of mere mercy. It is not that fallen men have any intrinsic moral worth, as we above all should know from our own humbling experience. So we at least should never forget how they were brought into being as in God's likeness. How unbecoming in man, how shameless in us who bless the Lord and the Father, to curse men so made! Time was, beyond doubt, when we lived in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another; but the kindness and love of God our Saviour broke down our pride and purified our souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, and gave us a heart touched with divine grace toward all mankind. Instead then of cursing others, we want them to obey the truth, share the blessing, and join us in blessing Him Who is the source and giver of it all.
The incongruity is heightened by the figure of the next verse (10), "Out of the same mouth cometh forth blessing and cursing;" and by the quiet but pungent appeal, "Not so, my brethren, ought these things to be." The consistency of the Christian in its perfection is ever and only in Christ; and He is the sole and constant standard for us. What love in Him even for the vilest and bitterest of His foes! Called to inherit a blessing, may we not render evil for evil, or railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing, knowing that we are thereunto called. This is surely, dear brethren, what it ought to be.
Now we have, following, fresh illustrations to impress on the readers the incongruity and the enormity of injurious speech, all the worse for utterances of piety and propriety interchanged with it, and beyond just question condemnatory of it, as indicating the lack of the fear of God and of regard for man. The inspired writer's sense of its evil kindles into glowingly indignant questions, to which expostulation he himself supplies the answer in a few pregnant words.
"Doth the fountain out of the same opening pour forth the sweet and the bitter? Can my brethren, a figtree produce olives, or a vine figs? Neither [can] salt water produce sweet" (vers. 11, 12).
Here as elsewhere, the homeliness of the examples lends the more force to the reproof. To take the first instance; who ever heard of the fountain from the same slit emitting sweet water and bitter? Nature itself rebukes so shameless a mixture, and issues so contradictory, in those who praise the Lord and the Father; The great apostle of the Gentiles drew weapons from the same armoury in 1Co_11:14; 1Co_11:16 for divine order, and in 2Th_3:10 also; as he did repeatedly to his confidential fellow-labourer Timothy in his First Epistle (1Ti_2:12-15; 1Ti_4:3-5; 1Ti_6:6-8). But nowhere have we more telling thrusts of this kind than in the Epistle before us; where the impossible in nature is made to expose and castigate the ethically inconsistent, especially aggravated as it was by the profession of relationship to God and by the claim to enjoyment of His favour. Is the new nature to be disgraced by that which the old universal nature repudiates even though fallen?
In the second the demand is still more peremptory. It is not, Does, but "Can a figtree produce olives, or a vine figs?" And we have the repetition of "my brethren" in this second case, though so soon after its dignified affectionate introduction just before in verse 10, in order to send the appeal home to their bosoms. One of the learned men who, setting up to interpret the words, set at nought its spirit, dares to compare the figure with our Lord's in Mat_7:16-20 in order to disparage His servant here. But it is only another sample of ill-willed ignorance which so constantly appears where erudition is not subservient to faith; that is where man assumes to judge God, instead of seeking to profit by His word. For the Lord was there laying down the error of expecting good fruit from a bad tree; whereas His servant in order to rebuke the glaring inconsistency of calling on the Lord of glory and indulging evil speech confronts it with the natural impossibility of a tree producing any but its own proper fruit. Both are plainly true, and each exquisitely adapted to its purpose. Unbelief blindly errs, but only betrays its sinful presumption to those that know God and bow to His word.
It is possible that the first word of the last clause (οὔτε neither) may have through hasty misapprehension given rise to the added οὕτως ("so") of the Text Rec. Then came an effort to make the phrase more pointed by reading οὐδεμία πηγή (no fountain). The Sinaitic Uncial has οὕτως οὐδέ But even Tischendorf, and Westcott and Hort decline to follow; for they with Alford, Lachmann, Tregelles, and Wordsworth read the text which yields the translation given above. There is, it would seem, a certain strangeness in reading οὔτε rather than οὐδέ But this appears to be explicable by the writer's carrying on in his mind the preceding clause. The insertion of the conjunction (καὶ "and") in the last clause is opposed to the weightiest of the ancient witnesses, both MSS. and Vv. and loses the point of the true text, which varies the figure by a negation which is indisputable.
From the preceding illustrations, so pungent and powerful, against the inconsistency and unnaturalness of unloving and unworthy language in lips which were avowedly consecrated to the glory of Jesus according to the character of a new nature, the Epistle turns to and raises the question of the wisdom and understanding which becomes His followers.
"Who [is] wise and understanding among you? Let him show out of his good conduct his works in meekness of wisdom" (ver. 13).
It is the opening of a new paragraph which continues to the end of this chapter, and passes indeed into the following one by way of contrast. The appeal here is searching. For assuredly those who set up so zealously to teach others did not doubt their own wisdom and understanding. Yet are they not rare and precious qualities?
1 Cor. 12 speaks of the "word of wisdom" and the "word of knowledge" as given through the Spirit, and presents them in the front place when he particularises the forms which "the manifestation of the Spirit" takes, as given to each for the common profit. On the other hand he puts in the last place "kinds of tongues" and "interpretation of tongues," of which the light-minded and unspiritual Corinthians had shown themselves vain and had made a disorderly use. He is far from denying the divine source and character of either; on the contrary he declares that "all these things" (after giving a considerable list of powers then in action) "worketh the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each in particular as He will (or, pleaseth)." For He is sovereign as a divine Person. But they had not all the same spiritual value. Some gifts edified the assembly by revealing God's mind and counsels; others nourished and directed the new life of individuals in His will; some strengthened for service, others issued in praise and thanksgiving. Again, some were for a sign to the unbelievers, while others were directed distinctly to the believers. And as prophesying had this latter character peculiarly, so tongues and the former had a lower place, though to outward appearance far the more extraordinary of the two. But here we may notice, as in 1Co_12:28 too, the apostle's uniform guard against an estimate altogether human and erroneous. Why not desire earnestly the greater but less showy gifts? "Brethren, be not children in mind, but in malice be babes, but in mind be of full age" (1Co_14:20).
In our Epistle however there is no development of that which is so prominent in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, but a moral dealing with the danger there and then prevalent among those addressed. The aim is to correct the haste and the character of speech generally, and the readiness to teach in particular. From the beginning, not only of the Christian confession, but of Israel's history, we may observe what importance was given to wisdom and understanding. Weigh such plain instances as Deu_1:13; Deu_1:15, and Deu_4:5-6. "Take you wise men, and understanding, and known, according to your tribes, and I will make them heads over you." "So I took the heads of your tribes, wise men, and known, and made them heads over you, captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, and captains of fifties, and captains of tens, and officers, according to your tribes." "Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as Jehovah my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the midst of the land whither ye go in to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." Indeed the spirit of it runs through that remarkable book, as obedient heed to the word of God forms it. What else can be the condition of blessing for all in relationship with God, be it for earth or for heaven?
Here a similar object appears in the enquiry, "Who is wise and understanding among you?" and in the counsel that follows, "Let him show out of his good course of conduct (that becomes such a man, in deed and in truth) his works (not self-complacently or ostentatiously, but) in meekness of wisdom." What more holy, sober, or pertinent? What more sad than when wisdom seems assuming or harsh? It is abiding in Christ that produces fruit acceptable to our God and Father. But we need His words too, and prayer.
Having exhorted him who was reported wise and understanding to show in the reality of comely works, not mere words, his good conduct or practical life in meekness of wisdom, not in superstitious criticism or self-conceit, the Epistle turns to warn of the dark side.
"But if ye have bitter emulation and faction in your heart, do not boast and lie against the truth" (ver. 14).
Such is man: self is his idol, self-will his way. The profession of Christ in no way eradicates it, but makes it all the more sad and inconsistent, in Jew even more than Greek. As we see in 1 Cor. 1, 3, so we read here. "Bitter emulation" in the disciple of the crucified Lord of glory! Alas! it was no hypothetical case, but a fact. "But if ye have"; and this not in the hasty speech, but "in your heart." So early and everywhere did the Christian confessors slip away from the reason of their being, and rival the failure of Israel. So quickly did they forget that Christianity, while emphatically "faith" (Gal_3:25), in contrast with the law (the previous tutor), depends on life from God, or a divine nature partaken of, as we have noticed in this Epistle and may in every other. Now what room is there in that new life for "bitter emulation"? Christ condemns it, root and fruit. In Him was none of it, but meekness of wisdom, and zeal for God. First and last the zeal of His Father's house ate Him up. When or where else do we hear of His taking disciplinary work in hand, expelling outrageous offenders, and pouring contempt on their profane trade? Though the Holy and the High, when does He contend for His own glory, when and where does He resent the slight and scorn of guilty man?
If Christ be, as indeed He is, the Christian's life, what is it for him to have "bitter emulation" in his heart? Is it not the indulgence in an evil work of the old man, and the dishonour of the Master by the servant? This was bad, but "faction" is worse; because it is not only the individual gratifying the vanity of an evil nature, but its spread to others too ready to exalt self and depreciate such as ought to be loved and honoured. For is it not to this we are called here below? "Let nothing be (said the great apostle) according to faction or vain-glory, but in lowly-mindedness each esteeming one another more excellent than themselves" (Php_2:3). We are entitled to regard them as saints beloved of God; though by grace the same, we cannot but feel our own unworthiness. What do we know of them as we know of ourselves? On every ground bitter emulation and faction be far from our heart. So pleads meekness of wisdom, that we may show out of our good conduct the works that now become that excellent Name by which we are called.
But if we have in our heart these unclean things, bitter emulation and faction, "do not boast and lie against the truth." Love, we know, is not emulous, nor does it rejoice at iniquity, but rejoices with the truth. But the vaunting, which accompanies emulation and faction, is against the truth; for the truth wholly exposes and condemns it as of the carnal mind which is enmity against God. He was the truth, Who was meek and lowly in heart, and bids us take His yoke upon us and learn of Him, and we shall find rest to our souls. For His yoke is easy and His burden is light.
If we cherish these evils so contradictory of Christ, while called by His name, what is it but "lying against the truth"? So trenchantly does the Epistle denounce what the enemy ever seeks to introduce under cover of zeal for the truth.
Wisdom, like faith, shows its character by the spirit and conduct that accompanies and reflects it. Every good gift and every perfect giving cometh down from above, from the Father of lights, Who of His own will begot us by the word of truth. What is the source and character of any wisdom, however pretentious, that coalesces with bitter emulation and faction? Is it not a lie against the truth? Does it flow from anything higher than hearts governed by self-will, instead of being purified by faith?
"This wisdom is not descending from above, but earthly, natural, demoniacal. For where envying and faction [are], there disorder [is] and every bad deed" (vers. 15, 16).
To describe it thus was to brand it as thoroughly evil and of the enemy. The tone of James differs from that of John and Jude, of Paul and of Peter; but all agree in testifying that Christ alone is, and shows us, the wisdom acceptable in God's eyes and suitable for His children. Man's wisdom is in truth his folly, for it is in disobedience of His word, and seeks independence of His will. The Lord of glory was the obedient man and gave the pattern of One on earth Who did not merely live through or by the Father but on account or by reason of Him. So perfectly was He the servant (and this is the perfection of man Godward) that He had no other motive in His living; and He lays this down for him that feeds on Himself - even he shall leave on account of Me (Joh_6:57). He is the Bread that came down from heaven and gives life to the world; but more than this, He gives His flesh for the life of the world. Less than this would not suffice to meet its ruin and accomplish the blessing God had in His heart for the believer. To eat His flesh and drink His blood is indispensable, if we are to have life in ourselves, as was His purpose of grace about us. He that thus eats and drinks has the communion of His death, and has life eternal, with the assurance of being raised by Him at the last day, yea more - of abiding in Him, and of His abiding in him, this day.
No other wisdom therefore suits the believer. The wisdom of the first man, and of the world, has no link with heaven. It is at best earthly, and either seeks glory from men or yet more proudly tramples on other men as unworthy of a thought. The sage thinks he is the king, and will have not fellows but slaves, in the fulness of his self-complacency and disdain. The most offensive condition to his mind is to be a servant, to be God's bondman This is love's place, and Christ took end filled it unfailingly; and by His redemption we can follow in His path, having Him as our life, which He truly is, and are free to cultivate this wisdom coming down from above. For we too can love one another, because love is of God; and as every one that loves has been begotten of God, and knows God, so he that does not love never learnt God, because God is love.
Further too, it is not only "earthly" wisdom, but "natural." It has no true sense of God's mind any more than of His love. As the apostle tells us in 1 Cor. 2, a natural or soulish man receives not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot gain knowledge of them, because they are spiritually discerned; whereas the spiritual man discerns them all, while himself is discerned by none.
Another word completes the sad picture of wisdom outside Christ; it is "demoniacal." It is quite enough to render it accurately; for though demons may be distinguished from their prince, yet they are the emissaries of Satan and the instruments of his malicious power. How little do men believe that the wisdom of self, so coveted of mankind, is "demoniacal"! How little do the children of God seek that which is of Christ, the best proof that it is of God's Spirit! For He is here to glorify Christ; and this He does by receiving of Christ's, and announcing it to us.
But are not God's children exposed in their weakness to danger and evil? They are not in the flesh, but the flesh is in them; they are in the world with all its snares; they are the object of the evil one's incessant and subtle seductions. But greater is He that is in them than he that is in the world. Have they not Christ? And Christ is God's wisdom no less than His power. Far from them to boast of wisdom or aught else in themselves. Indeed God chose the foolish things of the world to put to shame the sages. And of Him are they in Christ Jesus, "Who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption."
Yet God does not fail to set even the weakest on their guard against the assumption of a wisdom that is not of Him. Its moral character betrays its evil source, when smooth language and fair speaking might easily ensnare the unwary. The least intelligent of saints who keeps the Lord Jesus before him can discern "envying and faction"; and these allowed bring in speedily "confusion and every bad work." By their fruits therefore the earthly wise become manifest ere long to those who are neither intelligent nor spiritual enough to discern otherwise. They are thus warned and kept by divine grace.
In the next verse we have the qualities of divine wisdom drawn out for our cheer and profit; as in Jam_1:5 we were exhorted to ask it of God that gives to all liberally and without a reproach, though indeed even His own deserve blame.
"But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, uncontentious, impartial (or, unfeigned)" (ver. 17): few words but sound and deep, pregnant and penetrating, inspired of God as they really are.
Now that grace has given us Christ, that we are begotten of God and have His Spirit, how suitable to look unto the same source for wisdom that springs not up from the earth or from man! But we are encouraged already, by the goodness proved when we deserved judgment and everlasting shame, to ask for all we need in our new responsibility because of our new relationship. Earthly as we once were, our hearts rose not then above it; alas we were prone to sink below it through the wiles of the enemy. Now that we are "heavenly" as the apostle Paul intimates (1Co_15:48) we constantly want a wisdom that is from above. Nor is there any other good gift from the Father of lights of deeper moment for His children. Will He not give it liberally to all that wait on Him in faith, and refuse all doubt? The love He has shown us, and the assuring word He has written for us, rebuke every such questioning. If we have not, it is because we ask not. If we ask and receive not, it is because we ask amiss, that we may spend it on our pleasures. How could God consistently impart heavenly wisdom to those who mind earthly things? He gives in honour of Christ for His own glory.
What then is the Spirit's delineation of this wisdom? It is "first pure." How worthy of God and of the Lord Jesus by Whom we know what He is! Let God's child advance as he may, he cannot claim this. How much there is always to mortify in our members on the earth! Assuredly "whosoever is born of God doth not practise sin, for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin (ἁμαρτάνειν the course and character of our fallen nature), because he is born of God" (1Jn_3:9). Hatred of sin and living to God characterise all His family. But it is only when Christ shall be manifested, that we shall be seen to be like Him. We shall see Him as He is; then and thus shall we be conformed to His image. We shall bear the image of the earthly; not till then shall we bear that of the Heavenly. But everyone that has this hope founded on Him purifies himself, even as He is pure. We, though bathed all over, need the habitual washing of the word to wash our feet. We have to purify ourselves, because we contract defilement, and are not pure as He was and is.
The wisdom from above savours of Him to meet our wants. It is first pure, "then peaceable," an order much to be borne in mind. Even saints are apt to make peaceableness their prime object. But this would compromise the character and glory of God, Who will have the exclusion of all that defiles. Sanctified to Jesus' obedience and the sprinkling of His blood, we are bound to see first that His will be our aim and purpose of heart, however important it is also and next to promote peace. Such certainly is the spirit and working of the wisdom from above. So in the Gospels we see invariably in the words and ways of the Lord; and not otherwise do we read the Holy Spirit's teaching in the Epistles.
Again, it is "gentle," and "easy to be entreated." What a contrast with human wisdom, so apt to be stern and proud, so impatient of question or difference! Where was its perfection ever seen, ever maintained without a flaw, but in our Lord Jesus? Therefore could He say, even at the close, "I am among you as he that serveth." So He called on the greatest of His followers to be as the younger, and the leader to be as the servant. Heavenly wisdom feeds and fosters this gracious lowliness and waiting on others.
Next, it is said to be "full of mercy and of good fruits," a precious help in the midst of faulty souls, and their evil ways. For of all men those who feel and act with divine compassion toward wrong-doers require themselves to walk in communion with Him Who is good to the ungrateful and the evil. There must be no real ground for insinuating that they are soft toward other offenders, because they would smooth over their own inconsistencies.
Lastly, it is "uncontentious, impartial" (or, it may be, "unfeigned"): eminently called for in their place. For if children of God, are we not to walk as children of light, not only personally but in our bearing toward others and our converse with them? How is not the light dimmed by yielding to contention and indulgence in party work! How contrary to Christ when we give occasion to any just charge of insincerity or hypocrisy in our spirit! Heavenly wisdom eschews all such tendencies, earthly wisdom lives in and avails itself of such ways. The spirit of strife is apt to draw even an upright soul into feelings and conduct altogether unworthy of the new life and relationship.
The beautiful description of the heavenly wisdom which the Epistle commends to the saints closes with its result in peace along the way,
"And righteousness' fruit in peace is being sown for those that make peace" (ver. 18).
In the practical walk of the believer the fruit of righteousness is the prime requisite, but "in peace"; as we have seen the wisdom from above is "first pure, then peaceable." In the natural man, as in the world, self-will reigns, the enemy of all righteousness, in an overbearing spirit, the seed of an ever-growing harvest of contention, as the beginning of the next chapter clearly indicates.
Even in the Lord Jesus we find the same order, as in Heb_7:2, "first being by interpretation king of righteousness, and after that also king of Salem, which is king of peace." Such is the application of Melchizedek, king-priest of Salem. It is indeed a type more than fulfilled in the order of Christ's priesthood even now, about to be fulfilled by-and-by in its exercise, when the battle is won over the Beast and the kings of the earth and their armies at the end of the age.
When we look at redemption, if grace reigns as it does, it is through righteousness unto life eternal through Jesus Christ our Lord. Only then, through Him dead and risen, could we, justified by faith, have peace with God. Therefore are the saints everywhere called on, walking righteously, to be in peace (if possible, as much as hangs on them) with all men. Nor do the Epistles to the Corinthians differ from that to the Romans: God hath called us in peace, says the First; rejoice, be adjusted, be encouraged, be of one mind, be in peace; and the God of love and peace would be with them. Such is the exhortation and promise in the Second. So to the Galatians the apostle writes for as many as walk according to the rule of the new creation, peace be on them and mercy; as to the Ephesians, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, he would have their feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. What a place peace has in the Philippian Epistle every reader ought to see; nor is it less deep in that to the Colossians where he would have Christ's peace rule in their hearts; as he prays for the Thessalonians in the First that the God of peace would sanctify them wholly, and in the Second that the Lord of peace Himself would give them peace continually in every way. And the Epistle to the Hebrews exhorts to pursue peace with all, and holiness, giving this however the primary and peremptory place in accordance with the doctrine elsewhere.
But the fruit of righteousness in peace, though acceptable to God, a blessing in itself, and a comfort to fellow-believers, is far from welcome to men in general, who know not God and do not obey the gospel but unrighteousness, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating each other. It is sown, as we are here told, "for those that make peace." The will of man, any more than the wrath of man, works not God's righteousness. Discord and every evil issue are the sad effect. "Blessed," says the Lord, "are the peace-makers; for they shall be called God's sons." But in that wondrous outpouring of blessing from His lips on the mount (Matt. 5), we may notice that the four descriptions of the blessed are of the righteous class (vers. 3-6), before the three of the gracious sort (vers. 7-9); with a blessing super-numerary on the persecuted for righteousness' sake, and another yet richer on those persecuted for His own sake. Righteousness necessarily precedes. For it is vain to think or speak of walking in grace, where we fail in consistency with our relationship. The fruit of righteousness in peace is being sown for those that make peace. Such are evidently walking in a spirit which grace produces; but the fruit of righteousness in peace is sown for them. Some contend strongly that we should understand "by" rather than "for." Grammatically the clause is susceptible of either sense; but the former seems hardly so suitable to the bearing of the context. Let the Christian reader judge for himself.