The Agora
Bible Commentary

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James 3

Jam 3:3

Cp the "great" and "small" of vv 4,5: The "bit" is small, and the "horse" is great.

Jam 3:5

In the spring of 1894, the Baltimore Orioles came to Boston to play a routine baseball game. But what happened that day was anything but routine. The Orioles' John McGraw got into a fight with the Boston third baseman. Within minutes all the players from both teams had joined in the brawl. The warfare quickly spread to the grandstands. Among the fans the conflict went from bad to worse. Someone set fire to the stands and the entire ballpark burned to the ground. Not only that, but the fire spread to 107 other Boston buildings as well.

Jam 3:13

HUMILITY: See Lesson, Gentleness.

Jam 3:15

Vv 15-18: Two types of "wisdom".

Jam 3:17

PURE: "Hagnos" = moral purity, not "doctrinal" purity (cp usage, 2Co 11:2; Tit 2:5; 1Pe 3:2; Phi 1:16; Jam 4:8; 1Pe 1:22; 1Jo 3:3). See LGS, TM 71, and Smart 118. The phrase "pure doctrine" never occurs in Bible (AV or RSV) (AHN, Xd 109:194).

"In times of ecclesial strife, it is often assumed, quite unfairly, that to advocate a policy of patient negotiation and attempt to avert division by every proper means, is to display lack of a sense of Scriptural priorities and unhealthy tolerance of error. James is often (wrongly) called in aid of a vigorous campaigning for purity of doctrine as an essential preliminary to the restoration of harmony and peace. For does he not say 'the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable' (Jam 3:17) and is unity not therefore dependent upon oneness of mind in things spiritual?" (AHN, Xd 109:193; Xd 113:161,162).

And it is so tempting to read this phrase as a time sequence: Take care of the purity first, and then the peace will naturally follow. Contend earnestly for the faith, with tooth and nail if need be, and then take the fragments that remain when the strife has run its course, and establish an "honorable" peace only among those who are absolutely of one mind -- because they agree absolutely with you! Can the policy so much like the repressive tactics of a Hitler or a Stalin, tactics that allow no disagreement and ensure peace by steamrolling the opposition -- can such a philosophy truly commend itself to Christ's brethren? Is "first" really a note about time, as though one could be "pure" this week but not necessarily "peaceable" till the next, when the other fellow has been disposed of?

The entire passage in James (Jam 3:13-18), dealing with true wisdom, is an extended contrast between two types of "wisdom", one which has its origins from "beneath" and the other from "above". Envying and strife and debate, motivated by impure thoughts, are from beneath; they are natural rather than spiritual. Against such manifestations of the "wisdom" of man the apostle Paul also spoke (2Co 12:20; Gal 5:15). By contrast, the positive theme of James' words here is a peace born of love and sincerity (purity of motives). Heavenly wisdom is free to manifest itself in works of meekness (v 13); it need not resort to bombast and agitation. True righteousness is motivated by Scriptural peace -- inward calm and outward gentleness (v 18). The words of the apostles imply far from idyllic conditions in the early ecclesias. Their warnings are just as valid, and perhaps more so, to us today as we survey a divided body and ask ourselves why. "Even in those early days, there were men who had a measureless self-conceit, a bitter jealousy of those whom their brethren regarded with affection and trust, an arrogant confidence in their own opinion and their own judgment; men in whom there was very little of the spirit of Christ, but who were quite certain that they, and they alone, had the mind of Christ; men who were resolved, whatever might come of it, to force upon the ecclesias their own beliefs either with regard to doctrine or practice; who made parties in the ecclesia to carry out their purposes, held secret meetings, flattered those who stood by them as being faithful to conscience and to Christ, and disparaged the fidelity of all those who differed from them" (SJam 117).

The tragic misuse of James 3:17 to justify every manner of agitation and division stems also from a misguided apprehension of the word "pure". As James uses it here, the word applies only to moral deportment, not to the body of first principles commonly but not altogether correctly called "doctrine". Indeed, the word "hagnos" and its related words have reference always to moral purity; in other passages these words are appropriately translated "chaste" (2Co 11:2; Tit 2:5; 1Pe 3:2) and "sincerely" (Phi 1:16). The verb form appears as "purify" in such passages as Jam 4:8; 1Pe 1:22; and 1Jo 3:3, with the same connotation. By using "hagnos" James does not convey so much the idea of cleansing or catharsis, but more nearly that of holiness or sanctification, freedom from any kind of defilement of mind or conscience, or from any inward stain or blemish (TM 71). The Bible emphasis, therefore, is not upon "pure doctrine" (the phrase occurs nowhere in the AV or RV), but invariably upon "sound doctrine", the healthful teaching which informs the spiritual mind and keeps the ecclesial body pure and wholesome. It refers equally to method as to content. The very test of a teaching's soundness is whether or not it produces strife (AHN, Xd 109:194). Wisdom is to be "pure", whilst doctrine is to be "sound", an enormous distinction.

It might also be noted that neither is "fellowship" ever Scripturally characterized as being "pure". Purity in the absolute sense belongs to God alone, and in any other relation is only relative. Purity of conduct is something for which to strive, since Christ commands, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Mat 5:45). But it cannot be said that we should strive for the "purity" of belief of our brethren by the questionable means of agitation. And, even if we were so instructed, the outcome of such an inquisitional search for "purity" would certainly not be the desired "peace".

The "pure" and the "peaceable" of James' discourse are now seen as a conscious imitation of the thought (and even the order) of Matthew 5:8,9: (1) "Blessed are the pure in heart"; and (2) "Blessed are the peacemakers".

John Carter, late editor of The Christadelphian, under the heading "A Plea for Uncalled-for Disunion", wrote as follows: "The title is not ours; it is one given by bro Roberts in a call for sober and fair judgment at a time when feeling was running high just after bro Andrew's teaching had caused years of contention followed by division. Some were for pressing too far their demands upon fellow believers under the guise of 'PURITY OF TRUTH', and belaboured bro Roberts for lack of zeal because he would not endorse their efforts. Some have thought of bro Roberts as a fiery zealot always leading division. He certainly combated, and rightly so, important and vital errors that were at different times introduced in the community. But it is clear that it was not a fanatical zeal that moved him. He recognized that there were other duties -- teaching, guiding, instructing, promoting unity where vital issues were not involved. Three pamphlets were reviewed by him which he variously described as 'Plea for Unsound Union', 'Plea for Uncalled-for Disunion', and 'Plea for Apostasy'. He repudiated all three pleas, and we endorse his attitude" (Xd 93:224).

To this we would add certain of Robert Roberts' thoughts in his own words: "It is well to be zealous for ecclesial purity; but if we are to abstain from ecclesial association till we find an ecclesia that is perfect, we shall never have ecclesial association at all. We must have compassion as well as zeal. We are all imperfect, and unless we practice some of the charity that 'hides a multitude of sins', we shall hinder and destroy instead of helping one another" (Xd 23:230).

"The aim of the gospel is to convert and edify, not to divide. Division is an evil, whether necessary or not. The loss of disciples through apostasy, even when it becomes inevitable, is still grievous. And many losses may well have occurred, not because members were caught out in apostasy, but because some mistaken person or group thought that one must not be peaceable until purity has been attained. And of course this is not what James is saying....The wisdom from above is pure, but it is folly to think of it in terms of purity alone, or to imagine that it can entertain purity in isolation from the warming qualities which make it at once divine in its origin and human in its sympathies. The whole theme of this exalted homily is against the pursuit of so-called purity for its own sake alone, and for a righteousness which bears peace as its fruit at the hands of peacemakers" (ADN, BM 42:2,3).

"My conviction is that we, as a body, are in a thousand times greater danger through failure in this matter of brotherly love than in those doubtful issues which have exercised so many of our members. When once controversy has started there is usually a tendency on all sides to multiply the sins of unfairness, misrepresentation, and all the other fleshly evils that arise from strife. Stones are thrown where bread should be given. The Scriptures will save us if we will allow them to have free course, but we must search them for food and medicine and not merely for weapons" (IC, Appeal 5).

"Let us frankly admit this weakness of our common nature and then try to be as honest and fair as we can. Let us admit at least the abstract possibility that we might be wrong, and that the close examination of principles is necessary to correct us. If you think that the greatest fault is that we have forgotten the foundation lesson of all and are woefully lacking in love and mercy, do not on that account refuse to consider the sterner principles that may be urged. Recognize the abstract possibility that a man might be so anxious to show his love for mankind as to forget his duty to God. If, on the other hand, your favourite passage of scripture has been, 'First pure, then peaceable', do not get angry at the repeated exhortation, 'Love one another', for love is always the greatest thing in the world, while anger is not always even pure. With an effort we may be able to examine principles with a minimum of prejudice and with human feeling so well in hand that real benefit may be gained" (PrPr).

IMPARTIAL: "A mistake which is made by many brethren and sisters is to value one meeting above another. There is certainly some degree of difference between them, but it should not affect our response to them. What does need emphasising is that each meeting is a particular function of the household or family of God. On a Sunday morning the family recalls the sacrifice of its Lord; a sacrifice which he lovingly suffered for it. On a Sunday evening the family joins to witness to the power of his Name and Kingdom; and on a week-night it pursues its study of God's ways and purposes as revealed in His Word. In fact, the Bible class, especially in the case of young brethren and sisters, fulfils their need. Each meeting, then, should not be an individual choice, but a family pursuit which increases and enlivens the spirit of fellowship. The fact that the largest attendance is on a Sunday morning and the lowest is at mid-week Bible Class shows shocking partiality in our response to what should be a happy spiritual family expression of love and devotion to God's will and to one another. Paul urged young Timothy to 'do nothing by partiality' and James wrote that the wisdom that is from above is 'without partiality' and we all need to think very seriously not only about our attitude to another, but to our meetings" (TNL 53,54).

SINCERE: Gr "anupokritos" = lit, without hypocrisy. Used Rom 12:9; 2Co 6:6; 1Ti 1:5; 2Ti 1:5; Jam 3:17; 1Pe 1:22.

Jam 3:18

James' simile of the fruit trees (v 12) and his allusion to the "fruit" of righteousness (v 18) are echoes of the Lord's figure of speech in the Sermon on the Mount: Mat 7:15-17. As did Christ, James foresaw that men would sow destruction and confusion in the field of God. The damage that such men would cause by their schismatic tendencies, born of jealousy and pride, would have to be counteracted by the pure and peaceable and gentle actions of others. With this in mind James speaks of the tree. There is a tree which is righteousness, and righteousness is its fruit. It is firmly planted, rooted in the truth, and nourished by the soft showers of heavenly wisdom. Its fruit is harvested and then sown by the peacemakers who are pure in heart. The product will be many "trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified" (Isa 61:3). But there is a condition for this planting in which God works with and through men: it must be done "in peace", for strife is destructive of the very seed of righteousness.
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