The Wisdom from Above Is Pure

(Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.)

This week my high school class is getting together to celebrate our 45th High School Reunion! This has made me think about my old classmates a great deal. I would mention one in particular.

His name is J. At our 25th High School Reunion, which seems like yesterday, Jimmy had everybody talking. He drove up in a flash car, something like a red Corvette. He was dressed in a white suit like the one John Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever, and he had a beautiful young lady on his arm. It was pretty obvious to all concerned that she had even been born when Jimmy and the rest of us were in high school. Everybody jumped to the conclusion that Jimmy was an eligible bachelor, extremely wealth, and the buzz in the room was that was a drug dealer.

He was an old friend, so, late in the evening we stepped outside, and I asked him flat out. “J, are you doing anything illegal?” And he responded, “No, I import high end stereo equipment for a living; but I haven’t told anybody that, because the moment I tell somebody that, they start talking about a discount of their dream system and all meaningful conversation goes out the window.” Then he told that he told me that he was just like everyone else. He was still looking for someone to marry, and he wanted to have a family, and live a good life. I am happy report that eventually he found someone to marry, and she was a great gal, and a lot closer to J’s own age, and it was my privilege to baptize their first child.

When J and I were in highs school, we were quite close. Neither of us made grades that we were particularly proud of, but we ran the mile together on the track team—he was a lot better than I, and on those long bus rides to and from meets we used to make up “wise sayings. “ We figured if Ben Franklin and Little Richard—or is that Poor Richard, could do it, we could do it. It is harder was harder than we thought it would be. If we did manage to come up with a pithy saying, it invariably turned out to be a rerun of what someone else had said. This should not have surprised us.

In Ecclesiastes 1:9 we read:

…what has been done (or said) will be done (or said) again; there is nothing new under the sun … Ecclesiastes 1:9

We do not invent wisdom; we discover it. It is the God who created all things who created wisdom. In Proverbs 8:22 Wisdom itself speaks saying:

22 The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.

Wisdom goes on to say:

“I was there when God established the heavens, and drew a circle on the face of the deep, and made the skies above, and set a limit to the waters, and marked the foundation of the earth. “

Wisdom says:

“I was beside (God), like a master workman; and I was daily (God’s) delight, rejoicing before him always.” (Proverbs 8:30)

There can be little doubt that the author of the 4th Gospel looked back to this passage when he wrote about Jesus of Nazareth, saying:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2. He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made. John 1:1-3

And then, in John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth….”

The author of the Epistle of James has at least the Proverbs passage, and perhaps the gospel passage in mind, when he wrote:

…the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. James 3:17

I first planned to write on the whole verse. Then I broke it in half. Then I recognized that each word or combination that described “wisdom from above” was worthy of a stand alone sermon.

Let’s spend a few moments this morning thinking about the first statement in that verse. The text declares that the Wisdom from above (i.e. from God) is first “pure.”

The Greek word here translated “pure” is “hagnos.” In Classical Greek thought “hagnos” means “pure (or holy) enough to approach the gods.” In the case of the New Testament, “hagnos” means “pure (or holy) enough to approach God.” Or, to reverse the reference, “pure (or holy) enough for God to look upon.” For God cannot look upon sin without wanting to do something about it!

What does it mean that wisdom from above is pure? It means that the author of James cannot imagine any thing being truly wise which is not also truly moral.

I think that is true of all the Biblical writers. Thus, in John 14 when Jesus says, “I am the truth,” he is not saying that he is the truth about mathematics, or the table of elements, or the laws of relativity, or the Big Bang Theory. When Jesus says, “I am the truth,” he is talking primarily about his relationship to God. He is the revelation of God. In John 14:7 Jesus says, “If you have known me you have known my Father, also, henceforth you know him, and have seen him.” So, too, Jesus gives us the opportunity o have a relationship with God. In John 14:23 Jesus says, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” John 15:10 Jesus says, “If you love me keep my commandments.” The truth that is Jesus is primarily a moral, saving truth. And the wisdom that comes down from above is first and foremost a moral wisdom that puts us in a right relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another. That is why the Psalmist declares, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom!” (Psalm 110:10)

Does this mean that scientific wisdom is necessarily immoral? Of course not! Without the advances of science our world would be a pretty sorry place to be. Where would we be without Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine that saved millions? Or, where would we be without Thomas Alva Edison who invented the phonograph and a practical electric light bulb? Or where would we be with out Alexander Graham Bell who invented the iPhone 5? I realize that in this last question I have collapsed the process of discovery. I realized that I am cutting quite a few inventions and quite a few inventors out of this discussion, but the truth is that we could not have a complete discussing about even the most popular and far reaching advances of science if we committed to be here for a week.

What would you mention in such a discusion? Would you mention antibiotics, modern plumbing, the printing press, the automobile, and plastics? Your remember the man speaking to Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” and saying, “One word: plastics!”

That leads us to a larger question: What is the right relationship between faith and science?

I do not think it is the role of faith to dictate facts to science.

Take the case of Galileo. He taught that the earth resolved around the sun and that we live in a heliocentric universe. The Catholic Church said, “No, so, for the Bible teaches that the earth, not the sun, is the center of creation.” Authorities urged Galileo to recant upon threat of excommunication, and though he did recant, and they buried in an unmarked grave. They learned to regret that. In 1734, ninety-two years after Galileo’s death, they dug up the body and buried him in a mausoleum in the church, marking his new resting place with his name. Really accepting Galileo’s work took longer. It was not until 1744 that his book was released in a censored version, and not until 1835, 202 years after the death of Galileo that an uncensored version of his book was released. It was three hundred and fifty years after Galileo’s death, when Pope John Paul II said in 1992, that Galileo suffered unjustly at the hands of the Church and praised Galileo’s religiousness and his views and behaviors regarding the relationship between science and religion.

Some people say, “Worth, doesn’t this worry you?” Well, it makes me worry about the church—Protestant and Catholic, but not the Bible. I do not believe that God intended the Bible to be a scientific textbook. It is hard to convince some people of this. When I went to seminary my grandmother told me that if I did not accept the fact that God created the world in 6 literal days I had to give up all claim upon the Bible. Imagine my chagrin when I finally studied the book of Genesis in a seminary classroom, and discovered that the sun and moon was not created until the 4th day. How then were those literal days marked? Dare I say that my grandmother was wrong? You betcha. Of course, I later discovered that my grandmother did not say to me what she said based on her knowledge of the Bible. She said it because her favorite TV preacher had said it. That preacher forgot something very important, which many do. He forgot that God did not originally address the Bible to the people of the 20th and 21st century. If we take Moses as the author—or at least the contributor of the Pentateuch, God addressed the Bible to people who lived as many as 3500 years ago. That reminds me of a conversation I once had with a scientist.

He came to me, and said, “Worth, I am a Christian. My faith has seen me through a war, and the death of my wife, and the death of a son to a horrible disease. Worth, I am a scientist, and I am having a hard time reconciling the early chapters of Genesis to what I know about the creation of the world which I think started in a Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. Can you help me reconcile the two?”

I said, “I am not sure reconciliation is necessary. Let me explain. Suppose you are writing another scientist, and you assume another vocabulary and write to him anything you please?”

He said, “Yes

“Suppose you are writing his son,” I continued, “could you assume the same vocabulary and write to the same level?”

He said, “No, of course not.”

“Now suppose you are writing both the scientist and his son, to what level would you have to write?” I asked.

“Why I would have to write to the level of the son,” he answered.

I then told him that is precisely what God was doing when he addressed the Bible to humankind in its adolescence. He assumed those of us who are more mature intellectually and spiritually could understand what he had written to those who were less mature intellectually and spiritually.

Of course, the problem is that we are often more mature intellectually, and less mature spiritually. We have science and understanding, but we misuse it. A theory or an invention can be the best scientifically wisdom available in a certain time and place, and it still might be immoral.

The role of faith is not to dictate to science, but to confront science when it becomes immoral.

Take an obvious example of splitting the atom. It is one thing to split the atom for the sake of creating an unlimited source of power. That might be wisdom from above. But it is quite another thing to split the atom for the sake of creating a weapon of mass destruction and nothing more. That is not wisdom from above.

It was the work of Albert Einstein that enabled the United States to split the atom and make the atom bomb that ended World War II. Many scholars and historians think that dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not only saved tens of thousands of American lives, but an even greater number of Japanese lives. They say that if we had invaded the Japanese homeland the Japanese would have fought to the last man, the last woman, and the last child. We would have been forced to commit genocide. In that sense, the bomb was merciful. Still, Einstein himself ever after regretted that we had to drop the bomb on Japan. As his life neared the end he wrote, “I made one great mistake in my life…when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them.”

What is true of science could be true of science, or politics, or anything else. A thing might be the very best financial wisdom attainable, and it might still be immoral. A bank which charges an extra fee on a certain kind of transaction just because it can, is no more moral than a loan shark which charges exorbitant interest on a loan just because he can. So, too, a thing might make very good political sense, and still be immoral because it does not truly serve the nation in question, or the community of nations of which it is a part. I recall starting out some years ago to vote for a particular candidate. As I left my driveway on the way to the polls I was listening to the radio. His campaign chairman said, “People ought to vote for my candidate instead of the other guy because my candidate only told little lies while the other guy told great big lies.” That was not what I wanted to hear on the way to the polls. I ended up doing a right in for a man of integrity, though some would say that I threw away my vote.

In this world there are always some who will say, “The Ends justifies the means.” The Bible puts the lie to that kind of thinking. The Bible teaches that God has the end of a thing in mind from the beginning. The Bible teaches us that God trust us not with the ends, but with the process that leads to the ends. It teaches that the wisdom from above is first of all pure.


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