The Letter of James

James - Lesson 3

Chapter 3:1-12

Next lesson

  • You may remember near the end of James 1, the apostle taught us an important principle for proper Christian living

    • First in v.21 he said we should put aside filthiness and wickedness

      • And receive the word of God, which is able to save our souls…save us in the sense of sanctifying us

        • Saving us from the consequences of our sinful choices 

      • And that sanctifying process is a result of receiving the word in humility, hearing the teaching of God’s word

    • James goes on to say that if we are merely hearers of the word and not doers of the word, we deceive ourselves into thinking we are religious

      • And then in v.26 James offers a gold standard of sorts for measuring who is truly putting the word into practice 

      • If we cannot learn to bridle our tongue, to control it with authority, then our religion is worthless

        • Here again is this idea of worth or value

    • Any life of religion that doesn’t arrive at sanctification – a life that is steadily becoming more Christ-like and holy – is of no value or worth

      • Outward religious practice that don’t lead to an inward conforming to Christ in our lives won’t profit God, our neighbors nor ourself

  • Moving to Chapter 3 today, we come back to this theme

    • At the end of Chapter 2, James finished with a reminder that our life goal must be to declare our faith publicly by doing the works that faith requires

      • Works are anything that display our faith, whether an action or a word or even a thought

      • And for James, the words we use are a particularly good indicator of our maturity in the faith

    • So he spends Chapter 3 focused on speech and its relationship to spiritual maturity

James 3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 
James 3:2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 
  • James‘ opening verses set the tone for the chapter

    • James begins with a warning

      • Let not many of you become teachers, because teachers incur a stricter judgment, and we all stumble in many ways.

    • The sense in Greek is “Do not press yourself into the role of teacher”

      • Don’t presume to speak on behalf of the Lord concerning His word

      • Don’t seek this role, because we are all prone to sinning and stumbling

        • And therefore don’t place yourself in the position of possibly sinning with your speech while teaching

        • Because teachers will incur a stricter judgment

      • Failing to handle the word of God properly is a particularly damaging sin for a Christian

        • Teachers who sin through poor teaching stand to receive an even harsher judgment when they face Christ

        • They will be graded by tougher standards

  • In v.2 James is going to quickly broaden the discussion beyond teachers, because he’s really aiming for a general point on sinning with our speech

    • But before we go there with him, let’s give a moment’s thought to how we apply the statement in v.1

      • Is James trying to discourage us from teaching God’s word?

        • In a way yes, but not so that we wouldn’t have teachers, but so that we have teachers gifted and called by God

    • First, we need to remember that James is Jewish and he’s writing to  a Jewish audience

      • And in Jewish culture, a teacher was an important authority figure

      • They called teachers rabbi, and it was a term of authority and power

    • So James is speaking about leaders in the church who express their leadership through a teaching role of one kind or another

      • And by teaching, we mean establishing the normative interpretation of Scripture for a body of believers

        • Today, we might call these people pastors, teaching pastors, Bible study leaders, etc.

        • And this would also include women who teach under the authority of pastors or elders and interpret Scripture

      • These are the roles that should particularly heed this warning

    • The warning says don’t press yourself into one of these roles

      • Don’t even make holding a leadership role in teaching a goal unless you are specifically gifted and called to that role

        • Teaching without the spiritual gift means working outside your gift, and it is not a work of the Spirit

        • And we are placing ourselves in jeopardy come judgment day 

          • Because when we inevitably mishandle God’s word in the course of teaching, we have deceived ourselves and others concerning God’s word

          • Our mistake is magnified by being multiplied in the hearts and minds of our students

  • What about the person who doesn’t feel they have the gift to teach, but they feel led to conduct a Bible study group or lead a Sunday school class?

    • In light of James’ teaching, we can safely conclude that someone absent a teaching gift could lead a Bible study or class

      • So long as that leader does not take it upon himself to interpret Scripture for the class

      • Rather, the leader would present teaching from an approved curriculum or teacher who is clearly gifted to interpret God’s word

    • That leader will still be accountable for what he says and does, as are all Christians

      • But the stricter judgment James mentions wouldn’t be a concern, since the person isn’t endeavoring to interpret Scripture

    • Finally, all Christians are given the ability by the Spirit to read and understand Scripture to a certain extent

      • I am not proposing that only certain people can read and interpret Scripture for us

        • This was the heresy perpetuated by Rome prior to the Reformation

      • We are a kingdom of priests, and all believers have equal access to the Spirit and to the opportunity to know and understand God’s word

        • But there is a difference in God’s economy between knowing something for ourself and endeavoring to teach Scripture to others

        • The Spirit may reveal some aspect of Scripture to us – just what He feels we need – while not giving us a complete enough picture to carry that message to others

  • As I mentioned already, James quickly broadens his point beyond teachers

    • James is really talking about self-control

      • Because the most important work we can do in faith is the work of conforming our behavior to the commandments of Scripture

      • And James returns to his Chapter 1 theme telling us that the best test of our spiritual maturity is found in how well we control ourselves, particularly our tongue 

    • If we can reach a point in our Christian walk where we are self-controlled in our speech, we will have become spiritually mature 

      • That’s what James means by “perfect” – the word is teleios which literally means having reached an end, or being complete

        • This is a Biblical principle

      • Our degree of spiritual maturity shows itself most readily in our speech patterns

        • If our speech is godly and pleasing to the Lord in all respects, we may fairly judge ourselves to be maturing in our walk of faith

      • But this is a tough standard

        • It addresses lying, gossiping, boasting, slandering, cursing, and a whole host of other tendencies

        • And until we’ve put all those aside entirely, we still have work to do

      • That’s why James gives a warning to those who might wish to teach

        • Because if we’re not a mature believer with a Spiritual gift to teach, we’re likely to see our teaching become laced with one or another of these sins

          • And then comes a stricter judgment because our sin is infecting our students

  • Now to the one who may doubt the relationship between the tongue and the rest of our spiritual maturity, James gives several analogies or examples to support his thesis

    • First, James establishes that a small thing can have great power

James 3:3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 
James 3:4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 
James 3:5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 
  • Both examples are simple and illustrate James’ point beautifully

    • First, a horse is a large animal but a trained rider can make it do anything merely by controlling the bit in his mouth

      • When you think about it, that’s really quiet remarkable

    • And the principle here is equally amazing

      • When we finally learn to yield to the Spirit’s controlling influence in our speech, then we will have also yielded in other areas of our life and actions

  • It’s as if James is saying that the last thing we tend to give over to the Spirit is our speech

    • Perhaps because it’s so closely connected to our thinking and motivations

      • As Jesus observed:

Matt. 15:18 “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.
Matt. 15:19 “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.
  • So if we are the horse, then the Holy Spirit is the rider

    • And once we give Him control over our tongue, He will be free to direct our whole body into a Christ-like life

  • And then the second example extends from the first

    • A ship faces many challenges and trials on the open water

      • But as long as the captain has control of the rudder – a very small part of that vessel – he can guide the ship safely through the strong winds

      • But there is an obvious corollary to this rule

        • If the captain doesn’t control the rudder, those strong winds will eventually result in shipwreck

    • Obviously, we are the ship and the rudder is our tongue again

      • If our captain gains control of our tongue, he has the opportunity to guide us safely through difficult times 

      • But if our rudder remains outside the Spirit’s control, we face spiritual shipwreck

    • Paul alludes to an example of just such a situation in his first letter to Timothy

1Tim. 1:18 This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the  prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, 
1Tim. 1:19 keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. 
1Tim. 1:20 Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme. 
  • Hymenaeus and Alexander couldn’t discipline their tongues and maintain a good conscience (meaning a good testimony)

    • So the Lord brought discipline through Paul, and their faith was shipwrecked, meaning their faith didn’t profit them 

  • So in v.5 James summarizes

    • The tongue is a small part of the body, but it can boast or lay claim to great power in our lives

      • But unfortunately, not only does it have great saving power in our walk with Christ

      • But James turns to the negative and reminds us that it also has the power to condemn

    • He uses a third analogy to emphasize the negative side

      • A small flame can burn down a forest

    • And that leads James to his second point: as small as the tongue is, man is not capable of controlling it by himself

James 3:6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 
James 3:7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human  race. 
James 3:8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 
  • Our tongues represent the very world of sin, of hell itself

    • In the sense of the sin and evil that a tongue can ignite in ourselves and in others

      • And in v.6 James says that our sinful speech defiles the entire body

      • And like a rudder, it can set our life on a course of evil

    • Notice at the end of v.6 James says that a tongue can set our life on a course that is set on fire by hell

      • James is saying essentially the same thing Peter says in:

1Pet. 5:8  Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
  • The devil (or hell) can set our life on “fire” in the sense that he can set us on a course that brings our lives to a disastrous end

    • James isn’t suggesting a Christian who can’t tame their tongue will end up in hell

      • No amount of sinning can erase the grace of the New Covenant

  • But he is saying that we will see the Enemy taking advantage of our weakness and drive our Christian witness and testimony into oblivion

    • Leaving us with nothing at our judgment

  • The problem of our tongue can’t be corrected by men’s own efforts 

    • The answers aren’t found in self-help books

      • They are found in the God-help book, the Bible

        • Only God’s word with the Spirit can bring about spiritual maturity and the taming of our flesh, including of our tongue

      • And James makes clear that men don’t have the power to handle this alone

    • James mentions four categories of animals that have been tamed or subdued by man

      • These four categories are noteworthy because they match the four categories in Genesis 1

        • Beast, birds, creeping things and sea creatures 

        • The third word is herpeton, from the word herpo in Greek which means to creep

    • So James is intentionally referencing the four categories of the animal kingdom God created and gave to man to subdue

      • And just as God commanded Adam, man has indeed subdued these creatures

        • We have invented many ways to bring them under our control to a certain degree

        • There are limits of course

          • My family can’t seem to control our poodle

  • But the tongue is not something man can control in that way

    • We can’t subdue it in any way comparable to the way we control animals

      • We may wish to control it, but sooner or later it re-exerts itself and we see our weakness

        • James says the tongue is unruly evil, meaning un-restrainable evil

    • James’ point is that God gave us the power to subdue animals, but the power to restrain sin in our bodies comes only through the Spirit and God’s word

      • We must recognize this is a problem we don’t solve without Him guiding us

        • And the good works of faith begin with receiving God’s word in humility (i.e., James 1:21)

        • And then being doers of the word by seeking to conform our lives to what we learn, yielding to the Spirit as He takes authority over our lives

  • Finally, James challenges us to not be content with an untamed tongue

James 3:9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 
James 3:10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 
James 3:11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?
James 3:12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. 
  • As those who claim faith in Christ and desire to serve Him and witness about Him to others…

    • At one moment we bless His name with our tongues, and at another moment we curse men who are made in His image

      • Cursing doesn’t just mean curse words, but any expression of hatred or condemnation made against someone

        • We’re talking about all hateful or ungodly speech

    • It’s back to the principle from James 2:10

      • If you violate one law, you violate them all

      • And though we bless the Lord in one moment, we are effectively cursing Him when we curse the men He made in His own image

    • You can’t have it both ways, and yet we do it all the time

      • As James says in v.10, these things ought not be this way

  • James uses a classic comparison that Jesus Himself makes in the Gospels

    • A fountain of water wouldn’t be expected to produce both good and bad water

    • Or a plant can’t produce fruit other than the kind intended 

      • And as new creatures in Christ, we were born again by the Spirit so that we might bear fruit and glory to God

        • And when we allow our tongue to remain untamed, we are failing to live up to that eternal purpose 

        • Our very reason for being saved is unmet in God’s view so long as our tongue – and the rest of our body – remains outside the Spirit’s control

      • We will one day bring forth fresh water, and then the next day we bring forth salt water

        • And in that way, we fail to bring our Lord glory

  • Sometimes the oldest advice is the best, as our mothers said: if we can’t say something nice, don’t say something at all…like James said in 1:19

James 1:19 This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger;