Taming the Tongue, 1-12

Jas 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

We should not be over-zealous in correcting the faults of others

v1f The ‘teachers’ here may be those who took it upon themselves to criticise and censure others. There are already more than enough such people. We should exercise caution in admonishing others because:-

(a) those with a harsh attitude can expect to be judged more strictly, Jas 2:13; Mt 6:12 7:1.

(b) we all make many mistakes, v2. ‘Nothing does more to temper extreme severity than recognising our own weaknesses’ (Calvin).

Note that the wider context has to do with speech – good and evil.  According to Blomberg, the ‘teachers’ here are those whose role it was to pass on the catechetical tradition.  This would often be done through the use of rote learning (since it was thought that discussion carried the risk of distorting the message).  Students often followed their teachers into various situations of daily life, so that they could learn how to apply the teaching in practice.  So, teachers in the ancient world were charged both with taking  great care over what they said, and also putting their teaching into practice.  Then, as now, the teacher is in danger of speaking sinfully, with “arrogance and domination over students; anger and pettiness at contradiction or inattention; slander and meanness toward absent opponents; flattery of students for the sake of vainglory” (Luke Johnson, The Letter of James, 263).

‘Why,’ Blomberg asks, ‘are these sins more serious when committed by teachers rather than by other people? (1) More people may be affected. (2) A closer relationship of trust may be violated. (3) The very person who should be the student’s best model fails in that capacity. (4) The resulting hurt may be greater.’

Jas 3:2 we all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.

If you can control your tongue, you can control your whole life

Take the horse: if you can control the bit, you can control the whole animal.

Take the ship: if you can control the rudder, you can control the whole vessel.

You must control your tongue because, although it is small, its influence is enormous.

Jas 3:3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.

James 3:4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.

Jas 3:5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.

The tongue is capable of tremendous evil

Its capacity for evil is like a fire: spreading and destroying.

Evil speech has a defiling tendency, ‘spreading slime over all who listen to it’ (Ross). See Eph 4:29. Such evil is ignited by hell.

Jas 3:6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

Such evil is spawned in hell.  ‘We have here the only occurrence outside the Gospels of the word “Gehenna.” In the Gospels it is found some ten times on the lips of our Lord as describing the place of the future punishment of the wicked, where their worm dieth not and their fire is not quenched. (Mk 9:47) In Mt 5:22 we have our Lord’s words “the Gehenna of fire,” and in Mt 23:33 his words “the judgement of Gehenna.” This dread symbolic language seems to be derived from the valley of the children of Hinnom, (2 Kings 23:10) where children used to be burned in honour of Moloch. King Josiah abolished these hideous sacrifices, and the Jews came to regard the place with deep abhorrence and they cast into this deep valley on the south east of Jerusalem all manner of refuse, and also, possibly, the dead bodies of criminals who had been executed and the dead bodies of animals. Fires were needed to consume the refuse and this truly awe-inspiring symbol of the ever-burning fire and the crawling worms is used by our Lord to shadow forth dimly the fate that awaits the ungodly. Hell is the rubbish heap of the universe – is that the idea suggested?’ (Ross)

‘An unbridled tongue is the chariot of the devil, wherein he rides in triumph…. The course of an unruly tongue is to proceed from evil to worse, to begin with foolishness, and go on with bitterness, and to end in mischief and madness (Eccl. 10:13). The Jew’s conference with our Saviour began with arguments: “We be Abraham’s seed,” saith they, etc.; but proceeded to blasphemies: “Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?”’ (Edward Reyner)

James 3:7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

No one can tame the tongue

All kinds of wild animal can be tamed, but not the tongue.

It is a beast of wild and dangerous ferocity.

Jas 3:9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.

[pullquote]The soul of the poorest beggar that cries at the door for a crust is, in its own nature, of equal dignity and value with the soul of the most glorious monarch that sits upon the throne.[/su_quote]

John Flavel[/pullquote]

The very inconsistency of the tongue is unnatural: how can we be so ready to bless God and them immediately curse our fellow man?

James 3:10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.

James 3:11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?

James 3:12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

‘Teachers should be conscious of the weight and potential influence of what they say because words lie at the heart of the teaching ministry.  To have an unreliable tongue is likely to provide a destructive model for those who are taught.  The potential for multiplication of influence requires a canon of judgment that takes the measure of both responsibility and opportunity into account.

‘But James does not write as one who has “arrived.”  He is conscious of his own shortcomings: “For we all stumble in many ways” (James 3.2).  He has no false perfectionism.  Perhaps he remembers how he misspoke about Jesus, demeaning Him during the days of His ministry.  Was James among those who said, “He is out of His mind” (Mark 3.21)?  Was this one reason why our Lord visited him, in particular (as He did Simon Peter), after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.7)”?

‘But James’ words are applicable far beyond those who are called to teach.  We all use our tongues.  If the mastery of the tongue is a sign of maturity, it is so for all Christians.  So James 3.1-12 has general as well as specific application.  How we use our tongues provides clear evidence of where we are spiritually.’

Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be by Sinclair B. Ferguson (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), p. 629.

Two Kinds of Wisdom, 13-18

James 3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

James 3:14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.

James 3:15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.

James 3:16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

James 3:17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

James 3:18 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.