What do teachers and tongues have in common? Both can be good or bad depending on the heart.
James 3:1–18 || 1 Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. 3 We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. 4 And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. 5 In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. 6 And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. 7 People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, 8 but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. 9 Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. 10 And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! 11 Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? 12 Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring. 13 If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. 15 For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16 For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. 18 And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. [NLT]
Most of our bibles break this chapter into two sections, but I do not like that so much. I think the thought is consistent throughout the chapter.
Many people also see each chapter of James as a separate thought, but I believe there are some great threads that carry through the entire book. So far, I have compiled about 8 references from Chapter 3 to the previous two chapters. That is more than most books of the bible have to themselves!
And many see James as a unique, stand-alone book of the Bible; but I see how it connects so much of the Old Testament to the church.
This passage is loaded. There is so much here. I want us to draw out some of the nuggets, but I also want us to see the big picture.
This seems like a harsh statement, but it is one of the very sobering verses of the Bible for me. What I say and what I do will impact those that I am teaching or leading. And, as a spiritual leader, as an elder of the church, God will hold me accountable for what I teach. This is true for both my words and my actions. James may be pointing out words to start the chapter but he mentions the actions as well towards the end of this chapter.
LET’S BE CLEAR: The command should not be understood as “do not teach” any more than the rest of the chapter should be understood as “do not speak”.
However, the sincerity and faithfulness by which we seek to understand the Word of God should be significant! It is about being true to what we do know up to this point, knowing that no one will have all understanding in this life!
Perhaps of bigger concern is the motives for their teaching: boasting? Envy? Selfish ambition? Though we often use this verse concerning having correct doctrine, James brings never mentions the doctrines of the teachers, but their motives.
Teachers who have wrong motives adhere to earthly wisdom and create disorder and disunity in the body (the church).
Teachers with the right motives demonstrate wisdom that is from above. That promotes the kind of love-based living that reflects the character of God and build up the body. This list is very similar to the list of things the Holy Spirit wants to produce in our lives.
Galatians 5:16–26 || 16 So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. 17 The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. 18 But when you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses. 19 When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. 22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. 25 Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. 26 Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another. [NLT]
Often, those that teach in the church are considered important. I think that is not a wrong perspective as long as that teacher understands that importance comes from God and putting Him on display and making Him happy by obeying His word. We must humbly receive the word planted in us (the gospel) James 1:21.
“we all stumble in many ways” or “we all make many mistakes”– is a great phrase. It is one that we should be quick to remind others who are not believers in Jesus that look at our lives and somehow expect us to be perfect, like Jesus was. HE was perfect, I am not. You are not. WE ALL stumble in many ways.
LET’S BE CLEAR: This is NOT an excuse to stop trying!
I like the word “stumble” more than “mistakes”. Have you ever known a baby to begin crawling and get it right the first time and every time? No, they certainly stumble and sometimes even face plant. Then, as they start to stand a walk, life is full of more falls, stumbling, tripping and bruises. As we grow up, we may stumble less because we are strong and well-practiced. Though some of you may have just become better stumblers and have attained the level of “pro” ?, when we get even older, we will stumble yet again, and the fear of falling will actually take hold like never before.
It is not a question of IF we will stumble. We will. We all will; in many ways. It should not be a discouragement but a motivator to not fail as much. The key to failing less is to allow God’s Word and his Spirit to teach, correct and direct us (James 1:21 again)
I mentioned that I see James as a book that connects well with the rest of the Bible.
Subduing/taming creation, the image of God and words that are deadly are all references that take me back to the creation narrative.
James takes us on an expanded dialog about how the tongue is very powerful and potentially very deadly. When he makes the claim that we have tamed many animals but not the tongue, I believe he is taking us, and his Jewish audience, back to the Genesis narrative. We were tasked with filling the earth and ruling over or subduing the earth.
While we can subdue all these great and powerful animals and fish, we cannot control our own tongues. We have 3 illustrations to point out the power of the tongue and the need to control it.
Having power without control is reckless and destructive. The tongue is powerful.
If controlled, it can be directed. If out of control it can be destructive.
James gives us this third illustration to help drive that home. Fire – small spark can burn down a large forest. Have any of you experienced a forest fire firsthand? Devastating and horrifying. Just as a small spark can wreak great havoc, our words can do the same.
Tweets. Most are less than 120 characters and yet they can create quite a ripple! One tweet can affect tens of thousands of people who then share their opinions and responses with thousands more, at it can go on as long we years with some topics.
“going viral” is a good example of how words can do a lot of damage in a short amount of time.
James’ comment on the tongue being full of deadly poison might also conjure up another creation image of the serpent in the garden. It was with words that the serpent deceived Eve into eating the forbidden fruit eliciting the first human rebellion and bringing a curse upon all of creation.
Word that are deceitful bring destruction. But words that are pure bring life. Think about the creation. It was with words that God spoke everything into existence, and with his breath He gave life to man.
Our words can be used for wrong purposes, like stirring up division in the church, I have seen it. Let me ask you this, have you ever said something negative about someone in this church family? If so, you probably also said it in front of someone else. THAT is some of what James is pointing out – and it needs to be confessed and stopped.
When we find ourselves in a conversation where someone is speaking badly about someone else: their spouse, pastor, church member, family member, co-worker – how should we respond?
Proverbs 26:20 || 20 Fire goes out without wood, and quarrels disappear when gossip stops. [NLT]
We certainly should not respond by putting more fuel on the fire!
One of the reasons people refer to the book of James as the NY book of proverbs is because of the similarities in their teachings. Here are a couple of other proverbs about words that I think you will find easily connected to verses in the book of James:
Proverbs 10:19–21 || 19 Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. 20 The words of the godly are like sterling silver; the heart of a fool is worthless. 21 The words of the godly encourage many, but fools are destroyed by their lack of common sense. [NLT]
Did you notice the relationship between words and the heart?
Proverbs 15:1–2 || 1 A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. 2 The tongue of the wise makes knowledge appealing, but the mouth of a fool belches out foolishness. [NLT]
Notice how words and gentleness go hand in hand in those verses? James puts them together as well.
Proverbs 17:27–28 || 27 A truly wise person uses few words; a person with understanding is even-tempered. 28 Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent. [NLT]
This chapter is not just about words, it is about attitude and heart condition. The words and the other actions that are mentioned all point to it.
James points out that there are some in the church that are teachers because they want a position of importance and what to be in power. Their evil motives and evil hearts (as mentioned as a problem in chapter 2) is evidenced by their words. They bless God and make it look good in the church, but then they curse others after they leave – or perhaps even during the service!
The condition is spelled out in verse 14.
James 3:14 || 14 But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. [NLT]
It was selfish ambition that accepted the words of the serpent over the Word of God:
Genesis 3:6 || 6 The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. [NLT]
The macro issue that James is addressing and that you and I need to examine our hearts.
Matthew 15:17–19 || 17 “Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. 18 But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. 19 For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. [NLT]
It is what is on the inside, in our hearts: our desires and motives, that will direct our tongues and our actions to either be glorifying to God or glorifying of self. Blessing or cursing.
One of the problems with words is that it is impossible to get them all back once you have spewed them out. Even after an apology, the damage has been done.
We were created in the image of God, and we are re-created in Jesus to reflect God to the world around us so they can be drawn to Him. If we are teaching wrong things or with wrong motives, we run the risk of leading people away from God. If we use our words to hurt others and create division, we certainly will push people away from God.
Have you, or someone you know, ever said, “If that is what Christians are like I don’t want to be one!”?
Colossians 4:6 || 6 Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. [NLT]
Our WORDS are a huge part of our WITNESS.
In this passage, James says that no one can control the tongue. Be earlier in his letter, he said this:
James 1:26 || 26 If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. [NLT]
As we studied last week, if our religion does not affect the way we live and conduct ourselves in the everyday stuff of life then we have a worthless religion. If I am now the property of God, bought with the price of my Savior, then I need to glorify God with my life. That means that my words and my actions should reflect well on the character and mission of the Father.
Our words should be used to point others to God by how we speak about God and about them. We must guard our words lest we discredit our God. However, to do that we must guard our hearts, for it is out of our hearts that the mouth speaks.
Our actions and words flow from what is in our hearts. And if we all stumble in what we say, and I know we will all stumble in our motives, the it would seem natural to me that we would all seek times of repentance and confession to make our hearts right with God.
Psalm 139:23–24 || 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [NLT]