Earlier James wrote that those who are practicing true, pure, and undefiled religion before God bridle the tongue (1:26). The next few messages from James are about choosing the right path and practicing godliness that is pleasing to him. In this section James is going to teach us about how each of us possesses a dangerous weapon. Each of us is born with an instrument that can do great damage or great good. James is going to teach us about how we use the tongue.
Not Many Should Be Teachers (3:1-2)
The first warning James gives is fairly surprising. James says that many should not become teachers. This seems counterintuitive. Why would James say that Christians should rethink the idea of becoming teachers? James cannot be saying that no one should be a teacher because then there would be no one to preach the gospel. In fact, Paul said that God gave shepherds, evangelists, and teachers for the equipping of the saints. God wants teachers. I think we can infer that there were Christians who were saying, “Why don’t I get my turn to be a teacher? I should be a teacher.” I think there were people then, as there can be today, who see teachers as having a glorious position, with the opportunity to stand in front of the group, as if there is personal glory in that. But James begins with a warning that easily overlooked. Do you also want to be judged more strictly? Are you prepared to be judged with a greater strictness? It is certainly true that teachers are judged by other Christians more strictly. But that is not what James is talking about. James is referring to God’s judgment.
Why will teachers be judged with a greater strictness? James explains in verse 2, and the sentence begins with the word, “for,” showing us that James is explaining this teaching. The reason teachers will be judged with a stricter judgment is because we all stumble in many ways. One of the ways we stumble is in our words. How true, how true! We have many areas of weaknesses and points of falling short of God’s desire and will. But one area in which we stumble is in what we say. The implication is fairly clear. Teachers must talk more. Therefore, teachers will be under a stricter judgment because they will have said many more words than those who are not teachers. It is not that God is judging teachers differently than other Christians. It is that teachers speak more than those who do not teach and therefore there are more words to be judged by God.
Verse 2 also reveals James’s attitude about the tongue. “Anyone who does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his own body.” The person who can control the tongue is a complete, mature Christian. His point is that controlling the tongue is difficult. The person who can control the tongue is clearly a person who has developed spiritual control over it. James shows us that one of the principle marks of maturity is self-discipline. Self-discipline in regards to one’s speech is rare. It is commanded, but James observes how rarely such control is exercised.
Comparisons To The Powerful Tongue (3:3-5)
James now explains why the tongue must be controlled. The tongue is a very important part of the body. James uses three illustrations to express what the tongue is like and why it must be controlled.
(1) A bit in the horse’s mouth. The first comparison is that of a bit in the horse’s mouth. Horses obey their riders because the bit is put in the horses’ mouths and the riders pull the reigns so that the bit moves the horse. That bit is what riders use to control the whole body. This is an important observation that James is making. The bit controls the whole body of the horse.
(2) The rudder of a ship.Large ships are driven by strong waves and wind. However, though the ship is large and is tossed by the winds, it has a very small rudder that guides the boat by the will of the pilot. The first observation is similar to the first illustration. The bit controls the whole body. The rudder controls the whole ship. The second observation was implied in the first illustration but is expressly stated in this illustration. James implied that the rider of the horse has control over the animal. James now expressly states that the pilot of the ship has control over the large ship with the rudder. In both illustrations someone has control over the whole body.
(3) A small fire.The final illustration is how a small fire can set ablaze a great forest. We see this in California all the time. Someone lights a spark and millions of acres have burned because of it. It was just a couple years ago when it was thought that the fires in San Diego may burn to the ocean because the blaze could not be put out. However, the fire illustration adds one more dimension to James’s teaching. A small fire is a devastating and destructive thing.
The conclusion is at the beginning of verse 5. So also the tongue is a small member but it boasts of great things. The tongue is this small member but it gets us in a lot of trouble. A modern comparison would be that the tongue is like a steering wheel. It is small, but it controls where we go. The first important point that James wants us to take away from these illustrations is that if we can master our words, we can also master our lives. Winning the battle of the tongue goes a long way to winning all of our other battles. But this requires a heart change. Jesus taught that it is from the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:33-35). So we cannot think that we will simply change our words and that will be the end of the story. We must change the heart so that we can control the tongue. By controlling the tongue we will exercise greater mastery over the other members of our body.
The Destructive Power of the Tongue (3:6-8)
James moves to his second point about why we need to control the tongue. The second reason is that the tongue, while small, has a very destructive power. The tongue is a fire, with the power set fire to all our relationships. Verse 6 is a fairly complicated sentence in the Greek. I think the NET translation does a good job with its rendering of this verse.
And the tongue is a fire! The tongue represents the world of wrongdoing among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the entire body and sets fire to the course of human existence—and is set on fire by hell. (James 3:6 NET)
Not only does the tongue corrupt the whole person, but it also sets on fire and wreaks havoc throughout one’s life. Careless words destroy relationships and destroy lives. We hurt feelings and ruin relationships. We also hurt our own lives by our tongues. We get ourselves in all sorts of trouble because we are not “slow to speak” (1:19). Did you see that James says that the tongue pollutes the entire body? We need to see that our tongues are corrupting us! The words that we say corrupts our hearts. We see speak with filthy, crude language we are corrupting our hearts and our thinking. This has been James’s point. The tongue controls the body. When our tongues are foul and filthy and are not godly and pure, then our bodies will follow along. When we gossip and speak malicious words, then we become ugly people with dark hearts. When we slander people we are exposing our cold hearts. Our words darken our hearts and stain our souls.
Further, our words change people. Our tongues set fire to the course of human existence. This cycle just keeps going and going from generation to generation. Our careless words and hurtful words are harming people and setting the lives of others on fire.
James shares with us some irony in verses 7-8. Humans have been able to tame all kinds of wild animals and birds. But why are we not taming our own tongues? The tongue is more difficult to tame than any of the wild animals. The tongue is a restless evil and it is full of deadly poison. It seems that the tongue is almost compared to a venomous viper. This thought leads to the final point as to why we must control and tame our tongues.
The Hypocritical, Double-minded Tongue (3:9-12)
James observes how inconsistent we are with our tongues. With our tongues we bless the Lord, but then we curse people who were made in the very image and likeness of God. From the same mouth flows blessings and curses. How is this possible? Why do we do this? But this is most certainly what happens. One moment we can be saying beautiful, upbuilding words and at the next moment tear a person down with our words.
Let us feel force of James’s words. “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” This is just plain wrong. This has a connection back to the double-minded person in James 1:8. We are not fully dependent and loyal to Jesus. We have not surrendered our tongue to Jesus. We have not decided to bridle our tongues. We just speak our minds. We cannot be God-focused and have a critical, filthy, or impure tongue. Our words of worship should condemn our consciences for all the things we have used our mouths for this week. How is it that our mouths are praising God when we said the kinds of things we said to other people yesterday? How can our mouths claim Jesus to be the Lord when last week we said all kinds of improper things?
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29 ESV)
Verses 11-12 drives a stake into our hearts. A spring cannot pour out fresh water and salt water. Also, a fig tree cannot bear olives. A grapevine cannot produce figs. A salt pond cannot yield fresh water. What is the point with all of these examples? A disciple cannot have a mouth that speaks curses, hurtful words, inconsiderate words, impure words, or words that do not build up. James’s implication is very clear. Springs do not produce fresh and salt water. Christians, true Christians, do not speak blessings and curses. Fig trees don’t bear olives and Christians do not allow their tongues to go unchecked or uncontrolled.
- Realize the formidable opponent we must tame: the tongue. True Christians practicing saving faith control their tongues.
- The tongue can only be tamed with God’s help. We need a renewed heart to change the tongue.
- Watch out for our inconsistent tongues. Do not let it happen. Do not be lax in controlling the tongue.
- Realize the damage our tongues cause.