Study 13             True Faith Evidenced by Words

James 3:1-12

1. Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.

2. For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man; able to bridle the whole body also.

3. If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies.

4. Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.

5. So the tongue is a little member and boast of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

6. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.

7. For every king of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind,

8. but no human being can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

9. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.

10. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.

11. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish?

12. Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grape vine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

James chapter 2:1-13 shows us that true faith is evidenced by our being impartial in our relationships. Verses 14-26 reveal that true faith is evidenced by our actions and deeds. Now in Chapter three James adds the use of proper speech to what it means to have true faith. James, however, is not just talking about the words that come out of our mouth but the attitudes that lay behind those words. If we love God then we will not bad mouth our fellow man.

Verse 1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.

Paul ranks teaching high on the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:28). While a prophet revealed God’s will, a teacher had the task of interpreting or expounding upon the truth revealed by God.

The admonition that many people shouldn’t strive to be teachers probably was a reference to the idea that a number of early Christians didn’t have the background or understanding to teach but wanted to anyway because of the status involved in being a teacher. Also James could have in mind that bad teachers who teach wrong material (even if by accident or ignorance) can do great harm to the church.

Notice James use of the word, “we” in this verse. He is not saying he is better than other teachers because they are all in the same boat. The idea of being judged with greater strictness does not refer to God having a harsher standard of righteousness for teachers. James is simply saying that because teachers use words constantly they have a greater opportunity to sin in their speech and lead others astray. (see Luke 12:48; Acts 20:26-28) God has entrusted the gospel to teachers and they must be very careful how they handle such precious truth. There is no place for legalism, pet theories, or convoluted doctrine to be taught by teachers, and there is no place for indifference and shirking the duty of teaching if one has received the gift.

Verse 2 For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man; able to bridle the whole body also.

James is referring here to people who make a slip of the tongue without intending it. I believe that he is saying to teachers and to believers as a whole that anyone who can control their tongue should be able to control the whole body as well, thus making him a perfect man. The problem is that none of us control the tongue one hundred percent of the time without ever slipping and thus show ourselves to be imperfect. For anyone who believes in perfection, they must start with never ever speaking a word out of order, have a slip of the tongue or let their frustration break through in an unkind word. They must also never speak a wrong word or make a mistake in teaching. The road to perfection runs through the tongue and is a long road indeed for anyone who believes they can bridle every word that comes forth from their mouth.

Verse 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies.

Paul’s use of the word bridle in verse 2 nicely plays into his illustration of a horses’ bit as directing the actions and motions of a horse in this verse. As a bit determines the direction of a horse so the tongue determines where we are on our spiritual journey. It is as simple as this; if the tongue is not bridled then the entire life of a Christian is probably undisciplined as well.

Verse 4 Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.

This is a further illustration regarding the tongue. A small thing, the tongue can direct a very large thing, the Christian life is the point James is continuing to make. What is interesting about this verse are the three components that are involved. The (1) pilot directs by the use of a very (2) small rudder to steer the whole (3) ship where he wants it to go. In other words the Christian through his speech determines where he/she is headed in life.

Verse 5 So the tongue is a little member and boast of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

Another great illustration of how a small thing like a match or lightning strike can burn an entire forest. For the first time James shows us the destructiveness of the tongue that is not bridled.  The Greek word translated forest is the word for wood and probably referred to the brush that covered many of the hills in Palestine. The tongue, though small like a rudder or a horses’ bit has power out of all proportion to its size but has the potential for ruin like a spark in dry woods.

Verse 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.

James abandons simile and gives us straight metaphor, “the tongue is a fire.” The tongue has three unwanted consequences to its misuse. The whole body is stained, the cycle of nature is set on fire, and is set on fire by hell. We can say that the tongue corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. Not only does the tongue corrupt a person’s life, but also it wrecks misery and havoc throughout that life. This destruction stems from Satan. It is interesting that we are not given specifics by James of exactly how these destructive powers of the tongue are manifested within a Christian, but they probably include such things as not telling the truth, boasting, misrepresenting facts, nasty gossiping and the spreading of untrue rumors.

Verse 7 For every king of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind,

Mankind has tamed every form of beast but hasn’t tamed the small tongue that can do so much damage.

Verse 8 but no human being can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

We may never totally control the tongue and its restless evil and deadly poison, but we should never give up on trying to bring it under control. Just because we, this side of heaven, will never be perfect shouldn’t stop us from striving to live the Christian life to its fullest and seek the power of the Holy Spirit to turn away from sin. The text is clear “no human being can tame the tongue,” and it does not say that the Holy Spirit gives you the ability to tame it. If we were totally submissive to the Spirit and obeyed perfectly all the Spirit told us then yes, we could tame the tongue, but the reality is that none of us do submit perfectly; that is why we need a Savior. (Psalm 140:3 for deadly poison)

Verse 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.

There is quite a bit of theological nuances involved in this verse relating to the blessings and curses regarding Israel (Deut. 30:19) but I think the verse speaks volumes to us in our daily relationships with God and each other. It is so double-minded of us to praise God one moment and belittle our fellow man the next, but we all do it. There is little wonder we are all in need of saving grace and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Verse 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.

This is a continuation of verse 9 and a continued reference to the blessings and curses regarding Israel’s obedience to God. Please take the time to read Matthew 15:11, 17-20 to get a good understanding that the words we speak are not the problem on their own, but the problem is in our heart that allows us to say the things we do. Uncleanness comes from the heart and our words simply express what we believe and think. See Matthew 12:37

It is interesting that the words that proceed from the mouth of God save us and the words that proceed from our mouths condemn us. This is why we need the true Word (Jesus) in our life. James reasoning is that as Christians we shouldn’t be blessing God and cursing each other. The unfortunate reality, however, is that we often do just that.

Verse 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish?

Here is another illustration regarding the idea that we should not be double-minded in our speech. The idea of fresh water and brackish reminds us of the story of the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4. Jesus offers her springs of living water instead of the water of the well. See also Jeremiah 2:13

Verse 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

See Matthew 7:16 Here is another case where James relies upon the teaching of Jesus to get his point across. A converted heart shouldn’t produce hateful, resentful, false, bitter speech.

The term salt water comes from the word salt with water being added. This started me thinking about salt. When Jesus talked about discipleship in Scripture he told His hearers that they needed to pick up their cross and follow Him. (Luke 14:25-33) Those that refused to follow were like too much salt in the ground, it only brings ruin. (v. 34,35) On the other hand, Jesus says that our witness is the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13). If we are to be true witnesses of the redeeming power of Jesus in our life then we shouldn’t be as slat that has lost its taste and become bitter and useless (Matt. 5:13) To be an honest teacher and witness in the world we need to keep focused on Jesus and trust in Him. A Christian needs to think long and hard about the things he/she says and the consequences. Most of all, however, our hearts need to be open to the promptings and leadings of the Holy Spirit that changes our attitudes and prejudices in life.

This is an important and interesting section of the book of James and one that each of us would do well to reflect upon. I know, for one, that I say things, that as soon as the words are out of my mouth I wish I could take them back. But, I think James is trying to tell us that our tongue is used also for teaching wrong ideas about God. We who consider ourselves teachers need to think long and hard upon what we say when teaching the Bible. It is easy to let slip a thought of speculation that could be construed as truth and cause harm to the hearer. The very knowledge that so many of us have different views on everything from the nature of salvation to the second coming of Christ should give us pause for thought. We can’t all be right so some of us are teaching false doctrines. Since we all think we are right the hearer is left in a dilemma over what to believe and who to believe.

As Christians we must all become students of the Bible and study deeply to understand the teachings God has for us. We must constantly check and double check to the best of our ability what we are being taught to see if it is so. No teacher worth his/her salt minds being corrected because the goal of a teacher is to know truth and share it. As ministers and teachers we have been given a great privilege to share the Word of God and it is a high calling and a sacred calling that is not to be treated mildly. We owe it to the people who trust in what we say to be honest, and speak only truth regardless of the cost.