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James 3:1-12 Biblical Commentary
James seems to be moving in a very different direction after his discourse on works, which concluded, “faith apart from works is dead” (2:14-26). But his emphasis on consistently speaking blessings rather than mixing blessings and cursings grows naturally out of his concern about works. The words that come from our mouths constitute a form of works.
In chapter one, James twice mentioned the importance of our speech:
- “So, then, my beloved brothers, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (1:19).
- “If anyone among you thinks himself to be religious while he doesn’t bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (1:26).
JAMES 3:1-2. LET NOT MANY BE TEACHERS
1 Let not many of you be teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive heavier judgment. 2 For in many things we all stumble. If anyone doesn’t stumble in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also.
“Let not many of you be teachers, my brothers” (v. 1a). Teaching is a high-level office in the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul lists it third (after apostles and prophets) in a list of eight offices or gifts. The office of teaching is important because:
- Teaching requires diligence. There is much to learn about the Bible, theology, and ways to communicate those. A teacher must study carefully and relay information as reliably as possible.
- A teacher can sway students’ minds––can lead students rightly or wrongly. A student led wrongly might never recover.
But some people would be attracted to the teaching office for the wrong reasons. In that day, a teacher had considerable status––but a person drawn to teaching for that reason might focus on selfish considerations rather than the student’s welfare. So James advises, “Let not many of you be teachers.”
“knowing that we will receive heavier judgment” (v. 1b). When we aspire to great responsibility, we must expect that we will be subject to great criticism (from people) and heavy judgment (from God). Jesus warned:
“To whomever much is given,
of him will much be required;
and to whom much was entrusted,
of him more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).
Regarding the possibility of leading someone astray, Jesus said: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, rather than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2).
Teachers lead by their personal conduct as well as their teaching. A teacher can lead people astray by personal example as easily as by instruction.
Would this warning about heavy judgment apply to parents? I think so. Children learn much of what they know from their parents––for good or ill. Won’t God hold the parents responsible if they lead their children astray!
“For in many things we all stumble” (Greek: ptaio) (v. 2a). The word ptaio is used in the New Testament to mean stumbling or falling into sin.
James’ statement that we all stumble echoes Paul’s, “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
“If anyone doesn’t stumble in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also” (v. 2b). There are many ways to stumble, but James highlights one, stumbling in word:
- Saying things that offend unnecessarily.
- Saying things designed to wound another person.
- Saying things intended to deceive.
- Saying things that would lead another person astray.
Our tendency toward this sort of error is so common that James declares that the one who hasn’t stumbled in word must be perfect. Anyone able to thoroughly control his/her mouth is almost certain also to be in perfect control of his/her body.
JAMES 3:3-6. THE TONGUE IS SMALL, BUT BOASTS GREAT THINGS
3 Indeed, we put bits into the horses’ mouths so that they may obey us, and we guide their whole body. 4 Behold, the ships also, though they are so big and are driven by fierce winds, are yet guided by a very small rudder, wherever the pilot desires. 5 So the tongue is also a little member, and boasts great things. See how a small fire can spread to a large forest! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire by Gehenna.
“Indeed, we put bits into the horses’ mouths so that they may obey us, and we guide their whole body” (v. 3). This is the first in a series of metaphors from common life that illustrate how little things can control large things. In this case, a bit (a hand-sized piece of metal) inserted into a horse’s mouth makes it possible to control the whole animal.
“Behold, the ships also, though they are so big and are driven by fierce winds, are yet guided by a very small rudder, wherever the pilot desires” (v. 4). This is the second metaphor. A ship’s rudder is small when compared to the size of the ship, but the rudder permits the pilot to control the ship, even in the face of fierce winds.
“So the tongue is also a little member, and boasts great things” (v. 5a). This is the point. Just as a bit can control a horse and a rudder can control a ship, the tongue is small but “boasts great things.”
The tongue has much about which to boast. It has a profound effect on the person who speaks, for good or ill. It can dramatically enhance the reputation of a gifted orator, but can also do irreparable damage to a person who is too quick to speak and too careless in what he says. Our words can also have a profound effect on other people, for good or ill.
“See how a small fire can spread to a large forest! And the tongue is a fire” (vv. 5b-6a). This is the third metaphor. A small campfire that hasn’t been completely extinguished––or a lighted cigarette––can burn down a forest. The tiny cause (a cigarette) is completely out of proportion to the effect (a burned forest).
Just so, the words from a person’s mouth can be unimaginably destructive. Adolf Hitler comes to mind. A mesmerizing orator, he used oratory to sway crowds and to gain power. He then used that power to start a war that ultimately cost the lives of fifty million people.
“The world of iniquity (Greek: ho kosmos tes adikias––the unrighteous world) among our members is the tongue” (v. 6b). It seems too much to attribute this much unrighteousness to the tongue, but James is simply following Jesus’ lead. Jesus said:
“That which enters into the mouth doesn’t defile the man;
but that which proceeds out of the mouth,
this defiles the man….
The things which proceed out of the mouth come out of the heart,
and they defile the man.
For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders,
adulteries, sexual sins,
thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies”
(Matthew 15:11, 18-19).
“which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature” (v. 6c). These are effects of an undisciplined tongue. Even though small, such a tongue can poison the whole body and destroy lives, even as a small fire can destroy a great forest.
“and is set on fire by Gehenna” (v. 6d). In the Old Testament, Gehenna was the place where the wicked were punished. The name Gehenna comes from the Hebrew, ge Hinnom, which means the Valley of Hinnom. This was a valley near Jerusalem where human sacrifice was sometimes practiced (2 Kings 23:10) and where rubbish from Jerusalem was burned in fires that never cooled. This valley, therefore, stands as a metaphor for a place of eternal, fiery damnation.
It is this fire of hell that gives the tongue such destructive power.
JAMES 3:7-12. NOBODY CAN TAME THE TONGUE
7 For every kind of animal, bird, creeping thing, and thing in the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But nobody can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the image of God. 10 Out of the same mouth comes forth blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send out from the same opening fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, yield olives, or a vine figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh water.
“For every kind of animal, bird, creeping thing, and thing in the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by mankind” (v. 7). We think of certain animals as capable of being tamed: Dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc. However, elephants are used for transport in some parts of the world. Lions and tigers have been used in circus shows. Poisonous reptiles serve as serum donors. Porpoises and killer whales star in aquatic shows. Homing pigeons serve deliver messages.
“But nobody can tame the tongue. It is a restless (Greek: akatastatos) evil, full of deadly poison” (v. 8). It is one thing to tame a wild animal. However, to tame the tongue is another thing entirely.
The word akatastatos means unstable or unsettled––the opposite of rock-solid. We cannot predict when and where our tongue is likely to betray us.
But James takes it one more step. The tongue is not only restless, but is a restless evil. It is almost as if James thinks of the tongue as a resident devil that has taken up residence within us and is prone to rise up at any moment to sully our reputation and our witness to Christ.
“full of deadly poison.” A bit of deadly poison smeared on an arrow tip or spear tip can kill quickly and unobtrusively. In like manner, the words of our mouths have the power to wound––sometimes mortally.
“With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the image of God” (v. 9). A blessing is intended to bring good to the recipient. A curse is intended to bring ruin.
James presents us with a great irony. We bless God with our tongues, and we curse people, made in God’s image and beloved by God, with the same tongues.
“Out of the same mouth comes forth blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (v. 10). This restates the great irony of verse 9, but with a different emphasis. How can good and evil have a common source?
James doesn’t say that blessing and curse can’t come from the same source (the tongue), but says that such a thing ought not to be.
But our tongues simply give expression to the feelings of our hearts and the thoughts of our minds. Our hearts and minds harbor both good and evil. Even the Apostle Paul experienced that (Romans 7:15-20). To gain control of our tongues, we need to seek God’s help in eliminating the evil in our hearts and minds.
“Does a spring send out from the same opening fresh and bitter water?” (v. 11). This is the first of three contrasts that James uses to illustrate the inappropriateness of a tongue that pronounces both blessings and curses (v. 9).
“Can a fig tree, my brothers, yield olives, or a vine figs?” (v. 12a). This is the second contrast. A fig tree doesn’t yield olives, and a grapevine doesn’t yield figs. So also a tongue shouldn’t pronounce both blessings and curses.
Of course, James lived before the advent of modern horticulture, where a branch from one kind of tree is grafted onto a different kind of tree, and the tree then produces both kinds of fruit. Whether it is possible today to graft a fig branch onto an olive tree and get two kinds of fruit is something I don’t know. If not, things are surely moving in that direction.
But that’s a side issue––not one that James could have foreseen. The real issue is that nature causes trees and vines to produce fruit of their own kind. They are consistent in their fruit-bearing. The tongue ought likewise to be consistent––reliably producing good fruit rather than mixing bad and good––blessings and curses.
“Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh water” (v. 12b). This would be better translated, “Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.” The point is that a bad spring (a saltwater spring) cannot produce good water.
This would be a matter of great interest to the people of James’ time. When traveling, their lives would often be dependent on finding a good spring with fresh water rather than a bad spring with salt water.
So also, the influence of the tongue should be of great interest to us––both for our own sakes and also for the sake of others.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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