James chapter 3 with commentary . . .
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
This chapter is a clean break from the last chapter. Of course, there is a sense in which the issue of speech is a demonstration of faith which issues in works (in this case, words that build up rather than tear down) but the focus here has shifted from one of James’ themes (the reality that true faith produces works) to another of his themes; the application of godly wisdom (here in the area of speech).
James begins with a warning about becoming teachers. These teachers from context are clearly teachers within the church but it is less clear whether they are specifically pastors or could also include those who are not pastors within the body. The fact that they will be judged with greater strictness may mean that God will call them to greater account because of the great responsibility of sharing His Word or that others will judge them more strictly because they are in a prominent position. It could be both but I think at least the first is in view here because of all of the judgment language in this chapter.
With that said, I think it is important to note two things here. First, James doesn’t discourage teaching (he himself is a teacher) but he does encourage prospective teachers to approach their task soberly. Second, we must remember than in James’ day a teacher was much more than a talking head. People looked at the teacher’s whole life and sought to emulate their character. Good or bad, this was reality. In our day, most of the most popular teachers in the Christian world are personally unknown to those who listen to them. Thus we are sometimes surprised at a moral failing but we really shouldn’t be surprised because we actually had no idea what kind of person this teacher was, because we only heard him on the podcast and never personally saw his life.
2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.
James is not limiting his discussion here to teachers. The sinful stumbles of speech and other areas of sin are true of all of us and are true in many different areas. No one is above the battle with sin and no one has just one area of sin that if they conquer will result in their moral perfection. So James puts out the first statement of verse 2 as a kind of blanket coverage. It is as if he is saying, “Teachers, don’t become puffed up in your knowledge and think that you are above it all. At the same time, let me remind you that all your hearers are struggling too.” With this said though, James does say that self-control in the area of speech can have a perfecting effect on the rest of our lives. In other words, show me someone with a loose mouth and I’ll show you someone with a loose life. The approach we take with our words often flows over into other areas of life. Self-control in speech is like a bridle on a horse: through our speech we can control and direct the rest of our lives. Here we must reject the “word of faith” false teaching which preaches a kind of mystical “speak it into reality” approach to life. But as we reject this false teaching, we must not swing to the other side, ignoring the importance of our words. What we say really does affect how we live.
3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
Preacher James likes his illustrations. Here he pulls one from land and one from sea. The focus of both illustrations is that a very small thing (a bit, a rudder) controls a very large thing so that in spite of great strength or size these things only go where the rider or pilot wants them to go. These are, of course, apt illustrations for the power of the tongue, a small part of our bodies that makes a great difference. It is instructive to those of us who are preachers and teachers how simple James’ illustrations are throughout this letter. Illustrations should never detract from the core scriptural principles being shared, they should illuminate those principles. Thus when James writes here he uses brief, true to life, simple and powerful illustrations. In this way, his teaching is much like that of Jesus. Good illustrations are essential to good teaching, but we must be careful to keep them simple and keep them tied to the truths of the text.
5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!
Verse 5 brings to a head the illustrations of the previous verses. But rather than showing the power of the tongue to direct, this verse and those to follow move in a dark direction. James will focus here not on the directive power of the tongue but on the destructive power of the tongue. Like a cigarette tossed out a car window on the highway sets ablaze a great forest, so the little tongue in its boasting causes great damage.
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
James plays off of his fire illustration in verse 5 as he comes to verse 6, calling the tongue itself a fire, a world of unrighteousness. What makes the tongue a world of unrighteousness is that it can speak knowledgeably about any area of sin and can express any variety of sinful heart attitudes. It is in fact often the mode of expression for those sinful heart attitudes. I may not notice someone is angry until I hear their frustrated words. I may not be aware someone is proud until I hear their boasting. I may not know someone is a liar until I hear their exaggerations. The tongue is a world of unrighteousness set among our members. Here “members” is not individual persons but the parts of the physical body. The tongue is a part of the body but it stains the whole body (again, probably not the body of the church, which is more of a Pauline metaphor, but the physical body). The power of the tongue to affect one’s destiny is strongly displayed in this verse. We see here the power of the tongue is a hellish power. The demonic language of the rest of the passage shows us that where the tongue speaks with unrighteousness it is speaking hellishly. The origin of evil speech is the evil one. One who speaks evil gives allegiance to Satan rather than God. It is interesting that Satan’s temptation in the garden came through the mode of dishonest speech. The first sin was a response to a lie.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
James goes back to the natural world for another illustration, showing us how creatures of all kinds have been tamed by people but that no one can tame the tongue. This small part of our bodies is the physical instrumentation of a whole world of evil in our hearts. And what comes from our tongue has the capacity to kill, to poison, lives.
9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
Now James comes back from a negative description of the tongue to application to his hearers. He acknowledges in them and in himself (“we”) a tendency to be double-tongued, to bless God and curse people. This may connect to his earlier words about favoritism and rich and poor. It may be that James’ readers were speaking evil of the poor (the idea of the likeness of God mentioned here may be an indicator that they were looking down on those of whom they were speaking). James makes a very strong point here, namely that if we are believers in God we can’t curse people because they are made in God’s image. Therefore to dishonor God’s image-bearers is to dishonor God. The idea is that blessing God and cursing people is hypocrisy.
10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
James makes clear in verse 10 that what is should not be. We have this tendency to praise God and curse people and this must stop. Blessing and cursing do not belong in the same mouth. James then goes on to illustrate this principle.
11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
James again appeals to nature (one of our best sources for illustrations as God’s book of nature reflects the patterns He has laid down in His Word) to show us the absurdity of blessing and cursing flowing from the same mouth. No one thinks of a spring giving forth fresh and salt water. No one thinks of trees of one sort yielding fruit of another sort. These ideas are absurd and so is it absurd to think of a follower of Jesus going to church and praising God and then driving home railing on all the people at church he doesn’t like. As absurd as this is though, we know it happens. And it is this spirit, this restlessly evil tongue, which James is seeking to address here. Faith and speech are intimately linked, not only in the positive things you say about Jesus or the ways you share Him with others but also in the negative things you don’t say about others, in the boasts you don’t make, in the lies you don’t tell. God is glorified as much by what you don’t say (especially when your heart is turning away from sinful attitudes) as by what you do say.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
James now brings us back around to wisdom. This has really been his theme in this whole chapter but he began with speech to show the area where we most often need wisdom. Most of the time we think we show wisdom by our words, our writings or our teachings. But James says we show wisdom through our conduct, especially as that conduct is carried out with meekness. The wise person does not think too highly of themselves or better, the wise person tends to be God-centered and others-centered rather than self-centered. This doesn’t mean that words are unimportant. The famous phrase “preach the gospel wherever you go and if necessary use words” is wrong on so many levels. Words are critically important for the glory of God and the good of people. After all, James is writing a letter using words, using speech, to communicate important spiritual principles to his readers. So James is not pitting words against conduct, as if we can only have one or the other. He is saying that wisdom shows more through the life of the person than the words of the person. Almost anyone can say the right things but how many people live the right things? This doesn’t mean teaching is unimportant, this simply means teaching can be disconnected from living in such a way that valuable things can be said without being lived. James says this is unwise and ultimately destructive. I remember reading some years ago the story of Ted Haggard, who was a popular preacher ultimately living a double life of sexual immorality behind the scenes. What I remember about one article was one church member marveling about how good his sermons had been in the weeks just before the scandal broke. It is critical for all Christians and particularly all teachers of the word to pay attention to their lives and their example above and beyond their popularity or influence or importance. When a person has sound doctrine wedded to a sound life they have a combination God uses greatly.
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.
James is speaking to all Christians here but he seems to me to still also be addressing teachers. Because the teacher in his day was viewed in such a holistic way, teachers tended to draw followers. Sometimes this following tended to bring out jealousy and selfish ambition. These negative attitudes could lead to boasting, self-exaltation in order to get an edge over others. To live in this way is to be false to the truth because all of us from the greatest teacher to the lowliest struggling Christian, are alike totally undeserving of God’s grace and deserving of hell. But God is so good to us that He gives us every good and perfect gift and most of all causes us to be born again (1:18) so we even have the privilege of living this life in Him and sharing this good news with others.
The competitive spirit is something that churches and ministers today need to lay aside and fight strenuously when it rears its ugly head in our hearts. When God appears to be blessing another church, let us rejoice and pray for them. When a pastor is facing hardship, let us not comfort ourselves that it wasn’t us. When we are trying to build ministries, let us make sure we are not doing it for our glory but for God’s glory. There is nothing wrong with God-oriented ambition but there is everything wrong with selfish ambition. Let us as ministers of the gospel not live fearful, embittered lives angry at God over what we don’t have. Let us serve faithfully in life and word among that community God placed us for ministry.
15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
This jealousy and selfish ambition is not the wisdom from above (1:17) so it is not of God. It is earthly, unspiritual and demonic (the famous biblical combo of the world, the flesh and the devil). The inward attitudes of jealousy and selfish ambition lead to disorder and every vile practice. The fall of ministers is not a fall caused by sexual proclivities or financial fears or authority dysfunctions. Ministers fall because the are jealous and selfish and proud. Ministers fall because they forget they have a great responsibility and that God will judge them for their stewardship of ministry. Ministers fall because they begin to think of themselves as being smarter than God, being able to lay aside His commands to do what they want. Every vile practice flows from a self-centered heart. Contrast this with the heart described in verses 17 and 18.
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Wisdom from above is pure. In our day, we think of purity almost exclusively as a sexual thing. But in the Bible, purity has a much broader meaning, extending to the state of one’s heart. At its core, biblically speaking, to be pure means to be without guile, without pretense, to be meek and having a right view of self. One who has been touched by the wisdom from above will have this kind of spirit. Further, they will be peaceable. This doesn’t mean they will never stand for truth, it means they will not be quick to be defensive or self-focused. They will look for what brings harmony rather than what gives them a leg up on everyone else. The one touched by heavenly wisdom will be gentle. Further, they will be open to reason. A self-centered person thinks they are always right. A humble person is willing to be corrected. The wise man here is full of mercy and good fruits, impartial (remember 2:1) and sincere. The list here is incredibly similar to Galatians 5:22,23, causing some to say that when James speaks of wisdom, he is really speaking of the Holy Spirit, much as Proverbs in the opinion of some equates Wisdom with the Holy Spirit at different points in the book. I do not believe it is necessary to draw a straight line in the book of James between Wisdom and the Holy Spirit. I do not believe James is saying Wisdom IS the Spirit. But I do believe James would say Wisdom flows from the Spirit. The wisdom he is talking about here is wisdom from above and the gifts of this wisdom are gifts which elsewhere in the Bible are mediated to us by the Holy Spirit.
Verse 18 is a beautiful closing to this section. Here we find not a harvest of conflict and bitterness and rivalry and jealousy and cursing and evil and unspeakable impurity. We find a harvest of righteousness and peace. This is what God does for His people. He gives us righteousness and peace with Himself and as a result we live in righteousness and peace with others. In our world today, the kinds of qualities on display in James chapter 3 are more needed than ever. Let us seek, as teachers of the Word, as Christians, as believers in local churches, to pursue peace and righteousness with one another, so that we will be characterized as God-focused, people-loving, grace-speaking, mercy-giving, holy-living people. Then we will be salt and light in a world of desperate need.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jas 3:1–18). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.