A Bible Lesson on James 3

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

James has told us in 1:2 that we are to take life from the hand of God and let it do its work growing us up, that we are to see all of the variegated twists and turns of life as giving us opportunity to trust God and see things rightly, not from our selfish selves, but in light of His purposes and glory. In 1:26-27 he has identified 3 marks of people who have (as in 1:18) been given birth through the Word. Those are concern for others in need, control of the tongue, and a life of purity/separation from the ways of the world. He has dealt with concern for others at some length in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 opens with a warning to Christian teachers and then a general discussion of the tongue.

James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

It is a most serious responsibility to teach the Scriptures. It is essential to “get it right.” There is no room for or passing one’s own silly thoughts off as the truth. It is also essential to speak the real truth in a way that is consistent with that truth, with real humility before God. And it is essential to live in a way that will not bring the truth into disrepute. This is serious business. It’s especially serious because

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.

You and I are fallen. We are weak, and though redeemed, are still tormented by sin. We regularly fail, some of us one way, some of us others. But one thing is true about all of us. We all have problems with our tongues. So this chapter makes all of us squirm. We know that James has it right, and that we’re in the wrong. And we know that there is something fundamental about our failings to control our mouths. It’s not just one more minor way for us to mess up, it somehow perfectly lays bare our remaining selfishness, rebellion, and arrogance.

Motyer says, “The tongue is so much more than what we actually say out loud. In fact actual speech is probably only a small percentage of the use of the tongue. We cannot think without formulating thoughts in words; we cannot plan without describing to ourselves step by step what we intend to do; we cannot imagine without painting a word-picture before our inward eyes; we cannot write a letter or a book without ‘talking it through’ our minds on to the paper; we cannot resent without fuelling the fires of resentment in words addressed to ourselves; we cannot feel sorry for ourselves without listening to the self-pitying voice which tells us how hard done by we are. But if our tongue were so well under control that it refused to formulate the words of self-pity, the images of lustfulness, the thoughts of anger and resentment, then these things are cut down before they have a chance to live: the master-switch has deprived them of any power to ‘switch on’ that side of our lives. It is in this way that if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man (2). The control of the tongue is more than an evidence of spiritual maturity; it is the means to it.”

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.

James gives us these two examples of big things controlled by small parts. You see, he’s not going to let us off the hook here. He’s not going to let us say, “well, that’s a small thing that my tongue is sharp” or “it doesn’t really matter that I tend to be less than truthful if it is to my advantage” or “a little spicy talk is no big thing.” No, it’s not inconsequential, it’s fundamental. If we are going to be grownups in Christ, we are going to control our tongues. If we will control them, we’ll grow up.

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!

The tongue really does have this power. Its boast is real. On the other hand, if we will not control it, the tongue also has the power to create all kinds of real evil.

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.

This is strong language, and it is not just some kind of hyperbole. There it is, right there in our heads, an agent for good if we will control it, and this terribly destructive tool of the devil if we will not. This is the other side of the truth in verses 3 and 4. Control our mouths and we’ll grow up. Fail to control and we’ll do all sorts of real evil. And this issue is persistent. If anything, the temptation to just let fly with our tongues and say whatever we like gets worse with age. The temptation is to say to ourselves that we’ve earned the right to let fly, or the right to pontificate about things we really have no business even speaking about.

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 hearkens back to creation. God gave man dominion over the animals in the garden. Man has rightfully subdued all kinds of very large and powerful animals. But you and I, unaided by God’s grace are no match for our own tongues. No human being can tame it. That doesn’t say that no person can tame it, for God can. But alone, you and I will not.

It is a “restless” evil. The idea is that it is always there ready to burst out and ruin things. You and I all know from experience how true this is. How many things do we wish that we had never said? And this unruly nature of our tongues makes us terribly inconsistent.

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

It’s only proper that we use our mouths to praise God. And it is completely improper that you and I use our speech to wrong other people, that He has made in His own image. That’s a crazy inconsistency.

10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

These things ought not be so. The word used here is apparently a rare one and means something like “these things are intrinsically not right.” James has already told us that there should be no disconnect between our theory and practice, that we are not to be double-minded, that we are to be doers, not hearers only. This is completely in line with that earlier teaching. We can’t bless God and curse those made in His image, even if we figure they are in the wrong.

11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?

No. Of course not.

12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Jesus said the same. You can tell what kind of a tree one is by what it produces. Salt water comes from a salt pond. Period. What’s the application? Letting fly with our tongues regarding our fellow human beings can’t come from a pure source. Indulge ourselves, fail to control our tongues regarding others, and that is a serious matter. It comes from real evil.

Motyer commented, “Salt water has a salt source; sweet water a sweet source; bitter words a bitter heart; critical words a critical heart; defamatory, unloving speech issues from a heart where the love of Jesus is a stranger.”

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James, without skipping a beat has now moved to the third of the marks of people who have been given birth through the Word of God mentioned in 1:27-28, a holy life. And he’s also providing an answer to the implied question left from verses 11 and 12, namely “So what is to be done about this awful inconsistency?” We’re to turn our backs on worldly wisdom and ways of thinking and walk in the Wisdom of God.

The Greek word that James uses here for “good” (conduct or life) is one that has the meaning “lovely.” He’s talking about a life that is wholesome and helpful and attractive and admirable. One that everyone can look at and see is good. This kind of life is one that is lived in meekness and humility. And this is not unrelated to the discussion of the tongue. After all, what is at the heart of most of the bad stuff that comes out of our mouths? Is it not an arrogance and selfishness, a lack of real meekness?

These last verses of Chapter 3 are concerned with two kinds of wisdom, Godly wisdom and earthly wisdom.

14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.

The Greek word rendered “jealousy” here apparently does not have the meaning of envy for another’s gifts or possessions. Instead it is simply “strong feeling,” but together with “bitter” we’re to get the picture of a self-centered life, full of over-concern for one’s position, dignity, rights, etc. “selfish ambition” is (according to Ropes) “an inclination to use unworthy and divisive means for promoting one’s own interests.” This kind of thing is obviously not consistent with the meekness and Godly wisdom of verse 13.

15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.

The stuff is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. This way of thinking and acting is consistent with our fallen human nature. It’s consistent with the ways of the world and the ways of hell. And it produces misery.

16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.

There will be disorder: restlessness, instability, disturbance. There will be every vile practice: meanness in thought, word and deed. A little of this goes a long way. James will go on to talk about fighting and the fruit of this kind of stuff in a Christian church. There simply is no sanity or peace in a congregation where people have this kind of mind and will insist on having their own way even if it sinks the whole ship. That’s true in the church, it’s true in other settings as well. This is true in a workplace situation. It indeed produces a hellish misery there too.

James says “choose life instead!” Put away selfish ambition and jealousy. Choose the wisdom of God!

17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

James doesn’t say “do this” or “don’t do that.” Instead he tells us what wisdom and a lovely life will look like in any circumstance. The Gospel tells us the truth about ourselves and the way things are. It points us to relationship with God in Christ. It describes the quality of life in Christ, but largely leaves the details of the “what’s” for our finding out as we follow.

These are lovely qualities. Do we not want to be such people and to live with such people?

18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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