1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.
3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one 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 those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
As faith may be dead or alive (chapter 2), so “wisdom” can be earthly or heavenly, demonic or divine. The problem with the wrong sort of religion is that it’s sparked by wrong attitudes and motives. The heart must be dealt with, and according to Jesus, there is a direct link between the heart and the mouth (Luke 6:45). What is said and how it is said—the matter of the tongue—is the subject of the third chapter of James.
Is James referring to false teachers who claimed it was “wiser” to resist the aristocrats and Roman overlords through violent, revolutionary activity?
The danger with the wrong type of teacher is his misuse of his tongue and the way this can influence others. Sarcasm, negativity, overstatement, bitterness and cursing are natural and worldly reactions in a time of frustration or oppression, yet they are never appropriate for one who claims to follow Jesus.
Probably James’ warning can be extended to all teachers and speakers. Certainly there is no one on earth who isn’t deeply challenged when reading James 3. Coming across self-righteously is a danger we all face in our teaching, evangelism, counseling and even our fellowship. James, though he was a “senior statesman” in the Christian movement in Palestine, does not hesitate to include himself in the category of those who “stumble in many ways.” We all appreciate humility in our leaders.
James compares the tongue to a bit, a rudder, a fire and a wild animal. He is a master of helpful analogies. With such vivid mental pictures, how can we miss the point? The tongue is powerful, and we need to pay close attention to how ours is used. Our lives will be used for good or for evil depending largely on how we learn to control this tiny organ.
James’ practical teaching style reflects years of experience of Christian experience (by this time 12-15 years). His analogies are relatable. For example, three of the four major crops grown in Judea were figs, olives and grapes. (The fourth was wheat.)
If you are given to many words, learn from this seasoned speaker. The tongue can hurt deeply. Wielded carelessly, it is an instrument of Satan.
Why does James dwell so long on the perils of the tongue? Because it was such a great need! This portion of the word of God is completely relevant today. It may have been first written down nineteen and a half centuries ago, but the heart and tongue of man (and woman) remains unchanged.
- In religious circles the biblical role of “teacher” has received little attention, apart from the stagnant cloisters of Christian academia. Elders, preachers, and others have held the limelight. Yet in fact teaching is one of the few gifts mentioned both in the lists of Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12, and in light of James 3:1 and other passages, a gift that doesn’t seem to have “passed away” with the completed revelation of the New Testament.
- Acts 13:1 says “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.” These men were not academics in ivory towers, but dynamic preachers who sought to teach the Scriptures in a powerful, pertinent and persuasive way. Many Christians today are interested in becoming teachers—a welcome development—but what exactly is a teacher?
- Though exactly what it is remains undefined, their primary job, as seen in the Bible, was to teach the Scriptures, like Ezra in the post-exilic times of the 5th century BC.
- False prophets promulgated false teaching in NT times just as in OT times—compare 2 Peter 2:1 and Jeremiah 8:7-8—so if we are to keep on the straight and narrow, we need teachers of the truth (Matthew 7:13-14, 15).
- Teachers are needed to set in order and arrange biblical themes (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10). When they do this poignantly, Christians will grow spiritually through their teachings—the “firmly embedded nails” of Ecclesiastes 12:11.
Questions for thought:
- What do you think is the overall impact of your tongue? Have you ever been told that you use it to hurt rather than to help and encourage?
- Is there more positive coming from your mouth than negative?
- Who are two people who would could give you feedback on your speech and the ways you communicate?
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