1 - 6 The Danger of the Tongue
1 Let not many [of you] become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many [ways]. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and [yet] it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the [very] world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of [our] life, and is set on fire by hell.
You have received practical teachings in the chapters 1-2, a practice that is surrounded by heavenly light. That practice can only, as you have seen in chapter 1, become reality when there is new life. That means that only new creatures (Jam 1:18) are able to bring faith into practice. In chapter 2 your attention was focused on an object for the heart: the glorious Lord (Jam 2:1), the center of the new creation. By Him you are being drawn to follow a straight course through the world. But another thing is needed and that is wisdom that likewise the gift of the new life comes down from above (Jam 3:17; cf. Jam 1:17-18).
V1. Before James starts to talk about this wisdom from above he first urgently demonstrates the danger of the tongue to you. The tongue is the most accurate measure of what is present in your heart. It is for a reason that the Lord says that the mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart and that we will be justified or condemned by our words (Mt 12:34b,37).
James calls on his brethren because of the fact that it appears that many people tend to present themselves as a teacher. By that he means that they tend to place themselves above others in order to lecture those others about how things should be done. So he is not talking about the teachers in the church who are given by the glorified Lord as gifts to His church (Eph 4:11). It is not possible that James is addressing those teachers.
It is about those who want to be something that God has not given to them. It is the same like wanting to be rich, which is different than when God makes a person rich. James warns that you should bear in mind that when you want to be a teacher, you will receive a more severe judgment. If you want to be a teacher without first being taught yourself, then it will appear from your words that you do not know what you are talking about. However, you will be judged by that.
By itself, it is not wrong to have the desire to teach others and it is certainly a good thing that there is room to teach in the meeting of the church. That seems also to be the case here, for this admonition would be unnecessary when not all the brothers are involved to have the liberty to speak. Only it seems that it was crowded around the pulpit. It is like with the Corinthians with whom Paul also needed to put the brakes on their impulse to express themselves (1Cor 14:27-33).
If you want to teach others in the right sense of the word, you absolutely need to be taught first at the feet of the Lord Jesus (Lk 10:39). He Himself gives the right example. To Him has been given a tongue of the learned, in other words: of somebody who has been taught (Isa 50:4). He had always obeyed His Father. He never passed on anything, unless He had heard it from His Father. Therefore He was able to talk with the weary woman at the well of Jacob and tell her everything she had done (Jn 4:6, 29). He was able to speak because He had opened ears (Psa 40:6).
V2. Another instruction for not desiring to be too eager to be a teacher, is the stumble that we have in our words. If you honestly look at yourself, then you need to admit that it regularly happens that you do not put in the right words that you mean, do you? When you look back you sometimes have to regret that not everything that you have said was right. It shows your weakness and you have to be clearly aware of that.
If you are perfect in your speech, thus if you perfectly control your tongue, then you will also control your deeds and the course you take. The Lord Jesus is the only One Who has never stumbled in His words, which also makes only Him perfect in everything that His body did. To us it is important to guard our tongue, for that is the greatest stumbling block for us.
V3. James wants to clarify the functioning of the tongue and the effect of both the right and wrong use of it on the basis of examples from nature. You keep your body in control by keeping your tongue in control. It is the same as how you bridle a horse. If you want to bridle a horse you must put a bridle and bit in its mouth (cf. Psa 32:9). In this way you can manage to direct the whole horse to your pleasure and turn it wherever you want. That large body of the horse is totally in your power through the small bridle in its mouth.
Horses were mainly used in battle purposes. We may apply this example in that sense to a battle of words. Precisely then it is important for us to control our tongue. Especially in battles of words or disputes we often say things that we later regret.
V4. The second example is that of a large ship that is being driven by the hard wind in its sails. Still it is no toy of the wind and the waves. That large ship actually has, in proportion to the large ship, a small rudder. That small rudder is being steered by a pilot. When the pilot steers the rudder with his firm hand, then that large ship obeys according to the position of the rudder. The position of the rudder determines where the ship is heading to and not the wind.
We can apply this example of the ships at sea to our journey through the sea of life which we are sailing and where we are exposed to all kinds of winds. Of course events in our lives do stir us. But if we know that the Lord Jesus is standing at the rudder of our life ship, we know that those events do not happen accidentally. That will prevent us from sinning with our mouth, as we see that with Job (Job 2:10). We stay on the right course when we keep focusing on the Lord and our home harbor with Him.
V5. After the positive examples of the use or rather said, the control of the tongue, James turns to the destruction that the tongue often causes. He already showed how the tongue as a little member can control major powers. Now he shows how the tongue as a little member can cause major destructions as an untamable power.
The tongue is a member by which the pride of man and his independence of God are being expressed in the most arrogant manner (Psa 12:4). The tongue is the instrument by which man boasts in great deeds. You can hear that daily in the language that politicians use. Without the slightest modesty they summarize everything they have achieved according to their own convictions. In these same speeches they also make their promises while they keep on overestimating themselves gigantically. It would be shameful if believers serve themselves with such arrogant use of language.
This blustering and exaggerated language has often already caused the spark to be kindled all of a sudden. It is for a reason that James says that the tongue is a fire. The point is that although it is a small fire it is like a match stick that is able to light a large forest or a great stack of wood. Look at the fall of man and all its consequences. The sin of the tongue has been the first sin that entered creation. The fire that has been kindled in paradise has been destructing the lives of all men until this day. Everyone who does not convert will be delivered to this fire forever and ever.
V6. It is that fire that is burning in hell and that comes out through the tongue. ”The [very] world of iniquity” is summarized in the tongue.
Of all parts of the body the tongue takes the place of ‘blemish maker’. You can do as many good deeds as you possibly can and in that way build up much goodwill, but once you say something that causes others to stumble, you have been marked forever. People will always remember what you have said and they will always echo that after you. An irreversible stain has destroyed your garment of good deeds.
Besides, you do not only deal in your personal life with the results of a wrong use of the tongue. The whole nature, the way natural life develops and has its course, is put into fire by the tongue. Statements that are being made in all kinds of areas without God’s involvement, provoke a reaction that can only make things worse and lead them to greater destruction. The fire consumes everything that is in its environment. This fire is ultimately from hell, with which the man without God is related. No man will admit that. Men without God deny the existence of hell, but James shows the reality.
Now read James 3:1-6 again.
Reflection: Which positive and which negative elements are present in the tongue?
7 - 18 Two Springs
7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; [it is] a restless evil [and] full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless [our] Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come [both] blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening [both] fresh and bitter [water]? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor [can] salt water produce fresh. 13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and [so] lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and elfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
V7. “The human race” has the ability to tame all animals with their natural tendency toward freedom, in other words to control them. Man is able to catch and control the wildest, fastest and most uncatchable animals, the highest flying birds and the most terrifying deep dark sea monsters.
V8. Man is superior to all creatures, but the tongue is the chief of man. You may be able to control your tongue. That is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. If you give Him the control in your life He can manifest the new life through your tongue.
However, there is no way that you can have any control over another person’s tongue. No man will ever be able to control the tongue of another person. The tongue is a “restless evil [and] full of deadly poison”. You can arm yourself against poisonous animals or put them in a cage so that they may not harm you, but it is absolutely not possible to prevent the deadly poison of the tongue. The tongue of mankind is compared to a serpent and his words to deadly poison of asps (Psa 140:3; Rom 3:13-14).
V9. I think that you can fully agree with this sharp characterization of the tongue. But be careful. All of a sudden James puts the emphasis on you, while he includes himself also. He speaks about confessing believers and that includes you also. What do you do with your tongue? You bless the “Lord and Father” with it and you curse “men” with it who have been made “in the image of God” (Gen 1:26-27; 1Cor 11:7).
V10. How could it be possible that “from the same mouth … blessing and curse” proceed? Or can you not recognize it? Haven’t you ever cursed somebody because he treated you badly, while you also blessed God for the kindness and grace He has shown to you? Well, that is what James means and that should not be possibly happening. It is possible that in a meeting you may bless the Lord Jesus and the Father and right after that you slander your fellow believers or unbelievers with your tongue, while visiting someone.
V11. James radically condemns such a double-hearted use of the tongue. He clarifies such an improper use by some examples from nature. In nature it is impossible that opposite things come from the same spring. The tongue forms an exception to that general, logic rule. Unfortunately, the tongue can utter opposite words. The tongue, considered as a spring, can indeed cause both the sweet and the bitter to spring up. The tongue can make spiritual statements at one moment and fleshly statements at another moment.
You are able to speak a sweet word at the one moment, a word that is pleasant, and at another moment a bitter word, a word that expresses bitterness. You must consider, however, that both words are not from the same deeper lying spring. The good, “sweet” word comes forth from the new life, the “bitter” one comes forth from the old nature.
Therefore it is important to pay attention to which nature has authority over your tongue. Due to the new nature you are able to speak with a new tongue. That means that since your conversion you are able to speak differently than in the time that you did not know the Lord Jesus. If that is not very noticeable, it may be the case that your heart is often too little filled with the Lord Jesus.
V12. Each saying indicates out of which spring that expression comes forth. When you slander a fellow man it comes forth from the old man. A praise to God comes forth from the new man. From the fruit you know the tree (Mt 12:33). In nature it is natural that each tree bears the fruit that belongs to that tree and that it bears no fruit that belongs to another tree. It is foolish to assume that you would be able to pick olives from a fig tree or figs from a vine. Likewise it is impossible that you can drink sweet water out of a salty spring. Unfortunately, what is impossible in nature can be possible with the believer.
V13. However, there is still something that can help us to use the tongue properly. We can use our tongue properly when we are wise and when we are aware of the time we live in. We live in the end time. In such a time we can simply not afford to use our tongue improperly, for instance to undermine one another. In the end time we are appealed to be “wise and understanding”. That is why the question sounds who is ‘wise and understanding’.
The prophet Hosea also speaks about that (Hos 14:9). Hosea describes the ways of God with Israel. God’s ways result in a world that is full of peace under the rule of the Lord Jesus. ‘Wise and understanding’ is he who learns from the ways of God and applies that in his life. You can learn from the past of God’s people how you should live.
Also in Psalm 107 (Psa 107:43) the question sounds as a response to the ways of God. It seems that James has pondered on those verses. That he asks the question means that not everyone is wise and understanding, but that he would want to appeal to the few, like you. In Israel there was mention of only one tribe of which could be said that it was wise in understanding the times (1Chr 12:32).
If you understand that you live in the end time, then you also know that it does not come down to words, but to deeds. It is about “a good behavior … in the gentleness of wisdom”. Such a conduct has got nothing to do with powerlessness, but on the contrary with powerfulness. Only it is not natural power, but spiritual power. You see that in perfection in the life of the Lord Jesus on earth. You can learn it from Him (Mt 11:29). If you learn from Him and practice that in your life you will be an encouraging example to others (Dan 11:33).
V14. However, James says, nothing of that will happen if you have “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” in your heart. You are envious when you begrudge another person to have something, because you don’t have it and you yourself want it also. That goes for both material and immaterial matters. Such an envy expresses itself in quarrelsomeness. Quarrels arise because you begrudge another person to have something. Big words come out of your mouth. You think you at least have the right to have what the other person has, right?
In that way you end up lying “against the truth”. You contradict the truth of God’s Word in which we see clearly that we are all different and that we also deal differently with things in life and also in the church.
V15. Such an attitude is not a sign of a wisdom that you have received from above, but on the contrary a wisdom that is from below. It is not a Divine heavenly wisdom, but an “earthly” wisdom. It is not a wisdom that comes from the Spirit of God, but from your natural feelings, just say your ‘gut feelings’. It is a “natural” wisdom, for it is about the satisfaction of your fleshly needs. This wisdom is guided by the chief of demons, the devil, the father of lies (Jn 8:44) and is therefore also “demonic” by nature.
V16. You see that in the consequences of “jealousy and selfish ambition”. Envy and self-seeking cause nothing more than “disorder” and a practice that shows all kinds of evil.
V17. It is possible to hand in and condemn that wisdom and replace that for letting yourself be guided by the wisdom that is from above. That means that you look upon Christ Who is the wisdom of God (1Cor 1:24,30). He is also presented like that to the church at Colossae and therefore there was no confusion there, but order and steadfastness in the faith (Col 2:3,5).
1. The first attribute of the wisdom from above is that it is “pure”. James emphasizes that purity comes “first”. The next attributes flow out from it. Purity is the most important, because it is about God Himself Who is pure. He is in no way to be related to sins (Jam 1:13). When there is sin in your life, you cannot possibly be guided by the wisdom that is from above and there can neither be mention of the following characteristics of wisdom.
2. When you confess the sin you become pure again (1Jn 1:9) and then you can be “peaceable” and go on peacefully. This is how the Lord Jesus speaks about it at the sermon on the Mount, where peace also follows after purity (Mt 5:8-9).
3. You will also be capable of being “gentle”, meaning that you will not seek to defend your rights and demand things for yourself.
4. You are also “reasonable”, which means to be submissive, available and correctable.
5. If you allow yourself to be taught by the wisdom from above you will be “full of mercy and good fruits”, that will be visible in your life, as it was the case with the Lord Jesus.
6. You are “unwavering” and therefore against forming sects and will not be dragged to join a certain party or sect.
7. Finally you are “without hypocrisy”, which means that you do not pretend to be different than you are.
V18. You can show all of that in the world and practice that towards others. These seven attributes of the wisdom that is from above, are the fruit of righteousness. They come forth from righteousness. When they are exercised in practice they are being sown, as it were. These fruits can only be “sown in peace”. Peace is the motive to sow this fruit.
And what does this fruit deliver? Peace (Psa 85:10). When you make peace, when are a peace maker (Mt 5:9), you harvest peace. You harvest what you sow (Gal 6:7b). You are always sowing. All the words you speak out and all the deeds you do are seeds sown by you.
When your words and deeds are inspired by the wisdom from above, you will harvest wonderful fruits, the peace. Then you will now already be able to enjoy what will be present in the coming kingdom of peace all over the world.
Now read James 3:7-18 again.
Reflection: In what way can the wisdom from above be effective in your life?