TEMPERING THE TONGUE
You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they?17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. (Matthew 7:16-17).
I have an avocado tree in my back yard. I do not say that to show off my extensive knowledge of botany. To tell you the truth, I would not know that it is an avocado tree except for one thing -- I have picked avocados from the tree and I know that you can only pick avocados from avocado trees.
The message of the epistle of James is that you can only pick the fruit of the Spirit from one who is filled with the Spirit. To put it another way, internal reality will always be evidenced by an external manifestation of that reality.
James has been speaking of the importance of being a doer of the Word and not merely a hearer -- of manifesting the truths of God in your life. To illustrate this lesson, he turned to the problem of partiality in the church and this brought up a principle -- that while you are saved by faith alone, you are not saved by faith that remains alone. Faith is shown to be real faith when it is manifested outwardly by works. A faith without works is worthless.
Now James moves to something else that is worthless -- a religion that does not restrict the tongue. There is an interesting contrast between this section and the previous paragraph.
Faith without WORKS.
Faith without WORDS.
Faith is perfected by works (2:22).
The one who does not stumble in what he says is a perfect man (3:2).
Illustrated by the problem of partiality within the church (2:2-4).
Illustrated by one who blesses God while cursing men (3:9-10).
In each case, James calls for an external response to the inward reality.
THE TONGUE BRINGS STRICTER JUDGMENT
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment. (James 3:1).
There is a warning here for those who would teach the Word of God. It is not just that you might teach something that is wrong, although that is also a danger. It is that you might live wrongly.
1. This is a Warning for Teachers: Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren (3:1).
Notice what James calls his readers. He calls them, "My brethren." This refers to more than merely their standing as Christians. They are also his national brothers. James is writing this letter to the descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel that are scattered throughout the world.
As the gospel came to the cities throughout the Roman Empire, both Jews as well as Gentiles came to believe in Christ. For the first time, Jews and Gentiles were intermixed in a single church.
When teachers and leaders began to rise up within these racially mixed churches, it was only natural that they should come from among the Jewish Christians. After all, they had been raised in the Scriptures. They were already familiar with the Old Testament. They had not come from a background of worshiping idols.
James now warns these Jewish Christians that they ought to think twice before taking the position of a teacher within the church.
2. This is a Warning of Stricter Judgment: Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment (3:1).
The reason that you should take care before taking up the mantle of a teacher is because teachers incur a higher responsibility.
James has already warned that judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy (2:13). Jesus said it this way: For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you (Matthew 7:2).
A teacher is one who judges. He points to a certain type of activity and he says, "That is right" or "That is wrong." By teaching others of such a judgment, he guarantees that he shall be judged by that same judgment.
Those who would teach in the church are taking on a great responsibility. There is a principle here. It is that great influence demands great responsibility.
If a bum declares war on China it doesnít mean too much. But if the President of the United States does the same thing it becomes a lot more meaningful. This is why leadership demands responsibility.
THE TONGUE HAS GREAT POWER
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.
Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they may obey us, we direct their entire body as well.4 Behold, 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. Behold, how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! (James 3:2-5).
Teachers are more apt to stumble because their area of ministry involves the use of the tongue and the tongue is an effective tool for stumbling.
This is important. God doesnít judge teachers by how big their ministries are or how large the building is in which they meet. Teachers are judged by what they say.
For we all stumble in many ways (3:2).
Hearing what James has said about teachers, you might be inclined to think that, as long as you refrain from teaching, you will be okay. This is not true. Everyone has their own areas of weakness and stumbling. It has been said that life is filled with banana peels and there are some out there with your name on them. One of the most common areas of weakness is in the area of our speech. If you can control what you SAY, then you can also learn to control what you DO.
If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well (3:2).
James has already described how the faith of Abraham was "perfected" (or completed) by his act of offering Isaac upon the altar (2:22). Now he shows how we can experience a similar "perfection" or completion. It is by not stumbling in what we say.
James uses the present tense as he describes this status of "not stumbling." This is significant. He is not necessarily saying that the Christian will reach a plateau in which he never stumbles. Rather he is speaking about a habit of life. The mature Christian is one who is not continually stumbling over his tongue. He does not have a "foot-shaped mouth."
Why is it so important to control the tongue? After all, arenít deeds more important than words? Not necessarily. Words often lead to deeds. James illustrates this in two ways:
1. The Illustration of a Horse.
When I was a lot younger, our family used to vacation on my grandfatherís farm in the Ozarks. He and my aunts had several horses and we used to ride them upon occasion.
Once I tried to ride a horse without the use of a bridle. I jumped onto his back and away he went. That was the first and only time I ever tried that. I found that I had absolutely no say in the matter as to where we were going. The horse immediately headed toward a tree with a low, overhanging branch. I ended up in the branch instead of on the horse.
That horse would have never been able to accomplish that maneuver if it had a bit and bridle. I would have been the one in control.
Here is the point. In the same way that a bridle controls a horse, so also the tongue controls the body.
2. Illustration of a Ship.
The second illustration is of a ship. A ship is a very ponderous affair. It is so big that it would seem impossible to maneuver. And yet, one man is able to steer a huge ocean liner without even breaking a sweat.
How can this be? It is because a huge ship is directed by a relatively tiny machine called a rudder. If James were writing today, he might have said, "Behold, the 747, a huge plane that is controlled by a single lever.
In the same way, your body is directed by an organ that weighs only a few ounces -- the tongue.
Behold, how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! (3:5).
Most forest fires begin with a single match. Thousands of trees are destroyed by the spark of a single tiny splinter of wood. In the same way, a single careless word can cause enormous damage. Youíve heard someone say, "I donít hold my feelings in. I just explode and then itís over with." The same can be said of a nuclear bomb and the result is about as devastating. It is like the little rhyme that says:
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will flat destroy me.
Yet the warning of James does not refer only to words spoken in anger. There is a proverb that speaks of the danger of words spoken in jest, of idle gossip and of the contentious man.
Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows and death,
So is the man who deceives his neighbor,
And says, "Was I not joking?"
For lack of wood the fire goes out,
And where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down.
Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
So is a contentious man to kindle strife. (Proverbs 26:18-21).
The proverb describes three different type of men in this passage and they are all bad.
First there is the practical joker. He tells a lie and causes discomfort and embarrassment and then says, "Itís okay because I was only joking."
Next is the whisperer. His continued back-biting seems to add fuel to the fire and he will never let anything die down.
Finally is the contentious man. He seems to revel in an argument.
The three of these men are very different from one another, but they all have one thing in common. It is their misuse of the tongue.
THE TONGUE BRINGS A DEFILING DANGER
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.
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. (James 3:6-8).
Having shown the power of the tongue as illustrated and compared to a horseís bridle and a shipís rudder, James now moves to his next point -- that the tongue in uncontrollable.
The tongue is not bad in itself. It was created by God and is a wonderful thing. The source of the fire described in this passage does not come from the tongue, but from the powers of hell. It is not that the tongue is inherently sinful. It is that it has such a powerful potential. It can do great good. And it can do great evil.
When the tongue is set on fire by hell (that is, when it is used in a sinful way), there are two results.
1. It Defiles the Entire Body.
Jesus Himself said that it is not that which goes into a man, but that which comes out of a man that defiles him (Matthew 15:11).
The point is that you are what you say. The words that you utter are indicative of what you are like on the inside.
2. It sets on Fire the Course of your Life.
Your words have a dramatic effect on the course of your life. Many years ago, a preacher asked me, "Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?" I only said two words: "I do." My life hasnít been the same since.
James goes on to say that the tongue...is set on fire by hell (3:6). The word here translated "hell" is not the normal Greek word for hell. This is the word Gehenna. It is not really a Greek word at all. Instead it is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word Ge-honom -- "Valley of Hinnom." It was originally called "The Valley of the sons of Hinnom."
The Valley of Hinnom lay outside the southwest walls of Jerusalem. During the days of Ahaz and Manasseh in the dark days of Judahís history, human sacrifices were offered there to the pagan god Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6).
When Jeremiah was warning Judah of the coming judgment of God against the nation, he said that the Lord would turn the Valley of Hinnon into a valley of slaughter.
"For the sons of Judah have done that which is evil in My sight," declares the LORD, "they have set their detestable things in the house which is called by My name, to defile it.
"Therefore, behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place.33 And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the sky, and for the beasts of the earth; and no one will frighten them away." (Jeremiah 7:30-33).
When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. there were so many killed that the bodies were dumped into the Valley of Hinnom. In later years, this valley came to be the dumping ground for the refuse of Jerusalem as well as for the bodies of criminals. Fires were kept burning constantly to destroy the rubbish and the filth. It became a place of defilement and continual fire. Because of this, the Valley of Hinnom came to be regarded as a picture of the final punishment of the unrighteous.
When James uses the word Gehenna, it refers to all of the filth and the stench of sin that will one day be punished in the Day of Judgment. Jesus said that on that day we will have to give an accounting of all of the words that we have ever said.
Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.
You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.
And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment.37 For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned. (Matthew 12:33-37).
Jesus said that the reality of what you are comes from the heart. If the heart is good, then it will bear good fruit that will be manifested in good words. The truth of the heart will be manifested in what you do and in what you say.
There is a danger here. It is that you begin to concentrate all of your efforts on cleaning up the outside. But God isnít worried about only cleaning up the externals. He doesnít say, "I want you to be a Christian so we are going to get rid of that habit over there and remove this item over here and then you will be okay." Instead He changes your heart. And if the heart is changed, then after a while the other things begin to change, too.
Being a Christian isnít primarily what you DO as much as it is what you ARE. The corollary to that principles is that what you ARE will manifest itself in what you DO.
Here is the point. You cannot tame the tongue because the tongue merely reflects that which is on the inside. Only God can tame the tongue and He does that by working from the inside out. You go to the Lord and ask Him to change you from the inside out and He will.
THE TONGUE IS TO BE USED CONSISTENTLY
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.
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? Neither can salt water produce fresh. (James 3:9-12).
When you come to church and sing praises to the Lord and pray to Him, you are using your tongue to bless His name. And when you leave and get into your car and are driving on the highway and someone cuts you off, you find another use for your tongue. The point is that the two uses are inconsistent with one another.
There is a principle here. It is the principle of SANCTIFICATION. When you came to Christ in faith, believing in Him as your Lord and Savior, something extraordinary happened to you. You entered into a process known as sanctification. It means that you began to be set apart from the world and dedicated to the Lord for His special purpose. Your hands are no longer just your hands. They are also His hands. Your tongue is no longer just your tongue. It is now His tongue.
Here is the point. It is inappropriate for a tongue that has been dedicated to the worship of the Lord to be used in the cursing of the Lordís creation.
Imagine driving by your church next Friday evening and you see a great crowd gathered. Wondering what is going on and thinking that you might have slept through the announcements last Sunday, you stop and go inside. There you see that a disc jockey is announcing that mud wrestling will be held in front of the pulpit. What would be your reaction? I hope that you would think it is completely inappropriate. If there is a place for mud wrestling (and Iím not saying that there is), it certainly is not in the place that has been dedicated to the worship of the Lord.
If you are a Christian, then your tongue has been dedicated to the worship of the Lord. To use it for any purpose that does not honor Him is inconsistent. Here is the lesson. When both good and evil come out of the same mouth, one is a lie.
THE TONGUE IS TO BE USED WISELY
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 selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.
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. (James 3:13-18).
James turns to the subject of wisdom. Most commentaries seem to think that he has finished talking about the problem of the tongue and has turned to a new subject. I disagree.
The last three chapters have been speaking of wisdom.
James called his readers to ask God for wisdom (1:5).
He called for them to be doers of the word and not hearers only (1:22-24). In doing so, he was defining what wisdom is.
He then went on to illustrate that kind of wise living in the example of the showing of partiality and more recently in the example of how you use your tongue.
We tend to think of wisdom in terms of what you KNOW. James defines wisdom in terms of what you DO as a result of what you ARE.
1. Wisdom is Shown by what you Do: Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom (3:13).
It is not that good behavior makes you wise. It is that wisdom is manifested by good behavior. You will remember that this chapter began with a warning to those who would be teachers. They thought themselves to have wisdom and understanding that they could communicate with others. But the test of a teacher is not only in what he SAYS. It is also in what he DOES. There is a reason for this. It is because you teach just as much by what you DO as by what you SAY.
Parents know this. One of the things that can really annoy me about my daughter is when she acts the way I do. I didnít tell her to do that. I didnít have to. She learned by watching me.
On the other hand, one of the things that can really please me about my daughter and make me proud of her is when she acts the way I do. She has learned a lot from the things that I have said to her; but she had learned a lot more from watching how I live.
That is why discipleship involves so much more than teaching in a classroom or preaching from a pulpit. You cannot disciple someone unless you give them the opportunity to see how you live.
2. Wisdom in Contrasted with the Way of the World: But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth (3:14).
There is another type of wisdom that is not gentle or manifested by good behavior. This other type of wisdom is arrogant and proud. It is ambitious. It seeks to glorify itself. It is jealous when others outshine it. This other wisdom is not from God.
Wisdom from Below
Wisdom from Above
Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition
Good deeds manifest the gentleness of wisdom
Lies against the truth
A hearer and a doer of the Word (1:22-25)
Earthly, natural and demonic: The world, the flesh and the devil
Pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy
Disorder and every evil thing
Fruit of righteousness is sown in peace
Natural wisdom -- the Greek term can be translated "soulish" -- we would call it "humanistic"
Supernatural wisdom coming down from the Father of Lights.
3. A Wisdom that we Share with Others: And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (3:18).
The Greek text literally reads: The fruit of righteousness is being sown in peace by those who make peace. We usually think in terms of growing seeds, not sowing fruit. Apparently the translators of the New American Standard Version thought this way, too. But I think that there is a reason James said it the way he did. He points to the continuing nature of the fruit.
When you partake of the fruit of righteousness, the result is not only that you share in that righteousness, but also that you spread it around to others.