The Latter Epistles – James 3

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.  We all stumble in many ways.  Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example.  Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this should not be.  Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?  Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.  But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.  Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

  • James 3:1-18

Noted Biblical Scholars, Teachers, and Preachers Comments

James 3:1 ‘warning for teachers’: “This law of the teacher is demonstrated first in the life of the Lord.  He did not and does not drive His people; rather He leads the way Himself and enables His followers to come after Him.  He suffered at the hands of men and can therefore fairly ask His people to suffer as He did.  While He lived on earth He went about doing good, walking in dignified poverty, and it is no injustice when He calls His followers to lives of frugality and simplicity.  He lived in the bosom of the Father even while here below (John 1:18), and led the way for us so we may do the same.  He bore His cross and died upon it, so the New Testament requirement of personal crucifixion for all believers is morally logical.  Finally, He arose and ascended to sit in heavenly places and thus give foundation to Paul’s words in Colossians: ‘If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.  Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.  For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God’ (3:1-3).
“The law of the leader tells us who are preachers that it is better to cultivate our souls than our voices.  It is better to polish our hearts than our pulpit manners, though if the first has been done well and successfully it may be profitable for us to do the second.  We cannot take our people beyond where we ourselves have been, and it thus becomes vitally important that we be men of God in the last and highest sense of that term.
“What is true for preachers holds true for every Christian witness.  Every writer, editor, Sunday school worker, singer, board member, and deacon is bound by the law of the leader.  He cannot lead where he has not been.  Failure in his own life can only mean loss for those who look to him for leadership.  Is that why James wrote, ‘My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation’ (3:1)?  It could be.”

  • A. W. Tozer, The Price of Neglect

James 3:1-12 ‘true wisdom makes men meek…’: “The foregoing chapter shows how unprofitable and dead faith is without works.  Such a faith is, however, apt to make men conceited in their tempers and their talk.  The best need to be cautioned against a dictating, censorious use of their tongues.  We are therefore taught, !. Not to use our tongues so as to lord it over others, v. 1.  We must not affect to speak and act as those who are continually assuming the chair, we must not prescribe to one another, so as to make our own sentiments a standard by which to try all others. …
“II. To govern our tongue so as to prove ourselves perfect and upright men, and such as have an entire government over ourselves. …
“III. To dread an unruly tongue as one of the greatest and most pernicious evils, v. 5, 6.  There is such an abundance of sin in the tongue that it may be called
a world of iniquity. …
“IV. We are next taught how very difficult a thing it is to govern the tongue…
“V. We are taught to think of the use we make of our tongues in religion and in the service of God, v. 9,10.  How absurd it is that those who use their tongues in prayer and praise should ever use them in cursing, slandering, and the like! …”

  • Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Scripture quotations are not in bold/italics)

James 3:17 ‘first … pure’: “The heart of Jesus was pure.  The Savior was adored by thousands, yet content to live a simple life.  He was cared for by women (Luke 8:2-3), yet never accused of lustful thoughts, scorned by his own creation, but willing to forgive them before they even requested his mercy.  Peter, who traveled with Jesus for three and a half years, described him as a ‘pure and perfect lamb” (1 Peter 1:19).
“After spending the same amount of time with Jesus, John concluded, ‘There is no sin in Christ’ (1 John 3:5).
“Jesus’ heart was peaceful.  The disciples fretted over the need to feed the thousands, but not Jesus.  He thanked God for the problem.  The disciples shouted for fear in the storm, but not Jesus.  He slept through it.  Peter drew his sword to fight the soldiers, but not Jesus.  He lifted his hand to heal.  His heart was at peace.”

  • Max Lucado, Just Like Jesus

James 3 ‘Reflections’: “Water cannot rise above its own level.  Neither can a Christian by any sudden spasmodic effort rise above the level of his own spiritual life.
“I have seen under the sun how a man of God will let his tongue go all day in light and frivolous conversation, let his interest roam abroad among the idle pleasures of this world, and, then, under the necessity of peaching at night, seek a last-minute reprieve just before service and, by cramming desperately in prayer, try to put himself in a position where the spirit of the prophet will descend upon him as he enters the pulpit.  By working himself up to an emotional white heat he may afterward have reason to congratulate himself that he had much liberty in preaching the Word.  But he deceives himself and there is no wisdom in him.  What he has been all day and all week is what he is when he opens his Bible to expound unto the people.  Water cannot rise above its own level.
“Men do not gather grapes of thorns, nor figs of thistles.  The fruit of a tree is determined by the tree, and the fruit of life by the kind of life it is.  What a man is interested in to the point of absorption both decides and reveals what kind of man he is; and the kind of man he is by a secret law of the soul decides the kind of fruit he will bear.  The catch is that we are often unable to discover the true qualities of our fruit until it is too late.
“If we would be realistic in our Christian lives we must not overlook the tremendous power of affinity.  By affinity I mean the sympathetic attraction which certain things and persons have for us.  The human heart is extremely sensitive and altogether capable of setting up an inward relationship with objects far removed and forbidden.  As the needle of the compass has an affinity for the north magnetic pole, so the heart can keep true to its secret love through separated from it by miles and years,  What that loved object is may be discovered by observing which direction out thoughts turn when they are released from the hard restraints of work or study.  Of what do we think when we are free to think of what we will?  Hat object gives us inward pleasure as we brood over it?  Over what do we muse in our free moments?  To what does our imagination return again and again?”

  • A. W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous

My Thoughts

Wow!  Did I ever make the wrong career move!?  In scouting, I was not satisfied with being a cubmaster, I had to go on to teach other cubmasters and scout leaders, basic training and monthly roundtables.  At work, I was asked by the head of nuclear reactor maintenance to teach others how to troubleshoot as well as I could, which meant teaching a lot of other courses first for them to have the knowledge that was required.  I never went back to my engineering job in the maintenance department.  And when there was no teacher for an adult Sunday school class at our church, I stepped up there too.

Now, I am going to be judged to a higher standard?!  Me!?  The guy who has a tongue that betrays him at every turn?  The guy who occasionally writes a post and then shelves it for a month or so, because a little voice said, “You’re gonna get letters!!!”

But then, maybe, God knew what he was doing when he taught me to overcome my fear of public speaking that had paralyzed me, hampering my career as an engineer.  Yes, engineering managers may never make technical presentations, but they had to have made those presentations smoothly – even when they had no idea what they were saying – sometime in the past or they would have never been considered for promotion to manager.  I know.  The logic is upside down, but suffice it to say that God guided me in the right direction, and when I stumble, He is the greatest forgiver that ever was or ever will be.

We are back to face-to-face Sunday school at our church and I have gotten a wide variety of suggestions in the four months of teaching (with a month gap at Christmas for a variety of reasons).  “You are going too slow.”  “You are going too fast.”  “You are providing too much background information and interconnections with other Bible stories and passages.  You need to stay on topic.”  “I love the rabbit trails that your mind goes down when the biblical lesson relates to other portions of Scripture that we are not covering.”

I could go on.  It is strange how most of the suggestions, avoiding the word “complaints”, are usually contradicted by the compliments.  Have you ever noticed how “complaint” and “compliment” use a lot of the same letters?  In a way, I am poking fun at myself here, but there is a great weight placed upon Sunday school teachers and pastors.  The pastors have a lot of education and still I have heard some really bad sermons that were full of wrong ideas, misinterpretations of Scripture, and some downright heresy.  But then, the Sunday school teacher usually does not have that type of educations and simply reads the Bible and speaks from the heart – or maybe they should.

But maybe in the Sunday school recruitment guide (I am sure there is one.), they skip the warning in James 3:1.

I have touched on my demonic tongue that says things it should not at times, but I had one instance in industrial teaching that illustrates the first half of James 3.

I had an assistant instructor once who was bored teaching the same old thing, so I shuffled the assignments and let this instructor teach one of the safety-critical lessons.  It is odd that the Scripture above talks of fire, because this instructor was talking about combustion and that the best way to control combustion was … the opposite of the best way.  I stood up and interrupted to make sure the class heard the correct way to do it.  A little later, the other instructor said the same thing.  I again got up and interrupted to correct what had just said.  By this point, the other instructor was peeved and said something along the lines of, “Sure, my words are coming out of my mouth backwards from what I meant to say, but the class knows what I meant!”  My reply was, “I hope they do know, but they are in class for us to teach them the right way.  If they already knew everything, why would they show up for class?!?!?!”  The class laughed at our little “comedy routine,” or what they thought was a comedy routine.  But the thing was that if they had done as this instructor had said, their product quality would have suffered, lowering the profitability of the mill; their personal safety would have suffered, leading to people getting sick or even dying; and they could, if they really had done bad enough in the wrong direction, caused an explosion that would kill a lot of people.  And their company would have sued our company for everything the company was worth and then some.  Yes, that was the reason why the guys with the big paychecks never gave me a big promotion, because what I did was “not that important.”

But, when talking about eternity…  That’s even more important.

In the NIV there are two headers for James 3.  One is “Taming the tongue” for the first twelve verses and the other is “Two kinds of wisdom.”  I am not convinced that James is still not warning teachers throughout the entire chapter.  In the synagogues of the time that the book of James was written, the teacher used the authority of their teacher to impress the listeners that they knew their stuff.  Was this boast of educational snobbery used to cover up their bitter envy and selfish ambition – hoping to be the one considered as the authority in the next generation?

And yet, the lesson about the evil tongue is meant for all of us, not just teachers.  And as the saying goes, our actions speak louder than our words.

But rather than trying to befuddle them with your brilliance…  You know, the brilliance that you wish you had?  We should have the wisdom of being pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”

This short chapter might be dismissed by some as a warning to teachers and nothing more, but we all can benefit by taming our tongue and seeking God’s wisdom.

And as for the stricter judgment upon teachers?  I already mentioned that God forgives, but He also judges our hearts.

Some Serendipitous Reflections

“When do you feel like your tongue is ‘set on fire for hell’?  What have you found helpful in controlling you tongue?  In changing the source of its spring (v. 11)?
“1. How is ‘earthly wisdom’ hurting you?
”2. In which areas do you need heaven’s wisdom?  How will you cultivate that?”

  • Lyman Coleman, et al, The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups

Again we have an unnumbered question, since the Serendipity Bible divided this chapter.  There may be few questions here, but they may be needed in our current circumstances.

If you like these Thursday morning Bible studies, but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Thursday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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