James, Part 3

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The third chapter of James is all about minding your P’s and Q’s. A verse in the Old Testament book of Proverbs gives us the theme of this wonderful chapter:

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18 NIV)

Dr McGee has written a book on James 3 with the provocative title, “Hell on Fire,” describing the nature of “the tongue.” That’s a good title, and I wish I had thought of it first. As Christians, minding our P’s and Q’s should not be taken as putting a limit on free speech. I’m a free speech absolutist, after all. But what James says about the tongue has nothing to do with curbing free speech, but rather he is intent on showing us the power our words have and the responsibility believers have in taking care of what they say, how they say it, and even to whom it is said.

To be fair, the people in James’ crosshairs aren’t just church members, but rather teachers within the church, or wannbe teachers within the church. That being the strict contextual case, however, doesn’t mean the rest of us can just skip James 3. What James has to say about the tongue is applicable to all believers, not just teachers or wannabe teachers. In fact, here in chapter 3, James is picking up on a thought he introduced back in the first chapter:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19, 20 NIV)

And those verses were addressed to all members of the church, not just teachers. True religion should always influence a person’s life, especially what a person says. Donald Burdick in his commentary on James offers the perfect division of James 3:

The responsibility of teachers, 3:1, 2

The influence of the tongue, 3:3 – 6

The perversity of the tongue, 3:7 – 12

Control your speech

Controlling your tongue is part of Christian works, which James had been talking about through most of chapter 2. The mark of a mature Christian is proper control of one’s speech. R. Kent Hughes, pastor emeritus of College Church wrote this –

The true test of a man’s spirituality is not ability to speak, as we are apt to think, but rather his ability to bridle his tongue.

True enough. By introducing the tropic of “teachers,” James is giving us a glimpse into the workings of the early church. We get the impression that some or many of his readers were wanting to become teachers within their particular congregation. Verse one, then, is a kind of warning against that. It’s not that James doesn’t want more teachers within a church, but he wants the right people to be teaching a congregation for the right reasons.

Churches need to have teachers, and the Holy Spirit sovereignly gifts certain people within a congregation with the gift of teaching.

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets,third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:28 NIV)

Paul taught that when a church looks for people to fill certain positions, they should choose elders who are “able to teach,” among other things.

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach… (1 Timothy 3:1, 2 NIV)

However, both Paul and James stress that those wanting to teach within the church should understand their motives and recognize the awesome responsibility that comes with such a position.

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. (James 3:2 NIV)

In the Greek, verse 2 begins with the tiny word gar, meaning “for.” James is giving us the reason for what he wrote in verse 1. The teacher’s responsibility is heavy because the tongue is so hard to control. This applies to those wanting to teach, but also to all believers. We all have to keep a watch on our speech. All believers will “stumble,” points to the universality of sin. Even the best teacher in a congregation will inevitably misspeak. That’s not an excuse, but a statement of fact. It behooves all Christians, but especially teachers and those seeking to become teachers, to recognize this fact.

The tongue is so important – speech is so important – that if a person is able to control it 100% of the time, then he is a “perfect man.” This is a clever way to say that if a church can find a man who never sins with his tongue, he would never sin any other way, either.

Bridling the tongue

Verses 3 – 5 show us how little things can have far-reaching effects. James brilliantly uses the bridle as an example. A small thing in the mouth of a great big horse is able to control the whole animal. A ship’s rudder is tiny (and invisible) when compared to the overall size of ship, yet it controls where the ship goes. The third illustration is the one James uses to expose the damage that can be done by the tongue.

Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. (James 3:5 NIV)

The destructive nature of the tongue

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. (James 3:6 NIV)

The tongue can either be controlled or it can destroy. Like a fire, the tongue is potentially dangerous and destructive if it is not controlled. Curtis Vaugn wrote this of the tongue –

It can sway men to violence, or it can move them to the noblest actions. It can instruct the ignorant, encourage the dejected, comfort the sorrowing, and soothe the dying. Or, it can crush the human spirit, destroy reputations, spread distrust and hate, and bring nations to the brink of war.

He’s right about that. And as Steve Camp wrote, “The tongue is a fire. It’s an evil that no man can tame.” That’s what James suggests in the following verses –

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. (James 3:7, 8 NIV)

Anybody who has ever struggled with over-eating or breaking any bad habit knows how difficult self-control is. And this is especially true of the tongue. “No man” is able to control his own tongue because it’s motivation to evil comes from powerful impulses originating outside of itself: The tongue is set on fire by hell. This doesn’t mean that God is unable to bring it under control. The tongue can’t be controlled by the person, but the tongue of the saved person can be controlled by the Holy Spirit, who resides in all believers. Fact is, the natural state of the tongue is that of a “restless evil,” that is, it’s always looking for trouble to drag its owner into. Tasker’s observation tells us that the whole tongue problem goes all the way back to the very beginning –

Because of the Fall, man has lost dominion over himself.

I can tell you that never a truer word has been written!

Previously James wrote this in regards to asking God for wisdom –

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (James 1:6, 7 NIV)

He picks up this thought of man’s double-mindedness when it comes to the tongue and the worship of God –

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. (James 3:9, 10 NIV)

The problem with a Christian who doesn’t mind is P’s and Q’s isn’t just that he’s probably hurting other believers, but that he’s treating God shabbily indeed. He’s the quintessential double-minded man. And, as James noted, that kind of person shouldn’t think he’ll get anything from God.

A double-talking tongue is out of place among Christians. It’s as incongruous in a believer as a fresh-and-salt water spring in the earth or as a fig tree bearing olives. It’s just ridiculous. In James’ mind it’s as simple as this: A good man speaks good words, and a sinful man speaks sinful words.

Speak and live wisely

Speaking wisely and living wisely require wisdom – the right kind of wisdom. James has already alluded to the fact that believers are probably short on wisdom and that they need to seek it from the Lord. There are all kinds of wisdom floating around on earth; just walk into any bookstore and see all the self-help books on the shelves and you’ll see what I mean. Earthly wisdom is good as far as it goes, but the Christian needs more. He needs wisdom from above.

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. (James 3:17 NIV)

When we are obsessed with our own ideas instead of with the Lord and His, then we will always be finding a way to foist our ideas on people rather than exalting Him. When we are always seeking to advance our wills – like trying to become teachers in church – we can easily get into the nasty habit of using our speech to belittle or otherwise hurt others. Instead of being the peacemakers God wants us to be, we run around leaving strife and anger in our wakes.

Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:18 NIV)

And we assume the opposite is also true. When a believer doesn’t allow the Holy Spirit to reign in his tongue, he’s not only a disturbance to the Body of Christ, he’s a disturbance to himself. He’s like that double-minded man James warned about: A guy unstable in all he does; completely untrustworthy.

James’ warning about the power of speech is important. Our tongues can build others up or tear them down. We may be born again, blood bought children of God, but that doesn’t automatically result in a tamed tongue. Like so many areas of the Christian life, it’s within our power to clean up our speech or not. God won’t do it for us. All believers, from the Pastor to the teacher on down the line, should strive to seek help from God to put into practice the admonitions from James and the words of Paul –

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29 NIV)

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1 Response to “James, Part 3”


  1. 1 Tony Aidoo November 10, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    I’m humbled by what I just read on your page: the revelation, wisdom and insight makes me to believe that I’m at the right place to learn. Glory to God.


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