James 3:1-12 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, 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 things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
Welcome back to James. It’s not a traditional Mother’s day text, but after a month off, it is good to be here again.
Before we get to the text itself, though, let’s back up a bit. Since it’s been a while, let me remind you of the overall thrust of James’s letter. It is that the very nature of the Christian life is hearing the Word of God, believing it, and then acting on it; and all by the power of God. In other words, James argues that the grace God gives for forgiveness of sins, always also produces increasing obedience. No increasing obedience, no forgiveness of sins. To be clear, increasing obedience does not cause the forgiveness of our sins, but it does always flow from it. James warns that we must not, therefore, be hearers only, but doers also, for such hearing is useless.
To that end, much of James’s letter describes and commands the kinds of “doing” that God’s grace produces in His forgiven people. Our passage for this morning is no exception. In it, James describes one aspect of the kind of conduct that flows from forgiveness. In particular, he (re)addresses several issues of Christian speech.
In short, and mostly in reverse order from how James presents it, James’s argument is this: (1) Human speech, by its very nature, is more powerful than it seems like it should be. (2) In particular, speaking wrongly often does a great deal of harm. (3) For that reason, Christians need to be really careful about how we talk. (4) Being really careful in how we talk is really hard for everyone. (5) For all of these reasons, most people should not be teachers within the Church.
Let’s pray and then consider each of James’s five main points and how they ought to impact our lives.
THE OUTSIZED POWER OF OUR WORDS (3-4)
As I mentioned in the introduction, in this passage James was making one main argument in five steps. It’s not clear to me why James framed things the way he did, but I think we’ll be able to see his argument and reasoning most clearly, and therefore apply it most easily, by going in mostly reverse order; beginning with the outsized power of our words.
As a husband, father, son, brother, friend, pastor, and missionary, I’ve continually seen words (mine and others) have an impact that went way beyond what they seemed like they should have. I’ve watched words cause profoundly deep laughter, gladness, sadness, pain, healing, suffering and even life. Sometimes the result was immediate and sometimes I only found out later how significantly they affected people.
It’s hard not to have examples of all of this flood through my brain. Nearly 40 years later I still remember the power of a compliment I received about being able to run far, but I also still remember an insult my cousin gave me from that same time. In outsized ways, both of those comments (which were certainly made without much though) shaped me.
James wanted his readers to understand that spoken words, by their very nature, are far more powerful than it seems like they should be. He made this clear in vs.3-4.
3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, 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 things.
We looked earlier (in 1:26) at how a relatively small bridle is unexpectedly able to control a comparably powerful horse. In our passage for today, James adds to that the unexpected way a relatively tiny rudder is able to control a comparably enormous ship. And in a slightly different way, (in v.5b-6) he’s about to mention how a small spark can have the outsized impact of igniting a huge fire. He makes his point plain in v.5, ” So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” Again, the main point he’s making here is that our speech has power way beyond what seems reasonable.
There are two main keys for us in this. The first key, if we are to truly understand James and the world we live in, is to recognize that this outsized impact our words have is by God’s design. God created, ordered, sustains, and reigns over the world by His Words (Genesis 1). Jesus is called the Word of God (John 1). God has chosen to bring eternal life through words (Romans 1). To accomplish so much with words, God put a lot of power in them.
Think on this for a moment, Grace. It’s truly profound. Our words are unexpectedly powerful because God has supercharged them. And He’s done so because He’s chosen to do unexpectedly significant things through them.
Proverbs 15:4 captures this simply, “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”
We must, therefore, always keep in mind—before, during, and after we speak—that every time we speak, we are setting in motion something truly powerful.
The second key, which is at the heart of this passage and which leads to the second link in James’s chain of reasoning, is that although the outsized, God-infused power of our words is meant to be used for great good, our speech is often used to do great harm.
THE OUTSIZED POWER OF OUR WORDS TO DO HARM (5-6)
Chances are good that if you think back on your most painful moments on earth, they either involve some kind of physical trial or harmful words. More people come into my office for those two reasons than any others. The simple fact of the matter is that words can, and often do, cut very deep. This is a problem wherever it is found, but it is especially so within the Church, among Christians. For that reason James wrote,
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
James was not intending to be overly technical in his descriptions of the negative effects of ungodly speech. In describing them as “staining the whole body” and “setting on fire the entire course of life” and “set on fire by hell,” he simple meant to help his readers see that their words, because they are infused with the power of God, can have devastating effects if used improperly. In fact, to really drive this idea home, James’s descriptions get progressively worse; increasing from ungodly words staining (which is frustrating) to words ungodly words finding their source in hell (which is as bad as it gets).
Again, who among us hasn’t felt the sting of someone’s careless or outright malicious words? I shared with you a non-exhaustive list of some of the kinds of speech the Bible condemns back in March. That list included:
- Blasphemy (Jude 1:8)
- Evil (1 Peter 3:10)
- Gossip (2 Corinthians 12:20) – Grace, don’t talk about people when they’re not around.
- Anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscenity (Colossians 3:8)
- Lying (1 Peter 3:10)
- Defiling (Matthew 15:11)
- Corrupting (Ephesians 4:29)
- Harshness (Proverbs 15:1) – Don’t speak in ways that are unnecessarily abrasive.
- Foolishness (Proverbs 15:2) – Don’t talk about things that Proverbs laments.
- Filthiness, crude joking (Ephesians 5:4)
- Careless, rash, hasty, irreverent babble (Matthew 12:36; Ecclesiastes 5:2; 2 Timothy 2:16) – Don’t talk if you don’t intend some specific good to come from your words. “Sarcasm is killing our family.”
The common thread in each of these types of speech (along with all other kinds of destructive speech) is that their content is not rooted in things that are good, beautiful, and true and their aim is not love.
These kinds of speech are so corrosive that it is hard to even quantify. Marriages, families, organizations, nations, and churches have all been ripped apart and burned down by people who speak in these ways.
Grace, I’ll mention some more specific applications at the end, but let’s not move on without pausing for a moment to commit ourselves to avoiding this kind of talk at all costs. It might feel just in the moment. It might sneak out of you before you even realize it. It might be a reaction to real pain someone caused you. There might be any number of understandable explanations for why you would speak in these ways, but explanations and justifications are not the same. It is never right to speak ungodly content or with ungodly motives. It is never right to use the power of God for destruction.
If this is something you’ve struggled with, confess it to God as sin right now, determine in the Holy Spirit’s power to turn from it, and walk in a fresh sense of the forgiveness that Jesus purchased for you on the cross and that became yours forever when you placed your faith in Him (even if you just did so right now).
Our speech has outsized power, and James wants his readers to know that that power is often used for harm. Importantly, we are led to believe from the context of his letter that this was happening in practice among James’s readers. As is often the case with us today, this was not merely theoretical for James either.
THE NEED FOR CAREFUL SPEECH (9-12)
The third aspect of James’s argument, and the most obvious application of the powerfulness of speech, is that Christians need to be really careful about how we talk. The God-designed powerful nature of speech means that as Christians we need to do more even than simply try to avoid ungodly talk, but to consciously and intentionally use words meant to build up. Failing to do so by those calling on the name of Jesus, James insisted, is both foolish and unnatural.
Ungodly speech from Christians is foolish in that it diminishes our praise (9-10).
9 With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
My Christian friends in the south like to say, “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
To be a Christian is to know the supreme glory of God. To know the supreme glory of God is to delight in praising God. To do so in the most appropriate way, we ought to offer that praise with the most holy vessel. We stain the vessel of our mouths and diminish the sweetness of our praise when we offer it out of a mouth that curses God’s people alongside our worship of God. It dishonors God when we use the same instrument for both righteousness and sin. That is the highest order of folly.
Not only is speaking in ungodly ways as Christians folly, however, is also to act in a manner contrary to our very nature as Christians (11-12).
11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
Jesus said it like this, “Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16-17).
Fresh and salt water can’t come from the same source, olives, grapes, and figs can’t come from the same tree, and blessing and cursing can’t come from the same person if that person is calling on the name of Jesus. Each of those things are equally unnatural. They’re not designed for those dual purposes. Where we find such things we know instantly that something is very wrong.
Grace, if we are to avoid folly and act in a manner consistent with our new natures in Jesus, we must be increasingly careful with our speech. We simply cannot be casual, flippant, or indifferent to our manner of speech, much less evil, wicked, or harmful. We must guard our words with great care.
What’s more, this is true not only because our words can cause such harm to others, but even more so because they are among the most accurate revelations of our hearts. God has given us words to accomplish great good in the world and to determine the true state of our souls.
Jesus could not have been any clearer on this matter when He said to the religious leaders of His day, “…out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:34-17).
James warned his readers of the destructive power of their words both because of their ability to tear the church down and apart and because they bring judgment upon ourselves. Being careful, therefore, isn’t merely or even mainly meant to be an exercise of the will, but a taking hold of the heart.
THE DIFFICULTY OF CAREFUL SPEECH (2, 7-8)
While we all know that we ought to be careful with our speech, we also know, as did James, that doing so is hard. That’s the fourth part of James’s argument: Being really careful in how we talk is really hard for everyone. No one has perfect speech-control.
2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body…7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
If we’re contemplating doing something exceedingly hard but also optional (like running a marathon), someone might warn us of how difficult it is in order to talk us out of it. But a warning of the difficulty of something required is different. It not meant to give us a way out, but to help us appropriately prepare for the inevitable battle. That it is sometimes hard to do what God demands, is not an excuse to not do it. James was offering a warning so that his readers might avoid or get out of a pit so common to man.
Grace, there are many reasons it is easy to talk trash. Trash-talking is the ever-increasing vernacular of our culture. It is usually the easiest path to take. Sadly, it is often what we hear (even if in more low-key ways) in the Church. But James wanted his readers to avoid the easier route, to act differently, to carefully guard every word that they uttered. And to help his readers to do so, he warned them of how hard it would be—harder than any other discipline, and harder than taming any animal—that they might not engage the battle unprepared for its fierceness.
It is easy to speak words of harm and hard to consistently speak words of healing. Nevertheless, James charged his readers to guard their speech carefully.
EXTRA SCRUTINY FOR TEACHERS (1)
Fifth and finally, for all of these reasons, most people should not be teachers within the Church. James started with his conclusion. We’ll end with it.
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
James’s reasoning, as we’ve been considering, was simply this: (1) Human speech, by its very nature, is more powerful than it seems like it should be. (2) In particular, speaking wrongly often does a great deal of harm. (3) For that reason, Christians need to be really careful about how we talk. (4) But being really careful in how we talk is really hard for everyone. (5) And for all of these reasons, most people should not be teachers within the Church. Only those with exceptional self-control and spiritual maturity should accept such a role since it comes with much greater scrutiny.
Or, to say it in a slightly different way, since teachers necessarily speak more and about more significant things than non-teachers, and since it’s really hard for everyone to guard our speech in a manner pleasing to God, and since there’s a lot at stake in getting our speech wrong, and since teachers will be held to a higher speech-standard, God’s people ought to be really careful about aspiring to the office of teacher and about who we appoint to teach us.
As you can probably see, there are two main reasons for James’s charge to take special care in selecting teachers: (1) the good of the hearers, and (2) the good of the teachers. Good teaching builds up and gives life. Bad teaching corrupts and tears down. We must select teachers who have given good evidence of being life-giving and up-building so that we might avoid the destructive power of words. And we must select teachers like these so that we don’t put anyone in a position of unnecessarily harsh judgment from God.
In case you didn’t already know, all of this is one significant reason we usually go so (frustratingly?) slow in bringing men into eldership. It can take a long time to train and evaluate how people use their words and what effect they have. Please, soberly keep these things in mind both as you contemplate any type of teaching ministry (from kids’ Sunday school to Bible study leading to preaching) and as you appoint those who will. James meant his words to slow our roll, drive us to pray, lead us to repentance, protect the Church, and ensure that only those who can rightly handle the Word of God, for the glory of God would be put in positions of public, teaching ministry.
Where the role of teaching is primarily (but certainly not exclusively) given to men within the local church, it falls primarily (but certainly not exclusively) on women in the home (at least in the kids’ younger years). On this Mother’s Day, therefore, let us all lean in closely to this text and consider carefully a few specific applications in closing. If we are heed James’s warning and put his words into practice…
- Love God with all you have. Since our words, all of them, flow from our hearts. Let’s do everything we can to develop hearts that are pleasing to God so that they will produce a continual stream of words that are pleasing to God..to our kids, spouses, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, and to the rest of the world.
- Be slow to speak. One of the most consistent speech-themes of the Bible (including James) and obvious applications of this text is to talk less. Listen, listen, listen and then, when necessary, talk.
- When you do talk, carefully learn the kinds of things God means you to say. Be a person of the Word of God. James’s main charge is to avoid ungodly speech. But the rest of the Bible commands us to speak and tells us the kind of things we’re supposed to say. We are not free to speak whatever comes to our minds. As ambassadors, we are called to herald the message of our King.
- When you do talk, let your words be intentional and with the aim of building up. Even when a rebuke is necessary, the aim must be eventual uplifting. Moms, this is especially true when your kids are at their worst. And Church, this is especially true when sinners are at their sinnest.
- First, and most, when you do talk, talk the gospel. Tell people of Jesus and the good news that He can rescue them from their sin and reconcile them to God. Tell them that God will welcome them into everlasting life because Jesus took the full measure of punishment for their sins. And do all of that in confidence since we know that God has infused those words with sufficient power to save.