James Chapter 3: Sinning with our Mouths

Nov 5th, 2009 | By | Category: James, Verse by Verse --Studies led by Br. Frank Shallieu (Click on Book name)

James Chapter 3: Sinning with our Mouths

James 3:1 My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

The thought is, “Be not many teachers.” The RSV reads, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” This verse is very sobering. However, if one is a faithful teacher, the reward is greater. The inclusion of this verse indicates that there were problems in Christian living in the early Church. Other doctrine was relatively pure in this “white horse” period (Rev. 6:1,2).

In the human spirit, and especially when one first consecrates, there seems to be a tendency to want to teach. Some who have not been long in the truth have even wanted to write on the Book of Revelation. The seriousness of the Scriptures requires maturation first, particularly since the Apocalypse is predicated on the Old Testament in many different ways.

Some who seem to be qualified for eldership will decline throughout their consecrated life. We usually do not know why, but there may be a very justifiable reason. On the one hand, certain individuals who decline appear to be far more qualified than some who accept eldership. On the other hand, the desire to be an elder is set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1 and commended.

Comment: A brother should examine himself to see whether he has the qualifications for eldership. Then he would not labor for something for which he was not fit.

Reply: More so in the past, some who accepted eldership did so on a restricted basis, which was proper. For example, some felt they were qualified to lead a study but not to speak publicly; that is, they had the ability to teach but in a conversational way that was conducive to leading a fruitful study. Another example would be those who accepted eldership along evangelistic lines because they had the gift of attracting the attention of the public in witnessing the truth. These same individuals were not qualified to lead studies, so their eldership was restricted. It is also proper—and advisable—for an elder to say, where appropriate, “I am not versed in that subject, so I am not able to give a talk on it or participate in a panel.” Likewise it would be proper for an elder who has not studied a particular subject to refer the one seeking information to someone who has studied it. A spiritual doctor should recommend someone who is more qualified in a certain field of investigation or study. The spirit of humility is the spirit of truly wanting to help someone develop in the truth. It is wrong for an elder to feel he must sterilize the ecclesia, urging those in attendance to never go elsewhere lest they become contaminated by harmful spiritual bacteria. It is a necessary experience for the Christian to be in the world but not of it; combat is needed for spiritual development. Thus there are dangers and pitfalls, as well as blessings and advantages, in being an elder.

Regarding eldership, the Scriptures say, “Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things” (Gal. 6:6). 1 Timothy 3:1-7 gives the qualifications for eldership: “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop [elder], he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

Comment: Ephesians 4:11,12 gives a listing: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” All of these must start out as elders.

Comment: A brother should examine himself to see if he has the talent for eldership. If he does have the talent and fits those qualifications, he should not bury the talent.

Reply: He should look for the Lord’s leading and guidance in the opening of a door, which can happen in startling ways.

James 3:2 For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.

James 3:3 Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.

James 3:4 Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.

James 3:5 Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!

A little member, whether the tongue or the helm of a ship or a match, can produce great harm. James did not stress the positive aspect—the good that can be done—just the destructive tendencies.

Q: Does verse 1 stand alone, or is it tied in with the rest of this chapter?

A: It is related to the entire chapter.

Comment: Then all of these verses are even more significant for one who is an elder, a teacher, or a prominent personality.

Reply: That is correct, but even though these verses are directed primarily to those who are in a position of influence, they also apply to all of the consecrated in every situation (at work, in the family, in the church, in public). Because of the dangers, James cautions that not many should be teachers, bishops, elders. Although the desire to be an elder is a legitimate one, a brother should think twice before accepting such a position. And another point: The same caution applies not only to elders in the church but also to employers, masters of slaves, etc.

If one could completely master his tongue, he would be a perfect man, but that is impossible. Some use this Scripture as an excuse for making mistakes, but verse 1 says that greater condemnation can be incurred. Thus James did not pursue this subject from the standpoint of the liberty of forgiveness. A little bit in the horse’s mouth enables a person to control and turn the large animal. What a powerful influence!

The next illustration is of a large ship and the importance of its small helm, or wheel, which influences the rudder. In other words, the steering mechanism above deck controls the steering apparatus below the vessel. Similarly, a little wheel controls a long tractor trailer truck. James got his point across quickly and clearly.

Verse 6 gives the illustration of the tongue, which is likened to a little match. Notice that verse 5 ties in boasting with the teaching capacity. “The tongue is a little member, … [yet it] boasteth great things.”

James 3:6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.

James 3:7 For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:

James 3:8 But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.

James devoted many verses to the dangers of the tongue. Evidently, he was a very astute person, even though he was only a fisherman.

“The tongue … setteth on fire the course of nature.” In the Greek, the word translated “course” is “wheel.” James was referring to the blood circulatory system in the human body. He was saying that the tongue can start out peacefully, but when trouble occurs, it can stir up wrath in  the individual so that he begins to lose control. His face turns red and his blood vessels get distended. Before long, statements are made in the heat of wrath that have an injurious influence on others. Guilt and culpability are incurred that can lead to Second Death.

Q: Was the fire illustration used simply to show how the tongue can get out of control?

A: James was showing the destructive aspect of fire. (In a constructive sense, for example, fire produces heat for comfort and cooking and destroys noxious garbage.) In the destructive  sense, a little match can set an entire forest on fire, and thus a little tongue can do a world ofdamage, defiling “the whole body,” that is, the individual himself or the circle of his influence. “The tongue … is set on fire of hell [picturing Second Death].” Just as garbage was burned in the Valley of Gehenna outside Jerusalem, so Second Death destroys those who go into it (Rev. 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8). Therefore, it will be a blessing for mankind at the end of the Kingdom Age when all of the incorrigible have been eradicated from the earth. God’s name will no longer be slandered in any way. It is hard to serve God in the present age, for the environment is impure. Constructively speaking, if the one at the helm of a ship (the tongue) is a good craftsman, his power can be for good. Even though the wind blows fiercely and the water is tempestuous, a strong, sturdy, knowledgeable, controlled helmsman can control the entire ship. Only Jesus is the perfect “helmsman,” as manifested during his earthly ministry and with his current capabilities. We sing, “Master, the tempest is raging,” wanting him to steer us.

Q: Was James speaking about the elders with these lessons?

A: Elders were particularly being addressed, but all Christians are responsible for how they use their tongues. James was telling about the dangers of an uncontrolled tongue, but at the same time, he realized we cannot have perfect control in the present life. Hence we may stumble in some matters, but care must be taken.

Comment: The responsibility seems to be primarily a personal one. In other words, each Christian must bridle his own tongue.

Reply: Although James was writing to Christian Jews who were scattered about the world, the epistle also had great value for Jews who were still searching for God.

These lessons have a personal, a practical, and an enlarged sense. In the personal sense, emotions, especially anger, stir up the circulatory system. As Jesus said, we must be careful not to call any man “Raca” or “Fool” lest we be in danger of Second Death (Matt. 5:22). James Zebedee took many lessons and principles from Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.

Comment: In Matthew 15:18-20, Jesus spoke of the connection between misuse of the tongue and Second Death: “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man.” Fire coming out on the tongue is an indication of the inward heart condition.

Comment: An example of the tongue adversely affecting others is Mark 15:11, “But the chief priests moved the people, that he [Pilate] should rather release Barabbas unto them.”

Reply: Yes, the chief priests and scribes influenced the mob to cry, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” There were degrees of responsibility in connection with Jesus’ crucifixion: chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, Pilate, the mob, etc. The degree of culpability with any sin is up to God. He can determine what portion of a sin is due to Adamic weakness and what portion is due to willfulness. Of course most sins are a mixture. It is wonderful that the Lord knows us inside and out, our “uprising” and our “downsitting.” We must leave the judgment to Him and just do the best we can (Psa. 139:2).

“Every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind.” All of these creatures are tamable; they can be and have been tamed. There are even tame alligators and crocodiles, BUT the tongue cannot be tamed completely and is “full of deadly poison.” By nature, as children of Adam, humans are fallen, depraved, and born and shapen in iniquity (Psa. 51:5).

Comment: In verse 8, the Diaglott says “death-producing poison,” which ties in with the “fire of Gehenna.”

To go to the extreme position, consider the development of Papacy, whose adherents profess to love God and His Word. But during the Dark Ages, the clergy were responsible for burning people at the stake. Even the world of mankind realizes the danger of religious fanaticism, which can easily get out of control to persecute others. Jesus said that “Christians” who persecute religiously often think they are doing God a favor (John 16:2).

James 3:10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.

James 3:11 Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?

James 3:12 Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.

Verses 10-12 are sanctified common-sense reasoning, the spirit of a sound mind. James is the fourth stone on the high priest’s breastplate, the chrysolite, which lapidarians used to call the “stone of wisdom.” Wisdom was mentioned repeatedly by James (James 1:5; 3:13,15,17).

Verses 10-12 are contradictions, that is, contrary to nature. Does nature do these things? No, for nature is harmonious. In regard to humans, if both bitterness and sweetness emanate from the same heart, the person is manifesting a form of hypocrisy. Some of the most hurtful opposition can be done with the tongue of an orator—that is, with sweetness and honey—yet sting like an asp. The mixture can be, and is, done by humans, but not in God’s arrangement.

Such incongruities are incompatible with the way God has designed nature.

Comment: Just as the fountain is the source of water, the fig tree is the source of figs, and the olive tree is the source of olives, so the heart condition is the source of words.

Comment: Some Christians who go out preaching are very loving, but as soon as we disagree with their doctrines, they say we are going to hell. That is an example of incongruity, of blessing and cursing coming from the same mouth.

Q: Is judgment involved here? If we hear impure words coming out of the mouth, should we judge that the individual is impure?

A: The judgment (“greater condemnation”) of verse 1 is God’s judgment of the individual, the opinion of the divine court.

While James emphasized the importance of the relationship between faith and works, here he was describing unfruitful works.

Comment: These cautions seem to apply especially to habitual wrong words, to a lifestyle of evil use of the tongue. These verses help us to see the impact of our words on our characters. If we catch ourselves saying something amiss, we should ask, “What characteristic in me (the source) is causing such words?” Self-examination is important and necessary so that we are as correct as possible.

Comment: If we say something amiss publicly, we should confess the sin publicly. Thus we would be trying our best to undo any damage.

Reply: James did not use the word “stumble,” but the implication was that it is impossible to perfectly control the tongue. However, a lifestyle, which can be seen, is different from occasional wrong words. For instance, the wicked are likened to thorns, thistles, and brambles. And some people seem to have nothing but criticism; there is nothing positive to build upon.

Comment: The Book of Proverbs contains a lot about the tongue. For example, Proverbs 18:20,21 reads, “A man’s belly shall be satisfied with the fruit of his mouth; and with the increase of his lips shall he be filled. Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.”

Reply: Those who studiously try to control the tongue will get the benefit of good fruitage. That proverb speaks from the positive standpoint, whereas James spoke from the negative standpoint, that is, of the dangers. However, from the negative, we can see the positive better and vice versa.

James 3:13 Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.

“Conversation” means “conduct.” “Meekness of wisdom” has many facets including approachability. In other words, a person with this characteristic is one who will discuss matters.

James 3:14 But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry and for a very short while after Pentecost, the Church was pure.

However, the topics covered in this epistle indicate that a lot of problems developed in the early Church. “The truth” does not refer to dispensational or theoretical doctrine but to basic sound truth that is right, pure, clean, and good.

James 3:15 This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.

What is the difference between earthly, sensual, and devilish wisdom?

Comment: “Earthly” wisdom would be the world’s wisdom. “Sensual” wisdom is fleshly wisdom. “Devilish” wisdom pertains to the Adversary. In other words, improper wisdom is from the world, the flesh, and/or the devil.

James 3:16 For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.

Envying and strife cause tumult. There is nothing constructive or edifying for the inner man.

James 3:17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.

Q: Does this admonition pertain primarily to character development and secondarily to doctrine? The “wisdom that is from above” is contrasted with the earthly, sensual, unholy wisdom of verse 15.

A: The admonition pertains to character and morals. Philippians 4:8 is similar in principle: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Truth and purity come first. Words and actions should be chaste, pure, holy, wholesome, clean.

Comment: A statement that is not true and honest should not be uttered.

The next quality is “peaceable,” that is, that which promotes peace. In Ephesians 4:3, the Apostle Paul said, “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Comment: With a morals problem, for example, a statement might not initially promote peace, but it would be necessary to utter in order to bring peace in the final analysis.

James 3:17 and Philippians 4:8 mention only the positive, but there certainly are negatives to consider. The categories in both verses, which pertain to constructive, wholesome words and actions, are in an intentional sequence.

The third category is “gentle.” This word suggests that we should consider the feelings of others as long as we do not compromise principle. Being “gentle” means being meek, modest, and, as much as possible, putting the best construction on the words and actions of others. In other words, it pertains to our dealings with others in the Christian fold.

“Easy to be entreated” is being approachable, open to reason, willing to yield to reason—hence not being stubborn or obstinate. “Full of mercy” signifies a readiness to forgive. “Full of … good fruits” means to have an attitude that is spiritually productive, constructive, wholesome, and nourishing—in principle, it is being full of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

“Without partiality.” The King James margin has “without wrangling.” The next chapter of James begins with dynamite: “From whence come wars and fightings among you?” With the context continuing, the chapter division is arbitrary. The reference seems to be to differences within the Church itself, rather than between the Christian and the world.

“Without hypocrisy” means to be sincere and not pretending to be what one is not. In the Greek, the word hypocrisy means to have a mask or cloak that hides one’s true feelings.

Hypocrisy is being double-faced.

Comment: Not having feigned love is another definition.

James 3:18 And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.

We are first to sow peace within ourselves, and then to promote peace in others. “Blessed are the peacemakers” pertains to sowing peace with others, but we must start with self (Matt. 5:9).

Comment: The NIV says, “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”

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