Read the Passage: James 3
In writing “my brethren” (Jas. 3:1), it is clear James is beginning a new section of his epistle (cf. Jas. 1:2; 2:1, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 5:12, 19). As he writes about the spoken word, James first addresses those who regularly speak in public—that is, teachers. James writes, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (Jas. 3:1). While it is possible James is addressing a specific problem in the early church, it also may be the case that he is reminding teachers about the stakes involved in public speaking. Here James is not attempting to discourage gifted believers from becoming teachers, for God has given such teachers to the church (cf. Eph. 4:11). Note Paul would later write, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17).
Interestingly, perhaps as a means of fostering a type of collective comfort among his readers, James admits to the church that “all stumble in many things” (Jas. 3:2). James continues on in the same verse to write, “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.” Note James’ use of the term “perfect” here is likely a reference to spiritual maturity. In other words, he is saying that complete control of the tongue, while impossible for humans on this side of glory, is likely best approximated by the spiritually mature. James then gives three examples of the power of seemingly insignificant things over that of which they are a part. James’ illustrations include: (1) a bridle in the mouth of a horse, which causes it to turn, (2) a rudder on a ship, which can cause change in direction, and (3) a spark in a forest, which can bring a great fire.
In Jas. 3:6–12 James focuses upon the inconsistency and great danger of the tongue. In Jas. 3:6, building upon his earlier illustration in Jas. 3:5 of a spark in the woods, James writes that the tongue is just as destructive as a fire. The ESV has a good translation of this verse, “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” (Jas. 3:6). In writing that the tongue is set on fire by hell, James is likely referring to the sin of pride, which contributed to the fall of Satan (cf. Isa. 14:12–15; Ezek. 28:16–19). Then, alluding to the creation account in which man was charged with subduing the earth (cf. Gen. 1:26–28), and in which man’s fall occurred (cf. Gen. 3:1–7), James writes that the tongue is an untamable part of the created order (cf. Jas. 3:7–8).
As he had done earlier in illustrating the power of the tongue, so here in Jas. 3:9–12 James gives three examples to illustrate potential problems with the tongue. With these examples James focuses on the inconsistencies of the tongue, showing that the tongue is “an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:8). First, James writes that with the tongue we “bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the image of God” (Jas. 3:9). James plainly declares in Jas. 3:10, “These things ought not to be so.” Second, James asks, “Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter water from the same opening?” (Jas. 3:11). Of course, the implied answer is “No,” which highlights the absurdity of the acts of the tongue. Finally, James’ third example is the produce of a fig tree and of a grape vine. James observes that it would be illogical for a plant to produce fruit contrary to its nature.
In Jas. 3:13–18 James ties together the work of speaking with the idea of faith as he discusses spiritual maturity and immaturity. James uses the following terms to describe spiritual maturity: wisdom, understanding, meekness, truth, pure, peaceable, gentile, willing to yield, mercy, without partiality, without hypocrisy, and peace. James uses the following terms to describe spiritual immaturity: bitter envy, self-seeking, boast, lie, earthly, sensual, demonic, confusion, and evil. It is interesting to compare James’ terms with those of Paul, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies. . . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal. 5:19–23).
- Why is it important that, as Christians, we speak proper words (cf. Prov. 10:19; 17:27; 21:23)? As a follower of Christ, have you been successful in taming your tongue?
- How can we balance James’ warning to teachers with Paul’s teaching that it is God who gives teachers to the church (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11)?
- What does James mean by “bridle the whole body” (Jas. 3:2)? How are the various bodily appetites and spiritual maturity connected?
- What are some examples of misuse of the tongue that are common among believers? What steps can we take to ensure that our own words are edifying and not critical?
- Do you believe that the tongue is as dangerous as James describes? Which of James’ descriptive terms best describes your life?