How did you like chapter three? It wasn’t very long was it? It contained just eighteen verses. I didn’t take long to read those eighteen verses one a day for six days did it? Oh, it wasn’t the length of the chapter that was the challenge, it was the topic? Yes, I know what you mean! For the truly serious and mature believer this is a very difficult and heart rendering chapter. This material is severe which explains why so few people, particularly believers even attempt to control their tongue.
Chapter three is a “self-contained” section that deals with the issues and problems of our tongue. Verse two tells us right away that the power to control our tongue is a mark of a mature man or woman. This of course constitutes a test of true and living faith. Is your faith in Christ real? Then your faith will be reflected in your maturity. That maturity is the ability to control our tongue.
This chapter can be broken down into five sections. Each section should be read and studied until mastered.
Verses 1-2: The Appeal of a Controlled Tongue
James is adamant that real faith will produce inward results. In this case, James insists that a valid faith in Christ will produce self-control. The self-control that James is alluding to is that of the ability to control our tongue. James makes a strong case for the fact that how we use our tongue reveals our true character.
In verse one those who teach must be able to control their tongue. We must be selective and put the brakes on those who would desire to teach but are not qualified. James is curbing the danger within the church of those who would make reckless statements by revealing that those who teach will have a greater accountability. Those who assume the responsibility of speaking for God will be held to a greater assessment.
In verse two James gives evidence of how easy and in how many ways we can “stumble” into sin by the use of our tongue. Again we can see the significance of controlling our tongue. The ability to control the tongue is a test of Christian character or maturity. Since the tongue seems to be the most difficult part of our body to control, if we have it under control, it follows that we will be able to bring the rest of our body under control.
Verses 3-6: The Appreciation of a Controlled Tongue
The appeal for a controlled tongue demonstrates the appreciation of effective control of the tongue. James vividly illustrates this point for us. James will use two familiar illustrations to drive home this point.
In verses 3-5a James employs the horse and his bridle and then a ship and its rudder. The idea behind these illustrations is that large things can be easily controlled by evidently little things. A bit in a horse’s mouth is a very little item but a rider can easily control a large horse by the proper use of that little bit. In comparison to the size of a large ship, the rudder is a very small component yet proper use of the rudder guides the ship anywhere the helmsman desires.
The idea is that we appreciate these small items when used to control such large The tongue is such a little part of our body and it controls the rest of our body by what it says.
In verses 5b-6 we see why we appreciate a controlled tongue. A very tiny spark can create a fire that can destroy and entire forest. A small spark can do an immense amount of damage. An uncontrolled tongue as small as it is can do tremendous damage. As a matter of fact if you look at verse six closely you see that the tongue can destroy the entire body. It can actually destroy the entire course of a person’s life.
James is very serious about the uncontrolled tongue. It is not something to take lightly. James states that hell itself is the source of the tongue’s destructive power. There is a deep spiritual dimension here. Gossip, vicious rumors, untruths, lies, destructive doctrine are spawned from hell itself. The sin of an uncontrolled tongue has a connection with the evil spiritual world. It is so easy for something as small as our tongue to be a huge tool of Satan.
Verses 7-8: The Annoyance of an Uncontrolled Tongue
This section confirms just how great an annoyance the tongue is characterized by. James says it is such an annoyance because the tongue is humanly impossible to control. James supplies the proof of this inability for humans to control their tongue by contrasting the ability mankind has in controlling the animal world.
In verse seven James demonstrates that mankind can control animals. James is not saying that we can domestic all animals. He uses a word that means we can make animals subject to our control for our purpose. James isn’t implying that we can domestic a rhino to live in our home or backyard. However, we can control the animal for certain purposes such as transporting it, relocating it, studying it, and minimizing its destructive power.
In verse eight James sadly contrasts the human inability to control his or her tongue. James uses a present tense verb which means that this is a standing or on-going inability. We cannot bring our tongue under absolute control or subjection for any purpose that we choose. Since the fall of man in the garden, mankind has lost “dominion” or absolute control over himself. James goes further by stating that our tongue is full of poison.
Verses 9-12: The Absence of a fully controlled Tongue
James does speak to the fact that even thought the tongue is dangerous and cannot be fully or absolutely controlled it can be used for good. James tells us that the tongue can praise God and yet condemn our fellow man. James is addressing the inconsistency of our tongue. James is showing by the use of the double application of our tongue the very depth of the moral perversity and the tongue’s reprehensibleness. James shows us the inconsistency or the absence of a fully controlled tongue by reporting the inconsistency, rebuking the inconsistency and representing the inconsistency.
In verses nine through first part of ten James states that with our tongue we offer praise to God yet we curse men who have been made in the image of God. We use our tongue to speak blessings on occasion and then pronounce curses or damnation on others. The emphasis is on the same mouth. James does this to show the perversity of not controlling the tongue.
In the second part of verse ten James rebukes this behavior. Note however that James rebuke is delivered gently and with great affection. James is grieved that such an absence of control exists. Here James is dealing with the shame in the sinner who is guilty of the absence of control.
In verses eleven and twelve James condemns this absence by illustrating from nature how incongruent it is for a tongue to bless and curse. James asks point blank can fresh water and salt water come from the same spring. Of course the answer is no. James demonstrates that nature is consistent with itself. James is insisting that the mouth be consistent in its behavior with the heart toward God and toward man.
Verses 13-18: The Advantage of a controlled Tongue
There is no connecting particle between the last paragraph and this paragraph. Some would say there is no connection in thought. However there seems to a “loose connection.” Many scholars think that this paragraph resumes the thoughts in verses one and two. If this is the case then this paragraph can be understood as being addressed directly to those who teach in the body. Even if this is the case, if this paragraph is directed at teachers, there is nothing in it that cannot be equally applied to all believers.
In verse thirteen James begins with a probing question; “Who is wise and understanding among you?” He is challenging believers to self-examination since most believers “think” they are wise and have understanding. Do you have moral insight and skill in deciding practical issues of conduct and doctrine in the body? If you do then demonstrate by a holy life and by controlling your tongue. The verb calls for an effective demonstration. In other words, don’t tell me you are wise and have great understanding or insight, show me. Now before someone gets excited let me state right here and now this is not a reference to that inane and ridiculous statement that is often attributed to Francis of Assisi. James is stating that it is not orthodoxy (right preaching) but it is orthopraxis (right living) which is the mark of true wisdom.
In verses fourteen through sixteen James demonstrates the type of behavior that is not indicative of true Christ-like wisdom; envy, boasting and selfish ambition.
In verses fifteen James identifies where this type of “wisdom” comes from; it comes from the earth, it is unspiritual and from Satan. This type of behavior does not come from one who truly knows God.
In verse sixteen James identifies the product of such ungodly and Satanic “wisdom.” This type of behavior produces disorder and evil practices.
In verses seventeen and eighteen James relates to us the characteristics and fruit of God-given wisdom. James lists some seven characteristics God-given wisdom. This wisdom is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial and sincere.