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James 3



The Tongue The Untamable Tongue True Wisdom The Tongue Uncontrolled Language
3:1-5a 3:1-12 3:1-5a 3:1-5a 3:1-2a
3:5b-12   3:5b-12 3:5b-12  
The Wisdom from Above Heavenly Versus Demonic Wisdom   The Wisdom from Above Real Wisdom and its Opposite
3:13-18 3:13-18 3:13-18 3:13-18 3:13-18

READING CYCLE THREE (from "A Guide to Good Bible Reading")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired but it is the key to following the original author's intent which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.



A. Human speech is a recurrent theme of James (cf. 1:19,26; 2:14; 3:1-12; 4:11,12, 5:12). He deals with it from several different angles in almost every chapter. Speech is part of the image of God in mankind (cf. 3:9).


B. A person's words, like a person's works in 2:14-26, truly reveals one's spiritual orientation (cf. Matt. 12:37).


C. The tongue can be a great blessing when controlled and energized by God, but a terrible, destructive force in the hands of the evil one.


D. Opening Thoughts From Proverbs on Human Speech

1. Human speech enables us to communicate to others how we feel about life. Therefore, it reveals who we really are (Pro. 18:2; 4:23,20-27). Speech is the acid test of the person (Pro. 23:7).

2. We are social creatures. We are concerned with acceptance and affirmation. We need it from God and from our fellow humans. Words have the power to meet these needs in both positive (Pro. 17:10) and negative (Pro. 12:18) ways.

3. There is tremendous power in human speech (Pro. 19:20-21)—the power to bless and heal (Pro. 10:11,21) and the power to curse and destroy (Pro. 11:9).

4. We reap what we sow (Pro. 12:14).

Principles from Proverbs on Human Speech

1. The negative and destructive potential of human speech

a. the words of evil men (1:11-19; 10:6; 11:9,11; 12:5-6)

b. the words of the adulteress (5:2-5; 6:24-35; 7:5ff; 9:13-18; 22:14)

c. the words of the liar (6:12-15,17,19; 10:18; 12:17-19,22; 14:5,25; 17:4; 19:5,9,28; 21:28; 24:28; 25:18; 26:23-28)

d. the words of the fool (10:10,14; 14:3; 15:14; 18:6-8)

e. the words of false witnesses (6:19; 12:17; 19:5,9,28; 21:8; 24:28; 25:18)

f. the words of a gossip (6:14,19; 11:13; 16:27-28; 20:19; 25:23; 26:20)

g. the words too quickly spoken (6:1-5; 12:18; 20:25; 29:20)

h. the words of flattery (29:5)

i. too many words (10:14,19,23; 11:13; 13:3,16; 14:23; 15:2; 17:27-28; ;18:2; 21:23; 29:20)

 j. perverted words (17:20; 19:1)

2. The positive, healing and edifying potential of human speech

a. the words of the righteous (10:11,20-21,31-32; 12:14; 13:2; 15:23; 16:13; 18:20)

b. the words of the discerning (10:13; 11:12)

c.  the words of knowledge (15:1,4,7,8; 20:15)

d.the words of healing (15:4)

e.  the words of a gentle answer (15:1,4,18,23; 16:1; 25:15)

f. the words of a pleasant answer (12:25; 15:26,30; 16:24)

g. the words of the law (22:17-21)

Principles from the New Testament on Human Speech

1. Human speech enables us to communicate to others how we feel about life, therefore, it reveals who we really are (Matt. 15:1-20; Mark 7:2-23).

2. We are social creatures. We are concerned with acceptance and affirmation. We need it from God and from our fellow man. Words have the power to meet these needs in both positive ( II Tim. 3:15-17) and negative (James 3:2-12) ways.

3. There is tremendous power in human speech; the power to bless (Eph. 4:29) and the power to curse (James 3:9). We are responsible for what we say (James 3:2-12).

4. We will be judged by our words (Matt. 12:33-37; Luke 6:39-45) as well as our deeds (Matt. 25:31-46). We reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7).


E. There is an interesting discussion on the topic of "Biblical Perspectives on Language" in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, edited by Moises Silva, pp. 204-217.



 1Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 3Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

3:1 "many of you" This shows the tendency of a large section of the church to want to speak during the group meetings (cf. I Cor. 14:26-40). The worship service of the early church was dynamic and unstructured.

▣ "become" This is a present middle (deponent) imperative with a negative particle which means to stop an act already in process. This section of James begins with the responsibility of Christian leaders but easily transitions into the responsibility of every Christian in relation to speech.

▣ "teachers" This seems to reflect either (1) the early church's worship where anyone could speak or (2) the place of honor of the rabbi in Jewish society. Teaching is listed as a spiritual gift in I Cor. 12:28 and 14:26. It is also listed as a function of pastors (cf. I Tim. 3:1-2; Eph. 4:11). In Acts 13:1 it is connected to prophets. But here it is viewed as an option for all believers.

It is my theological opinion that all believers participate in the gifts at some practical level. Surely we would not accept a Christian saying

1. I do not have the gift of prayer so I do not pray

2. I do not have the gift of giving so I do not give

3. I do not have the gift of evangelism so I do not witness.

We would say these activities are for all believers. God gifts some for effective service in these areas, but all believers have responsibilities in these areas.

▣ "my brethren" See notes at 1:2 and 1:9.

▣ "as such we" James includes himself in this group. Paul calls himself a preacher, apostle, and teacher (cf. II Tim. 1:11). All Christians have at least one spiritual gift (cf. I Cor. 12), but some have several.

▣ "we will incur a stricter judgment" Knowledge and leadership bring greater responsibility (cf. Luke 12:48; I Cor. 3:10-15). I believe the New Testament does teach degrees of blessings and punishment.



NASB"we all stumble in many ways"
NKJV"we all stumble in many things"
NRSV"all of us make many mistakes"
TEV"all of us often make mistakes"
NJB"we all trip up in many ways"

This is a present active indicative indicating continual, habitual action. "Stumble" is used in the sense of "sin." The Bible teaches that all people are sinners (cf. Gen. 6:5,11-12,13; 8:21; I Kgs.8:46; II Chr. 6:36; Job 4:17; 9:2; 15:14-16; 25:4; Ps. 14:1-3; 53:1-4; 130:3; 143:2; Pro. 20:9; Eccl.7:20; Rom. 3:10-18,19,20,23; Gal. 3:22; I John 1:8-10). This may reflect the non-canonical Jewish wisdom book of Ecclesiasticus (cf. 5:13-14; 14:1; 19:16; 22:27; 28:13-26). There are several allusions in the book of James to this inter-biblical wisdom book, written about 180 b.c. In a sense James is NT Wisdom Literature.

▣ "If" This is a first class conditional sentence; all humans stumble.

▣ "what he says" James is concerned in 2:14-26 about faith without works. This section shows that one's speech, in a sense, reveals true spiritual character. The Bible stresses the importance of our speech (see Contextual Insights, D). We are known and judged by our words because our words reveal our character.

▣ "he is a perfect man" "Perfect" means "fully equipped," "full-grown," "complete," or "mature," not sinless (cf. Romans 7). James uses this term often (cf. 1:4,17,25; 2:22; 3:2) because of his emphasis on the functioning faith, this impossibility of separating (i.e., Gnosticism) faith from faithfulness!

▣ "able to bridle the whole body as well" The control of the tongue is a sign of Christlike maturity and self-control (cf. 1:26; Gal. 5:22-23).

3:3 "if" This is a first class conditional sentence; horses have been domesticated.

3:3-5 Here are examples of how a small thing can affect a large thing: bridle/horse, rudder/ship, and spark/fire. Horses and ships are used often in the Koine papyri from Egypt as metaphors for control.

3:4 "ship. . .great" The Greco-Roman world had large ships. Paul had been aboard a grain ship which carried 276 passengers plus cargo. Josephus records that he was on a ship with 600 passengers. He describes its dimensions as 180' by 65' by 44'.

3:5 "boasts of great things" Here James is alluding either to the power of human speech or the idea of "pride."

 5See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

3:5b "great a forest" This could be translated (1) forest or (2) "stacked lumber." This metaphor of the tongue as a spark focused James' mind on the destructive and uncontrollable nature of the tongue (cf. vv. 6-8).


NASB"the very world of iniquity"
NKJV, NRSV"a world of iniquity"
TEV"a world of wrong"
NJB"a whole wicked world"

This seems to mean that human speech represents unrighteousness; it reveals the often hidden wickedness of the human heart. It defiles everything. James uses the term "world" (kosmos) in a negative sense in 1:27 and 4:4. See Special Topic: Kosmos at 1:27.

NASB"sets on fire the course of our life"
NKJV"sets on fire the course of nature"
NRSV"sets on fire the cycle of nature"
TEV"sets on fire the entire course of our existence"
NJB"set fire to the whole wheel of creation"

This is literally "the wheel of birth." For a good discussion of this rare term see M. R. Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 1, pp. 356-357. It seems to mean a person's life from birth until death, which can even affect future generations. Both of these phrases in v. 6 show the intensive and destructive potential of human speech.


▣ "set on fire by hell" This is literally "being inflamed by Gehenna," which refers to the valley of the sons of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. This is the metaphor Jesus used to describe the punishment and place for those who reject faith in God. It was turned into the garbage dump for Jerusalem because this valley was the site in the OT where the fire god Molech was worshiped by child sacrifice (cf. II Kgs. 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; II Chr. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31; 19:56; note Lev. 18:21). This is the only use of "Gehenna" outside of the words of Jesus (cf. Matt. 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,47; Luke 12:5). This metaphor is referring to the activity of the evil one in our daily lives. James must have personally experienced or observed the negative effects of human speech!

SPECIAL TOPIC: Where Are the Dead?

3:7 This reflects the fourfold order of the creation of animal species in Genesis 1:26 and 9:2.

▣ "tamed" Mankind was given dominion (cf. Gen. 1:26,28; Ecclesiasticus 17:4). Humans can domesticate and control every animal except themselves.


NASB, NRSV"a restless evil and full of deadly poison"
NKJV"an unruly evil, full of deadly poison"
TEV"evil and uncontrollable, full of deadly poison"
NJB"a pest that will not keep still, full of deadly poison"

This is used of the nonstop movement of a snake's tongue (cf. Gen. 3:1,4-5; Ps. 140:3) and possibly satanically inspired "teachers."

There is a manuscript variation in the Greek texts.

1. restless (akatastaton)in MSS א, A, B, K, P, and the Old Latin, Vulgate, Peshitta, and Coptic translations

2. uncontrollable (akastascheton) in MS C and some versions and early church fathers

Both fit the context. UBS4 give #1 a "B" rating (almost certain) because of its MSS attestation.

3:9 "we bless our Lord and Father" This grammatical construction (one article and two nouns) is ambiguous. It can refer to Jesus and the Father (cf. 1:27) or to YHWH alone. Most translations prefer the second option because of the mention of human beings created in God's image. This is the only place in the NT this phrase occurs.

The blessings of God among contemporary Jewish synagogues would involve (1) liturgical blessings and (2) personal prayers. Surely this structure was followed in the early Christian meetings. For "Father" see Special Topic at 1:27.

▣ "curse men" This is a present middle (deponent) indicative. Cursing means to call down problems and evil on another using the power of God's name (cf. Luke 6:28; Rom. 12:14). In context it may refer to rival teachers (cf. v. 14).

▣ "who have been made in the likeness of God" This is a perfect active participle. Mankind was made in God's image and likeness (cf. Gen. 1:26,27; 5:1, 9:6; I Cor. 11:7), and they remain so, even though fallen (cf. Gen. 9:6; I Cor. 11:7). This verse reflects the worth and dignity of mankind whether poor or rich, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile (cf. I Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). To speak evil of another is to criticize the God who made them (cf. Psalm 139). The term "likeness" (image) is left undefined in Genesis. There are several theories as to the exact components of "the image": (1) conscious life; (2) rational ability; (3) moral consciousness; and/or (4) volitional choice.

3:10-12 This reflects the truth of Matt. 7:15ff. Human speech has wonderful potential for good, but it also has terrible potential for evil.

▣ "my brethren" See notes at 1:2 and 1:9.

3:11-12 Both questions in vv. 11 and 12 expect negative responses.


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

1. Why should the subject of teaching be brought up for special treatment?

2. Are there degrees of punishment?

3. Why is Christian speech so important?

4. Define "Gehenna" in v. 6.



A. The context concerning teachers continues from 3:1-12. Several warnings are given.

1. stricter judgment is a reality (cf. 3:1)

2. there is danger in human speech (cf. 3:2)

3. life must reflect teachings (cf. 3:13)

4. proper attitude is a must (cf. 3:15)

5. there is a demonic counterfeit (cf. 3:15).

This seems to confirm the presence of unqualified teachers in the early church (and today) who claimed to be spiritual and have special revelations from God. However, we need to be reminded that although the context may speak especially to teachers, it addresses all Christians. All Christians can ask for wisdom (cf. 1:5). All Christians must walk and talk in wisdom.

B. This section gives the test for "teachers."

1. wisdom from God

2. affirmed by lifestyle

3. dependent on proper attitude.

I would add, from I John 4:1-6, proper content about the person and work of Christ.

C. Remember that James is similar in genre to OT Wisdom Literature. In the Old Testament "wisdom" had both a religious orientation and a practical application to daily life.


D. Paul uses "the fruit of the Spirit," Gal. 5:22-23, to describe the appropriate Christian life, but James used the Old Testament category of wisdom (cf. Pro. 1-3; 8:22ff; Eccl.1:1). Wisdom involves more than content or orthodoxy. It is inseparably linked to lifestyle and proper motivation (cf. Matt. 11:19).




 13Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.14But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

3:13 "Who" This seems to imply that James is continuing the diatribe from chapter 1.

▣ "wise and understanding" In the OT this would refer to a teacher who could apply God's truth to daily life. It would refer to a professional teacher or scribe. "Wise" and "understanding" (1) may be synonymous (cf. LXX of Deut. 1:13,15; 4:6) or (2) may reflect the Hebrew distinction between practical wisdom and intellectual knowledge. Remember that believers are encouraged to ask God for wisdom (cf. 1:5). The gift of "teacher" involves a gift, a lifestyle, and a proper attitude.

▣ "Let him show" This is an aorist active imperative; it is the theme of 2:14-26.

▣ "by his good behavior" The King James Version has "good conversation," which in a.d. 1611 meant "lifestyle." This is a good example of why our English translations need a continual upgrading—because of the changing meaning and connotations of terms. The NKJV has "good conduct."

▣ "in the gentleness" This means the "controlled strength" of domesticated animals. This was a uniquely Christian virtue. It typifies the life of Christ (cf. Matt. 11:29; II Cor. 10:1; Phil. 2:8). It is advocated for all believers (cf. Matt. 5:5; Gal. 5:23; Eph. 4:2). Gentleness or meekness is a defining quality of God's wisdom.

▣ "of wisdom" Literally the full phrase is "meekness of wisdom." This is a startling paradox for fallen mankind! Teachers must live and teach humbly.

The wisdom James speaks about is not the wisdom related to the amount of information learned and the speed and accuracy by which it can be retrieved, but the wisdom of a redeemed heart and mind that seeks God's will so as to do it.

3:14 "if" This is a first class conditional sentence which is assumed to be true. Verses 14-16 describe false wisdom. This verse assumes the presence of unqualified teachers. Heresy is usually committed by sincere believers who (1) magnify one truth to the exclusion of other biblical truths or (2) claim special insight or spiritual power.

False teachers are characterized by

1. financial exploitation

2. sexual exploitation

3. a claim to special and exclusive revelation

If one walks like a duck, talks like a duck, acts like a duck—he is a duck!

NASB"bitter jealously"
NKJV, NRSV"bitter envy"
TEV"jealous, bitter"
NJB"bitterness of jealousy"

This is also listed as sin in II Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:20; and Eph. 4:31. Egotism (the essence of the Fall) has no place among the people of God, especially in teachers.

▣ "selfish ambition" Originally this word meant "to spin for hire," but later was used metaphorically of aggressive, political ambition (cf. Phil. 1:17). It refers to an egotistical, jealous ambition—"my way or no way"—among leaders.

▣ "in your heart" This was the seat of the personality or the intellect. See Special Topic at 1:26.

▣ "do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth" These are two present middle (deponent) imperatives with a negative particle, which means to stop an act that is already in process. Teachers' and leaders' actions speak louder than their words (cf. Matt. 7:1-23. James 2 focused on Matt. 7:24-27).

3:15 "from above" This circumlocution was a rabbinical way of referring to YHWH. These teachers may have been vociferously claiming divine insight and knowledge. See fuller note at 1:17b.

▣ "earthly" This is in opposition to heavenly.

NRSV, TEV"unspiritual"

This is from the Greek root psuche (reflecting the Hebrew term nephesh), which is that part of mankind which he shares with the animals. This would then mean natural as opposed to the supernatural, the earthly as opposed to the heavenly. This probably refers to (1) the "evil intent" (yetzer hara) in human nature or (2) a person who judges life by the five senses. Therefore, this is the opposite of spiritual.

▣ "demonic" This relates to content that is supernatural, but not from God (cf. I Tim. 4:1; Eph. 6:12). The presence of demonic wisdom leads to confusion and evil practices (v. 16). However, the context may imply that these teachers are not only doctrinally false, but also morally and motivationally false (cf. II Peter 2). The demons of 2:14 are doctrinally correct, but it does not affect their action. See Special Topic at 2:19.

3:17 "pure" The term hagnos has the same Greek root as "holy" (hagios). It implies that it is free from ethical defilement (cf. 4:8). Verses 17-18 are a list of qualities of godly wisdom as vv. 14-16 describe ungodly wisdom. True wisdom is known by its deeds. Paul's definition of true and false wisdom is seen in I Cor. 1:18-3:23.

▣ "peaceable" This is the Greek term eirēnē. It was used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew term shalom. In the OT "peace" is usually associated with (1) cessation of war and hostilities and the promotion of harmony and (2) the presence of health, prosperity and wholeness, ultimately in this sense of the reign of the Messiah and eschatological salvation (cf. Rom. 15:13). The form of the word used here also occurs in Heb. 12:11.

▣ "gentle" The word epiekēs means "sweet reasonableness" or "forbearance." It does not push its own rights or opinions without listening to others and respecting others (cf. Phil. 4:5; I Tim. 3:3; Titus 3:2; I Pet. 2:18).

▣ "reasonable" This implies a willingness to hear and respond appropriately, not selfishly or egotistically. It is found only here in the NT (note 4Macc. 12:6), but has the same meaning in the Egyptian papyri (Moulton, Milligan, p. 263).

▣ "full of mercy" This is not just feelings but actions. Biblical love and compassion issue in active love and service, not sentimentalities. This term is linked with the next one and both speak of the care of the poor, needy, and alienated of 2:15-16. Wisdom without works is also dead!

▣ "good fruits" This is linked with "full of mercy." This is a concern and care for those in need. In Phil. 1:9-11 ("fruit of righteousness") it is connected to love, knowledge, and discernment.

NKJV"without partiality"
NRSV, NJB"without a trace of partiality"
TEV"free from prejudice"

This term implies free from prejudice or divided loyalties and may relate to 2:4 (impartial) or even 1:6 (unwavering).

"hypocrisy" This was a theatrical term used of one who never played a part for personal gain. It speaks of a transparent genuineness (cf. Rom. 12:9; II Cor. 6:6; I Tim. 1:5; II Tim. 1:5; I Pet. 1:22). These last two form a related pair as do the two before them.

3:18 "the seed whose fruit is righteousness" Notice it is not the fruit of wisdom; wisdom without righteousness is not wisdom. God's righteousness results in His children's righteousness. The whole life—the head (doctrine), the heart (volition), and the hand (lifestyle)—is affected and redirected.

▣ "is sown" This is a present passive indicative. The emphasis is on giving, not gathering! We are all sowing some kind of seed. What kind are you sowing?

▣ "in peace by those who make peace" This passage may reflect Isa. 32:17 (also note Pro. 11:18; Hos. 10:12). It is obvious that v. 18 is contrasting v. 16.


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

1. How do you know who truly speaks for God?

2. Describe true wisdom.

Describe false wisdom.

3. How are Galatians 5 and James 3:13-18 related?

4. How does chapter 3 relate to chapter 2?


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