Taming the Tongue James 3:1-18
In his book entitled Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns,26 Chuck Swindoll has reminded us of this epitaph, etched faintly on a gray slate tombstone on a windswept hill in an English country churchyard:
Beneath this stone,
a lump of clay,
Lies Arabella Young,
Who, on the twenty-fourth of May,
Began to hold her tongue.
I think we would all have to admit that Arabella Young began to hold her tongue a bit too late. As we come to James 3, it would have been very easy for me to title this message: “Teachers, Hold Your Tongues.” You can see from the first verse of chapter 3 that this would be a fitting title for the chapter.
Our subject is not new to James; he spoke of the tongue in chapter 1:
19 Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. 20 For human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. . . 26 If someone thinks he is religious yet does not bridle his tongue, and so deceives his heart, his religion is futile. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:19-20, 26-27, emphasis mine).27
In chapter 2, James once again deals with the tongue:
12 Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. . . 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? (James 2:12, 14-16, emphasis mine).
I had always thought that the expression “slow to speak” meant something like, “Think before you speak.” My friend, Jon Hodges, suggested to me that in the light of James 3, it must mean, “Be reluctant to speak.” I think Jon is right. James writes to us in chapter 1 about “bridling our tongues,” and then goes on to instruct us to “speak . . . as those who will be judged. . .” in chapter 2 (verse 12). In James 2:14ff. he exposes the hypocrisy of speaking a word of blessing without doing anything to be a blessing. James has indeed been talking about the tongue, and he is going to take the matter even farther in chapter 3.
A Word of Warning to Would-Be Teachers
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly. 2 For we all stumble in many ways.
As we can see from verse 1, James is aiming his words of warning toward those I would call “wanna-be teachers.”28 His words of warning are usually softened in translation so that the force of the imperative is played down, as though he were giving a word of advice. The King James Version puts it as strongly as it should be, in my opinion:
My brethren, be not many masters,29 knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
I believe that James is speaking primarily to those who want to teach, who assert themselves as teachers, and yet should not be teachers at all. Let us consider why James would see this as a very serious problem, which he felt obliged to address.
First of all, adversity seems to attract many counselors and teachers who wish to instruct us as to why we are suffering. We see this in the Book of Job, where his three friends persist in trying to convince him that he is suffering because of some unconfessed sin, and not because of righteousness. In the end, God rebuked these men for not speaking what was true of Him (Job 42:7-9). Many are those with words of counsel and advice when we are suffering some kind of adversity. Many of these folks should give heed to these words of warning from James.30
Second, there will always be those who seek to be teachers in order to promote their own interests. In Acts 20, we find Paul warning the elders of the church at Ephesus that even some of them will become false teachers, in order to gain a following:
30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. 32 And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:30-32, emphasis mine).
Third, there was a particular problem with “wanna-be teachers” within Judaism:
6 “They [the scribes and Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi’” (Matthew 23:6-7, emphasis mine).
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God 18 and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law, 19 and if you are convinced that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an educator of the senseless, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the essential features of knowledge and of the truth . . . (Romans 2:17-20, emphasis mine).
5 But the aim of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. 6 Some have strayed from these and turned away to empty discussion. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not understand what they are saying or the things they insist on so confidently (1 Timothy 1:5-7, emphasis mine).
Jesus knew it and exposed it for what it was: The scribes and Pharisees were eager to be teachers because this was a place of status, and they were status-seekers. Paul points out the same problem. In Romans 1, Paul demonstrated why Gentiles are sinners, rightly under divine condemnation: they had the revelation of God in nature and they rejected it, choosing to worship creation rather than the Creator (Romans 1:18-23f.). The Jews were probably saying “Amen” throughout chapter 1, assuming that they were not Gentile sinners (see Galatians 2:15). But Paul has a shockingly different assessment of the Jews. Because they had been privileged to be the custodians of the Law, they felt that they had mastered the Law. They considered themselves the scholars, the experts in the Law, who should teach the ignorant what the Law was all about (see John 7:47-49). Paul found them guilty of failing to practice that which they taught (not unlike our Lord did in Matthew 23).
It did not take long for false teachers to begin to emerge in the New Testament church. A good portion of this false teaching came from Jewish false teachers, who seemed to feel that they had a higher level of understanding. They did not abide within sound doctrine, but were constantly engaged in speculation and word wars (1 Timothy 1:4-7; see also 2 Corinthians 11:3-5, 13-15, 22; Titus 1:4; 2 Timothy 2:23; 4:4).
Among those Jews who were dispersed abroad were those who felt that they were superior in knowledge, especially knowledge of matters pertaining to the Law, and so they were inclined to teach the ignorant. James tells them – indeed, orders them – to be very hesitant to teach, knowing that the judgment of teachers is more severe (James 1:1). Why would it be a more severe judgment? There are at least two reasons that James does not give in his epistle that we find elsewhere:
First, those who are teachers should have a greater knowledge of the truth, and thus they become more accountable.
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked” (Luke 12:48b).
Second, we all will be judged according to our words, so teachers, whose work involves many words, will be more accountable.
36 “I tell you that on the day of judgment, people will give an account for every worthless word they speak. 37 For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
Wishful Thinking: If the Tongue Could Only Be Tamed
If someone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect individual, able to control the entire body as well. 3 And if we put bits into the mouths of horses to get them to obey us, then we guide their entire bodies. 4 Look at ships too: though they are so large and driven by harsh winds, they are steered by a tiny rudder wherever the pilot’s impulse directs.31
James has instructed “wanna-be teachers” that they should be hesitant to teach, because the judgment of teachers will be more severe. He has also indicated that all of us stumble in many ways (2a). James will now focus on a particular form of stumbling. He turns to the topic of stumbling in one’s speech, a timely topic for teachers. If a man does not stumble in what he says, then that man is perfect. If a man can perfectly control his tongue, then he would also be able to control every other part of his body as well. What a glorious thought! I fear that some would-be teachers might actually believe that they have mastered their tongues because they are able to master others with their tongue.
James has said that if a man can control his tongue, he can control his entire body. He now sets out to illustrate this tongue/totality principle, first with a horse, and then with a ship. In 1:26, James has already used the term “bridle,” and now he takes up the same term.32 Once the bit is in the horse’s mouth, the rider can control the entire body of the horse. One controls the entire horse by controlling its mouth. Next, James turns to the illustration of a ship. A ship is very large, and strong winds propel it; but when the captain has control of its very small rudder (comparatively speaking), he has control of the entire ship. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the tongue could be controlled? If a man could bring his tongue under control, then he could bring his whole body under control. But this will never happen, as James is about to show.
The Tongue Is Powerful, But Deadly, and Out of Control
5 So too the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it has great pretensions.33 Think how small a flame sets a huge forest ablaze. 6 And the tongue is a fire! The tongue represents the world of wrongdoing among the parts of our bodies, that pollutes the entire body and sets fire to the course of human existence and is set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is subdued and has been subdued by humankind. 8 But no human can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
It took me a while to see the strong contrast James is making here. In the previous section (2b-4), James engaged in a little wishful thinking: If only the tongue could be tamed, then the whole body could be brought under control. Now, in verses 5-8, we see the ugly reality of the matter: The tongue cannot be controlled, and there is a devastating result for the whole body – it is corrupted by the tongue. The key to our body’s control is also the key to our body’s destruction.
Like the rudder of a ship, the tongue is a very small member of the body, and it is powerful, but not in the way we would like to think. The tongue, James tells us, does “talk big.” It boasts, he says, of great things. The tongue is powerful, but often in a most destructive way. The tongue of man is like a fire, which sets a whole forest ablaze. My wife and I were driving through Montana this past summer, and we drove through one of the many forest fires which devastated that part of the country. A friend told us the story of how one of the many forest fires was started this summer. A grasshopper was somehow attached to the exhaust pipe of a car and caught on fire. The grasshopper sprung from the car and onto the ground, where this burning bug set a whole forest ablaze. A small flame can ignite a great fire.
The tongue, James tells us, is a fire, ignited by hell itself. The last part of verse 6 is very difficult for translators, but the sense of it is relatively simple. The tongue is a “world of evil,” which adversely impacts the rest of our bodies. If the tongue could be controlled, we could control the whole body. But since the tongue is a deadly fire and out of control, it wreaks havoc with the rest of the body. The whole gamut of humanity and society is set ablaze by the tongue.
How ironic it is that man is able to harness the power of a raging river, to prevent flooding, and to produce hydroelectric power. Man has learned to harness the power of the atom, for destructive and productive ends. Man has been able to subdue every kind of creature, from a parrot to a killer whale, and yet with all his success in bringing things under his control, man is powerless to control his own tongue. In verse 8, James switches from the imagery of fire to that of poison. The tongue is a restless evil, and its poison is deadly.
If the tongue could be controlled, the whole body could be controlled. But the fact of the matter is that the tongue – like a raging forest fire – is totally out of control and uncontrollable. And its great power is the power to destroy and corrupt. Isn’t it interesting that man can control the creatures of nature, but not himself? The one thing that distinguishes man from beast – the tongue – is the one thing that man cannot control. And if things are not bad enough, James goes on in verses 9-12 to give us even more bad news.
Worst of All, It Is Deceptive
9 With it we bless the Lord and Father and with it we curse people made in God’s image. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. These things should not be so, my brothers and sisters. 11 A spring does not pour out fresh water and bitter water from the same opening, does it? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a vine produce figs? Neither can a salt-water spring produce fresh water.
Not only is the tongue destructive and completely out of control, the tongue is also deceptive. When I was growing up many years ago, I used to watch old-time western movies about “cowboys and Indians.” The Indians would sometimes say of the white man, “He speaks with forked tongue.” Today we would say, “He talks out of both sides of his mouth.” Unfortunately, this assessment is true. Once again, James will show us how completely unlike nature man is. In nature, “what you see is what you get.” A spring will either produce fresh water or bitter water, but it does not produce both. A fig tree produces figs, and not olives, and a vine does not produce figs. A salt-water spring does not produce fresh water. What something is by nature determines what it produces – and what it produces doesn’t change.
Man’s tongue is different. Sad as it may be, the tongue is capable of producing both blessing and cursing, as different as these things may be. At one moment, my tongue may speak words of truth and blessing, with absolute sincerity. Just moments later, it may speak something terrible, something corrupt. We can see this truth illustrated by the tongue of Peter:
13 When Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on the earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” 20 Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. 21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s” (Matthew 16:13-23, emphasis mine).
Within the space of a few moments (and a few verses), Peter has changed from being a spokesman for God to speaking for Satan. This is exactly what James is saying; the same tongue can both bless and curse. We cannot trust the words of the tongue because they can so quickly change to something completely different.
The Source of the Problem: Two Wisdoms
13 Which of you is wise and understanding? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfishness in your hearts, do not boast and tell lies against the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where there is jealousy and selfishness, there is disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical. 18 And the fruit that consists of righteousness is planted in peace among those who make peace.34
At this point in our text, one has to say, “How can it be that man can control every creature, but he cannot control his tongue? How can it be that while every natural entity produces one kind of fruit, the tongue produces both blessings and cursings?” I believe verses 13-18 answer these questions. In verse 1, James began this chapter by warning “wanna-be teachers” that they should keep silent. One of the main reasons these folks should not teach is because they would do it for the sake of their own egos, not for the edification of others. In other words, “wanna-be teachers” want to teach to show people how wise they are. Thus, the whole matter really comes down to wisdom.
The chart at the end of this lesson will summarize what I believe James is saying in verses 13-18. These verses are all about wisdom – two kinds of wisdom. There is a worldly wisdom that makes much of the teacher, of his style, and of the novelty of his content. We see this very clearly in the church at Corinth. Some folks were gaining a personal following, resulting in division (1 Corinthians 1:11-12). Paul refused to employ this kind of wisdom, but rather determined only to preach Christ and Christ crucified (1:23), even though it was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1:22-25). These slick teachers were arrogant and taught their brand of worldly wisdom by means of deceitful and manipulative methods. Paul refused to employ such methods (1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2).
Worldly wisdom is from below; it is earthly, natural, demonic (3:15). God’s wisdom is from above. Worldly wisdom denies the truth, and in a selfish and boastful way, produces the fruit of “disorder, every evil practice, and destruction” (3:5-6, 10, 16). Worldly wisdom tends to be mere words. Heavenly wisdom certainly uses words, but it manifests itself in godly works. The wisdom from above consists of God-given wisdom and understanding (see James 1:5) that produces the fruit of purity (see 1:21, 27), a peaceable spirit which is gentle and accommodating (slow to anger, 1:19-20), and which is impartial (contrast 2:1-3) and not hypocritical (see 2:15-16).
Man is a fallen creature, and this is painfully evident wherever we look. A Christian is a “new creation” in Christ, but he is also a person whose flesh is weak, and who cannot withstand temptation in the power of the flesh (see Romans 7). The same mouth may sometimes speak divine wisdom, while at other times, it speaks human wisdom. This explains why man is unique among the creatures God has made. If one is truly wise, he will control his tongue, and as a result, he will be slow (reluctant) to speak.
In the abundance of words transgression is not lacking;
but the one who refrains his lips is wise (Proverbs 10:19).
The shrewd person conceals knowledge,
but the heart of fools publicizes foolishness (Proverbs 12:23).
The person who is knowledgeable restrains his words,
and one who has discernment has a cool spirit (Proverbs 17:27).
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding
but rather in disclosing what is on his mind (Proverbs 18:2).
The one who guards his mouth and his tongue
keeps his life from troubles (Proverbs 21:23).
Do you see someone who is hasty in his words?
There is more hope for a fool than for him (Proverbs 29:20).
As we seek to explore the implications and applications of this chapter, we must first turn to its meaning for those to whom it was specifically directed. “Wanna-be teachers” are instructed to be very reluctant to become teachers, knowing that more severe judgment will come to them as teachers. This text is not intended to discourage those who should teach. Timothy is one such teacher who needed to be encouraged – even prodded a bit – to teach:
11 Command and teach these things. 12 Let no one look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in your speech, conduct, love, faithfulness, and purity. 13 Until I come, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the spiritual gift you have, given to you and confirmed by prophetic words when the elders laid hands on you. 15 Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that everyone will see your progress. 16 Be conscientious about how you live and what you teach. Persevere in this, because by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you (1 Timothy 4:11-16, emphasis mine).
3 I am thankful to God, whom I have served with a clear conscience as my ancestors did, when I remember you in my prayers as I do constantly night and day. 4 As I remember your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I recall your sincere faith that was alive first in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and I am sure is in you. 6 Because of this I remind you to rekindle God’s gift that you possess through the laying on of my hands. 7 For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:3-7, emphasis mine).
1 I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom, 2 preach the message, be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient, reprove, rebuke, exhort with complete patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:1-2, emphasis mine).
James is not concerned with encouraging the “Timothys” here, but with silencing those who, for self-serving reasons, were aspiring to be teachers. Throughout chapter 3, James has sought to show how dangerous the tongue can be, especially for the teacher who has an audience, or who therefore has the opportunity to inflame or poison (to follow through with his analogies) a large number of people. How many cults have been the fruit of a winsome teacher’s heresies? How many churches have been split by a teacher of error? How many seminaries have been corrupted by a charming teacher who departs from the truth of God’s Word? The damage that has been done – and is yet to be done – is great, and so is the judgment that will fall on those who teach with wrong motives and a wrong message.
This warning should not be viewed as though it were limited only to preachers and pastors. It applies to everyone who teaches. This includes both men and women, for women teach younger children in the Sunday school, and mothers teach their children at home. They also teach women’s Bible studies. Men teach in many different contexts as well, and they should heed these words of warning. In our church, we have an open worship meeting, where any man is free to stand and teach or share, and so this warning would certainly apply to all the men of the church.
In a somewhat different way, Paul also encourages people more generally to remain silent. We see this instruction regarding silence in several of Paul’s epistles:
9 Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, 10 but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man. She must remain quiet (1 Timothy 2:9-12, emphasis mine).
26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church. 27 If someone speaks35 in a tongue, it should be two, or at the most three, and one after the other. And someone must interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, he should be silent in the church. Let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak and let others evaluate what is said. 30 And if someone seated receives a revelation, the person speaking should conclude. 31 For you can all prophesy one after another, so all can learn and be encouraged. 32 Indeed, the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, 33 for God is not characterized by disorder but peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 35 If they want to find out about something they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Did the word of God begin with you, or did it come to you alone? (1 Corinthians 14:26-36, emphasis mine).
Silence can edify, just as speech can. When women obey Paul’s instruction to remain silent, they demonstrate submission to their husbands, and to the instructions of the Word of God. But it is not just women who are to be silent. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul requires men not to speak in tongues when there is no one present to interpret. He requires a man to stop talking and to sit down and listen (to be “quick to hear”?) if another receives a revelation while he is speaking. Paul says that after two or three men have already exercised a particular gift (here it is tongues or prophecy), no one else should seek to exercise that gift in that particular meeting. That is enough of one good thing, and time for other forms of edification.
What I am trying to say is that there are times when every one of us should remain silent. According to James, every one of us should be reluctant to speak, rather than to compulsively strive to speak. There are some folks who should not speak at all. These are the folks who do not have the message of the gospel right, or they are motivated by selfish desires. But for all the rest of us – men and women – we need to learn when to be quiet and to listen to what others have to say. We may wish to rebuke or to complain when we should put up with our situation silently (see 1 Peter 2:18-3:2). We may wish to give advice when the wise thing to do is to keep silent. While there are many times when it would be wrong to remain silent, there seem to be at least as many times when it would be wrong to speak. Silence really can be golden.
Once again, James has returned to the relationship between our words and our works. The “wanna-be teachers” seem to be convinced that wisdom is a matter of words alone. James does not deny that wisdom is spoken in words, but he also wishes us to understand that wisdom is demonstrated in works. James tells us that the mouth is capable of incredible duplicity; it is capable of speaking words of blessing and words of cursing. We cannot know true wisdom by words alone. The person who is truly wise is the one who lives life skillfully (this is what Proverbs is about), so that we know to whom we should listen. Reading in James reminded me of these words of Paul:
31 Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. 32 And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have desired no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine provided for my needs and the needs of those who were with me. 35 By all these things, I have shown you that by working in this way we must help the weak, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus that he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:31-35, emphasis mine).
16 Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard that we have already attained. 17 Be imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and watch carefully those who are living this way, just as you have us as an example. 18 For many live (about whom I often told you, and now say even with tears) as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, they exult in their shame, and they think about earthly things (Philippians 3:16-19, emphasis mine).
And what you learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:9, emphasis mine).
4 We know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 in that our gospel did not come to you merely in speech, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (surely you recall the character we displayed when we came among you to help you). 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, when you received the message with joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, despite great affliction. 7 As a result you became examples to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia (1 Thessalonians 1:4-7, emphasis mine).
6 But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition you received from us. 7 For you know yourselves how you must imitate us, because we did not behave without discipline among you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s food without paying. Instead, in toil and drudgery we worked night and day in order not to burden any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give ourselves as an example for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you we used to give you this command: “If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10, emphasis mine).
In his speaking and writing, Paul could appeal to his audience to consider his lifestyle in order to see how he practiced what he preached. Paul’s authority and credibility came, in part, from the way he lived out his life. His words and his works were consistent. What Paul preached, Paul practiced. Note, too, that when Paul lays down the qualifications for an elder, he calls for qualities in the candidate’s life which are observable, and which demonstrate true wisdom:
1 This saying is trustworthy: “If someone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a good work.” 2 The overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, 3 not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money. 4 He must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity. 5 But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God? (1 Timothy 3:1-5).
Likewise, those who are false teachers will be known by their fruits:
15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 7:20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:15-20, emphasis mine).
8 And just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people—who have warped minds and are disqualified in the faith—also oppose the truth. 9 But they will not go much further, for their foolishness will be obvious to everyone, just like it was with Jannes and Jambres (2 Timothy 3:8-9, emphasis mine).
1 But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them. As a result, they will bring swift destruction on themselves. 2 And many will follow their debauched lifestyles. Because of these false teachers, the way of truth will be slandered. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation pronounced long ago is not sitting idly by; their destruction is not asleep (2 Peter 2:1-3, emphasis mine).
Whether it be wisdom or folly, you can be certain that either will be evident in the works of a man. True wisdom is practical and practiced by those who would teach it.
It has been observed that the words of James are more like the words of Jesus than any other New Testament author. We can certainly see the similarity of James 3:8-12 with these words of our Lord:
43 “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from brambles. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for his mouth speaks from what fills his heart” (Luke 6:43-45).
The heart is the key to controlling the tongue. James is not calling for more will-power and determination to control our tongues. If the tongue is set ablaze by hell, then only heaven can help us. And God has provided us with this help. He has given those who have placed their trust in Him a new heart. We are to be keepers of the heart, so that the thoughts of our heart are on Him who died for us. As our hearts are filled with Him, with His Word, with His salvation and grace, then our lips will reveal the overflow of our hearts.
More than any act of guarding, guard your heart,
for from it are the sources of life (Proverbs 4:23).
The fruit of our lips, then, reveals the condition of our hearts. In the Book of Romans, Paul turns to a number of Old Testament texts to show that we are all sinners, deserving of God’s eternal wrath. A number of these focus on the tongue:
3:9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 3:10 just as it is written:
“THERE IS NO ONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE,
3:11 THERE IS NO ONE WHO UNDERSTANDS,
THERE IS NO ONE WHO SEEKS GOD.
3:12 ALL HAVE TURNED AWAY,
TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME WORTHLESS;
THERE IS NO ONE WHO SHOWS KINDNESS, NOT EVEN ONE.”
3:13 “THEIR THROATS ARE OPEN GRAVES,
THEY DECEIVE WITH THEIR TONGUES,
THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS.”
3:14 “THEIR MOUTHS ARE FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS” (Romans 3:9-14a).
Does your tongue betray the fact that you are a sinner, deserving of God’s eternal wrath? Then God has given us the solution in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Your acceptance of Christ’s provision for your salvation involves your heart and your tongue:
10:8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach), 10:9 because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10:10 For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation. 10:11 For the scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 10:12 For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him. 10:13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:8-13).
If you have never acknowledged your sin, I urge you to do so this very day. If you desire the freedom of God’s forgiveness and the assurance of eternal life, then I would urge you to do as Paul has indicated above – believe in your heart that Jesus died for your sins and that God raised Him from the dead. Trust in Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is through Him alone that we can be saved.
The Two Wisdoms
Origin / the Root
Results / Fruit
(see 1 Corinthians
(see John 8:33-47)
Arrogant (3:5, 14)
Lies against the truth (3:14)
Every Evil Practice
Destruction (3:5-6, 8)
(see 1 Corinthians
From Above (3:17)
(see John 1:1-18)
Full of mercy and good fruits,
Not hypocritical (3:17)
26 Charles Swindoll, Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns (Zondervan, 1994).
27 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
28 I think it is significant that in verse 1 James distinguishes the “wanna-be teachers” (“you”) from those who are teachers, like James (“we”).
29 The word rendered “masters” in the KJV is found 58 times in the King James Version. It is translated 40 times “Master” (capital “M,” referring to our Lord); 7 times it is translated “master” (small “m”); 10 times it is rendered “teacher”; and once it is translated “doctor.” The point is that this is a term of status. Some men want to be teachers because it is a position of status.
30 I have counseled these people who are in a time of personal crisis to watch out for those who will come with advice and to plan on rejecting most of it. Much of the advice is not biblical and is in fact unbiblical, even though it may be couched in spiritual terms.
31 There is a sense in which one who is skilled in speaking can manipulate a large number of people, and James’ illustrations might be understood this way. The second half of verse 2 forces me to view these illustrations differently, because James begins by saying that if one could control what he says, he could control the whole body. In this paragraph, then, the tongue is spoken of as the key to self-control.
32 These are the only times this term is used in the New Testament.
33 See this bold arrogance at work in false teachers in 2 Peter 2:18; Jude 16.
34 There are some who would say that verses 13-18 are only loosely connected to the earlier portion of chapter 3. I believe they are very tightly connected, as we shall hope to show.
35 By my count, some form of the word “speak” occurs 22 times in 1 Corinthians 14.