David Guzik Commentary on the Bible
James 3 - Warnings and Words to Teachers
A. The demonstration of a living faith in controlling what we say.
1. (1-2) Opening observations: the greater accountability of teachers and the difficulty of not stumbling.
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.
a. Let not many of you become teachers: James has a sober admonition for those who would become teachers in the church. They must take the responsibility seriously, because their accountability is greater and they shall receive a stricter judgment.
i. It is easy to take the position of teacher lightly in the church, without considering its cost in terms of accountability. Jesus warned to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much have been committed, of him they will ask the more. (Luke 12:48)
ii. The words of Jesus and James remind us that being among the teachers in God's church is more than a matter of having natural or even spiritual gifts; there is an additional dimension of appropriate character and right living. "James found that this department of church-work had become extremely popular. Hence his warning about its serious responsibilities. God will judge us on the last day with special strictness on account of our influence over others." (Moffatt)
iii. Therefore, teachers were both tested more and would be judged more strictly. "Their case is awful; they shall receive greater condemnation than common sinners; they have not only sinned in thrusting themselves into that office to which God has never called them, but through their insufficiency the flocks over whom they have assumed the mastery perish for lack of knowledge, and their blood will God require at the watchman's hand." (Clarke)
iv. "The comparative adjective greater [stricter] implies degrees of treatment at the judgment seat." (Hiebert)
b. For we all stumble in many things: The greater accountability of teachers is especially sobering in light of our common weaknesses. After all, we all stumble in many things. The ancient Greek word translated stumble does not imply a fatal fall, but something that trips us up and hinders our spiritual progress.
i. We all stumble: James included himself among those who stumble. Yet he did not excuse his or our stumbling. We know that we all stumble, but we should all press on to a better walk with the Lord, marked by less stumbling.
ii. This is another of the several statements in the Bible which tell us that all men sin (also including 1 Kings 8:46; Job 14:4; Proverbs 20:9; Ecclesiastes 7:20; and 1 John 1:8, 10).
c. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man: James provided a way to measure spiritual maturity for teachers and for all Christians. Jesus demonstrated in Matthew 12:34-37 that words are the revelation of the inner character.
i. To not stumble in word shows true spiritual maturity. This is especially relevant to teachers, who have so much more opportunity to sin with their tongue.
We stumble in word about ourselves, with our boasting, exaggeration, and selective reporting.
We stumble in word about others, with our criticism, gossip, slander, cruelty, two-facedness, and anger; or with flattery and insincere words meant to gain favor.
2. (3-6) The power of the tongue.
Indeed, we put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.
a. We put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us: A small bit in the mouth controls a strong horse. A small rudder turns a large ship. Even so, if we have control over our tongue it is an indication that we have control over our self. Whoever can control the tongue can bridle the whole body (James 3:2).
i. The bit and the rudder are small but extremely important. If they are not controlled the entire horse is out of control and the entire ship is out of control. It is possible for something as small as the tongue is to have tremendous power for either good or evil.
ii. You don't solve the problem of an unruly horse by keeping it in the barn, or the problem of a hard-to-steer ship by keeping it tied to the dock. In the same way, even a vow of silence is not the ultimate answer for the misuse of our tongue.
iii. If the tongue is like a bit in the mouth of a horse or the rudder on a ship, it leaves us with the question: Who or what holds the reigns, or who or what directs the rudder? Some people have no hand on the reigns or rudder, and therefore say whatever comes into mind. Others direct their tongue from their emotions or from aspects of their carnal nature. James points us towards having the Spirit of God, working through the new man, set directing hands on the reigns and rudder that is our tongue.
b. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: The fire of the tongue has been used to burn many. Children are told sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. But that child's rhyme isn't really true; the bitter pain of a word spoken against us can hurt us for a lifetime, long after a broken bone has healed.
i. "In the two former illustrations, animals and ships are controlled by small objects; in this last illustration, a huge forest is destroyed by a tiny spark. The tongue likewise can either control or destroy." (Burdick)
ii. What others say to us and what we say to others can last a long time, for good or for evil. The casual sarcastic or critical remark can inflict a lasting injury on another person. The well-timed encouragement or compliment can inspire someone for the rest of their life.
iii. Proverbs speaks of the person who doesn't consider the destructive power of his words. Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, "I was only joking!" (Proverbs 26:18-19).
iv. Again, James isn't telling us to never speak or to take a vow of silence; in many ways that would be easier than exercising true self-control over the tongue. The bridle, the rudder, and the fire can all do tremendous good when they are controlled properly.
c. The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: There aren't many sins that don't involve talking in some way. "It is though all the wickedness in the whole world were wrapped up in that little piece of flesh." (Burdick)
i. "It walketh through the earth, and faceth the very heavens, Psalm 73:9. It can run the world over and bite at everybody; being as a sharp razor . . . that instead of shaving the hair cutteth the throat, Psalm 52:2. It is made in the shape of sword; and David felt it as a sword in his bones, Psalm 42:10. It is thin, broad, and long, as an instrument most fit to empty both speaker's and the hearer's heart. It is of a flame-colour, as apt to set on fire the whole wheel of nature, James 3:6." (Trapp)
ii. James echoes the testimony of Proverbs regarding the tongue:
In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is worth little. The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of wisdom. (Proverbs 10:19-21)
Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad. (Proverbs 12:25)
Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones. (Proverbs 16:24)
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21)
3. (7-8) The difficulty of taming the tongue.
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
a. Every kind of beast and bird . . . has been tamed by mankind: A wild animal can be more easily tamed than the tongue. In fact, James tells us that no man can tame the tongue.
i. The human spirit has incredible capacity for sacrifice and self-control. Sometimes we hear a desperate survival story of someone who cuts off their own leg to get free from a tree that has fallen on them, and then they make it to a hospital for medical treatment. Yet that same man can't tame the tongue perfectly.
b. No man can tame the tongue: Nevertheless the tongue can be brought under the power and the control of the Holy Spirit. We might say that only God Himself is mightier than the human tongue!
c. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison: The untamable tongue is even more dangerous when we consider the deadly poison it can deliver.
i. "The poison of the tongue is no less deadly, it murders men's reputations by the slanders it utters, their souls by the lusts and passions it stirs up in them, and many times their bodies too by the contentions and quarrels it raiseth against men." (Poole)
ii. A woman once came to John Wesley and said she knew what her talent was and she said, "I think my talent from God is to speak my mind." Wesley replied, "I don't think God would mind if you buried that talent." Speaking forth everything that comes to mind is unwise, poisonous speech.
4. (9-12) The contradictory character of the tongue.
With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.
a. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men: The tongue can be used for the highest calling (to bless our God) and it can be used for the lowest evil (to curse men). In those who are born again, it shouldn't be said that out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing.
i. Peter's tongue confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God and denied Jesus with curses. John said, "Little children, love one another" and he wanted to say the word to bring down fire from heaven upon a Samaritan village.
b. These things ought not to be so: Our speech should be consistently glorifying to God. We shouldn't use one vocabulary or one tone of speaking at church and a different one at home or on the job. Like a spring of water, our mouths shouldn't send forth fresh . . . and bitter from the same opening.
i. "This outburst of James suggests that he had suffered from the strife of tongues in the religious world . . . it reads like a transcript of bitter experience." (Moffatt)
c. Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh: James points to the ultimate impossibility of such a contradiction. If bad fruit and bitter water continue to come forth, it means that there is no contradiction. The tree is bad and the spring is bad.
i. Jesus taught in Matthew 12:34-37 that a man's words are a reliable revelation of his inner character. What we say can indicate what we are.
ii. Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives: "It would be a monstrosity, a thing to be wondered at, and stared at as unnatural and absurd if a fig tree started bearing olive berries and it is just as unnatural for a Christian to live in sin. Can he so live as to bear the fruits of iniquity instead of the fruits of righteousness? God forbid that it should be so!" (Spurgeon)
iii. "Unless you are regenerated, born from above by a new and heavenly birth, you are not Christians, whatever you may be called, and you cannot, produce the fruit which is acceptable to God any more than a fig tree can produce olive berries." (Spurgeon)
You can label a fig tree "Olive Tree" and that will not make it an olive tree.
You can trim a fig tree to look like an olive tree, and that will not make it an olive tree.
You can treat a fig tree like an olive tree, and that will not make it an olive tree.
You can surround a fig tree with many olive trees, and that will not make it an olive tree.
You can transplant that fig tree to the Mount of Olives, and that would not make it an olive tree.
B. The demonstration of a living faith in the presence of wisdom.
1. (13) Wisdom shows us how to do good works
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.
a. Who is wise and understanding among you? At the beginning of James 3, the author addressed those who were teachers or wanted to be teachers among Christians. There he told such teachers how they should talk; here he speaks about how they should live.
i. "James addresses the person who is 'wise and understanding.' The word sophos ('wise') was the technical term among the Jews for the teacher, the scribe, the rabbi. It appears that the author is still speaking to those who would be teachers (cf. James 3:1); here it is not what they say that he is concerned with, but rather how they live." (Burdick)
b. Who is wise . . . Let him show by good conduct: Wisdom is not mere head knowledge. Real wisdom and understanding will show in our lives, by our good conduct.
i. In this sense wisdom and understanding are like faith; they are invisible, inner qualities. If a person considers himself to be wise or understanding, it is fair to expect that this invisible inner quality would show itself in regular life. Here James told us how to judge if a person really is wise and understanding.
c. His works are done in the meekness of wisdom: True wisdom is also evident by its meek manner. Those who do their good works in a way designed to bring attention to themselves show they lack true wisdom.
i. On meekness: "Prautes is gentleness, but not a passive gentleness growing out of weakness or resignation. It is an active attitude of deliberate acceptance." (Burdick)
2. (14-16) The character of earthly wisdom.
But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.
a. Bitter envy and self-seeking: These are the opposite of the meekness of wisdom mentioned in James 3:13. These words actually refer to someone who has a critical, contentious, fight-provoking manner.
i. "It is out of keeping with the temper of bitter jealousy and rivalry (i.e. party-spirit, selfish ambition, factiousness). Do not pride yourselves on that, on the intensity and harsh zeal which lead to such unscrupulous partisanship, which are sometimes justified as loyalty to the truth." (Moffatt)
ii. "Religious people my be extremely provoking, and defeat their own ends by overbearing methods; right views and sound counsels may lose their effect if they are expressed by men who are self-seeking partisans or unscrupulous controversialists." (Moffatt)
b. Do not boast and lie against the truth: Anyone who shows bitter envy and self-seeking should not deceive anyone - especially themselves - about how wise they are. They show a wisdom that is earthly, sensual, and demonic. Their wisdom is more characteristic of the world, the flesh, and the devil than of God.
i. "This wisdom" that James referred to was not really wisdom at all. "It is the wisdom claimed by the would-be teachers of James 3:14 whose lives contradict their claims. Such 'wisdom' evaluates everything by worldly standards and makes personal gain life's highest goal." (Burdick)
ii. Earthly, sensual, demonic: Adam Clarke defined each term:
Earthly: "Having this life only in view."
Sensual: "Animal-having for its object the gratification of the passions and animal propensities."
Demonic: "Demoniacal-inspired by demons, and maintained in the soul by their indwelling influence."
c. Confusion and every evil thing: This is the fruit of human, earthly wisdom. The wisdom of the world, the flesh, and the devil may be able to accomplish things, but always with the ultimate fruit of confusion and every evil thing.
3. (17-18) The character of heavenly wisdom.
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
a. But the wisdom that is from above: God's wisdom also has fruit. James here defined exactly what he meant by the meekness of wisdom in James 3:13.
b. First pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy: The character of this wisdom is wonderful. It is full of love and a giving heart, consistent with the holiness of God.
i. This wisdom is first pure: "The reference is not to sexual purity but to the absence of any sinful attitude or motive." (Burdick)
ii. This wisdom is then peaceable: "This is one of the great words of character description in the NT. In the LXX it is used mostly of God's disposition as a King. He is gentle and kind, although in reality he has every reason to be stern and punitive toward men in their sin." (Burdick)
iii. This wisdom is gentle: "The man who is epieikes is the man who knows when it is actually wrong to apply the strict letter of the law. He knows how to forgive when strict justice gives him a perfect right to condemn. . . . It is impossible to find an English word to translate this quality. Matthew Arnold called it 'sweet reasonableness' and it is the ability to extend to others the kindly consideration we would wish to receive ourselves." (Barclay)
iv. This wisdom is willing to yield: "Not stubborn nor obstinate; of a yielding disposition in all indifferent things; obsequious, docile." (Clarke) "Conciliatory (only here in N.T.) is the opposite of stiff and unbending." (Moffatt) "Eupeithes can mean easy to persuade, not in the sense of being pliable and weak, but in the sense of not being stubborn and of being willing to listen to reason and to appeal. . . . true wisdom is not rigid but is willing to listen and skilled in knowing when wisely to yield." (Barclay)
v. This wisdom is full of mercy: It does not judge others strictly on the basis of the law, but will extend a generous hand full of mercy. This wisdom knows that the same measure of mercy we grant to others is the same measure God will use with us (Matthew 7:2).
vi. This wisdom is full of . . . good fruits: This wisdom can be seen by the fruit it produces. It isn't just the inner power to think and talk about things the right way; it is full of . . . good fruits.
vii. This wisdom is without partiality: "Without partiality; or, without judging, i.e. either a curious inquiring into the faults of others, to find matter for censures." (Poole)
viii. This wisdom is without hypocrisy: "Without pretending to be what it is not; acting always in its own character; never working under a mask. Seeking nothing but God's glory, and using no other means to attain it than those of his own prescribing." (Clarke)
ix. "These last two words [without partiality and without hypocrisy] rule out the habit of using speech to half reveal and half conceal the mind of the speaker, who has something (as we say) at the back of his mind all the time." (Moffatt)
c. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace: This fruit is like a seed that will bear fruit as it is sown by those who make peace.
i. "The fruit of righteousness; either the fruit we bring forth, which is righteousness itself, Luke 3:8, 9; Romans 6:22; Philippians 1:11; or the fruit we reap, which is the reward of righteousness, viz. eternal life." (Poole)
ii. "Far from being theoretical and speculative, James's concept of wisdom is thoroughly practical. It is the understanding and attitude that result in true piety and godliness." (Burdick)
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