Bible Commentaries
James 3

Hampton's Commentary on Selected BooksHampton's Commentary

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Verse 1

"Let Not Many of You Become Teachers"

Apparently, there were those in James' day who rushed to teach ( Jam_3:1 ). They longed for the prominent position in which it would put them. Certainly that had been a problem of the scribes and Pharisees ( Mat_23:1-12 ). For some, it was carried over into the church ( Rom_2:17-25 ; 1Ti_1:3-7 ). The problem may have been encouraged by the somewhat informal organization of their worship services ( 1Co_14:26-40 ).

The desire to teach is a good desire that should not be discouraged ( Mat_28:18-20 ; 2Ti_2:2 ). Instead, we should discourage a seeking after personal glory. We should also beware of failing to be adequately prepared to teach ( Heb_5:12-14 ; 1Ti_4:12-16 ). God has stricter standards for those who teach because their words can cause others to believe a false gospel ( Gal_1:6-9 ; Rom_16:17-18 ). Bad teaching can also lead others into the practice of error ( Gal_2:11-13 ). Such would surely bring down a heavy judgment upon us ( Mat_18:6-7 ).

Woods does well to remind us that there is a great joy for those who properly teach. To the Philippians Paul said, "Therefore, my beloved and longed for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved" ( Php_4:1 ; compare 2Co_1:14 ; 1Th_2:18-20 ). John said, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth" ( 3Jn_1:4 ).

Verses 2-6

Little, But Powerful

We all continually trip or slip into wrong actions. Thankfully, Christ's blood continually cleanses ( 1Jn_1:7-9 ). The most common sins must be those of the tongue because James says the man that controls it is perfect and able to control his whole body ( Jam_3:2 ). James used two illustrations to show the power of the tongue.

First, he referred to the bridle. By controlling the horse's mouth, the rider is able to control the whole horse. Similarly, we need to keep our tongues under control ( Psa_39:1 ). Then, James told his readers about the rudder. Huge ships are driven by fierce winds but are turned according to the pilot's desire by a very small rudder. The tongue is small like the bridle and rudder, but it is able to do great things, either good or bad. A great bonfire, or forest fire, can be started by one small match ( Jam_3:3-5 ).

The tongue can be truly called a fire in its devastating effects ( Pro_16:27 ; Pro_26:18-28 ). An uncontrolled tongue is totally wicked, in fact, a world of evil in itself. It stains the whole life in its sinfulness. The tongue often sets the stage for what we feel we must do. Robertson notes, "It is now known that angry words cause the glands of the body to discharge a dangerous poison that affects the stomach, the heart, the brain." There are two possible meanings for "course of nature." It is either all of one's life, or, the sum of all human existence. Both would be true. Hitler's evil tongue led the whole world to war. The tongue's fire is so destructive it can only be set on fire by Hell, which is the place of eternal punishment for the devil and his angels ( Jam_3:6 ; Mat_25:41 ).

Verses 7-12

No One Can Tame the Tongue

Mankind has been able to subdue all the animals, but not his tongue. Woods notes that the verb indicates momentary action in regard to taming. One may control his tongue for years, yet let it loose for just a moment and reap havoc. "Unruly evil" is like a restless caged animal always stalking about seeking a means of escape. It is like a poisonous snake full of venom and ready to strike a death delivering blow ( Jam_3:7-8 ; Psa_140:1-3 ).

Man uses the tongue to praise and speak highly of God ( Eph_5:19 ; Heb_13:15 ; Rom_10:9-10 ). Yet, the same tongue is used to "regularly pronounce curses upon other men" (Woods). It is actually a prayer to God to cause evil to fall down upon a man. We need to remember that one who truly loves God must show it through his true display of love for his fellow man ( 1Jn_4:20-21 ; Mat_25:31-46 ). For, man is made in the image of God ( Jam_3:9 ; Gen_1:26 ).

Jam_3:10-12 comments on and illustrates the ridiculous nature of the action described in verse 9. Woods says the force of the verb makes it mean, "These things ought not to begin to be." Obviously, calling down the curse of God upon men will not cause God to act. It is as contradictory to use the same tongue to bless God and curse men as it is for a fountain to give forth sweet and bitter water. It is as absurd as a fig tree bearing olive berries, a vine producing figs, or a fountain producing fresh and salt water.

Actually, the problem with the mouth stems from the heart. Solomon said, "Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life" ( Pro_4:23 ; Mat_15:18 ). If we can get our heart right with God, our mouth will not be used to curse man.

Verses 13-16

A Wisdom From the Devil

Some of those rushing to be teachers may have claimed great book knowledge. They may also have claimed to have wisdom, or the ability to apply knowledge. The test of that comes in how one lives. Some may have said, "Your actions are so loud I can't hear what you are saying." Real wisdom is found in one who knows how much he does not know. So, a good teacher will not be proud or haughty in his knowledge, but will teach in meekness ( Jam_3:13 ).

Some people get a sour disposition when someone else does well. They tend to rally people to their side to win arguments whether they are right or wrong. Such actions make one lie against what is right. Those who do that have no reason to be proud of their so-called wisdom. Christians need to put aside bitter envy and personal pride ( Jam_3:14 ; Heb_12:15 ; Eph_4:31 ; 3Jn_1:9-11 ).

The so-called wisdom of verse 14 is not from God, but from the devil, or demons under his control ( 1Ti_4:1 ). It originates on earth instead of in heaven (see Joh_8:23 ; Php_3:18-19 ; Col_3:1-10 ; 1Jn_2:15-17 ). It comes from an attempt to fulfill physical desires without retaining control over one's body ( Jud_1:17-19 ). Obviously, a wisdom which causes envy and strife would not be from God since it produces disorder and worthless works ( Jam_3:15-16 ; 1Co_14:33 ).

Verses 17-18

The Fruits of Heavenly Wisdom

In contrast to the wisdom from the devil, James presents the wisdom from heaven. He begins his list of the fruits of heavenly wisdom with the word "pure." It might be described as being free from fault. To achieve freedom from fault, one must submit his life to the Savior. He must be willing to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus to receive remission from his sins ( Act_2:38 ).

"Peaceable" describes a peace lover. Jesus said the peacemakers would be called children of God ( Mat_5:9 ). After all, God sent his Son to make peace between himself and sinful man ( Rom_5:8-10 ; Eph_2:13-16 ). The wisdom which comes down from God is also "gentle." That is, fair in its treatment of others and mild mannered. "Willing to yield" describes one with an open mind who can be persuaded to change when the facts are laid before him.

The one with God's wisdom will likewise be full of compassion, or "mercy." (compare Mat_6:14-15 ). Jesus repeatedly filled this role while on earth ( Mat_8:1-17 ; Mat_9:1-8 ; Mat_9:18-38 ; Mat_14:13-21 ; Mat_23:37 ). God's wisdom will cause a man to be full of "good fruits", too. Our Lord said, "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them" ( Mat_7:18-20 ). The American Standard Version translates the next word by putting "variance." Roberts says, "here the word seems to mean 'not vacillating,' 'not acting one way in one circumstance and another in a different one.'" The man who is truly wise will not be doubtful or uncertain in his actions (Remember 1:8). Neither will he have "hypocrisy." This originally stood for an actor on a stage, thus one who was acting like someone other than himself. Jesus gave stern warnings to the scribes and Pharisees because of their hypocrisy ( Mat_23:1-39 ).

True wisdom will produce right living in the wise. That right living will be a fruit sown in the fertile ground of peace. This will in its own turn produce peace in the lives of the wise and those with whom they associate ( Jam_3:17-18 ).


Fleshly Gratification

Having just talked about peace, it is natural that James would go on to discuss the origin of strife. The strife of which James speaks is that between brethren. He could also be describing the battle that goes on within a brother. No matter which of the two he had in mind, James discovered the true source of all war. "Wars" describes a state of conflict, while "fights" refers to individual battles. These conditions arise because of one's seeking for pleasure or gratification of fleshly desire ( Jam_4:1 ).

Paul described to Titus the state of Christians before they were washed. "For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another" ( Tit_3:3 ). Such desire arrays itself against the man ( 1Pe_1:22 ; Luk_8:14 ). The pursuit of its fulfillment will cause one to fight against all in his way, including brethren (compare Rom_7:23 ). The results of such cause us to remember James' discussion of earthly wisdom in 3:14-16. Obviously, conflicts are born of such false wisdom. Though we do not rejoice in it, the early church had some of the same problems we see today ( 1Co_6:1-8 ; 1Co_14:23-40 ; Gal_5:15 ; Eph_4:1-16 ; Php_4:1-3 ).

Bibliographical Information
Hampton, Gary. "Commentary on James 3". "Hampton's Commentary on Selected Books". 2014.