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Bible Commentaries

Mahan's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament

James 3

Verses 1-8

Can the tongue be tamed?

James 3:1-59.3.8

James 3:1. Almost all writers agree that the word ‘masters’ is ‘teachers.’ ‘My brethren, do not rush eagerly toward and aspire to be teachers of the Scriptures. Take not this office presumptuously upon yourselves.’

Unqualified, untaught and uncalled teachers and preachers are partly responsible for the corrupt practice and doctrine in churches today. We do not want to discourage men from the office of teacher, but we must urge restraint and avoid ordaining novices. We must pray that God will call and make known to us who should preach and teach his word (Luke 10:1-42.10.2; Acts 13:1-44.13.3; 1 Timothy 5:22; 1 Timothy 3:6). Teaching the word requires not only a fluent tongue, a knowledge of the Scriptures and a sincere heart, but also an anointing of the Lord.

‘The greater condemnation.’ That is saying, ‘We teachers are judged by a higher standard and with greater severity than others, for when we become teachers, we assume greater accountability and responsibility’ (Matthew 5:19).

James 3:2. ‘We all, without exception [teachers, pupils, preachers], fall and offend in many ways.’ Those of us who teach and those of us who are taught have many infirmities (1 John 1:8-62.1.10). The tongue, however, is our major source of offence. If a person can learn to control his tongue, he is a mature believer. The person who has learned when to speak, what to speak and how to speak for the glory of God and the good of the church is mature. His actions will be in keeping with his words controlled by love and grace!

This follows James 3:1 because the person who has taken upon himself to speak for God, for the Scriptures and for the church is in an especially precarious position.

The tongue is a small member, but it can produce amazing, astounding, sometimes disastrous, sometimes marvellous results! Three illustrations follow.

James 3:3. The horse’s bit. The horse is a big, strong animal, wild and self-willed, but by placing a very small bit in his mouth, we can turn his whole body in the direction we want him to go!

James 3:4. The ship’s rudder. How vast, bulky, and heavy is the ship which is driven by wind or powerful motors! Yet we can turn that great ship to safety or to the rocks by a very small rudder.

James 3:5. A small fire. Just a match or even a spark can destroy a home, a forest or a city, like the horse’s bit, the rudder and the match, the tongue is a small thing; yet it can do great and mighty things. The tongue, well-ordered and sanctified, can preach the gospel, comfort, bring happiness, build friendships, unite people, etc. But the tongue can also do great harm and evil (as shown in the next verse).

James 3:6. The tongue, when moved by anger, envy, jealousy, ambition and like passions, is like a destructive, spreading fire which destroys without partiality or pity.

1. It is like a fire from the heat of it; it is an instrument of wrath that stirs passions like water boiling.

2. It is like a fire in the danger of it, no one in its path is safe; it can turn a happy home or church into a barren wilderness.

3. It is like a fire in the duration of it; a fire out of control is hard to stop, and words spoken in anger live on and on.

This small member can destroy friendships that have stood for years. It can destroy homes and churches that have been happy and content. It can destroy character and reputations, plant suspicion and doubt and turn men from the truth to error.

James 3:7-59.3.8. Man has succeeded in taming beasts, birds, serpents and even the fish of the sea, ‘but the tongue can no man tame.’ No man can control it, hold it in check, or stop its bitterness and evil. No man can tame the tongue but the grace of God can tame, subdue and make it an instrument for God’s praise and goodness. When the grace of God acts on the heart, it will subdue the tongue.

1. Grace slays the corruption which uses the tongue as an outlet.

2. Grace quenches the flames of hate and jealousy which motivate the tongue.

3. Grace implants a new nature of love which influences the tongue to speak in kindness, truth and sincerity, for the glory of God and the good of all men.

Only one great power can change this small member from an instrument of evil to an instrument of good the grace of God in Christ.

Who among you is wise?

James 3:9-59.3.18

James 3:9. The human tongue is the instrument that is used in praising God for all his mercies in Christ, both in prayer and singing hymns. The tongue is used to thank God before meals, to speak of his glorious attributes and to join with other believers in worshipping the Lord. The human tongue is also the instrument that is used to curse, criticize, slander and speak harshly and hurtfully to men and women who were made by God in his own image.

James 3:10. Some, by the grace of God, use their tongues to bless God! Some, whose tongues are untamed by grace, use their tongues to curse others and speak unkindly. Unfortunately, there are those who try to do both! With the same tongue they bless God, talk religion and profess holiness, while they also curse, criticize and speak evil of one another. ‘This, my brethren, is a contradiction.’ Not only is it wicked and sinful, but it is unnatural, unbecoming and unworthy of the Christian name.

James 3:11-59.3.12. These illustrations are given to show how ridiculous and absurd it is to think that a man may truly praise God and with the same tongue lie, curse and blaspheme. It cannot be done, any more than a fountain can yield both fresh and bitter water at the same time, or a fig tree can bear olives.

James 3:13. ‘Who among you is a wise and intelligent person?’ All of us like to think that we are wise and knowledgeable. Not one of us would consider himself a fool! If you would prove that you are spiritually wise and intelligent, let it be by your conduct and conversation. This is not a single act or two, but a course of living which is in keeping with the word of God. It is the spirit of humility, peace and love (1 Timothy 6:11; Colossians 3:12-51.3.15). Daily godliness, words seasoned with grace, an attitude of humility and love these are evidences of spiritual wisdom.

James 3:14. ‘But if you have bitter envy, jealousy, strife and contention in your hearts and from your mouths, do not glory in your so-called knowledge and wisdom, for it is a lie; it is contrary to the truth (1 Corinthians 3:1-46.3.3; 1 John 2:9; 1 John 4:20).

James 3:15-59.3.16. This superficial wisdom is not from God, but is of the earth, unspiritual and even devilish. You can be sure that when our attitude and words create strife, confusion and division among the brethren, when we speak from envy, bitterness and selfishness, it is not the wisdom of God. Where wise men worship, there are love, mercy and peace. But where there are envy and strife, there will be ‘confusion and evil works’ (Galatians 5:13-48.5.16). ‘Wisdom is justified and vindicated by her children and their deeds’ (Matthew 11:19).

James 3:17. But the wisdom which is from God is:

1. ‘Pure.’ ‘Out of the heart the mouth speaks.’ When the heart entertains pure and good thoughts, the mouth speaks accordingly (Matthew 5:8).

2. ‘Peaceable.’ ‘This is the opposite of strife (Proverbs 15:1-20.15.2; Matthew 5:9). Men who desire peace speak peacefully.

3. ‘Gentle,’ mild, courteous, kind and patient. To contend for truth is not to be harsh, cruel and unbending, as some suppose. Gentleness is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), an attribute of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:1) and also of his servants (2 Timothy 2:24).

4. ‘Easy to be entreated,’ or ‘willing to listen’ to any word of reason, explanation or exhortation; quick to forgive and waiting to be gracious. This is not a sign of weakness but of wisdom.

5. ‘Full of mercy and good fruits.’ Wisdom knows who makes men to differ, knows who makes rich and poor, knows whence comes our help. Having freely received, it freely gives (Matthew 10:8; Ecclesiastes 11:1).

6. ‘Without partiality.’ Wisdom does not judge by outward appearance, skin color or power to reimburse. It is no respecter of men’s persons, but loves and reaches out to all.

7. ‘Without hypocrisy.’ True spiritual wisdom in Christ is straightforward, free from doubts, fears and insincerity.

James 3:18. Where heavenly wisdom and love live and operate, the fruit of righteousness is enjoyed. Those who sow in peace usually reap a peaceful harvest. Love begets love. ‘He who would have friends must show himself friendly’ (Proverbs 18:24).

The cause of contention and its cure

James 4:1-59.4.10

In the preceding chapter, James warns believers against strife, contention, envy and pride. This behaviour is not of God, but is of the earth, sensual and devilish. In this chapter, he gives the true cause of contention and strife, cautioning us against allowing this spirit to prevail.

James 3:1. ‘What causes strife, discord and quarrels (whether public or private) among you?’ All of us know that these things ought not to be. We have an abundance of scripture exhorting us to love one another, forgive, be kind, exercise patience, look not on our own welfare (but on the welfare of others) and preserve the unity of the Spirit (Psalms 133:1-19.133.2). In spite of what we are taught and what we know to be the right way, however, misunderstandings and contention arise. Why?

The real cause is the corruption of nature pride, envy, covetousness and jealousy, which, like so many soldiers, are stationed in our bodies and war against the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-48.5.17; Romans 7:18-45.7.22). Our troubles come from within ourselves!

James 3:2. ‘You are jealous and covet what others have’ (either materially, physically or spiritually). When these lusts and desires go unfilled, you turn against those who have what you covet, becoming murderers in your hearts (for to dislike or hate another is murder). You burn with envy and anger inwardly because you are not as blessed as someone else. You are not able to obtain the happiness, contentment, usefulness and gifts you see in others. Therefore you war against them in thought, criticism and insinuation. Perhaps the reason you do not have what you so strongly crave is that you have not asked God for it! Our carnal nature wants what it does not have and resents others who have it, which leads to bad feelings.

James 3:3. ‘But’ you may say, ‘I have prayed, I have asked God for gifts, blessings, talent, prosperity and happiness, but he does not give me what I asked for.’ Two charges are brought against us:

1. ‘You have not because you ask not.’ Murmuring and praying are not generally found in the same heart. Envy and intercession are not usually companions.

2. If you do ask God, and yet fail to receive, it is because you ask for the wrong purpose (evil, sinful motives). Your intention is to use the gift for your own pleasure and satisfaction, not for the glory of God.

James 3:4. ‘Ye adulterers and adulteresses.’ This is not literal, but figurative and metaphorical. He is an adulterer who leaves his wife for another. We become adulterers in a spiritual sense when we leave Christ, our first love, and set our hearts and affections on the world and the things of the world. ‘Do you not know that an immoderate love for material and worldly things and a delight in the company and conversation of worldly people constitute a conflict with God?’ We cannot serve two masters. It ought to be enough to have his love, grace and presence, along with the fellowship of his people ( Php 4:11 ; 1 Timothy 6:8; Hebrews 13:5; Matthew 6:24-40.6.34).

James 3:5. There are two popular interpretations of this verse:

1. ‘Do you suppose that the scripture is speaking to no purpose that says, ‘The Holy Spirit, whom God has caused to dwell in us, yearns over us and desires our whole heart to be dedicated to the glory of and fellowship with our Lord’?’

2. ‘The scripture is clear which declares that the spirit of flesh and human nature which remains in us lusts enviously after those things which still appeal to the flesh (Romans 7:23-45.7.25).

James 3:6. But God gives us more and more grace to meet this evil tendency and all other carnal desires. His grace is sufficient to give us victory (2 Corinthians 12:9). ‘More grace’ indicates a growth in grace. But he gives his grace ‘to the humble,’ not to the proud. He gives grace to those who are sensible of their own weakness and acknowledge it, who think the worst of themselves and the best of others, who do not envy the gifts and graces of others, but rejoice at them. He not only gives grace at the first, but he gives them more grace! It may be said, ‘To those who have grace and humility, God gives more, and from those who have not he takes away even that which they have in common grace!’

James 3:7. The way to overcome pride and defeat the spirit of envy, strife and contention is to submit ourselves to God!

1. To his will regarding gifts, talents and worldly possessions.

2. To leave it to God to make us what he would have us be.

3. To leave it to God to prosper or empty us.

4. To leave it to God to honour or humiliate us.

The way to overcome these evil tendencies is to resist them (to resist covetousness, envy, jealousy and wrong thoughts when we feel them rising within us). These thoughts and attitudes are of the devil and must be resisted.

James 3:8. ‘You who have been overcome with and a party to contention, envy and strife, ‘draw close to God and he will receive you. Admit that you have sinned and need to be cleansed. Recognize that you have wavered and your affections have been divided. Purify your hearts from spiritual adultery by returning to your first love!’

James 3:9-59.3.10. ‘As you draw near to God, be deeply penitent and weep over your disloyalty. Let your laughter be turned to grief. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord and he will lift you up.’

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Bibliographical Information
Mahan, Henry. "Commentary on James 3". Mahan's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament. 2013.