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Bible Commentaries

Hamilton Smith's Writings

James 3

Verses 1-18

4 The Evils Of The Flesh

( James 3 , James 4 )

In James 2 the apostle has given us different tests whereby we can prove the reality of those who profess the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. In James 3 and James 4 we are warned against seven different forms of evil which are characteristic of the profession and into which, but for grace, any believer can fall:

1. the unbridled tongue ( Jam_3:1-12 );

2. envy and strife ( Jam_3:13-18 );

3. unbridled lust ( Jam_4:1-3 );

4. friendship of the world ( Jam_4:4 );

5. the pride of the flesh ( Jam_4:5-10 );

6. speaking evil of one another ( Jam_4:11 ; Jam_4:12 );

7. self-will and self-confidence ( Jam_4:13-17 ).

1. The unbridled tongue ( Jam_3:1-12 )

(V. 1). The apostle prefaces his warnings against the unbridled use of the tongue by exhorting us not to be many teachers. The apostle is not speaking of the right use of the gift of teaching ( Rom_12:7 ), but of the propensity of the flesh to delight in teaching others, and in its eagerness to take part in ministry. This tendency may exist in all, whether gifted or otherwise. Even where the gift of teaching exists, the flesh, if allowed, can easily misuse the gift to feed its own vanity. Apart, however, from the possession of gift, we are all in danger of attempting to teach others what is right, while forgetting that we ourselves may fail in the very things against which we warn others. One has said, “It is far easier to teach others than to govern ourselves”, and again, “Humility in the heart makes a man slow to speak.” To teach others and fail ourselves only increases our condemnation.

(V. 2). Let us then remember that in correcting others we may be offenders ourselves, for “we all often offend”, even if at times we do so unconsciously. In no way is it so easy to offend as in words. The man who can bridle his tongue will be a full-grown Christian, a perfect man, able to control every other member of his body.

(Vv. 3-5). This leads the apostle to warn us against the unbridled use of the tongue. The bit in the mouth of the horse is a small thing, but by it we can compel the horse to obey. The rudder is a small thing, but with it great ships can be controlled in spite of “fierce winds”. Even so the tongue is a little member which, if a man can, like a helmsman, control, he can govern the whole body. If not bridled, the tongue can become the means of expressing the vanity of our hearts by condemning others and exalting our-selves, for it can boast “great things”. It can thus become the source of great mischief for, though “a little member”, it resembles a little fire which may destroy a forest.

The hand and the foot can become instruments for carrying out the will of the flesh; but no member of the body so readily and easily expresses our will, exposes our weakness and reveals the true state of our heart as the tongue. It is easily inflamed by malice in the heart, and inflames others, doing endless mischief by one idle and malicious word.

(V. 6). The apostle describes the tongue as a fire which not only kindles trouble but keeps the trouble in existence. It is capable of instigating every form of unrighteousness, thus becoming a world of iniquity. By its evil suggestions it can lead to every member of the body being defiled and stir into activity the whole course of fallen nature. The evil spirits of hell find in the tongue a ready instrument for their fell work, so that it can be said that “it is set on fire of hell.”

(Vv. 7, 8). The tongue is untameable by nature. Every kind of creature has been tamed by mankind, but no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Not only does it defile the body, but it can poison the mind. It has been truly said, “Many according to the flesh would avoid giving a blow, who cannot restrain a passionate or hard word against a neighbour.” How easy it is by a thoughtless or an unkind word to poison the mind of brethren against a brother.

(Vv. 9-12). Moreover, the tongue can be thoroughly inconsistent, for, while capable of blessing God, it can also curse man made in the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth blessing and cursing can proceed. This is contrary to nature, for no fountain can send forth sweet and bitter water, nor does a fig tree bear olives, nor a vine figs. By the ordinance of God the nature of a thing induces products according to its nature. Christians, as born of God and morally partakers of the divine nature, are in speech and acts to be consistent with God's ways.

The apostle is not speaking of the tongue when used by grace and restrained by the Spirit, but of the tongue used under the influence of the flesh and energised by the devil. Nothing but the power of the Spirit filling the heart with the grace of Christ can restrain the tongue. When the heart is enjoying the grace and love of Christ, the tongue will speak in grace out of the abundance of the heart.

2. Envy and strife ( Jam_3:13-18 )

The apostle, having in trenchant terms exposed the evil of an unbridled tongue, now warns against envy and strife. In this connection he draws a striking contrast between the wise man and those who entertain envy and strife in the heart.

(V. 13). The wise man, with understanding of the mind of God, will show that he is such, not by boastful words, nor necessarily by any words, but by good conduct and works carried out in meekness, which is the outcome of true wisdom. Too often the flesh seeks to display itself in boastful words and ostentatious works. Such is not his way.

(Vv. 14, 15). In contrast with the wise man, there are those who allow bitter envy and strife in their hearts. The evil, as ever, commences in the heart; and envy in the heart leads to boasting, and boasting to lying against the truth. How often the envious man will seek to hide his jealousy by protesting that he has no rancour in his heart, but is only resisting evil and standing for the truth. If, under the pretence of exposing some evil and telling a brother the plain truth for his good, we deliberately say things that are offensive, we may be perfectly sure that malice in the heart is behind our offensive words. How often have the most malicious words been excused by quoting the scripture, “Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” How few would be able to quote the words that immediately precede, and that would warn us that we should not use this scripture lightly, for they ask the question, “Who is able to stand before envy?” ( Pro_27:4-6 ).

How easy to deceive ourselves in the effort to excuse ourselves. How easy to indulge our malice under the plea that we are acting in faithfulness. Malice is a weed very common in our hearts; yet how rarely will anyone confess to entertaining a malicious feeling in the heart, or uttering a malicious word with the lips.

Bitter envying and strife are not the outcome of the wisdom from above. They are earthly qualities, not heavenly; they express the feelings of the old man, not the new; they are of the devil, and not of God.

Moreover, we do well to remember that envy is always the confession of inferiority. To envy a man with a big income is to admit that one's own is smaller. In the same way, to be jealous of a man with gift is to confess that one's own is an inferior gift.

(V. 16). If envy and strife in the heart lead to boastful and lying words in the endeavour to excuse and cover the envy, the boastful and hypocritical words will produce scenes of disorder and confusion, which open the door to “every evil work”. Here, then, in plain and searching words we have laid bare the root cause of every scene of disorder that occurs amongst the people of God. Bitter envy and strife in the heart, finding expression in boastful and deceitful words, lead to “disorder and every evil thing” (N.Tn.).

Ah me! what hearts have been broken;

What rivers of blood have been stirred

By a word in malice spoken -

By only one bitter word!

(Vv. 17, 18). In striking contrast with the activities of the old man marked by envy and strife, the apostle sets before us in the closing verses a beautiful picture of the new man marked by “the wisdom that is from above”. We know that Christ is above, seated in the glory, and of God He is “made unto us wisdom”. Christ is the Head of the Body, and all the wisdom of the Head is at our disposal. It has been truly said that, “He is just as pleased to be Head to the simplest believer as to the apostle Paul. He was Head and wisdom to the apostle, but He is ready to be Head and wisdom to the most unintelligent Christian.” How true are these words, for the very passage that tells us that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world” immediately adds, “of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom” ( 1Co_1:27 ; 1Co_1:30 ). Alas! our own fancied wisdom often hinders us from benefiting by the wisdom from above - the wisdom of our Head. Good for us to own our foolishness and cast ourselves upon the wisdom that is in Christ our Head, to find that, however unintelligent naturally, we shall have wisdom given for every detail of our life and service.

If marked by wisdom from above, we shall bear the beautiful character of Christ. The wisdom “from above first is pure, then peaceful, gentle, yielding, full of mercy and good fruits, unquestioning, unfeigned” (N.Tn.). What is this but a lovely description of Christ as He passed through this world?

The wisdom of the Head first deals with our hearts. It will lead us to judge the secret evil, so that we may be pure in heart. Then, in our intercourse with others, it will teach us to be peaceable. It will restrain our tongues and the natural love of contention, thus leading us to seek peace. Seeking peace we shall express ourselves with gentleness rather than in the violent manner of the flesh. Instead of the aggressiveness of the flesh that ever seeks to assert itself, we shall yield to others with readiness to hear what they may have to say. Moreover, the wisdom from above is ready to show mercy rather than hasty to condemn. It is “unquestioning” and “unfeigned”. It does not seek to make a pretension of great wisdom by raising endless questions. It is marked by simplicity and sincerity. The wisdom from above thus produces the fruit of righteousness, sown in a spirit of peace by those who seek to make peace. The wisdom from the Head will never produce a scene of disorder and strife. The one marked by this wisdom will make peace, and, in the peaceful condition that is made, will reap the fruits of righteousness.

What ice-bound griefs have been broken;

What rivers of love have been stirred

By a word in wisdom spoken -

By only a gentle word!

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Bibliographical Information
Smith, Hamilton. "Commentary on James 3". "Hamilton Smith's Writings". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hsw/james-3.html. 1832.