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Bible Commentaries

Ironside's Notes on Selected Books

James 3

Verses 1-18

Chapter Three - A Controlling And Energizing Faith

The faith of which James writes is a vital force that enables a man to live triumphantly, even to controlling that unruly member, the tongue, by means of which God is so often dishonored and our fellow-men injured. An unbridled tongue is at the bottom of much strife, both in the world and in the Church. Those who profess faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, who was sinless in word as in all else, may well ponder the serious admonitions of this “Tongue” chapter.

“My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” (James 3:1-59.3.5).

In place of masters in ver. 1 (James 3:1) we might better read teachers. To be recognized as an instructor of other people is to be in a place of great responsibility. If the teaching given out be faulty or misleading, none but God Himself can estimate the harm that may accrue to those who receive it. It is a serious thing indeed to attempt to influence men either for good or for evil. He to whom such a ministry is committed needs to be much before God as to how he fulfils it. Far greater condemnation than that to which his listeners are exposed will be his portion if he fails to teach the truth as God has revealed it in His Word. No man should therefore presume to take the place of a teacher who has not been called by the Lord to this work and gifted by the Holy Spirit in order that he may minister to edification. It is the risen Christ who has given gifts to His Church, among which are “pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). It is noticeable that the two are intimately connected. Every true pastor should be able to teach the Word in clearness and power; and every God-endowed teacher should have a pastor’s heart; otherwise there is the danger of becoming heady and high-minded, and devoting himself simply to imparting information instead of bringing the truth to bear upon the hearts and consciences of his hearers.

Admittedly, there is no perfection even among the choicest of God’s children. In many things we all stumble. If one could be found who was never guilty of a slip of the tongue, who never uttered a faulty expression, nor gave vent to an idle or vain word, he would be a thoroughly mature, well-balanced man-perfect as to his behavior and able to hold in restraint every unholy propensity, for there is no part of the body so difficult to control as the tongue.

Horses are held in with bit and bridle (Psalms 32:9) and so rendered subservient to man whose strength does not compare with theirs. Great ships are controlled and directed in whatever direction the helmsman wishes, by a very small and apparently insignificant rudder. So the tongue, seemingly so weak in itself, has power to make or break one’s life and testimony. Nor can any man control it in his own strength. How many a one has determined never again to utter a hasty or unkind word, only to find that in a moment of thoughtlessness his best resolution has been broken by the activity of this unruly member, the tongue, whose power for good or evil is so great.

It is a singular fact that the expressive illustration used in the last part of the fifth verse is often so misquoted as to miss the sense of it entirely. People say, “Behold, how great a fire a little matter kindleth!” But that is a complete perversion of the proverb-for a proverb it is. “Behold,” says James, “how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” Quoted correctly, we grasp the meaning and visualize the picture at once. A tiny spark may start a conflagration that results in stupendous loss. (An unwise or unkind word may be the beginning of trouble which will go on for years and be the means of unceasing strife and division.)

“And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceeded blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (James 3:6-59.3.10).

This little member, the tongue, is likened to a fire which, though small in the beginning, proves devastatingly ruinous as its results spread far and wide. A word has tremendous power for good or ill.

All species and varieties of birds and beasts, even slimy serpents and creatures of the sea, have been tamed by patient handling and attention. But no man can tame his own tongue. It is an irrepressible rebel, an insubject and wicked malefactor, capable of stirring men to every kind of iniquity, and “full of deadly poison.” We speak of a scandal-monger as having a serpent tongue, and the simile is in full accordance with the damage such an evil speaker inflicts. The amazing thing is that even after one has been brought to know the Lord, he still finds he has trouble with his tongue. This is because of the fact that the believer has two natures: the old, corrupt nature inherited from the first Adam, the head of the old creation; and the new and holy nature received from the Last Adam, the Head of the new creation. Such is the power of the old nature that unless there is constant watchfulness and unceasing identification by faith with Christ in His death to sin, it will manifest itself through the tongue long after other evil propensities have been brought into subjection through the power of the cross as applied to the flesh.

Who has not been shocked at times to hear the best of men and those esteemed as the holiest of saints give vent to expressions regarding fellow-workmen that indicated an unsubdued nature after years of Christian experience? With the same tongue we bless God the Father and curse, or injure, men who are made in the image of God. Thus “out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing.” Surely, such things ought not so to be! When they take place it evidences a lack of communion with God and shows that the heart is, for the moment at least, unsubdued by divine grace.

In nature we never find such an anomaly. No fountain sends forth pure and brackish water from the same vent. Trees bear according to their kind,, for they have but one nature. Fig-trees do not produce olives, nor do grape-vines bear figs. If some have fancied they have seen evidence that James’ reasoning in (James 3:12) is faulty, and have thought they did find both fresh and salt water proceeding from the same fountain, it was because two different underground streams came to the surface very close together, but each opening poured forth only one kind of water. With the tongue it is, alas, otherwise! The same man speaks well of God and ill of man, and often fails to recognize the incongruity of such behavior.

“Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth” (James 3:13-59.3.14).

A wise man is a man of faith, a man subject to “and taught of God. Such an one will manifest his true spiritual state by good behavior. His speech will be with meekness of wisdom. This will be when faith is in the ascendency and the old, corrupt nature is kept in the place of death by the power of the indwelling Spirit of God. Where it is otherwise one may well be ashamed before God and man. If bitter envying and strife are ruling in the heart it indicates an unsubdued will and life out of harmony with God. For this there is no reasonable excuse, for abundant provision has been made in order that one may be freed from such bondage.

God waits to bestow all needed wisdom to enable us to rise triumphantly above the evil tendencies of our natural hearts. We shall always fail if we seek to be guided by our own minds or by the wisdom of the flesh.

“This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:15-59.3.18).

The two wisdoms stand out in vivid contrast; that which is of the earth and that which cornea from heaven. The former is of this world and is according to nature-that sinful nature which is in all men since the fall. It is Satanic in origin because the fruit of disobedience to God at the beginning. It produces envy and strife, lack of restful-ness, and every other unholy work.

In contrast to this we are exhorted to seek the wisdom that comes from heaven, which is found in all its fulness in Christ who is Himself the Wisdom of God, and who is made unto us who believe wisdom, even sanctification and redemption. This wisdom controlling the heart and mind of the man of faith will keep the tongue from evil and the lips from speaking guile. It is first pure; there is no uncleanness in it. Then peaceable, never stirring up to unholy strife; gentle or courteous, never biting nor sarcastic; easy to be entreated, not harsh and implacable; full of mercy, ever ready to manifest pity and compassion and to extend forgiveness to the repentant offender; full, too, of good works, for a tongue controlled by divine grace can be a mighty instrument for good; without partiality, or rather, not given to wrangling or quarreling over places of preferment, or envious because others have received recognition denied to us; and, above all, or in addition to all, without hypocrisy or dissimulation, absolutely honest, and uttering words which can be depended upon as spoken in truth and soberness.

He who possesses this wisdom is enabled so to control his tongue that he sows not the thistle-seed of dissension but that good seed which produces righteousness. He sows in peace, because he is a man of peace-a true child of God, a peacemaker, according to the words of our Lord in Matthew 5:9.

When the tongue is surrendered to Christ and dominated by the Spirit it becomes one of our most useful members; when it falls under the control of the enemy it works untold grief and damage.

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Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on James 3". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. 1914.