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James 3

Kretzmann's Popular Commentary of the BibleKretzmann's Commentary

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Verses 1-6

Caution against False Activity in Teaching and the Use of the Tongue.

The danger of teaching and much speaking:

v. 1. My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

v. 2. 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.

v. 3. Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn about their whole body.

v. 4. 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.

v. 5. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!

v. 6. 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.

It seems that in many of the congregations, which were composed largely of Jewish Christians, the custom of permitting almost any man to speak that so desired had been taken over. This was a dangerous practice in more than one respect, and therefore the apostle writes: Become not many teachers, my brethren, knowing that we (as such) shall receive the more severe condemnation. In the Jewish synagogues, especially in the Dispersion, in the cities outside of Palestine, there was little restriction in the matter of teachers; almost anyone would be listened to that desired to be heard. But whereas all believers are kings and priests before God and the Lord Jesus, they are not all teachers of the congregation, they may not all arrogate to themselves the office of preacher. But there was not only danger under such circumstances that the Gospel-message would not receive its proper attention, but the speakers were also inclined to let personal matters sway them, the result being that the discourses in the common assemblies were anything but edifying at times. It was necessary, therefore, to remind the unauthorized teachers of the fact that the responsibility resting upon the office and the account which the teachers must give on the last day, Hebrews 13:17, would make the sentence passed upon them all the more severe.

The apostle now gives reasons for the sternness of his rebuke: For manifoldly we offend, all of us. If a man does not offend in word, that man is a perfect man, able to keep under the restraint of the bridle also the whole body. The general course of life may well be called a way and each individual action a step; therefore any offense or lapse or transgression may well be termed a stumble. All men without exception become guilty of such stumbling, even the best of Christians are subject to sins of weakness. And now James, in applying this general truth to the case in hand, states that a man who can control his speech at all times, never offending by so much as a single word, may well be considered a perfect man, since the ability to control the tongue argues at least for the probability of controlling the entire body and keeping all the members from sinning. If a man is able to perform the more difficult task, he will have little trouble with that which is comparatively easy.

But the difficulty of controlling the tongue is now shown by two examples. The apostle writes, in the first place: But if we put bits into the mouths of the horses to make them obey us, and we direct their entire bodies. This was an example with which his readers were familiar, which they understood. Horses are driven and kept in control by means of the bits placed into their mouths, the driver merely pulling the reins in order to have the horses' head in any direction that he chooses. In another case the ease of control is still more apparent and also wonderful: Behold also the ships, although they are so great and, moreover, tossed about with fierce winds, yet are guided with a very small rudder, whithersoever the mind of the steersman wills. This fact is apparent in our days even more than in the times of small vessels. Ships of many thousands of tons displacement obey the slightest pressure of the helmsman, or slight turn of the wheel on the bridge. Even when the sea is agitated, the pilot or officer has little trouble in directing the course of the vessel as he chooses, as he thinks best, so long as the steering apparatus is in order and the rudder does not break. It is a marvel of human ingenuity to be able to keep a large vessel in control with such tiny devices as compared with its great size.

The apostle now makes the application: So also the tongue is a small member, and yet boasts of great exploits. The writer speaks of the tongue as though it had a personality of its own and made use of its power by deliberate action. As small as it is among the members of the body, yet it can boast of performing great deeds. By way of comparison the apostle again calls out: Behold how small a fire, what a forest it does kindle! or: What an immense fire, what an immense forest the tongue does kindle! It takes only a small fire, a burning match carelessly thrown aside, to start a fire which may consume many square miles of forest. And such is also the destructive power of the tongue: The tongue also is a fire, a world of unrighteousness; the tongue steps forth among our members, and it stains the entire body and inflames the wheel of nature, and itself is inflamed by hell. Like the small firebrand that causes the devastating forest fire, so also is the tongue in its unbridled state. It is a world of unrighteousness, it works a world of mischief, its entire sphere becomes that of iniquity when it begins its transgressions. The tongue steps forth among the members, it assumes the leadership, among them, it rules them, it makes them do its bidding. Thus it happens that it succeeds in staining the whole body, in polluting all the members; it sets in motion and inflames the wheel of nature, the whole circle of innate passions, jealousy, backbiting, slander, blasphemy, and every vile deed. Truly the tongue, if permitted to pursue its course unhindered, is inflamed of hell, is in the control of Satan himself.

Verses 7-12

Warning against the abuse of the tongue:

v. 7. 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;

v. 8. but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

v. 9. Therewith bless we God, even the Father, and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.

v. 10. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be

v. 11. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?

v. 12. Can the fig-tree, my brethren, bear olive-berries? either a vine, figs? So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.

It may seem, perhaps, that the orator is here carried away by his subject; but any one that has observed the terrible effect of slandering and defaming which is done in our days, as it was hundreds of years ago, will say only that the apostle speaks by way of comparison. In holy indignation he cries out: For every kind of beast and bird, of reptiles and of marine animals, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but the tongue can no one of men tame; that restless evil, full of death-bringing poison. The patience and the ingenuity of man has worked effects approaching the miraculous in taming and in training animals of every description, mammals, birds, reptiles, and various animals that live in the sea. Though the divine promise of the dominion of man, Genesis 1:28, has suffered somewhat in consequence of sin, yet the mastery of human beings over the animals cannot be questioned, the latter being kept in subjection both by subtlety and by force. But the tongue seems to be beyond the ability of man, to keep in subjection and to tame; all the immeasurable evil that it has caused since the fall of Adam, all the innumerable warnings that have been uttered by the servants of God since that time, have not yet succeeded in curbing its pernicious activity. An unruly, a restless evil, the apostle calls it, one that causes restlessness and disorder, that, upsets all established rules for its control. It is full of death-bringing poison, Romans 3:13; the evil which it causes has the same effect as the venom of asps, corroding and killing.

In what way this is true, the apostle shows by citing one single instance: With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who are made in the likeness of God; out of the same mouth comes forth blessing and cursing. Matters are here represented as they are found in the world and, sad to say, also in the midst of those that bear the name of Christ and confess His holy name. The tongue being the instrument of speech, it is used by believers and even by others for the praise of God, who is our Lord and Father in Christ Jesus. That is as it should be; for we can never adequately sing the praises of Him who has brought us out of the darkness of spiritual death into the marvelous light of His grace. But the sad side of the picture is this, that the same mouth is also used in personal abuse, in cursing a fellow-man, who was created originally in the likeness of God. For God made Adam in His image, and although the spiritual part of this likeness has been lost as a consequence of the Fall, certain external characteristics still proclaim that man is the crown of created beings. Thus the tongue is made an instrument of evil in calling down God's wrath and punishment upon a fellow-man. There is no excuse for this, neither loss of temper nor heated controversy. It is a vile transgression, an evil habit, aggravated by the fact that blessing and cursing come forth out of the same mouth. Surely the contradiction should at once strike every man that is guilty of such behavior; he ought to feel that such a condition of affairs cannot possibly be reconciled even with common decency. Solemnly, therefore, the apostle adds: It should not be, my brethren, that these things happen; the mouth which blesses God in fervent prayer should not heap curses upon men at other times; such behavior cannot be reconciled with the Christian profession.

How utterly unreasonable and contradictory the attitude of men is that still are guilty in the manner described, the apostle shows by a few examples: Surely a spring out of the same opening does not send forth sweet and bitter water! A fig-tree, my brethren, surely cannot bring forth olives, or a grape-vine, figs! Neither can salt water yield fresh. Nature itself teaches that the behavior of men as just characterized by the apostle is unnatural, unreasonable. For the same fissure, the same opening of a spring or fountain, cannot bubble up sweet, fresh water, and bitter, brackish water at the same time. A fig-tree will not bear olives, nor a vine, figs, neither can a sweet-water fountain yield salt water and a saltwater spring, or the salty sea, sweet water. How much more does it behoove. Christians to watch over their tongues, lest the good and the evil, the wholesome and the foul, be poured forth from the same mouth!

Verses 13-18

Warning against strife:

v. 13. 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.

v. 14. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.

v. 15. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.

v. 16. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.

v. 17. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.

v. 18. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.

The apostle now makes a direct application of the lessons contained in the first part of the chapter: Who is wise and intelligent among you? Let him show his works out of an excellent conduct in the meekness of wisdom. Christians should make use of proper wisdom, prudence, and common sense; they should show that their intelligence, controlled by their obedience to the Word of God, is well able to direct their actions in life. Such wisdom is not boastful and proud, vaunting itself at the expense of others, hut it is modest, humble, meek. It does the right thing, it behaves itself in a conduct which agrees with the will of God, not with the purpose of seeking its own glory, but only that of serving the Lord, this in itself being a sufficient reward for the believer. In this spirit he performs the works which the Word of God teaches him as pleasing the heavenly Father.

The opposite conduct may be expected in the case of a man that is full of carnal pride: But if you have bitter zeal and quarrelsomeness in your hearts, do not boast-and thus lie against the truth. If people calling themselves Christians cherish emulation and party-strife, jealousy and rivalry, if they are so puffed up with pride and self-satisfaction that they insist always upon being in the right and ever claim that the one disagreeing with them is wrong, they are doing so at the expense of love. Should they under such circumstances gain an advantage over the other and boast in triumphant glee of their having been proved in the right, this will almost invariably be a lying against the truth, since most victories gained under such circumstances are gained at the expense of truth and love, and will not aid in furthering the harmony which should be found in a Christian community.

Of such an exhibition of pride the apostle says: This wisdom is not that which is coming down from above, but earthly, sensual, devilish; for wherever jealousy and rivalry exist, there is disorder and every evil deed. People that make use of such schemes in overcoming their opponents, that always insist upon being right and want their ideas carried out, may think themselves exceptionally wise, as, indeed, their self-sufficient air would cause the uninitiated to believe. But the wisdom which they boast has nothing in common with true wisdom, such as is given by God, whenever the Church is in need of intelligent management. It is a wisdom, rather, which is of this earth only; it is sensual, in the domain of the senses, which is as far as human beings will ever proceed; it is devilish, it succeeds only in bringing about such conditions as are particularly pleasing to the devil, who is a liar and a murderer from the beginning. This, in fact, is the only fruit that can be expected where emulation and party-strife, jealousy and rivalry, exist, where everyone insists upon having his own ideas accepted, regardless of the views of others. Naturally, there will be disturbances, disorders, everything will be upset in such a congregation, a condition will result which will give rise to every evil deed, the passions finally having free and full sway.

Altogether different is the situation where true meekness and kindness are ever in evidence: But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, lenient, yielding, full of mercy and good fruits, not critically inclined, not hypocritical. This wisdom is from above, it is given by God and should be required of Him in prayer, chap. 1:5. If any man thinks that he is not in need of it, he will surely find himself in a position where he will make one mistake after the other. The wisdom which God gives, and which should at all times rule in the Church, is pure, chaste, holy, it guards against sin in every form; it is peaceable, wherever this can be done without denial of the truth, it maintains peaceful relations; it is lenient, forbearing, even under severe provocation; it is yielding, conciliatory, ready to enter upon a compromise or accept the opponent's views if this can be done without harm to the work of the Lord; it is full of mercy, compassion, and good, wholesome fruits, eager to be of service to the cause; not critically inclined, but generous, even when the discussion tends to become bitter; not hypocritical, but genuine, the Christian does not make use of tricks and devices to trap his opponent.

If this condition of affairs obtains in a Christian congregation, in a Christian community, then it will follow: But the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace to them that are peacemakers. Wherever the virtues are practiced as outlined by the apostle in the previous verse, there the people that practice them are sure to reap the fruit of their work. Where the peace of God rules the heart, there all the virtues that make for true righteousness of life will grow and flourish abundantly. Peace and righteousness are thus the result of the wisdom which is given from above, truly a splendid harvest to those that have shown the disposition which should always characterize the professed followers of Jesus.


In cautioning the Christians against false activity in teaching and the use of the tongue, the apostle shows them the dangers which attend much speaking, especially when the tongue is fanatically excited; he warns against the abuse of the tongue and against the disposition of mind which engenders strife.

Bibliographical Information
Kretzmann, Paul E. Ph. D., D. D. "Commentary on James 3". "Kretzmann's Popular Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kpc/james-3.html. 1921-23.
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