My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.
2 For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.
3 Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body.
4 Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires.
5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.
8 But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God.
10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.
11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?
12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.
Today’s passage speaks primarily to the power of the tongue. Obviously, the tongue is more a representation of where sin can make its way out than a source of sin itself. Consider this passage in relationship to Jesus’ passage on the eye and the hand in Matthew 5:29-30:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”
The short-term solution to any kind of sin is not the removal of those body parts used to commit the sin, but to address the heart that is sourcing the sin coming out of those parts. James never says to cut out the tongue, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched for him to call for that in a metaphorical sense. No, rather than call for cutting it off, he calls the reader to examine the difficulty in which the tongue is to tame, and how something so small can control so much of the direction of one’s life.
It may make us wonder why the beginning of James 3 starts with teachers and a stricter judgment and how that has anything to do with the tongue and the multitude of illustrations that follow. Two things I have caught in overviewing various commentaries is this: 1) teaching is an act of the usage of the tongue by instruction and 2) this reference is especially tied to the teacher of spiritual things within the church. In that vein, consider Matthew 15:8-14 which may help shed some light on the concept:
8 `These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. 9 And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” 10 When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” 12 Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.”
We have two issues in these verses to highlight: first, using the tongue to feign worship but not having a heart behind such vanity; secondly, the blind (teacher) leading the blind. There is absolutely a greater judgment to be had by those leading others astray in this passage than those who are being led astray. Partially, that is because one false teacher can lead a multitude of people down the wrong path, and not just immediately, but oftentimes even generationally as false teachings are passed down. Those who disseminate spiritual truth (or lies) have immense power to do either great good or great damage in this world. The stricter judgment is a judgment not absolute but potential, meaning that it is a judgment tied more to failure than a judgment of works righteousness. We must absolutely keep in mind that in Christ through the Gospel, we will be judged but not as some form of good works versus bad works and potential for a loss of salvation or a severe punishment. That punishment took place on the cross by the perfect Son of God, Jesus Christ; nevertheless, it is imperative that those who would consider teaching recognize the weight of such a position within a group. Parents, consider also how you raise your children and the incredible weight there is to the training (or failure in training) a child who will become an adult leading others (perhaps their own kids) someday themselves.
As a side note, the term for “judgment” is krima in the Greek. It refers to condemnation and contextually to a more severe condemnation at that. Once again, we must consider such words in relationship to Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation (katakrima, literally “judgment against”) to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” False teaching especially is a powerful place of condemnation and every generation on this earth has had teachers who will receive severe punishment for leading many astray. It is quite possible too that this passage has more than just the judgment of God in mind; that is, the judgments of people. In this case, the idea of blamelessness (see 1 Timothy 3:2, 10 and Titus 1:6-7) is key to a ministry that is not disqualified or distracting from the ministry of the word to others. Blamelessness is not sinlessness, it is simply not having charges unresolved that might stand against. People do judge teachers and pastors all the time and whether or not they are accurate in their assessments, there is certainly a greater strictness to the standards by which a pastor or teacher are held. I would say to that, though, that whether or not we are held to higher or lower standards by our peers, in the sight of God, we are judged individually in accordance with His holy standards and not on a curve in relation to one another’s deeds and misdeeds.
We should also consider in the context of this passage that James 2 ended with a repeated principle: faith without works is dead. As an extension of works by which faith is exemplified, the tongue and what it is used for is absolutely a channel by which either faith or doubt, acceptance or rejection, are manifested. It is a revealer of what is inside; that’s why Jesus said that it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a man. It’s not what we feast upon, but what we spew forth, that defiles. This defilement is essentially taking a poisoned heart and spreading such poison into the lives of others, whether that be false beliefs, sinful motives, or sinful attitudes. If you keep company with a bitter person, don’t be surprised if you start to cop such an attitude soon yourself. If you spend time around people who speak with gentleness, love, and talk about God, don’t be surprised if you should be influenced by that–or if that’s not your heart, that you soon find an exit. James 3:1-12 uses many examples to highlight a tongue that is hard to tame because of a heart that needs redeemed or needs sanctified. Invariably, while we live in this world even as sinners saved by grace, we will have struggles with sin to the grave, but we don’t celebrate our performance; we celebrate Christ’s provision for people who would never be good enough to earn God’s eternal favor.
What comes out of us when the pressures of life come is only indicative of what is already inside of us. Like the squeezing of a sponge with water pouring forth, no one squeezes water from a dry sponge. That which is not present is impossible to draw out no matter how much pressure is applied. You can’t start a fire in a cave to chase out a bear that isn’t there in the first place, right? You don’t turn on an oven to 425 degrees for 20 minutes in hopes of having a cooked pizza come out if there was never one in there, do you? What the tongue says, and often what it also does not say, is indicative of the condition of a person’s heart. You won’t hear people who don’t love God being moved to praise Him; it just doesn’t happen. You won’t think of a person who constantly complains as content, will you? Words are an extension of the thoughts of a person, very much like the tip of an iceberg. Perhaps some folks let most of what’s in their head out but it’s quite common that most people will have far more thoughts in their head than their tongue puts out there.
If someone says they are a messenger of God but their message is contrary to the word of God, it is their words that either establish or destroy their claims. Verses 10-12 speak to that: a mouth that produces both blessing and cursing, a spring that sends forth both bitter and fresh water, and a fig tree that produces figs versus a grapevine that produces figs. If a dog magically came up to me and claimed to be a cat, but he still barked like a dog, walked like a dog, chased cars and so forth, I’d say he was a liar of a dog. Why? Because we act in accordance with our nature, not our claims. Let’s put that statement on repeat: we act in accordance with our nature, not our claims.
Lastly, what was this whole passage really getting at anyways??? Well, most of the verses are simply reestablishing the primary verse of James 3:1. Illustrations are being used, not to get to a point, but because a point has been made. Verse 1 is not intended to scare everyone away from teaching, nor is it meant to encourage us to not pursue doing so as it would seem wise to simply avoid stricter judgment by not even volunteering in the first place. It is, however, meant to give a very solemn warning in view of the power of such a position of influence, that its gravity is great and the extent of what is taught far-reaching. Don’t you think that’s the point of bits in horses’ mouths and rudders on great ships? If a forest can be set on fire by a flame, so too can a great multitude of people be led down paths of destruction by the words of a single man or woman. Praise God for those who are still proclaiming the Gospel faithfully and the people who are following that teaching by trying to live it out themselves through God’s grace. Thank God for His word, the Bible, and may we continue to seek to mine it’s truths, faithfully interpret what we find and adhere to the principles found therein.
Thank you for your time and consideration of James 3:1-12. May God use this study to help you in your growth and understanding of His word, and please, by all means, search the Scriptures to see if these things are so. May God bless you today.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.