Faith Proved in Our Speech: James 3

James 3  •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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The Use and Misuse of the Tongue
Another area in which Jewish believers tend to have the "graveclothes" of Judaism cling to them is in their attitude of superiority over other nationalities. This has been ingrained in them over many hundreds of years. It's understandable how such a thing could develop; as Israelites they were God's "chosen" people (Deut. 7:6; 14:26For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 7:6)
2For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)
) and divinely favoured above the other nations (Deut. 28:9-13; 32:8-149The Lord shall establish thee an holy people unto himself, as he hath sworn unto thee, if thou shalt keep the commandments of the Lord thy God, and walk in his ways. 10And all people of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of the Lord; and they shall be afraid of thee. 11And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers to give thee. 12The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain unto thy land in his season, and to bless all the work of thine hand: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, and thou shalt not borrow. 13And the Lord shall make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if that thou hearken unto the commandments of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them: (Deuteronomy 28:9‑13)
8When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. 9For the Lord's portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance. 10He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. 11As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: 12So the Lord alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him. 13He made him ride on the high places of the earth, that he might eat the increase of the fields; and he made him to suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock; 14Butter of kine, and milk of sheep, with fat of lambs, and rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats, with the fat of kidneys of wheat; and thou didst drink the pure blood of the grape. (Deuteronomy 32:8‑14)
)—and their national pride reveled in this fact. The tendency of these Jewish converts was to bring that spirit with them into the Christian ranks. When unchecked, it manifested itself in offences with "the tongue." This was especially the case in disparaging remarks being made toward Gentile believers who were just then being saved and added to the Christian company. Needless to say, this was detrimental to the fellowship of saints, and it led to "bitter envying and strife" among brethren (vss. 14-16). Something even more serious lay at the root of this problem; it had become evident that some of the Jews who professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ were not saved at all—they were mere professing believers. Thus, it was no wonder that such offenders had no compunction in stirring up strife with offensive remarks.
In many ways, our speech is a gauge as to who we really are; it manifests our spiritual condition. What you are will inevitably be revealed by what you say. This may not always be the case (Psa. 55:2121The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords. (Psalm 55:21)), but usually what is in the heart will come out of the mouth. It has been said that the tongue is a tattletale on the heart. Solomon cautioned us, "If thou hast thought evil, lay thy hand upon thy mouth" (Prov. 30:3232If thou hast done foolishly in lifting up thyself, or if thou hast thought evil, lay thine hand upon thy mouth. (Proverbs 30:32)). Why? Because what we have been thinking is likely to come out of our mouth, if it is not judged in the heart. Hence, we tell on ourselves by what comes out of our mouths. The Lord Jesus taught, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Matt. 12:3434O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. (Matthew 12:34)).
Since the tongue is an honest representative of the inner person, in this chapter James uses the tongue as another test as to the reality of a person's professed faith. He proceeds to address the vanity of a superficial faith that does not produce the evidence of reality in one's life. He would have his fellow countrymen who had made a profession of faith in the Lord Jesus to prove the reality of their faith by the control of their tongues, and thus walk in happy fellowship with their brethren.
Vs. 1—Sad to say, there was an undue aspiration in some of these Jewish converts to be masters over others—particularly the Gentiles who had believed. James moves to address this as an introduction to his comments on the use and misuse of the tongue. He says, "My brethren, be not many masters [teachers], knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation [judgment]." James was not speaking of the right use of the gift of teaching wherein the tongue would be used to build up the saints in the truth, but of the propensity of the flesh that delights in teaching others. Hence, the subject here is not a teacher exercising his gift in dependence on the Lord, but the penchant to want to teach—the sin of clamoring for the chair of a teacher.
Being Jews, they knew the Scriptures well; this gave them a distinct advantage over their Gentile brethren who hadn’t been so favoured. But this led some to assume that a position of respect and admiration should be given them among their Christian brethren, as had the Rabbis in Judaism. It is a natural desire of the flesh to want to instruct and legislate others, and thus gain ascendency among men—but sadly, it stirs up resentment and “bitter envy and strife” (vs. 14). Positions of admiration may have been advocated among the Jews in Judaism, but there is no place for it in Christianity. The Lord Jesus taught His disciples, "But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren."
Teaching among believers needs to be done (1 Tim. 4:1313Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. (1 Timothy 4:13)), but those who teach must understand that a greater responsibility falls on all who teach. All who teach profess to have an understanding of the Christian's duty, and they are, therefore, bound to obey it. The aspect of "judgment" that James refers to here is God's governmental chastening of His people while they are on earth. If our ways do not please the Lord, He will undertake to correct us through disciplinary judgments in our lives that are of a providential nature (1 Peter 1:16-17; 3:10-1216Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy. 17And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear: (1 Peter 1:16‑17)
10For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: 11Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it. 12For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil. (1 Peter 3:10‑12)
). This kind of judgment has nothing to do with the believer's eternal salvation in Christ.
Vss. 2-4—James moves from the use of the tongue in public teaching to the use of the tongue in conversation in general. In the matter of controlling the tongue, he says, "We all often offend." We all know what it is like to feel the cutting edge of an offensive remark, yet we have all made such comments at one time or another (Prov. 12:1818There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health. (Proverbs 12:18)). By saying, "We," James did not point his finger at offenders without including himself. A case in point actually occurred later in James' life when he gave bad counsel to Paul in the matter of taking a vow and going into the temple (Acts 21:18-2518And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. 19And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. 20And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: 21And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. 22What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come. 23Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; 24Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. 25As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication. (Acts 21:18‑25)). Even Moses, the meekest man in all the earth, offended in this way; he spoke "unadvisedly with his lips" (Num. 12:3; 20:9-123(Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.) (Numbers 12:3)
9And Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as he commanded him. 10And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? 11And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. 12And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them. (Numbers 20:9‑12)
; Psa. 106:3333Because they provoked his spirit, so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips. (Psalm 106:33)). Solomon said, “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles” (Prov. 21:23; 13:323Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles. (Proverbs 21:23)
3He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life: but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction. (Proverbs 13:3)
). Therefore, we all need to pray the prayer of David, "Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips" (Psa. 141:33Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:3)).
Mr. W. MacDonald said that as a doctor in old times used to check a person's state of health by examining his or her tongue, we can often discern the state of a person's soul by checking the activity of their tongue. As mentioned earlier, the tongue is an index to the heart. No member of the human body is more ready to follow the impulses of the fallen sin-nature than the tongue. J. N. Darby aptly said, "The movement of the tongue is the first expression of the will of the natural man." This is true of a believer as well as an unbeliever, for all men have a fallen sin-nature.
Since the sins of the tongue are the most common and the most difficult to control, the measure of a Christian’s maturity is in the control of his tongue. James says, "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man." Perfection, in the sense that he uses it here, is full growth—maturity (Heb. 5:1414But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:14)). The control of the tongue is of utmost importance for the maintenance of peace and unity among brethren. As mentioned already, this was quite a test for the mixed multitude of professed Jewish converts because of their long history of prejudice against the Gentiles, with whom they were now called to walk.
The Uncontrollableness of the Tongue
Vss. 3-4—James uses a number of figures from nature to illustrate the tongue's use and misuse. The first two figures indicate, by way of contrast, the fact that though the tongue is a very small member in the body, it is very difficult to control.
A Bit in a Horse's Mouth (vs. 3)—A "bit" in a horse's mouth is not a very big thing, yet it controls the direction in which an animal goes. Whoever holds the reins to the bit is able to press his or her will on the horse and control the direction of the beast. But, sad to say, it does not hold true when it comes to the tongue. The tongue is a very small member of the body, yet we have the greatest difficulty controlling our tongues.
A Rudder of a Ship (vs. 4)—The instrument of control in the previous example was at the front of the animal, but here, in the case of the "rudder," it is at the rear of the vessel. A rudder is out of sight and behind the ship, yet it is capable of controlling the ship's direction. Again, this depends entirely on the will of the person who is at the helm. While this is true of a great ship, it does not ring true in the case of the tongue.
The Destructive Nature of the Tongue
Vss. 5-6—James moves on to speak of the destructive character of the tongue, when let loose. The first two images point to the responsibility of the owner and operator of the tongue, but this figure ("a fire") focuses on the evil possibilities of that little member and the damage it does when it's not controlled.
A Spark Igniting a Devastating Forest Fire—A spark is a very small thing, yet it can ignite a huge forest fire! James says, "See how large a wood [forest] a little fire kindles" (W. Kelly Trans.). The devouring nature of a fire is used in the book of Proverbs to describe the destruction that a talebearer's tongue can do (Prov. 26:20-2120Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth. 21As coals are to burning coals, and wood to fire; so is a contentious man to kindle strife. (Proverbs 26:20‑21)). The children's rhyme: "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me," is simply not true. Words do hurt people (Prov. 12:18; 18:8; 26:2218There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health. (Proverbs 12:18)
8The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly. (Proverbs 18:8)
22The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly. (Proverbs 26:22)
"wounds"). Hurtful, fleshly words leave a wake of destruction and offences. They tear down others, and in the process, they destroy personal relationships, marriages, families, assemblies, etc. We would do well to remember the old adage: "He who will gossip to you will gossip about you!" This is because, if a person can't control his tongue in one direction, he won't be able to control it in other directions either.
Verse 6 emphasizes the fact that the tongue stirs up the flesh, not only in the individual who allows the flesh to act, but in others also. It is "a world of unrighteousness." The word "world" is used here to denote a whole system of unrighteous things that are inter-connected being stirred up in a person's soul. The result is "the whole body" (the whole person) is affected and "defiled." James says that it "sets fire to the course [wheel] of nature." That is, the fallen sin-nature gets rolling and is very difficult to stop. He adds that the "blaze" of fleshly action is set on "by Gehenna" (W. Kelly Trans.). Gehenna is a word that describes the eternal place of damnation for Satan and his angels (Matt. 25:4141Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: (Matthew 25:41)); it is used here as a synonym for Satan's kingdom of evil. The point is that when our flesh is stirred, Satan can take control of the situation and use our tongues for his hellish purposes. This is a solemn and serious thing to consider.
The Corrupting Character of the Tongue
Vss. 7-8—The next point that James dwells on is the defiling and corrupting character of the tongue. It is not only uncontrollable and destructive, but it is also perverse.
An Untamable Poisonous Beast—In these verses, James personifies the human tongue as an evil beast that is unlike all other beasts. He points to the fact that there are all kinds of "species both of beasts and of birds, both of creeping things and of sea animals" that can be "tamed" (vs. 7). In contrast to all these, the human tongue is a beast that "no man can tame" (vs. 8a). This statement seems to contradict verse 2, which says that a perfect man (a fully mature Christian) is able to bridle his tongue. It may be that James is speaking of a man of the world who is not even saved.
The tongue is "an unruly evil." Even the most sincere child of God, who has a new life and nature, has a real fight on his hands. King David knew what it was to fight and to lose that battle. He said, "I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred. My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue" (Psa. 39:1-31<<To the chief Musician, even to Jeduthun, A Psalm of David.>> I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. 2I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred. 3My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue, (Psalm 39:1‑3)). He was determined to curb the activity of his tongue, but it wasn't long before that unruly member burst forth and he spoke out of turn.
James also personifies the tongue as a venomous beast that is "full of deadly poison" (vs. 8b). And how poisonous words can be! Just a few evil words can poison a hearer's mind and influence and corrupt someone very quickly. This ugly, little beast would love to gossip about someone and to criticize them, etc. It is a willing instrument of the heart to articulate evil (Mark 7:21-2321For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: 23All these evil things come from within, and defile the man. (Mark 7:21‑23)).
The Inconsistency of the Tongue
Vss. 9-12—James points out another strange anomaly in connection with the human tongue—the inconsistency of its actions. He says, "Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men" (vs. 9). We are asked to consider the inconsistency of having blessing and cursing streaming forth "out of the same mouth." Yet this is exactly what men do. James employs two more images from nature which teach us that this "ought not so to be" (1 Cor. 11:1414Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? (1 Corinthians 11:14)). Such natural things rebuke this inconsistency.
A Fountain that Gives Salt and Fresh Water—He asks us to imagine a fountain that gives forth both salt water and fresh water at the same time. He asks, "Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?" (vs. 11) There is no such thing in nature, and yet with the human tongue this paradox is evident.
A Tree that Yields Two Kinds of Fruit—Again, James asks the question as to whether there ever was such a thing in nature where a tree would yield two kinds of fruit. "Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? Either a vine, figs?" (vs. 12). His conclusion, of course, is that the tongue should not be a thing of inconsistency.
Since unconverted people do not bless God the Father, James obviously is speaking of believers here. How is it then that this strange phenomenon can be found in Christians? The answer is that they possess two natures. They have the fallen sin-nature, but being born again, they also have a new life. If the fallen sin-nature is allowed to act, then the tongue will become a ready instrument of the flesh. But if the new life is acting under the control of the Holy Spirit, the tongue will bless and build up all who hear it speak. The Christian is responsible to judge the flesh so that only that which is the good would come forth blessing to others.
Wisdom's Use of the Tongue
Vss. 13-18—Having dwelt on the evil possibilities of the tongue, James turns to speak of the Christian's responsibility to "show out" the fact that he is "a wise man" by "good conversation [manner of life]" and with the "meekness of wisdom" (vs. 13). Meekness has to do with being careful not to give offence to others in our interactions with them—especially with our tongue. If we do not manifest a restraint in this area of our lives, but are habitually filled with "bitter envy and strife," it calls our profession of faith into question. James warns, "Do not boast and lie against the truth" (vs. 14). That is, don't boast of being a Christian when your life bears continual evidence to the contrary.
Professing to be a Christian while living contrarily is not "the wisdom which comes down from above." It is purely "earthly, natural, devilish" (vs. 15). The man of the world is governed by the principles of the world, the flesh, and the devil. All such earthly mindedness will leave its mark of "confusion and every evil work" on whatever it touches (vs. 16).
On the other hand, true heavenly wisdom ("from above") will evidence itself in moral results and in practical Christian living. James gives us seven outstanding features of heavenly wisdom:
“Pure”—Purity of heart which results in communion with God.
“Peaceable”—Tranquility of soul and mind that results in being agreeable with others.
“Easy to be entreated [yielding]”—Not headstrong or self-willed.
“Full of mercy and good fruits”—Acts of kindness toward others.
“Unquestioning [uncontentious]”—Willingness to receive further light on subjects without debate.
"Without hypocrisy [unfeigned]"—No pretension or falseness, without ulterior motives.
We see from this that true wisdom is not measured by a person's words or by his depth of Bible knowledge, but by his manner of life. Knowledge of Scripture does not control the tongue; it is only achieved by a life lived in the presence of God flowing from communion with God.
Vs. 18—Heavenly wisdom will be seen in the results it produces; it will result in a quiet unity among brethren. Instead of the community of saints being torn down by unbridled tongues, "the fruit [seed] of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace." If we sow "the seed of righteousness" in peace, it will yield a crop of righteousness, and it will make peace among brethren. Earthly, natural, and devilish (false) wisdom only fuels the fire of contention and confusion. At times, we may have to say something faithfully to someone (Prov. 27:66Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful. (Proverbs 27:6)), but it should be "sown in peace." Someone said that "tact is knowing how to make a point without making an enemy." This kind of heavenly wisdom comes from a soul being in communion with God; it seeks peace through "righteousness," not through compromise.
Hence, the key to right speech is being in a right state of soul through communion with God. If our words were weighed in the presence of the Lord before they were uttered, we would be kept from saying many harmful things. In this, "we all often offend" (vs. 2). Perhaps if we subjected ourselves to the following test we might be delivered from unkind and destructive words being spoken:
Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?
Ultimately, the tongue is an index to the state of a person's soul. It may prove that a person who professes faith is not real. If one truly has faith, it will be shown out in his life. However, if there is habitual bitterness, envy, strife, unkind and vindictive speech, it may be a sign that the person is not saved at all. Hence, the use and misuse of the tongue is, in this sense, a test of a person's faith.