James 3

James 3  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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WITH CHAPTER in. a fresh series of exhortations commences. James turns from the subject of the works of faith to exhort his brethren against the very common failing of wishing to be a master of others when one has in no sense learned to be master of oneself. The word translated “masters” really signifies “teachers,” and if we glance at Rom. 2:17-2117Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, 18And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; 19And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, 20An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law. 21Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? (Romans 2:17‑21) we shall see that the Jew especially fancied himself in this direction, and when converted the same tendency would doubtless remain in him. He would still be very inclined to pose as a teacher, and correspondingly have a disinclination to be taught and to receive with meekness the engrafted word.
Other Scriptures make it abundantly clear that God is pleased to raise up teachers in the church, amongst other gifts, and all such gifts are to be received with thankfulness. The verses before us do not in the least militate against that, but they do warn us against the desire so natural to the flesh to be continually instructing and legislating for other people. The fact that those who teach will receive greater judgment, as compared with those who are taught, may well make us pause.
James is here only enforcing that which the Lord Jesus Himself taught in Matt. 23:1414Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. (Matthew 23:14), when addressing scribes and Pharisees, who were the self-constituted religious teachers of that day. It is evidently a fact, in the light of these words, that there are differing degrees of severity in the Divine judgment, and that those who have more light and intelligence will have more expected of them and be judged by higher standards. It is also evident that we shall be judged according to the place that we take, whether we have been called into it by God or not. In the light of that let none of us rush into the position of being a master or teacher. On the other hand if God has really called any man to be a teacher, or to take up any other service, woe betide him if he shirks the responsibility and ties up his pound in a napkin.
The plain truth is that “in many things we offend all,” (ch. 3:2) i.e., we all often offend. Moreover our most frequent offenses are those connected with our speech, and to offend against God in our words is especially serious if we be teachers, since it is by words that we teach. This is illustrated by the case of Moses. He was a teacher divinely raised up and equipped, and hence his words were to be the words of God. When he offended in word he had to meet severer judgment than would have been meted out to an ordinary Israelite sinning just as he did.
How terribly common are sins of speech! Indeed we all do often offend, and in respect of our words very often. So much so, that if a man does not offend in word he may be spoken of as a perfect man—the finished article, so to speak. Further, he will be a man able to control himself in all things. As we think of ourselves or as we look at others we may well ask where this completely controlled and perfect man is to be found? Where indeed? We do not know him. But it should teach us to be slow in taking the place of a master, for it is eminently right that he who aspires to be master of others should first be master of himself.
The Apostle is going to speak to us very plainly about our tongues, and he uses two very expressive figures of speech: first the bridle or bit used for the direction of the horse; second the rudder which is used for the steering of a ship.
The bit is a very small article when the large bulk of a horse is considered, yet by this simple contrivance a man gains complete control and, when once the animal is broken in and docile, it suffices to turn about its whole body.
Ships are large and driven by fierce winds, or, in our days, by the fierce force of steam or motor driven propellers, yet are they turned about by means of a very small rudder as compared with the bulk of the ship.
Even so the tongue is a little member. Yet it is an instrument of very great things either for good or evil. If men’s tongues are used for the proclamation of the Glad Tidings, why then their very feet upon the mountains are beautiful! Alas, as the tongue is ordinarily used among men it is rightly declared by James to be “a fire, a world of iniquity” (ch. 3:6). Small as it is, it boasts great things. It may be like a little spark of fire, but how many a ruinous conflagration has been started by a little spark!
The Apostle had first alluded to the danger of the tongue in chapter 1:26. In chapter 2 he contrasts the works of faith with the mere use of the tongue in saying that one has faith. In the chapter before us he uses the very strongest language as to it in verses 6 and 8. Yet who, that knows the fearful havoc that the tongue has caused, will say that his language is too strong? What mischief has been caused amongst Christian people by the rash and foolish and wicked use of the tongue. When we read, “so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body,” (ch. 3:6) the context indicates that James was referring to the human body, yet it would be equally true if we read it as referring to the church which is the body of Christ and of which we are all members. More defilement has been brought into the church of God by it than by anything else.
Then again there is not only the direct mischief of the tongue, but think of the indirect mischief! The whole course of nature may be set on fire by it. Every instinct and faculty of man may be roused. The deepest and basest passions stirred into action. And when the tongue is thus used we may be quite sure that the tongue itself was originally set on fire of hell. It has been enslaved by the devil to be used for his ends. It was he who struck the spark which by means of the tongue has fired the whole train of evil.
Another feature that marks the tongue is brought before us in verses 7 and 8, and that is its unruly character. Man can tame all kinds of creatures but he cannot tame his own tongue. The reason for this is fairly evident. Speech is the great avenue by which the heart of man expresses itself, and hence the only way to really tame the tongue is to tame the heart. But this is a thing impossible to man. The grace and power of God are needed for it. In itself the tongue only gives expression to the deadly poison which lurks in the human heart.
In verse 9 and onwards a still further feature is mentioned. There is a strange inconsistency about the tongue when it is a question of the people of God. Unconverted people do not bless God, even the Father. They do not really know God at all, and much less do they know Him as Father. Christians know Him and bless Him in this way, and yet there are times when utterances of a very contrary sort come out of their lips. Sometimes they even go so far as cursing men who are made in the likeness of God; so that out of the same mouth goes forth both blessing and cursing. No wonder that James so emphatically says, “My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (ch. 3:10).
Nature teaches us this. Fountains of sweet fresh water can be found, and also fountains of water that is salt or bitter. But never a fountain that produces both out of the same opening. Fruit trees of various kinds may be found each producing its proper fruit. But never a tree violating the fundamental laws of nature by bearing fruit not of its own kind. Why then do we behold this strange phenomenon in Christian people?
The answer of course is twofold. First, they to begin with were sinful creatures, possessing an evil nature, just as the rest. Second, they have now been born again, and consequently they now possess a new nature, without the old nature having been eradicated from them. Consequently within them there are, if we may so speak, two fountains: the one capable only of producing evil, the other capable only of producing good. Hence this strange mixture which the Apostle so strongly condemns.
Someone may feel inclined to remark that, if the case of a believer is thus, he hardly ought to be so strongly condemned if his tongue acts as an opening from whence may flow the bitter waters of the old nature. Ah, but any who think this are forgetting that the flesh, our old nature, has been judged and condemned at the cross. “Sin in the flesh,” (1 Peter 3:1818For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: (1 Peter 3:18)) as Rom. 8:33For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: (Romans 8:3) puts it, has been condemned, and the believer, knowing this, is responsible to treat it as a judged and condemned thing, which consequently is not allowed to act. The believer therefore IS to be reprimanded if his tongue acts as an outlet for the evil of the flesh.
The Apostle James does not unfold to us the truth concerning the cross of Christ. This ministry was committed not to him but to the Apostle Paul. He does however say things that are in full agreement with what the Epistle to the Romans unfolds. The wise man is to display his wisdom in meekness which shall control both his works and manner of life. If the contrary is manifested—bitter envying and strife, out of which spring all the evils connected with the tongue—such an one is in the position of boasting and lying against the truth.
What is this truth, against which we all far too often are found lying? Every outbreaking of the flesh, whether by the tongue, or whether in some other way, is a practical denial of the fact that sin in the flesh was condemned in the cross of Christ. Which is truth?—the cross of Christ, or my bitter strife and fiery tongue? They cannot possibly both be truth. The cross of Christ is TRUTH, and my evil is a lie against the truth.
It is also a lie against the truth that we are born of God, and that He now recognizes us as identified with that new nature which is ours as born of Him and not with the old nature which we derived from Adam by natural descent.
In verse 15 the two wisdoms are plainly distinguished. If we wish to find the two natures plainly distinguished we must thoughtfully read Rom. 7. The two natures lie at the root respectively of the two wisdoms. The wisdom which is of God brings into display the characteristics of the new nature, and like the nature which it displays it is from above. The other wisdom brings into display the characteristics of the old nature, and like the nature which it displays it is from the earth; it is sensual or natural, it is even devilish, for alas! poor human nature has fallen under the power of the devil, and has taken on characteristics which belong to him.
Its character is summed up in verse 16. At the root of it lies envy or emulation. This was the original sin of the devil. By aspiring to exalt himself, as envying that which was above him, he fell. When this is found there is bound to be strife, and strife in its turn results in confusion and every kind of evil work. Many of these evil things, perhaps all of them, would be counted as wisdom by fallen men. It looks wise enough to the average man to scheme and fight for oneself—to be always out for “number one” as it is called.
How great the contrast in the wisdom from above, as detailed in verse 17! Its features may not be of the kind which make for a great success in this world, but they are delightful to God, and to the renewed heart; and he who manifests them may count upon having God upon his side. Notice that purity comes first upon the list, before peace even. If we reflect we shall at once realize that this must be so, since all is of God. He never compromises with evil, and hence there can be no peace except in purity. Again and again this was the burden of the prophets. See for instance, Isa. 48:22; 57:2122There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked. (Isaiah 48:22)
21There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked. (Isaiah 57:21)
; Jer. 6:14; 8:1114They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)
11For they have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 8:11)
; Ezek. 13:10, 1610Because, even because they have seduced my people, saying, Peace; and there was no peace; and one built up a wall, and, lo, others daubed it with untempered mortar: (Ezekiel 13:10)
16To wit, the prophets of Israel which prophesy concerning Jerusalem, and which see visions of peace for her, and there is no peace, saith the Lord God. (Ezekiel 13:16)
Peace and gentleness, yieldingness and mercy should indeed mark us but always as the handmaidens of purity and never as compromising with evil.
There is however another side to the question even in this matter. Though the wisdom from above is first of all pure, and only then is peaceable and gentle, it always proceeds upon the lines of making peace. It is never marked by the pugnacious spirit. The last verse of our chapter makes this very plain. Those who are making peace are faithfully sowing that which will make for a harvest of the fruit of righteousness. Peace and righteousness are not disconnected, and much less antagonistic, in Christianity. Rather they go hand in hand.
Ancient prophecy declared that, “The work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever” (Isa. 32:1717And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever. (Isaiah 32:17)). This will be fulfilled in the day of Christ’s kingdom, yet the Gospel today brings us peace on exactly the same principle. Rom. 3 speaks of righteousness manifested, and established in the death of Christ. Rom. 4 speaks of righteousness imputed, or reckoned, to the believer. Rom. 5 consequently opens with, “Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:11Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: (Romans 5:1)).
This being so, peace-making is on the part of the Christian simply practical righteousness which will produce the fruit of righteousness in due season. Purity must be first always, but even purity must be pursued in a spirit not of pugnacity but of peace-making.