By Sam E. Stone
In today’s text, James returns to a subject introduced earlier in his letter—proper use of the tongue (see James 1:19, 26). He identifies himself as a fellow believer with his readers. When he warns that teachers will be judged more strictly, James does not mean just “official teachers” (apostles, prophets, and teachers, as in 1 Corinthians 12:28-31), but others as well. His warning includes all who are involved in any teaching.
James 3:1, 2
Those who teach occupy an honorable position in the church (Ephesians 4:11-13; Acts 13:1). James counts himself among them. Self-examination should begin with those who teach. If one never says the wrong thing, he is perfect. A person may not intend to sin, but that doesn’t excuse him. If one never says the wrong thing, that person can control his entire body. All that we do, say, or think needs to be consistent with our obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5; see also Mark 7:21-23).
Next James offers several illustrations of the need to control what we say: a horse and bit, a ship and rudder, fire and wood, the untamed animals, a spring and its water, a tree and its fruit.
For example, a large, powerful horse can be controlled by a skillful rider when he uses a small metal bit placed in the horse’s mouth. Similar control is exercised when the pilot of a ship uses a small rudder to determine which way the vessel will go.
The use of fire is another good way to understand the tongue’s power. Fire can be a blessing—we can heat with it, cook with it, and sterilize with it. But fire out of control can be a raging monster. So it is with the tongue. Careless words can be devastating in their effect. What a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The destruction caused by the tongue is every bit as bad as the wildfire that devastates a wooded area. For this reason, James warns that the tongue is a world of evil among the parts of the body.
Often we speak too quickly. Instead of first “counting to 10” when someone upsets us, often we shoot right back with a barbed remark. Earlier James reminded his readers to be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). R. C. Foster once said, “We must be slow enough to speak to hear all that God has to say; slow enough to think it over and be sure we are in harmony with God; slow enough to be sure we are ready to take the consequences.”
Even though zoo trainers have wonderful success in teaching animals, birds, and reptiles, no human being can tame the tongue. What we say sometimes needs to be labeled with a skull and crossbones. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (see also Psalm 140:3; Romans 3:13). Andrew McNab pointed out, “Throughout the whole of this descriptive declaration, James has particularly in mind the tongue of the slanderer, backbiter, whisperer and tale-bearer.”
Earlier James spoke about the double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). The tongue is one of the most dangerous examples of trying to serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). The double-tongued person can speak one way to one person, another way to someone else. One Bible scholar wrote, “It is the way of hypocrisy, the slick tongue, the oily tongue of the two-faced man whose word cannot be depended upon, whose word is not as good as his bond.”
Praising God while cursing people is the height of inconsistency (Proverbs 10:11). Our speech reveals what is in our hearts. Just as a mountain spring cannot produce both fresh water and salt, so the believer’s words must be pure. A. T. Robertson noted, “You have sweet water on Hermon and salt water in the Dead Sea, but not both in the same place.”
James adds that just as a fig tree can’t bear olives or a grapevine bear figs, so one’s tongue should not produce words that both praise God and go against his will. Jesus said, “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36, 37).
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.