A disciplined faith encompasses a subject that is in everyone’s mouth: the tongue. J. Wallace Hamilton said, “In the beginning was the Word . . . and since then a billion, million words have been spoken” (Still the Trumpet Sounds). Words matter. The person who said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” was an idiot. Words are acts. Words are you. “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36, English Standard Version). “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).
James already introduced how powerful the tongue is in the first chapter. He reminded us to be “slow to speak” and “bridle our tongues” (James 1:19, 26). He also addressed wrong-headed words—blaming God for temptation to sin, harsh words, and empty words (James 1:13; 2:3, 16). Now, in one of the longest excursuses on the subject of our words in the Bible, he connects disciplined faith with letting our speech be gracious, seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6a).
James 3:1, 2
The text begins with a stunning caution. Becoming a teacher is an invitation to critique. James can hardly be saying that the church does not need more teachers. In fact, God gave teachers to the church as a gift (Ephesians 4:11). What he is saying is that those who teach (like James himself—notice the we) will be judged more strictly. A teacher uses words, and herein lies the problem. Later James will speak about the “wise man” (James 3:13). Who was this wise Jewish sage? The teacher of course. This critique may come from Heaven (God) or from earth (people), but be assured, critique will come.
In the Greek text, verse two is connected with verse one by the word for. This implies that the use of words is an occupational hazard for a teacher. Stumbling and stability are set in contrast. Since words are the currency of teaching, stumbling is almost to be expected. But the perfect (mature) person is able to keep his whole body in check.
Muscle in Need of Taming
Someone has said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Of course, they used words to say that. But in this section James paints pictures using most all of the colors in the box. No less than nine metaphors are used to speak about the tongue. We do not need to illustrate what James is talking about; he has illustrated it for us. A metaphor is created by taking two seemingly opposite things and putting them together in a new combination.
The nine metaphors communicate four truths about the tongue. First, the bit that turns a horse and rudder that turns a ship say something about the size of the tongue—small but great. Second, the metaphor of fire is the most extensive and involved. Four nuances are stated: its deadly ways, its moral evil, its corrupting nature, and its source. In fact, speaking of fire, it is set on fire by Hell itself. Third, the animals say something about the taming of the tongue. Animals can be tamed—before and after the fall (Genesis 1:24, 25; 2:19; Mark 1:13). Fourth, the poison of the tongue says something about its infectious nature. The muscle in our mouths needs the most stringent discipline.
Consistency, Thou Art a Jewel
The opposite of consistency here is hypocrisy. James contrasts praise and curses and then illustrates those opposites with water and wood. Praising God and then cursing people made in his image is most upside down. The vertical (praising God) and the horizontal (cursing people) are connected here as in other places (1 John 4:19, 20). James could not be clearer, “This should not be.”
James poses two interrogatives to drive home his point. A spring of water produces only one kind of water, either fresh or salty. A vine produces only one kind of fruit, either olives or figs (see Matthew 12:33). In many ways, at the heart of the integrity of our speech is consistency (see Matthew 5:33-37; 23:16-22).
This disciplined faith shows up first and foremost at home (in the community of faith). The direct address in the text is to the church. Three times in the passage (vv. 1, 10, 12) the family of God is called out (each time with the plural “brothers”). Our translation has rightly understood this vocative to include men and women, or believers. While we do have a responsibility to treat everyone with civility in our words, we should certainly do so with fellow Christ followers. They are, after all, family.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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