Summary: This series dwells on viewing the book of James in its full context. This entire series is available as an ebook for the ipad via Itunes or for the Nook via Barnes & Noble’s website for the nominal fee of $4.95. A Conversational commentary
3:1-12 Superior Faith Controls the Tongue
As chapter three opens, James warns that very of his readers should aspire to the office of teacher because teachers are judged on a higher standard. Of course, by teachers he literally means those who want power within the church. They want the position of teacher because of the respect that comes with the office. However, James warns about the stricter standards that God uses to judge the teacher.
Never does James imply that one ought to be perfect to be a teacher. He immediately says “We all stumble.” In fact, he points out a very basic area that most people have problems with—controlling the tongue. He suggests that if one could control the tongue he would be a perfect person. This is a simple truth because the tongue is indeed the hardest part of the body for us to control.
I believe James was pointing out an obvious problem in the lives of those who wanted to be teachers within the church. They were morally pure in many ways. I doubt that they were drunkards or sexually immoral. In fact, the opposite is likely true. They were probably very moral people, but somehow they had forgotten that God viewed sinful speech on the same level as drunkenness or other sin. In other words, they thought that they could speak hatefully towards others each other and it would somehow not affect their spiritual walk. Sadly, they were very, very wrong.
Before looking further into James fantastic description of the evils of the tongue it would be prudent to point out that there is more in the Bible about the sins of the tongue, the lips, the mouth, etc. than any other sin. There is more written about what we say and how we say it than there are warnings against idolatry. There are more Scripture references about sinful speech than sexual immorality.
Even people who have a semblance of righteousness have problems with what they say. Isaiah the prophet was convicted when he saw the vision of the Lord in Isaiah chapter six. He declared that he was a man of unclean lips and that he lived among a people who had unclean lips. Does this mean Isaiah cursed, lied, or demeaned others? I don’t think so. I think it relates to the death of good king Uzziah. I think that the general mood of the public was to express a lack of faith in God that bordered on accusing God of injustice towards Uzziah. One way we sin is by expressing an utter despair in life’s circumstances that we even begin to imply that somehow God is unfair.
Gossip is the only sin that is permitted in nearly every congregation across America. If someone stormed into the church cursing and swearing we would ask that person to leave immediately. The usher would move towards the person and make certain that he was departing. Yet people feel free to tell stories (sometimes disguised as prayer requests) or impart information that they have no business imparting.
The story is told of a Pastor who asked his congregation to read Mark 17 in preparation for the following Sunday’s sermon. The next Sunday he stood in the front of the church and asked how many had actually done so. A large number of the congregation responded with uplifted hands and nods. “I’m so glad that this morning’s message will apply to so many of you,” he declared boldly. “This morning we are going to be speaking in regards to dishonesty. As many of you Bible students already know, the gospel of Mark ends at chapter 16.”
While the story is a bit silly it illustrates another problem. It illustrates the fact that many believers think that there is room for “polite dishonesty” in their spiritual walk. We need to move beyond the place where we lift our hands to make the pastor feel good. We need to overcome any type of etiquette that allows us to promise our heartfelt prayers and then to walk away and forget the matter entirely. We are commanded in Ephesians 4:25 to speak truth with each other because we are members of one another.
Three illustrations are offered by James to describe how the tongue is small thing but has the ability to control things that are large. He describes how bits help us control a 1200 pound horse or a rudder controls a large ship. He describes how a small spark can burn down a whole forest. His illustrations are to the point. The idea is clear- the tongue has the power to set the direction of our life. We use our tongue to confess our faith in Christ and obtain salvation (See Romans 10). We use the tongue to confess our readiness to serve God. All marriage ceremonies I have ever seen had at least one point where both bride and groom were required to commit verbally to the marriage. Our tongue can lead us into or out of danger. We can offer a soft answer in an attempt to turn away wrath (Proverbs 15:1) or we can choose a harsh answer and create even more conflict.