Summary: James tells us the mature person is able to bridle his tongue.
Holiness and the Tongue
Text: James 3:1-12
Introduction: In 1994, a tabloid that you can purchase while standing in line at any local grocery store ran the headline "Killer Bug Ate My Face." Although the reporting was intentionally sensational, the story was based on seven real cases of invasive strep A bacteria in a city in England. When invasive strep A, which is not the same as strep throat, takes hold in a victim’s body, the flesh starts to die at an incredible rate of several inches per hour. Each year about 1,500 people die from this ailment. Newsweek writer, Geoffrey Cowley, describes what happens after the deadly microbes take hold in a person’s body: The bacteria then multiply rapidly, producing toxins in the process. For three days, the patient may suffer swollen lymph nodes, a rising fever and excruciating pain at the site of the infection. Penicillin can stop the attack at this stage, but by day four, infected tissues start dying. Bacteria soon saturate the bloodstream, destroying muscles and organs and sending the body into shock. Death can follow within hours...Invasive strep is rare, but it’s also unforgiving. Most of us here wouldn’t wish that on our worst enemies. If there is a counterpart to strep A bacteria in the church today it has to be sins of the tongue. Nothing can so quickly destroy the body of Christ as gossip, slander, criticism, complaining and lies. Often the damage is so severe that, apart from the redeeming grace of God, it is nearly impossible to recover from it. This morning in our sixth message in our series "In the World, But Not of It," we’re going to talk about holiness and the tongue. I expect that there will be much interest in what the Bible has to say about this subject for a couple of reasons. First, every one of us has stumbled badly at one time or another in how we have used our tongue. (SHARE MY STORY ABOUT REFERRING TO THE BRIDE’S SISTER AS HER MOTHER IN A WEDDING I PERFORMED RECENTLY.) Second, I suspect that is equally true that you and I have been the recipient of harsh words from someone that have damaged us as well. So I invite you to listen and learn from the Holy Spirit as He speaks to us from the Word of God found in James 3.
Background: The body of believers to whom James writes his letter was led by people who had no formal training that qualified them for preaching and teaching. (This is not to argue that formal training by itself makes for authentic teaching.) In fact, it was relatively easy for people with some communication skills to promote themselves as teachers. These people, often motivated by personal gain, taught in word and deed that God was the source of temptation (See James 1:13), that a person could have faith that was not evidenced by works (See James 2:14) and that the wealthy deserved preferential treatment over others (See James 2:1). James’ response is to call for control of the tongue, citing the problems associated with it, the potential impact of the tongue and the perils that arise from its misuse. Let’s look at it together.
I. A Caution Regarding the Use of the Tongue (See James 3:1-2). James begins with a strong warning to those who would assume the office of teacher. Though their function is very necessary to the church (See Ephesians 4:11-13), teachers (note that James included himself among this group) are cautioned that God will judge them more strictly. The line of thinking behind James’ comments goes something like this: If every casual or useless word is going to be judged (See Matthew 12:36), how much more the words of those whose task it is to instruct the body? Or again, if those who taught the Jews, Rabbis and Pharisees, were to be judged severely (See Matthew 23:33), how could one who is responsible for the religious education of God’s people consider himself to be exempt? This danger was compounded by James’ reminder that "we all stumble in many ways." Not only do we all sin, but we all commit a variety of sins (See Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 8:46), including the particular offenses associated with the uncontrolled tongue. The Scriptures remind us that the more we speak, the more likely we are to sin (See Proverbs 10:19; 21:23). Perhaps this is why the brother of Jesus argues that mastering the tongue is visible evidence of two realities: sincere religion (See James 1:26) and spiritual maturity (See James 3:2), both of which are important for any follower of Christ, but especially for those who teach. Application: Have you ever noticed that of all the qualifications for a spiritual leader, only one has to do with a particular ministry skill, and that is teaching? Every other one relates to a specific character quality that is meant to be applied in everyday life so that the leader models Christ-like behavior. Only then will what is said be in sync with what is done (See 1 Timothy 3:1-7). Illustration: Oswald Chambers once said, "The greatest test of a man’s character is his tongue." The Bible tells us that the tongue reveals the kind of character that is being formed in our hearts. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (See Matthew 12:34 RSV)." This reminds me of a rather pompous, self-righteous Sunday School teacher who was trying to make the point that good Christians don’t keep their faith a secret. With her head held high and her chest thrust out, the teacher strutted impressively back and forth across the room. She asked, “Now, class, why do you think people call me a good Christian?” The room was silent for a moment. Then one of the boys slowly raised his hand and said, “Probably because they don’t know you.” Obviously, her students saw something in the character of their teacher that she wasn’t able to see herself.