Summary: How to speak words of life
During World War II, the United States Office of War developed a campaign to make people aware of the possibility of inadvertently providing the enemy with information that could endanger the lives of U.S. Servicemen. Although they developed a number of slogans that they used on posters to communicate that idea, the one that we continue to use today is “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships”, which we have shortened to “Loose Lips Sink Ships”. But our words actually have the potential to do much more damage than just endanger our troops. And that is the subject of the portion of James’ letter that we’ll examine this morning.
So go ahead and turn in your Bibles to James chapter 3 and follow along as I read beginning in verse 1:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
(James 3:1-12 ESV)
This is not the first time in his letter that James has dealt with the tongue. In chapter 1, he taught that we should be slow to speak and he pointed out that the one who does not bridle his tongue deceives his heart and his religion is worthless. In chapter 2, he exhorted his readers to speak and to act as those who are going to be judged under the law of liberty. Here in chapter 3, he is going to expand further on those thoughts.
Our tongue is one of the smallest organs in our body. The average human tongue measures about 4 inches long and weighs 60 to 70 grams. And yet, as James points out, the tongue has great power. James gives us six pictures to illustrate the power of our words. These six pictures can be grouped into three pairs that demonstrate the power of our words.
Our words have the power to:
1. Direct (vv. 1-4)
James begins this section with the same structure that we have seen throughout his letter. Although it is difficult to see in many of our English translations, James begins with a strong command that warns that not many of his readers should become teachers.
In the first century, teachers, and especially rabbis were highly esteemed, but the problem among James’ audience is that people were aspiring to become teachers for the wrong reasons. Rather than seeking to be teachers of the Word of God in order to help others live a life that is consistent with Scripture, these people desired to have the title of teacher for their own self-interest. They were eager to have positions of status and influence. It seems quite possible that James was remembering the words of warning that Jesus had spoken to those who used their position as teachers to fulfill their own selfish desires:
They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.
(Matthew 23:5-7 ESV)
James is following up here with the command that we saw back in chapter 1 when he instructed his audience to be “slow to speak”. As we saw when we examined that command, James used that phrase in connection with handling the Word of God and the point he was making is that anyone who would desire to teach God’s Word should do that only after careful consideration, because God is going to hold to a very high standard those who claim to be proclaiming His Word.