Summary: How many times have we spit fire and have said more than we meant to say? How many times have we lost our cool? James is talking about teaching and self-control as it relates to speech.
SPITFIRE (September 16, 2012)
Text: James 3:1- 12
Jas 3:1-12 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (2) For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. (3) If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. (4) Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. (5) So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! (6) And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. (7) For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, (8) but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (9) With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. (10) From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. (11) Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? (12) Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh (NRSV).
How many times did you ever hear the saying, “Stick and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me?” There is intended wisdom and encouragement in those words. It has been said, “The lines carry with themselves their own contradiction, for if words did not have power to do harm, the lines would not be necessary”. (Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, and James D. Newsome. Texts For Preaching:A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year B. Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, p. 509). I remember hearing those words in my youth when I faced bullies. I certainly did not think that those words--- “words can never hurt me” were true. Physical wounds caused by sticks and stones will heal a lot faster than wounds that are caused by words. There sure are a lot of political stone throwing and stick throwing ads in every election! We have to remember that all of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
If the tongue is referred to as a fire, then we would have to say that the tongue is capable of spitting fire. James 3:5 says “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the course of one's life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (TNIV). James 1:19 tells us that we “...should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (TNIV). How many times have we spit fire and have said more than we meant to say? How many times have we lost our cool? James is talking about teaching and self-control as it relates to speech.
Is James singling out teachers? After taking a really deep look at things, we would have to say yes and also no. Someone (Daniel Owens) says “Whether we are in the classroom, at work, at home, or just dealing with people on a daily basis, we are all teaching.” (Daniel Owens. Faith That Is Real. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Victor (an Imprint of Cook Communication Ministries), 2006, p. 103). We are called to be humble believers who think of others before we think of ourselves (Philippians 2:2). Like John the Baptist we are called to live our lives in such a way that Christ becomes greater and we become less (John 3:30). So yes, James does seem to be singling out teachers. It also appears that James is implying that we all teach something about who we are and who our Lord is by our behavior.
Can teachers really be perfect? If we are all sinners because we fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) then how can we be anywhere near perfect---flawless? Someone (Pheme Perkins) points out that James illustrates how our speech as Christians can fall short. If we speak words that honor the rich and dishonor the poor (James 2:3); if we greet a brother or sister without providing assistance (James 2:16); or if we claim to have faith without words to show it (James 2:18), then we have fallen short of God's glory. (Pheme Perkins. Interpretation: First and Second Peter, James, and Jude. Louisville, Kentucky: 1995, p. 115). If we cannot be perfect then how do we work on perfection? Listen to these verses from Jesus once said “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40 NIV). We learn by not judging our brothers and sisters but by working on our own flaws (Luke 6:41). We also learn by “... working out our salvation by fear and trembling allowing God to work in us to will and act in order to fulfill God's purposes (Philippians 2:12 – 13 TNIV).