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1Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
James' next exhortation concerns our proper service. He points out the danger of someone "presuming" to be a teacher when they are not called to serve in that way. In general, to perform service for which one is not truly called is a waste of time at best, destructive at worst. James gives a special warning concerning teaching because, he says, "we who teach will be judged more strictly".
To teach the things of God in any capacity is, as James implies, "presumption". There is a natural tendency for us Christians, who study the revelation of God in the Bible, to try to teach others concerning God. James warns that we must be careful in doing so. Indeed, we should not ourselves "presume" at all to be teachers, rather, we should allow only God to "presume" to make us teachers. Since we who teach will "be judged more strictly", we must subject every lesson and message to guidance by the Holy Spirit through prayer.
The danger in teaching is that, as James goes on to say, "we all stumble in many ways". Those who teach, by taking on that role, become examples, whether they like it or not. By presuming to teach the things of God, they become representatives of God whose lives come under the scrutiny of those who hear their teaching. Thus, teachers must take great care that their lives reflect what they teach. As Paul says: "You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourselves?" (Rom. 2:21). Indeed, teachers should first teach themselves. A teacher's first student should be his own heart, then he can go on to teach others.
Unfortunately, "we all stumble in many ways". There are no exceptions, for "all" stumble. James, by saying "we", even includes himself as one who stumbles. As teachers, we may sincerely try to live an exemplary life, but we will at times "stumble". Teachers, however, are "judged more strictly" when they stumble because they often cause others to stumble.
The primary way that we stumble, and cause others to stumble, is by what we say; so James points out: "If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man". It is so easy, when teaching, to offend with the tongue. It is so easy to let one's words wander from the issue at hand and blurt out some "innocent" jeer or slur or sarcasm which can be taken the wrong way. This is aggravated by the fact that the hearers, when being taught the things of God, are more likely to get offended by careless words because they see the teachers as representing God. Christ Himself held the Pharisees, the teachers of that time, especially accountable for what they said, when He told them: "For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matt. 12:37).
The prevalence, indeed universality, of sinning with the tongue is such that James states that whoever can control his speech can achieve sinlessness: "If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check". James has much more to say about controlling the tongue in the next section.
3When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
James continues with a section addressed to all believers concerning the importance and difficulty of controlling one's speech. Exhortations concerning the tongue are numerous in the Epistle of James; they are in every chapter (see 1:19, 26; 2:12; here; 4:11; 5:12). The great men of God know the danger of the tongue: Job said to the Lord: "I am unworthy--how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth" (Job 40:4); Isaiah exclaimed: "Woe to me!...For I am a man of unclean lips" (Isaiah 6:5); Solomon wrote many Proverbs warning of the dangers of an uncontrolled tongue (see Prov. 10:28; 13:3; 17:27; etc.); David prayed (as we should also pray each day): "Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips" (Psalm 141:3); Paul, in describing the depravity of all men, speaks much about the corruption of their speech: "There is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness" (Rom. 2:12-14). Christ alone was faultless in speech: "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate" (I Pet. 2:22,23).
Many, if not most, of our sins come from our tongue: from lying, swearing, slander, loose talk, quarreling, boasting, berating, blasphemy, etc. To keep from these sins, we should fill our mouths with encouragement, edification, exhortation, praise and prayer. As Paul urges: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" (Eph. 4:29).
Speech is one thing that distinguishes the human race from animals. By it, we display our intelligence and our reasoning abilities. We can use our powers of speech to change minds, hearts and even the whole course of a person's life through rhetoric. It is the privilege of man and a gift of God to speak. Have we lived up to this honor?
James begins this section with an illustration that depicts the importance of controlling the tongue. James had a talent for devising appropriate, insightful illustrations (he learned well from his step-brother!). "He used commonplace things to illustrate divine truth"[Footnote #1], just as Christ did. Christ through parables and illustrations used birds, wheat, coins, trees, vineyards, houses, etc., to illustrate the things of the kingdom of God. Likewise, James here uses "bits" and "rudders".
The point of his illustration is that very large things can be influenced and controlled by very small devices. The small "bit" in the mouth of a horse is used to control the wild animal, so that the horse performs useful work. The small "rudder" on a ship is used to control the ship, to keep it from wandering aimlessly, and to guide it away from the danger of the rocks. So, the small "bit" and "rudder" are used for great good, to control large, reckless bodies and make them useful and productive.
Likewise, our tongue could be used for great good, to (as James stated earlier) "keep our whole body in check". Unfortunately, our tongues, which are small, are used more often than not to cause great harm. A bridled, controlled tongue can accomplish great good, communicating the gospel, turning people toward God; an unbridled tongue, however, is reckless and wild, untamed and trampling, causing much destruction. Like rudders, our tongues steer our lives and the lives of others, sometimes toward the things of God, sometimes away.
James goes on to liken the tongue to a "small spark" that sets a great forest on fire. He says correctly that "the tongue also is a fire". Indeed, the tongue can be hot, scorching and dangerous. Just as a spark can destroy a great forest, the tongue "corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire". Just as a fire, the tongue can very quickly do great damage. "Thus has a peace been ruined, thus has a reputation been blackened, thus has a friendship been embittered, thus has a mind been poisoned, thus has a life been blasted."[Footnote #2] The enemy makes much use of our wild tongues, so James points out that the tongue "is itself set on fire by hell".
7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Having shown the corruption of the tongue, James now describes how difficult it is to remedy this. He points out a paradox. Man has been greatly successful in taming just about everything else except the tongue: "All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue." The entire world is a testimony to the truth of James' words. We all sin with the tongue; none of us has ever been successful taming it. Sins of the tongue are committed by those of all ages, sexes, and temperaments. While many other sins are "tamed" by age or will or experience, "no man can tame the tongue".
The key here is that "no man" can tame the tongue; yet, what man is unable to do, God is able to do. Men may try, through resolution, to tame their tongue, but their attempts will be doomed to failure. They will be as David, who tried to tame his tongue through his own will: "I said, `I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.' But when I was silent and still, not even saying anything good, my anguish increased" (Psalm 39:1,2). Rather than through our own resolution, we should enlist God's help, and pray as David did later: "Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips" (Psalm 141:3).
James goes on to describe the nature of the tongue as "full of deadly poison", as a snake. With our tongue, we can be poisonous. Certainly, to the extent our words turn people away from Christ, they become death. Before you speak, remember that your tongue can be deadly poison, and handle it with care, as you would any other poison.
James then speaks of the hypocrisy of the tongue: "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness." The tongue is the author and instrument of hypocrisy. The same tongue is put to the best and worst use: the praising of God and the cursing of men. Do we really believe that we can sing praises to God, read His Word aloud, speak out in prayer, and then also curse our brothers? The cursing of men is an affront to God, who made each man for His purpose. Rather than curse men, even those who do you wrong, pray that they would fulfill God's purpose in their lives.
In conclusion, James shows that the hypocrisy of the tongue is, in fact, contrary to nature: "Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?" Nature itself abhors hypocrisy. Nevertheless, we, contrary to nature, somehow think that we can speak bitter water and pure with the same tongue. However, James' point is that the bitterness coming from our mouths, in effect, nullifies the purity: "Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water." The cursing of our brothers nullifies our praises to God, because our curses show that our praise is really not sincere. If it were, we would not insult God by cursing His prize creation, men "who have been made in God's likeness".
And so, Father, forgive us for our sins of the tongue. Help us, by Your Spirit, to control what we say, so that all we say may be sweet to Your ears. Put our tongues to good use: give us words of encouragement, songs of praise, and fervent prayers. In the name of Jesus, we ask this, Amen.
1. Strauss, James, Your Brother, pg. 129.
2. Guy King, cited in Strauss, James, Your Brother, pg. 135-136.
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