Lesson 21. THE DISCIPLINE OF THE TONGUE (JAMES 3:1-12) PART 1

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

1Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
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 body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8but no human being 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 human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Introduction

Introduction to Chapter 3
Another measure of spiritual maturity is a believer’s speech. James devoted a good portion of this letter to attacking a careless and corrupt tongue. He appealed, however, not only for controlled tongues (3:1-12) but also for controlled thoughts (3:13-17). The mouth is, after all, connected to the mind. Pleasant speech demands a wise source. Controlled talk and cultivated thought are necessary.

Introduction to Lesson 21 (vv. 1-12)
From his discourse on idle faith, James proceeded to discuss the idle speech. The failure o bridle the tongue, mentioned earlier (1:26), is now expanded. As disturbing as those who have faith with no works are those Christians who substitute words for works. One’s tongue should be controlled. Small though it is, the tongue is powerful and all too prone to perversion and pollution.

Commentary

1. Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

Again addressing “my fellow believers,” a sign that a new topic is being considered, James suggested moderation and restraint in adding more teachers. Too many of the new Jewish Christians aspired to teach and thereby carry some of Rabbis' rank and admiration. It is doubtful that the reference here is to official teachers of the apostolic and prophetic status. These are the unofficial teachers in the church family’s synagogue meetings, where much latitude was given even for strangers to speak. Paul frequently used this courtesy given visitors. James’ complaint was simply that too many believers were overly anxious to speak up and show off (cf. John 3:104; 9:40-41). James issued a caution to these “would-be” teachers. Do not make teaching your profession, for many want to be teachers who need to learn more instead of teaching others. There were many teachers or rabbis among the Jews, and they all claimed to have the truth, and each wished to draw disciples away from among them. The Apostle James issued them a caution though they had the exact nature as he did. In another book, James gave a warning that said, “Love labor and hate the rabbi’s office.” Similar warnings are still needed, for there are still multitudes whom God has not called and can never call because He has never qualified them for the work required to get into the priest’s office. Their case is awful, for they shall receive condemnation greater than ordinary sinners. They have already sinned by thrusting themselves into the office of a priest: an office to which God has not called them, but through their insufficiency, the flocks over whom they have assumed mastery perish for lack of knowledge, and God will require their blood at the watchman’s hand.

2. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

We offend everyone in many ways. “We all stumble” or trip. Some have produced these words as proof that no man can live without sinning against God; for James himself, a holy apostle, speaking of himself, all the apostles and the whole Church of Christ says, “We all stumble in many ways.” James did not point the finger at the offenders without including himself. Nothing seems to trip-up a believer more than a dangling tongue. Suppose a believer is never at fault (lit., “stumbles not”) in what he says (lit., “in the word”); he is a perfect, mature, fulfilled, complete person. He can bridle his whole body. Spiritual maturity requires a tamed body. This is a horrible and dangerous doctrine and pushed to its consequences, it would significantly affect the entire gospel system’s credibility. Offend not in word, the same is a perfect man. To understand this correctly, we must refer to the caution James gives in the preceding verse: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” To this, he could have added, “Do not affect that for which you are not qualified.” But he says, “if any man offends you, don’t be tripped-up in doctrine,” but teach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the same “is a man fully instructed” in divine things. How often the term logos, which we render the word, is used to express “doctrine” and the gospel’s doctrine, we have seen in many parts of the preceding comment. The man, therefore, who advanced no false doctrine and gave no imperfect view of any of the great truths of Christianity, that man proved himself, thereby, to be thoroughly instructed in divine things, to be no novice, and consequently, among the many teachers, to be a perfect master and worthy of the sacred vocation. Able also to bridle the whole body.

3. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
Here James addresses “controlling the tongue” (cf. 1:26). The lesson picks up from the saying given in 1:19: “Let everyone be quick to hear but slow to speak,” and provides in turn, a transition to James’ discussion of true wisdom and (3:13), for the connection between wisdom and restraint was, in the ancient world genuinely well-known (cf. Prov. 17:28)5.
The tongue may be small, but it is influential. Three illustrations make this point clear: (1) the bit and the horse, v. 3; (2) the rudder and the ship, v. 4; (3) the spark and the forest. James’s use of imagery is drawn from natural phenomena and is similar to the Lord’s parables. It is likewise characteristic of Jewish thought. James was both immersed in Jewish tradition and well-versed in Greek classics.
This particular verse deals with putting bits into Horses’ mouths. To show the necessity of regulating the tongue, to which his appeal led James to them who wished to thrust themselves into the teacher’s office, supposing, because they had the gift of a ready flow of speech that therefore they might convince teachers of divine things. He continues to show that the tongue must be bridled as the horse and governed as the ships; though it is small, it can rule the whole man and irritate and offend others.
It is commonplace to assert the difficulty of controlling (bridling) the tongue with the analogy of bridling a horse. The analogy also suggests the tongue’s power since to control it is to guide a great beast.
4. Or 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.
The argument is made clear by another standard comparison: the tongue is to the body as the rudder is to a ship. Just as little bits . . . turn grown horses, small rudders guide large ships. The tongue can boast of great things; that is, it can do great things, whether of a good or evil kind, though it is small. He seems to be referring to the powerful and all-commanding eloquence of the Greek orators. They could carry the great mob whithersoever they wished; calm them to peaceableness and submission or excite them to furious sedition. The boast is not challenged because James recognizes the power of speech.
This illustration is equally striking and unmistakable. A ship is a large object. It seems to be unmanageable by its vastness, and driving storms also propel it. Yet it is easily managed by a small rudder, and he that has control of the ship itself. So with the tongue. It is a little member compared with the body; in its size, not unlike the rudder compared with the boat. Yet the proper control of the tongue in respect to its influence on the whole man is not unlike the control of the rudder in its power over the ship for though ships are so great - So great in themselves, and in comparison with the rudder, which though a tiny thing controls even such bulky and unwieldy objects, as a ship.
Ships, on occasion, may be driven by fierce winds - by winds that would seem to leave the boat beyond control. It is probable that by the “fierce winds” propelling the ship, the apostle meant to illustrate the power of the passions in compelling man. Even a man under impetuous passion will be restrained if the tongue is controlled correctly, as the ship driven by the winds is by the helm.
Yet, they are turned around with a very small helm - The ancient rudder or helm was made in the shape of an oar. This was very small compared with the vessel’s size - about as small as the tongue is compared with the body. Yet, the ship will go anywhere the helmsman pleases. It is entirely under his control.

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