Notes on James 3:1-12

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

Jas 3:1, KJV 1 My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

“Masters” here means “teachers”. Later Paul would warn about those who tried to be teachers of the Law but understood little of what they were teaching (I Timothy 1:6-7, paraphrased).

Knowingly teaching error is one of the worst things any teacher can do. James reminded the readers that teachers would receive a greater judgment, not necessarily condemnation, depending on what they taught.

2 For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same (is) a perfect man, (and) able also to bridle the whole body.

Here James changes the imagery from teaching to speech in general. Perhaps he is giving an impossible situation, not a contradiction, that A, all we (believers) do offend others but B, if anyone did not offend (could also mean, cause to stumble) in or by, using words, then he or she is truly a perfect person!
Did James himself meet that test? Peter? Paul? You or me?

3 Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.

Now James again gives a few examples for consideration. He first speaks of horses and the bits placed in the horse’s mouth. The bits were and are designed to either change the horse’s direction (turn its head to the right and it goes that way—known by personal experience). Various types and styles of bits have been in existence for many years.

4 Behold also the ships, which though (they be) so great, and (are) driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.

The helm is connected to the rudder, which changes the ship’s direction. James may have seen fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee or even larger vessels near the Mediterranean.

5 Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!

James now compares the bit for the horse and the ship’s rudder, which were relatively small items, to the tongue. The difference is that the bits and rudders have no way to boast or even speak of themselves, but the tongue truly boasts great things! Then he compares the tongue to a little fire that does great damage.

6 And the tongue (is) a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.

Strong words here about the tongue and misuse of it. In verse 5, James mentions the damage that a little fire could cause; now he says that the tongue itself is a fire. James may have had in mind the utterances from the crowds (Pharisees, Sadducees, other people) when they rose up against Jesus. He may also have remembered when Jesus spoke of what caused people to be defiled (e.g., Mark 7:14-23).

Still another example could be the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15). Even though many (if not most) of the parties involved were believers, the debate over whether or not Gentiles had to become circumcised and follow the Law of Moses had to have generated a lot of heated discussion.

7 For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:

That James is speaking in either a limited sense (talking about the species he knew or had observed) or in a figurative sense is clear. It is true that some creatures have been “tamed” such as dogs, cats, birds, fish, and so forth. Other animals have been domesticated for thousands of years such as cattle, horses, sheep, various types of birds, etc., and have been used by humans in several ways. Still other types of animals should probably be left alone, such as wildcats (leopards, lions, etc.) but some of them have been trained to perform in circuses, for example.

8 But the tongue can no man tame; (it is) an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

The first sin, even before Eve ate the forbidden fruit, was misquoting God! Compare what God told Adam and Eve with Eve’s reply to the serpent’s question in Genesis 3. Many places in the Bible contain the words of pure hatred and evil of one person or group towards another.

9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.

Again, many examples could be cited. Shimei cursed David during the rebellion by Absalom (2 Sam 16), even though David was obviously created in God’s image and was God’s anointed one for the time. Simon Peter cursed and swore during his denial of knowing Jesus Christ (Matt 26, e.g.). The Law had warnings for the Israelites to not curse the deaf (Lev. 19:14), parents (Lev. 20:9), or even God Himself (Lev 24:15).

10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.

James is concerned that this was going on, even among believers! Earlier he had warned against showing favoritism because of better clothing; now he shares a concern that these believers were blessing or praising God—but cursing other people. Sadly, this still seems to happen today.

11 Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet (water) and bitter? 12 Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so (can) no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.

James asks a rhetorical question, where the answer would be “no”—salt water and fresh could hardly come from the same fountain, or, better, source of the water. The readers, further, would know that grapes grow on vines and figs from fig trees (Jesus spoke of the fig tree as a subject of a parable in Matthew 24) and there were no hybrid fig-vines or grape-trees. He also repeats the answer to the question from verse 11 at the end of verse 12.

Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV)

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