James 3:1-12 | Part 10
Context of James 3:
James, the younger half-brother of Jesus, is writing to Jewish believers dispersed by the persecution of the church brought about by King Herod in Acts 12. The book of James was penned sometime between ~44-49 AD. And this early time frame, interestingly enough, makes James the first New Testament book ever written.
James, the half-brother of Jesus, was at first a skeptic (a non-believer in Jesus) as recorded in John 7:5, but later he became an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:7). James then became an apostolic leader of the Jerusalem church and presided over the Jerusalem Council that is recorded in Acts 15 (see Acts 15:13).
The book of James is all about the nature of genuine saving faith. People with genuine faith persevere under trial and persecution, they are doers of the word (not merely hearers), they show no favoritism, and people with genuine faith in Christ have good works to back up their faith (faith without works is dead) as Daniel preached on last week. And we will see this week that people of mature and genuine faith control their tongues.
You’ll notice how James is very practical and almost reads like a NT version of Proverbs. James is all about faith in action. He also likes to frequently reference which famous sermon? So, let’s jump into James 3 this morning.
CONTROLLING THE TONGUE
Not many should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we will receive a stricter judgment.
2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is mature, able also to control the whole body. 3 Now if we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we direct their whole bodies. 4 And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how a small fire sets ablaze a large forest. 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, 8 but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way. 11 Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water. -- James 3:1-12 (CSB)
Main point: Your words have power, therefore control your tongue.
1. What is the scope of the tongue’s influence? (v1-6)
2. What does James say about taming the tongue? (v7-12)
3. What does Jesus say about the tongue?
1. What is the scope of the tongue’s influence? (v1-6)
V1 Not many should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we will receive a stricter judgment.
A sobering truth
A clear warning against heretical and false teaching or any teaching that leads people astray
This was part of Israel’s past as recorded in the OT
Stricter judgment: God’s judgment is real:
8 “ ‘Therefore, this is what the Lord God says: You have spoken falsely and had lying visions; that’s why you discover that I am against you. This is the declaration of the Lord God. -- Ezekiel 13:8 (CSB)
10 “ ‘Since they have led my people astray by saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, -- Ezekiel 13:10 (CSB)
…Torrential rain will come, and I will send hailstones plunging down, and a whirlwind will be released. -- Ezekiel 13:11 (CSB)
What is the scope of the tongue’s influence? 1Your words have power. The tongue’s influence is much more widespread than we might think. For this reason, God takes our words very seriously.
Jesus Himself highlights the fact that we will be held accountable for the words we speak:
36 I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” -- Matthew 12:36-37 (CSB)
Do we have any DG leaders here today? How are you ensuring that the way you lead your group accords with sound biblical doctrine? Are you leading your small group members in the truth of Scripture or in your own way?
Any parents here today? How are you teaching your children about Christ? (please see me afterwards if you would like specific recommendations on resources for teaching your children about Christ).
Are you grounding the way you teach and lead your children in the truth of Scripture or neglecting the discipleship of your children? It is so easy to become lazy in this area, but it’s so rewarding to diligently teach your children the word of God and to train them up in the way they should go. Men, we must lead out in this. Parents must be the primary disciple makers and teachers of their children. This role cannot be outsourced to the church, the school, the coach, or any other authority figure. I’m afraid that many children and adolescents in today’s age are primarily discipled by their peers, the latest TikTok video, or whatever else is trending on social media.
Mission Church, I emphatically urge you to heed the words of James that we as teachers will receive a stricter judgment.
2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is mature, able also to control the whole body.
We all stumble in many ways: this highlights the fallen nature of man.
Apart from Christ we are totally depraved (Romans 3:10-18):
10 as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. 11 There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. 13 Their throat is an open grave; they deceive with their tongues. Vipers’ venom is under their lips. 14 Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. 15 Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and wretchedness are in their paths, 17 and the path of peace they have not known. 18 There is no fear of God before their eyes. -- Romans 3:9-18 (CSB)
Did you notice how many times Paul references a part of the body involved in speech when describing human depravity?
And so, James can say in the next part of verse 2: If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is mature, able also to control the whole body.
Here, Christian maturity is defined by being able to control, rein in, or bridle the words we speak
Your words have power, and the scope of the tongue’s influence is very great.
V2 says that if we can control the words we speak, we are able to control the whole body. James will now bring out several illustrations to drive this point home.
3 Now if we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we direct their whole bodies.
Horses are huge animals…in fact the average horse weighs between 900 and 1,200 pounds!
James is saying, even though horses are huge, the rider is able to direct the whole body of these massive animals with a small bit and bridle.
In a similar way, the scope of our tongue’s influence is massive, but if we are able to control our tongue, we are able to control our whole body or the course of our entire life.
Your words have power, therefore control your tongue.
4 And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
Notice how in both of these analogies the thing being controlled is huge, but the apparatus used to control these huge things is very small by comparison.
The ship is guided by the small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
The small rudder is compared here to our tongue, whereas the will of the pilot directing the ship can be likened to our heart (we will touch on this later).
The scope of the tongue’s influence is very great even though the tongue itself is very small. James wants us to understand this paradox. Now why is James so intent on us understanding this paradox?
5 So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how a small fire sets ablaze a large forest.
He seeks to warn us of how much destruction can be caused by such a small part of the body.
The boasting of the tongue is very great and has a great ripple effect. The tongue’s boasting impacts not only our own life but many others as well.
It takes a single spark to cause so much destruction:
Example of Haman in the book of Esther
When Mordecai did not bow down to Haman and pay him homage, the exceedingly prideful Haman was filled with rage. So, Haman went to the king to ask for the genocide of the Jewish people:
8 Then Haman informed King Ahasuerus, “There is one ethnic group, scattered throughout the peoples in every province of your kingdom, keeping themselves separate. Their laws are different from everyone else’s and they do not obey the king’s laws. It is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. 9 If the king approves, let an order be drawn up authorizing their destruction, and I will pay 375 tons of silver to the officials for deposit in the royal treasury.” -- Esther 3:8-9 (CSB)
It only takes a single spark to set a huge forest ablaze. It takes just a few words to bring the destruction of an entire people group. It can take a single lie to destroy a marriage. It can take a single slanderous sentence to ruin a person’s reputation. It can take a single discouraging word to change the course of someone’s life. Indeed, the power of life and death are held in the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). The scope of the tongue’s influence is massive. Your words have power, therefore control your tongue.
6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
James gives us a strong warning about the fallen nature of our tongue. A fire is immensely destructive. A world of unrighteousness is entirely corrupt. A stain ruins the whole body and makes us unclean before God. The words from our tongue impact the trajectory of our entire life and the lives of so many other people.
When James says the tongue is set on fire by hell, he may be referring to Satan and his followers aggravating the fallen nature of the tongue. In other words, we are hemmed in on every side, and demonic forces pour lighter fluid on the fiery destructive nature of our words as well as their negative impact on others.
Now, all of this begs the question: how can we tame the tongue?
2. What does James say about taming the tongue? (v7-12)
7 Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, 8 but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
Under God’s common grace, humanity has the intellect and skill to be the dominate species on earth. Animals are at the mercy of mankind. They are subjugated under our will. We walk the dog. The dog does not walk us.
But ironically, we are unable, in our own power, to control the words that come out of our mouth. Everyone in this room has spoken rashly, told a lie, let their anger get the best of them, or said something they regretted later.
We are unable to tame the tongue. When James says the tongue is restless, he is saying that the tongue is unruly, unsettled, unstable, and essentially given to tendencies of anarchy.
When he says the tongue is evil, he refers to inner malice, a morally-rotten character that is inwardly foul.
“The tongue is a deadly poison” speaks again to its destructive tendencies. The tongue brings death.
9 With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way.
Blessing God and cursing man made in the image of God come from the same mouth: this is the essence of hypocrisy.
I want to ask this as a point of application: are you a spiritual chameleon where the words you use are dictated by what comes naturally in any given situation or are your words led by the Holy Spirit and marked by self-control regardless of the situation?
Next time you plan to say something negative about or to someone else, think to yourself: this person is made in God’s image. They are the crown and glory of God’s creation. Is what I’m about to say going to edify or tarnish God’s image?
Ephesians 4:29 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.
When James says, “My brothers and sisters” in verse 10, he is recalling the fact that followers of Christ are in the same spiritual family. There is a pastoral kindness underlying James’ dire warning here about the tongue.
Now James will provide two similar analogies to drill down his point that
11 Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.
On Sunday morning sweet worship comes from our mouth but by Monday or Tuesday we may find ourselves spewing words of bitterness, and often times towards those closest to us.
The hypocrisy of our tongues is especially dishonoring to our Lord and Father because hypocrisy damages the integrity of our Christian witness.
V12 refers to the fruit borne by the words of our tongue
Fig trees do not produce olives and grapevines cannot produce figs
We cannot bless God and turn around to curse someone else who is made in God’s image. But here’s the thing. This happens all the time! Remember, James is written to persecuted, dispersed Jewish Christians who struggled with taming their tongues just like we do.
James frames this theological truth as a loving pastoral question to get his audience to consider the absurdity of the tongue’s hypocrisy: can a worshipping Christ-follower curse his neighbor? Can a fig tree produce olives?
Now, who else in the NT asks about fruit coming from the wrong tree?
This is a clear allusion to the Sermon on the Mount.
3. What does Jesus say about the tongue? (also implied by James 3:14)
15 “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 16 You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Matthew 7:15-16 (CSB)
The words of Jesus in Matthew 12 provide clarity to this concept as well:
33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit will be good, or make the tree bad and its fruit will be bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. 34 Brood of vipers! How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. 35 A good person produces good things from his storeroom of good, and an evil person produces evil things from his storeroom of evil.
In a nutshell: your words reveal what’s inside your heart. Your words reveal your very character. “For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.”
Even James reveals that the wickedness of the tongue comes from our heart later on in James 3:
14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and deny the truth. -- James 3:14 (CSB)
Now this begs the question: how can we change our heart to ensure that we control our tongue?
The answer is the gospel!
Colossians 3:16 (what your heart is filled with comes out in your speech, your reactions, and your responses)
16 Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. -- Colossians 3:16 (CSB)
If you want control your tongue, then change your heart.
If you want to change your heart, then daily read, study, meditate, treasure, sing about, and apply the word of Christ to your life. Let the word of Christ dwell richly within you! Let the gospel of Christ be your go to. Let His word consume your thoughts. Let the word of Christ fill your daily conversations. Do this until a song of gratitude breaks out in your heart to God.
Further Practical Applications for Controlling your Tongue
Colossians 4:6 (“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt…”)
Not only what you say but how you say it (tone or vocalics, & non-verbal communication)
Vocalics include the way you speak, such as your tone of voice. No matter what you might say, the way you say it can communicate more than the words you choose.
Besides tone, vocalics might include the volume and pitch of your voice.
Shut the door. Shut the door! Shut…the…door!
For the non-Christian I want to leave you with this:
9 If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. -- Romans 10:9 (CSB)
Do you see the connection between the confession of your mouth and the belief in your heart?
What comes out of our mouth reveals what’s in our heart. We confess Jesus is Lord because we believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead.