The Book of James, Part 23:
Taming the Tongue - James 3:1-12


After James challenged us to test our faith by looking at how we live our lives, which we covered in the last two lessons, he continues in Chapter 3 to make us focus on the areas in our lives when we are in the greatest danger of not living like a Christian. Last week he stressed that real faith, faith that saves us, produces outward evidence in our lives. The outward evidence of true faith in Jesus is our action of caring and love for fellow believers and our obedience to Gods commands, diving into what the Bible says, prayer, etc. He dealt with what we will naturally be doing as a result of our faith in Jesus.

Then he crossed to the other side of the road and talked about what we will not be doing as evidence of our faith. He deals with natural consequences of real faith in Jesus, which is what we avoid doing. He is still talking about the fact that if we are true believers, we still act like it. As Paul said, live your lives in a manner worthy of being called a Christian.

Today: Taming the Tongue (James 3:1-12)

This week, we start into a section when he warns us about the danger of our uncontrolled tongue. So we are going to talk about taming the tongue.

It's difficult to over-emphasize the power of words. Here's a great exercise you might consider - go through the book of Proverbs and underline everything God says about speech. You will be amazed at how much God has to say about what we say!

Here are some examples of what God says in Proverbs concerning the power of words:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
    And those who love it will eat its fruit. --Proverbs 18:21
The TEV translates this verse:
What you say can preserve life or destroy it; so you must accept the consequences of your words.
To drive home the fact that there really is "life and death" in the power of the tongue, consider this statement:
"Never underestimate the power of words. For every word in Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, 125 people died in World War II!"

The one who guards his mouth preserves his life;
     The one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin. --Proberbs 13:3

Someone said of this verse that "words can be fruitful or fatal...Words pass; their fruit remains".  We need to remember that what we say can get us into more trouble than what we do.

A soothing tongue is a tree of life,
     But perversion in it crushes the spirit. --Proverbs 15:4
Again the TEV says:
Gentle words bring life and health;
     A deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

The closer people are to us, the greater the impact of our words and therefore, the more careful we need to be of what we say. This is especially true of what we say to our family members. Think of how words like these would "crush the spirit" of a child:

He who guards his mouth and his tongue, Guards his soul from troubles. --Proverbs 21:23
The Hebrew word translated "troubles" here can also be translated "affliction, anguish, distress". Have you ever said something that got you into trouble? Of course you have - we all have. One paraphrase of this verse is, "He who guards his lips, guards his life!"

Throughout this passage in James, he warns us of the evil of the tongue. Of course, evil doesn't really reside in the tongue. James uses the tongue to symbolize the words we speak. But the words we speak flow out of our heart and character:

You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. --Matthew 12:34

John MacArthur says, "The tongue is you in a unique way. It is a tattletale that tells on the heart and discloses the real person."

So when James speaks of the evil of the tongue, it's really an indictment on the sinfulness of our hearts, our inner being.

Why do you suppose that James was so concerned about this topic? Had he been reading Proverbs? Maybe it was because he recognized the powerful influence, for good or bad, that words had on the early Christian community.

Whatever the reason, God clearly led him to focus on the importance of "taming the tongue". Not only does James bring up this subject here, but also in every chapter of his letter:

This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. --James 1:19

If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. --James 1:26

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. --James 2:12

For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. --James 3:2

Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. --James 4:11

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment. --James 5:12

As you can see from these verses, James gives practical instruction - do's and don'ts - in his teaching on speech in the other chapters. And as we study those passages, we'll consider the practical help that James gives.

A Warning:

But here in James 3:1-12, his theme is primarily one of giving a warning. The tone of this passage is intense and pretty negative. Why? Maybe it's because he realizes that most of us don't appreciate the tremendous harm we can cause through careless words.

So let's look at this from three angles:

  1. The Indictment Of Our Words (3:1-2)
  2. The Influence Of Our Words (3:3-8)
  3. The Inconsistency Of Our Words (3:9-12)
1. The Indictment Of Our Words - (James 3:1-2):

This first one worries me, but he says what he says, so I have to deal with it. But in a more general way, every one of you is also a teacher, to your peers or to your family. However, it is clear to me that James is talking about people who take on the responsibility of teaching the Bible and Christian principles. So for this one, I am in the box along with any of you who also function as a Bible teacher in some setting.

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. --James 3:1-2
James introduces this section on "taming the tongue" by talking about our accountability to God. Some Christians have wrongly concluded that "judgment" only applies to unbelievers. We have talked about this a couple of times before. The Bible teaches that God's people are also going to be judged by God. This judgment does not relate to salvation.  That is a sure, and certain promise to everyone who has received Jesus. But it does relate to what we've done with our life since trusting Christ. Here are a couple of the verses that support this position:

In Romans, Paul is telling us not to judge one another. He says that God will take care of the judging. He says:

So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God. --Romans 14:12
The then in this verse is not related to the sequence of events but means that "therefore, or as a result of... so then..."

Paul also tells us:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. --2 Corinthians 5:10
In the context of our accountability to God, we need to understand that we are answerable to Him for our words, what we say and how it affects other people.
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. --James 3:1
Is James trying to limit those who become teachers with the church? I think the answer is both yes and no. There is always a need for godly, mature Bible teachers. I think James is cautioning that undertaking the responsibility of teaching is not to be done lightly.

Paul tells us that there is always a danger of immature and/or ungodly people wanting the position and "presuming" that they can teach God's Word:

For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions. --1 Timothy 1:6-7

If you want an extreme example of this danger, remember Jim Jones, down in Guyana back in 1978? Jim Jones taught the Bible and founded a church. But you probably remember the final consequences of his teaching in his Doomsday Cult.

You may say, "But I have no intention of being a Bible teacher!" But there is an application for every believer. All of us need to take seriously the responsibility we bear whenever we share with others what the Bible says. This will help us stay true to God's Word and guard us against adding our own opinions or preferences.

... knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. --James 3:1
James wants teachers and aspiring teachers to understand that they face a greater accountability before God. Teaching God's Word is a tremendous responsibility and should not be taken lightly.

What are some mistakes that teachers can make in teaching the Bible?

A great verse related to teaching God's Word is Ezra 7:10. Notice what Ezra did and consider the sequence in which he did them:
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. --Ezra 7:10
The phrase "set his heart" stands out. It means "to be firm, steadfast". The first step is that God leads us to "set our heart", to commit to do what it takes.
  1. Study:

    The Hebrew word for "study" here - darash - can also be translated "to search, seek, investigate, inquire". What did Ezra study? Did he study books about the Bible? No! He studied the Bible. Great teachers learn how to study the Bible, and make Bible study a personal discipline. And notice that he did this first.

  2. Apply:

    The Hebrew word for "practice" here - asah - can also be translated "to do, apply, follow, observe". What was Ezra's second step? First, he studied God's Word then he put it into practice in his own life. The great mistake that many teachers make is that they skip this step! It is the hardest one.

    Putting God's Word into practice gives great credibility to teaching. But this doesn't mean that teachers are perfect, (or we'd have no teachers). Speaking for myself, when I teach on a subject I struggle with personally, I need to be transparent about those struggles. It's humbling do this but absolutely necessary.

  3. Teach:

    After we study, and after we apply, then we teach. The basic meaning of "teach" is "to help people learn". Someone has said, "Telling is not always teaching". To learn how to be a good teacher, I need to study the greatest Teacher who ever lived, Jesus.

    Every teacher needs to be held accountable for what he teaches. One way this happens is when those who hear study God's Word for themselves and make sure that the teacher is correct in what he says. A godly teacher will accept godly correction. A great example of this is found in Acts. Many of you will remember that I stressed the Berean admonition several times, especially during our year and a half study of Genesis.

Check up on your Teachers:

Luke was very complimentary of the Christians in Berea:

Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. --Acts 17:11
Notice how God (through Luke) commends these young believers for checking Paul's teaching to make sure it's consistent the Word of God.

James cautioned us about being indicted by our words as teachers, but he goes further to explain that we are indicted by our talk, whether teachers or not.

For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. --James 3:2
Notice James' wording here - ...we all stumble... - how he includes himself. What a great example! James is "the brother of Jesus" and the leading elder of the church in Jerusalem but he's the first to admit that, like everyone else, he stumbles in many ways. A godly leader is honest about his own sinfulness.

Stumble - James used this same word ("stumble") in the previous chapter:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. --James 2:10
Satan is always going to try to convince you that you're really a good person. But, as we see with James, godly people recognized that they are not good.
Who can say, "I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin"? --Proverbs 20:9
In case you do not recognize it as such, that is a rhetorical question, and the recognized answer is "no one."

John tells us:

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us ... If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. --1 John 1:8-10
The Him is God, so maybe we should not say that we have no sin.
 ... If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man ... --James 3:2
Anybody here never at fault in what you say?

Do you remember James 1:26? 

If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. --James 1:26
Here's a question we asked back in our study of that verse but maybe it's worthwhile to ask it again here:

What are some different sins of speech that many Christians struggle with?

Why do you think we are prone to tolerate sins of speech by believers, maybe more than many others types of wrong behavior?

We are so guilty that we don't recognize it as the sin that it is.

John MacArthur observes, "Misuse of the tongue is perhaps the easiest way to sin. There are some sins that an individual may not be able to commit simply because he doesn't have the opportunity. But there are no limits to what one can say, no built-in restraints or boundaries."

As we leave this section, we need to remember that God is going to hold all of us accountable for our words. Teachers will be held to a "greater judgment" but even the word "greater" implies that all of us will be judged. Jesus also warned us about this accountability:

The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. --Matthew 12:35-37
We broke this topic down into three sections:
  1. The Indictment Of Our Words (3:1-2)
  2. The Influence Of Our Words (3:3-8)
  3. The Inconsistency Of Our Words (3:9-12)
This morning we dealt only with the first, The Indictment of our Words. Next week we will deal with the Influence and the Inconsistency of our words.

To Prepare, reread James 3:1-12