Lesson Eight – The Tongue

The Tongue

Text: James 3:1-12.


The subject of communication by speech has been introduced in James 1:19, 26; 2:12.  In the text of this lesson James will make a very clear statement about the power of communication.  He used “the tongue” as an analogy for the communication that passes from our inner most selves through the endowments of our outer man to the world (II Cor. 4:16).   With this communication system created in us, we can praise God in prayer.  The ability to communicate is God’s gift for those who “presume to be teachers.”  Jas. 3:1.  Between the introduction of the topic of teachers and the revelation that all people “have been made in the likeness of God,” James dramatizes the power of communication for evil.  Our vocal language, as well as our body language, reveals the condition of our character and personality (Matt. 15:10-20).

The human tongue has been created in us for our instrument of righteousness but it can be used as an instrument of wickedness (Rom. 6:13).  It is a dynamic instrument in either case.  This will depend on how our “selves” decide to set it in motion.  Each individual Christian decided to offer our “self” to God in faith and repentance before he or she was baptized into Jesus Christ’s body.  The way she or he became immersed, or were added into the body of believers was by dying to their old self in the waters of baptism for the remission of their sins (Rom. 6:3-11; Acts 2:38, 47).  This is one way Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:30; 6:11).

When Christians decide to comment on a matter – that matters, we have been advised to be “quick to listen.”  Jas. 1:19.  We need to take enough time to listen until we understand the situation both factually and emotionally.  This has been called “empathic listening.”  Where empathic listening has become our habit, we try to understand both what people are saying and how they feel about the subject under discussion.

James cautioned, be “slow to speak” to the individual before we speak about what we heard with our empathic listening.  In order to address a particular situation in a wise manner, we may want to ask God for His wisdom.  We are privy to the fact that man’s wisdom, even among the most distinguished leaders, has never maintained peace in the world for an extended period of time.  God’s wisdom assures us of peace (Jas. 3:17).  Although the subject of God’s wisdom was introduced early in this document, James will clearly show us the difference between “wisdom from above” and earthly wisdom in the latter part of chapter three.  God has offered Christians His wisdom but we must ask for it without doubting (Jas. 1:5-8).  In other words, we must have the good, or single eye Jesus spoke of in Matt. 6:22.  God will not impart His wisdom to a double-minded person.  This person is unstable because he or she desires to serve God and money for a god.  Please see my book, The Sermon on the Mount, Part IV, “Introduction to Matthew Chapter Six.”  It is on the Website; https://kingdomofchrist.info

Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.  Jas. 3:13

Christians show our faith by the deeds we do.  Christians show the wisdom of God in these very same deeds.  Why is this?  It is because our faith is rooted in the wisdom of God as it has been revealed in His Son, Jesus Christ.  Paul quoted a psalm when he said, “I believed, therefore I spoke.”  II Cor. 4:13.  All healthy people have faith in something.  They cling to a wisdom they value.  The focus of our faith and the quality of our wisdom is revealed by our tongues.  “If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man.” Jas. 3:2.  James offers the “perfect man” prize to anyone who “is never at fault in what he says.”  With this prize we would be “able to keep our whole body in check.”  It is at this point James introduces the awesome dynamics of our tongue in 3:3-8.  We must study this text in the context he placed it.

Jesus Christ lived His incarnate life according to the wisdom of God.  When Satan offered Him prizes based on the wisdom of man, Jesus simply countered with, “It is written.”  Matt. 4:4.  Jesus was never at fault in what He said and He was able to keep His body in check.  “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  I Cor. 1:24.  He is the only incarnate person who became “a perfect man.”  James, who was perhaps Jesus’ half brother, said Jesus would remain the only person in Adam who was able to “tame the tongue” after mankind got the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:22; Jas. 3:8).

To no one’s surprise “slow to become angry” was included in the listening and speaking “wisdom from above” advice.  The “anger of man” and its relationship to the dynamics of communication may be the topic James clarifies in James 3:3-8.  “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires.”  Jas. 1:20.  This topic, as well as most others he discussed in the latter chapters, were introduced in the first chapter.  What we will attempt to understand in this lesson is how our manner of communication to people can be “set on fire from hell.” Jas. 3:6.

B.    Word study:

1.    Verse 1.

  • a. The English words teacher (NIV) and master (KJV) were translated from the Greek word “didaskalos.”  It means one who has the wisdom to “sound down” God’s wisdom.  The better translation for modern readers is “teacher.”  Master perhaps carries the old British sense of a teacher.  This word is found in Matt. 23:8; I Cor. 12:28, 29; Heb. 5:12.
  •  b.  Judged (NIV), condemnation (KJV), is from the Greek word krima.  It denotes the result of being judged.  James used it in the same way Paul did in Romans 2:2, 3 – God’s judgment of mankind.

2.    Verse 2.

  • a.  Perfect, Gr. Teleios.  To reach the end, or goal.  This word is used twice in Jas. 1:4.
  • b.  Stumble, Gr. Ptaio.  Gr. oupatie, the perfect man stumbles not.  James used these words in in the moral sense (Jas. 2:10).

3.    V. 6.  Hell, Gr. Gehenna. The final abode for all evil people and Satan.  In verse 6, hell represents the powers of darkness.  See Matt. 18:8.

4.    V. 8.  Evil (Gr. Kakos). Evil in Character. Kakos is antithetic (opposite) to kalos (good character).  See Romans 7:21.

C.  Lesson: 

We are reminded of the “need to know what the recipients knew” about the topics James freely introduced in his letter.  In many cases he gave some topics little, or no, elaboration.  Please review the introduction, “Reading James.”  Take note of the topics we need to know and understand in order to properly study this topic into which he did go into great detail.  He assumed the recipients did not know, or perhaps, had forgotten about the power of the tongue.  Of course, “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations,” the church, may have been communicating in an improper manner.  Some may have stumbled.  They may not have been aware of what was happening because he finished this text with several rhetorical questions.  Therefore, the purpose of this segment of his letter may have been presented to cause them to reflect and meditate on what they had been taught versus what they were practicing.  It may have been present for their self-examination.

Another principle of biblical interpretation we want to keep in mind is the “style of the writer.”  We want to keep in step with his “train of thought” as he led the original recipients through his letter.  This may appear to be difficult with this particular letter.  Some have said it appears James just gathered up some of his notes and sent them out to the various congregations of God’s people; however, we cannot assume this is true.  The importance of moving from thought to thought with the author is vital for the reader’s comprehension of a letter.  We will want to note what James said about faith being revealed in Christians’ deeds in the thoughts preceding our text.  He also inserted rhetorical questions in this discussion.  This may indicate he thought the recipients had a need to examine themselves in regard to their “faith testing.”  As has been noted, James moves from communication by the tongue to the topic of wisdom.

It would stand to reason, if the church members in general were not doing deeds that revealed what they claimed was their faith, they would have a problem with teaching and praising God in the area of their communication.  What would even more complicate a “tongue problem” would be the use of the devil’s wisdom.  Please note all three of these topics were introduced in chapter one.  Therefore, we will want to assume James has organized the material in this letter to attain the purpose for writing the letter.

In literary analysis we asked:  “How does the paragraph, or thought, we are reading function in the letter to help attain the author’s goal?”  Of course, if we do not determine the author’s reason for writing the document, we are not in a position to understand what the author said to the recipients.  We must first determine what the writer is saying to the original audience before we can know what God is saying to us in the document.  So we ask: Why did James write this document?  At some point in our studies of a letter we need to hypothesize about why the letter was written and what he said to attain his goal.

It appears James wrote to address some common problems that may influence the lives of Christians “after the newness wears off.”  We can begin to drift (Heb. 2:1).  Or, when we ought to be teachers we still need someone to teach us (Heb. 5:11-6:3).  When the recipients of the Hebrew letter were first enlightened, they rejoiced in their tribulations.  At the time of the writing they needed patience.  See Hebrews 10:32-39.  These Christians who received James’ letter could have been the same people, or perhaps in the same general condition.  Christians, do indeed, need the patience that is produced by healthy faith testing.

In order to read the text for this lesson properly, we may need to make sure we know about several topics James introduced within this text.  The following are some of these topics he mentioned but did not elaborate upon.

1.    Teachers.  They knew some members functioned as teachers in the body of Christ (Rom. 12:4-8).  Jesus role-modeled the perfect teacher because He was the perfect man “in Adam” while on earth.  No one but Jesus Christ is a perfect person; therefore, Jesus, alone, is identified as, ”the Teacher.”  Matt. 23:8.  Mature Christians have been advised to become “a teacher.”  Language that suggests one member of the church stands in holiness above other members is wisdom from Gehenna.  Peter advised, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God.”  I Pet. 4:11.  These words of God need to be communicated on the mental and spiritual level of the student.  This is the meaning of the word “to teach.”  Jesus was a master in this field.  Teachers teach students God’s word.  This means we need to understand how people learn.  Teachers teach to make disciples for Christ, not themselves (I Cor. 2:4, 5).

2.    The students’ spirits, to which a Christian teacher teaches “the very words of God,” all have come from God (Heb. 12:9).  They are in the likeness of God by design; therefore, the word of God is a good and perfect gift from “the Father of heavenly lights.” Jas. 1:17.  James did not make this statement to make the recipients feel good or to placate “itching ears.”  II Tim. 4:3, 4.  The word of God fits the man God created; therefore, mankind must fit his or her life into the word of God.  It is an implant operation.  This is why James said, “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”  Jas. 1:21.  It will save us now from failing to develop the quality of human being God designed to become.  It will save Christians on the Day of Judgment (Jas. 2:12, 13).  We conform to the image of Jesus; therefore, we perform deeds produced by our obedience to our faith in Him.  Our faith is this; His life is the law of life enlightening us about our lives.  He is our sacrifice of atonement that gives us peace with God (John 14:6; Rom. 3:21-26; 5:1).  All of this is included in the new covenant (Heb. 10:16, 17).

We have a choice to resist or humbly accept the new covenant; otherwise, it would not be a sonship program.  It saves Christians because it describes how our spirits that have come from God continues to develop like God.  The words of God are a “heavenly light” for us.  They are wisdom from above (Jas. 3:13, 17, 18).  They enlighten us about why and how we have been created.  Jesus, the perfect man, came from heaven to show us the law of life of God’s new covenant.  Please read John 1:1-18.  This law of life saves our spirits in the same manner the application of God’s laws of nature can save our bodies from physical death.  We believe, or at least hope, our doctor understands God’s natural law He used in the creation of our bodies.  Christians have faith God, our Father, Jesus Christ, our Lord and the Holy Spirit all know all about how our spirits were designed by God.  They all work with Christians to help us develop as sons and daughters of God now in Christ (II Cor. 6:18; 13:14).  However, the Holy Spirit works with us in our sanctification by living in us and also through the words He inspired Christians like James to write (Rom. 8:5-17; II Thess. 2:14).

3.   It is in the foregoing context we can clearly understand how the text for this lesson has been organized.  It will not be difficult to connect the communication from the “tongue of a teacher” whose faith is in the foregoing to other disciples of Christ – to his or her students.  Their faith in the new covenant motivates them to teach God’s word to a student whose spirit came from God.  They must strive to keep their bodies in check just as the Apostle Paul struggled to do (I Cor. 9:26, 27).  A teacher must know the word of God.  They are competent.  Christian teachers’ competence comes from the word of God which is the truth for the application of the wisdom of God (II Cor. 3:5).  They must have integrity.  They relate to the student “in the holiness and sincerity that are from God.”  II Cor. 1:12.  They are the wise people in the church (Jas. 3:13).  This applies to both men and women teachers (Tit. 2:1-5).

4.    On the other hand, if this teacher cannot rein in his or her tongue and keep their bodies in check evil things will begin to happen (Rom. 12:9, 21; 16:19).  A review of James 1:13-15 may be the place to start in order to understand James 3:3-6.  A Christian who presumes to be a teacher of God’s word but at the same time persists in making provisions for their lust of the flesh is in deep trouble.  They need spiritual help from the members of the church (Jas. 5:19, 20).  They need to be brought to repentance.

However, if their case should be described in Heb. 6:4-6 and they continue to teach, we can understand clearly what James has set forth.  Jude may have given us an example of teachers who had made provisions for their lust and still insist they are teachers of God’s word.  Peter took up Jude’s drumbeat in II Peter 2:1ff.  His proverb describes the degradation of what has happened in their minds, hearts and consciences.  It happened to their “self.”  II Pet. 2:22.  They will try to defend or hide who they really are in some manner with their tongues.  They will wash the outside of the cup but their minds and consciences have become corrupted or seared (Titus 1:15, 16; I Tim. 4:1, 2).  Their tongues become a fire, a world of evil among the parts of their bodies.  It corrupts their whole person and sets the whole course of their lives on fire.  Their teachings will have been set on fire by hell.  This is a paraphrase of James 3:6.  They praise God and curse men with the same tongue.  The church has a responsibility to remove these people from their fellowship; however, in too many cases this does not happen (I Cor. 5:5; Rom. 16:17, 18).

Some dynamic and talented speakers become world renowned by quoting from the Bible in their speech making.  As we have witnessed, many are caught up in their sexual lust and greed.  Still people flock to this type people to hear about God.  Satan may have more preachers who are “set on fire from hell,” than our Lord has “set on fire from heaven.”

D.    Questions for Discussion:

1.    Name the role the author claimed for himself in relation to the recipients.  V. 1.

2.    How might a Christian find his, or her, “self” in the role of a teacher (instructing others) outside a formal Bible class?

3.    Explain how James’ statement “we who teach will be judged more strictly,” might be understood by a study of Jesus’ parable in Matt. 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27.

4.    The key function of a teacher is found “in what he or she says.”  Assuming the content of verse two relates to the teacher in verse one, upon what should a teacher have a “tight rein?”

5.    From our study of 1:2-4, what is meant by the perfect man?

6.    How many perfect men did James think could be found in the church?

7.    What do bits, rudders and small sparks represent in James’ analogies in verses three through six?

8.    What is the first weakness James attributes to the tongue?  Give an example of this weakness in action.  V. 5.

9.    From what source does the untamed “tongue” receive its inspiration?   V. 6.

10.    Explain how our communication process can corrupt our “self.”  V. 6.

11.    Since efforts to control and tame our tongues are doomed to failure according to James; therefore, must Christians keep our mouths shut, or is there a way the tongue can become a useful tool?

12.  Please explain Jas. 3:9-11 in relation to the quality of our communication habits.

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