How to Sail Through Life
Explore the Bible Series
August 16, 2009
Background Passage: James 3:1-18
Lesson Passage: James 3:1-18
With all due respect, I have some reservations about the title selected for this week’s lesson. The text does not give counsel for sailing through life; rather, it provides essential information about the appropriate use of speech. In particular, James, building on the foundation of statements in Chapter Two, gave sober warning to those who wanted to teach in the local church, warnings to govern both the motives and actions of teachers. This counsel, of course, has general application to all believers as well.
Chapter Two dealt with dangerous false teachers, men who poisoned the church with aberrant views about the nature of saving faith. Our present study must include a proper understanding of this context. James’s warning to teachers may seem somewhat abrupt, even out of place; however, if seen as a continuation of his critical appeal about works, the cautions about teaching ambitions make perfect sense. Therefore, this chapter about the tongue expounds James’s concern about false doctrine.
Last week, we observed two hypothetical objections to James’s teachings on works (See James 2:14 and 18). In both cases the author anticipates a verbal argument (“… if someone says… but someone will say…”). He corrected the false teaching in Chapter Two; then, in Chapter Three, he chastened the false teachers for the misuse of the tongue. These men had done great damage to the churches, like the harm done by an unbridled horse, a furious storm, a raging fire, or a wild beast.
I. A Warning to Teachers (v. 1): Dr. Curtis Vaughan believed these words applied to those who aspired to teach in the church (the false teachers, no doubt, were ambitious to achieve a certain prominence and respect afforded to teachers). The New Testament employs the word “teacher” fifty-eight times. Forty-eight of those occurrences refer to the Lord Jesus. The Epistles use the term to depict a distinct group (office) in the congregation, a position of great honor and even greater responsibility. Dr. Vaughan thought “teachers” described one function of New Testament pastors. The office of pastor carried a certain weight and respect among God’s people; therefore, unworthy men might easily covet this position of honor. James, however, emphasized the tremendous responsibility that attended the office.
A. “My brothers, let not many of you become teachers”: Hasty men intrude on the gospel ministry and may do great damage to the body of Christ. James encouraged his readers to carefully consider the dangers that attend the office.
B. “knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment”: Teachers will be judged by a more lofty standard than others in the congregation. With great privilege comes great, weighty accountability. On a personal note, I have often encountered men who assess their gifts more highly than they should. Week by week, they listen critically to their pastor and imagine that, given the opportunity, they could do a much better job than the leader of the congregation. Secretly, they flatter themselves that their earthly shepherd is unworthy of the respect afforded him, and, if the opportunity arises, they relish criticizing the Lord’s servant. These men invariably do untold damage to the saints. James offered a somber warning against this attitude; they will receive a strict judgment. Having offered this warning, James turned to a more general discussion of Christian speech.
II. The Destructive Power of the Tongue (vv. 2-5): The managing the tongue has great benefits; indeed, the author observed that a perfect (well rounded, complete, mature) man can control his entire body (with its powerful desires and impulses) if he learns to manage his tongue. James utilized several analogies to describe the dangerous influence of the tongue.
A. “we put bits in horses’ mouths” (v. 3): A powerful horse proves of no use to man if it cannot be controlled. The horse needs a bit to rein in its impressive strength.
B. “look also at ships” (v. 4): In the ancient world, sail-driven ships depended on rudders to harness the might of the wind. In comparison to the bulk of the vessel, the rudder seemed quite small’ yet, the entire mass of the ship tuned on the influence of this small devise.
C. “see how great a forest fire it kindles” (vv. 5-6): What could seem more inconsequential that a tiny spark; yet, in the wrong environment, a spark can ignite a destructive forest fire, consuming everything in its path. Like a forest fire, the spark of the tongue can set off a destructive calamity. Under control, fire brings comfort and warmth; nevertheless, its destructive potential is evident to all. At this point, James mixed his analogies. The reference to fire is combined with a contagious defilement that defiles the whole body. Hell kindles this fire, and its injurious effects serve the purposes of evil.
III. The Unpredictable Nature of the Tongue (vv. 7-12): James highlighted, in this section, the inconsistent use of speech.
A. “no man can tame the tongue” (vv. 7-8): “It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” The tongue is restless, difficult to govern, as deadly as the serpent’s venom.
B. “with it we bless God and… curse man, who have been made in the similitude of God” (vv. 9-12): James used two rhetorical questions to drive home his point, and both questions anticipate a negative answer.
1. “does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?” (vv. 10-11 and 12b)
2. “can a fig tree …bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?” (v. 12a)
IV. The Wise Use of the Tongue (vv. 13-18)
A. Unworthy attitudes of the heart: James listed ungodly attitudes that may lead to the misuse of the tongue.
1. “bitter envy (v. 14a): “Envy” translates a word that denotes zealous jealousy that insists on one’s own influence and opinions. James describes this envy as “bitter”, harsh and resentful.
2. “self-seeking” (v. 14b-16): This term reflects a selfish ambition that promotes deep rivalries. This attitude, James claimed, arises from the heart, and the persons who engage in this attitude do not live in accordance with the truth of the gospel. This “wisdom” (manner of thought) produces confusion among God’s people, and its evil will spread like a malignancy.
B. The Marks of Godly Wisdom: James, in conclusion, outlined a better way. Believers can control the tongue, but it demands great, godly wisdom, a wisdom characterized by purity (undefiled in thought and deed), peacefulness (delights in harmony and tranquility), gentleness (reasonable, forbearing), submissiveness (compliant and agreeable) mercy (compassion shown toward the broken and needy), good works (practical acts of kindness), without partiality (without partiality), or hypocrisy. (genuine, sincere, transparent).