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Commentary On The Book of James

Chapter 3

THEME: God tests faith by the tongue

There is a problem of freedom of speech today, not only in universities and news media, but also in the church. The problem in the church is the problem of gossip and back-biting. Every one of us who is a Christian needs to be concerned about our freedom of speech.

James speaks on the controversial subject, the tongue, and he has quite a bit to say concerning the use and abuse of it. We have seen in this letter that God tests faith in more than one way. Here God tests our faith by our tongue.

James has already mentioned the tongue! James 1:26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. (KJV)

He also said: James 1:19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: (KJV) . . . We have two ears, and ONE mouth. God did it this way so that we should hear twice as much as we say.

The tongue is one of the the most dangerous weapons in the world. Some one said that it was a miracle when Balaam's donkey spoke. I say to you, that today, it is a miracle when someone shuts up! Also consider: it takes a baby two years to learn to talk and fifty years to learn to keep his mouth shut. The church is much more harmed by termites within, than by a multitude of woodpeckers on the outside.

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

Masters means "teachers." . . . This verse scares me! Teachers shall receive greater condemnation in the judgment! I do not know why God gave me the gift of teaching, but He did. This verse really does scare me, BUT . . . I have greater fear of disobeying God. He told me to teach, so I must teach! If it is of God, it will stand, if not, it will fall (Acts 5:39). After all these years, our ministry is still standing.

James is saying that a teacher has a greater responsibility, because there is grave danger of teaching falsely. I am overwhelmed at the way so many 'supposed' Christians fall for all the "damnable heresies" (2 Per.2:1) out there. All a teacher needs today is a smooth tongue. People are accepting all kinds of crazy things. Yet, as far as the TRUTH in God's Word is concerned, these teachers are completely ignorant.

James 3:2 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. (KJV)

For in many things we offend all . . . means that in many ways we ALL stumble. All of us . . . there is no exception! NONE of us are void of offence, teachers included!

If any man offend not in word . . . from slips and falls of the tongue, and to the use and abuse of it. IF a man can guard himself, and have such a command over his tongue, with much wisdom to use it, as to give no offence by it, to his fellow creatures, . . . . the same is a perfect man . . . BUT . . . no such man is to be found, so there is NONE perfect.

James is warning us all to be ever so careful of our speech, and not offend others.
We must be able to bridle the tongue, we must THINK before we speak!

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

Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths . . . By this, James not only expresses the smallness of that member of the body, which is like the bit in the horse's mouth, and the helm of a ship, but by use of it, has great influence over the whole body. Horses do not understand where you want them to go, and are strong, and would be unruly unless a bit was put into their mouth.

That they may obey us . . . and go the way we would have them go. My husband and I made our living from horses before we retired, so I know a little about them.

And we turn about their whole body . . . a bit in the mouth of a horse, is the best way to direct and govern the whole body of the horse. We, like horses, would be unruly and ungovernable, were it not for the ability of language and the power of words. Psalms 39:1 I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. (KJV) . . . There are a lot of Christians today who should put a bit in their mouths.

James now uses another illustration.

James 3:4 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. (KJV)

Large ships can be controlled by a little rudder which most people do not even see. In a fierce storm, a tiny rudder can control it. The tongue can also change the course of our lives. Many have been ruined by the tongue; many good names have been wrecked by some uncontrolled, gossipy tongue or bearing false witness against someone.

James is telling us that the tongue is more dangerous than a runaway horse or a storm at sea for a ship. I believe that alcohol and drugs are eating away at our nation today, but the TONGUE is condemned more in Scripture than alcoholism.

Twelve EVILS of the Tongue, the Bible Condemns
1. Gossip (Deut. 22:13-19)
2. Talebearing (Lev.19:16; Pro.11:13)
3. False witness (Ex. 20:16; 23:7)
4. Whisperings (Rom.1:29)
5. Slander (1 Tim. 3:11)
6. False accusations (Titus 2:3)
7. Vain talking (Titus 1:10)
8. Defaming (Jer.20:10)
9. Tattling (1 Tim. 5:13)
10. Lying (Pro. 6:16-17; Rev. 21:8; 22:15)
11. Deception (Rev. 12:9)
12. Backbiting (Ps.15:3; Rom.1:30)

Alcohol and drugs are bad, but the tongue is even more dangerous. The tongue can really get us into big trouble; no doubt about that.

A careless word may kindle strife; A cruel word may wreck a life.
A bitter word may hate instill; A brutal word may smite and kill.
A gracious word may smooth the way; A joyous word may light the day.
A timely word may lessen stress; A loving word may heal and bless.
. . . Author unknown

James 3:5 Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! (KJV)

James refers the tongue to its boasting; to the effects which it produces, resembling that of fire. James seems to convey the idea that it boasts not unjustly of its importance. It does have great influence in the world, for good OR for evil.

Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! . . . The sense is, that a very little fire is sufficient to ignite a very large quantity of combustible materials, and that the tongue produces effects similar to that. A spark is well able to kindle a huge pile; and a word spoken by the tongue may set a neighborhood or a village "in a flame." Psalm 12:3 The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: (KJV)

The tongue is a little member . . . the tongue is one of the smaller members of the body.

And boasteth great things . . . the tongue is used to express boasting and glorying, speaking bragging words, claiming great things, and boasting how great things it has done and can do.

James 3:6 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. (KJV)

James compares the tongue to a fire. I do not know whether you have ever seen a forest or wild fire, but they are devastating, and many times absolutely uncontrollable; many have to burn themselves out.

Fire has been and is, one of the greatest friends of man. When it is controlled, it warms our bodies, cooks our food and generates power to turn the wheels of industry. BUT . . . it is extremely dangerous when it is out of control. It is a tragedy when a house is on fire. There are some fires that just cannot be controlled. The London fire of 1666 destroyed London. Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern in Chicago in 1871 and started that great and historic fire. We still we see great devastations caused by fire in today's world, every day, some where.

The tongue is a fire . . . and when it is under control, it is a blessing! But, when it is out of control, it is devastating. It can be a cure OR a curse. The tongue can be like a sword that kills, but it also can be health itself. What a picture this is of the tongue! My grandmother never laid a hand on me. But friend, her tongue was my worst enemy! I would much rather have had her smack me a good one than speak her cutting words to me. Her words would cut me to the bone!

James 3:7 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: (KJV)

Every kind. . . some of every kind. Of beasts . . . wild beasts, those that are most fierce. I had a pet javelina (peccary) many years ago. She would root a piece of candy out of my hand, and when I would pat my leg, she would jump up on my leg, I'd tell her to kiss me, she would nuzzle my cheek. So, yes! Wild beasts can be tamed.

And of birds . . . movable and wandering, the very vagabonds of nature. And of serpents . . . which are great enemies to mankind. All can be tamed.

And of things in the sea . . . Sea World has many sea creatures that do marvelous things. Killer whales are taught on command to do spectacular maneuvers.

Is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind . . . either made gentle, or at least, brought into subjection to man by one means or other. BUT . . . let's go on:

James 3:8 But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. (KJV)

But the tongue . . not only other people's tongues, but yours and mine! Ours too!

Can no man tame . . . no man of himself, without the assistance of Divine grace, can bring his tongue into subjection, and keep it under control! Nor can any man, without the assistance of grace, keep it that it shall never offend.

It is an unruly evil . . . it CANNOT be restrained, and kept within bounds without your desire to do so, and help from the Lord.

Full of dead poison . . . the wickedness of the tongue is compared to poison, in doing evil to others. It seems to refer to the kind of serpents which have poison under their tongues (Ps.140:3), with which they kill those that they bite. The poison of the tongue is no less deadly! It kills men's reputations by the slanders it utters, kills their souls by the lusts and passions it stirs up in them, and often kills their bodies too by the conflict and strife it raises against men.

James 3:9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. (KJV)

Therewith bless we God . . . the right way to use the tongue is to bless God: The word bless here is used in the sense of praising, thanking and worship. "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise" (Ps.51:15). Since God gives us the gift of speech, we should give Him the glory; we owe it to Him. We have the advantage over animals, that we can praise God. "All you have made will praise you, O Lord; your saints will extol you" (Ps.145:10). Speech should be set apart for good uses: "Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving" (Eph.5:4). We should say to ourselves: "I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips" (Ps.34:1). Eph. 5:19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; (KJV)

Even the Father . . . our Lord and Father. We bless God when we consider Him as a Father . . . but thoughts of God as a Judge do not bring comfort. Our thoughts of Him are sweet when we look on Him as a Father in Christ. But not everyone can learn the Lamb's new song (Rev.14:3).

And therewith curse we men . . . it is with one and the same tongue by which God is praised and honored, that we curse men. The same tongue should NOT bless God and curse men; that is hypocrisy. Acts of piety are void when acts of charity are neglected. Psalm 50:16 But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth? (KJV) Psalm 50:19-20 Thou givest thy mouth to evil, and thy tongue frameth deceit. 20 Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother's son. (KJV)

Hypocrites are the most critical, but true piety makes people meek and humble. Some people can curse and bless at the same time: "they bless with their mouth, but they curse inwardly" (Ps.62:4). Many people curse, while pretending to be pious in public. The evils of the tongue, when they are not restrained, are inconsistent with TRUE piety. With this same tongue that a person uses to speak to God . . . shall it soon be set on fire of hell? (vs.6).

Which are made after the similitude of God . . after His image (Gen.1:26-27). As we BLESS God, we should also bless those who are made in His image. It is absurd to curse men who are made by God. James discourages us from slandering and speaking evil of others. We must consider that they are made in God's image.

James 3:10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. (KJV)

My brethren, these things ought not so to be . . . James amplifies the absurdity by repeating it. He might have reproved them sharply, but in discouraging them from the evils of the tongue he wants to give them a pattern of meekness and gentleness. This should not be . . . (1 Tim.5:13; Tit.1:11).

Blessings and cursings should NOT come from the same mouth. A good person should be constant. The same heart CANNOT be occupied by God AND the devil, and neither can the same tongue be used for such completely opposing purposes. The Pharisee prayed to God, yet he criticized at the same time, with the same tongue (Luke 18:11). When the tongue utters prayer, it is hallowed and consecrated, and therefore must NOT be used for evil purposes. Let us all consider what we SHOULD do! When a person sings like an angel on Sunday, then talks like a devil during the week . . . the Bible calls that person a hypocrite.

James 3:11 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. (KJV)

Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? NO way! Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. In Arkansas there was sulphur water. Our water was good, but a friend had sulphur just a mile away. When I would walk into her house when she was washing clothes, my eyes would burn from the sulphur. Her water was sulphur, she had no sweet water. Our water was good, sweet water, no sulphur at all. So a "fountain" or a spring can produce only ONE kind of water!

James gives us several illustrations taken from nature, to show that one thing can bring about only one sort of thing. A sweet water fountain will NOT bring bitter water! A fig tree will produce figs, NOT olives! A grape vine will produce grapes, NOT figs!

So it should be with our tongue! A Christian does NOT have a double heart. We must NOT profess to be "religious" and live in sin. To do this cannot come from a good heart. We must be ever so careful to check the distortions of our speech. If you are ever tempted to both bless and curse, to pray and revile, STOP! Don't do it! Ask the Lord to help you do right. He will!

James 3:13 Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. (KJV)

James now goes to another matter, though it is related to the previous one . . . an exhortation to meekness as opposed to envy and strife.

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? . . . James speaks about wisdom and understanding. Wisdom and understanding go well together; one informs, the other directs. Grasping the importance, significance, or meaning of something and good judgment make a complete Christian. All want to appear to be wise . . . but very few are (Ps.34:12-13).

Let him shew . . . "by works," and not merely by profession (Jam.2:18).

Out of a good conversation . . . by general "good conduct" in your life, manifested in particular "works."

With meekness of wisdom . . . meekness cannot be separated from true wisdom. Always remember, Jesus was meek! (Isa.53:7; Mat.11:29; 12:19; 21:5; 26:52; 27:31; Jn.18:23; Ac.8:32; 2 Cor.10:1; Jam.5:6; 1 Pet.2:23). The tongue can reveal many things: genuine faith, wisdom and meekness.

James 3:14 But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. (KJV)

Strife and bitterness are certainly not the fruits of faith, but the tongue can stir up that kind of thing. James is contrasting the tongue of the foolish believer and the tongue of the wise believer. An uncontrolled tongue raises the question in the minds of others whether a man is a child of God or not. No TRUE believer can curse six days a week and then sing in a choir on Sunday. He cannot tell dirty jokes and then teach a Sunday school class, telling about the love of Jesus. Your tongue can do one OR the other . . . but if it does both, it means trouble. James says: "Lie not against the truth." A lying tongue is one that denies the Lord during the week by its lifestyle.

James 3:15 This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. (KJV)

Worldly "wisdom" does not come from God (Jam.1:17). God's glory chiefly shines in the heavens, where TRUE wisdom comes from.

Worldly wisdom is earthly, sensual, devilish (1 Jn.2:16; 1 Cor.3:18; Jude 1:19).

Worldly wisdom is NOT spiritual. It is spoken of as "natural" (1 Cor.2:14), one guided by worldly reason. He is opposed to "the spiritual man" (1 Cor.2:15), one who is enlightened by the Light of Christ.

Satan is the author of worldly wisdom (2 Cor.4:4; Eph.2:2). He has blinded the minds of unbelievers. It is the sort of wisdom that is in the devil; he is wise, to do harm. Pride, ambition, envy, greed, wrath, revenge . . . these are Satan's lusts (Jn.8:44).

James 3:16 For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. (KJV)

James says that devilish wisdom that serves envy and selfish ambition cannot be wisdom from above, for it brings about completely opposite effects; one for holiness and meekness, the other for confusion and profanity.

An envious spirit is a wicked spirit; there is no wickedness such a person will not do. The devil works on nothing so much as envy and discontent. We must watch for the first feelings of this, stopping it as soon as you begin to look with envy at another person's happiness and betterment. Do NOT let the devil carry you away in a whirlwind of sin!

God is NOT the author of confusion, but of peace (1 Cor.14:33). The Gospel is "the good news of peace" (Ac.10:36). God establishes a wisdom that prescribes the ways of peace (Heb.12:14; Rom.12:18). Godly wisdom increases the number of godly people, who are most peaceable . . . whereas pride, envy and self-seeking put other people into unrest, and they move all to serve their own desires, interests and lusts.

James 3:17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. (KJV)

The wisdom that is from above . . . is TRUE wisdom, and is a pure and holy wisdom. The word that we translate pure means chaste, modest. There are two kinds of purity: #1. that which is not mixed with something else (like wine is pure when it is not adulterated) and #2. that which has no dirt or filth (like water is pure when it is not muddy). In #1, purity is compared with hypocrisy, and in #2, purity is compared with uncleanness, which would be the correct meaning in this Passage, since the word means "chaste."

But you will say: Pro. 20:9 Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin? (KJV)

Consider the following:

#1. TRUE wisdom is cleanness in heart and life. Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart" (Mat.5:8); and David says, "Blessed are the undefiled in the way" (Ps. 119:1). The heart must be pure and the way undefiled. Also: James 4:8 Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. (KJV)
Sinners must wash their hands; hypocrites (double-minded) must purify their hearts. The heart comes first; a pure spirit will not tolerate filthy thoughts. Christ condemns looking at a woman with lust (Mat.5:28). Peter speaks about some people who had "eyes full of adultery" (2 Pet.2:14), implying the impure progressing of the mind. TRUE Christians "abstain from sinful desires" (1 Pet.2:11), and also "put to death the deeds of the body" (Rom.8:13). There should not be "passionate lust," the body must be kept "in a way that is holy and honorable" (1 Thes.4:4).

#2. TRUE wisdom will not tolerate filthiness either of error or of sin; error is a blot, as is sin. The way of God is called the holy commandment, and the way of the sinners is called "the pollutions of the world" (2 Pet.2:20). Jude 1:9 says false teachers are "filthy dreamers" who "defile the flesh." They are "dreamers" because of the folly which is found in error, and they "pollute" because of its defilement; SO. . . true wisdom must be made up of truth and holiness.

#3. TRUE wisdom must be in word and deed. We read of the pure life (Zep.3:9). Many sin self-righteously with their tongues but do not want to be seen as bad as they appear in their talk. BUT . . . the tongue corrupts the whole person (Jam.3:6). James condemns "foolish talk" and "corrupt communication" (Eph.5:4; 4:29).

#4. TRUE wisdom must be not only an absent from disgusting sins, but the heart must be washed in the Blood of Christ (Rev.1:5), and cleansed from unbelieving thoughts. The pure are those who believe that their sins are pardoned in Christ and are renewed by the Holy Spirit. There is not only an absence of sin but a purging of their consciences and a washing of their hearts Many take little thought of this; they are moral and lead a good life in the world, BUT they are not "washed... sanctified... in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor.6:11). Others look for salvation but do not consider moral cleanness; they say justification excludes sanctification. True purity is when the spirit is purged from both guilt and filth, the conscience being cleansed from "dead works" (Heb.9:14), and the heart from "an evil conscience" (Heb.10:22).

#5. TRUE wisdom must be in our heart as well as in our public behavior. People love to divide what God has joined; purity of heart and purity of ordinances must go together. Many people want pure behavior, but have an unclean spirit. Outward reformation is NOT enough. Only when the conscience is purged, is it fit to "serve the living God" (Heb.9:14). Good behavior in public cannot excuse lack of purity in our heart. Our first job is to attend to our own spirits. As we watch others, so we are to watch ourselves (Heb.3:12). We must beware that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and "defile many" (Heb.12:15). True purity shows itself the same, in public and in private!

#6. TRUE wisdom avoids real defilement and apparent defilement. 2 Cor. 7:1 Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (KJV) . . . We must keep the body pure from all appearance of sin and keep the heart pure from the guilt of sin. 1 Thes. 5:22 Abstain from all appearance of evil. (KJV) The TRUE Christian avoids "every kind of evil." We must stay away from all appearance of evil, that we may wound neither heart, conscience or reputation! This is pure wisdom indeed.

James 3:18 And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace. (KJV)

Jesus says: "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Mat.5:9). To "make peace" is to have strong and heartfelt desires for it.

Have you ever thought that whatever we do in this life is seed? "Whatever it is that we sow, we shall reap." This speaks of all our moral actions, whether good or evil. Scripture regarding sin (Hos.8:7; Job 4:8; Gal.6:8). The crop may take a while to come to harvest, but my friend, it will be according to the SEED you planted! If you sow iniquity, you shall reap vanity (Pro.22:8). "Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy" (Hos.10:12). God shows mercy according to works, although not for works. "He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully" (2 Cor.9:6). And I believe the following Verse refers to sowing the Gospel to lost souls. Psalm 126:5 They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. (KJV)

It is seed-time, my friend! Eternity depends on what you do in this life! Beware that you do not sow to the worldly nature; for in eternity, your harvest will be void. Keep in mind that whatever you do for God and His people is seed. The wicked (unbelievers) regard it as lost, but any seed that you sow to righteousness, will take root and prosper. You will NEVER lose by serving the Lord! (Hos.10:12; 2 Cor.9:10).

Caring about righteousness brings peace. All good actions cause serenity in the mind. The kingdom of grace yields "joy unspeakable" (1 Pet.1:8). Joy enters into us, here on Earth, before we enter into our Master's joy in our "inheritance incorruptible" (1 Pet.1:4).

It is the duty of God's children to sow in peace. True lovers of peace are and must be also lovers of righteousness. Peace and righteousness simply go together! But, there must be righteousness before there can be peace. You cannot have peace without righteousness (Ps.85:10).

Chapter 3 ends the first major division of the Letter of James in which James has dealt with the proof of TRUE faith. There IS a difference in faith: you can believe the wrong thing, or you can just say you have faith, but only TRUE saving faith produces good works.

James has shown different ways that God tests our faith to prove that it is genuine.

  • #1 God tests faith by trials.
  • #2 God does NOT test faith with evil;
  • #3 God tests faith by the Word;
  • #4 God tests faith by the attitude and action of persons;
  • #5 God tests faith by good works; and
  • #6 God tests faith by the tongue.

James has made it very clear that TRUE faith will be unmistakable in the life of the believer.

Book of James

Ch.1 . Ch.2 . Ch.3 . Ch.4 . Ch.5

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