I think that one of the greatest distinguishing features that separates man from the animal kingdom, besides having a soul, is man’s ability to speak, to communicate. I’ve always been amazed at the inherent desire in people to talk. I remember very well many years ago I used to work part time in the mornings as a lifeguard for the pool at the YMCA. And they would have these exercise classes during certain times on certain days when all these old people would put on their floaties and then supposedly start exercising. But the teacher was pretty lax. She would just lead the class around in a big circle, bobbing around the pool. And immediately the people in the class just started chattering away. And the sound of the chatter from all the people in the pool was almost deafening. The pool tends to reflect the sound off the water and the walls anyway, but hearing the magnified sound of fifty old ladies bobbing around who were constantly chattering was enough to drive you crazy. And I think that’s when I first realized just how much social interaction is essential to the human species.
The experts tell us that that the average person speaks about 16,000 words a day. Some people have said that men speak 16,200 words a day and women speak 16,800 words a day. That’s statistically the same for women or men. But the common perception of women being more talkative though comes more from timing, than from the total words spoken. The problem is that by the time the man comes home from work, he has already spoken his 16,000, but the woman hasn’t yet started on her 16,000. She’s been waiting for that opportunity. But of course that’s a stereotypical statement that is probably not really true.
But what is true is that we need to speak, and to a large extent, our speech is one of the primary ways in which we are known and defined. James is very concerned about our speech. He has already brought it up in chapter one and talked about it there. It’s apparent that James considers our speech to be a work, or an evidence of our faith. And so he summarized that section about speech by saying in chapter 1 vs 26 that “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.” Our words are one of the primary ways in which we practice our faith, and if our speech isn’t right, then it nullifies everything else.
So that naturally leads us to consider his next point, that teaching, which is the use of speech to convey truth, to convey faith, to practice our religion, is another aspect of speech that needs to be controlled. So he actually gives a warning in relation to teaching, saying in vs 1, “Let not many [of you] become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.”
Now that’s true on a couple of levels. One is, when you teach, you open yourself up to criticism from those that hear you. People are going to judge you on the basis of what you say, and how you said it. I think one of the most common after church menu items is roast pastor. It’s pretty common for a lot of people after church service to have roast pastor for lunch. And that pretty much comes with the territory. That’s part of the job. So you better think twice before you put yourself in that position. And to be even more explicit, you better make sure of your calling. Because if you’re teaching is designed to win approval from men then you will be a man pleaser and try to scratch the itching ears of your congregation. But that’s preaching something that does not find favor with God.
But I don’t think men’s judgement is the primary meaning of James in this statement. I think he’s saying that as a teacher you will incur a stricter judgment from God. God’s judgment is the judgment that we should be concerned about. Because I have to tell you, when I preach, I preach not for the commendation of men, but for the commendation of God. I don’t preach in a way that people will think what a wonderful sermon that was, or what a wonderful person I am, but I endeavor to speak in a way that is faithful to what God’s word says. That’s what I need to be concerned about, not in pleasing men, but in pleasing God. And I do that by being true to the word of God.
I also believe that the indication here in this verse is that James is speaking of the office of teaching, and not merely teaching as in sharing the gospel by the individuals in the church. We are instructed to be teachers in regards to the gospel. Paul says in Col. 3:16 “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms [and] hymns [and] spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” So we are instructed to teach in regards to our faith on a personal level.
But it’s the office of a teacher that many people aspire to, and according to James, they do so to their own peril. They will incur a stricter condemnation because they were not faithful to the truth, to the word of God. I think James is thinking in particular of the Jewish rabbis who taught, who loved the seats of importance in the synagogue, who loved to make public prayers. For instance, he is probably echoing Jesus rebuke to those who taught saying in Matt. 23:14 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.” Notice the similarity there in James warning and Jesus’s rebuke in regards to the judgment of a stricter or greater condemnation.
These are people that practice their religion by means of the tongue, and yet their speech is not in accordance with the truth of the gospel. I believe that there is an especially hot part of hell reserved for false teachers who put a stumbling block before others. So James gives a serious warning about the office or position of a teacher.
Now to that point of being a stumbling block to others, James says in vs 2, “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.” To stumble is to sin, to err, to wander away from the faith, to miss the mark. And James says we do that in many ways. But in this verse James seems to be saying that if you focus on the tongue, the rest of your body will follow suit. If you can control the tongue, then you are a perfect man. That does not mean a sinless man, but it means a complete man, or even better, a mature man, spiritually mature and as a spiritually mature man you are able to bridle the rest of your body as well. The key to controlling the body is controlling the tongue.
To illustrate that point, James gives us three examples; the tongue is like a bit in a horse’s mouth, or a rudder on a ship, or a spark that starts a forest fire. He says in vs 3, “Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and [yet] it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!”
Now these three examples speak for themselves. But let’s just consider them briefly. His statement about bits in horses mouths illustrates verse two exceptionally well. In vs 2 he said the mature man who was able to control his tongue was able to bridle the whole body as well. The point of this illustration being that a small metal bit is able to control a large animal. So by controlling the tongue we will be able to control our entire body.
And the same point is being made in the second example. A rudder is very small in comparison to the overall size of a ship, and yet this small part is able to steer the entire ship in the desired direction. So he says, “So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.” Such a small member makes such a great difference in the trajectory of one’s life. The emphasis there is this small member has the ability to say something that can set your whole life on a course that is not desirable.
And so the third illustration builds on that undesirable outcome. He says, “see how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” Again, this is not a desired outcome. But the wrong word said, can set things into motion which can destroy a life. You know, fire is a terrifying thing. I remember visiting my son when he lived in Santa Barbara a few years ago, and the forest fires were out of control there, burning hundreds of homes, and millions of acres of land from Ventura to Santa Barbara. Once the fire gets going and conditions are right, it becomes something that is uncontrollable, and destroys everything in it’s path. And to think it all starts with a spark. I think they said that many of those fires started from an electrical spark from a power line, or a power box somewhere in the mountains.
James compares the potential devastation of a careless or angry word to that of a spark that sets on fire the course of a life. There is tremendous power in a word. There is power to comfort, or the power to destroy. And unfortunately, it seems that far too often we use words to tear down, and not build up.
So James continues in vs 6 “And the tongue is a fire, the [very] world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of [our] life, and is set on fire by hell.” This is the application then which we should apply from the lessons learned by the illustrations. The tongue is like a fire that is out of control, doing widespread damage to everything in it’s path. Consequently, the tongue sets our life on fire, destroying ourselves and destroying others that we come into contact with. And furthermore, James says that destruction accomplishes the work of the devil. An uncontrolled tongue is used by the devil to put a stumbling block in front of others, to discourage others, to even destroy others. And instead of our tongue being used to bring glory to God, it is used for the purposes of the enemy of God.
Furthermore, he says the tongue defies the entire body. It’s interesting that James sees the tongue as the culprit. And yet the Bible teaches in other places that the heart is the problem – the heart being the defiler of the body. Jesus said in Luke 6:45 “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil person out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” So it sounds like Jesus says the heart is the source of evil. And of course, that’s true.
Then why doesn’t James identify the heart as the culprit? Why does he lay the blame on the tongue instead? Because as Jesus said, what’s in the heart comes out of the mouth. So the evidence of the heart is manifested by the mouth. The heart may be the engine, but the mouth is the instrument by which evil comes. So James focuses on the tongue because you can’t see the heart, but you can hear the tongue. So the condition of the heart is made evident by the tongue.
Consider what Jesus said about that in Matthew 15:18 “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.”
So if the mouth is the instrument by which the devil destroys and deceives, then we must recognize the need to tame the tongue. And James speaks to that need in vs 7, “For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race.” I spoke earlier of the difference between the human and the animal kingdom at the beginning of this message, and now we see those animals contrasted with man again.
As part of the original design in creation, God gave man the charge to rule over the planet, which included the animals and birds and every living creature. Gen. 1:28 says, “God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And as James said, man has been able to do that. I read recently about how the Navy has trained dolphins to participate in naval warfare, even to the point of detecting underwater bombs. Their headquarters for that, by the way, is in Point Loma, CA where my daughter goes to school. It really is amazing that they are able to train dolphins and sea lions to do the things that they do. And when you consider all the animals that man has been able to domesticate, and breed, and train, then you recognize the truth of James’s statement.
But though we have the ability to tame every animal that has been created, yet we are not able to tame the tongue. James says, vs8 “But no one can tame the tongue; [it is] a restless evil [and] full of deadly poison.” I think what James is talking about is how we can blurt out things without thinking. That’s why he said in chapter one we should be slow to speak. And another way that happens is that we sometime say things that hurt people and we don’t even realize it. We may be making a joke, and yet to the one on the receiving end it’s one that cuts too close to the bone. We don’t think twice about it, we may even laugh while saying it, and yet the other person thinks about it again and again.
You know, I hate mosquitos. I guess everyone does. Mosquitos are so small in comparison to our bodies. You would think there was nothing they could do to hurt us. But when the mosquito bites it releases a tiny bit of toxic saliva into our skin. Such a small bite, and so small an amount of saliva, you would think it’s not a big deal. But a mosquito bite hurts worse later than it does when it first happens. It soon starts to itch, and so you scratch it, and it gets even worse. Before it’s all over you have a big welt that really stings for quite a while. That’s what it’s like to get stung by a harsh word. It shouldn’t really bother you. But it starts to itch, and the more you scratch it the worse it gets.
James uses the analogy of a snake bite to illustrate this fact. It’s the same idea, the poison is worse than the initial bite. It takes time to find it’s way into the bloodstream, but when it finally does, then it destroys the body and can even kill. I’ve heard of snakebites that months later finally caused death after destroying the organs from the inside of a person that had been bitten. That’s what James says an evil word can do.
As Christians, our tongues should be under the control of the Spirit and as such you would think that the analogy of the serpent’s bite would not apply. But James says that is not always the case. He speaks to the Christian’s use of the tongue in vs 9, “With it we bless [our] Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come [both] blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening [both] fresh and bitter [water?] Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor [can] salt water produce fresh.”
As Christians, our mandate from Jesus is to love our neighbor as ourselves. But when we curse our neighbor, we do the opposite of that. If we loved our neighbor as we should, then we are in effect bringing praise to God. But when we curse them, we are condemning them to damnation, we are destroying them, bringing spiritual harm to them. James reminds us that man was made in the image of God, in His likeness, and so when we curse men, we are indirectly cursing God who make them.
If we have truly been reborn, if we have a new spiritual nature, then why do we resort again to the carnal nature? Even as a fountain cannot send out both fresh and salt water at the same time, nor a fig tree able to produce olives, so neither can a sanctified person both bless and curse others. I don’t think that James is speaking particularly here about using curse words, or swear words. However, I don’t think that is an appropriate pattern of speech for a Christian. But I think he’s speaking of hateful speech towards other people, in which you curse them, when we should be speaking words which will bless them, which will build them up, and which will help them.
Proverbs says “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” As our heart is made pure and righteous before God, as we meditate on His word, our life is changed to reflect the Lord Jesus Christ. And as our heart is conformed to Him, then our speech will be evidence of that change, so that our speech might result in the praise of God, and the edification of our fellow man.
The psalmist David realized that he could sin with his lips and he prayed that God would keep him from doing so. Let us make his prayer, our prayer in closing today. His prayer is found in Psalm 19:14 “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.”