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Sermon on the Mount
5. Attaining Tongue-Taming Wisdom (James 3:1-18)
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3:1Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
3When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
13Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
17But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
Have you ever had to correct a person about a fault that you constantly struggle with yourself? It's tough. It makes you feel like a hypocrite. I think James is having difficulty talking about taming the tongue for the same reason.
He begins this section kind of apologetically:
"Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check." (3:1-2)
Why should teachers be judged more strictly? Because they can't claim, "I didn't know any better." They've been teaching others how to behave; God and everyone else expects them to practice what they preach.
James is humbled by this realization. As I read the Letter of James I get the feeling that James is the kind of person who has strong opinions and a quick tongue. He castigates the rich relentlessly, for example. The Letter is pretty hard hitting; James isn't working to phrase his words diplomatically or so they don't offend. He just says them outright -- and I'm sure God wanted him to, so we couldn't miss the point.
But I get the feeling that because James was plain-spoken, he also sometimes struggled with controlling his words. Earlier in the letter he had cautioned his readers -- notice, with gentleness,
"My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires." (1:19-20)
Q1. (3:1-2) Why does James discourage people from aspiring to be teachers of the Word? Why is greater strictness appropriate? Should you set higher standards for your pastor than you do for yourself?
"We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check." (3:2)
James concedes, "We all stumble in many ways...." (3:2). The word used is difficult to translate in English: "We all stumble in many ways" (NIV, NASB), "in many things we offend all" (KJV), and "we all make many mistakes" (RSV). The Greek word is ptaiō , literally, "stumble, trip," then figuratively, "to make a mistake, go astray, sin."1 The word indicates a trip, rather than a complete fall, as Romans 11:11 indicates.
Then he defines maturity or perfection: "If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check (chalinagōgeō )" (3:2). This is similar to a statement he made earlier: "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein (chalinagōgeō ) on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless" (1:26).
In both verses he uses the Greek verb chalinagōgeō, "guide with a bit and bridle, hold in check."2 Just as a person would be liable for the damage incurred for not restraining a runaway horse, so we must restrain or bridle our tongues. This is the essence of "pure religion." It is a hallmark of the "perfect man" or "mature man" (3:2).
He's talking, of course, about exercising careful self-control, the first remedy for an out-of-control tongue. Later we'll be looking at the second remedy to taming the tongue, but the first element is self-control.
"Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord;
keep watch over the door of my lips." (Psalm 141:3)
We are careful to train our children to control what they say. And we can force ourselves to "mind our tongue," even though it's very hard!
"3When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark." (3:3-5)
Now James continues with his analogy of bridling. Whereas we differentiate between bits and bridles, the Greek term apparently treats them as a single item: chalinos, refers to both a bit and bridle.3 In these verses he gives several examples of small objects with large effects:
Guide a horse
Steer a ship
Start a forest fire
"6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." (3:6-8)
His analogy of a spark starting a forest fire leads into his next section about the terrible destructive power of the tongue: "The tongue also is a fire...." (3:6)
The tongue almost takes on its own persona in the next verses. He calls it "a world of evil (Greek adixia, "unrighteousness") among the parts of the body." He sees it as a corrupter of the whole person. The word translated "corrupts" (NIV), "staining" (RSV) or "defiles" (NASB, KJV) is Greek spiloō , "stain, defile," from the noun spilos, "spot," figuratively "stain, blemish."4 The tongue stains and defiles the body.
This is reminiscent of Jesus' reply to the Pharisees who were so worried about ceremonially dribbling water on their hands before eating food.
"Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' " (Matthew 15:17-18)
Carrying on the idea of the spark igniting a great fire, James continues that the tongue "sets the whole course of his life on fire" (3:6). You've probably experienced that. One slip, one irretrievable word, and a relationship is ruined, a job is lost, a career is short-circuited. I had a friend who was better than anyone I've ever known at securing work. But he seldom lasted more than a few weeks on any job. He didn't have his temper and tongue under control. In one twelve month period I once counted that he obtained -- and lost -- 14 different jobs. His and his family's lives have been set on fire by his tongue. You have your own set of examples, I'm sure.
Finally, James observes that the tongue "is itself set on fire by hell (gehenna)" (3:6b). The Greek word gehenna is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew for Valley of Hinnom, the name of a ravine to the south of the city of Jerusalem. Here child sacrifices had been made to the false god Molech. It was written of evil King Ahaz:
"He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites" (2 Chronicles 28:3).
"The fire" was identified early with the Valley of Hinnom. It was also a place where the prophets Jeremiah pronounced terrible curses of God's judgment and slaughter of the wicked (Jeremiah 7:31-32; 19:1-6). Isaiah saw the judgment of the wicked in terms of burning: "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind" (Isaiah 66:24). By the second century B.C., the Valley of Hinnom had come to be equated with the hell of the last judgment.5
There is some evidence that the Valley of Hinnom was the refuse dump of Jerusalem. The Prophet Jeremiah identifies the location of the Valley of Hinnom as "near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate" (Jeremiah 19:2), that is, the place where broken pots were discarded. New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias observes, "It was still in modern times the place for rubbish, carrion, and all kinds of refuse."6 Jeremias also cites an ancient Jewish document that identifies the Dung Gate as leading to the Valley of Hinnom.7 It is logical, then, that it was a place where garbage burned continually.8 If Gehenna also has the connotation of burning refuse and garbage and uncleanness, then James' comment, that the tongue "is itself set on fire by Gehenna" is particularly apt.
"7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." (3:7-8)
Now comes the part that James struggles with, that he cannot fully understand. Human beings have been able to tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures, he says but not the tongue. Why is that? A couple sentences later, he is appalled that with the same tongue we both praise God and curse men. It should not be so.
He concludes that the tongue is untamable. He personifies it again, calls it a "restless evil (akatastaton kakon), full of deadly poison." "Evil" is the common Greek word kakos, " 'evil,' what is contrary to law, crime, sin."9 The word translated "restless" (NIV, NASB, RSV) or "unruly" (KJV) is akatastatos, "unstable, restless,"10 James uses the same word in 1:8: "he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does."
So the tongue is a fire, a world of evil, a corrupter, an unstable evil, a deadly poison. Untamable. Is there no hope?
Q2. (3:7-8) Read Matthew 12:34 and 15:18. In light of these verses, why is the tongue untamable? What has to happen before it can be tamed?
"9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water." (3:9-12)
Now James struggles with the ugly truth that out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. On the one hand he acknowledges that our mouths do say bad things. On the other he strongly protests and uses several pairs in nature to demonstrate that this is an anomaly:
He doesn't resolve the discrepancy. He merely points out its incongruity and then says, "My brothers, this should not be" (verse 10).
What we say begins in the heart. Jesus observed, "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34). Self-control, "bridling the tongue," as James puts it, is vital. But at best it is only partial. The second remedy for a runaway tongue he suggests is a humble, purified heart. Where the heart has been changed, then the triggers that used to set off our mouths are now disabled and disconnected.
"13Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice." (3:13-16)
"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" (3:13). Here is a repeat of James' theme of faith being demonstrated by works. It is also a preview of the theme of humility and submission to God that forms the core of chapter 4. The key is humility.
Set against humility is "bitter envy and selfish ambition" (3:14). The Greek word eritheia in verse 14 is translated as "selfish ambition" (NIV, RSV, NASB) and "strife" (KJV). Before NT times the word is found only rarely, "where it denotes a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means." Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich conclude that "for Paul and his followers ... the meaning 'strife, contentiousness' [as if the word were derived from eris, "strife, discord, contention"] cannot be excluded. But 'selfishness, selfish ambition' in all cases gives a sense that is just as good, and perhaps better."11
When we're in the midst of a political season we can get pretty cynical. What kind of person aspires to political office? we wonder. What kind of ego is necessary to put up with all the garbage one must endure to become elected? Is it just raw ambition?
First, I don't believe that ambition itself is a bad thing. If we didn't aspire to something better, something higher, no progress at all would be made in society. Ambition is a dogged persistence towards a goal to accomplish something. We are ambitious for our families, to make a better life for them. We are ambitious for noble causes of all kinds. We should be ambitious for God, to see his Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Ambition is essential. Ambition is a good thing.
But second, ambition is too easily entwined with other motivations. We wrap ambitions in our own sense of self-worth, and so achievement of our goals is no longer pure. It is no longer to accomplish lofty goals. It is also to vindicate our own selves, and to highlight our own achievements. And so it becomes selfish, self-serving. Lofty ambitions become convenient blinds from which to further our own objectives of popularity, power, and prosperity.
I don't think we should be cynical just about politicians. We should be distrustful of our own motivations. Why are we working so hard to achieve? How much of this is pure selfish gain? If we would be honest, a good deal of the noble causes we're involved with have selfish tentacles wrapped around our souls feeding the pride, the fear, the lust, the greed that lies within.
And it is just this pride and fear, lust and greed that slip out when we speak. Others often hear it before we do. "Freudian slips," we call them. Our words betray our hearts. So why do we have strife and verbal sparring? Why do we come out with a critical spirit and put-downs of our opponents at work and at home? Because of the selfishness that is in our hearts. James says this kind of so-called "wisdom" is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil" (3:15). It is the root of "disorder and every evil practice" (3:16). Purify your heart, implies James, and you'll tame the tongue.
Q3. (3:13-16) In what ways are "bitter envy" and "selfish ambition" (3:14) direct opposites of "humility" (3:13)? How does denial of "bitter envy" and "selfish ambition" prevent healing? How does boasting about these prevent healing?
"17But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness." (3:17-18)
We know more than we want to about the "wisdom" that comes from the devil (3:15). In its place James suggests a different kind, "the wisdom that comes from heaven" (3:17).
Look at the words that describe this heavenly wisdom, and then compare it to words from the famous "love chapter" in 1 Corinthians 13.
1 Corinthians 13
Contrast that with bitter envy and selfish ambition and you see that the kind of wisdom James is talking about is love. Taming the tongue requires changing the heart, so that we are no longer filled with selfishness, but selflessness -- in a word, love. We can "put a guard on our lips" and exercise self-control, but until love displaces selfishness in our hearts we will still have mouth eruptions. Love never fails.
Q4. (3:17-18) With what tool do peacemakers sow peace? Why does this produce a ripening crop of righteousness? In whom does this crop grow?
James concludes with a word about peacemakers: "Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness" (3:18) Compare that to Jesus' beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9).
Peacemakers are people who insert peace in the midst of strife, rather than continue the dispute. Peacemakers are often misunderstood as weak. Jesus certainly was. But the seeds sown in peace bring a harvest of righteousness.
Fighting starts with the flaming tongue of anger, which, James says, "does not bring about the righteous life that God desires." But fighting is put to an end when we speak with the tongue of peaceful, unselfish words, that produces the righteousness that God does desire.
Lord, work in us so that what we say will consistently honor you. Give us self-discipline, and even more, displace our self-absorption with your out-flowing love. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
"Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." (James 3:1)
- BAGD 727.
- BAGD 874.
- BAGD 874.
- BAGD 762.
- Joachim Jeremias, "gehenna," TDNT 1:657-658.
- Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Fortress Press 1962, translated 1965), p. 17.
- p. 310.
- Both David John Wieand, "Hinnom, Valley of," ISBE 2:717, citing Lightfoot; and Leon Morris, Matthew (Eerdmans, 1992), p. 115; see this as a possibility.
- BAGD 397-398.
- BAGD 30.
- BAGD p. 309.
In-depth Bible study books
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- Disciple's Guide to the Holy Spirit
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ