1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 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. 3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 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. 5 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! 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. 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. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. (James 3:1-12)
It’s important before we begin looking at our verses in James that we look at how wonderful it is that the God who created us and saved us, and sustains us, the God we worship, this great God communicates with those He has created and especially those who are His people. He is relational. If we want to better understand what James has to say in warning us about our sinful tongue, we must first talk about and appreciate how God communicates.
He communicates with us through His creation. salm 19:1 tells us, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” He communicates something about Himself in His creation. His power is on display. We see that He is a God of order and beauty. We see He is a God of precision and variety. We see that He is a God who sustains His creation. Believer and unbeliever, the Lord is communicating to all of us something about Himself as we live in and observe all that we can experience with our senses of His creation.
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)
And out of His great love and kindness, God has communicated to us through His written word. It tells us about who He is, His attributes, and also His purpose and plans for us. His written word also tells us who we are, created in His image, but also sinners who have the greatest need for Him. His written word tells of His offer of rescue. It tells us how those who are lost can be found. Those who are spiritually dead can be brought to life. His written word instructs us as believers on how we can live in a way that is consistent with our great and perfect God.
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
God has also communicated with us through His Son.
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
God has communicated to us everything we need to know about Him this side of Heaven, and everything we need to know about ourselves. So it makes perfect sense that He would be concerned about how we preach and teach what He has communicated to us. God does not want those who will preach and teach others about Him to misrepresent who He is, or what He has done, or what He has promised to do.
The Lord also wants us to live in a way that is a consistent and accurate representation of who He is, which includes speaking as He speaks; in truth, in love, in kindness, in righteousness, in justice, in mercy.
But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9)
So we should live our lives communicating His excellencies in our words and deeds.
So this morning James warns us about our communication, starting with teaching of the word and ending with how we talk or communicate in general, what impact that has on the rest of our life.
Before we look at the verses let’s get a little modern day perspective on communication. In James chapter 3 verse 1, when James is talking about teaching, of course the printing press had not been invented and there was no internet, or TV, or radio, and no eBooks or DVDs. So when we talk about teaching this morning I want you to keep in mind all of the ways you receive instruction regarding the word of God. You may not be a teacher, but you are a listener. How are you listening? Think not just about the preaching and teaching we hear on Sunday or Wednesday or Thursday night here at church, but think about the need to be discerning regarding everyone who you let teach you the word of God.
And when James talks about the tongue, I want you to keep in mind all of the ways in which you communicate with others. Whether that’s through talking to others face to face, or over the phone, or with a text, or tweet, or post, or email, I want you to think of all the ways in which you communicate as an extension of the tongue. And I say that because we can misrepresent God, we can sin, we can hurt and offend others with a text or tweet or post just like we can with a spoken word, and we need to be aware of that in all our communication.
James starts out chapter 3 by saying, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” Every time I read this verse and verses like it I shudder at the seriousness of preaching and teaching the word of God. God has made it clear in His written word and through His Son Jesus the serious nature of preaching and teaching His word.
The responsibility to live and to teach His word before His people and before the lost is not to be taken lightly, it is not to be rushed into and it is not to be sought after for selfish reasons. We see God warning Ezekiel:
17 “Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman to the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from My mouth, warn them from Me. 18 When I say to the wicked, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to warn the wicked from his wicked way that he may live, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 19 Yet if you have warned the wicked and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered yourself. (Ezekiel 3:17-19)
So we see the Lord warning Ezekiel that He will hold him personally responsible for delivering His word as He has spoken it to Him. The Lord also gives Ezekiel this same warning in chapter 33:7-9. The point is that preaching and teaching the word of God is serious business and should not be rushed into or taken lightly. As we read in Ezekiel, it is a matter of spiritual life and death.
I did not grow up in a Christian home. I had not been taught the word of God and I had not even really been exposed to the word of God. But the Lord used a friend of mine to invite me to church. And there was a faithful man of God, Reverend Davis, who has gone home to be with the Lord. He plainly and boldly preached the word of God. He was like Ezekiel to me, proclaiming the danger I was in as a sinner before the Holy Lord. And he also proclaimed the wonderful miraculous offer of rescue to be found in Christ.
Every time I come to teach or preach I am aware in a very intimate way how the Lord can use His teachers and preachers to communicate His message of judgment and of life, of hope and rescue. I am not talking about a seeker movement kind of church or preaching, I am just talking about preaching God’s word line by line, verse by verse. And because the truth of our great danger because of sin, and God’s great rescue, is all throughout the Bible, the gospel message will be heard very often just in the process of preaching line by line and verse by verse. I am a living example that the preaching and teaching of God’s word is a matter of spiritual life and spiritual death.
James’ warning that “not many of you become teachers” is in no way intended to discourage those whom the Lord has called to preach and teach his word. But a warning for those who are ignorant of His word, unqualified and unfit. Those who are ignorant of His word, who do not know enough about God’s word or who have been misinformed, taught error, they should not be teaching others. Also those who have not walked with the Lord long enough to know Him well enough to teach others, not a new convert.
wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions. (1 Timothy 1:7)
Jesus’ disciples did not start out preaching and teaching. They followed Jesus until they knew Him and knew His word. In Matthew 4:19 Jesus did not call Peter and Andrew by saying, “Today you are fishers of men.” No, He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Peter and Andrew were not ready to be fishers of men on that day by the Sea of Galilee when they received that invitation from Christ. It would be a process for them of following Jesus and getting to know Him and His word before they would be ready to be fishers of men, before they would be ready to teach and preach His word to others.
Those who would teach God’s word need to know Him and know His word, and be willing to continue to study in order to know his word better and to be committed to walking with the Lord so that they can know Him better. To be committed to a lifelong pursuit of their relationship with God and His word. Never satisfied with the current state of either.
James is also warning those who do not meet the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy chapter 3, and Titus chapter 1. If you are disqualified by your conduct, don’t seek to teach God’s people. You will only bring a stricter judgment on yourself and heartache to your brothers and sisters.
James is also warning those who are seeking the office of a teacher or preacher out of selfish ambition, just as Jesus warned the crowds and His disciples regarding the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 23:
4 They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. 5 But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. (Matthew 23:4-7)
You see once again the injury to God’s people as a result of someone teaching who should not be teaching because of selfish ambition. The heavy burdens needlessly being laid on men’s shoulders, when Jesus’ burden is light, not heavy.
James is warning against anyone becoming a teacher or preacher who is ignorant of God’s word, unqualified by conduct, and unfit for the office of teacher due to selfish ambition. And so he warns them of the stricter judgment they will incur.
James goes on to say that we all stumble in many ways. We all fail to walk straight and upright, we all stumble. We all miss the mark of God’s perfection. We all sin. And we sin in many ways, consistently. We know from Scripture this is true.
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)
And we know from our own experience this is true about ourselves, we continue to be sinners this side of heaven. James includes himself along with all of us, as he says, “For we all stumble in many ways.” Yes, our sins are numerous and varied. And, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.”
Here we have a bit of a challenge because the Greek word for perfect (τέλειος) can be interpreted as complete, without error, or as mature/full grown. So James is either saying if anyone does not stumble or sin in the area of what they say, their speech, then they are a perfect man without error, without sin, and they are able to bridle, control not just their tongue but the whole body as well. In other words no one except Christ can do it. Because James has already rightly stated that we all stumble in many ways, we are all sinners, so we cannot be perfect. We cannot be sinless this side of heaven. We cannot control our tongue and we cannot control our bodies either.
The second way to interpret “perfect” and also this verse would be to say that James is conveying to us that if anyone is able to control their speech then they are a mature believer. And if you can control the tongue as a mature believer, you should be able to control your body as well.
I would side with the first interpretation of our inability to be sinless in speech and therefore unable to be perfect and self-controlled. James is setting up for us the bleakest of pictures in verses 1-12 of chapter 3 in order to drive us to ask the question, what can we do to deal with such restless evil? What can we do to control the uncontrollable? What can we do to put back into order this out of order tongue of ours? This ever present sinful part of us that is most noticeable by the way we speak. And as we will see moving forward, James wants us to become desperate and hungry for the solution to the issue of our sinfulness as expressed through our ungodly communication, as he hammers us verse after verse regarding the sinfulness of our tongue and the way we communicate.
As we started this morning with God’s holy and perfect communication, how do we go from this present evil within us expressed through our tongue and also all the other ways in which we communicate in a modern world? How do we move from that to the way God wants us to speak and communicate as His children, His priests to the world and ministers to each other?
James does not provide the answer in chapter 3:1-12. He is building towards the answer he gives in chapter 4:7-10:
7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. (James 4:7-10)
To summarize, the solution for us to get to a consistent pattern of godly communication and to overcome our unruly sinful tongue and ungodly communication is not found in us. We can’t just try harder. The solution is found in genuine repentance, and asking for forgiveness, and seeking God. To draw near to the brightness, the brilliance of Christ. To trust in and walk in His ability to tame our tongues and to create within us a right spirit. We must humble ourselves before Him and rest in Him. He is the tamer of the tongue, He is master of what we cannot master. Everything we need is found in Him! To His praise and glory!
1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 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. (James 3:1-2)