James 3:1 [ESV] Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
If you claim to be a Christian, a follower of Christ, but your life produces no good fruit, and there are no works that are evidence of your faith in Jesus Christ, you likely do not possess a saving faith (James 2). As Paul explained further, some will say, “Yeah but I do believe that Jesus was real!” But as James 2:19 tells us, even the demons believe– and shudder! So, to this point, James has made it clear that merely pronouncing yourself to be a Christian is not ultimate evidence that you have been truly saved. James concludes chapter 2 by writing, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” We are not justified or saved by our works, but our works are evidence of our justification in Christ.
Simply put, to justify is to declare righteous, to make one right with God. Justification is God’s declaring those who receive Christ to be righteous, based not on what we do, but on Christ’s righteousness being imputed or applied to the accounts of those who receive Christ (2 Cor 5:21).1
James now makes a shift as we enter chapter 3 and taming the tongue. I think it would do us well to quickly revisit some basics about James’ letter before we jump into the text itself. Just like all the general epistles except for Hebrews, James is named after its author, the oldest half-brother of Jesus. Initially, John 7:5 tells us that James rejected Jesus as Messiah before later believing as written in 1 Corinthians 15:7. Along with Peter and John, he became one of the key leaders in the Jerusalem church, and in Galatians 2:9 was called one of the “pillars” of that church.
James’ unwavering devotion to righteousness earned him the title James the Just and he was eventually martyred around A.D. 62. by being stoned and clubbed to death. If I’m being honest, if my younger brother came up to me one day and said, “Hey bro, just a quick FYI, um, I’m God. Yep, I’m the son of man. Here to rescue you from your sins.” I’m probably not dropping to my knees right there to worship him! To that end, James’ faith in Christ and his eventual murder for that belief is, to me, one of the greatest testimonies to a true, all-in faith in Jesus Christ. Because of that, James wrote with the authority of one who had personally seen the resurrected Christ.
That’s James, the author of this letter.
He’s writing this letter to the believers scattered as a result of the unrest recorded in Acts 12 where Herod Agrippa the King was going around murdering Christians. He refers to his reading audience as “brethren” 15 times which indicates he was writing to Jews. And as you’ve likely noticed, the book of James reminds us a lot of Proverbs in its statements on wise living and its use of very direct language. James wrote with a passion and a desire for his readers to be uncompromisingly obedient to the Word of God. The picture of James that emerges is of a reasonably well-educated Jew who knows his Old Testament thoroughly and who is well-acquainted with Hellenistic-Jewish culture, language, and literature.2
Without that background information in place, let’s get into the text.
The first 12 verses of James Chapter 3 contain really two primary divisions. In verses 1 and 2, we find a very clear warning against too many becoming teachers. In verses 3 through 12, we are presented with a conversation about the tongue and its inability to be tamed.
Already in James 1:19 he cautioned us about our mouths when he said, “Know this, my beloved brothers, let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak…” So, be quick to listen and slow to speak. If you’re a motor mouth like me, you’re probably feeling some shame about now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart. Do we not live in a culture that flips that concept on its head? We’ve got constant news coverage, and an incessant need to gossip. Aren’t we all basically talkers long before we’re listeners? Words are powerful, and they can bless and they can curse, and I’m not just talking curse words.3
Let’s take a look at chapter 3:
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (2) For we all stumble in many ways.”
Isn’t that line a blessing? The reality that we all stumble.4 Especially in America, and even the American church, there is this sense that we need to put on happy faces every time we go to church or are around church people. That is a lie from the pit of hell. We all sin. We all stumble in many ways.
“And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. (3) If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. (4) Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. (5) So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things (or great power).” How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! (6) And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (7) For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, (8) but no human being can tame the tongue.”
As Matt Chandler humorously notes, “In case you missed it there, James inserted a bit of comedy into a very serious subject. He’s like, ‘Yo, we can tame a lion and an eagle, but we can’t watch our mouths. We can tame any kind of creature on earth, but can’t get our tongues to shape up.'”5
“It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (9) With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. (10) From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (11) Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? (12) Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”
In a time where “verbal abuse” is epidemic, and where “self-proclaimed teachers” engage in all sorts of heated religious discussions, there is much we can learn from this passage.6 James’ predominant emphasis in the passage is really a more negative one; warning that judgment is real and that we all stumble intending that we should humbly repent of our impure speech.
In other words, this series is going to rough you up a bit. But, take heart, regardless of how badly James pokes us in the eye, Jesus Christ has died for our failure to live up to his standard.
As you’ve likely noticed, part 1 here is primarily an introductory article providing background and a high-level look at James 3. In part 2, we’ll begin to dig into the text by first noticing and addressing The Warning…
This series is an adaptation of a sermon delivered by Landon Chapman in March 2016. Click here for part 2 in the Untamable Tongue series.
- “What Is Justification? What Does It Mean to Be Justified?” Web. 22 Feb. 2016. ↩
- Moo, D. J. (2000). The letter of James (p. 148). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos. ↩
- Chandler, Matt. “Blessings / Curses.” The Village Church. 22 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2016. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Copeland, Mark. “Sermons From James – Let Not Many Of You Become Teachers (3:1-12).” Executable Outlines. Web. 22 Feb. 2016. ↩