Series on James, III Wisdom, A Conversation, Text:3:1-12, Title: On the Tip of Your Tongue. - NEW


James is a brief letter, yet within the space of its five chapters the writer has much to say about the tongue, and he brings it up five times,not including this extended passage in Chapter 3. He mentions it in 1:19, 1;26, 2:12, 4:11, and 5:12. The sins of the tongue were prevalent. This is still the biggest problem in the Church in the twentieth century. James states it tersely in verse 2, 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. We talk too much. Rumors abound. Many are harmless. Recently a member of our church told me they had met a man who spent several years with us during his seminary studies. I preached at his ordination. He was surprised to find that I was alive and well. I had lost a lot of weight and he said he had heard that I had cancer and was dying. But many words are not harmless. There is an anecdote about a young man in the ancient Church who came to his teacher desiring to be trained in knowledge and virtue. The first lesson given him was to memorize and take to heart Psalm 39:1, I said I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin, I will put a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence. He came back after the first month and said he had not learned the lesson. Month after month he returned until he realized that the bridling of the tongue was a never ending battle, and involved lifelong discipline. Let me ask you today, what is on the tip of your tongue? James has some wise words for us. He points out that the tongue is  a source of power, of perversity and of praise.

I The Tongue, a Source of Power

The subject is introduced by a reference to teachers in verses 1-4,  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. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or 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. You might remember that Paul dealt with a situation in Corinth where the eagerness of Christians to speak in public reduced their meetings to a perfect babel. One should not be so anxious to teach that he undertakes it without an inward compulsion from the Spirit of God through the Word of God, and the encouragement and approval of the Church. It is a dangerous occupation for which men will be judged. The primary reason why teaching will be subjected to such scrutiny in judgment is that it is powerful. Civilizations are guided, revolutions are incited, social changes are wrought, destinies are changed by the power of the tongue. James gives us two illustrations of the extraordinary power of the tongue. The bit in the horse’s mouth steers the whole animal. Most of us at one time or another have stood beside a horse and witnessed the size and power of the animal. My first real ride on a horse the animal broke into a full gallop and ran away with me. That was some lesson in power. But to a competent rider the tiny bit is a tool to control the horse. Or take the example of a ship. Here you have not only the enormity of the ship but the power of the ocean as well and yet the ship can be guided by a small rudder. The words we speak have great power. They can destroy or build up. They can change the direction of a life, or even of a society. Whatever you may think personally of Martin Luther King Jr. he was a superb illustration of the power of rhetoric to focus the attention of a society and to bring change. In our own limited context we must not forget that our words have power.

II The Tongue, a Source of Perversity

The focus of attention in this series of metaphors in verses 5-8 is on the defiling ability of the tongue, and on its corrupting influence, Likewise 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. The 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. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. The weight of James’ words is focused on the enormous potential for evil that is inherent in the tongue. We are born in sin, and we have a depraved nature. Though redeemed by Christ the flesh still lusts against the Holy Spirit. The Westminster Larger Catechism in discussing slander under the ninth commandment, thou shalt not bear false witness, reminds us that even the truth when spoken unseasonably may violate God's law. So torturous and deceptive is our sin nature that we cannot even speak the truth without oftentimes harming others. Here in our text notice James’ words, he says, the tongue is a world of iniquity or evil. It is almost as if the whole world of evil is focused in this little member of the body. Truly it is a spark that can set a whole forest flame. James says it corrupts the whole person and sets the whole course of his life on fire, literally the wheel of birth. This means that from the moment of our birth to the very end of our lives, the whole course of our lives as the New International Version ably translates it, is ruined by the tongue. it is the yawning mouth of hell. The word James uses is Gehenna. a word Jesus uses some ten times to describe the place of future punishment of the wicked. It was a valley outside of Jerusalem, the valley of the children of Hinnom where they burned their offspring as offerings to the god Moloch. In Jesus’ day it was a refuse heap, burning continually, and into the fires were thrown not only common trash but the bodies of animals and even the bodies of executed criminals.  James gives us another illustration of the evil of the tongue. It is like a wild beast that cannot be tamed. Here is what Franz Delitsch calls a lyric echo of the creation story in the Bible. Man had dominion over animals but with his sin creation was corrupted and beasts must be tamed with great difficulty, but the tongue no one can tame. like a restless wild beast it strikes out.

III The Tongue, a Source of Praise

The picture in verses 9-12 emphasizes the inconsistency of men praising God with the same tongue with which they curse men, With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. James affectionately calls us brothers. He is pleading with us to listen to the voice of nature itself. You cannot find a spring giving both fresh and salt water, or a tree bearing two totally different kinds of fruit. Why should you find a Christian both praising God and cursing his brother? This should not be. We are reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:16 and 17, By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. This in turn reminds us of Jesus own example. Isaiah the prophet wrote of him, He was oppressed and afflicted yet he did not open his mouth he was led like a lamb to slaughter as a sheep before her shearers is silent so he opened not his mouth. Twice in one verse Isaiah 53:7 our Savior is referred to as being silent in the face of outrageous injustice. What makes us curse other men except our feelings of injustice, but He did not. Instead He bore our sins upon the tree. He has not called us to curse but to bless. As he did not curse but blessed, so we his people must follow. The key to following thus is recognizing the potential of the tongue to sin and the power of our words.