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The Tongue

James  3:1-12

James begins a famous discussion of the use of the tongue in an unusual way: he warns us against becoming teachers.

(James 3:1 NIV) Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

Not many

The passage can be misinterpreted, because of an idiom in the Greek. One who was "apt to teach" (as the King James had it) was one who had mastered a subject, not necessarily one who was an instructor. But this does not relieve others of the responsibility of maturity.

·         The writer of Hebrews tells us that we should all be teachers![1] This is in a context in which he is urging us to become mature Christians.

·         There are many functions to the body of Christ - many parts - but all those parts are supposed to become mature. So this passage then refers not to Christian maturity but to those who actually teach or preach.

·         It is in accordance with our own ideas of fairness that those who stand before us to teach should be judged more strictly. We expect those who instruct others to be practicing what they teach. God does too!

·         All this adds up to a requirement for Christian maturity in a teacher. Many teachers in the church have been ruined by being asked to teach before they had become mature in Christ.


The teacher is subject to a number of pitfalls not necessarily held in common with other Christians. There are three in my own experience which the teacher must beware of; I suspect there are many others which could be mentioned.

·         The teacher as "Oracle." Because it is given to the teacher to handle the word of God, there is the temptation for others to see the teacher as one whom God has given a special message. Worse, there is the temptation for the teacher to see himself that way. This is pride at work, and must be resisted greatly.

·         "I think I read." There is the temptation to confuse "what I read" with "what I believe." There is also the temptation to confuse "I believe God's Holy Word is true" with "Whatever I believe is true." God is not the author of confusion. The teacher must strictly distinguish between what God said and what a scholar (no matter how brilliant) said. Likewise, he must distinguish between what he believes as a matter of revelation from God and what he believes otherwise.

·         Hypocrisy. "Do what I say, not what I do." It doesn't work with your kids; it doesn't work with your students, unless they are complete fools. Mine are not fools of any kind.

The teacher's teacher

Is this anyone but Jesus? I am not the oracle, nor the brilliant scholar - I am one who is passing along what was handed to me. It's like a relay race; there are four steps to being a teacher:

·         Take that which was handed to you. You did not create the baton; you did not create the Word. Take it as you found it and neither add nor subtract.

·         Grasp it firmly. Study it carefully; do not drop that which was entrusted to your care. Make sure you have a firm grip on what you teach. Study more than you need to. Hold tightly to the faith.

·         Run steadily. Be consistent. A relay race requires a pace suited to the distance. Runners will tell you that burning up all your speed in the first few steps is a good way to lose the race. So it is with us. The teacher must run steadily, devoting a consistent amount of time to the work.

·         Pass it on. It is not sufficient to run; the baton must be passed. So a teacher must always look for the next runner, one younger who will take what was handed to him and grasp it firmly - so that he too can run steadily.

James now proceeds to give us a specific example of why not many should be teachers: the tongue.

(James 3:2-12 NIV) 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} When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. {4} 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. {5} 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. {6} 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. {7} All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, {8} but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. {9} With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. {10} Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. {11} Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? {12} My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.


James now gives three major problems with our mouths:

Small tongue - big mess.

For such a small thing the tongue can get us into such trouble:

·         Most of us understand what it is to "open mouth and insert foot." But there is a worse case: sometimes we open the mouth and commit ourselves to living a lie. It is Shakespeare's "tangled web."

·         But this passage is written in the context of a teacher. Have you ever noticed that a teacher's attitude has such a great effect on his class? This works for preachers as well; if they are positive from the pulpit, the congregation is positive throughout the week.

The small fire

It takes so little in the way of words to create a large problem. This is because words have a way of spreading:

·         The most common problem is that of slander or gossip. Slander is false; gossip is true - but neither should be spoken. Both are condemned.

·         Sometimes we walk away before the damage is known. This is particularly true of the teacher, who usually gets at least the majority of the words, and often ends the session thinking all is well - when the student is going home fuming.

Salt and fresh water

The illustration might seem unusual to us, since we get our water from a tap. But it's not quite as bizarre as it sounds:

·         Have you ever told someone polite lies to their face - and turned around as soon as they left to tell others just what you really thought of them?

·         If you think that is not serious, consider this: have you ever gone to church and praised God - and then gone out and cursed someone who is a beloved creation of God?

Christian Speech

It interests me greatly that our President these days is being condemned - and defended - for his actions with regard not so much to his adultery but as to his honesty. The legal questions are beyond me, of course. But if I had to frame the ethical challenge to his conduct, I could do no better than to put to him these four characteristics of Christian speech:

·         Truthfulness. We are all members of one body, said Paul, and therefore we should not deceive one another.[2] In short, we're in this together, and we need to get along - therefore, speak the truth in love.

·         Simplicity. Much debate today focuses on just what did he mean by "sexual relationship?" The Christian has a simpler directive: let yes be yes, let no be no.[3]

·         Purity. If the heart is pure, then the mouth will render up what the heart has. We need to practice this.[4]

·         Gentleness. Gentle speech is not much in favor these days; a word snarled in pride seems more our style. We need to remember that gentleness is not weakness; it more often is strength. We have much need of the gentle answer that turns away anger.[5]

How? The Devotional Life.

The Christian may well ask: how do I control this thing, the tongue? Christ, speaking to the Pharisees, gives us the answer simply:

(Mat 12:34-37 NIV) You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. {35} The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. {36} But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. {37} For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

I submit to you two things:

·         Prayer. So often in our lives we use prayer to ask God for things for others. These are good things. Do we also go to him and ask him for good things for ourselves - like a clean heart?

·         Study. With what does your heart and mind occupy itself? Pay attention to the important things; let his word be a lamp to your feet, a light to your path.

You and I are the ambassadors of Christ. By our speech He is judged. Let us be true and indeed royal ambassadors of the King of Kings.

[1] Hebrews 5:12

[2] Ephesians 4:22-25

[3] Matthew 5:37

[4] Ephesians 5:4

[5] Proverbs 15:1

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