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James (2011)

Learning to Teach

James 3:1-13

Lesson audio

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 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. Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 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. 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! 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. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

(James 3:1-12 NASB)


Being Not Too Many Teachers

It might seem strange that James wishes to reduce the number of teachers. But he is dealing with a known and specific problem in the church of its time. Many of the Jewish Christians felt themselves quite superior to the Gentile Christians, because they understood the Old Testament law. They therefore took up teaching the Gentiles without the gift of the Spirit. Further, there was a definite difference Between the Way, Jewish Christians were taught and Gentile Christians were taught. Jewish Christians learned by the rabbinical method, which involves a great deal of memorization. The student was expected copy the writings of the Rabbi and thus provide his own textbook. In Greek society copying was done by professional copiers. Greeks were also accustomed to the Socratic method of teaching, which involved a good deal of question and answer between the teacher and the students. As a result, there was some difficulty in the church caused by all of these Jewish teachers. James is correcting that difficulty. Of course, he wants only the best teachers to survive the cut. He therefore stresses the difficulty of being a teacher.

How Do We Recruit Teachers?

As it happens, at this writing our church is in the process of recruiting a large number of small group leaders to increase the build community aspect of our church. I leave it as an exercise to the student as to whether or not we are approaching this the right way; but the first thing we must realize is that the Scripture clearly specifies the teachers are given the gift of teaching by the Holy Spirit:

And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues.

(1 Corinthians 12:28 NASB)


As you can tell, the standard for being a teacher is it must be a perfect man. What's interesting in here is this: the word format that James uses is actually the word for husband. The word for perfect, however, tells us what we need to know. It means to be perfected for a purpose. This implies that there is a purpose in view, and that the teacher meets it. This gift is clearly shown to be distinct from other spiritual gifts. This does not mean that if you have that spiritual gift you are already a perfect teacher; it means you have the gift that you could be a good teacher. The Holy Spirit expects you to do your own studying.

Character of the Ideal Teacher

It's interesting that James uses the first person plural pronoun — "we" — in describing teachers. It's clear that he knows that judgment is strict are for him. This is important because we are all still sinners; please don't get the idea that perfect means sinless. It doesn't. It means perfectly fit for a purpose. James does focus on the use of the tongue as a measure of the teacher.

·         One reason is fairly obvious: teachers use their tongues in the process of teaching. If you don't know what you're talking about, or you don't how to say it, or you add to what you should say with whatever comes to your mind then the tongue is being misused.

·         The other reason is fairly clear too. If you have control of your speech it is generally recognized that you have good self-control. If you don't, then your self-control is lacking. So the tongue is not only a useful implement for the teacher it is also a measure of the man.[1]

The Tongue

The Power of the Tongue

One reason why teachers get into difficulty with what they say is that they under estimate the power of their own tongue. How many times have you heard someone walking out to the despairing tones of the teacher saying, "All I said was…"? We have a tendency to insist that our words be taken literally, while we read into other people's words all sorts of intent. This is neither fair nor fruitful.

Sometimes, however, the teacher says something rather the shock people. Our reaction is, "he said what?" It's something that should be avoided as much as possible, but it turns out it seems rather pleasant at the time.

The tongue does have its proper use: persuasion to righteousness. If there is a question a teacher should ask himself before he walks into the classroom, it is this: "what do I want the students to change in their life to become more righteous?" It's very difficult to know when you have arrived if you don't know where you're going.

Danger of the Tongue

Most of us recognize the danger of what it is we say as being a problem with the tongue. But it may not be so obvious to us that what we don't say — or, more likely, what they really heard — is the real danger. People tend to draw conclusions from what you say. If you do not allow for this fact your students may be leaving the classroom with some other idea that the one you started with. But they'll be thinking that's what you said. This is not good on a number of levels.

In fact the most obscure part of the danger of the tongue is "what I should have said." Getting it right the first time is the great defense against misunderstanding. One of my master teachers told me that if I ever had a choice as to which lecture to attend, I should always attend the second one. I asked why, and he explained that the first one is rather experimental: it's where you make mistakes. The second is when you fix your mistakes, and from then on out you're bored.

Difficulty in Controlling the Tongue

For those who are not eloquent, it may seem an obscure problem as to why controlling your tongue is such a difficulty. It is not necessarily a loose connection in the wiring of the brain. In fact, this drives right to the core of the nature of sin. Out of the heart the tongue speaks. The issue of whether or not your tongue is under control is simply an issue of your fight with sin. If this is not clear to you, I suggest that you read the entire book of Romans. Paul lays it out very nicely there.

There is another reason, however. It stems from the fact that all but the brightest of us think entirely in words. If you can't say it in English, you can't think it. This is why the liberals and American society and tenderly attempt to redefine words. A good example is marriage. Christians approve of marriage, and have for 2000 years. So we just change the word marriage to include homosexual unions, we automatically get the approval of the church for our homosexual unions. If you can't say it, you can't think it. If you've ever become proficient enough in a foreign language that you can think it, you have the experience of knowing that there are some things that can't be fought in English — but are perfectly clear in, say, French. Bible teachers have the same problem when they read things that are clear in the Greek and obscure in the English. You know that St. Paul was thinking of something, but you might not be able to put it into words. A sense of due humility is required.

One last thought: the tongue is the thermometer of your spiritual life. You can fake the thermometer for a while, but if you are really whole the thermometer will read correctly. Your tongue will give a true picture of who you are.

How Then Should We Speak?

Permit me to borrow a verse from next week's lesson:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.

(James 3:17 NASB)



If you're going to be a teacher, this is a first requirement. It means that there is no hidden agenda in your teaching, that you're not trying to slip one by your students. With the students that this particular instructor has, there is no danger of this. Slipping a hidden agenda past them would be somewhat like slipping a roast past a Great Dane. But there is a more subtle problem with this. If they respect for you is great enough, and your tenure long enough, you may be tempted to slip your opinion by as being something clearly proclaimed by the Bible. Don't do this. State that is your opinion, tell them why you have concluded this. They should be intelligent enough to tell the difference, and open-minded enough to living to what you have to say and consider it carefully. Honesty is the best policy — just because it is.

Peaceable, Gentle and Reasonable

The word used for peaceable in this verse is related to "calm." The idea is that your speech should tend to create peace, not conflict. Do remember that inquiry is not the same thing as conflict. It is entirely possible to disagree without being disagreeable. That's the sense were trying to get here; it is speech which tends to solve a problem rather than create one.

The word used here for gentle is also translated "moderate." It carries with it the sense of being not too rigid or too exacting. The idea is that there is a certain amount of flexibility in it. It is well know what must be insisted upon and what might be considered optional or opinion. It's usually a good idea to know this before you deliver the lesson — otherwise we'll find out when it's too late.

The word used for reason means something which is useful for persuasion. A teacher must remember that he does not have the privilege of "laying down the law." He must persuade. So his words should be persuasive, and tending to persuade rather than intimidate. If you are talented enough, sometimes persuasion sounds like intimidation. You must be aware of this and avoid it as much as you can.

Full of Mercy and Good Fruits

The test of a teacher's life is not in his instruction but in his living. The word here used for mercy is the same one which James uses earlier in cautioning against telling someone to be warm and not providing anything. It means something of practical help. In short, a teacher's life should regularly feature the common aspects of Christian charity. These will often enough be directed towards his students; sometimes he will have the privilege of organizing the class to deliver such fruits to one of the members of the class. This is a form of instruction which should not be neglected. The good fruits in question are related to righteousness and all the other acts of a solid mature Christian.

Unwavering without Hypocrisy

It comes down to this: that you really believe and practice what it is you teach. You do it consistently, not just to happen to match a particular lesson.

Permit me to share with you an observation. If your life regularly features the practice of what you believe and teach, the work you do to prepare a lesson is greatly decreased. It is no secret that the teacher must be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. In my particular instance, this does not include blinding flashes from heaven. Rather, things just sort of occurred to me – things that haven't occurred to me before. But to get this leading from the Holy Spirit you must not quench the Spirit. If your life matches your teaching, the Spirit will inform you. If it doesn't, you're wasting your breath.

[1] I leave to the reader the problem of whether or not women should be allowed to teach. If you decide that they should, I see no reason why the same standard would not apply.

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