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James 3: Teachers, the Tongue and True Wisdom March 23, 2013

Posted by TJ Friend in Specific Passages.
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Introduction

This post is a brief overview of my thoughts on James 3. In order to understand what I am talking about it is necessary to actually read that chapter. For this reason I am placing the English Standard Version (ESV) below. If you prefer another translation, read that one, and use it to follow along with as you read this post.

James 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. 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.
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. 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.

Wisdom from Above
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Before I get into my thoughts on this text, I want to show you a few observations I made which helped me come to my conclusions. Hopefully, this will help you to be more aware of things to look for when reading a text of Scripture.

As you may have noticed, I left in the subtitle of verses 13-18 of “Wisdom from Above”. This obviously is an addition made by the translators of the ESV. I am guessing that if you are reading a different translation (NIV, KJV, Message, etc.) you will encounter a similar heading. The book of James was a letter written by James to the Church at that time and, just like letters today, he did not put in any chapter or sub-chapter headings. In fact the original manuscripts did not contain verse or chapter numbers either. So, the question I had was if that heading was actually necessary.
The structure of the book of James is difficult. It seems that he jumps around from topic to topic without connecting his ideas together in a logical fashion. For this reason people study this book thematically, tracing out the themes of rich and poor, wisdom, the tongue, suffering, faith and works, favoritism, prayer, trials and righteousness. As I have been studying this passage I am becoming more convinced that the ideas in this chapter are connected.

Parallels

I want to point out some of these thematic and linguistic connections so that you can see how I came to this conclusion. Some of these are obvious in the Greek, but even reading it in English you can see some of the similarities.
First off, it is helpful to recognize that this chapter breaks down into three sections. The first section is just the first two verses (vv. 1-2). These talk about why not many people should be teachers. The second section (vv. 3-11) talks about the power of the tongue and the third section (vv. 12 -18) is about wisdom.

If we just look at the similarities between the first two sections it is clear that James is continuing his thought. In the first verse James says that not many people should become teachers and then he gives his reason for this in verse 2. In verse 2 he talks about stumbling, but especially stumbling in speech. This second section is all about the tongue and different illustrations of its power. If you compare just verses 2 and 3 you can see the parallel between being able to bridle one’s whole body and using a bit for a horse to guide its whole body. The words bit (v. 3) and bridle (v. 2) are actually from the same root in Greek. This idea of guiding the entire body is then exemplified again with a rudder steering an entire ship. I think from this evidence it is clear that the first two sections are one connected idea, namely that the tongue is powerful and if used for evil can send a person’s life off course.
Are there connections between this second section (vv. 3-11) and the final section (12-18)? I can see three points of connection. First, verse 5 says that though the tongue is small it boasts of great things. Then in verses 14-16 he talks about natural wisdom which “boasts”. He rebukes them for their envy and selfish ambition which again show their pride.

Second, in verse 12 he states that salt water cannot come from a fresh spring. The word translated as “salt” is the same word used translated as “bitter” in describing their jealousy (v. 14). It is as if he is saying that the jealousy in their hearts is polluting the water of their soul and making it bitter.
Finally, in verse 15 he describes one type of wisdom as “demonic”. This is parallel to when he is describing the power of the tongue. He says that it is “set on fire by hell” (v. 6) and is a “restless evil” (v. 8). These are very similar ideas. The tongue is a tool of the enemy to destroy people’s lives and “natural” wisdom is a tool of the enemy to bring “disorder and every evil practice”. Both of these tools together can ruin a person. And, if this person is teaching others, they are in danger of being ruined as well.
James 3 Overview

I want to try and give a brief explanation of how the three sections of this passage fit together and come to a conclusion on what James’ main point in this chapter actually is. As I mentioned earlier James 3 divides into 3 sections: teachers (vv. 1-2), the tongue (vv. 3-11) and true wisdom (vv. 12-18). Rather than three isolated ideas, these three topics are interwoven by James into one main point which he states at the beginning of the chapter. Evidently a lot of people at that time wanted to be teachers. James was warning them that they need to check their motives. Teachers at that time (and still today) had a high status. Wisdom was an esteemed virtue and people looked up to them.

James basically sets forth a two-part argument on why they shouldn’t be teachers. First, they shouldn’t be teachers because their words show that their hearts are evil. They are both speaking praises to God and cursing people around them. Jesus had a similar rebuke to give to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:33-34.
33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (NIV)

He tells them that because their words are evil, their hearts are also evil. James is telling them that their hearts are evil and their words show that they are actually controlled by Satan (v. 6). Not only this, but they are actually poisoning those they teach (v. 8). I think James alludes to the root cause of this when he says that the tongue makes great boasts (v. 5).
The second part of James’ argument is that they shouldn’t be teachers because their motives show that they are not wise. If wisdom is a pre-requisite to teaching, James is telling them that they are seeking after the wrong kind of wisdom. Their actions reveal that they are boastful and arrogant and that they are full of bitter jealousy and selfish ambition (vv. 14, 16). Rhetorically, James asks them “who among you is wise and understanding?” (v. 12) I imagine if they stopped at that point and answered his question honestly, a lot of them would have claimed to be wise. But, James goes on to say that true wisdom is not found in what you know, it is in how you act and live your life. They were disqualified from teaching not because they didn’t know the material, but because at their heart they were wicked. Because they were living out of this false wisdom, they were creating a breeding ground for “disorder and every evil thing” (v. 18). They didn’t want to be teachers so that they could bring people closer to God. They wanted to prove how wise they were and how much better they were than others.

Conclusion

If I were to summarize James 3, I would say that James is warning people against becoming teachers if either their words or their pride reveals their evil heart.
This message applies to everyone. We need to guard our tongues. When we don’t we are literally allowing Satan to guide the course of our lives. Along with our tongues we need to check our motives. 1 Corinthians 10:31 says that we should do everything for God’s glory. We can get ourselves off track when we start to do things for our own glory.

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