Warning to Teachers
This section deals with speech, or words. In a sense, words are works. As we perform good works as a fruit of our salvation, our speech should reflect our new nature as well. We should do righteous works and speak righteous words.
James warns us to be careful in becoming a teacher of the Word. His reason is that teachers will be held to a higher standard.
Teachers will be judged with greater strictness. Teachers must adhere carefully to the Word. They must not change it. We must not lessen its requirements or add requirements it does not make. A teacher’s words are judged by God’s word.
Jesus said that whoever relaxes any of the commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19) He also said the one who teaches them will will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. He also said a teacher who teaches one to sin will be punished to the extent that having a millstone tied around is neck and thrown in the sea would be preferable. (Mathew 18:6) I think it is safe to say Jesus takes God’s word and his commandments seriously.
As a teacher you cannot make stuff up if you do not know the answer. You cannot explain away the commands of God. Your job is to teach people what God says in his word, explain it and apply it faithfully.
Since James will show us that the tongue can be powerfully destruction in any person, he warns that a teacher exposes himself to greater risk of sin and harsher judgment.
Tame the Tongue
We all stumble in many ways, but speech is a major one. The tongue is hard to tame. It is easy to sin with your speech. If you have not stumbled with what you have said, you are a perfect man or woman. The tongue is so hard to tame, James says, if we can tame our tongue, bridle it, we can tame (bridle) our whole body. It is very important.
One might ask, can something that small really have that much impact? So, James gives two examples of the power of something small, first a bridle and second a rudder. In verse 3, he points out that we guide powerful horses with a small bit in the mouth.
A bit is a piece of metal that fits in the horse’s mouth. It is connected to the bridle, usually leather, that fits around the horse’s head. The reigns are the part that the rider holds. When the rider pulls the reigns, the bit moves in the horse’s mouth, making him follow the rider’s lead. In verse 4, he points out that we control a large ship with a small rudder.
In each example, you have someone to exert control, horseman and pilot, the object to be controlled, the horse or ship, and the controlling tool, the bridle and the rudder. With a man or woman, he or she is the controller, the body is the thing controlled, and the tongue is the instrument of control. So, the tongue is very small, but can have a great effect for evil and destruction.
In verse 6, James moves to a metaphor of fire. Again he shows how something small can control something great. But he adds the element of destructiveness. A small fire can burn a great forest.
The small tongue can set off a world of unrighteousness.Calvin said “a slender portion of flesh contains the whole world of iniquity”. It can stain our whole body and change the course of our life. James has already told us that pure and undefiled religion includes keeping oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27) It is a small fire fueled by the fire of hell. These are very strong words. But we have all witnessed it and done it. Examples are gossip. slander, lying, blasphemy, boarding and making false vows. Jesus said “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person. (Matthew 15:11) He followed that with an scary teaching, saying “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:17)
There are examples in the Bible of people who spoke rashly and caused terrible consequences. Jeptha in Judges 11, when going to fight the Ammonites, vowed to the Lord that he would sacrifice the first thing to come out of his house when he returned victorious from the battle. His daughter came out and he sacrificed her. It was his only daughter. In Matthew 27:25, the Jews at Jesus’ crucifixion cried out “may his blood be on our heads and that of our children”. That was brought to bear at the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
In verse 7-8, James tells us that all fail at controlling the tongue. He said, we have tamed every kind of animal, but we cannot tame the tongue. He calls it a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (8) Because with it, we will go to a worship service and bless God, then turn around and curse people who are made in the image of that same God. The image of God here probably refers to Genesis 1:26, where God created man in the image of God. To curse a believer is even worse, for the believer is indwell by God in the person of the Holy Spirit. The same mouth is blessing and cursing and James said that is written. It is unnatural.
To prove his point that it is unnatural, James resorts to examples from nature. In verse 11-12, he asks if a spring can pour both fresh and salt water, if a fig tree can produce olives and if a grapevine can produce figs. These are rhetorical questions, of course, and the implied answer is no, of course not, that would be ridiculous.
Jesus did the same thing when he warned of false prophets in Matthew 7:16. He asked if grapes could come from thorn bushes or figs from thistles. The point is that a spiritual renewed man or woman has a tongue that speaks as a spiritual person speaks, not with cursing and malice.