Book of James Lesson Seven
by Dr. Michael Cochran
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BOOK OF JAMES BIBLE STUDY
LESSON #7 - (James 3: 1-12, NIV)
TITLE: THE TONGUE IS A FIRE
DR. MICHAEL COCHRAN
APPLICATION: My words have the power to bless or curse.
JAMES 3: 1-4
1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 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. 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.
If you have the tendency to “put your foot in your mouth” when you speak, maybe you shouldn't be a teacher! James warns that teachers will be held to a strict accountability in the way they speak, and he makes this point after having already established that the Christian standard for doing is quite high, too! For James, words and deeds are not an either/or they are a both and.
Using very simple metaphors, James dramatizes the difficulty of keeping our speech godly. Such a small thing as a bit can turn a horse, a rudder can turn a ship, and so the tongue rules the godly---exercising influence all out of proportion to its size. We all “stumble in many ways,” James says, but he implies that we most commonly stumble with our tongues.
James's advice that not many should “presume” to be teachers is consistent with the tone of solemn warning he has adopted throughout his letter. Christ's followers and would-be followers must count the cost before embarking on their spiritual journey.
Much about Christianity is comforting and much is not. The fact is, the New Testament gospels emphasize persecution and opposition more than they de-emphasize it. Thus, James only echoes his Lord. Today's easy living Gospel would come as quite a shock to him. He knew that every disciple was not teacher material, and to enter the profession without serious thought and cost counting might prove disastrous. God expects more from teachers of the Word than he does from those in some other callings. Teach, if you must, James seems to say, but be sure you understand the importance, the holiness of what you are doing.
James's warning about the seriousness of the teaching ministry is especially important in light of what harm the tongue can do. Remember: Practically the only method for communication in the New Testament period was via speech. Writing was not common; books were hard to come by; and pictorial representations were not a Hebrew strong point. The “perfect” (vs. 2), or being perfected, saint could have a powerful ministry if only he or she could control the tongue.
It is just possible that the reason James writes so strongly about misuse of our speech is because of certain slanders that commonly circulated against the infant church. Tales were whispered that Christians were cannibals. The words of the Last Supper--”This is my body, My blood”--were twisted to lend substance to the lie that Christians practiced child sacrifice. The term “love feast,” which believers gave to their weekly meetings, and their custom of greeting one another with a kiss of peace became the grounds for slanderous accusations of lustful orgies.
Their enemies also accused Christians of being inciters to political revolution and violence. Because Jesus had said, “For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man's enemies will be the members of his own household' ” (Matthew 10:35-36), the claim was made that Christianity divided a man and his wife and disrupted the home.
JAMES 3: 5-8
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.
The symbolism of fire is most appropriate in describing the tongue. Fire is one of the most beneficial tools we possess, as is the possibility of communication. But uncontrolled, fire is one of the most devastating forces with which we have to contend. Like the Valley of Hinnom (“Gehenna”--the New Testament word for “hell”) with its smoldering garbage heaps is the life of a person whose “speech is like a scorching fire” (Proverbs 16:27).
Just as a fire is capable of getting out of hand and burning everything in its path, so the tongue is capable of burning those who get in the path of destructive words.
The pervasive influence of the tongue is matched by the diversity of its capabilities. It is “a world of evil among the parts of the body,” which suggests that the sum total of evil can find expression through it. The tongue can stain the whole person, for every evil word leaves its impression on one's character.
The inability to control the tongue is indicative of the effects of sin. In Genesis 1:28 the dominion of man and woman over Creation is the evidence of their being created in God's image. The psalmist could write, “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet” (8:6). James affirms the dominion of humankind over the creatures, but points out their inability to conquer the tongue.
Human speech receives much attention in Scripture. “The tongue has the power of life and death,” Proverbs 18:21 says. David lays bare the treachery of an enemy by observing, “His speech is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart” (Psalm 55:21).
“Men will have to give account on the day of judgment,” Jesus says, “for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36, 37).
Sometimes as an exercise, read several portions of Scripture where false words have been prominent: the serpent's words to Eve; Jacob's deceiving his father, Isaac; Haman's wickedness to the Jews; Herod's contempt for the baby Jesus; Judas's betrayal of Jesus; Demetrius the silversmith's commotion in Ephesus. You'll never doubt the destructiveness of the tongue again!
JAMES 3: 9-12
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.
How can it be that with the same mouth we bless the Father and curse His children? The Cross is the symbol of the greatest blessing in the world, but those who enjoy its benefits have sometimes praised God for it only to turn around and curse others in its name. This unnatural inconsistency of speech not only ought not be but does not need to be.
In nature no such inconsistency is found. The spectacle of blessing and cursing proceeding from the same person is unique to depraved humankind.
The people addressed by James may have been troubled by some self-appointed teachers who were fond of dispute, bitter in their discussions, more eager to defeat their opponents than to establish the truth, and proud of their knowledge. Having rebuked the evil tongues, James suggests that the fault is really in their evil hearts. Their vaunted wisdom, he says, is shown to be false by its effects.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER:
1. Can you think of ways to avoid situations where gossip is going on? Or should such activity be boldly rebuked?
2. In what ways can you bless God or praise Him with your tongue?
3. What are some ways you could use your gift of speech to build up others in the church?
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