In chapter 2, we learn how unfruitful and dead our faith is without works. It’s how we demonstrate our faith and our desire is to be a living demonstration of the Word. But it is clearly intimated that such a faith, that is, a faith with great works, can make us legends in our own mind; conceited or magisterial, that is, overbearingly dignified and puffed up both in temper and in talk.
This is the issue James tackles first in chapter 3. It’s addressing those who set up faith wrongly, either by ignoring good works altogether or becoming proud of the great works that they believe are self-righteously accompanying their faith. In other words, it’s addressing us all.
There are 5 key points about the tongue that are addressed.
- We are taught not to use our tongues in a manner as to lord over others. It’s important to note that this is NOT a prohibition against offering genuine direction, instruction or reproof.
Don’t censure each other as if everyone much be brought to OUR standard. This is enforced for 2 reasons:
- Those set up as teachers and judges receive greater condemnation. Matthew 7:1-5, 12, Matthew 12:36
- If we were to more seriously consider our own offenses, we might be a little less apt to judge others.
Teachers are particularly warned since, basically, the tongue is the tool of the profession. Therefore, not everyone should aspire to be a teacher. We don’t take this lightly. But, none of us get off the hook. As James notes in v. 2, we all stumble in our speech, speaking maliciously without even thinking about it. If we can avoid sinning when we speak, we can avoid sinning elsewhere.
- We’re taught to govern our tongue to prove ourselves perfect and upright and able to control our whole bodies. James implies that one whose conscience is affected by tongue-sins but who can take care to avoid them is upright and demonstrates true grace. BUT, on the other hand, even if a man seems religious, if he can’t bridle his tongue, his religion is in vain; a restatement of James 1: 26.
- 3 refers to the bit or bridle that governs and guides all the motions of a horse. Psalm 39:1
- 4-5 refers to governing a ship by the right management of a helm.
We’re taught to dread an unruly tongue as one of the greatest and most pernicious evils. V. 5-6 compares to a small fire placed among a great deal of combustible material that can consume everything before it. V. 6 calls it a world of iniquity or unrighteousness that can defile the whole body and all too easily can kindle, vent and fan the flames of a passion in such a manner to affect an entire body of people. The whole body can be drawn into sin and guilt. Matthew Henry wrote at length in his commentary of the diabolical effects of the tongue and how it can be influenced by hell itself. It makes sense since the devil is called a liar, murderer and accuser of the brethren. When are tongues are employed in this manner, they become tools for hell.
In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descended upon the church in cloven tongues of fire and where the tongue is guided by the Holy Spirit, it will kindle good thoughts, holy affections and ardent devotion. We should dread contentious, reviling, slanders, lies and everything that would kindle the fire of wrath in our spirit and the spirits of others just as we dread an out of control fire.
- Next, we’re taught in V. 7-8 just how difficult it is to govern the tongue. We’re reminded of how we can tame virtually every animal as a common course. But the tongue is worse than these. It can’t be tamed by power or manipulation.
V.8 is encouraging: “but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison”. I think it is important to note that James does not say that it is impossible to tame the tongue but he emphasizes that it is extremely difficult and requires great watchfulness and prayer. It can only be tamed by the supernatural work of grace and assistance of the Holy Spirit.
- 9-10. Interesting and factual dichotomy. We use our tongue in the service of God and seem to be able to refrain from cursing.
- This portion of the third chapter of James reinforces how difficult it is to tame the tongue. I read it with great conviction but I am also encouraged by the honesty with which James speaks of this. He’s not lecturing us without a deep-seated understanding of how difficult it is.
God have mercy on us and teach us to be better stewards of our use of the tongue.