Chapter 7: Tying Up a Loose End (James 3:1–12)
Years ago a man named Latimer was called upon to preach before King Henry VIII. At the beginning of one of his sermons to the King, Latimer, a godly man, first addressed himself. He said, “Latimer! Latimer! Dost thou remember thou art going to speak before the high and mighty King Henry VIII, before him who has power to command thee to be sent to prison, before him who can have thy head struck off, if it please him? Wilt thou not take care to say nothing that will offend royal ears?” Then after a short pause of contemplation he proceeded: “Latimer! Latimer! Dost not thou remember that thou art to speak before the King of kings and Lord of lords, before Him at whose bar Henry VIII will stand, before Him to whom one day thou wilt have to give account thyself? Latimer! Latimer! Be faithful to thy Master and declare all God’s Word.”
The tongue is the fiercest force in the whole world, and it has its den just behind our teeth. Truly, our tongue needs to be tamed, to be tied up. How different things would be if Christians would always speak as though they were in the physical presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we look at what James said about our tongues, we will discover more stepping stones to Christian maturity.
THE TONGUE HAS TO BE BRIDLED (James 3:1-4)
Our tongues need to be constantly disciplined. It seems James was concerned that his readers might conclude from his emphasis on showing our faith by doing that they might conclude that their tongue has little to do with the Christian life. That certainly is not the case. The fact is, our speech is a form of work. Here then is another evidence of either a dead faith or a living faith. Early in the Christian era, church services were conducted differently than in our day and time. Men in the gathered group felt free to stand up in the assembly and exhort, teach pray, sing, or read Scripture. We need to remember that these early Christians met in the Jewish synagogues in the beginning. And they simply followed the way things were done in the synagogues.
Perhaps that way of doing things caused some men to want the position of teachers. They may have wanted more prominence in the assembly. Such was hardly a worthy and God-honoring ambition. James did not want them to take such a position hastily. Neither, of course, did he want to discourage them. So he warned against status-seeking, reminding them that pride and selfishness are sins and God will judge the guilty Christians at the judgment seat of Christ. Instructing others in the things of God is serious business. No one who is called to do this is perfect, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). All of us need to bridle our whole body, not just our tongue.
A bridle on a horse is a small piece of equipment, yet it is necessary to control the animal. The same is true of the bit in the mouth of a horse. The bit is a small piece of steel. It is about four or five inches long with holes at each end for attaching leather straps which are fastened to the bridle. The bit’s purpose is to control the direction of the horse and command its obedience. James’ point is that such a small thing as a bit is used to control a large, powerful animal.
Another illustration is the small thing used to control a large ship. When we see a huge and beautiful sea-vessel, it is hard to understand how such a small piece of equipment called a rudder (v. 4) is used to control the ship. Through calm or stormy weather the rudder makes it possible to direct the vessel where the captain wants it to go.
What the bit is to the horse, the rudder is to the ship. A huge thing like an aircraft carrier and an irrational creature like a horse are both governed by a small thing. But, wait, James is going to introduce another small thing that can and often does cause a world of trouble or can calm a troubled soul.
THE TONGUE’S NASTY BOASTING (James 3:5-12)
It is almost impossible to miss how James, guided by the Holy Spirit illustrates his point of small things which have large consequences. First, it was the “bridle” (James 3:2), then “bits” (v. 3), then a “rudder” (v. 4), then the “tongue” (v. 5), and finally “a small fire” or spark (v. 5).
James returns to the importance of Christians taming their tongue. It sounds as though the people he addressed needed to be reminded how the psalmist prayed: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Today we too need to ask God to “set a watch upon my lips.”
The damage of a tongue out of control is almost beyond description. Our Lord’s brother was led to compare it to a great forest fire that started with a small spark. A careless flip of a cigarette butt can cause, and has caused, fires that destroy hundreds of acres of trees, homes and lives. The human tongue, yours and mine, can cause irreparable damage as well. The human tongue is a fire and a “world of iniquity” which “defiles the entire body and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). To put it mildly, the tongue has enormous potential to create both good will and evil.
James continues his description of the evil possibilities of the Christian‘s tongue. Some of the most ferocious creatures on land or sea or air have been “tamed” by man. Yet “no one can tame the tongue” (v. 8). That is, in our own strength we cannot tame our tongue. But by the enablement of the Holy Spirit we can gain victory over this restless evil, full of deadly poison.
Think for a moment about the inconsistency of at one moment using our tongue to praise God and honor Him. And then often we use it to attack another person made in God’s image. How horrible that is and what a stench that must create before God. Does your faucet at home or the water fountain in the public place give out both fresh and bitter water? No, that does not happen. If it ever would, we would be quick to turn it off and not drink from it again until it was repaired. James gives two more pointed illustrations of our inconsistent use of our tongue. Fig trees do not ever produce olives, not even rarely. Furthermore, the stability of nature keeps salt water from ever producing fresh water (James 3:12).
Take a long hard look at the simple visual below. It will remind you of God’s view of an evil tongue. Then read the strong stepping stones and place your feet upon them as you live out your faith.
DESCRIPTIONS OF AN EVIL TONGUE
1. Offensive, v. 2
2. Small, v.3
3. Influential, v.3
4. Destructive, v.5
5. Devilish, v. 6
6. Insubordinate, v. 7
7. Poisonous, v. 8
8. Inconsistent, vv. 11-12
Solid Stepping Stones
(1) Beware of your use of your tongue.
(2) The tongue needs to be bridled.
(3) Beware of status-seeking and selfishness.
(4) Review how James used small things which have large consequences.
(5) Before speaking, remind yourself you cannot take back what you say.
(6) Claim the power of the Holy Spirit to help you control your tongue.
Did you find any other stepping stones in this passage? (1) (2) (3)
Excerpt from Solid Stepping Stones for the Christian Journey (2011, Grace Acres Press), by Robert P. Lightner. Additional information at www.GraceAcresPress.com.