James 3:1-12 Taming The Tongue.
One should not presume to be a teacher in the church, given that teachers will receive a stricter judgment (v. 1). Teachers have the potential to influence people for good or ill. “For we all stumble in many things” (v. 2a Cf. I Kgs. 8:46). Given this reality, a teacher who stumbles in their teaching can also cause others to stumble. A worse case scenario are the blind leading the blind (Cf. Mt. 15:14; Lk. 6:39). A pupil or disciple who is perfectly trained will be like their teacher (Lk. 6:40). If a teacher stumbles it is very likely that the student will also. This is one of the reasons that “the early church gave high esteem to the office of the teacher (Matt. 5:19; 18:6; cf. Rom. 14:10-12)” (NGSB p. 1962). “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (v. 2bc). The word ‘perfect’ here carries the idea of maturity. In drawing upon the example of a horse controlled by bit and bridle, James teaches us that the person who is mature in the use of their tongue is able to control their behaviour and the course of their lives (v. 3).
James also uses the example of ships, “although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires” (v. 4). So we must ask ourselves-how well we are piloting the words that come out of our mouths or are put out to be read? Our tongues are only small members of our bodies which take their lead from what is in our hearts. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34). As Jesus said, a tree is known by the fruit it bears (Cf. Lk. 6:43-45). If the tongue “boasts great things” (v. 5a), it is because this is what dwells in the core of a person’s heart. James then turns to the example of a forest fire and how quickly it spreads, to the damage that the tongue is able to inflict if not controlled (v. 5b). In the extreme, the tongue can be like a fire set by hell itself (v. 6). James thus marvels that human beings are able to tame many creatures but we still struggle to tame our tongues (vv. 7-8). Like poison, it is often the after effects which kill with a painful death.
James sees a tragic contradiction in our speech when we curse people made in God’s image, while we also bless our God and Father (v. 9). This “ought not to be” (v. 10). The fact that he refers to the reality of the image bearing, speaks to the fact that he is referring to all humanity, and not just fellow believers. Others may indeed be cursed, but we need to learn the truth that vengeance is the Lord’s and he is the One to repay (Cf. Dt. 32:35; Rom. 12:19). Like the Lord’s example of fruit on a tree, James uses the example of a spring, which if it is truly a spring of water it cannot and will not bring forth both sweet and bitter water, or salt water and fresh (vv. 11-12). A dying man who needs water is only made worse by salt water. In the same way a tree cannot bring forth both good and bad fruit (v. 11). A fruit tree cannot even bring forth two different kinds of fruit (v. 12). In the same way, if we are truly children of God, we must bridle our tongue and discipline our speech. In all our sanctification, we must not forget our speech, and continually examine our hearts.