James 3 Commentary

Practical Christian Wisdom from the New Testament Book of James

Taming the Tongue (James 3:1-12)  

Verse 1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1 NIV). 

All disciples are to be teachers, for Jesus commanded us, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 NIV). All of us must be careful about hypocrisy, for we do not want to be numbered among those, who “say, and do not” (Matthew 23:3 NIV). But, the special gift and office of a teacher, as in “pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11 NIV), should not be assumed lightly. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48 NIV). Greater blessing will come to that teacher; but, greater judgment will also come against that teacher for misuse of that gift. 

Verse 2: “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check” (James 3:2 NIV). 

“We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2 NIV) is verification of what Paul said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NIV). “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect” (James 3:2 NIV) is a true statement, because “never” means NOT EVER. However, anyone who repents of sin and walks uprightly is considered mature or “perfect.” “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NIV). The same OT concept was understood as “blameless.” “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord” (Psalm 119:1 NIV). 

Verse 3: “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal” (James 3:3 NIV). 

James is not assembling an argument for the futility of the control of a disciple’s tongue, but to reinforce our responsibility to submit the keeping, control, and output of our mouths to God. “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in Thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14 KJV). 

Verse 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” (James 3:4 NIV). 

“Large ships” and “strong winds” are “steered by a very small rudder.” This teaches us that God is able to direct much larger issues by the wisest application of smaller, thoughtful means. This is true in the physical world and is true in the spiritual. But, the reverse is also true. Small things of a spiritual nature may surface with even larger, more consequential results. “11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts-murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:11, 18-19 NIV). See James 3:6 for further testimony to this thought. 

Verse 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” (James 3:5 NIV). 

Here, the tongue represents the human heart. God has always desired the taming of the human heart. “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV). The wise and thoughtful position is to commit the keeping of the tongue to God. Didn’t Jesus advise His disciples on how to respond to accusers in the Last Days? “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19-20 NIV). 

Verse 6: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6 NIV). 

It seems the less we say, the less trouble we would produce for ourselves and others. Yet, God wants us to be a reflection of Himself; and, we are more in the position of the apostles Peter and John, when they healed the lame beggar, were caught by the angry Jewish leaders, and forbidden to further teach in the name of Jesus. “But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name. Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to Him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:17-20 NIV). 

Verse 7: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind” (James 3:7 NIV). 

Adam and Eve were commissioned to “rule [Hebrew, radah, have dominion]” (Genesis 1:26) over the animals. 

Verse 8: “But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8 NIV). 

Since “no human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:8 NIV) then we can only be hopeful that God is willing to do for us — in taming the tongue — what we cannot do for ourselves. This, we have good reason to hope, is the very purpose for the giving of the Holy Spirit. Many have debated the purpose of the Holy Spirit, to giving us Eternal Life With Christ (Romans 8:9), to grant a Higher Life (Colossians 3:1-4), to give Greater Ministry (Luke 24:49); all of this, of course, yes, but simply to open our heart (Acts 16:14) and somehow give us a willing heart (Psalm 110:3 KJV) without forcing us, seems to be the foundation of the Spirit filled abundance Christ came to give us. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10 NIV).

Verse 9: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9 NIV). 

Think of the irony of praising God out of one side of our mouth, while cursing man out of the other side of the mouth. And, man is created in the moral likeness of God. Of course, you can’t do both at the same time. There is a certain Unity of Moral Action, whereby God keeps us from making opposite, ultimate choices at the same moment. Jesus described it as, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13 NIV). 

Verse 10: “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3:10 NIV). 

Sad truth is, when we vacillate frequently between right and wrong, hot and cold, then we appear lukewarm. “So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:16 NIV). If no man “can snatch” (John 10:29 NIV) us out of God’s hand, it should concern us, when the Lord Jesus threatens to vomit us from His mouth. What are we to do? What should anyone do?  Admit whatever sin, we have been masquerading as righteousness, “be earnest and repent” (Revelation 3:19 NIV). Repenting means not just admitting the sin as sin, but ceasing to commit that sin.  

Verse 11: “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” (James 3:11 NIV). 

Fresh water flows from a river out to the sea and become brackish, where salt water meets the fresh. But, both fresh and salt water do not originate from the same source. This is a natural illustration of the opposite natures of both holiness and sin. There is much drama, when holiness and sin compete for the hearts of humanity. “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things” (1Peter 1:12 NIV). 

Verse 12: “My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water” (James 3:12 NIV). 

The answer to both of James’ questions is “No, of course not!” Why does God sometimes make the answers to such questions so difficult? Two possible responses: (1) It is then our royal privilege to conduct a Bible Study to find the answer, i.e., “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Proverbs 25:2 NIV), and (2) It prevents Heaven from being populated by those, who have no heart for Him, i.e., “Go to this people and say, You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving” (Acts 28:26 NIV). 

Wisdom From Above (James 3:13-18)  

Verse 13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13 NIV). 

Being thought of as wise by others is different from God thinking you are “wise and understanding” (James 3:13 NIV). It is a hard thing to say that we care only that God thinks we are wise, because we seem to feel wise, especially when others say it is so. Well, here we have the very definition of “Who is wise and understanding among you?” (James 3:13 NIV). The answer is “Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (3:13 NIV). In other words, a good life with deeds done in humility, when no one but God may be looking, is the mark of a wise disciple. This means the truly wise ones may be unnoticed or underrated by man. “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (1Peter 5:5 NIV).

Verse 14: “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth” (James 3:14 NIV). 

The Holy Spirit is diagnosing the “sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV). “Harbor bitter envy” (James 3:14 NIV) describes giving refuge to something hard to admit or accept causing us discontentment with our circumstances, while perceiving someone else’s superiority. “Selfish ambition” (3:14 NIV) is as bad as it sounds. It is desire simply for self without regard for others. We should “not boast about” (3:14 NIV) that “envy” and “selfish ambition,” and dignify it as proper motivation for achieving our goals. That would be to simply “deny the truth.” “And constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1Timothy 6:5 NIV). 

Verse 15: “Such wisdom does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15 NIV). 

The arch opponent of our souls, the devil, has always attempted to sell humanity the earthly, unspiritual, demonic “wisdom” that comes from the fruit of forbidden knowledge. The knowledge that comes from experiencing the sin that God has forbidden is how the devil entices us. We do not need to commit sin to have the knowledge of good and evil. We need merely to believe God that obedience is good, and sin is evil. We need not experience the dregs of sin, in order to have a greater appreciation of God. Once we find the fingerprints of our self-trust leading us away from God, then we should join the Apostle Paul with an epiphany of self-awareness. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst” (1Timothy 1:15 NIV). 

Verse 16: “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16 NIV). 

Just as we saw in verse 14, “envy and selfish ambition,” here, both combine to achieve “disorder” and “every evil practice.” One of the evidences of the Spirit working in us is orderliness. “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1Corinthians 14:40 NIV). So, “disorder” is the absence of the Spirit working in us. And, since the very essence of sin is selfishness — a self-willedness — it is reasonable that “every evil practice” will result from selfishness. 
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21 NIV). 

Verse 17: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17 NIV). 

Recalling James’ opening remarks about God’s gifts — “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17 NIV) — he now classifies “wisdom” as being one of those gifts. Then, he gives a broad but concise description of what wisdom is: (1) “First of all pure” (James 3:17 NIV), i.e., “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8 NIV), (2) “then peace-loving” (James 3:17 NIV), i.e., “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14 NIV), (3) “considerate” (James 3:17 NIV), i.e., “be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone” (Titus 3:2 NIV), (4) “submissive” (James 3:17 NIV), i.e., “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV), (5) “full of mercy and good fruit” (James 3:17 NIV), i.e., “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy [Greek, eleeō, withholding deserved punishment]” (Matthew 5:7 NIV), and (6) “impartial and sincere” (James 3:17 NIV), i.e., just the opposite of: “In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:28 NIV). 

Verse 18: “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18 NIV). 

Though we are at war with sin, Jesus gives us perspective. “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV). Notice, peacemakers plant seeds of peace; but, the results are not always a cessation of conflict — instead, it always results in righteousness!

Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com (https://www.zondervan.com/). The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™