This instruction regarding teachers seems like a big change of topic, but it's not. It seems many in that assembly wanted to be teachers. They wanted their good works to be speaking and teaching. They saw the teacher as a position of authority and power and people were pursuing it for the wrong reason. Being a teacher in the church was, and still is, an important role. It's not a career move or a popularity thing. The church isn't supposed to be an open mic for anyone that wants to talk. There is a huge responsibility that goes with it.
For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.
In the first few chapters James has been admonishing these brethren in spiritual maturity and he continues in doing that here. Not many are called to teach. God doesn't put men in the pulpit that are new in the Lord or who lack any spiritual maturity. You actually see or hear of this pretty frequently. Someone is saved; they are brand new in the Lord. A couple weeks later they announce they've been called to preach. Then, not too much later they fall away or they step away because there was no calling, no maturity and no foundation.
For me, teaching is a labor of love. It's a love for digging in and spending time in the word. This love and passion to do this came from God. In High School I was the guy who cheated on book reports because I didn't read. I hated reading. Somewhere in my 30's the Lord gave me a love for reading. Then He extended that love of reading to the love of reading and studying His word. Suddenly I was studying and reading like a wild man, all the while having no idea I was being prepared. I believe a teacher is a creation of the Lord. The Lord spends years preparing a teacher and you have no idea it's happening. And the reading and studying is just a part of it. A teacher has to have spiritual gray hair; maturity and life experience.
In James' day many men were running to the front to be heard and to stand before others. James said, not many are called to do so. Those that are need to know the importance of it. Words have power, words have meaning. Because others are looking to the teacher as one having something valuable and worthwhile to say the words must be chosen carefully. The teacher will receive a stricter judgment. This warning is meaningful to God's people and to any person that has been called to teach. This verse right here is what keeps my nose stuck in a bible. I don't want to ever speak or write anything wrong. I have to think that over my lifetime there is no way that I will get it right every time. That frightens me. My prayer is always that you hear what God wants you to hear and not necessarily what I'm saying. I feel a huge responsibility in presenting God's truth to you and completely ill equipped. If it were solely me teaching, I'd be doomed. But it's not just me. There's a freedom from that fear because I know that God called me to this. My job isn't to have all this figured out. I can't know it all or understand it all. My job is to know the one who does. And He counsels me and guides me. If I seek Him in all I do, I will become a conduit of the word of God. That's the very best a bible teacher or pastor could ever want. Because any good teacher knows this warning and takes it very seriously.
We all stumble. James includes himself in this saying he stumbles also in many things. Even the mature Christian with some spiritual gray hair will stumble. When a teacher stumbles it could spread and cause others to stumble also. The teacher has to guard against leading people astray. He should be the man who strives to never stumble in the word.
'Stumbling in word' is when things come out of your mouth that gets you in trouble. Any teacher can stumble in the word and any person can stumble. If you don't stumble in the word then your perfect. Your tongue is bridled and if you can do that then your entire body is bridled. That should be the goal, to get it right every time you open your mouth. If you do that, you are perfect.
The largest and most powerful horse is guided by the bit in its mouth. You can picture this big powerful horse, rippling with muscle, chomping at the bit to go, to run or to pull the load on the hitch. That horse is guided and directed by someone less powerful; by a man who gives the slightest tug on the reigns that moves the bit and the powerful beast changes direction. The message is where the mouth goes the body will follow.
Then James says to look at the mighty ship. The ship is huge and moved by the wind at great speeds across vast oceans. It stands up to storms and stormy seas. Yet, it is controlled by the small rudder.
The body may be strong and powerful; you may have the ability to persevere and weather the greatest storm. Even then, the tongue can determine the fate of the body. Our mouth has the ability to put our body in circumstance we don't need or want to be in.
The other morning as I was leaving the gas station at about 6am, I was getting ready to pull out when I noticed the car stopped in front of me. He had his door open, leaning out of his car yelling. Another car had just pulled in, he also was stopped and had his door open yelling at the other guy. These two grown men were threatening each other at 6 in the morning in the driveway of a gas station over a turn signal. Both threatened to get out and teach the other a lesson. Neither of these guys knew that the other wasn't a psycho with a gun or a 9' tall body builder. But they both talked tough. Both of them were allowing their mouth to get them in trouble. The mouth can so quickly put the body into jeopardy. Someone once said, don't let your mouth write checks that your body can't cash.
Words have power; words have meaning. When they are spoken, they are let loose to do their work. Like a little ember starts with a spark and spreads to a mighty fire, small words let loose can cause great harm.
Hitler wrote the words of Mein Kampf. He began dictating the words in prison in 1923. The words he spoke outlined his politics and personal views. It was first published in 1925. Hitler wanted to call it 'Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice'. Hitler's words were embraced by a nation in pain and looking for answers. By his words he steered that country into a world war. In that war 125 people died for every word Hitler spoke and published in Mein Kampf.
If we have control over our tongue, it is an indication that we have control over our self. The tongue seems like such a small thing. How much trouble can it really cause? In James opinion, that's like asking, how much harm can a little spark cause? He puts this picture in our mind of the great forest fire started by a small spark.
Wow, this is harsh. But James isn't directing this at anyone in particular. He's saying this is for everyone. Your tongue is a world of iniquity. The word for world is cosmos. It describes the universe; a vast and endless space. This gives new meaning to having a big mouth. Your mouth is a cosmos of iniquity. It's a world of sin all its own. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words are a world of iniquity that can have long reaching and long-lasting affects.
We can use our tongue for good or evil. We can offer a compliment and suddenly the insecure feels better. We can offer a kind word and the restless finds comfort. We can speak a word of encouragement that the weak draw strength from to make it though the day.
Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones........Proverbs 16:24 says.
Likewise, our words can burn another to the ground.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.......Proverbs 18:21
When we are quick to speak to protect our pride or reputation, we often say things that have lasting affect. That guy at the gas station leaning out the car cussing and threatening; I knew him. He had no idea he was being watched and heard. Long after a dispute is old news and anger has subsided, the words that were spoken live on causing pain or fear or insecurity. They can harm your reputation or the reputation of the Lord. They can come back to haunt you when you least expect it. Any politician will attest to this. The tongue can defile the whole body. It can cause harm to every relationship in your sphere of influence. When James says the tongue is set on fire by hell he is saying that the tongue, yours and mine, can be the tools of Satan.
Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death,
19 Is the man who deceives his neighbor,
And says, "I was only joking!"
Once the words are out, they can't be gathered up and brought back into captivity.
This unruly evil means it cannot be restrained. It is a tool of our sinful nature and will be used for evil at some point if we are left to our own devices. Yet, we know the Holy Spirit has the power to tame our tongue.
James continues to say 'we'. He counts himself among those who need to guard our tongues. We stand in church and sing praises to God and offer our prayers. Do we then go out the door and speak with a different vocabulary? Does the tone of our voice change? Do we offer praise and cursing with the same mouth? Do we praise the God who made us and then curse our fellow man whom God made? James said it shouldn't be this way.
The ungodly things we do dilute and ruin our praise and our relationship with God. We can't be considered children of God who speak like the devil to curse other children of God. We can only bear one type of fruit. The fruit we bear is an indication of what is on the inside. What kind of fruit is revealed by your tongue? Do your words speak like a person who knows they are a wretched sinner deserving only the worst from God but having received the best? Do your words reflect the amazing grace that's been brought to you?
The Septuagint uses the word combination of the 'wise and understanding' to describe those who live in accordance with the things of God. The godly wisdom should be displayed in works done in meekness of wisdom. Meekness is not wimpiness. meekness is power under control. This is the picture of the spiritually mature, a person controlling their mouth. They are slow to speak; filtering the words. Only the words that lift up and edify are spoken to encourage, everything else is held captive, controlled.
This wisdom is a display of Christian maturity. Wisdom can be evaluated by deeds done in humility. This is the picture of the nature and person of Jesus Christ. James is challenging these Brethren to pursue that; to be like Jesus.
The contrast to Christ like meekness of wisdom is an earthly wisdom that is identified by its fruit. Bitterness and selfishness reveal a heart of earthly wisdom and James admonishes some not to boast and lie against this truth. This wisdom doesn't come from God, therefore there is only one other choice of where its from. This can't be denied. People make all kinds of religious and spiritual claims, but the truth is revealed in their works.
The 'earthly, sensual, demonic' describe a low, human wisdom that comes from the devil. The truth revealed by envy and selfishness is confusion and 'every evil thing'. The list is long and visible daily in our world. Its pain, sorrow, broken families, marriages and homes. The contrast to this earthly wisdom is heavenly wisdom.
The wisdom of God is:
- Pure – without fault
- Peaceable – wholeness, well-being, happiness,
- Gentle – merciful & tolerant
- Willing to yield - teachable
- Full of mercy and good fruits – compassion and good outcome
- Without partiality – not divisive
- Without hypocrisy – not phony
James said in verse 18, if you sow in peace, you raise a harvest of righteousness. A person cannot sow in discord or envy or selfishness and expect a righteous return. As you sow so shall you reap. The words that come out of us reveal what's in us. Those words affect our relationships. They either build others up or break them down. They can help someone stand fast when their world is crashing down around them. And they can break the spirit and heart of those who look to your words. Your words drive change in the world every day. What fruit is left in the wake of your words? What message do you leave when you are long gone?
©2012 Doug Ford
©2019 Revised & updated