James 3, 4

Where The Rubber Meets The Road - OffBeat Business Media

Chapter 3

Use of the Tongue

Note: Now that the Author has laid the foundation in regard to faith and works, he proceeds to give several injunctions, the first of which deals with the lawful use of the tongue. 

Verse 1,2 My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.  For in many things we offend all.  If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able to bridal the whole body. 

This section begins by James addressing those who call themselves teachers.  The word, masters, refers to teachers.  Here greater responsibility and accountability is placed upon those that teach.  Teachers have to use many words, and with the use of many words there is greater opportunity to offend.    Calvin holds that the ones spoken to hear are not those who provide a public duty as teachers, but those who take upon themselves the right to pass judgement upon others.  (Calvin. 318)   This appears to me the correct view of the passage.  How it plagues human nature to always pass judgement upon other so that our conscience will be justified.  So it was with our first parents, Adam passed judgement upon Eve, and Eve passed judgement on to the Serpent.  Calvin goes on to say that hypocrisy and ambition fuel one’s feeling of being right.  So judgement is corrupt.  Judgement should be administered in a spirit of humility and self searching, with love and mercy.  This is the prescription of Christ and Paul.  (Galatians 6:1)

The warning is to abstain from placing oneself in a position of judgement.  James here says let there be few, and those that do judge let them possess themselves in moral purity, beginning with the taming of the tongue.  James indicates the tongue is the most difficult member to tame.  If there is sin to be found, the tongue is the prime hiding place.  So those that stand in judgment and so severely condemn sins of others ought to understand the worst offender of all is found in their own mouths.  The author places bridling of the tongue as a primary virtue, that is difficult in its exercise.  If the tongue was bridled, then the rest of the body may more easily be brought into subjection.  This is the meaning of verse two. 

Verse 3-6 Behold, we put bits in the horses mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.  Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.  Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things.  Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that is it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.

The first part of this verse is dealing with two illustrations.  First, the horse and then the ship.  These were common metaphors in the ancient world. (Perkins 117)  The horse is naturally a wild brute beast.  It is however, brought into subjection to the rider’s will through the use of a bridal.  The horse then is turned to which ever direction the rider wills.  So our tongue is a small member, yet it is a powerful member with respect to the government of our life.  Likewise the ship, no matter how large, is directed by the position of the rudder.  No matter how fierce the storms assail the vessel, the course is sure because of the small rudder. 

The phrase in verse 4, whithersoever the governor listeth, needs some clarification.  It speaks of the pilot of a ship turning the ship according to his desire.   James clearly sets forth the meaning that our lives are governed and directed by the tongue.   We should assume control over the tongue to direct our lives into righteousness.  It is no small thing to allow a flippant use of the tongue to shipwreck us. 

After setting forth these illustrations as to the power of the tongue, now the author show the destructive capability of the tongue in the proceeding verses. 

The phrase, how great a matter a little fire kindleth, the word, matter, should be taken to read forest.  This would make the meaning clearer, which is that a little spark can destroy an entire forest.  How many nations, communities and families have been destroyed by a few words.  Truly the tongue doest boast great things and is not to be underestimated.   

The author describes the tongue as a world of iniquity.  The thought here is that the tongue is so small yet in this sliver of flesh contain an entire world of sin.  The tongue has the ability to catch fire every part of life with fire from hell.  Some take this verse as meaning all the characteristics of a fallen world are given life and expression through the tongue.  This is the reason it defiles the whole body, because the lust of the body (flesh) find expression, an outlet through the tongue. 

The phrase, setteth on fire the course of nature, and it is set on fire of hell, has an interesting meaning.  Hort calls this phrase one of the most difficult phrases in the Bible.  (Wycliffe 1435)   The word, course, literally means a wheel.  The thought is that life is like a wheel.  Emotions, events, and situations are circular, meaning that they never stay static but change as does the revolutions of a wheel.  As life revolves around and around, time and age corrects many vices in the believer’s life.  Yet the fire of the tongue spreads to every part of our life irrespective of age or life circumstance. 

The other thought here is that the tongue is set on fire of hell.  Satanic forces have more to do with the tongue than men are aware of.  The quality of the fire is that of Hell.  This denotes a metaphysical quality in sins of the tongue.  The tongue is the most combustible kindling that hell can use to spread her fires in God’s kingdom. 

Verse 7,8  For every kind of beast, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. 

This is an interesting idea the author sets forth.  It appears the author is referencing Genesis1:28 and again in 9:2.  Originally man was to exercise his authority over the creation, James notes that, to a certain point, man has tamed the creation,with respect to the animals, but cannot tame his own tongue.  It’s is remarkable that in the fourfold description of the beasts (birds, beasts, serpents, and things of the sea) he includes every area of creation, from the sky to the earth, to under the waters.  Even though all these areas have been subdued with man’s authority, yet the member closest to him is still rogue from his mastery.    

He goes on to say that the tongue is full of deadly poison.  This is perhaps, a reference to the original fall of man in which the tongue of the serpent was effectual in perverting God’s word, and slandering his character.  The tongue was instrumental in man’s fall into wretchedness resulting in our tongue resembling the serpents in that it is full of poison.  Again it may have Old Testament reference in Psalm 140:3 “They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adder’s poison is under their lips. Selah.

Calvin says the devil “rules most effectually” through the organ of the human tongue. (322) The clear teaching here is that if one wants to pursue Godliness, then a good starting point is to concentrate on the use of the tongue. 

Verse 9-12

Therewith bless we God, even the Father, and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.  Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing.  My breathren, these things ought not so to be.  Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? Either a vine, figs?  So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh. 

One can hear an echo of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 7:16-20.  “Do men gather grapes of thorns or fig of thistles?”  No doubt James heard these words from the very mouth of the Savior, now he is instructing the believers with the same teaching. 

James reaches the conclusion of the section and drives his point home.  First, he shows the ridiculous behavior the believers are engaged in.  In the first chapter he warns of a double minded man, now he warns against the double speaking tongue.  He rebukes the practice of praising God, then cursing the brethren.  He emphatically states, “these things ought not be so.”

The reason is derived from Christ’s teaching mentioned above.  There are three examples listed: sweet and bitter water; fruit from the fig tree and vine; and saltwater and fresh.  It is preposterous for us to suppose a fig tree can yield olives, or a spring give fresh and bitter water.  Likewise, a tongue that produces a flow of cursing is cursed at its core.  Wicked fruit of the mouth comes from the corrupt core.  Sweet, refreshing conversation comes from a pure center.  Fruits of the mouth are derived from a blessed core. 

The issue here is what is at the core of a person.  Hence the illustrations have a source/fruit concept.  If the inside is corrupt, then it will be revealed in the constant conversation of a person.  If the inside is pure, that too will be revealed in the person’s everyday language.  The upcoming section particularly verse 14 will detail this further. 

As a side note: a theological concept is mentioned briefly regarding man being in the similitude of God.  The teaching is that man still has retained the image of God.  This does not negate the doctrine of total depravity or radical corruption.  Listen to Calvin:

“we must indeed confess that it (image) has been miserably deformed, but in such a way that some of its lineaments still appear.  Righteousness and rectitude, and the freedom of choosing what is good, have been lost; but many excellent endowments, by which we excel the brutes, still remain.”  (323)

Wisdom compared

verse 13-18

Verse 13

The transition is very important and needs a word.  Before this point James has discussed the necessity of works validating faith and now the need to control the tongue.  At a casual glance, it seems he is promoting a works based righteousness.  Although I have discussed this idea earlier, the upcoming section is important to note so that one does not think the epistle is promoting human ability over God’s  power in Christ. 

Now the author comes back to the subject of wisdom that he began with in 1:5.  In verse 13 James is suddenly calling for his audience to substantiate their claims of faith by the quality of their life.  He asks the question who is wise among you and endued with knowledge?  (By using this statement some seem to think James is referring to teachers in the church).  The wise person mentioned is one that carries his knowledge out into everyday life.  “Knowledge is only a hewer of wood, while wisdom is the architect and builder.” (Gloage 50)  The word conversation here is meant to be understood as a good life, not manner of speaking.  

The end of verse 13 references meekness of wisdom as the origin of good works.  This wisdom mentioned here is defined both negatively in verses 15,16 and positively in verse 17,18.  This is to say that this wisdom from above and has its fountain in the believer’s regenerated heart.  (Ezekiel 36)

Paul examples the same in I Corinthians 3.  He points out that selfishness ambition proves the immaturity of the Corinthian believers.  Christian maturity/wisdom is seen through their lifestyle, particularly meekness. 

Verse 14

James warns against having bitter envy and strife in your hearts.  He adds, that they should not glory, and lie against the truth.  The obvious teaching is that if one has such a corrupt heart, evidenced by the bitterness and strife, then one has an un-regenerated heart.  This kind of so-called wisdom is not from above. 

Those that have an attitude of selfish ambition and jealousy and who boast in their Godly teaching present a lie.  Their character lies against the truth they proclaim.  They are hypocrites in terms of being self absorbed in ambition and tearing other teachers down with their tongue. 

Verse 15 

The author is referring back the character of immature Christians showing forth envy, and selfish ambition.  He notes this attitude or wisdom as James concedes them, does not proceed from a heavenly source.  It source if founded in three areas listed in descending order.  The first is earthly.  This means earthly in flow of thought and characteristics.  Earthly wisdom is concerned with the material.  Next, is sensual.  This means the wisdom is fleshy: it springs from the fallen human nature and is concerned with animal lusts .  This leads to a perverse view that only seeks to serve it own ends.  Eccles. 3:21.   Lastly it is devilish. It is devilish because the devil works with regard to the proceeding two.  Notice the devil’s wisdom in deceiving Eve, pointing her to the goods of the world and appeal to her lusts. 

Verse 16

After describing the nature of envy and strife James lists the results.  He states that in the atmosphere of envy and strife there is confusion and every evil work.  James describes an envious person as confused, disturbed, and acts rashly.  From this type of mind there comes, potentially, every evil work. 

Verse 17-18

James sets forth Godly wisdom at this point.  He notes first of all that wisdom of this character has its origin from Heaven as a gift of the Holy Spirit as opposed to the wisdom previously mentioned.  He starts with the character of the wisdom is pure.  This is the foundation of Godly character a pure heart.  It is to be noted this purification is a work of the Holy Spirit and not human progression.  The next attribute is peace.  There is something to be said about the order of this statement.  First purity, then peacefulness, gentleness, mercy and so on.  It seems that purity is not to be sacrificed for peacefulness.    The thrust of the character pursuit here is toward mercy, gentleness, and kindness.  So this statement of purity first is significant in light of the other characteristics. 

The thought that hinges the sting of attributes together is the thought of peace in the mist of strife and contention.  So the follow attributes are necessary to bring about peace.  Gentleness in dealing with other especially during times of conflict.  Easy to be entreated, or open to reason is essential to peaceful resolutions.  Full of mercy that quenches transgressions, overlooks faults, and patient with ignorance.  These attributes in action produce the atmosphere for good fruits

A practical word here.  The clear teaching of the passage is that there will be fruit , and good fruit, that comes from purity of heart, gentleness, reasonableness, and mercy.  No good comes from contention, strife and hostility.  A inventory should be taken here to judge what type of character one is displaying. 

Again James repeats himself, perhaps to add emphasis, about those that professes Godly wisdom but show themselves hypocrites by their actions.  He notes true Godly wisdom has no party spirit driving it and no hypocrisy flavoring it.

The results of Godly wisdom is to create an atmosphere of peace so that good works can be sown in peace.  Ungodly strife and contention can be squelched by an intervention of Godly peace.  All sides can be satisfied and the work of Gospel preaching and good works can continue.      

There are disagreements within Christian circles.  Is the disagreement doctrinal or philosophical in nature.  Does it pertain to style or substance?  Style and ministry philosophy will differ and should not breed strife.  Doctrine must remain pure and should be contended over when there is error. 

Chapter 4

Price of Unruly Passion v. 1-12

Verse 1  From whence come wars and fightings among you?  The previous teaching gave direction toward peace and how to preserve the peace.  Now he shows where the source of contention is from: namely from individual desires and lusts.   He goes on the to say that the source of the contentions is even of your lusts that war in your members.  The lusts seemed to have their origin in our members, or faculties.  So even though lust is a problem, it seems our members is the origin.  The word member here refers to our fallen nature inherited in Adam.  Our fallen nature is the reactor of all evil lusts.  The lusts have a twofold battle front: 1. The battle rages within as we struggle to contain these evils and propensities.  2.  The battle spills out around us causing conflict, hurt and heartbreak to the ones we associate with. 

Verse 2 Ye lust, and have not, let’s look at this comment by itself for a moment, it is powerful enough to stand alone. The next phrases have some difficulties to work through.  The writer is saying that our lusts are never satisfied.  Human cravings are a bottomless pit and are never satisfied. Knowing this helps us understand the brokenness of humanity and leaves a God shaped hole in our being.  Understanding this concept is critical in our understanding of the entire section. 

Now to the more difficult section.  Ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.    The first section seems to suggest that the unbridled lust lead some to murder.  However, the difficulty arises in this because some reject this translation.  Calvin, for instance, rejects the word “kill” and favors the word “envy”, stating that it “no way suits the context.” Calvin 329.  Others believe that the rendering of “kill” is accurate and the other interpretation is “a remarkable instance of a false reading once widely adopted”.  (Scott). 

So which one is it?  I feel another option should be considered.  An editor for the Calvin commentary on James proposes that the word “kill” is the correct word.  However, the author’s point was that envy leads to murder.  Murder is the fruit of which envy is the seed.  Jesus spoke in the same manner when he said “If you are angry with your brother without a cause you have committed murder in your heart”, or “if you lust after a woman, you have committed adultery in your heart.”  So James mentions the fruit of envy here even thought the action has not yet been committed.  James follows after the example of Jesus, his older brother in correlating the fruit with the seed.  So I feel this may be the correct interpretation of the text. 

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