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James 3:1-5: Taming the Tongue (part 1)

James emphasizes the dangers of the tongue more than any other New Testament writer (James 1:19. 26; 3:1-12; 4:11-12; 5:12). The fact that this is the first his frequent mention of the dangers of the tongue is a notice from the Holy Spirit, of how crucial it is that we be on our guard against misuse of the tongue. People say, “Talk is cheap,” but you wouldn't think talk to be cheap from what you read in the Bible: “And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you” (Matthew 12:36-37). When measured against eternity, our words can be very costly indeed! And nowhere is the danger stressed more than in the section of his letter that we now come to in our study of James letter.

On a windswept hill in an English country churchyard stands a drab, gray slate tombstone. The faint etchings read:

“Beneath this stone, a lump of clay, lies Arabella Young, Who, on the twenty-fourth of May, began to hold her tongue.”

James now turns from “works” in chapter two, to “words” in chapter three.

Verse 1: “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.”

“The ancient philosopher Diogenes once saw a young boy sitting with his teacher, devouring food in a very pigish and bad-mannered way. And as a result, Diogenes walked up to the teacher and smacked him on the side of the head. The impact of the teacher on his student was so crucial, that Diogenes blamed the teacher for the student's bad behavior. And in a similar way, James begins his discourse on the dangers of the tongue by pointing to the accountability of those who assume a 'teacher' role in the church. He warns us that our words are terribly consequential; and that because of the great accountability we'll all bear for our words, and because of the dangerous potential of our tongues, we would be wise to aspire more to be 'many learners' than to be 'many teachers'. We shouldn't be in a big hurry to assume the role of 'teacher', James is telling us. We shouldn't be too eager to stand up before the people of God and use our tongues before them. We should embrace that role only if it is genuinely God's call on our life; and then, only very carefully.”–

I want to spend some time on these first two verses. As a Bible College Professor for many years, I think I understand the mindset of young, impressionable Christians, influenced by their pastor or parents to go into the ministry. But the ministry is a distinct calling, a holy anointing, not a life choice. It is a God-calling not a parent or pastor calling.

1 Corinthians 1:26, “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.”

2 Timothy 1:7-9, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began…”

1 John 2:20,21, “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth.”

1 John 2:27, “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him.”

I have been asked frequently to explain what it means to be called to preach. My answer is: if you can avoid the ministry, avoid it! In other words, Paul said, “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16). So if every part of your being tells you that you must preach the Gospel, you are most definitely called to preach.

2 Peter 1:10,11, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

“To me there is nothing more terrible for a preacher, than to be in the pulpit alone, without the conscious smile of God” Preaching is a demonstration of the power of God. ‘My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Corinthians 2:4). I am convinced that many preachers do not know what it is to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit, or what it is not! “Many congregations are doomed to listen to a powerless preacher, a man without unction (anointing), one upon whom the fire of God never seems to rest. What a strange anomaly it is to see an unanointed servant of the Living God, who is an eternal fire. How can such creatures exist?” –The late David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Minister, Westminster Chapel, London

This admonition in James chapter 1 is that not many should seek to become teachers and preachers appears to be directed to those who were not qualified. Addressing fellow believers as “my brethren,” James reminded them that those who minster the Word are subject to a more severe judgment or greater scrutiny than others in the community of believers. As instructors of fellow believers, teachers had a larger sphere of influence, and any errors they might make could have serious consequences. They needed to be exemplary in their personal conduct, and those being taught would rightly expect them to adhere to the highest standards possible.

“James’ point is that a man should not take on the role of teacher unless God has called him to it, because teachers will incur a stricter judgment. We who teach God’s Word will be more accountable, because our words affect more people. Any time that we teach, we should keep in mind the serious fact that we will stand before the Lord to give an account!” –Steven Cole

This calling carries great privilege but it also carries great responsibility. There are people who want the prestige without the responsibility. This calling can hold great honor and that is why some seek the role.

1 Timothy 5:17, “ Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching.”

2 Timothy 4:1-5 NLT, “I solemnly urge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he comes to set up his Kingdom: Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching.”

“The gospel is preached in the ears of all men; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning; otherwise it could consists of the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. O Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the word, to give it power to convert the soul.” ―Charles H. Spurgeon

“Preaching is not the performance of an hour. It is the outflow of a life. It takes twenty years to make a sermon, because it takes twenty years to make the man. The true sermon is a thing of life. The sermon grows because the man grows. The sermon is forceful because the man is forceful. The sermon is holy because the man is holy. The sermon is full of the divine unction because the man is full of the divine unction.” — E. M. Bounds, Preaching and Prayer

Preaching is a demonstration of the power of God. “My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4)

I believe in preaching! I have preached God’s Word for more than 50 years. In all of my years as a pastor I have considered preaching as my primary task. With Paul I say, “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).

“The supreme work of the Christian ministry is the work of preaching.” G. Campbell Morgan.

History proves that anointed preaching can result in spiritual renewal and societal transformation like that seen in the first and second Awakenings. But are we preaching with that same power today?

“I preached…as a dying man to dying men.” –Richard Baxter, 1615-1691

“There is a nauseating wave of pathetic preaching sweeping through the contemporary church! Fearless preaching is all the more necessary in dangerous times. When people will not tolerate the truth, that's when courageous, outspoken preachers are most desperately needed to speak it. Sound preaching confronts and rebukes sin, and people in love with sinful lifestyles will not tolerate such teaching. They want to have their ears tickled. Churches are so engrossed in trying to please non-Christians that they have forgotten their first duty is to please God.”–John MacArthur

The late Leonard Ravenhill wrote: “America is in danger! But America is too young to die. This is the most critical time in American history,” he warned. A growing chorus of pastors and parachurch leaders now agree. The message echoing from coast to coast is, “Revival or perish!” The word of God admonishes every preacher to, “Preach the Word!”

Paul anticipated false teachers and preachers, listen to his parting words to the Ephesian church:

Acts 20:26-31, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God[a] which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.”

Verse 2: “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.”

“Taking up the thought of stumbling he now points out that if any Teacher never stumbles in what he says, or how he says it, then he is indeed a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body, exercising total self control. He is a kind of paragon. This may be intended to be ironic, really indicating that ‘none of us Teachers are perfect, so that we all need to be very much aware of our weaknesses’. Or he may be indicating that such ‘perfect’ and mature teachers, who are mature in the faith, are rare, and it is they who should be sought for and appointed, for they will have control of both their tongues and their lives.” –Peter Pett

A pastor/teacher must not get the idea that he is infallible. They are not without sin, they stumble in many things. The word “stumble” means to trip, or fall. Every Christian makes false steps and fail somewhere along the line. We have all said wrong things. If we were to examine what we say, we would see that we all slip up, or make mistakes. If someone could have control over all that he or she says that one would be a perfect person, and no one is perfect! Teachers are subject to judgment even more when we teach others; and are highly vulnerable in that judgment because we all sin in many ways.

“Their case is awful; they shall receive greater condemnation than common sinners; they have not only sinned in thrusting themselves into that office to which God has never called them, but through their insufficiency the flocks over whom they have assumed the mastery perish for lack of knowledge, and their blood will God require at the watchman’s hand.” –Clarke

Verse 3: “Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body.”

“Bridle” in Greek means to rein, brace, harness, or curb. This small piece of equipment controls the enormous power and energy of the horse and is used to give it direction. More than likely James had seen powerful Roman military horses and had probably heard stories of chariot races. The point, however, is the extraordinary power and influence concentrated in one small object. So it is with the tongue.

Those who are able to apply proper discipline in the use of the tongue will be “able to bridle the whole body as well.”

“The thought of bridling the body now brings to his mind an illustration, and that is that the purpose of a bridle is in order to control the horse. The whole reason for putting a bridle (i.e. the bit) into their mouths is to make them obedient. And with that bridle the experienced rider can turn the horse in whichever direction he wants it to go. And that is what the good Teacher can do, always steer himself in the right direction and keep himself under control (as a result of God at work within him). A controlled tongue will mean a controlled person. The tongue can be a beneficial bridle or a harmful one, and the Teacher has to ensure that he makes it beneficial. The idea comes from Psalms 32:9, ‘a horse or mule without understanding --must be curbed with a bit and bridle, or else it will not keep with you’. Compare also Psalms 39:1, ‘I will guard my ways that I might not sin with my tongue, I will bridle my mouth so long as the wicked are in my presence.” –Peter Pett

Verse 4: “Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires.

James had probably observed many ships driven by strong winds on the Sea of Galilee, and perhaps on the Mediterranean, so he understands the function of a rudder in a ship. But some have observed that ships were a lot smaller in James’ day. However the one in Acts 27 had 276 passengers on board; that’s a pretty big ship. It was threatened by a tremendous Euroclydon (a cyclonic tempestuous northeast wind which blows in the Mediterranean). That great ship driven through the sea was out of control, but under total control by the rudder. That small little rudder moved that massive ship

The largest ship in the world is the Prelude, owned by Shell, it is 1,601 feet long, 150 feet longer than the Empire State Building is high. When fully laden the ship weighs approximately 600,000 tons and is 243 feet wide. Even this giant is controlled by the rudder. That a ship of this magnitude can be managed by such a small thing is almost unbelievable. Even in severe storms it is easily managed by the captain with this small rudder. If he has control of the rudder, he has control of the ship itself. The controlled tongue can overcome great obstacles.

Verse 5: “Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things.”

Like the bit in the horse’s mouth and the smallness of the rudder in of a large ship, the tongue is very small in relation to the entire body. There is a great difference between what a tongue is (small) and what it does (great damage or great benefit).

When you think about all of the organs and muscles that make up your body, the tongue seems rather small and insignificant. “Yet it boasts of great things.”

We see the power of the tongue in Adolf Hitler. I’m a little hesitant to use him as an illustration, but he does make a point of the power of the tongue. During his rise to power, he would send his speech writers throughout Germany to observe every point that moved the listeners. Then each of these poignant points were included in every speech Hitler made, so that he moved crowds as no other man had ever done. Not long before his apparent suicide, Hitler addressed the German people in a radio speech. Even though Berlin was in ruins, the war was lost, Hitler’s “Thousand year Reich” was coming to an end. The Russians were at the east gates of the city, the Allied forces had crossed into Germany. Hitler’s suicide was very near, Yet in his last Radio Speech on January 30 1945, he is still declaring victory. These are his final words, all fiery, false rhetoric: “However grave the crisis may be at the moment, it will, despite everything, finally be mastered by our unalterable will, by our readiness for sacrifice and by our abilities. We shall overcome this calamity, too, and this fight, too, will not be won by central Asia but by Europe; and at its head will be the nation that has represented Europe against the East for 1,500 years and shall represent it for all times: our Greater German Reich, the German nation.” And the people believed him!

Considering the powerful force of the words we utter, we must discipline ourselves to speak in a way that conveys respect, gentleness and humility.

2 Timothy 2:16-18 MSG, “Stay clear of pious talk that is only talk. Words are not mere words, you know. If they’re not backed by a godly life, they accumulate as poison in the soul. Hymenaeus and Philetus are examples, throwing believers off stride and missing the truth by a mile by saying the resurrection is over and done with.”

There are certain rules that should guide all our communications with others. Always speak the truth, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), avoid exaggerations , be consistent in what you are saying, don’t use double standards in addressing people, don’t use your words to manipulate others, don’t use profanity “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29) or take God’s name in vain, (Exodus 20:7) and most importantly do not use words to insult or belittle anyone.

“Whenever I said something naughty as a child, my mother washed out my mouth with soap. But it was not my mouth that needed cleansing, it was my heart! You see, your tongue speaks only what is in your heart. Those are the very words of our Lord Jesus Christ and He says that loose, careless, evil talk can come only from an unclean heart. As believers, we have not taken seriously what our Lord said about taming our tongues. He has made it a heart issue! Not only does my careless tongue discount all my spirituality, it also makes me face the fact that my heart is unclean. If I gossip, tell dirty jokes, run down other people, raise my voice and scream at my family, I must ask myself: ‘What unclean, filthy stuff is still stored up in me that I could speak this way?’ I must examine my heart and ask, “Where does this come from? There must be something I have not dealt with or I wouldn’t be saying such things. Why do I go on gossiping? Why do I utter such mean, careless words? What unsanctified strongholds still hold my heart?” –


Proverbs 8:13, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate.”

Proverbs 10:19 NLT, “Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.”

Proverbs 13:3, “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction.”

Proverbs 15:4 NLT, “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”

Proverbs 15:23, “A man has joy by the answer of his mouth, and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!”

Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

Ecclesiastes 10:12 NLT, “Wise words bring approval, but fools are destroyed by their own words.”

Matthew 12:34 NLT, “You brood of snakes! How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say.”

Luke 6:45, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

Luke 12:3 NLT, “Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”

Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).

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