James has lots of surprising things to say to us. Right at the beginning of his letter, he said something very surprising. He said:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.
Normally we complain about our trials and troubles, but James tells us to regard them with joy. And we can regard them with joy, James tells us, because of the good that can come from them: by these trials, our faith is tested and strengthened and we become mature and complete believers.
Then he said another surprising thing:
The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position.
Normally we think that the one who is poor is in a low position; and the one who is rich is in a high position. But James teaches us that the one who is poor is in a high position because he has faith and he will inherit the kingdom. And he teaches us that the one who is rich is in a low position, because he — like everyone else — will one day die; and all his wealth and all his possessions cannot help him then.
And then in chapter 2 we had the surprising teaching that there are two kinds of faith. Someone claims to believe, but do they believe with the right kind of faith? That’s the question. You see, there’s a dead faith, which never leads to obedience. And there’s a true faith, which leads to obedience to the Lord. A dead faith cannot save, but a true faith leads to everlasting life.
So, James says some surprising things to say to us. And today’s passages begins with something very surprising. It’s very surprising because in the church today, we’re always looking for new leaders and new teachers and for people to volunteer to teach this group of people and that group of people. And as new people join the church, we nab them and get them to help in this organisation and to teach this group of people. It happens in churches throughout the country. And when you get a bunch of ministers together, they often complain that there aren’t enough willing people to fill all the teaching roles in the church. That’s what the church is like today. But what does James say? Listen to verse 1 of chapter 3:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers.
Or more literally:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers.
Isn’t that interesting? We’re always looking for teachers, but James — writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — says to us:
Not many of you should become teachers.
Not many should become teachers
Why is that? James goes on to explain. And perhaps his explanation is a surprise to us as well. You know, perhaps teachers are liable to slap themselves on their back because they’re serving the Lord in this important way. And perhaps others are likely to praise them for their commitment to the church. ‘Well done’, we say. And perhaps others who don’t teach would love to teach in the church because they too want to be well thought of by others and have people praise them. And so, what James says in the rest of verse 1 is surprising. He says:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
Well, James says:
you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
But do we know that? We should, because it’s all through the Bible. We can go back to the prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament. In Ezekiel chapters 2 and 3, we read how God called him to go and speak to the Israelites. And the Lord warning Ezekiel that they were a rebellious nation, obstinate and stubborn. So they might not listen to Ezekiel’s message. But this is what the Lord said to Ezekiel:
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.
In other words, if you don’t pass on my message to my people, and they keep on sinning, I’m going to hold you responsible, Ezekiel, because you did not warn them as I commanded you to do. You were an unfaithful teacher.
Let’s now jump to the New Testament. And first of all, there are all the harsh things the Lord Jesus said to the Pharisees and teachers of the law for failing to teach God’s law to God’s people in a faithful way. Instead of teaching God’s word, they taught their own traditions and undermined the truth of God’s word.
Then there’s Paul’s advice to Timothy, a young preacher. Paul said to him:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
When you come to present yourself before the Lord, make sure you have no need to be ashamed on that day. Make sure you’ve handled God’s word rightly and taught it well.
And then the writer to the Hebrews said this to the believers he was writing to. He said to them:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.
Your leaders — and he means their teachers — will one day have to give an account to God for their work and for how well they have watched over the souls of the people.
And then, we have what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3 about how a leader in the church builds. One builds with gold, silver and costly stones which last. Another builds with wood, hay and straw which do not last. And, perhaps the difference can’t be seen now, but on the day of judgment, the quality of their work will be seen.
We have all these warnings that those who teach in the church will have to give to God an account of their work. And we’re warned that their work will come under God’s scrutiny. And all of that corresponds with what James writes here in verse 1 of chapter 3 that not many should become teachers, because we know that those who teach will be judged more strictly.
I remember when I went to my minster years ago now and I said to him that I was thinking of applying for the ministry, he was very wise. Very wise. He didn’t immediately jump up and slap me on the back and say that’s great news. He didn’t ask me how soon can I apply and rush me to submit my application. Nor did he rush to give me a job in the church so I’d get a bit of teaching experience. Do you know what he did? He sat me down and he explained to me some of the challenges and difficulties and the troubles I could expect to encounter as a minister. And he impressed upon me the awesome responsibility it was to teach God’s word to God’s people. He wasn’t trying to put me off, but he was trying to get me to think about this work seriously. And you see, that’s what James is doing here. He’s not saying that no one should become a teacher. The church will always needs teachers. But James wants those who are thinking about becoming a teacher to think about it seriously and soberly and not lightly.
That’s often the purpose of the warnings we find in the Bible. When Jonah went to Nineveh and declared that in 40 more days, Nineveh will be destroyed, it was to wake the people up and to get them to repent before it was too late. And when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the importance of examining ourselves before coming to the Lord’s Table, and when he warned them about eating and drinking judgment on themselves, it was to wake the people up and to get them to repent of their sins before coming to the Lord’s Table for communion. We have these warnings to wake us up and to get us to think seriously about what we’re doing. And when James warns those who want to become teachers that they will be judged more strictly, it’s to wake us up to the solemn responsibility of being a teacher in the Lord’s church so that we will undertake this responsibility as faithfully and diligently and as carefully as possible.
Whenever a couple are married in the church, the minister says to them during the service:
Marriage is a gift of God, and is not to be undertaken lightly or selfishly, but with reverence and commitment, aware of the purpose for which it is appointed by God.
Not only is marriage a gift of God which is not to be undertaken lightly or selfishly, but so is the task of teaching in his church. It’s a marvellous gift of God to be appointed a teacher of his people. And it’s not to be undertaken lightly or selfishly, but with reverence and commitment, aware of the purpose for which it is appointed by God. God has appointed teachers in his church to teach his people his word and to point them to Jesus Christ the Saviour so that unbelievers will be convinced and converted to faith in Christ and believers will be built up in holiness and comfort for salvation. And so, whoever takes on this responsibility, must undertake this responsibility with reverence and commitment. —
In verse 2 James seems to move on to a new subject. In verse 2 he goes on to speak about how we all sin against the Lord with the tongue and by what we say. But, of course, what James writes in verses 2 to 12 about the tongue is related to what he says in verse 1 about teachers. You see, teachers use their tongue all the time. Every time we stand up to teach a group of people, we’re using the tongue to speak. And every time we speak, we’re liable to sin against the Lord because the tongue is so hard to control.
And so, look at what he says in verse 2. This verse applies to teachers. But it also applies to everyone. James writes:
We all stumble in many ways.
In other words, we’re all susceptible to sinning in different ways. I have my weaknesses, which are not your weaknesses. You have your weaknesses, which are not my weaknesses. I stumble into sin in a way that never tempts you, and you stumble into sin in a way that never tempts me. We sin in different ways. But (it’s as if James is saying in verse 2)…
If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he’s a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
It’s as if he’s saying to us:
Have you ever met a man who has never sinned because of what he’s said? Have you ever met a women who has never sinned because of what she’s said? Well, that person would then be perfect.
And, of course, what he’s implying is that there’s never been a person like this — apart from the Lord Jesus, we might add. But apart from the Lord Jesus, there’s never been a man or a woman who has never sinned in this way, because you see, though we all sin in different ways, and though we all have different weaknesses, so that you sin in one way, and I sin in another way, nevertheless we all sin in this one way: we all sin by the things we say.
And I was thinking about this during the week. We got a letter home from my daughter’s school about the way parents park their cars when picking up the children. You see, the school is located down a narrow, residential street so there’s not much room to park on the street. And the school car park isn’t very big either. And it’s getting quite congested. So, the principal was writing to the parents to highlight the problem and to ask us to show some consideration when we park.
And you could tell the principal had spent ages writing this letter, because he’d written it so carefully in order to make his point without offending anyone. It’s quite a skill to write to hundreds of people to say they must change their behaviour and to do so in a way that won’t offend anyone. Well, when you’re writing a letter, you can go over it and edit it and take that bit out and change the wording there and ask someone else for advice. You can do that with a letter. But when we’re speaking to someone, we usually don’t have time to compose our thoughts before we speak. And we can’t edit what we just said, though we’d often like to. The words just come pouring out. And it’s very easy, it’s very easy to say the wrong thing. Well, we all know this to be true. And in the verses which follow, James says three main things about the tongue.
Small but powerful
First of all, he makes clear that though the tongue is small — it’s just a small part of the human body — it has an enormous capacity for causing great trouble. And James uses three illustrations to make his point.
Think of a horse and the bit we put in its mouth, he’s saying to us in verse 3. The bit is very small, isn’t it? But with the bit and bridle the rider can control the whole horse. It’s going one way, and the rider pulls on the reins, which are attached to the bit, and the horse changes direction.
Think of a ship and its rudder, he’s saying in verse 4. A great big ship is controlled by a rudder which is comparatively small. So, this great big ship is going in one direction, and then the captain turns the wheel, which turns the rudder, and the whole ship is turned in a different direction. Something small has a powerful influence on something bigger.
And then think of a forest fire, says James in verse 5. A forest fire which destroys so many trees, trees that might have been growing for hundreds of years. And they’re all destroyed. By what? A small spark, which set the forest on fire.
In the first two illustrations — the horse and the ship — the point was that something small has a powerful influence on something bigger. But in the third illustration — the forest fire — the point is that something small has an enormous capacity for causing great trouble. And the tongue has the same enormous capacity for causing trouble. You say the wrong thing and stand back, because who knows what trouble your words might cause in the church of Jesus Christ. The unity of God’s people and the peace of Christ’s church is destroyed because of something careless you said. Or something you said destroys a fellow believer, because it was so hurtful and unkind.
And look what he says in verse 6. The tongue is a world of evil. So, right there in your mouth, and in my mouth, there’s a whole world of evil. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of our life on fire, and it’s set on fire by hell itself. Though the tongue is small, it has an enormous capacity for causing great trouble.
Wilder than a wild animal
Second, the tongue is wilder than a wild animal. This is in verse 7. James says to his readers that all kinds of wild animals have been tamed. Birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea. I saw a video just yesterday of a dolphin who recused a woman’s phone which she’d dropped into the water. The dolphin grabbed the phone in its mouth and popped its head out of the water and handed it to her. We’ve trained all kinds of animals to do astounding things. But no one, no one has been able to tame the tongue. It’s a restless evil, says James. It’s like a snake, which moves this way and then that way, never stopping, never resting, but waiting for the right moment to strike. And when it strikes, and we use our tongue to attack someone, our victim discovers that our tongue is full of deadly poison. It hurts. It stings. It wounds. And sometimes, sometimes our victim never gets over it and every time they see you again, they’re nervous, frightened, in case you turn your tongue on them again.
Thirdly, our tongue is the most unnatural part of our body. What do I mean? Well, this is what verses 9 to 12 are about. In the natural world, fresh water and salty water can’t come from the same spring. It’s either one or the other. And in the natural world, you only get one kind of fruit from the one kind of tree. So, from a fig tree, you’ll get figs, not olives. And from a grapevine, you’ll get grapes, not figs. And in the natural world, a salt spring will not produce fresh water, but only salty water. That’s the way things work in the natural world. You get one kind of thing from one kind of thing. But our tongues are the most unnatural of things, because one moment we’re using our tongue to praise God. The next moment, we’re using our tongue to curse someone made in God’s image. From the same source, come two different things. That’s not natural. That’s not right. We’re sitting in church, praising God. And then, the next minute, we’re complaining about someone, or we’re giving off about something that isn’t right, and we’re muttering away to one another. And it’s not right.
The tongue has an enormous capacity for causing great trouble in the church of Jesus Christ. And the tongue is wilder than a wild animal. And the tongue is the most unnatural part of our body. James is describing each one of us, because though we all sin in different ways, we all sin in this one way. We all sin against the Lord by what we say.
As we turn to the Lord’s Table, and take the bread which speaks to us of the Lord’s body, broken for sinners, and take the cup, which speaks to us of the Lord’s blood, shed for sinners, we should remember and believe and rejoice, because we know that Jesus Christ the Saviour died to pay for all our sins, and his blood is able to cover over every single one of our sins including all the ways we have sinned with the tongue. And though we may have complained and criticised and cursed and insulted and ridiculed and gossiped and lied, and though we have sinned in so many other ways, the good news is that Jesus Christ speaks to us words of comfort and words of peace and words which assure us that he’s taken the blame for us, and the punishment we deserve, and God pardons all who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. So, we ought to remember and believe and rejoice because of what Christ has done for us and for our salvation.
But let’s not stop there. Let’s remember that our Saviour who died, rose again. And he ascended to heaven. And from his throne in heaven, he sends down to his believing people his Spirit to live in us and to help us. Though no man can tame the tongue, though no woman can tame the tongue, we have the Holy Spirit living in us to help us to tame the tongue. And so, we should look to the Lord every day to fill us with his Spirit to help us to master our own tongue, so that instead of possessing a tongue which is full of poison, we have a tongue which is full of balm and which is able to bring healing and peace and comfort and refreshment to everyone we speak to.
And though you may not be a teacher in Christ’s church — because not everyone should become a teacher, says James — nevertheless, with the Holy Spirit’s help to master your tongue, you’ll be able to use your words to minister to your fellow believers and to build them up in the faith by the kind words of encouragement you say to them.