We’ll be studying James chapter 3, verses 1 through 12 this evening, continuing our series through this New Testament book. You’ll find that on page 1012 if you’re using a pew Bible. James 3:1-12. Before we listen to God’s Word, let’s pray together.
Father, we feel our weakness as we come before You this evening. We know our speech is not what it should be, and so now we need to hear the Word of life and we need to hear the Spirit who brings life work upon His Word to show us Jesus, the Word of life. We pray that You would do that in His name, amen.
James chapter 3, beginning at verse 1. This is God’s Word:
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it, we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”
The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever.
Something Callie and I were laughing about the other day, or this just may be way too silly, but ridiculous nursery rhymes. Okay? So one of them that we all know is, “Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop…” Now I am a fairly young dad, but I’m pretty sure in all the “Parenting 101” books I read there was never a suggestion nor a direction to get kids to sleep by putting them in treetops! So my question, “Who are these people?!” The other one is, “Ring around the Rosie; pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!” That is a song about the plague that killed millions of people that we teach kids to sing while they’re dancing around! Let’s just picture this again. Who are these people? Gather the kids together; let’s all sing about the plague together!
But maybe the most ridiculous nursery rhyme that we hear is one that we don’t think is so ridiculous. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” James is going to tell us tonight that that is the most ridiculous thing we could say. Nothing could be further from the truth according to James because few things in our lives do more damage than our tongues. They are our own personal weapons of mass destruction. And considering according to most statistics that women speak about 20,000 words a day and us men speak about 7,000 words a day – we’ll interpret those statistics another time! But considering that’s the fact, what we have are lots of opportunities every day to detonate this personal weapon of mass destruction. So James’ message tonight is urgent for us to hear.
Now here’s the context! We’re coming into the next great teaching section of the book of James. Last week was the center of the letter – faith and works. Now he’s going to work that out for the rest of the letter. So in chapter 3, he’s going, to begin with, our words and then he’s going to move to wisdom at the end of this chapter. How does genuine faith show itself in how we speak and what does genuine faith mean for wisdom, how we live in this world according to God’s Word, which is what we’ll study next week? And in chapter 1, James introduced all the themes of what he was going to talk about for the rest of his letter. And if you were to flip back to chapter 1 verse 26 he says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and is not able to bridle his tongue, his religion is worthless.” So he circles back to that and unfolds it now for twelve verses for us what he meant there in chapter 1:26. Here is the main point. God teaches us in this passage this evening that our words matter more than we can possibly imagine. Our words matter more than we can possibly imagine. And we’ll look at the text under three headings. In verses 1 through 2, just by words – perfection. In verses 3 through 8 – power. And verses 9 through 12 – paradox. So perfection, power, and paradox.
Perfection: James begins with this – if you’ve been around church you’ve heard this a lot – “Not many of you should become teachers.” I had a friend in seminary who almost quit his first year after really digging into this verse. I really respected him; he took it seriously. What’s James up to? Is this just an extended warning for those of us who preach and teach God’s Word? No, he begins with a specific example to begin to illustrate a general truth. And that is, that those who teach are those who are employed in making their living by using words. They have, generally speaking, a lot of respect, a lot of authority. They carry that with them when they teach or preach God’s Word. And therefore, James says, “Look at them to get a good idea of how serious speech is because they will receive the greater judgment.” Now he’s just listening well to his half-brother, our Lord, and Savior, Jesus. Jesus said in Matthew 12:36 these words that pierce us if we’re honest. Here’s what Jesus says. “I tell you, on the day of judgment, people will give an account for every careless word that they speak.”
That scares me! And to be honest, just to be personal here – we’re all family – this was a hard sermon to prepare because I see how often I sin with my tongue and I think about that verse and it begins to undo me. And I think if any of us are honest with ourselves tonight and we hear that – every, every careless word we speak. And James says if you teach if you want to be somebody who has authority, good, but, understand what you’re getting yourself into! And he says to all of us, look to those people and understand how much your words matter.
A Holistic Life
And that’s why he says, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says he is a perfect man.” Let me just be clear what he is not saying here. He is not saying if you could bridle your tongue somehow you’d be sinless. It’s not sinless perfection. This is what word that we’ve encountered before in James which is better translated “whole” or “integrated.” James is concerned that we have a whole life, a holistic life, one that is centered on God and centered on genuine faith. And so what he’s saying is, if you can bridle your tongue that is how to see if you’ve got an integrated, whole life. But then he immediately adds – before that, rather – he says, “We all stumble in many ways.” And we’ll come back to that. What is he doing here? There’s this tension. If you’re able to this, you’re integrated, you’re whole, you’re perfect in James’ sense. And yet we all stumble in many ways. We’ll come back to that at the end.
Can You Identify With James?
So here’s what I would ask you! Can you identify with James? He’s holding out an ideal. He says, “Here’s what a whole life looks like.” Isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want a whole life? Isn’t so much of our psychological distress, doesn’t so much of it rather, stem from the fact that we feel like our lives are disintegrated? Don’t we long for that? And yet so many of us live in that “stumble in many ways” section, don’t we? We can’t bridle our tongues. And I’m willing to bet when you lay your head at night on the pillow, if you’re anything like me, what you feel shame and regret about is not so much what you did, there’s plenty of that, but it’s more about what you said. If we go back and think about our lives or our days or our hours, most of the time we want to go back and take back what we said almost 90% of the time more than what we did.
And that leads to the power of words. That’s where James goes in verse 3. He says “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the large ships also. Though they are so large and are driven about by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of a pilot directs.” And then skipping down to the latter part of verse 5, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire.” James uses these three metaphors to teach us that principle there in verse 5. “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” Horses and bits, ships and rudders; a small, tiny spark and a whole forest fire.
I was out in California in the fall and it’s so different than living here, in a lot of ways, but one of those ways was fire warnings everywhere, everywhere. Why? Because a tiny spark in that dry, windy environment will destroy billions of dollars’ worth of property. That’s the principle James is after here. What seems too insignificant has massive consequences. And remember, James is kind of the New Testament book of Proverbs, and Proverbs has so much to say about our speech. But just on this point, Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
Sean Tuohy, who most of you know from The Blind Side fame, whose family adopted Michael Oher, who was an offensive lineman at Ole Miss and then went on to play for the world champion Baltimore Ravens, and the story is that he was adopted by this family in Memphis and brought out of a life of poverty and almost certain death. And he told a story recently. He said, “Two words changed my family’s life forever.” When his wife, Leigh Anne, saw Michael Oher walking down the road on that cold, November night, she said two words. She said, “Turn around.” Two words made the difference between life and death for somebody. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
The Power of the Tongue
But notice the strong language James uses to talk about our speech. Verse 5, our tongues boast. Verse 6, they are a world of unrighteousness. Verse 7, they stain our whole body. Verse 6, they are controlled by Satan, full of deadly poison, and a restless evil, verse 8. One author said recently that if you want to understand the mind of an addict, try going on a diet. Now it’s that time of year, right? We all get that. Let me add this onto the end of it. If you want to understand the mind of an addict, try to bridle your tongue, because what James is saying is, the power there is so much greater than we usually think about. Try it! Try to speak kindly for just one day and you’ll see the power that speech has and you’ll see how much of our speech is not what it should be. And that’s really what addiction is all about, isn’t it? It’s wanting to change and not being able to. And that will show up in all of our lives when we try to bridle our tongues when we try to watch what we say.
The Source of Our Evil Speech
And James gives us the source of our evil speech right there. It could not be stronger. Verse 6, “Set on fire by hell.” Now that’s one of those doctrines today where it’s not very popular. And let me say this just as a brief aside, if hell, the doctrine of everlasting, retributive punishment – and I am choosing my words carefully. It is not punishment that will correct; it is not punishment that ends. It is punishment for an offense against the holiness of God. If that has never made you question the Gospel, I want to very humbly suggest that you may not have taken in the full measure of hell. And so James is being very serious with us right now. He’s saying if you want to see the source of that little white lie, that harsh word you spoke to your spouse or your kids, that gossip we engaged in about that girl or that guy, if you want to see the source of that James says, “Yes, it’s your wicked heart, my wicked heart, but it goes even deeper than that.” Because when you go back to the problem of sin which shows up in our speech, it goes back to words at the very beginning from the pit of hell itself. Words caused the fall if we could put it that way. Yes, I understand it was all part of God’s plan, but Satan uses words. Words are the source of our misery, therefore, and our first parents listening to those words. And now as sinners, we find it so hard to break away from having smoky speech with the very aroma of hell itself on it.
Put another way, demonic power does not look like we think it does. It’s not about spinning heads and crazy voices. It’s about everyday speech that kills, that wounds, that leaves scars. When you step back and think about it, can’t you just think back on your life and don’t you have so much regret, I know I do, about what I’ve said and the pain it’s inflicted on others? And James says, “Yes, that’s what Satan does. He’s a murderer from the beginning. He kills! And one of the ways he kills is through our speech.” James could not be more clear. He says our tongues quite literally make our lives hell on earth.
And that leads to the last point – paradox. Notice how he ends. “With it,” our tongue,” we bless our Lord and Father and with it, we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” And then James goes and illustrates this truth of verse 9 with these other metaphors – a spring, a fig tree. And the point of these metaphors is, nature is consistent; it does what God made it do. We are not. And the grand inconsistency, the grant paradox even of our lives, is that we’ll sit here and sing, “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” and then go wreak havoc throughout the week, Monday through Saturday, with our words. Guilty, guilty, guilty. All of us. James laments and says, “My brothers, this ought not to be so!” And if you’re a Christian, you hear that and you go, “Yes! I want the power of the Gospel to change my speech. I lament with you, James! It ought not to be so!”
And this paradox that he gives us here points us to an even greater paradox that we mentioned at the beginning. Held out for us is blameless, wholeness, but we all stumble in many ways. And which one is it? God calls us to have speech that is free from hell, and yet we are told we stumble in many ways and we see in our own lives we can’t do it. And we want to say, “Well which one is it, God? You tell me to do this, but then I can’t! And my ‘can’t’ is willful!” Isn’t that the hardest part? We hear this. We agree with it. I’m not here to beat you up. James isn’t here to beat you up. Did you notice what he said three times? “My brothers.” Not, “You filthy, stupid, worthless, ignorant pagans.” “My brothers.” He’s talking to people like himself. He’s talking to us. And yet we have this paradox.
And that’s what the great church father, Augustine, recognized. Do you know the thing that he said that made his opponent Pelagius, who was this monk, British monk, who said, “You know, you have free will, unfettered free will? It’s all up to you.” And the comment from Augustine that made him so angry was this. Here’s what Augustine said. He got right to the heart of this paradox. He said, “O Lord, command what You will, but give what You command.” “Command what You will, but give what You command.” What he meant was this. “You call us to do this, Lord, and yet we can’t do it apart from Your enabling power. We can’t do it on our own.”
The Heart of The Matter is a Matter of The Heart!
That leads to the last few things we have to say. If we want our speech to change, we have to recognize that the main problem is not our speech. It always comes back to the heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. It’s our hearts that are the problem. That’s why Jesus said this, Matthew 12:34, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Have you ever had one of those moments – happens to me a lot – when you say something and you go, “I cannot believe I just embarrassed myself again. I put my foot in my mouth again.” It’s one of those times that it’s like a cartoon character and you’re reaching to grab those words back as soon as they leave your mouth. Or more seriously, you yell at your spouse, you yell at your spouse, and you stop and you go, “Why does that keep happening? Why do I keep falling into these sinful speech patterns?” And Jesus says this. “It’s basically easier to put a dog collar on a lion than to get control of our speech.” That’s what James is saying; that’s what Jesus is saying. So neither one of them is calling us here to try harder to speak better. That will come. But first, we need to look at our hearts. You see, when we do we’ll see that it’s our heart speech, our heart speech that matters more than anything that we actually say.
What do I mean by heart speech? Here’s the deal. Every day your heart and my heart is telling a story to us. There’s a constant narrative going on of words flowing through our minds all day long, isn’t there? And the narrative of our hearts is, “You deserve better. You deserve more. Nobody should slight you. That person shouldn’t have said that thing about you. You are awesome! How dare anyone to infringe upon your sovereignty!” That’s how our hearts because, as the prophet told us, they are “deceitful and wicked above all things,” speak to us. They’re telling us a story and the main piece of advice that we hear today is what? As the old heart song put it, “Listen to your heart.” Listen to your heart. Isn’t that what we hear? “You’ve got to follow your heart, man.” I don’t want to be harsh – there can possibly be no worse advice to give yourself or other people than to listen to your heart because our hearts can be deceived, they are so often deceived; they are so often attached to the wrong things. What we need is not to listen more to our hearts but to listen more to the Gospel that is proclaimed right here in these verses. You see, that’s what we need. We need true words to overcome our false words because our speech will never change until our hearts have a superior affection, a superior love than what speech, false speech, hellish speech gives them.
And this is where Jesus can help us, more than we can possibly imagine tonight. Do you want hope? Do you feel kind of beat up by James? You only have to put up with me for thirty minutes. I’ve been living with him all week – for two weeks actually, thanks to the ice storm! James has got his work done on me and a lot left to do! But there’s hope here because of Jesus, the Word of life, lived out for us what James talks to us about here. How? The powers of hell gathered themselves at the foot of the cross, didn’t they? Go back there. Go back to the cross and behold, as the old hymn put it, “the very dying form of one who was enthroned upon the awful tree.” And there hangs Jesus, who was in the beginning as the Word. And gathered at the foot of the cross are Satan’s minions speaking the very words of hell themselves to the Savior. “He saved others, Himself He cannot save! Let Him come down and save Himself!”
"We" Are at The Foot of The Cross
We are here at that episode in two ways. First, we are at the foot of the cross. That’s us! Billy Graham told a story once that he had a dream and in this dream, he beheld the hand of the Savior on the cross. He couldn’t see the rest of the body and he saw a Roman soldier hammering away on that nail. Hammering away. And he was horrified and he ran and he grabbed the man’s shoulder and spun him around and lo and behold the face of the Roman soldier was his face. The face at the foot of the cross of those shouting the curses against the Savior is our face, all of us.
We’re There With Jesus on The Cross
But secondly, we’re there with Jesus on the cross, as it were. Paul tells us we were crucified with Him. By our faith and our faith alone, we are united with Him, as David so beautifully explained this morning. We are in union with Him. And on the cross, it’s there that He bears the covenant curse of Deuteronomy. “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree!” And that covenant curse was not pronounced over the Savior with words. It was pronounced in the silence He heard for the first time ever, ever, ever, when He cried out, “My God, My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” The covenant curse of, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,” was pronounced upon the Savior in the divine silence that He heard when His Father didn’t answer Him for the first time.
Why didn’t God Answer Jesus?
Why? Why didn’t His Father answer? Because He was representing us. He was dying for our words. And the silence He endured, my dear friends, was for the purpose of knowing that we would have words of life and truth and healing spoken to us after His suffering on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. We only get words of life because He endured silence on our behalf. That’s why the Gospel is good news. That’s why it’s good news for people like us whose words do so much damage. He bore the curse for every one of them. Every one of them. And He is committed to making us those whose speech brings heaven and not hell on earth, so much so that He’s willing to die and take that judgment for every careless word for people like us who tomorrow are going to go and fail again, who are going to say words that hurt again. And the greatest part of this is He is not done with your mouth yet or mine. He is at work. He will clean it up. He will make it an instrument of righteousness and holiness to speak life into others’ lives, by His grace.
It reminds me of a story I read not too long ago. There was a man who, back in the day when there were no refrigerators, which most of us can never imagine, but there were no refrigerators; they had warehouses full of ice. And one of the ways that they preserved the ice was to throw sawdust on it and it would actually keep for a very long time. And there’s the story of this worker who had a precious watch from his grandfather and he was working stacking the ice and he lost his watch. And he searched frantically for it; he and all the workers did. And none of them could find the watch. This little boy sat by watching the whole thing – watching and watching, watching the men search. And finally, they said, “Look, let’s stop for lunch.” So they took a break and stepped outside the ice warehouse. And about two minutes later the kid came out with the watch and they were shocked. “How did you find that watch?” He said, “I sat in the room and lay down in the sawdust and when there was no movement and everything was quiet, I could hear it ticking, so I found the watch.”
In the same way, we can search and search and try and try to clean up our speech, to find ways to make our speech better, but the only hope we have for our speech improving, for avoiding what James talks about here, this judgment he speaks of, the only way our tongues are going to become instruments of heaven on earth is if we stop listening to the other voices in our lives, stop listening to our hearts, and stop listening to the one about whom Peter said, “Where else can we go, Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life.” And as we listen to the words of eternal life from the Word of eternal life, our speech and our lives and the lives of those whom we so often wound with our speech will change. That’s good news. Let’s pray!
Father, thank You for giving us Your Word. Words that speak life into our crusty, dead souls; words that speak healing where we have been those who have not spoken healing. So help us to be those this week whose speech looks more like the new heaven and the new earth we talked about than that awful place that James says we’re so often like. You alone can do it. O Lord, command what You will, but give what You will command. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen!
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.