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James 3

Scripture: James 3:1-18

Overview:

  • Jim Jam tells his peeps that they might want to think twice before they go for the power position in their church–the teacher’s and preacher’s spot–because it’s a tough job, one that God has high expectations of and really cares that we do right.
  • “All us teachers mess up,” James says. “To be perfect at teaching others (like God is), you have to really watch what you say. Keep your whole self in check.”
  • Jay then delves into some analogies on the power of our speech: “The tongue, though a small part of your body, controls everything. Just like a bit in a horses’ mouth or a rudder on a ship, the small thing  can make the big thing go right or left.”
  • But the tongue is not just small and controlling, it is also small and uncontrollable, “Like a tiny spark that can turn a whole forest into a raging inferno, your tongue is a small flame, born in Hell itself, that can set your thoughts, actions and whole life, on fire–spinning them out of control.”
  • “People have tamed birds, monkeys, lions, you name it,” Jay Jay says, “but no person has ever tamed the tongue. It’s like a snake, full or poison, ready to strike.”
  • James goes on to say, “You praise your God with that mouth? You say people are lame one minute, but God is great the next? Really? Did you forget that God made people in his image? We talk out of both sides of our mouth when we use our words to praise God and knock down people. You can’t get fresh water and salt water from the same source, just like you can’t get olives from a fig tree or figs from a grapevine. Ain’t happening.”
  • “So how do you know someone is truly speaking God’s wisdom?” James asks. “You’ll know it by the life they lead. Wise people do good things, humbly. People that appear to be wise but have jealousy, bitterness, or selfish ambition in their hearts, are getting their wisdom from the world, or more accurately, from demons. Where selfishness, jealousy and ‘looking out for number one’ prevail, the result is chaos and all around bad news.”
  • Jaybone wraps it up by reminding them that wisdom from God is shown in a life lived in purity: a life lived peacefully, considerate of others, not putting oneself first, showing undeserved kindness to everyone, being blind to people’s differences and acting and speaking genuinely all the time. “Peaceful peeps acting peacefully produce a proper relationship with our praise-worthy Pop. Peace out.”

Historical Context:

“Gehenna” or Hell

Gehenna is the Greek form of a Hebrew word meaning “the valley of Hinnom.”  This valley was a place where followers of various Ba’als and other Canaanite gods, including Moloch (or Molech), sacrificed their children by fire (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6).8  King Josiah tore down the altars making it a place of refuse and abomination ((2 Kings 23). Due to the Hebrew detestation of the place, the name came to stand for the idea of eternal punishment for the wicked (Isa. 30:27-33; 66:24; Dan. 7:10, Psa. 18:8).2

In the synoptic Gospels Jesus uses the word Gehenna 11 times to describe the opposite to life in the Kingdom of God.James is the only other New Testament author to use the word “Gehenna.”

The power of words in other Scriptures

Proverbs often mentions the power of an individual’s speech:6, 7

  • “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, ‘I was only joking!'”(Proverbs 26:18-19)
  • “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is worth little. The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of wisdom.” (Proverbs 10:19-21)
  • “There is one who speaks like the piercing of the sword but the tongue of the wise promotes health.” (Proverbs 12:18)
  • “Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.” (Proverbs 12:25)
  • “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:24)
  • “Death and life are in the power of the tongue and you can give life or you can give death.”(Proverbs 18:21)

Jesus often talks about the connection between a person’s speech and their inner character, as well as the responsibility that comes with leadership:2, 4, 7

  • “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:15-23)
  • “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:33-37)
  • “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)

Observations:

  • James focuses on the responsibilities of teachers due to the fact that: (1) Christian meetings were open, unstructured and informal assemblies. Anyone wishing to be heard could rise and speak (see 1 Corinthians 14:26-40). (2) There was a great honor attached to the work of teaching, as indicated in 1 Cor. 12:28, where teachers were ranked second only to apostles and prophets.2
  • The problem James is addressing with teachers is not that there are spreading false doctrine (as would often be the concern in Paul’s letters). James is addressing the problem of arrogance, which can be present even when correct doctrine is being taught.4
  • James mentions “stumbling” because in Judaism walking denotes the course of a man’s conduct.2
  • James use of the word “perfect” is the same as Jesus’ usage when he says God is “perfect” (Matthew 5:48). James, and Jesus’ expectation was that “perfection,” though normally unattainable by men, could be achieved “in Christ” alone (Colossians 1:28,29).2
  • James’ first two illustrations talk about the tongues’ control over larger things, (the horse bit and the ship’s rudder), but the third illustration shows how the tongue is beyond control–it is the tiny fire that burns down a whole forest.2
  • The “whole course of a man’s life” in the original Greek is literally the “the wheel of birth.”  The Greek word, trocov, means a wheel, or anything made far revolving and running. The Greek word, genesiv, means, procreation, birth. Most translators think James is talking about the wheel which is set in motion at birth, and which runs on through life.3
  • James bluntly points out that cursing God’s creation (i.e. man) is equivalent to cursing the Creator himself.3
  • The wisdom James describes is moral rather than intellectual. Genuine wisdom, like faith, is a practical matter; it shows up in how one lives. Literally James says, “Let him show by good behavior his deeds in the humility of wisdom.” Wisdom, then, is not something possessed in one’s head; if a person is wise, it will be demonstrated in their conduct.2
  • Earthly origin implies inferiority to heavenly origin. James’ description of false wisdom is the same as that of the uncontrolled tongue (3:6)—they are both from hell. James’s intention is to point us to a wisdom from heaven in contrast to the wisdom from hell, a wisdom far superior to any wisdom we find in ourselves naturally, and certainly superior to that which comes from demons.4
  • Meekness, gentleness, or humility, is often mentioned as a characteristic trait of Jesus himself and of his followers in other New Testament books. In Matthew 5:5, Jesus pronounces the “meek” to be blessed. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus invites people to come and learn from him specifically because he is himself “gentle.” In Matthew 21:5, Jesus is pictured as the “gentle” messianic king promised in Zechariah 9:9. Paul lists humility as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23) and a trait of Christ (2 Cor 10:1) to be exhibited by all Christians toward other people (Eph 4:2; Col 3:12; Tit 3:2).4
  • The Greek word for gentleness, prauteti, occurs in non-biblical literature to describe a horse that someone had broken and had trained to submit to a bridle. It pictures strength under control. James is saying to his readers that only way to control the tongue is to place one’s mind deliberately under the authority of God and to let him control it.5  One doesn’t solve the problem of an unruly horse by keeping it in the barn, or the problem of a hard-to-steer ship by keeping it tied to the dock. James is not advocating silence. He is advocating control by God rather than man.6
  • To James, purity is not just one quality among others but the key to them all.5

Discussion:

  • Do your words unite or divide? Do they bring peace or chaos to situations? How aligned are what you say and what you do? Would an outside observer see any contrast between how you talk about God and how you talk about your worst enemy?
  • Again and again in his letter, James emphasizes that true religion, true wisdom and true faith are known only by their deeds. Believing “in your heart” or knowing “in your head” is not enough. How can we de-intellectualize our faith? How can we better externally manifest our inward convictions? What is the empirical evidence of our faith?
  • Research now indicates that upwards of 55% of all communication is non-verbal. What do you think James would say about our body language? Is it as critical to tame as the words we use? What would James say about those times when our body language and our verbal speech don’t align?
  • An increasing amount of interpersonal communication is happening through texting, social media and online — mediums that lack the majority of our typical communication indicators (i.e. body language, tone, etc.). What would James say about these ways of communicating? Do they increase or decrease our ability to detect and project sincerity? What has the anonymity of the internet done to our communication? How have you experienced it, positively and negatively?
  • It is natural to think that saying nothing is the best course of action in taming the tongue. As our mothers often told us, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.” Yet James doesn’t tell his audience to be quite, he tells them to be pure. James isn’t focused on what comes out of a person’s mouth, but rather where it comes from inside.  It’s not the tongue he’s really worried about, it’s the heart. How does this change our view on our mother’s advice? Is it still good advice? Why, why not?
  • Use this discussion guide to talk about “taming the tongue” in these other forms of communication: 1) culturally influenced vocabulary, 2) body language, 3) internal dialogue.

References:

  1. Mackervoy’s commentary
  2. Coffman’s commentary
  3. Barnes’ commnetary
  4. IVP commentary
  5. Constable’s commentary
  6. Guzik’s commentary
  7. Hawkins’ commentary
  8. Gehenna
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