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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

James 3


One of the most important aspects of our works, which James had been discussing, is our words. We conduct much of our work with words. We also may express partiality with our words. James next gave his readers directions concerning their words to help them understand and apply God’s will to this area of their lives.

Verse 1

1. The negative warning 3:1

As in the previous two chapters, James introduced a new subject with a command (cf. James 1:2; James 2:1).

Every Christian is responsible to teach others what God has revealed in His Word (Matthew 28:19; Hebrews 5:12). However, James was evidently speaking of becoming teachers as the rabbis in his day were, namely, "professional" teachers. He may have been cautioning those who were considering teaching in the church and suggesting that some who were ministering in this capacity unworthily should step down. [Note: Ibid., p. 107.]

"Teachers are necessary, but incompetent and unworthy ones do much harm." [Note: Robertson, 6:39.]

The Jews regarded teachers (rabbis) with great awe and gave them much honor in James’ day (cf. Matthew 23:8). The synagogue service allowed opportunity for men in the congregation to rise and address the rest of the assembly (cf. Acts 13:15). The Christians carried this opportunity over into the meetings of the early church (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26-33). Consequently there were many in James’ audience who, though not qualified with ability, aspired to teach others publicly for the sake of prestige or some other motive. James warned that God will judge a teacher more strictly than a non-teacher because he presumably knows the truth and claims to live by it.

"This is not an attack upon the office of the teacher or the teaching function, for James at once identifies himself as a teacher. Rather, he is seeking to restrain the rush to teach on the part of those not qualified." [Note: Hiebert, James, p. 185.]

"Any teacher runs the risk of becoming ’Sir Oracle.’ No profession is more liable to beget spiritual and intellectual pride." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 94. His allusion is to William Shakespear’s The Merchant of Venice, Acts 1, Scene 1, Line 93: "I am Sir Oracle, and when I ope my lips let no dog bark!"]

Verses 1-12

A. Controlling the Tongue 3:1-12

It is particularly the misuse of the tongue in Christian worship that James addressed (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 Corinthians 14:27-39). From the subject of idle faith, James proceeded to discuss idle speech.

". . . in his usual ’rondo’ manner [James] returns to the theme of speech (James 1:19; James 1:26) and warns his true Christians of the dangers of the tongue . . ." [Note: Adamson, p. 138.]

"It [this chapter] is also connected with that overvaluation of theory as compared with practice which formed the subject of the last chapter." [Note: Mayor, p. 107.]

"Those in his line of sight are evidently leaders who are summoned to control and guide the course of the church’s life and destiny. Hence the twin imagery of the horse’s bit (James 3:3) and the ship’s rudder (James 3:4)." [Note: Martin, p. 104.]

Verse 2

2. The reason for the warning 3:2

The person who speaks much is going to err in his or her speech much because the tongue is the hardest member of the body to control. No one has been able to master it yet except Jesus Christ. Yet spiritual maturity requires a tamed tongue (cf. Titus 1:11).

"Although not all sins laid to the account of one person are necessarily the same as those shared by others, all persons have at least one sin in common, namely, the sin of the tongue." [Note: Martin, p. 109.]

Verse 3

It is the same with horses as it is with humans. If we can control the tongue, we can bring the whole animal under control.

"Nothing seems to trip a believer more than a dangling tongue." [Note: Blue, p. 827.]

Verses 3-6

3. Examples of the danger 3:3-6

Verse 4

This second illustration adds another element. The controlled tongue can overcome great obstacles. James had observed many ships on the Sea of Galilee, and perhaps on the Mediterranean, driven by strong winds.

Verse 5

The two previous illustrations share a characteristic that James pointed out next. Though small and comparatively insignificant, the tongue can effect great change out of all proportion to its size. The bit, the rudder, and the tongue, even though they are small, all have power to direct. This interpretation seems preferable to the one that takes James 3:5 a as a statement that the tongue can make pretentious claims. James did not state that idea previously, but this sentence claims a connection with what precedes.

The tongue has as much destructive power as a spark in a forest. It is petite but powerful.

Verse 6

Fire is a good illustration of the tongue’s effect. It is a "world of iniquity," perverse as well as powerful.

". . . all the evil characteristics of a fallen world, its covetousness, its idolatry, its blasphemy, its lust, its rapacious greed, find expression through the tongue." [Note: Tasker, p. 76.]

"From the context it seems best to accept that James thinks of the tongue as a vast system of iniquity." [Note: Hiebert, James, p. 195.]

The tongue is the gate through which the evil influences of hell can spread like fire to inflame all the areas of life that we touch. This is the only place in the New Testament where "hell" (Gr. geennes) occurs outside the Synoptic Gospels. Here the body (Gr. soma) represents the whole person. However it may also allude to the church as well. [Note: Martin, pp. 111, 112, and 123.]

Verse 7

Human beings have brought all the major forms of animal life under control. For example, people have taught lions, tigers, and monkeys to jump through hoops. They have taught parrots and canaries to speak and sing. They have charmed snakes. They have trained dolphins and whales to perform various tricks and tasks. The ancients took pride in the ability of humans to tame and control the animal kingdom. [Note: Ibid., p. 116.] "Tamed" is perhaps too strong a word. "Subdued" might be a better translation of the Greek word (damazo).

Verses 7-8

4. The uncontrollable nature of the tongue 3:7-8

Verse 8

Apart from the Holy Spirit’s help no human being has ever been able to subdue his or her own tongue. It is much more dangerous than any deadly animal because it never rests, and it can destroy simply with words. Fire, animals, and the tongue all have power to destroy (cf. James 3:5).

Verse 9

We honor God with our words, but then we turn right around and dishonor other people with what we say. This is inconsistent because man is the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

"To bless God is the sublimest function of the human tongue; thrice daily the devout Jew recited ’the Eighteen Benedictions,’ with their ending ’Blessed art Thou, O God.’" [Note: Adamson, p. 146.]

"It was the pious practice among the Jews, both in speaking and in writing, to add ’Blessed [be] He’ after each utterance of the name of God. No doubt, the readers of this epistle still continued this practice whenever God was mentioned." [Note: Hiebert, James, p. 201. Cf. Mark 14:61.]

Verses 9-12

5. The inconsistency of the tongue 3:9-12

Verse 10

Not only is this contradictory phenomenon contrary to the will of God, it is also contrary to the natural order of things.

"Although the believer has in the indwelling Holy Spirit the potential for controlling the tongue, he may not be appropriating this potential." [Note: Burdick, p. 188.]

"To the person who speaks praise to God in the worship service and then abuses people verbally at home or at work, James commands, ’Purify your speech through the week.’ With the person who says, ’Oh, I know I talk too much,’ and laughs it off, James is not amused. He insists, ’Be quick to listen, slow to speak.’ By the person who boasts, ’I always speak my mind, no matter who gets hurt,’ James is not impressed. He commands, ’Discipline your speaking.’ Of the person who says, ’I know I gossip too much, but I just can’t help it,’ James still requires, ’Control your tongue.’ Of the person who is in the habit of speaking with insults, ridicule or sarcasm, James demands, ’Change your speech habits.’ He expects discipline to be happening in the life of a Christian. Any Christian can ask for the grace needed, for God gives good gifts (James 1:17) and gives them generously (James 1:5). There is, then, no justification for corrupt habits of speech in our churches today." [Note: Stulac, p. 130.]

". . . the Bible nowhere places much value on knowledge that remains merely cerebral or credal [sic]. Nothing is known until it also reshapes the life." [Note: Motyer, p. 130.]

"The reference is not to the use of profanity in vulgar speech but apparently seems to envision angry disputes and slanderous remarks in inner-church party strife (cf. James 4:1-2; James 4:11-12)." [Note: Hiebert, James, p. 201.]

Verses 11-12

Illustrations highlight this natural inconsistency (cf. Matthew 7:16). A water source can yield only one kind of water. A tree can only produce fruit of its own kind. A salt spring cannot produce fresh water any more than a fallen human nature can naturally produce pure words. A fountain, a tree, and the tongue all have power to delight (cf. James 3:5; James 3:8).

"Small and influential, the tongue must be controlled; satanic and infectious, the tongue must be corralled; salty and inconsistent, the tongue must be cleansed." [Note: Blue, p. 828.]

James was dealing, as in the preceding chapters, with root causes of human behavior that is out of harmony with God’s will. He contrasts strongly with the religious teachers that Jesus rebuked for their superficiality and hypocrisy. He was, of course, picturing human behavior as it is naturally apart from the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit.

Verse 13

1. The importance of humility 3:13

The real qualifications of a teacher (James 3:1) are wisdom (the ability to view life from God’s perspective) and understanding (mental perception and comprehension). James probably had the Old Testament sage in mind. [Note: See John E. Johnson, "The Old Testament Offices as Paradigm for Pastoral Identity," Bibliotheca Sacra 152:606 (April-June 1995):182-200.] We can perceive understanding in others quite easily, but wisdom is more difficult to identify. James said to look at a person’s behavior if you want to see if he or she is wise. The wisdom James had in mind did not result so much in what one thinks or says but in what one does. [Note: James H. Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James, p. 244.]

One of the marks of wisdom is gentleness, meekness, humility. The Greek word prauteti ("gentleness") occurs in non-biblical literature to describe a horse that someone had broken and had trained to submit to a bridle. [Note: Barclay, New Testament . . ., pp. 241-42.] It pictures strength under control, specifically the Holy Spirit’s control. The evidence of this attitude is a deliberate placing of oneself under divine authority. The only way to control the tongue is to place one’s mind deliberately under the authority of God and to let Him control it (have His way with it; cf. Matthew 11:27; 2 Corinthians 10:1). James’ concept of wisdom was Hebraic rather than Greek, moral more than intellectual (cf. James 1:5).

"The problem seems to be that some self-styled chief people, thinking they were endowed with superior wisdom and understanding, had divided the church because of their teaching, which betrayed a misuse of the tongue." [Note: Martin, p. 128.]

"It is very difficult to be a teacher or a preacher and to remain humble; but however difficult it is, it is absolutely necessary." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 107.]

Verses 13-18

B. Controlling the Mind 3:13-18

As in the previous chapters, James began his discussion of human speech with a practical exhortation and continued to deal with increasingly basic issues. He spoke of the importance of controlling one’s mind next to enable his readers to understand how to control their tongues. Wisdom in the mind affects one’s use of his or her tongue. Note the key words "wise" and "wisdom" (James 3:13; James 3:17), which bracket the thought of this section, as well of the prominence of "peaceable" and "peace" that conclude it (James 3:17-18).

Verse 14

"Bitter jealousy" and "selfish ambition" are motives that must not inhabit the heart of a teacher or he will find himself saying things he should not. These are attitudes toward others and self that are the antithesis of graciousness that seeks the welfare of others before self. Jealousy and ambition are manifestations of arrogance, and they result in promoting self rather than the truth the teacher is responsible to communicate. Lying against the truth means teaching untrue things, things that oppose the truth. Those who boast of wisdom are not following God because humility does not mark their lives. This is as true of Christians as it is of non-Christians.

Verses 14-16

2. The importance of graciousness 3:14-16

Verse 15

This type of so-called "wisdom," which springs from jealousy and ambition, does not have its source in the fear of the Lord. It comes from the spirit (philosophy) of this world (cf. James 2:1-7). It consists of only what is natural, excluding the supernatural influence of God’s Spirit. Furthermore it is demon-like in its deception, hypocrisy, and evil.

"Wisdom is not measured by degrees but by deeds. It is not a matter of acquiring truth in lectures but of applying truth to life." [Note: Blue, p. 828.]

Verse 16

God is not the God of disorder but of order and peace (Genesis 1; 1 Corinthians 14:33). He opposes every evil thing (1 John 1:5). Therefore ungracious jealousy and personal ambition are not part of the wisdom He provides.

"There is a kind of person who is undoubtedly clever; he has an acute brain and a skilful tongue; but his effect in any committee, in any Church, in any group, is to cause trouble, to drive people apart, to foment strife, to make trouble, to disturb personal relationships. It is a sobering thing to remember that the wisdom that that man possesses is devilish rather than divine, and that such a man is engaged on Satan’s work and not on God’s work." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 110.]

Verse 17

In contrast, the wisdom God gives has several characteristics. It is pure, meaning free of the defilements mentioned. It is peaceable, namely, peace-loving, peace-practicing, and peace-yielding. It is gentle or considerate of others. It is reasonable, that is, open to reason and willing to yield to reasonable requests. It is full of mercy in that it is actively sympathetic to the needy, and it is full of good fruits (good works). It is unwaveringly single-minded in its devotion to God rather than double-minded. It is, finally, without hypocrisy, namely, true to appearances.

"Thus ’purity’ is not just one quality among others but the key to them all." [Note: Adamson, p. 154.]

Verses 17-18

3. The importance of loving peace 3:17-18

Verse 18

People committed to preserving peace must teach the Word of God peacefully to reap a harvest of righteousness (cf. James 1:20). That good fruit will not come if teachers sow it in words and ways that inflame and antagonize people (cf. 1 Timothy 5:1-2; 2 Timothy 2:14; 2 Timothy 2:24-26).

"To ’raise a harvest of righteousness’ demands a certain kind of climate. A crop of righteousness cannot be produced in the climate of bitterness and self-seeking. Righteousness will grow only in a climate of peace." [Note: Burdick, pp. 191-92.]

"Winsome speech comes from a wise spirit. A controlled tongue is possible only with cultured thought. A mouth filled with praise results from a mind filled with purity." [Note: Blue, p. 829.]

To restate James’ thought in this chapter, our words are very important as we seek to carry out the ministry God has called us to fulfill. We cannot control our tongues easily. Therefore we should not be too quick to take on a teaching ministry. The only One who can control our tongues is God, who can give us wisdom. The marks of the wisdom He provides are humility, graciousness, and peace.

James warns against anything that does not bear the fruit of good works: unfruitful religion (James 1:25-26), unfruitful faith (James 2:26), and unfruitful wisdom (James 3:17-18).

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on James 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.