The Rudder (Continued)

By February 1, 2010 One Comment

Well, here are some more thoughts on being constructive in our communication. These insights are from the Bible Knowledge Commentary on James chapter 3.  I guess we’re going to be working on this for a while, huh? Enjoy…

 Speak with Care (chap. 3)

Another measure of spiritual maturity is a believer’s speech. James devoted a good portion of his letter to attacking a careless and corrupt tongue. He appealed, however, not only for controlled tongues (3:1-12) but also for controlled thoughts (3:13-17). The mouth is, after all, connected to the mind. Winsome speech demands a wise source. Both controlled talk and cultivated thought are necessary.
A. Control talk (3:1-12)
From his discourse on idle faith, James proceeded to discuss idle speech. The failure to bridle the tongue, mentioned earlier (1:26), is now expanded. As disturbing as those who have faith with no works are those Christians who substitute words for works. One’s tongue should be controlled. Small though it is, the tongue is powerful and all too prone to perversion and pollution.
1. The Tongue Is Powerful (3:1-5)
3:1. Again addressing my brothers, a sign that a new topic is being considered, James suggested moderation and restraint in the multiplication of teachers. Obviously too many of the new Jewish Christians aspired to teach and thereby carry some of the rank and admiration given to Rabbis. It is doubtful that the reference here is to official teachers of the apostolic or prophetic status. These are the unofficial teachers (didaskaloi) in the synagogue meetings of the church family where much latitude was given for even strangers to speak. Paul frequently used this courtesy given visitors. James’ complaint was simply that too many believers were overly anxious to speak up and show off (cf. John 3:10; 9:40-41).
Teaching has to be done, but those who teach must understand their responsibility, as those who teach will be judged more strictly. A teacher’s condemnation is greater because, having professed to have a clear knowledge of duty, he is all the more bound to obey it.
3:2. James did not point a finger at the offenders without including himself: We all stumble in many ways. Nothing seems to trip a believer more than a dangling tongue. If a believer is never at fault (lit., “stumbles not”) in what he says (lit., “in word”), he is a perfect, fulfilled, mature, complete person (teleios anēr). He is able to “bridle” his whole body. Spiritual maturity requires a tamed tongue.
3:3-5. The tongue may be small but it is influential. Three illustrations make this point clear: the bit and the horse, the rudder and the ship, and the spark and the forest. James’ use of imagery drawn from natural phenomena is similar to the Lord’s. It is likewise characteristic of Jewish thought. The Greek used in this passage is both ancient and eloquent. James was both steeped in Jewish tradition and well-versed in Greek classics.
The argument is clear. Just as little bits… turn grown horses, small rudders guide large ships, and a small spark consumes an entire forest, so the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. The tongue is petite but powerful!

2. The Tongue Is Perverse (3:6-8)
3:6. The tongue is not only powerful; it is also perverse. It is small and influential but, worse by far, it can be satanic and infectious. The tongue… is a fire (cf. Prov. 16:27; 26:18-22), a world of evil. The tongue sets itself up (kathistatai) among the members, or parts of one’s anatomy, corrupting, spotting, or staining (spilousa; cf. aspilon, “spotless,” in James 1:27) the whole body and inflaming the whole course of… life (lit., “the wheel of existence” or “wheel of birth,” ton trochon tēs geneseōs). It is as though the tongue is at the center or hub of the wheel of nature and, like a fireworks display, the wheel is set on fire at the center. The more it burns, the faster it revolves until the whole wheel spins in a blaze, spitting fire in all directions. But the tongue is only the fuse; the source of the deadly fire is hell itself (lit., “Gehenna,” a place in the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem where human sacrifice had been offered [Jer. 7:31] and where continuous burning of rubbish made it a fit illustration of the lake of fire).
3:7. The tongue is not only like an uncontrolled fire. It is also like an untamed beast. Every kind, or all nature (physis), of wild beasts—birds of the air, reptiles on land, and creatures of the sea—all are being tamed and have been tamed by man (lit., “human nature,” physis; thus “beastly nature” is tamed by “human nature”). But no human is able to tame the tongue!
3:8. No one can tame the tongue because it is a restless evil, an unruly, unsteady, staggering, reeling evil (like the “unstable” man of 1:8). Worse yet, the tongue is full of deadly poison (cf. Ps. 140:3). Like the poison of a serpent, the tongue is loaded with the venom of hate and death-dealing gossip.
3. The Tongue Is Polluted (3:9-12)
3:9-10. Similar to the forked tongue of a snake, man’s uncontrolled tongue both emits praise and spews out curses. “Praise,” or “saying a good word” (eulogoumen) of our Lord and Father (this is the only place where the NT uses this title of God) is polluted by a “curse,” or “wishing evil” (katarōmetha) on men… made in God’s likeness (cf. Gen. 1:27; 9:6; Col. 1:10). That both praise and cursing should come from the same mouth is incongruous. My brothers, this should not be.
3:11-12. Again James turned to the natural elements to illustrate his point. Anticipating a negative response, James asked, Can both fresh (lit., “sweet,” glyky) water and salt (lit., “bitter,” pikron) water flow, or “bubble up,” from the same spring? Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Of course not. Neither does salt (halykon) make water sweet (glyky). The point is clear: a believer’s tongue should not be an instrument of inconsistency.
Small and influential, the tongue must be controlled; satanic and infectious, the tongue must be corralled; salty and inconsistent, the tongue must be cleansed.
B. Cultivate thought (3:13-18)
A key to right talk is right thought. The tongue is contained in a cage of teeth and lips, but it still escapes. It is not intelligence that keeps the lock on that cage; it is wisdom—a wisdom that is characterized by humility, grace, and peace.
1. Wisdom Is Humble (3:13)
3:13. James asked the rhetorical question, Who is wise and understanding among you? “Wise” (sophos; cf. sophias in 1:5) describes one with moral insight and skill in the practical issues of life. “Understanding” (epistēmōn) refers to intellectual perception and scientific acumen.
Let him show it. Here is an original “show and tell.” 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. The good life and deeds are best portrayed in the humility of wisdom, or “wise meekness” (prautēti sophias). The truly wise man is humble.
2. Wisdom Is Gracious (3:14-16)
3:14. True wisdom makes no room for bitter envy (“zealous jealousy”) or for selfish ambition (“factious rivalry,” erithian, from eritheuō, “to spin wool,” thus working for personal gain). This is nothing to glory about. To boast (lit., “exult,” katakauchasthe) in such attitudes is to deny, or “lie against,” the truth.
3:15-16. Envy and strife are clear indicators that one’s so-called wisdom is not from above (cf. 1:17), but is earthly, unspiritual (“natural, sensual,” psychikē), and of the devil (“demonic,” daimoniōdēs). Envy and selfish ambition, or rivalry, can only produce disorder, or confusion, and every evil practice. A truly wise person does not seek glory or gain; he is gracious and giving.
3. Wisdom Is Peaceable (3:17-18)
3:17. Wisdom that comes from heaven (lit., “wisdom from above”; cf. “from above” in 1:17) is first… pure or “holy” (hagnē), then peace-loving, considerate or “forbearing,” submissive or “easy to be entreated” (eupeithēs, only used here in the NT), full of mercy and good fruit, impartial (lit., “without uncertainty”; cf. “not doubt” in 1:6), and sincere (“without hypocrisy”).
3:18. Peace is the seed sown that yields a harvest (lit., “fruit”) of righteousness. The truly wise man is a man of peace.
To achieve “righteousness,” spiritual maturity, practical holiness—the theme of this book—a believer must learn to speak with care. 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.
A believer should stand confidently (chap. 1), serve compassionately (chap. 2), and speak carefully (chap. 3). He should be what God wants him to be, do what God wants him to do, and speak as God wants him to speak.

—Bible Knowledge Commentary


One Comment

  • Judy says:

    Thank you for these additional studies on the tongue. We are actually studying this with the family this week. Our memory scripture is James 3:10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
    We looked at pictures of boats and rudders:) This is such a great and valuable lesson and I’m very grateful you shared it with us. It reminds me that I will be judged for every careless word I have spoken. God bless! Much Love…Judy T.

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