Amazing Grace Baptist Church, Hamburg
Bible Study material on James 3:1-8
One of the important practical issues in the Christian life that James draws our attention to relates to our use of the tongues. This study on James 3:1-12 focusses on James’ discussion of how the believer ought to control the tongue. An emphasis is placed on James use of word pictures to highlight the power and devastating character of what we say. In this study, therefore, the importance of what we say as a reflection of our spiritual maturity, the power and devastating nature of the tongue are looked at.
What we say relates to our spiritual maturity (James 3:1-2)
James 3:1-2 begins his teaching about the use of the tongue by bringing out the fact that our spiritual maturity is evidenced by how we use our tongues. To James, one’s ability to control the tongue clearly indicates that that person is able to control all the other parts of the body. In this light, since words serve as a core element of the ministry of teaching, James admonishes teachers to have a reliable tongue. Being aware of his own weakness too, James’ admonition is not only applicable for teachers but for all Christians. Here, how we use our tongues then shows our level of spiritual maturity. Similarly, Jesus’ statement that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” appears to indicate that what we say reflects the health of our heart.
The controlling power of the tongue
Using word pictures, James teaches that the use of the tongue has both negative and positive effects. Here, using the images of bit and rudder, James gives a vivid illustration of the positive influence of the tongue.
The tongue is like the bit in the mouth of a horse
The bit is the tiny tool that controls the enormous power and energy of the horse to give it a direction. It is most likely that James had the idea of using the bit for illustration through his common observation in daily life. James had possibly witnessed powerful Roman military horses and had probably heard stories of chariot races. In modern times, horses can grow up to 1,500 kg or more. Yet, human beings who are relatively small control this animal by means of a small bit in the horse’s mouth to turn it any way we want. To James, the tongue is like that. Though it is small, it is very powerful.
The tongue is like the rudder in a ship
In the ancient world, large ships were common. Acts 27:37 portrays the ship that originally was to transport Paul across the Mediterranean en route to Rome to be carrying 276 people. In contemporary times, however, the largest passenger ship which is Symphony of the Seas measures 361.011 metres (1,184.42 ft) in length and has a gross tonnage of 228,081 across 18 decks. According to Wikipedia, this ship is able to accommodate 5,518 passengers at double occupancy up to a maximum capacity of 6,680 passengers, as well as a 2,200 person crew. Facilities in this ship include children’s water park, a full-size basketball court, ice-skating rink, and two 43-foot rock-climbing walls. There is also a ‘central park’ containing over 20,000 tropical plants.
In terms of the oil and gas industry, however, the biggest ship is Prelude FLNG. Built by the Technip/ Samsung Consortium (TSC) in South Korea for a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell, KOGAS, and Inpex, the Prelude FLNG is 488 metres (1,601 ft) long, 74 metres (243 ft) wide, and made with more than 260,000 tonnes of steel. When it is loaded, it will displace more than 600,000 tonnes.
Yet such huge and heavy vessels (ships) are directed simply by a turn of the rudder which is averagely weighing less than 0.1% of the ship’s weight. Much power and influence are thereby concentrated on this small object, rudder. To James, therefore, the human tongue is like the rudder. Being able to control the tongue either in silence or in speech is, therefore, necessary for that as Jesus pointed out, it is connected to our hearts.
The devastating effect of the tongue (James 3:5-6)
James uses another vivid word picture fire to illustrate the power of the tongue as it relates to the harm it can cause. To James, all that a fire needs to destroy an entire forest is an uncontrolled spark. So it is with the tongue and thus what we say. A sharp and negative word, a loose sentence and misguided word can cause a blaze that cannot be quenched. What James points out here is that our words can consume and destroy life. To further highlight the devastating effect of the misguided tongues, James uses other vivid world pictures in James 3:6. These include:
The tongue is a world of evil among other parts of the body – To James, many sins to some extent relate to what we say.
The tongue can corrupt (stain) all parts of the body – Here, unguided words can destroy all your integrity and graces. Graces are like eggs. They are fragile and so we are to guard our tongues lest it destroys them.
The tongue sets the course of life by fire – James here seems to echo Proverbs 18:21 that death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.
The tongue is difficult to be tamed – By human efforts, James affirms that the tongue is difficult to control. Notwithstanding, the tongue can be brought under the power and the control of the Holy Spirit. Only God is mightier than the human tongue.
The tongue is restless evil – To James, words or speech informed by the old sinful nature roams around anyhow. They are defensive in nature and quick to attack others. They are eager to undermine others and are marked by evil.
Deadly poison – Being informed by word pictures from the Old Testament, James is aware that we can kill people more easily with our words more that physical weapons (Matthew 5:21-22).
Studying James 31:1-8 has drawn our attention to the need to control our tongues and thus what we say using word pictures. To James, therefore, just as a small bit in the mouth controls a strong horse and a small rudder turns a large ship, likewise controlling our tongues indicates that we have control over our selves. For the tongue has tremendous power for either good or evil. The tongue can either control or destroy. Meaning, what others say to us and what we say to others can last a long time for good or for evil. What seems to be casual sarcastic or critical remarks can inflict a lasting injury on another person. On the other hand, well-timed encouragement or compliment can motivate others for the rest of their lives.
Resolutions regarding our use of the tongue
1. Resolve daily to ask God for wisdom to speak and to do so with a pure conscience.
2. Resolve to set a watch over your mouth by avoiding casual sarcastic or critical remarks that can inflict a lasting injury on another person.
3. Resolve never to say words that demean, despise, or cause despair to others.
4. Resolve never to say anything at all against anybody, unless it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christ’s honour, love for all and the good of God’s Church.