In preparation for this morning’s sermon there were many illustrations that came to mind. Some personal stories and some that I have heard. My sporting career came particularly to mind when thinking of the power of the tongue. In a cricket match I had the ability to talk a batsman out before he had even faced a ball. Through a series of very un-Christian chirps I could get into the batsmen’s head and throw him off his game completely. In the same manner I had the ability to hype my team mates up and build up their confidence. The manner in which I spoke and the words which I used could have two completely different effects on the people around me.
But for this morning’s illustration and introduction I would like to tell you about something that happened to me more recently. It was something that happened just last week and involved a rebuke that really opened my eyes to the power of the tongue. There were a number of us sitting around in the dining room after lunch on campus and a few of us began talking on a specific topic. The topic was one that I am quite passionate about. In that moment I let my passion get the better of me and spoke very passionately without even taking into consideration who was around me. In the days to follow a friend of mine sent me a message asking if we could meet and chat about what had been said after lunch. What followed truly humbled me and reminded me of what the true power of the tongue is. His rebuke was gentle but firm. As he sat with me, he reminded me of what was said between the few of us in the conversation. He then reminded me of the importance of taking into consideration not only those who are sitting in our presence but also those who may be listening to the conversation. You see what you say does not only affect those in your presence but the tongue can and does affect all those who can hear what you are saying. Especially if they do not know the context of what is being said. When we are speaking we never know who might be listening and the effect our words might have on their lives. Positive or negative.
This leads me to my first point.
A Controlled Tongue (vs. 1-2)
James opens chapter 3 with a sharp yet sincere warning and exhortation for teachers to control the tongue. In chapter 1 James has already brought to light that the control of one’s tongue is one of the tests of true religion. James 1 verse 26 says “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” Now he opens with a statement that alarms most, if not all, teachers and preachers of the word. And I would say a warning that many should take to heart.
James 3 verse 1 says “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Firstly I would like to look at the term “teacher”. In the early church there were still hints of Jewish customs and traditions that often infiltrated the customs and traditions of the early Christians. In the Jewish custom the Rabbi or teacher was considered a very honourable position. The title rabbi meant “my great one” and those who held the position were given the greatest of respect. A person’s duty to help a rabbi even exceeded the duty of helping your own parents. It is said that if a rabbi, a father and a mother were captured by an enemy, it was your duty to ensure that the rabbi was ransomed first. It was considered a great honour to take a rabbi in and provide for all his needs.
This type of thinking had more than likely infiltrated the thinking of Christian teachers and the prestige the position would bring them seemed most attractive. James does not intend to dissuade those who are gifted and called to the ministry or even scare them off pursuing a role as a teacher. But what James was and is doing in this letter is reminding all those who do seek to be teachers that they “will be judged more strictly.” The significance of a teaching ministry means that the Lord will judge and scrutinize those in the position of a teacher especially carefully. It is often forgotten the great responsibility that comes along with being a teacher of God’s Holy Word. It is assumed that as a teacher of the Word of God they should have a full knowledge of the Word for God’s people and are therefore obligated to not only deliver it clearly but obey it in every aspect of their lives.
James in verse 2 in no fewer words reminds teachers that their lives are to match what they preach. Put differently ‘practice what you preach’. Verse 2 says “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” It is without any doubt that there never has been and never will be any one person, except for Jesus Christ, that is without sin. To stumble means to sin and James tells us that we all stumble. Stumble is written in the present tense and suggests that it is a repeated stumbling, it happens again and again. It is important to note that not only do we repeatedly sin but we do so in many ways. We all sin many times and in many ways over and over again. No one can claim innocence as it is written in 1 John 1 verse 8 to 10 “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”
The tongue is such a powerful weapon that James states that if any person can control their tongue they are in fact perfect. In being able to control your tongue you are able to keep your whole body in check. When one can perfectly control their tongue there is a sense of spiritual maturity that all should aspire to; especially those whom are preachers and teachers of God’s Word. This is by no means an easy task and is not something that will happen overnight but as teachers we are to be held accountable for what we say because it will direct our lives and the lives of those we seek to minister to.
As small as the tongue is it can have far reaching effects and when it is properly controlled can be of great usefulness in building up all those around us. This leads me to my second point.
A Tame Tongue (vs. 3-8)
James now uses three very apt analogies to illustrate the power of a tame tongue even though it is such a small part of the human body. James 3 versus 3 to 5 says “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” The first two analogies portray the usefulness of a small yet vital item in controlling something that is much larger than itself. The third analogy graphically demonstrates the potentially destructive power of something that at its beginning may seem insignificant.
The first analogy is of a horse, it is a massive and powerful animal some weighing up to 500 kilograms. They are said to able to carry 20 percent and up of their own body weight and can pull almost triple their own body weight. Not only that a horse is able to run at ridiculous speeds for an animal of its size. Yet when you put a bit into a horse’s mouth even a child is able to move the horse in any which direction they so please. Now although horse riding might not be so common to us today James’s use of the word “we” in verse 3 indicates that this was something his readers would have been quite familiar with. They knew by common experience how a small bit could be used to harness the power of a strong animal. The tongue rests in the human mouth much as the bit is in the horse’s mouth. In both cases a small thing moves and controls a large body.
He then moves on to the second analogy which is the example of a ship. James here observes the ability of the one controlling the ship’s rudder to direct its path even in the middle of a storm. I often watch the TV series ‘Deadliest Catch’ which follows crab fisherman as they explore the oceans in search of their next big catch. The boats face tremendous storms and huge waves yet as long as the captains are in control of their ships and can direct them they are able to safely navigate their way across the ocean. Yet if anything happens to their rudder they are left at the mercy of the sea and are thrown about and tossed around by the ocean. The tongue is like the rudder of a ship. Just as a small part of the ship is able to turn the entire ship, so the tongue has a great influence on the entire person and the direction in which they are going. What we do often follows what we say. Our spoken words and internal words or thoughts direct our actions.
Both these analogies point to the ability of such a small part of the body to both control and direct the body. The third analogy now points to the great damage that the tongue can do. The tongue is like a spark of fire in the woods. In Cape Town we have witnessed the devastation that can be caused by a fire. Recently Australia was ravaged by a fire that destroyed houses and left forests in ashes. These fires only needed a small spark to start. A mere spark of an ill-spoken word can produce a firestorm that annihilates everything it touches.
This analogy leads directly into verse 6 which says “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” The tongue contains and conveys all the worlds’ wickedness. It is party to every evil there is and it actively forces its evil into our lives. We see here that the tongue has more destructive power than a bomb. A bombs power is physical and material. The tongue however has the ability to cause spiritual and eternal damage.
James now points to our inability to tame our own tongue. In verse 7 and 8 James says “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” The tongue is restless, unstable and liable to break out at any time. At best it can be described as a half-tamed beats. As humans we can subdue or tame almost every kind of animal but we cannot subdue or tame our own tongue. It runs wild at the best of times. Now it is important to remember that James is by no means saying that the tongue is untameable. James here says that “no human being can tame the tongue.” This is so that when the tongue is tamed we can only but admit that it was done by the mercy of God, with the assistance of God and by the grace of God. Since the tongue is the key to holy living we need to turn to the examples of our holy Lord and Saviour and through his mercy and grace make every effort to follow in his footsteps. Our own efforts will always fall short. But when we rely on the complete work of Christ and trust not in our own ability but in the ability of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts only then can our tongues be tamed.
The tamed tongue has the awesome power for good. It can proclaim the life changing message of salvation. But this is only possible when we are consistent in what we say and how we live. This leads me to my third point.
A Consistent Tongue (vs. 9-12)
James in verses 9 to 12 now points to how hopelessly inconsistent the tongue is. Yet in so doing highlights how vital it is to be consistent in our speech and praise. James in verses 9 to 12 says “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” Many Jewish Christians preserved the beautiful old Hebrew custom of saying “blessed be he” after each utterance of God’s name so that their worship times were continually punctuated by choruses of praise. Yet the same people with the blessings still on their lips would leave worship and curse their fellow brothers and sisters who angered them.
It is one of the saddest realities and greatest inconsistencies of the Christian life that with the same mouth we sing praises to our mighty Lord and Saviour, we curse the very thing that is made in His image. We sing songs praising His mighty Name and follow it by cursing His very image bearers.
In Mark 12 verse 28 to 31 we read of what Jesus considered to be one of His greatest commands. It says “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.””
To affirm devotion to God and then hate a fellow human being made in God’s image goes against this very command. It is contrary to everything that the Scriptures teach us and goes completely against Christ’s command to love one another as he first loved us. James further emphasizes how completely inconsistent it is to praise the Lord and curse our fellow brothers and sisters with a list of examples. Imagine leaning over a fresh water spring to take a drink of water and instead of fresh water you get salt water. Or going to pick figs from a fig tree and instead finding olives and in the same light going to a grape vine and finding figs. In the same way we cannot dive into the ocean thinking that if we take a sip it will be the same as drinking a bottle of Valpre.
Praising God and then cursing His image bearers is a complete contradiction and cannot go together.
Therefore brothers and sisters I would like to conclude my sermon this morning with an exhortation and plea to each one of you. It is easy to forget the power of the words we utter to one another. In our speech we have both the ability to destroy or to build one another up. We have the ability encourage and motivate those around us to achieve great things. We can turn a bad day into a day that will never be forgotten. We can turn a moment of loneliness into a friendship that will last forever. A simple word of gratitude can encourage and make a person feel like a million bucks. A simple hello and thank you has the ability to make a person feel appreciated and valued.
So brothers and sisters I do exhort you today to be consistent in your speech. Use your words to point all those who may hear you speak to the one true living God. In the same manner in which you praise God use your tongue to build up all those around you. Be so controlled in your speech that anybody that hears you speak and anybody you speak to can do nothing but see the evidence of Christ in your life. Rely on the Holy Spirit to tame your tongue so that the very words you speak leave people wanting to know more about the mighty God you serve.
Finally brothers and sisters let the words of your mouth be evident in the life you live. Let your life and your speech be in complete harmony with the Gospel. Love one another and love God in word and deed.