“Control Your Speech”
Lesson Text: James 3:1-12
Background Scripture: James 3:1-12
Devotional Reading: Proverbs 18:2-13
James 3:1-12 (KJV)
1 My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
2 For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.
3 Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.
4 Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.
5 Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.
7 For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:
8 But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.
11 Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?
12 Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
To understand that the power of speech is one of the greatest powers God has given us.
To know that the mature believer has power over his or her tongue, and to know the consequences of our failure to control it.
Strive to control your speech daily; because mastering it will be one of your greatest tests in life.
Free Speech or Costly Speech
In countries that enjoy democratic government, there is no right more cherished than that of free speech. We want to express ourselves, and we want as few restrictions as possible on what we say or how we say it. We believe in the power of freedom of speech, and we want to exercise that power.
But exercising our right to free speech can prove costly. Words freely spoken can hurt feelings, damage reputations, and break relationships. Though we may affirm that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me," we all know that words do hurt.
Free speech may be our right, but costly speech is our experience. All of us can recount instances where someone's words, perhaps our own, did tremendous harm to another. We can spend a lifetime learning to restrain our tongues and still find ourselves saying things that we regret later. Today's text deals with this difficult topic.
The world of the New Testament was filled with speech. Greek and Roman cultures highly prized public speaking, drama, storytelling, and political and philosophical argumentation. Religious teachers—the "self-improvement experts" of the day—traveled from town to town to make speeches to invite people to pay to hear longer, more in-depth instruction. The sons of well-to-do families were trained in rhetoric so that they could offer skilled defense of the family's legal and financial interests. The list goes on.
Jewish culture had a rich tradition of speech as well. The people of Israel had experienced God's speaking to them through His prophets. The words of the law and the prophets were read publicly in the synagogues, committed to memory by the faithful, and recited daily as the need arose. Teachers of the law offered instruction in how God's Word should be lived out, often debating vigorously on points of interpretation. The Jewish tradition of speech had a dark side as well: false prophets who claimed to speak for God, but in fact represented ungodly interests.
Israel's sacred words of Scripture included instruction and warnings about speech. The book of Proverbs, for example, makes numerous statements about wise and unwise speech (Proverbs 10:8, 11, 14, 31; 11:9, 11, 13; 12:18; 15:1, 7; 16:23; 17:28). Of course, knowing the wisdom of speech and practicing it are two very different things.
The situation for James' readers was complex and challenging. They were surrounded by speech, good and bad. They had habits of speech that they had learned through their lifetimes. But as Christians they were entrusted with the greatest message of all: the Good News of Jesus. How would these people—people with all the problems that humans have regarding the power of their words—handle the most powerful message of God?
Being Responsible Teachers (James 3:1, 2)
1. What warning does James give to those who wish to teach God’s Word? (James 3:1)
Perhaps there was great eagerness among many early Christians to teach. After all, it was a ministry that carried considerable rank and honor, like that of a rabbi in Jewish circles. But as we consider James 3:1, we discover that knowing divine truth is not necessarily the same as living it. Expressed differently, it is one thing to have an intellectual grasp of the Bible, but it is quite another matter to practice what it teaches. Also, while it is noble to aspire to a teaching ministry, we should also be ready to “receive the greater condemnation.” This means God will evaluate our lives more rigorously and stringently based on our increased awareness of the truth and influence over the lives of others.
This sobering observation is not intended to discourage teachers in the church who are gifted and called by God. Providing biblical instruction continues to be an essential part of carrying out Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples (see Matt. 28:19-20). But the responsibility of teaching carries with it a degree of power and authority, and, regrettably, this often attracts people who are not called by God to instruct others in Scripture, but rather who desire the esteem and influence the position seems to offer. Think of the damage that can be done by a teacher who is unprepared, or whose spiritual life is not up to par.
2. Why is it important to control the tongue as a teacher of God’s Word? (James 3:2)
The challenge and primary way to convey the truth of God’s Word is by means of the tongue. The downside, of course, is that a slip of the tongue can create a great offense. Because the Christian carries the Word of God, consistent control of speech for godly ends is vital.
However, James affirms that “we offend all.” Today we might say, "All of us slip up in many ways." We do not intend to sin, but regardless of best intentions, we may sin far more than we care to admit. Realizing our sinfulness does not exclude us from teaching God's Word, but it does caution us to consider carefully how we do it. Realizing our sinfulness challenges us to let God change the sinful patterns that persist in us.
So if all people are stumblers, then who is “a perfect man?” (James 3:2). Here James uses the word “perfect” to denote those who are fully developed in a moral sense and meet the highest ethical standards in their conduct (see Matt. 5:48). The emphasis is on the maturity of one’s behavior. The idea is that believers who do not sin with their tongues will probably show themselves mature in other areas of their lives. The word “bridle” pictures restrained guidance (James 3:2). The simple truth is that there can be no spiritual maturity while the tongue remains untamed and out of control.
What Do You Think?
What are some techniques for taming the tongue before words are ever spoken? Which do you find most helpful personally?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
When angry | When hurt | When tempted to tell "a little white lie" | Other
The Power of the Tongue (James 3:3-6)
3. What illustrations does James use to show the power of the tongue? (James 3:3-5a)
James 3:3-4 offers two illustrations to demonstrate how a small device can positively or negatively control the destiny of a much larger vehicle. First, an eight-ounce metal bar (“bits”) placed in the mouth of a 1,000 pound horse allows the rider to dictate to the large animal where it will go (v. 3). Second, a ship’s “helm,” or rudder (a wooden blade about the size of a person’s arm) determines the course of its many-times-larger vessel. The “governor” (or pilot) steering the 500-foot ship needs only to change the direction of the rudder and, despite harsh winds, can keep the vessel on course (v. 4). Likewise the tongue is a small member in the body, and yet it has the power to accomplish great things (v. 5a).
4. What does James compare uncontrolled speech to? (James 3:5b-6)
James next illustrated how the destructive power of speech rivals that of fire. In verse 5b, James noted how a “little fire,” which by itself is extinguished in the blinking of an eye, can reduce acres of forest to charred rubble. In a sense, the tongue is like a flame of “fire” (v. 6), because a few ill-chosen words can do a vast amount of damage in little time. And like an incendiary device, the tongue can set a person’s entire life on fire. The source accounts for its character; hell, (The Greek term) was originally used to refer to a valley outside Jerusalem where garbage was dumped. Since fires burned constantly there, it became an awesome symbol of the eternal abode of the lost.
What Do You Think?
When have you seen words have the negative impact James describes here? What do these cases teach you?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Political speeches designed to inflame | Unguarded speech
Advice from (or to) a friend | Other
The Potential of the Tongue (James 3:7, 8)
5. If no man can tame the tongue, then who can? (James 3:7, 8)
James introduces yet another comparison. All kinds of creatures can be tamed, but not the tongue! No one truly brings speech fully into subjection. Those who aspire to teach God's Word must listen carefully to James' descriptive warnings. Mankind has successfully carried out God’s command to rule over virtually every aspect of creation (see Gen. 1:26). But the tongue has remained beyond the control of God’s crowning creation. To subdue that entity, nothing less than the power of God is required. The reason James gave his readers for their lack of success in taming the tongue was blunt. James 3:8 says the human instrument of speech is “unruly” and “evil.”
The phrase full of deadly poison recalls the words of Psalm 140:3—“They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders' poison is under their lips” (compare Romans 3:13). Words can kill, both as they damage hearts and as they inspire physical violence. That grim reality has been part of human experience from ancient times.
Evil, hell, poison, fire—these are harsh, powerful words. But they are not exaggerations. This is the story of human speech apart from God's grace.
The Inconsistency of the Tongue (James 3:9-12)
6. How did James contrast the actions of the tongue? (James 3:9, 10)
Contrasting the actions of the tongue unveils its inconsistency: Someone may read James' discourse and respond, “Well, I admit that my speech is sometimes not as it should be. But I also teach the gospel. Is that not what God wants? I use my ‘good’ speech to serve Him in that way.” To this way of thinking, James gives a rejoinder: speech that does not consistently reflect God's grace contradicts the gospel that the Christian proclaims.
This fact is seen in a devastating statement of contradiction. On the one hand, a believer praises God as a good, loving Father. But on the other hand, that believer also curses another person. And that person, like everyone else, bears the image of God (Genesis 1:27). What does the curse reveal about the heart of the person who utters it? Where is the love and forgiveness of God in such a curse?
Calling for others to be punished by God (cursing them) is completely out of keeping with the identity of Christ’s followers. Jesus insisted that those who receive God’s forgiveness must extend forgiveness (Matthew 5:7; 6:12; 18:21-35). Doing less suggests that we treat God’s mercy with contempt. Such contradictory speech-acts reveal that within the heart of the one who curses others lingers a denial of the gospel message.
The contradiction is clear. We might call it “speaking out of both sides of the mouth.” What does this person truly believe, who blesses God and curses those who bear God's image? Remembering Jesus’ words about taking the beam out of our own eye before attempting to help a brother with a mote (speck of sawdust) in his (Matthew 7:1-5), we realize that we must first ask what our speech reveals about our own hearts.
The tongue that blesses the Father, and then turns around and curses men made in God’s image, is in desperate need of spiritual medicine! How easy it is to sing the hymns during the worship service, then after the service, get into the family car and argue and fight all the way home! “My brethren, these things ought not so to be.”
What Do You Think?
How do you compare and contrast James’ observations about use of the tongue with secular thoughts in this regard?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
"The best time ... to hold your tongue is [when] you feel you must say something or bust" (Josh Billings)
"Man's tongue is soft, and bone doth lack; yet a stroke therewith may break a man's back" (Benjamin Franklin)
"Give thy thoughts no tongue" (William Shakespeare)
7. How does James compare speech with a fountain (spring of water)? (James 3:11)
James moves to compare speech with a fountain (spring of water). Since the water's source remains the same, the fountain should yield the same kind of water consistently. How can a fountain produce pleasant-tasting water one moment and then bitter water the next, back and forth? That simply doesn't happen. So a mouth which condemns men while praising God lacks credibility.
A Christian's speech is to be consistent. The image of Jesus as the source of living water perhaps lies in the background of this statement (see John 7:37, 38). The "water" of speech that flows from the believer should consistently reflect the new, everlasting life that Christ has imparted to the believer (compare Proverbs 10:11). The words of our mouths reveal the true content of our hearts.
8. How does James compare the fruits of trees to the speech of a Christian? (James 3:12)
James underlines the contrasts yet again, to drive the point home. Figs, olives, and grapes (berries)are staple foods in the biblical world. They were three of the most abundant fruit-bearing plants in Palestine. Because of their abundance and importance in the Hebrew diet and culture, they were often used as illustrations in parables, poetry, and prose.
Of course, it is common knowledge that each kind of plant bears only its own kind of fruit. Just as it would be absurd to think that a grape vine can yield figs, James implies that the Christian's speech must have the same consistency (compare Luke 6:43). If the fruit of plants created by God is consistent, why not the speech of people re-created by God? (See Colossians 3:10). James wraps up his argument by clearly stating the answer that is implied in the question of verse 11. A fountain cannot give forth two kinds of water, and a tree cannot bear two different kinds of fruit. We expect the fountain to flow with sweet water at all times, and we expect the fig tree to bear figs and the olive tree to bear olives. Those of us who say we belong to Christ ought to reflect that belonging in all that we say, and not disappoint others by the fruit of our lips. Let us use our mouths to give life and to provide others with the love that is needed!
POINTS TO PONDER
1.Teaching God’s Word comes with greater responsibility. This responsibility should give us pause, but it should also challenge us to rise to the calling. (James 3:1)
2.A hot temper can lead to burning words that later we will regret. We need to have God's help in controlling it. No wonder Solomon wrote, “He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit.” (Prov. 17:27); (See James 3:2-6)
3.Even the most respected, gracious people have their own seasons of regretful words. (James 3:7, 8)
4. By remembering God’s grace on us, we can use what we say to promote good rather than evil. (James 3:9-12)
Words of Grace
The situation of James’ audience was not all that much different from ours. We need to confront the reality of our speech so that we can learn to control it. Those who have experienced God’s grace should have speech that reflects God’s grace.
After studying James’ warning that teachers of God's Word “shall receive the greater condemnation,” we may want to say, “I certainly do not want to be a teacher! The standard is too high. I can never restrain my speech like this. Just let me be an ordinary Christian who listens to others teach!” But as James lays bare the realities of our speech and its consequences, we should realize that we are all teachers because of the fact that we bear the name of Christ. Others watch us to see what a Christ-follower does and says. They scrutinize our actions, and they listen to our words. They learn our beliefs more by hearing us speak about ordinary, day-to-day matters than by hearing us speak about Bible doctrine.
When we speak unlovingly with bitterness, vindictiveness, or scorn, we demonstrate a very wrong kind of belief about God—that He too is unloving, vengeful, and unforgiving. If we speak in this way, we invite on ourselves “the greater condemnation,” that is due those who teach, because indeed we are teaching something with everything we say.
God's grace is powerful enough to overcome our wayward tongues. As we focus on what God has given us in Christ, the reality of our hearts will flow through our words.
O holy and gracious God, we praise You with our hearts and our words. By Your grace, please cleanse us of selfishness, anger, and hate. Renew us in Your love. Make our tongues Your instruments. We pray in the name of Jesus, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
“Speech is a mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so is he.”—Publilius Syrus (first century B.C.)