1Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.
Teaching is an extremely influential ministry. Those who become teachers of the Word will incur a stricter judgment because of the immense responsibility and capacity to lead others into truth or to lead them astray. It is not a careless ministry that one should undertake haphazardly. This is why those who teach had better study to show themselves approved unto God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). We don’t want to be ashamed at Christ’s coming because we learn that we have taught incorrectly or been lazy in our teaching and study. If teaching is the good work to which we are called, we had better take it very seriously. Furthermore, we had better guard our hearts in purity before Christ because, if we do not, we will be prone to not teaching the Word accurately (see 1 Timothy 1:5-7).
2For we all stumble in many ways If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.
Another reason that those who teach need to be careful is because believers have a tendency to get off course and stumble into error and sin. We are weak and imperfect beings, still with flesh and a body corrupted by sin. Our minds, too, are in the process of being renewed. Our sanctification requires time. Thus we can see how James, despite his emphasis on works following faith, does not teach sinless perfection of the believer. Believers will struggle and stumble. They may “fall away” and suffer shipwreck of their faith (like Alexander and Hymanaeus in 1 Timothy 1:19-20), but they will never escape God’s reach. We are secure eternally in Christ since we are already seated with Him in the heavenly places.
James makes it plain that all believers stumble in many ways. The most ready testimony of our fallibility is our mouths. We very easily say things that are not true, hence his emphasis on teaching correctly. If a person could say everything right and never say something hurtful or wrong, he would be a perfect man, having full control over the other bodily members. If a person can control what they say, they will have no problem controlling what they do. Yet the obvious truth is that we struggle with what we say. As such, we will struggle with what we do as well.
3Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.
4Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.
5So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!
The tongue, though a very small body part, has great power, like the rudder of a ship, a bit in a horse’s mouth, and a spark that sets ablaze an entire forest. A tongue can speak a few words that can totally turn a person’s life around. Out of potentially the same mouth, words could come which could destroy or slander a person’s reputation forever. A few words, positive or negative, true or false, Biblical or unbiblical, can make a great difference either for the kingdom or against it. Thus, the person who has control of his tongue is a mighty force for the kingdom while a person who does not have control is a serious liability.
6And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.
7For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race.
8But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.
The tongue is a fire in that it can do such great damage or bring so much blessing. Fire hurts because of its power. It has many uses, some good and some bad. It can cause great destruction and burn out of control. Yet it can be used as purification in a loving word of confrontation. The tongue must be sanctified or it can defile a man through and through. As Jesus said in Matthew 15:11, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” Our tongue can talk our way right into condemnation and hell as it breeds an entire world of iniquity. It doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) usually take a long time to identify whether or not a person is a Christian by their speech. If profanity, vulgarity, or degrading speech comes from the person’s mouth, it is reasonable to assume that he is not saved. If he speaks wholesome things and even goes out of his way to say kind things, perhaps he might be saved. If he uses his tongue to confess Christ and share the gospel, now that is a miracle testifying to a changed life in Christ. Every animal, no matter how wild and vicious, can be tamed and has been tamed by man. Yet man cannot tame his own tongue except by the grace of God through Christ. The words that proceed out of the unbeliever’s mouth are a deadly poison, causing others to sin more and leading their own souls into hell. It is wild and untamable, a restless evil. Thus, believers must take heed lest they stumble and fall through the work and wiles of their tongues.
9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God;
10from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.
11Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?
12Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.
Rebuking the Jews to whom he writes, James challenges them in their use of words. The same tongue can be used to bless God and curse men. Out of the same mouth can come both honor toward Christ and dishonor. This ought to not be so. Our speech is a work that demonstrates our faith. As such, the tongue needs to be presented to God as a member of righteousness. Evidently, James’ readership has a problem with insulting and cursing others. They were using their mouths for an ungodly purpose. Just as a spring cannot produce both pure and bitter water and as fig trees produce figs and not both figs and olives, so too must the mouth of believers bring forth speech honoring to God. It is no surprise that some of the easiest sins to fall into surround the mouth. It is no surprise that Satan uses slander, gossip, demeaning criticism, and judgment as major means of causing division in the body of Christ. The tongue should and does play a major role in the church: preaching, teaching, confrontation, speaking the truth in love, praising God, praying, and so on. These are the uses to which it must be confined.
13Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.
A lot of people profess wisdom. Some believers think that if they are old that they are wise or if they have a theological degree that they have understanding. James is saying that by a person’s conduct one can know if he has wisdom. If a person is gentle and maintains a good testimony, then they have wisdom. True wisdom impacts the choices, speech, and behavior of a person. It is not mere head knowledge or a high IQ. Wisdom translates into living.
14But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.
If a person claims to have wisdom but keeps bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in his heart, he had better repent. To claim to be wise and yet have not surrendered one’s life to the leading and Lordship of Christ is arrogant. To profess understanding and yet envy the gifts and talents of others is conceit. Wisdom will lead a person to deny himself, to serve others, and to do it all by faith in Christ, not leaning on his own strength, ability, or understanding (Proverbs 3:5, Zechariah 4:6). Such arrogance is to deny the truth of Scripture and the work of the Spirit testifying in one’s heart about its true condition. The truth is that wisdom produces humility and an understanding that strength is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Wisdom reveals weakness and makes a person rejoice in it all the while causing them to purify their hearts from outstanding and ongoing sin. Wisdom is not found necessarily in age, intellect, or experience, but in obedience to the Word of God. Again, we see the theme of not just merely hearing and knowing the Word of God but living it out in practice.
15This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.
The wisdom that is based and derived in self rather than in Christ is earthly, natural, and demonic. It is not of Christ in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). Such wisdom is worldly and is thus foolishness. Any professed wisdom that is not from Christ and according to the Word of God is not just lesser but evil and demonic. Satan is behind the “wisdom” of any person who professes to have understanding but who lives in sin.
16For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.
17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.
18And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
James again emphasizes that worldly counterfeit wisdom is bound up in jealousy and selfish ambition. This breeds chaos, division, disorder, destruction, and every evil thing. This is why those who become teachers will get the stricter judgment. This is why James cautions us about teaching and using our tongue. If what comes out of our mouths is not sanctified or given by the leading and empowering of the Spirit but is rather fleshly and driven by self, we will not be bearing fruit for the Lord but for the devil. We don’t want to sow seeds for the devil, but this we will do if we are living with unconfessed sin, and especially if we then try to teach others. We desperately need the Spirit to give us what to say and to take control of our tongues. We can’t manage our tongues with our own fleshly powers. If we have any outstanding sin, we will not lead others to the truth unless by mere accident because of the Word of God accomplishing its purposes. The result of a person harboring jealousy and selfish ambition is every evil thing, not just some things but all things. The wisdom from above is given to those who yield themselves to the Spirit and are free from sin. They will be able to speak what is pure. Their speech will have no selfish motive or agenda, but it spoken freely as it has been received from God freely. It is then peaceable, seeking reconciliation and avoiding needless offenses. It is calm and collected, not spiraling off into angry discourses or judgments. It is reasonable, meaning that it is equitable, fair, just, and gentle. It is not seeking to gain any advantage, but it is seeking and loving only the truth. It is full of mercy and good fruits, leading to evil of no kinds but only to Christ and the cross. It is consistent and steadfast, not double-minded and changeable. Finally, it is without hypocrisy in that what is spoken is lived out by the one doing the speaking. Thus, the speaker has credibility before men and authority and power from God. This person is trying only to make peace, and thus his speech is full of peace. The end result of the words that are sown with wisdom is the fruit of righteousness in his own life and more importantly in the life of the one to whom he speaks. Not taming the tongue results in destruction and demonic words. Living purely and speaking God’s wisdom by the power of Christ within a person leads to fruit that lasts and leads to holiness. This is the desire and hope of any teacher of the Word who instructs with integrity and without selfish motives. He is not trying to depend upon his own ability, he is not attempting to draw attention to himself, and he is hoping only to say what the Word says, glorifying God in the process.