James: A verse by verse Study

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

James 3:1-18 NIV

Speech of the Tongue

From the beginning of his letter, James identifies speech as a key test of authentic faith. Chapter 1 says those who “do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (1:26). James has already condemned speaking words of moral filth, dead faith, hypocrisy, favoritism and false gospels by the time we get to chapter 3.

So, James now warns believers about the judgment that comes against those with sinful speech. The judgment on such speech is amplified for church teachers because these positions include greater influence, responsibility and authority. Verses 3-6 teach us the tongue is small, but the tongue possesses power for greatness or catastrophe. James uses three common examples to show how small things often influence and direct much larger objects.

  • Bit in a horse’s mouth
  • Rudder on a ship
  • Spark in a forest

The wise question here is, “Who can control these small objects to overcome the powerful forces at work?” James’ point hits home: the tongue is humanly uncontrollable. People use and abuse our natural powers to subdue animals of every kind, but we cannot tame our own tongues.

This test of our tongues proves that speech issues are heart issues. James describes how Christians stumble by going back to their old heart natures – referred to as salt water – to give out lifeless and corrosive words. Instead, they must depend on the Spirit’s power in their new natures – referred to as fresh water – to speak words of life, hope and healing. Clearly, no plan, external efforts, self-will, behavior modification or rules can create fresh water from a salt spring.

Two Kinds of Wisdom

This test of speech reveals the difference between true wisdom and faulty wisdom. James’ stark contrasts in verses 13 through 18 show all people how to judge our own thoughts, words and deeds. 

True wisdom: humble, considerate, fruitful, pure, submissive, impartial, peace loving, merciful and sincere.

Faulty wisdom: boastful, selfishly ambitious, bitter, disruptive, envious and evil. 

Faith in action hears and applies true, heavenly wisdom. Faith rejects faulty, worldly wisdom. Do you want to measure your growth in character and spiritual maturity? Look at how often you honor or dishonor God, others and yourself with your words.

Believers reflect wisdom and understanding when we cooperate with the Spirit to control our tongues. James states the value of depending on God for truly wise speech and deeds: “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (3:18). He goes on to show how God’s peace overcomes troubles and temptations.


Q1. What does our speech reveal about us, and why does this connection matter? 

INSIGHTS: Our speech reveals what is in our hearts. The words we use and our tone of voice show what we believe in the moment and whether or not we are following the Holy Spirit or falling into the sins we still struggle with at different times.

Q2. How does your relationship with God help explain past amendments to and current convictions about how you use your speech?

Q3. Test your wisdom by James’ teaching in this passage, and share results you celebrate or seek to change.

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