Modern Bible Commentary on James 3

Let not many of you be teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive heavier judgment. For we all stumble in many things. Anyone who doesn’t stumble in word is a perfect person, able to bridle the whole body also (James 3:1-2, WEB).

What a sobering message here. The apostle James tells his audience that not many of them should become teachers because those who teach will be judged more strictly.

It is unfortunate that many people throughout human history have become disqualified due to their grievous sins. They will receive a harsher judgment before the Lord. Even while there is always grace and forgiveness, it’s of utmost importance to be above reproach when you lead the flock of God

Moreover, James would heartily agree with 1 Timothy 3:1, which states that whoever aspires to be a church leader desires a noble task. The desire to be a leader comes from the Holy Spirit. He knows that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

Therefore, He wants to equip and embolden as many people as He can to share the wonderful message that God loves us the world and sent His Son Jesus to die for their sins.

Indeed, we put bits into the horses’ mouths so that they may obey us, and we guide their whole body. Behold, the ships also, though they are so big and are driven by fierce winds, are yet guided by a very small rudder, wherever the pilot desires. So the tongue is also a little member, and boasts great things. See how a small fire can spread to a large forest! And the tongue is a fire. The world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire by Gehenna.

Incredible how such small pieces can move and control great things: bits into the mouth of a horse can turn this behemoth creature, a large ship is steered by a small rudder, and of course, the tongue speaks the thoughts of mankind. These visual representations help the reader understand how important miniscule parts are to the whole.

Furthermore, James further elaborates on how the tongue, such a small part of the body, can make great boasts. We can use it to discourage and harm others or use the tongue to encourage and help strengthen people in a positive direction. Either way, the tongue is a powerful tool and must be used with caution. As believers, we have the capacity and ability to tame the tongue. God has given us His Holy Spirit and therefore we are without excuse.

 For every kind of animal, bird, creeping thing, and sea creature, is tamed, and has been tamed by mankind; but nobody can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men who are made in the image of God. 10 Out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send out from the same opening fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, yield olives, or a vine figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh water.

It’s interesting how humans have the power and authority to tame wild beasts and animals. For instance, there are zoos all around the world that give society the ability to train and be in control of the most powerful animals in the world–such as the lion or elephant. However, despite man’s ability to have “dominion” over creation, they aren’t able to tame a small tongue inside their mouth.

The apostle James says the tongue is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.

The old adage goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” But this is simply not true. Words do hurt. They have a tremendously powerful effect on our emotions.

As believers, we must use our tongue to praise God and love unconditionally.

In fact, James tells us that if we truly love the Lord, there will be no cursing coming from our mouths. For how can a spiritually minded person allow deceit, lies, and foul language exit their mouths? He uses an analogy, saying how can both fresh water and salt water arise from the same spring? Of course, the answer is that it’s impossible. The two come from different sources and they definitely don’t mix well together.

Same way with a fig tree and a grapevine. They are of a different nature. A fig tree will not bear olives and a grapevine will not bear figs. Therefore, when we are born again, we become a “new creation.” The old has passed and all things are new. We no longer should be spewing hatred and violence from the tongue. This is not the nature of one who is trusting in Jesus for their salvation. Believers will be full of the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:23).

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds are done in gentleness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and don’t lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every evil deed.

Once again, James focuses on the interconnection between faith and works. When one has true saving faith, they will demonstrate that faith by their works. By their “good life” and deeds done in humility, they will show to the world the wisdom they have received from God. This is the saving faith James is articulating throughout the letter.

He continues by addressing the vices of envy and selfish ambition. These have no place in the heart of a born-again believer. In reality, these vices are earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic. This powerful statement shows that there is absolutely no room for this type of behavior from a Christian. For envy and selfish ambition leads to disorder and evil.

However, God is orderly and good. He will not allow bitterness and humility to dwell in harmony. They are antagonistic, opposed, and not able to cohabitate. Therefore, let’s put away the carnal man and work out our salvation with fear and trembling so we can be the spiritual person God created us to be.

17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. 18 Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

In conclusion, James discusses the wisdom that comes from heaven. It is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, and many other attributes that are virtuous. These attributes are a direct reflection of God’s nature. As humans created in the image of God, we ought to mirror the goodness of God in the way we interact with the world. Jesus told us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God.” In the same way, when we live a virtuous life, we will sow peace and reap a righteous harvest for the glory of God.

Commentary written by Chad A. Damitz (M.Div)

Translation by World English Bible (WEB)—public domain.

I am so thankful for the World English Bible Translation. This is their mission statement: “The Holy Bible is God’s Word. It belongs to God. He gave it to us freely, and we who have worked on this translation freely give it to you by dedicating it to the Public Domain.”

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