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The Tongue - World of Iniquity (3:1-12)

In the lesson today we will be continuing in our series in James called Dispersed & Dedicated with a message titled, “The Tongue: World of Iniquity."



James, the Lord’s brother, is charged with the difficult task of continuing to minister to Christians that are now scattered abroad due to the trials that have come upon the church during a period of persecution.


A natural response to being separated from your local spiritual fellowship and the apostle that has been leading you in your faith is to figure out who is going to be your teacher or if you need to become a teacher yourself. James will issue a stern warning to those who become teachers and with it a lesson on the proper use of the tongue. He recognizes how we all wrestle with evil when we speak.


Please get a Bible and turn to James chapter 3 and we will be studying verses 1-12. Let’s read that together before we begin.

“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2 For 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. 3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look 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. 5 So 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! 6 And 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. 7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.”

The Tongue is a World of Iniquity because:


Incurs a stricter judgment for teachers


Becoming a teacher (vs. 1)


“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren…”

1. The Bible is very clear that although being a teacher was a role that the Lord intended to be carried out in His church, not everyone is supposed to be a teacher (Romans 12:3-8; I Cor. 12:12-31). Sometimes we treat teaching publicly as if it were a high mark of a mature faith, but the truth is that this mistaken view comes from Hebrews 5:12-14 where it appears that a church is being reprimanded because they are not all teachers.


If you look closely, this is a message on spiritual growth and maturity because they could not leave elementary principles and forced the teachers of the truth to return to these basic, fundamental principles. In other words, the teacher says, you all ought to be able to teach this by now, but I constantly have to start at square one with you. I want to take you to the next level and teach you meat, but all you can handle is the milk of the word of God.


Don’t misinterpret the passage as many other students often do. While we all have a responsibility to share the gospel (tell others the good news about Jesus), we also teach indirectly by example or even teach and admonish one another when we sing in worship together, not everyone is intended to take on the public role of teaching in the church.


Even the worthy woman of Proverbs 31:26 was said to, “open her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” We need to prayerfully proceed if we desire the role of teaching and understand the great responsibility that comes with this work.


It appears that these brethren grew desperate for knowing who would now lead them spiritually and unfortunately unlearned and ill-prepared Christians were seeking to call themselves “teacher” so as to hold a place of prominence and to assume the role without an adequate grasp on truth or the gifting to perform the work.


You have to remember that the church was very young at this point and it was important to have someone fully equipped (a Spirit-led apostle like James) to take on this work of teaching. This issue is very similar to the one that Jesus addressed in Matthew 23. There He explained that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees teach things and do not do them personally (practice what you preach). They set lofty requirements for those that they teach and then will not even lift a finger to help them. They want to be seen of men in all that they do for worldly glory, they take front and center seats at banquets and the highest seat in the synagogue. Finally, they want to be called “Rabbi” which means, “teacher”.


A stricter judgment (vs. 1-2)


“…knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For 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.”

James says if you want to hold a higher position and take on greater responsibility by becoming a teacher, then you will be held to a higher standard and be responsible before God for the work that you carry out in this role. You will have a stricter judgment because you are taking responsibility for the souls that you teach.


This is very similar to the admonition in Hebrews 13:17 when talking about those that take the responsibility of becoming an elder in the church, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” These elders must give an account. They will answer for the souls that they shepherd. One of the qualifications of elders is “able to teach”. “Able” means capable and prepared.


The point that James is making is not an attempt to scare people away from teaching. If that is a function that you feel like God has equipped you to do as a part of His kingdom, you are responsible for using the talents that you have been given and entrusted with by God. The gist here is that those who teach are going to be accountable for more than just their personal walk of faith. Every time that you open your mouth to teach, you are leading all of your hearers to take what you are saying into consideration.


The concern is that you might mislead others into error and sin. That is why Peter taught in I Peter 4:10-11, “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (See I Cor. 2:1-16)


In other words, it is not about your glory. If you are a teacher, preacher, elder, deacon, or you teach in some other capacity, and you think this has something to do with your personal praise or recognition, that is the farthest thing from the truth. Not only does all teaching have the sole purpose of bringing more glory to God, anyone who has other motives should immediately step away from that work.


If we open our mouths, we need to speak the revelation of God and nothing else (II Tim. 3:16-17). This work of preaching/teaching the word of God is something that must be done in every season and not just when it is desirable or convenient (II Tim. 4:2). We also need to learn the truth that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak (Eccl. 3:7). With this understanding, what we are going to share next will be clear and easy to comprehend.


Small part of the body but boasts of great things.

A bit in the mouth of a horse (vs. 3)


“Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.”

When a bridle is placed on a horse before going on a ride, there is a bit that is placed in the mouth of the horse. While we might think the illustration here has something to do with the tongue of the horse, that is not the point being made. This half-ton animal can be directed by a single bar that is placed in its mouth to apply pressure when a command is being given in conjunction with the feet and shift of body weight. The one sniffle or metal bit can turn this muscular creature in a moment with the slightest pull on the reigns.


The point here is that no matter how strong you think you are in the faith, your tongue is like that bit. All of the graces that you bestow can be turned in a moment by a poorly worded phrase, an unkind word, false doctrine, or a comment offered without consideration. "Hold your tongue in check!", is the message being given to us here (Eph. 4:29; I Peter 2:1; Psalm 10:4, 7)

A rudder on a large ship (vs. 4)


“Look 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.”

We have much larger ships today than they did in the days that James lived. Nevertheless, the principle is still the same. In comparison to the massive size of a ship, the rudder seems to be a minimal part of the vessel. Yet, this small part of the ship even in the midst of thrashing waves and wind can change the course of the vessel and chart a completely different course for us.


While some see this as a positive that a ship could be turned perhaps out of trouble, what if the rudder acts on its own and out of your control. This is where the trip becomes dangerous. We are facing the wind and the waves and we cannot afford a wrong turn. When we are under the pressure of the storms of life, it is easier to lose control of our speech and sin with our mouths. We have to have our hands on the helm of the ship and decide when our vessel takes a turn so that we chart our own course by the will of God and reach the destination of heaven (Colossians 4:6; Ephesians 5:3-4).


A tongue as a part of the body (vs. 5)


“So 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! ”

Using the other two illustrations, James says that the tongue that is set in our body is comparable to the bit in a horses’ mouth or the rudder on a large ship. Our tongue can control the direction of our life into evil and chart a course of a shipwreck in the faith if we are not careful to keep a hold on the reigns and stay at the helm (Psalm 39:1).


The tongue seems to have a mind of its own and will be the truest revelation of what is happening in our body (the heart, the innermost part of our being). He closes this verse with the phrase,


“See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!”

This leads us perfectly into our next point as James will build on this idea.


Sets the course of life on fire, while defiling us


The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity (vs. 6)


“And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity…”

To understand this point, think of the tongue in your mouth as a small fire. If you keep your lips closed and your mouth never opens the fire is contained. If you open your mouth and move your lips to speak make sure that what comes out is beneficial to the hearers. I like to think of a campfire for example. That little fire keeps you warm when you gather around it on a cool evening. That little fire can help you cook food. That little fire can provide light for the campers to move around the campsite safely. But if that fire is unattended and the sparks fly into the nearby woods, miles of forest can burn to a crisp if the blaze is not controlled or managed. How many forest fires have started this way and have led to an inferno so large that it takes weeks to get it under control after it has caused millions of dollars in damage and made it impossible to recover from. This point is so applicable to life.


This is what our tongues have the power to do. Destroy and set ablaze the things around us if not carefully watched and used properly (Prov. 21:23). The tongue is a ball of fire and is a world of sin (Psalm 141:3; Proverbs 17:27-28).


Set among the members of the body by God, but set on fire by hell (vs. 6)


“...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."

No one will question that God created the tongue to dwell within our mouth when he fashioned us in the womb. The issues with the tongue stem from hell and it sets on fire the course of our life. The actual word for hell in this passage is Gehenna, which was a valley outside the city of Jerusalem that was used to perpetually burn trash. This was also a term used to compare what it will be like to go to the fires of hell and enter a place of unending suffering, pain, and agony over our sins.


James is bringing the two together for emphasis. Look at this place where smoke rises continually and is filled with the putrid smells of waste. Your mouth can be a fiery pit that is influenced by hell or it can be harnessed to bless others. But it should not do both as we will see later in this context (See Colossians 3:1-11).


Cannot be tamed


All other creatures have been tamed by men (vs. 7)


“For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race."

While some will immediately argue with this verse and try to find animals that have never been tamed, the point is clear to us. The tongue is like a wild beast that we have to attempt to direct and it is completely barbaric and out of control. While people have tamed killer whales to perform at Sea World, in some parts of the world they have trained snakes to give kisses, in wartime they taught pigeons to carry messages, trainers have led lions to jump through rings of fire in the circus and even elephants to perform tricks on command, but the tongue, which is contained in our mouth is rebellious and will not succumb to any attempt made to break it.


It is like trying to jump on an unbroken wild horse and ride it bareback. It won’t be pleasant and you will likely be bucked off rather quickly. While you might with much hard work and determination get a horse to eventually be tame and adhere to your commands, the tongue cannot be tamed.


No one can tame the tongue (vs. 8)


“But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.”

Bring in the best trainers, get the finest college professors, go to the best medical doctors and you will not find someone that is able to control the tongue. James describes the tongue here is a restless evil. It seems that our tongue is in our mouth and is waiting for the next opportunity to come out and speak without restraint. Like a pent-up bull waiting to be set free with the rider on its back, it cannot wait to be loosed to try and in less than 8 seconds not only throw off the rider but wreak as much havoc in the arena as possible while running crazy.


The next thing that James says is that the tongue is full of deadly poison. There are many things that are full of deadly poison that with the proper care can be avoided. The tongue is constantly on the verge of releasing venom on others. It is full of poison and can cause much hurt and even lead to death (Proverbs 18:21a). If we all walked around with a skull and crossbones over our mouth it might be easier to avoid the evils of the tongue, but this is impossible because we also use the tongue otherwise (to eat and drink [taste], to communicate, etc.) Herein lies the danger of the tongue. It is often set free from its cage (lips and teeth) to perform other functions, but in the meantime has the potential to be used as a weapon. We can be caught up in lying, flattery, boasting, and hastiness to judge, backbiting, cursing, gossip, giving a false witness, filth, blaspheming, and even rebellious silence among many others.


Some great questions to ask before we speak are:


Is it true?


Can I prove it?


Will it help someone?


What is my purpose or motive?


Is it encouraging?


Does it need to be said now?


Will it ultimately glorify God?


Blesses and curses at the same time


We bless God and curse His created beings made in His image (vs. 9-10)


“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way”

If you are driving down the road singing, “He has no tongues but our tongues to tell men how He died, He has no help but our help to bring them to His side”, but when we come upon another driver that is going to slow for us we start giving them a piece of our mind and expressing our hatred for them. That song we mentioned, called “The World’s Bible” by Annie J. Flint in 1919 also asks, “What if our tongues are speaking of things His life would spurn, how can we hope to help Him and welcome His return?”


We are such a living contradiction and hypocrite sometimes. It is the practice of blessing Jesus and our Father in heaven while in the same breath, cursing the ones who are made in the image of God.


The same source cannot produce both good and bad (vs. 11-12)


“Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.”

James says it is like finding a fresh (clean) fountain and then finding something bitter in it. Could you imagine taking a drink from a purified water source and when you find that your thirst has not been quenched you refill your cup only to find that this drink tastes horrible? This is what it is like to be someone who claims to be a purified child of God and with regularity be found producing speech that strays from the truth and abandons the responsibility to speak what will bless and edify the hearers (Prov. 4:23-24).


We have to know that when water is bitter it is because of the source. If you look inside and the filter is all gummed up with algae or dirt, then it has to be changed. Jesus taught that the source of all that comes out of man is from the heart (Matthew 12:34-37). Have you checked this source lately to see what kind of water it is producing and how it is being received by others? (Matthew 5:21-22; I Peter 3:10).


Next, he adds that a fig tree cannot produce olives or a vine cannot produce figs. Everything produces after its kind. That is a biblical principle found in creation. If we claim to be good Christians, why are we producing bad fruit or the wrong kind of fruit? A disciple of the Lord will only produce what is good and they will produce these good fruits abundantly. If we claim that we have repented, why are we not bringing forth the fruits of repentance by demonstrating with our tongue that we have made a change of heart (Phil. 4:8-9)?


The last illustration that James offers is salt water also containing fresh water. If you have ever been to the ocean and had a wave crash over your head, you know that the water is going to be salty when it hits your mouth. If you are in a local pond swimming, you don’t expect the water to contain that high concentration of salt. We understand that certain bodies of water were intended to be salt water while others were designed to be fresh water. This is important because of the wildlife living in them etc. We are interested mainly in the point that these sources are separated for a reason. A Christian needs to be consistent with the word choices, positive and encouraging messages and truth that only comes from God’s word. You cannot be the source of fresh water and periodically be salty. If you try this on a fish tank at home, you will kill all the fish in the tank. Likewise, we kill our influence for Christ when we claim to be followers of Jesus that wants to be a blessing to those around us while we frequently get caught up in cursing, telling lies, course jesting, teaching error or simply being loose with our tongues (Proverbs 10:19; 15:4, 28; Matthew 15:11)


Whether you are a public teacher of God’s word or not, there is a message for you in this passage from James about the proper use of the tongue. If you pay careful attention in the book of James, he is constantly teaching about how we should speak as Christians:


-James 1:5-8, use speech to pray for wisdom from God during hard times -James 1:9-10, the humble boasts in exaltation but the rich boast in humiliation -James 1:13, don’t ever say that God is the source of temptation -James 1:19, be quick to hear and slow to speak, slow to anger -James 1:26, if you are religious but do not bridle the tongue you deceive your own heart -James 2:1-4, be careful how we speak to those who are visitors in a lower status -James 2:12, so speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty -James 2:15-16, don’t just use words in helping the needy but back it by helpful actions -James 3:14, don’t boast and be false when you have selfish ambition and jealousy -James 4:1, quarrels and fights come from passions at war within us -James 4:11, Do not speak evil toward brethren -James 4:13-15, Do not be hasty with plans and speak before you say, “If the Lord wills”. -James 5:9, Do not grumble against one another because the Judge is at the door -James 5:12, Do not swear but let your yes be yes and your no, no. -James 5:13, When you suffer, pray to God. When you are cheerful, sing praise to God -James 5:14, When you are sick call for the elders and have them pray over you -James 5:16, When you sin, ask for your brothers to pray for you and then pray together -James 5:19-20 – When a brother sins, teach them to lead them back and save their soul


I hope we can say with the psalmist,


“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14; See also Prov. 15:28)

Do you need to be saved today? If the gospel call is compelling you to make a change in your life in surrender to the Lord, I want to help you in coming in obedience to Jesus. If you believe that He is the Son of God, you are ready to repent of your sins and confess Him as Lord, you can be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and you can start living that new life in Christ. From that point forward you will serve as a faithful part of the Lord’s church until he comes to call the faithful home.


When James says,


“we all stumble in many ways”

he was writing to Christians. If you are in need of repentance as a child of God that has stumbled in some area of your walk of faith, I want to pray with you and offer encouragement. To offer you anything other than a hand up would be to our own downfall for we are all in the same boat.


Please reach out and let me know how I can assist you.

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