James, one of the half-brothers of Jesus, is the author of this book. He was writing to predominantly Jewish Christians dispersed around the roman Empire. The Romans were persecuting Christians and so the people James was writing to were well aware of the trials and temptations that they faced.
James grew up with Jesus. He knew how a mature person behaved and spoke. So, James is here writing with an aim that the believers would grow, be mature and complete v4 in what they do and in what they say.
“James addresses the pride of the rich, the persecution of the church and pay withheld by the rich. He also addresses those tempted to retaliate with violent acts or words. He responds with a call to wisdom, faith and patient endurance.”
Chapter 1 sets the agenda for the main issues James wants to address as we can see from this table.
Chapter 2 focuses on the doing: faith must lead to action, and one aspect of that action is that they do not show favouritism. Remember James was writing under a world dominated by the Romans and Roman laws favoured the rich over the poor, James is in essence saying don’t be conformed to the way of the world. Don’t treat people as the world does.
In this chapter he turns to the tongue and the need to be mature in what we say. These issues had already been flagged up in chapter 1:
v19 everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.
v 26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
These themes are then taken up in the first part of chapter 3.
Three vicars are at a ministers’ fraternal. They decide they need to be more open and vulnerable with each other, so they decide to share their weaknesses.
The first one says, 'Well, I have a problem with drink. I often slip and drink a whole bottle of port.
The second one says, 'Well, I have a problem with pornography. I often spend hours looking at it on the Internet.
One of the others asks the third one, 'Well, what is something that you have a problem with?'
The third preacher replies, 'Gossip, and I can't wait to tell everyone about you guys!'
The tongue can cause all sorts of problems!
James starts by addressing teachers:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
Yikes! Hardly an advert for teachers! Why this strong warning?
Two possible reasons: many thought the role of teacher was something to be aspired to. So James is warning them.
The other possibility is to warn teachers watch what you say. No matter who it is addressed to the warning is clear – it is by your words that you will be judged
The tongue it is said can be used to analyse a person’s health. At least that what the Chinese thought.
In a way it does - it shows us what’s in our hearts.
Why such an emphasis on what we say? Why such an emphasis on words?
In Jewish culture words were important.
We often say: ‘Actions speak louder than words’ - we make a distinction between word and deed - God doesn’t his word is deed: he speaks and it is.
God created by speaking – word is event.
In Genesis 1 – we hear the refrain ‘And God said’ the response: ‘and there was’
The book of Proverbs emphasises how important our words are:
Proverbs 12:18 Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
Proverbs 15:4 The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.
Proverbs 18:21 The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.
Psalm 64:3 They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim their words like deadly arrows.
2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
Again we have James’s emphasis on being mature – this time mature in what we say.
We are what we eat, if a certain TV doctor is to be believed – but biblically we are what we say.
Our words reveal who we are.
It is from our heart that our words come – Matthew 15:18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.'
What’s in our hearts is expressed through our mouths. Our heart is what we are in our totality, genuine authentic humanity.
James then goes on to give two illustrations:
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
4 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.
Why horses? Why ships? Remember, James is speaking to Christians dispersed around the Empire, many of them would have travelled by horse and by boat, so they were examples they were familiar with.
What do bits and rudders have in common?
Small, direction, who is controlling it directs the horse or the ship.
5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.
Time for another illustration:
Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
The effects of our words can be devastating – life and death are in the power of the tongue. Do we want to spread life or death?
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
Reference here to Gen 1 cultural mandate. How can we control, develop and transform culture if we can’t control our tongue?
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.
Again Gen 1 - image and likeness of God. It looks like James had had his quiet time and had been reading Genesis 1 just before writing this bit.
10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
James is emphasising that this situation shouldn’t occur – our hearts are redeemed. Why then are we double-spoken? James then uses two more illustration:
11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?
12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
It doesn’t happen – then why speak with a forked tongue? Let’s resolve, by God’s grace not to. Lets’ speak life and not death.
The book of James also gives us some positive advice about how we should use words:
How can we bring life rather than death?
- To ask God for wisdom (1:5).
- To be quick to listen and slow to speak (1:19).
- To speak without discriminating between rich and poor (2:1-4).
- To speak as those going to be judged (2:12).
- To speak as one whose words are as good as their deeds (2:16).
- To speak without boasting (3:14).
- To speak without quarrelling and fighting (4:1).
- To speak without slandering anyone or speaking against anyone (4:11).
- To speak without presumption (4:13).
- To speak without grumbling (5:9).
- To speak as though you mean what you say (5:12).
- To speak to God in prayer and praise whatever the circumstances (5:13).
- To ask for prayer when sick (5:14).
- To confess sins to one another (5:15).