James continues his letter in this next section, 3:1-12, by instructing his readers on the importance of controlling the tongue. Or, to put it another way, the importance of what you say. This may seem a like an unrelated topic that James rather arbitrarily jumps into, however, I think that we can see at least a couple of reasons why James would chooses this subject next. The most obvious reason is to prevent an over emphasis on the previous passage. Someone could have over reacted to James’ teaching in 2:14ff, and come to the conclusion that words don’t matter at all. Thus, it is James’ point in this next section that what you “do” includes what you “say.” Your words are a part of your actions. In fact, words in this section are connected with the works of the last section.
As is often the case with James we find that Jesus’ teaching on this subject is very similar to James. Look at Matthew 12:33-37:
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its
fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. “You brood of vipers, how can
you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which
fills the heart. “The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and
the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you that
every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in
the day of judgment. “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words
you will be condemned.”
Christ’s point, as well as James point, is that your words reveal your character.
The second reason that I think that James introduces this subject of controlling the tongue is connected with 1:21-27. James’ command is to receive the word, and he continues to elaborate on what that means through vs. 27. In this section James first says that in order to receive the word on must do the word. Consequently, in is necessary for one to examine themselves with scripture like one would examine themselves in a mirror. This correlates with the section that we just finished in Chapter 2. The next step in receiving the word is found in vs. 26. “Bridle the tongue.” What we are about to cover correlates with this. So I think that we are justified in saying that this section of controlling the tongue goes hand in hand with receiving the word. The point is that if we want to be able to control the tongue we have to let scripture have its effect on our lives. Remember, it is the Spirit of God who works through the Word of God to make a lasting change in your life. If we want scripture to be effective in our lives we must follow James’ earlier command to be slow to speak, and quick to hear (1:19). Back in 1:21-27 James’ next step in receiving the word is to keep oneself unstained by the world. It may look like I am skipping a step because James first says “to visit orphans and widows in their distress.” Really this is a part of keeping oneself unstained by the world. In most of our English translations the word “and” had been added (notice italics). In the Greek there is no conjunction. I that we can reasonably say that the two (visiting and not staining) both represent pure undefiled religion, and are really a part of the same life change that will result form the Spirit of God working through the Word of God. This correlates with 3:13-5:6 (which we will discuss more in the coming months).
Now that we have introduced this new section on the tongue we need to introduce vs.1. The real question is “Why does James choose to start by warning those who wish to teach?” Or, “How does this verse fit into a section about controlling the tongue?” Putting this at the beginning of this section makes a lot of sense. The teacher fulfils his duties through the spoken word, the tongue; thus the importance of taming the tongue is magnified in the life of a teacher. James’ address to would be teachers shows that importance James placed on them. Churches were “houses of instruction” concerning spiritual matters, and thus the teacher played an important role. Communicating with words is one of the distinguishing marks of human life. Sure, all other creatures communicate in some way; but no animal communicated like we humans do. This is another wonderful show of God’s grace! God created us to communicate through words so that He could reveal himself to us in His word (the Bible). The job of the teacher, within the Church, is to understand to word of God and communicate that understanding in words to God’s people. This is a great responsibility, and James does not want anyone to take it lightly. James discourages many from teaching because it is dangerous, and exposes one to the possibility of a heavier judgment.
II. The Command
James commands that many should become teachers. Not everyone should be eager to get up and teach. The term teacher, in this context, should not be restricted to the office of teacher. James is talking to all who arise to instruct fellow members of the church; whether they are official teachers or not. This would have been a great temptation for a lot of people during this time. In some Jewish circles, rabbis were held in such high regard that a person’s duty to his rabbi was greater than his duty to his own parents. Many men relished the opportunity to get up and teach because the enjoyed the prestige. This was a society in which many people could not even read, and so to be the teacher was to hold a position of great status. Many would have wanted to teach, or even become teachers, just for this upward movement in status. Obviously too many of the new Jewish Christians aspired to teach. James worried about this problem because many men would have had the opportunity to teach. During synagogue services any respected man might be given the opportunity to speak. Frequently men from the congregation, or even visitors would be given the opportunity to read Scripture and give an interpretation. Even though Jesus was not an official rabbi he was given the opportunity to speak on at least one occasion (Luke 4:15-21) during the Sabbath day services. Frequently the Apostle Paul would be given the opportunity to speak in synagogues when visiting a new city (Acts 13:5, 14-15). Apparently it was also common for a mature Christian man to speak in a meeting during this early church time. James was leery of this practice, and commanded that “not many of you become teachers.” In this command James is obviously not attacking the office of teacher; in fact James identifies himself as a teacher in this passage. His aim was to restrain the rush on the part of those who were not qualified to teach. This command does not just apply to pastors. There are many people who teach in many different capacities. Most of you do some type of teaching every week. You may be teaching by the younger students looking up to you or by actually taking the time to talk with someone about spiritual things and scripture. The truth is that Jesus commanded that the whole church do the work of evangelism and discipleship. To fulfill these responsibilities we involve teaching on some level. There is a huge responsibility, and great accountability in teaching, and even interpreting the Word of God. No believer should begin to any form of teaching God’s Word without a deep sense of the responsibility that is involved. To sin with the tongue when alone or with one or two other persons is bad enough; but to sin with the tongue when acting as a speaker for God is immeasurably worse. Speaking for God carries with it great implications, both for good and ill. We have to be careful what we say. This is why it is so ridiculous to have newly converted celebrities or athletes speaking and teaching. Just because some guy hit fifty home runs and thanked Jesus does no mean he has the ability to teach. This is why Paul warned Timothy not to put a new believer in a position of authority (1 Tim 3:6). It took Paul three years in the desert under the direct training of the Lord before he was prepared for his ministry (Gal 1:17-18; Acts 9:19-22). We are all going to be put in positions to teach at some point; we must be careful and remember that the responsibility of teaching far outweighs the prestige of being a teacher.
II. The Reason
In the second half of this verse we find out the reason why the responsibility of teaching outweighs the prestige of being a teacher: “…as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” The teacher, whose privileges are greater, will be judged with a special strictness. Take me for example; one of my jobs here at the church is to lead the youth. As the youth leader I am responsible for the teaching that the youth receive in our youth classes. Because of that responsibility I spend many hours preparing to teach on the passage we will be studying. I get paid to study my bible, which is what all Christians are required to do, and so I have a greater responsibility to understand God’s word. Not only would I be failing to work diligently at my job if I didn’t work to understand Scripture, but I would also be held accountable for all the time that I could have been studying that I wasted. A person teaching also is held to a higher standard because that person has influence over many people. Look at what the Apostle Paul said about the false teachers plaguing the Galatians:
Galatians 1:8-9: But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a
gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we
have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel
contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
Galatians 5:10: I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no
other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear his judgment, whoever he
If you teach something incorrect to someone else not only are you leading yourself astray, but you are also leading those listening to you astray. The primary reason that teachers will incur a stricter judgment is because their ministry involves speech, which we will see to be the hardest of all parts of the body to control (vs. 8); this exposes them to greater danger of sin and thus greater danger of judgment. This should increase everyone’s desire to obey James’ command in 1:19 and be slow to speak.