The Bible Lesson: James 3:1-12
1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
Some General Comments
1. For some general information on the New Testament book of James, go here.
2. Most scholars agree that James 3:1-12 is a tightly constructed essay.
The book of James is an example of what Biblical scholars call wisdom literature, as we've noted over the past few weeks. But unlike most examples of this genre, James weaves the aphorisms and forms of argument associated with this literature into cohesive statements, essays.
The overall theme of James is that Christians should authenticate the faith they believe and confess in the way they live; that living requires wisdom, which can only be acquired through faithful reliance on Jesus Christ through the everyday moments of life.
But more than delivering a series of should statements, James seems to be saying that we can act our way into faith. If we take the risk of living the way faithful people live, we'll find Christ at work, creating genuine trust in God within us.
This weekend's lesson is bookended, forming what the scholars call an inclusio (or inclusion), by addressing believers as brothers and sisters at both the beginning and the end of the essay.
3. It would be inappropriate, I think, to believe that this chapter is addressed only to teachers of the faith. Given the general tenor of the book of James and the fact that it was addressed to Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the Mediterranean region, James is here discussing the corrosive effects of gossip and other intemperate speech on the fellowship of the Church and its witness before the world. All Christians are called to put their speech under the authority of Jesus Christ, though James acknowledges "that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (3:1, the only place in the book where James uses the first person plural).
4. Concern over the devastating effect of uncontrolled speech was commonly expressed not only in the Old Testament and other Jewish literature, it was also a frequent theme in the writings of ancient philosophy. But there are some very specifically Biblical and Christian elements to James' discussion of this problem that isn't found in other ancient literature. Among these unique elements, which I hope to delve into in the verse-by-verse comments, are:
- Seeing gossip and other unseemly talk as an outbreak of hell.
- A pessimistic view of our capacity for exercising human-directed self-control over our speech.
- An acknowledgement that because none of us is perfect, we cannot control our speech.
- The doublemindedness that James speaks of earlier in the book (1:8) is reflected in the doubletongued ways of those under the influence of hell. Such people dare to praise God and curse the person made in the image of God with the same tongue.
- The passage is filled with allusions to the creation imagery of Genesis and the ideas of being made part of a new creation through Jesus Christ which we've already seen several times in the book of James.
- At the end of this passage, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that the only way to be self-controlled in speech is to rely on the power of God. (Paul says that self-control is a "fruit of the Spirit," the result of faithful reliance on Jesus Christ, in Galatians 5:22-23.)
More in the next pass, I hope.