Thirdmill Study Bible

Notes on James 3:1-5:18

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Take Control of Your Tongue. - James 3:1-12

In the first part of this section, James discusses troubles caused by the tongue, that is, harmful speech. With numerous images and proverbial examples, James shows though the tongue is small, it is powerful. Wisdom tames the tongue as an instrument of blessing, rather than a weapon of cursing, boasting or slander.

Teachers judged more strictly - James 3:1

Like legal testimony in a court, teaching is a highly responsible form of speech, because it transfers the wisdom of character with its content. Thus, James warns his audience not to become teachers on the grounds of a more severe judgment. God expects those with greater authority to meet greater expectations and higher standards (Luke 12:35-48; Heb 13:17).

We all stumble - James 3:2

According to James, a fully developed man does not stumble in what he says. Speech is an indicator of the inner nature of a person, revealing the heart. James’ proverbial saying is not an expectation of perfection, for he acknowledges that we all stumble. Rather, it is an observation that self-control in a person’s speech usually indicates personal discipline in other areas of life. See WCF 6.5; WLC 149.

Great results from small means - James 3:3-6

Several examples from everyday life demonstrate the disproportionate power of the tongue for both good and ill. First, James describes how horses are controlled only by small bits. One tiny piece of wood or metal in a horse’s mouth gives us the power to direct their whole bodies. Second, ships…are steered by a very small rudder. Though the tongue is a very small part of the human body, it influences the whole. Finally, because the tongue boasts great things and lies, James compares its destructive power to a fire. Though it starts small, it can grow quickly to burn a forest.

Tongue remains uncontrollable - 3:7-8

James uses more examples to illustrate man’s seeming inability to tame his tongue. Ironically, though humans are called to take dominion over all of nature, the tongue remains uncontrollable and full of deadly poison. Perhaps continuing an allusion to the creation and fall narratives in Gen 1-3, James identifies the effects of a lying tongue with the deadly poison of a serpent.

Hypocrisy...same tongue to praise and curse - James 3:9-10

Continuing his allusion to the creation and fall narratives, James underscores the hypocrisy of using the same tongue both to praise God and to curse men. Because all human beings are made in God’s image and likeness our tongues should be used to honor and love both. The great commandments are rooted in the doctrine of the Imago Dei (image of God).

Fresh water. . . salt water - James 3:11-12

James concludes his section on wise speech with several more illustrations that amplify the hypocrisy of using the tongue for both blessing and cursing the image of God. Springs do not produce sweet and bitter water. Fig trees do not produce olives and a grapevine cannot produce figs. These observations from nature are designed to jolt readers to attend to their speech, if they want to grow in wisdom.

Two Kinds of Wisdom. - James 3:13-18

In this section, James describes two possible sources of wisdom: the way of wisdom from above and the way of wisdom from below. Wisdom from below is earthly, self-absorbed, unspiritual, and demonic. The way of wisdom from God above leads to peace and communal flourishing.

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