Thirdmill Study Bible

Notes on James 3:3-5:18

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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.

Wisdom - James 3:13

The theme of wisdom is threaded throughout this letter from James. Wisdom is demonstrated by hearing and doing God’s Word; believing God and walking in righteousness; remaining steadfast under trials; and self-control in speech. Here, James summarizes the posture of wisdom as . If his readers are truly wise and understanding, they will display it in a good life.

Jealousy and ambition - James 3:14-16

But, some of James’ readers are controlled by jealousy and ambition within them. This kind of wisdom or way of life comes from within ourselves, not from God. It is earthly, unspiritual, demonic (2 Thess. 2:9-10; 1 Tim. 4:1). This is not to say that the physical world is evil, but that its misuse opposes the wisdom of God’s creational design, resulting in confusion and every vile practice.

Wisdom from above - James 3:17

Wisdom from above (1:17), however, is pure. Unstained by human pride, heavenly wisdom is gentle and responsive, full of mercy and good fruits. Wisdom from above (1:17) perseveres through adversity, practicing righteousness for the glory of God and the good of neighbors, not the glory of self. Its source and results are opposed to the earthly wisdom James describes in 3:14-16.

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