James has provided us with one of the Bible’s great chapters about the blessings the human tongue can give and the troubles it can inflict. While it is often profitably studied as a general presentation of the nature of the tongue, it is meant for teachers. He points this out in the first verse, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment” (3:1). We will look at it from this standpoint.
The early church suffered from many inadequate men who were anxious to teach and sway the church in various directions. Paul told the Corinthians, “For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?” Later, in 2 Corinthians 11:13, he called their teachers “deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” He warned the Ephesians not to be like “children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (4:14).
James is warning people not to jump too quickly into the role of a teacher, for the ill-prepared can cause much damage. On the day that the Lord will judge, teachers will be held to a stricter standard, for their effect on others is far-reaching. In a country like ours where congregations are mostly small there is a tendency to thrust teachers before us who haven’t considered the seriousness of the task, or who may handle the work unwisely. The words of James are a precaution well heeded.
A RESTLESS EVIL
James provides us with a wealth of illustrations that reveal the main problem for teachers: the instability and devastating effect of the tongue when it is used unwisely. Jesus Himself (most likely the brother of James) also spoke with memorable parables and illustrations. James, in a similar way, tells us that “the tongue is a small part of the body and yet it boasts of great things” (v5). He points out the great ships of ancient times that were steered with small rudders and large war horses directed by small bits in their mouths. The tongue is influential!
Like dangerous wild animals that cannot be tamed, the tongue can cause great damage at the most unlikely of moments. How many of us have attempted to control what we say, but in an unguarded moment have unleashed hurtful words that cut people down, or demeaned precious souls?
James points out “the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity…and is set on fire by hell” (v6). Thus, the tongue needs constant attention and discipline. As a king and spiritual leader, David knew he must control his tongue and asked God to help him. “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps.141:3). We can’t trust our tongues; they are restless and unpredictable. Careless teachers will make many mistakes if they do not beware of the damage the tongue can do.
Just as the apostle Paul, in his absence, was criticized by hurtful teachers in Corinth (2 Cor.10:1), James points out that with our tongues we can often “bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God” (Jas. 3:9). There is nothing as inconsistent as a teacher who praises our Lord, then says hurtful things about his fellow human beings, or yet, fellow teachers. We are capable of cursing the highest part of creation. “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” James points out it is impossible for “a fountain to send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water.” Nature will not speak out of both sides of its mouth, only man does. Teachers beware!
WHO SHOULD NOT TEACH
The quality most needed by Christian teachers is wisdom. “Who is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behaviour his deeds in gentleness of wisdom” (v13). Knowledge alone will not do, for knowledge without wisdom can be harmful. Furthermore, a teacher who lives a reckless, selfish, insensitive life will lose his influence and credibility. He must show gentleness and wisdom in his life and not just boast about having it. Earlier in the book James said, “But prove yourselves doers of the word and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (1:22). Chapter 3 applies this to teachers.
Competition, jealousy, and the desire for prestige cause one to actually lie against the truth because the truth requires us to teach against these human flaws. Selfish ambition is at the root of many efforts by teachers to promote division and rivalry, causing many Christians to become discouraged. It’s no wonder James remarked that this kind of wisdom is “not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural (“unspiritual”), demonic.” It is more from the devil than it is from God, producing “disorder and every evil thing.” Teachers who behave with such faults should not be in the pulpit.
WHO SHOULD TEACH
Instead of earthly wisdom, teachers should strive for “wisdom from above” (v17). Good teachers know that they are inadequate in many ways and will approach God for wisdom, as James said in 1:5, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Did not Jesus Himself often seek solitude in wilderness places so that He could pray (Mark 1:35)? We can do the same in our own need for wisdom. It will make us better teachers.
Wise teachers leave a trail of good works and good fruits that are easily noted by all. “Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable (“willing to yield”), full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (v17). They pursue purity of life, peace with brethren and are gentle and approachable with those who ask questions or need clarification. They know the truth and hold to it without wavering. They teach the truth with kindness and love.
Jesus spoke of the word as a seed. Here James speaks of the seed (or fruit) of a righteous life is sown by teachers in a peaceful way (v18). He experiences peace from God, behaves in peaceful ways, and teaches peacefully. These fine qualities should be carefully considered by those who want to be godly teachers.