1-2a Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths.
James aims his words of warning toward those who desire to teach. His words of warning are usually softened in translation so that the force of the imperative is played down, as though he were giving a word of advice. But the King James Version puts it in very strong terms: “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.”
James is speaking primarily to those who want to teach, who assert themselves as teachers, and yet should not be teachers at all. Let us consider why James would see this as a very serious problem:
1. Adversity seems to attract many counselors and teachers who wish to instruct us as to why we are suffering. We see this in Job, where his 3 friends persist in alleging that he is suffering because of some unconfessed sin, and not because of righteousness. In the end, God rebuked these men for not speaking what was true of Him (Job 42:7-9).
*Many are those with words of counsel and advice when we are suffering some kind of adversity. They should give heed to these words of warning from James.
2. There will always be those who seek to be teachers in order to promote their own interests. In Acts 20:29-32, Paul warns the elders of the Church at Ephesus that, even some of them will become false teachers, trying to gain a following: “I know that as soon as I’m gone, vicious wolves are going to show up and rip into this flock, men from your very own ranks twisting words so as to seduce disciples into following them instead of Jesus. So, stay awake and keep up your guard. Remember those three years I kept at it with you, never letting up, pouring my heart out with you, one after another. Now I’m turning you over to God, our marvelous God, whose gracious Word can make you into what He wants you to be and give you everything you could possibly need in this community of holy friends.”
3. The Scribes and Pharisees were eager to be teachers because they were status-seekers (Matthew 23:6, 7; Romans 2:17-20; I Timothy 1:5-7).
It didn’t take long for false teachers to begin to emerge in the New Testament Church. A good portion of this false teaching came from legalistic Jewish Christians—Judaizers —who believed that they had a higher level of understanding. They did not have sound doctrine, but were constantly engaged in speculation and wars of words (I Timothy 1:4-7; II Corinthians 11:3-5, 13-15, 22; Titus 1:4; II Timothy 2:23; 4:4).
These Jews felt that they were superior in knowledge, especially knowledge of matters pertaining to the Law, and so they were inclined to teach the ignorant. James orders them to be very hesitant to teach, knowing that the judgment of teachers is more severe:
1. According to scripture, those who are teachers should have a greater knowledge of the Truth. Thus, they are more accountable (Luke 12:48b).
2. We all will be judged according to the consistency between our work and our words. So teachers, whose work involves many words, will be more accountable (Matthew 12:36, 37).
2b-5 If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life. A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!
Having indicated that all of us stumble in many ways, James now focuses on a particular form of stumbling—in one’s speech, a timely topic for teachers. If a man does not stumble in what he says, then that man is perfect. If a man can perfectly control his tongue, then he would also be able to control every other part of his body as well.
James then sets out to illustrate this tongue/totality principle, first with a horse, and then with a ship. In James 1:26, James has already used the term “bridle,” and now he takes up the same term. Once the bit is in the horse’s mouth, the rider can control the entire body of the horse. One controls the entire horse by controlling its mouth.
Next, James turns to the illustration of a ship. A ship is very large, and strong winds propel it; but when the captain has control of its very small rudder, he has control of the entire ship. If we could bring our tongues under control, then we could bring our bodies under control. But this will never happen, as James is about to show.
5-8 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer.
In the previous verses, James engages in wishful thinking: If the tongue could be tamed, then the whole body could be brought under control. Now, we see the reality of the matter: The tongue can’t be controlled, and there’s a devastating result for the whole body–it is corrupted by the tongue. The key to our body’s control is also the key to our body’s destruction.
Like the rudder of a ship, the tongue is a very small member of the body. It’s powerful, but not in the way we think. The tongue talks big; it boasts of great things. It’s powerful, but often in the most destructive of ways. Our tongues are like a fire, which sets a whole forest ablaze.
The tongue adversely impacts the rest of our bodies. The whole gamut of humanity and society is set ablaze by the tongue. It’s ironic that we have learned how to harness incredible instruments of power—raging rivers, the atom, all kinds of creatures—but we are powerless to control our own tongues. Something that distinguishes us from beasts–the tongue–is something we cannot control. The tongue is a restless evil, and its poison is deadly.
9-12 With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?
Not only is the tongue destructive and completely out of control, it’s also deceptive. James shows us how completely unlike nature people are. In nature, a spring will either produce fresh water or bitter water, but it doesn’t produce both; a fig tree produces figs, and not olives, and a vine doesn’t produce figs. A salt-water spring doesn’t produce fresh water. What something is by nature determines what it produces–and what it produces doesn’t change.
But our tongues are different. The tongue is capable of producing both blessing and cursing, as different as these things may be. At one moment, our tongues may speak words of truth and blessing, with absolute sincerity. But moments later, it may speak something terrible, something corrupt. We can see this truth illustrated by the tongue of Peter (Matthew 16:13-23). Within the space of a few moments, Peter changed from being a spokesman for God to speaking for Satan. This is James’ point: The same tongue can both bless and curse. We can’t trust the words of the tongue because they can so quickly change to something completely different.