Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers,[c] these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.James 3:1-18
Academic training to become a teacher of God’s word is grossly insufficient to satisfy God’s standard for a teacher. I don’t think I have ever encountered a teaching from James chapter three that focused the contents of this chapter on the standards for teachers of God’s people. But that is exactly where James begins. He recommends that not many of us should become teachers because teachers are and will be judged by greater strictness than “ordinary” believers.
While sometimes teachers are writers, they are all speakers. Teachers are found in pulpits before congregations every Sunday. Teachers are found in Seminary and Bible College classes every week during the academic year. Teachers are found in Sunday School class and Bible Studies constantly. These are all exercising their teaching gift verbally through their speech. And James says, be careful.
Where most of us who are in the business of teaching God’s word get into trouble is not when we are in our formal teaching mode. Here we are on guard. When I write, I am super-conscious of the fact that many people from many countries will or may read what I am writing. I attempt to always reflect that what I believe will be understood as a godly communication even though I do write in a casual style. Since I am so alert to the potential impact of what I write, the chance of offending someone by foolish “speech” is relatively low. Where I, and any of us who teach, are likely to stub our spiritual toes is in everyday conversation when our guard is down. We are relaxed and maybe just having fun. It is in these situations that something might come rolling off our tongues that we would rather retrieve before anyone hears it. But, too late. Once it is off my lips, it is gone from my control forever. If it is hurtful, it will be hurtful. If it does damage to someone, I am guilty. If it creates a false understanding, it will be hard to correct it.
This requirement for wise speech applies to us all, not just teachers. It’s just that teachers will be judged by a stricter standard. James shares several analogies for the tongue: the bit in a horse’s mouth, the rudder on a ship, a small campfire in a forest. Even the use of “tongue” itself is a euphemism. Our problem is not our literal tongue. The tongue is referring to everything that goes into the creation of our speech. It is referring especially to our hearts, that is our inner being, not the organ that pumps blood.
The picture of the source of our troubled communication gets a lot clearer when James switches metaphors to a spring of water and the fruit produced by a tree. Saltwater does not come from a pure mountain spring. Olives don’t grow on fig trees and grapevines don’t produce figs. The key to all of this is the inner nature of that which produces the water or fruit.
Teachers and all of the rest of us have to be concerned about our hearts if we do not want our speech to be offensive. We must, on occasion, search our hearts and ask God to show us if there is any wicked way in us so we can repent.
Verses 13-18 are usually separated from the rest of the chapter as if they are treating a different subject. I don’t think they do, I think they are all part of one section that is the whole chapter. Here James speaks of “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts” which I believe corresponds to the kind of water that flows from the spring of your heart. A salty pond won’t produce fresh water and vice versa. No matter how orthodox our doctrine may be, if we have bitter jealousy or selfish ambition in our hearts, we will do damage with our orthodox doctrine. We must all ask ourselves how our hearts are doing.
The wisdom that flows from a heart with bitter jealousy and selfish ambition will produce wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual and demonic; the water that flows from the salty pond.
However, if one has submitted their heart to the Lordship of Jesus and asked the Holy Spirit to examine us deeply, to expose to us our impure motives, and we repent, then from our hearts can flow springs of living water without being mixed with saltwater. That produces the wisdom that is from above and is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
The pure heart produces a good harvest. James describes it:
And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.James 3:18
If you combine orthodox doctrine with a pure heart it will produce a harvest of practical righteousness (godly behavior) as well as a harvest of justification of sinners (forgiveness of sin) before God. To produce this harvest of practical righteousness, orthodox doctrine is not enough; It requires a pure heart in the teacher as well.
For those of us who are not “teachers,” we all want to share the gospel with our friends and neighbors where we live, work and play. These principles of the harvest apply to us all, teacher and non-teacher.
How is your heart today? Do you need to examine it and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to see clearly? May your life and your tongue bring great glory to our Savior.