The Tongue: A Powerful Force
1. Recognize the Context: Previous Context-James 2:20-26
James continues his argument by using a firm tone to make his point. He calls anyone who still does not understand the connection between faith and actions a “foolish person.” Like the book of Proverbs, this term is not an intellectual attack. Rather, it questions a person’s moral and spiritual understanding. James then asks if more evidence is needed to prove faith without actions is useless (v. 17).
Assuming more support is required, James provides Scriptural support for his thesis on the inseparability of faith and deeds. With another question, he asks about Abraham’s position before God by his willingness to offer Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22). The expected answer is an affirmation concerning his righteousness. Again, James sees faith and deeds connected. Faith informs actions, and actions demonstrate and complete faith.
In verse 23, James quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” For James, Abraham’s faith, recognized during the covenant ceremony in Genesis 15, brought out Abraham’s faithfulness with Isaac in Genesis 22. Additionally, Abraham was seen as God’s friend, which also demonstrated he was in a right relationship with God.
Verse 24 states, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” This claim does not mean James is contradicting Paul’s argument concerning salvation by grace through faith. Paul addresses works (of the law) and says they can't save. Faith is necessary. James is addressing works or deeds of love that flow from a life of faith. In this context, James has just spoken of correct belief, which even the demons have. For James, this correct belief has to be accompanied by actions to be genuine faith. As we said last time, Paul would agree (Gal. 5:6, Eph. 2:8-10). James uses a second Scriptural example, Rahab, the prostitute from the Jericho story (Joshua 6:1-25). Although different from Abraham in every way, they both share a faith in God, which led to action. As a result, she trusted God and remained with his people.
Finally, James concludes with an illustration of the human body. Just as the body is dead without the spirit, faith without action is dead (verses 17 and 20).
2. Read the Scripture: James 3:1-6
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. 3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
3. Reflect on the Scripture: In chapter 3, James transitions back to a more extended section on speech ethics (1:19, 26). He begins with a warning. Most people should avoid the aspiration of teaching Scripture. The reason is that teachers will be judged more strictly. Since people will account for their "careless" words (Matt. 12:36-37), it stands to reason those who teach have a greater responsibility. Teachers can mislead and distort the gospel message and lead many astray.
Verse 2 provides further clarification of verse 1. Everyone stumbles in many ways, or to say it in another way, everyone sins (2:10). James says if someone never sins, they are perfect. Therefore, they would be able to keep themselves in check, including their tongue. But this is not the case.
In verses 3-4, James provides two examples of small objects with significant impact. Although small in size, a horse bit and a ship rudder function to steer and direct. James makes the application to the tongue. Although the tongue is small, it can cause a person to make great boasts. The contrast is evident, and the point is clear. Pride can easily flow from our words.
James moves to another comparison for the tongue, the destruction a small spark can cause in a great forest. The tongue also is dangerous, with the ability to destroy and corrupt. The destructive nature of the tongue is from hell and leads a person in that direction.
4. Relate to life:
Now it's time to get specific and respond today. Remember, it is important to be a doer of God’s Word, not merely a hearer or reader (James 1:22-25). Here are some practical ways to actively respond to God’s Word. Consider these or create other ways you can apply the message.
Today, prayerfully consider your words over the past week. Are there words for which you need to seek forgiveness?
Today, prayerfully reflect on the images James uses for the tongue. Is there one with which you resonate?
To do: (work produced by faith with the Holy Spirit’s help) Given the prayer suggestions above, how do you need to respond today? Think about your attitudes, actions, and words. Think about your family, friends, church community, and co-workers. Spend the next week keeping a "word journal." Throughout the day or at the end of the day, write down your words and conversations. Prayerfully reflect on your tone and attitude used to deliver your words. Is there another conversation you need to have?
Find an accountability friend to help you reflect on your words and conversations.
To study: (Always make sure to read the immediate context of the given passages).
Read and study the passages listed above.