How to sail through life! – James 3:1-18
By Pastor Lee Hemen
October 20, 2013 AM
All Christians must deal with the issue of self-control. Many refuse to practice it, because they find it difficult. They do not like to be controlled, and they show this by refusing to control themselves. The recent events where Senate leadership accused their opposition of being “terrorists” and “anarchists” is an example where some will say and do anything in order to get what they want. Even when believers try to practice self-control, they often speak hurtful words and perform wrong actions. However, for Christians such control is a critical matter. Everything we say and do should reflect our relationship with Jesus Christ.
On the PBS show Nova, they showed how we are trying to make things go faster, everything from the Internet to sailboats. In fact, the man who owns Oracle just recently won the America’s Cup with a newly designed sailboat that uses a carbon fiber wing for its sail and hydrofoils for its keel. It can take a 15 mph wind and propel the boat at 50 mph! The sail literally sucks the boat along at faster speeds. Controlling machines is one thing; controlling other parts of our lives is another. Almost all of us have to deal with control issues. James teaches us how to sail through life. Let’s discover how…
In what areas of life do you need to exercise better self-control? Some declare they are plainspoken and that “what you see is what you get.” This may be a thinly disguised excuse to be rude and to insist on the freedom of self-expression at another’s expense. Others view sins of speech as minor and model their conduct by society’s pattern. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to…
I. Speak carefully! (3:1-2)
1. James begins by addressing a teachers’ heavy responsibility to speak carefully. Perhaps, there were some believers who wanted to teach but were not well qualified or equipped. Some selfishly may have wanted the prestige, recognition, and honor the teacher’s role afforded. James warned against allowing believers to become teachers simply because they wanted such a position. He knew they first needed a firm grasp of the gospel’s contents and applications for living. Commentators have offered differing suggestions concerning the teacher’s role among early Christians. One view is that teaching once was an official position ranked among the highest in the church but later became part of the pastor’s function. A contrasting view is that being instructors in Christian doctrines probably was not limited to a special group in the church. Based on the synagogue model, numerous members of a congregation could teach. Yet James cautioned that not everyone who aspired to teach could do so adequately. James’s words here declared all believers stumble. Note he included himself. The Greek word translated stumble means “to make a false step,” thus “to commit error.” It can have the stronger ideas of offending or transgressing. Here it has the sense of sinning or failing in speech. “In many ways” means “often” or “many times.” James declared that a person who can continuously avoid sinning in speech is a mature man. The word mature also can be rendered “perfect.” James probably had spiritual maturity in mind. Disciplined speech is evidence a person can control his whole body. The term body could refer to the physical body whose appetites or drives can veer out of control. More likely, it refers to all that a person is. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to speak carefully!
EXAMPLE: Churches need qualified teachers, but they discharge a heavy responsibility. Teachers receive a stricter judgment—literally, “a greater sentence.” They are held accountable for correct or incorrect teaching. Teachers answer to God for their words about His Word. However, because believers are not completely mature spiritually and sin in their misuse of speech, they need to give attention to their words. It has always mystified me that folks have to use cursing in order to convey their desires. Believers especially need to discipline their speech so their words are not offensive. Being careful in what we say and in how we express ourselves shows our maturity in Christ. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to speak carefully!
James then presents three illustrations to describe the power of speech, the dangers associated with uncontrolled speech, and the importance of controlling it. All three illustrations contrast the tongue’s small size to its tremendous power. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to…
II. Speak harmlessly! (3:3-6)
1. James moved to the first of three illustrations that stress the power of speech. He had used the Greek verb for “bridle” in 1:26; 3:2. The word “bits” could be rendered “bridles,” but the phrase into the mouths favors the small bits riders placed under the horses’ tongues to control them. These bits enable riders to guide the whole animal. James’ point is that small bits could control large, powerful animals. Bits have power out of proportion to their size. James next used ships that were very large to present the disparity between size and power. When huge ships encounter a storm and are driven by fierce winds; the ships’ pilots use very small rudders to guide their vessels in the desired direction. James sharpened his contrast by using Greek terms that mean “so great” and “smallest” or “least.” The rudder’s size does not give a true picture of its power or of the concentrated attention, it demands. The tongue, an essential element to clear speech, is a small part of the body. Yet as little as it is, it “makes great boasts.” The word boasts probably does not refer to idle bragging but expresses the tremendous power and influence of speech—for good or bad. James stressed that what believers say and how they say it matters. James pointed out a small spark could start a raging inferno that engulfs a huge forest. He reminds us, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.” James knew that the tongue can be a basis of potential evil among the body’s members. It is neutral, but it easily can be misused. An uncontrolled tongue represents an uncontrolled life. The use of undisciplined speech pollutes or corrupts the whole body. Our careless words “stain” or “soil” and contaminates our lives. “It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Undisciplined speech is continually fueled by hell. Evil goes on feeding the flames of uncontrolled speech. James emphasized the terrible evil that speech can work, and he also implied God’s judgment on such speech. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to speak harmlessly!
EXAMPLE: Speech is too powerful an instrument for good or for evil to be regarded casually or misused willfully. Words can heal or hurt. They can influence people for Christ or turn them away. We all can remember when we were hurt by another’s careless words. Christians have a obligation to use speech positively and redemptively. Unless we control our speech, we risk causing others great harm. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to speak harmlessly!
James continues by emphasizing the need for consistency in believers’ speech. He acknowledged the difficulty of controlling speech but condemned people who poison the air by using words inconsistent with the gospel. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to…
III. Speak consistently! (3:7-12)
1. James pointed out that humans have tamed or domesticated all kinds of creatures. Yet people who can tame animals have trouble taming the tongue. The irony is apparent: Humans can control animals but have great difficulty controlling their speech. James described the tongue as a restless evil. Restless has the idea of impulsiveness, unpredictability, and inconsistency. Though not evil in itself, the tongue (or, our speech) is capable of great evil. In fact, it can be death-dealing, full of deadly poison. Poisonous speech strikes with venom comparable to that of the world’s deadliest viper. James presented a devastating contradiction to emphasize believers’ deadly misuse of speech. Christians continuously verbalize praise to God, who is Lord and Father. James’ scathing indictment is that believers turn from the highest use of speech—praising God—to the lowest—cursing people. It’s the idea of a seething hatred that wants misfortune to befall its object. It also could have the sense of using speech to abuse and insult others verbally. With a pair of rhetorical questions that call for “no” answers, James drove home the necessity of believers’ maintaining consistency of speech. His first illustration from nature concerned water, a precious commodity. A spring gushing out of a fissure in the earth does not produce both sweet and salt water, does it? James’ second illustration concerns food-producing plants. These plants produce after their kind. Fig trees produce figs, never olives. Grapevines produce grapes, never figs. And, a spring produces one kind of water! A saltwater spring, such as those in the Dead Sea area, could not yield fresh water—always at a premium in the promised land. James focused on nature’s consistency to emphasize that believers’ speech should not be inconsistent with their new nature in Christ. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to speak consistently!
EXAMPLE: James stressed people are made in God’s likeness. Because all people bear God’s image, we are to treat one another with respect, not with hatred and verbal attacks. Although James shifted from the use of the tongue (speech) to a person’s mouth, his emphasis is clear: The words that come out of our mouths should be consistent. We should not worship God with praise and turn to others with withering words of insult and injury. For blessing and cursing to come out of the same mouth is a moral contradiction. Recently, two teenage girls are under arrest for causing the suicide of another girl. Their words on social media cause her great stress and ultimately her life. The struggle to attain such consistency is ongoing. At times, we will fail in our efforts to speak only helpful words. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to speak consistently!
James returns to the topic of Christian behavior. The next verses call for using wisdom from God to control our behavior. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to…
IV. Behave wisely! (3:13-18)
1. James apparently returned to the subject of being “wise and understanding.” James was deeply concerned about their spiritual and ethical character; moral excellence is required of them and of all Christians. Christians are to demonstrate their works “by his good life, by deeds done in humility that comes from wisdom.” The wise and understanding person follows Christ’s directives for the good of God’s people. Rather than being puffed up with pride, the individual is to place his intellect at Christ’s disposal. James continued by writing, “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” Envy could have a positive or a negative meaning: “zeal” or “jealousy.” A contentious spirit denies true wisdom and the truth we profess to believe. These attitudes are counter to a faith expressed in love and grace. Wisdom demonstrated in “bitter envy and selfish ambition” does not come from God. James described false, truth-denying wisdom with three strong terms. First, counterfeit wisdom is earthly—human with human limitations. Also, such wisdom focuses on worldly pursuits. Second, false wisdom is sensual; it is concerned with appetites and desires. Instead of following the Holy Spirit, a person with this wisdom is mastered by unregenerate human nature. Third, such wisdom is demonic; evil is its source and it serves evil. James pointed out that selfish ambition results in disorder and every kind of evil. “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” Living by wisdom from God produces the fruit of righteousness—evidence of a right relationship with Him. Believers experience peace and work for peace among others. Sowing the seeds of mercy and good deeds, believers function as peacemakers. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to behave wisely!
EXAMPLE: How sad to see or hear Christians use their intelligence as a means of sarcasm. There is an old fashioned word that was used to describe such persons, “prig.” It described someone who used their position or intelligence to feel morally superior to others. If we use our wisdom from God to control our behavior, it will be what He wants and will promote good relationships with others. If we continually ask Him for wisdom, we can be peacemakers. James writes that in order for believers to sail through life, they need to behave wisely!
In order to sail through life as a believer we should speak carefully, speak harmlessly, speak consistently, and behave wisely! (3:13-18)
This article is copyrighted © 2013 by Lee Hemen and is the sole property of Lee Hemen, and may not be used unless you quote the entire article and have my permission.