James 3 Commentary

vv.1-12: “The first point that James needs to make is that the tongue is a powerful tool for evil. He does this through a long, careful argument.

“The tongue is the chief tool of the teacher, so that is where James begins. Not many of you should presume to be teachers means more accurately ‘not many should become teachers’. Many want to be teachers and leaders of the Christian community. That, James argues, is a dangerous impulse which can lead to conflict within the church. One reason is that even if the desire to become a teacher is motivated by the best of reasons, the teacher will be judged more strictly. James includes himself among the teachers here, and he reminds us of Jesus, who condemned Jewish teachers (Mt. 23:1–33; Mk. 12:40; Lk. 20:47) and said that even our casual words would be judged (Mt. 12:36). Furthermore, Jesus taught that people are responsible for what they know (Lk. 12:47–48). The teacher claims to know and set himself or herself up as an example for the church, since in NT times the teacher taught by life and example more than by word. How responsible must such people be on the day of judgment!

“Everyone sins or stumbles, and the easiest place to stumble is in the use of the tongue. How easy it is to let a critical word slip out! If a person really has their tongue totally controlled so that they do not sin in that area, they are in fact so self-controlled as to be perfect, since the tongue is the last part of the body to get under control.

“James gives a series of examples that illustrate this fact. A horse (one of the most powerful ‘machines’ of James’s day) is controlled by a bit in its mouth. A ship, the largest moving vehicle of his day, is controlled by a rudder, which in those times was shaped like a tongue. The tongue is also powerful, as its boasting illustrates.

“James shifts his direction of argument at this point and compares the tongue to a spark which can set a forest on fire. The source of such a spark is hell itself. James is not speaking of the tongue as the God-given source of language. He is thinking, rather, of the tongue as something corrupted by the fall. Many, if not all, sins begin with a word. It may be spoken outwardly or silently ‘spoken’ inwardly.

“Unfortunately, powerful as it is, the tongue is hard to tame. James states the general truth about the ability of people to tame animals and compares it to their inability to tame the tongue. (He is not implying a scientific observation that all species of animals have been tamed.) Yet with all of this skill there is no human being who can control his or her own tongue. Even the most perfect saint experiences times when he or she wishes they could take back into their mouths words they have just spoken.

“The tongue, then, is restless. Restlessness is a characteristic of the demonic world and evil, while peace is a characteristic of God and his good kingdom. The tongue is always wanting to say something; often poison that produces death. The murders committed on behalf of a tyrant come about when he issues orders. We experience something similar on the personal level when we speak evil and realize that it has brought death to us rather than life.

“James adds some more examples. In church (and he is writing to believers) we use our tongues to praise God. But then we speak evil of (‘curse’ in his words—any speaking against a person can be in effect a curse) other people, and they are made in God’s image (Gn. 1:26–27; 9:6). In James’s day the king or emperor would set up his statue in the cities of his realm. If anyone insulted or cursed the statue, they were treated as if they had cursed the emperor to his face, for the statue was the image of the emperor. Therefore the insulting of a person, made in God’s image, is like insulting God himself. This duality, two different and contradictory words coming out of the same mouth, is a type of hypocrisy.

“James gives two examples to drive his point home. The first is drawn from the land of Israel where in the dry Jordan Valley one might see, in the distance, a stream flowing down the valley wall on the east side. One journeys to it hoping for water. Sometimes the water is fresh and good. Sometimes it is full of minerals (salt) and is undrinkable. But one thing is sure, the two types of water will not flow out of the same spring. Likewise one does not get a different type of fruit from a tree or vine than that which grows according to its nature. The implication of this argument is that if we are speaking insults or curses, that is our nature. Our praises of God are a coverup, a type of hypocrisy.”[1]

vv.13-18: “James has left us in a desperate place. Who can control his or her tongue? How will we get free from this terrible power and come to perfection? That is the same cry that we may have felt at the end of 1:4. James’s answer is the same as it was there: we need not our own power, but God’s divine wisdom.

“James begins his discussion by showing the difference between a person who has divine wisdom and one who does not. The truly wise person is characterized by a good life, meaning a way of life that is good according to the teaching of Jesus. That person will also show the humility that comes from wisdom. A better translation here would be ‘meekness’. One of the problems in the churches which James knew was that teachers were attacking one another and being aggressively defensive. Meekness is the opposite of this aggression.

“The only true protection against this false wisdom and the evil in the tongue is God’s wisdom. James gives a list of the characteristics of this true wisdom which is very similar to the one that Paul gives for the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). It is pure, which means that the person is sincere in obeying God, not having any twisted motives in their desire for holiness. It is peace-loving (Pr. 3:17; Heb. 12:11), meaning that it produces peace in the church. It is considerate or ‘gentle’ (Phil. 4:5; 1 Tim. 3:3), which means that it is non-combative. It is submissive, which speaks of a person who is willing to learn, be corrected, or will otherwise gladly respond to godly leadership. It is full of mercy and good fruit, which refers to the charitable giving that is so important to James. God, of course, is always merciful and giving, so those filled with his wisdom will be that way as well. Finally, it is impartial and sincere, which means that the person has a heart which is set solely on following God, unlike the ‘double-minded’ person of 1:8. The term sincere means that there is no falseness or play-acting in the person’s actions. As the person is to one’s face, so they are when one’s back is turned.”[2]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 3:1–12). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[2] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 3:13–18). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

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One Response to “James 3 Commentary”

  1. Valerie E. McWashington says:

    Excellent commentary! Profoundly simple and simply profound.

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