Dr. Mark Scott wrote this treatment of the International Sunday School Lesson. Scott teaches preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. He also serves as minister with Park Plaza Christian Church in Joplin. This lesson treatment is published in the February 2021 issue of Christian Standard + The Lookout.
Lesson Aim: Be on guard against the damage an untamed tongue can do.
By Mark Scott
Jesus takes what we say very seriously. He taught that what we say comes from our hearts, that we will give an account for every careless word we say, and that by our words we will be condemned and by our words we will be justified (Matthew 12:36-37). His brother James was equally tough on the tongue. He already encouraged readers to be judicious about what we say and how much we say (James 1:19-20). In James 3 he develops that doctrine more fully.
Was the early church overflowing with teachers? Is that the reason for the stringent opening, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers”? Hardly. But James wanted teachers to take their task very seriously due to the weight of judgment assigned to the role.
Using the tongue to bless instead of curse takes a mature person. In fact, it takes a perfect person. Of course, that would exclude everyone. But the Greeks had no word for “flawless.” They did not believe it was possible in this world. The word perfect meant “complete” or “mature.” So a mature teacher will enjoy the benefit of keeping their whole body in check.
This is a colorful text. It has two commands (in Greek there actually is just one command, but the English translation of verse 10 sounds like a command). The first command is in verse 1, “Do not become a teacher.” Verse 10 says, “This should not be.” Blessings and curses should not come from the same mouth—period.
The text has six illustrations. The first described horses and bits. The largest horse known was Samson, a Belgian Shire horse that weighed over 3,360 pounds and was 21 hands high. But Samson was controlled by a small bit. The second illustration was ships and rudders. The most famous ship was the Titanic. The rudder for that ship was 15-feet 3-inches tall, which sounds large. Compared with the overall size of the Titanic, however, the rudder was quite small. The third illustration was of a forest fire and a tiny spark. The Siberian taiga fires of 2003—the largest on record—consumed 47 million acres.
The fourth illustration described many different animals (beasts, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures) before noting that even the most ferocious animals can be tamed by people. The fifth illustration noted that a spring can produce only one kind of water. One of the best springs in Israel is in the En Gedi Nature Reserve (this is where David hid from King Saul). The park is fed by two springs, the David Spring and the Arugot Spring. Those two springs produce 3 million cubic meters of water per year in one of the driest places of earth, not far from the Dead Sea. The final illustration was a fig tree, which all Jews knew was a symbol of Israel. Fig trees do not bear olives. The Jewishness of our text is especially seen in these last two illustrations.
The text has four metaphors: (1) The tongue is a fire, (2) the tongue is a world of evil, (3) the tongue is restless evil, and (4) the tongue is . . . full of deadly poison. The tongue is small but has great power. It is not unlike ricin, one of the world’s deadliest known poisons. Ricin is made from castor beans, and just a few salt-size grains of it can kill an adult.
Since the book of James is wisdom literature, of sorts, here are five applications from places beyond James 3:1-12:
1. Make blessing God and confessing Christ a priority (Psalm 103:1; Romans 10:9). This will help us clean up our speech by 50 percent.
2. Hold your tongue more often than not (Ecclesiastes 5:2; Proverbs 10:19; 15:23; 29:11). A little boy expressed his frustration with his parents by saying, “First they teach me to talk; now they tell me to be quiet.”
3. Confess your sins and apologize to those you have hurt. This very Epistle teaches us to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16).
4. Do your part to restore civility to language (Proverbs 12:18; 15:1, 4; 16:24; 18:21). We show ourselves to be uncultured when we speak with crass and crude speech.
5. Stop the rumor mill. Paul urged younger widows to nip this in the bud (1 Timothy 5:13).
Tomorrow is George Washington’s 289th birthday. As an informative exercise, I would suggest reading his “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,” especially Nos. 24, 58, 62, 65, 72, 79, 83, 89, 98, 105, and 107.