Listen: Simon Manchester presents Christian Growth. For more, see the full series on James.
James Chapter 3 – it’s all about the power of words. I guess if we asked people to come up the front this morning, and we were able to draw from you the most cutting, hateful and damaging thing that has been said to you, up from the depths would come some of these terrible things that people have said.
On the other hand, if we were to say, “Can you pass on and repeat something that has been said to you which has been absolutely crucial and formative and magic and foundational and helped you to cope”, we’d be able to latch, perhaps, onto something that has been said to us which has been just the perfect word.
I want to make sure as we study this chapter together that we do get James Chapter 3 as a totality. This is a much bigger chapter than me preaching a little ethical sermon to you this morning called “say nice things”. James is not like the mother washing up at the sink, hearing her children fighting outside, opening the windows and calling out “be nice to each other”. James is much bigger than that, in a way, because James is a deeply changed man and he is writing to deeply changed people. So this is not just a little piece of morality – this is something very profound.
And what we are going to see as we go through James quite quickly this morning is that he, as it were, exposes the heart and then he shows the remedy.
Words Can Prove our Salvation
Last week we saw the importance of works in the Christian life – chapter 2 – not because they produce salvation, they don’t, but they do prove salvation, they may prove salvation. Now, his week we are seeing the importance of words. Works, Words. Again, these words don’t produce salvation; we can’t save ourselves by nice speech or pious speech but we may prove that we are saved by the way we speak. And nothing really reveals the heart like works and words – what you do and what you say.
I wonder whether you, like me, have been shocked on occasions when something has shot out of your mouth that is so defensive or aggressive or angry and you ask yourself the question – ‘where did that come from?’ – up from the depths has come something so heated.
And then of course the Christian is also given the great privilege by God of being an instrument to say something really helpful and I imagine every real believer here this morning has been God’s instrument to say something to somebody in the past which has been just the right crucial message.
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I’ve told the story before of Larry Crabb who wrote a book on Encouragement. He tells the story in the book of being a young man at his first prayer meeting and being asked to pray in public in front of everybody and so he prayed his prayer and in the course of his prayer he made almost every mistake that is possible to make theologically. Every heresy that could be thought up he included in his first extemporary prayer.
And when it was over he was absolutely mortified and thought how can I escape? He tried to slip out the door at the side and as he was walking towards the door to escape one of the elders was coming towards him and he thinks, “Oh no, I’m going to get into big trouble here”. The Elder comes up to him and says “Larry, wherever you go and whatever you do, I am behind you 100%”. What a lovely encouraging and helpful sentence to say.
So we are just going to skim over this chapter this morning under 4 brief headings.
- The Significance of our words
2. The Power of our words
3. The Inconsistency of our words
4. The Salvation of our words.
The Significance of our Words
First of all The Significance of our words – (verses 1 & 2). James says: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check”.
Now this is how James begins the chapter. He wants people to know that if you are a teacher of the Word and I guess that could mean a Sunday School Teacher, a Youth Leader, a Bible Study Leader, maybe even a parent in a home and certainly a Pastor in a church – you are handling the Word of God and you get to know it perhaps a little better than other people and therefore there is strong expectation that what you know you will do. And it’s a very sobering thing to realise that when you take on the responsibility of being a leader or a teacher, you will be judged more strictly.
But then, quite reassuringly, (verse 2) we all stumble and fail. If you don’t stumble well we’d be perfect and you begin to think that there may be some hope in this chapter for the person who fails.
Now why does James introduce the chapter with these 2 verses? I don’t think that he’s just chatting. I don’t think that he’s introducing the subject of a teacher randomly and then forgetting all about the subject. I suspect that he is explaining at the start of the chapter that words are not a game, they are not a hobby, they are not nothing, and they actually influence people’s direction – their future and maybe even their destination.
And when a teacher handles the Word of God and mishandles the Word of God, that person is capable of wrecking somebody’s direction and destination. When somebody, well handles the Word of God they are able to set a person on the path of life and affect their destination for good.
This is an extremely important start to the chapter. One of the words that James keeps using (and I hardly ever do quote some Greek and some of you will know this word) the word is “telos” from which we get our word “telescope”. It’s the word that means “the long view”, “the end” and James uses this word a number of times in the Letter because he is talking about God’s long term plan wanting people to be complete or mature or perfect. The word often comes up in the Letter with different meanings but it is this word “telos” – God is interested in where a person gets to, where they finish.
And as you and I speak to one another it isn’t sometimes just filling in time. Sometimes we are actually helping a person to take the path of discipleship more seriously. Sometimes we are given the privilege (as we were hearing earlier) of helping somebody to know the path of salvation. That’s why James begins this chapter – he’s not moralizing us – he’s not saying to us ‘I want you to say nice things’ but he is beginning with the principle that words affect people’s destinations, they certainly affect their direction and there is no better way to illustrate this than with the teacher.
Now I was reading recently a Death Notice in the Illawarra Mercury that had been written by a man who knew that he was going to die and this is what he wanted printed in the paper – He wrote:
“I am dead. I am not asleep. I am not departed. I am not ‘at rest’. I am dead.
Relatives and friends are invited to attend my funeral but I want no flowers and I want no prayers. If you feel that a gesture is needed, smile at a dog. Dogs smile all the time. Good-bye to those who mattered.”
It’s very striking, isn’t it? It’s arresting – it’s a clever use of words and the Journalist who quoted it said: “Well said”. Actually they are very tragic words, aren’t they? They are very dark – they are very hopeless – they are completely contradictory to Christ – the long view of that person is fatally sad. I mean contrast with the words of Jesus in Revelation chapter 1: “Do not be afraid, I am the First and the Last, I was dead and I am alive forever and I hold the Keys of death and of hell”.
Words are incredibly significant. That’s how James begins the chapter. They affect somebody’s direction and their destination – That’s the first point.
The Power of our Words
Secondly (verses 3-6) The Power of our words – and this is where James uses three famous illustrations to show that the tongue may be small but it’s powerful.
The BIT in the mouth of a horse is powerful. The man who sits on the horse is much weaker than the horse but that little bit enables him to control the horse.
The RUDDER on an ocean liner is tiny in comparison with the ship and yet it enables the Captain to control the ship.
The TONGUE as compared with the rest of the human body is very little, virtually invisible and yet it has huge impact on what we are like and what we do for other people – so small but powerful.
And again I want you to notice that this is not just a control issue because the rider, the captain and the speaker can again fix somebody’s direction or destination. This is not just controlling – this is where is the person is going to go? That’s why it says in verse 4; the pilot can decide where the ship goes.
And then James uses 3 illustrations to show the destructive power of words:
Verse 5 – the SPARK
Verse 6 – the EVIL
Verse 6 – the POISON
And these are things that don’t steer or carefully control or direct or govern or get somebody to a useful destination – these are things which spread randomly and dangerously. You think of the dropped cigarette or think of the way evil spreads or think of the way poison spreads through food or drink. So what James is simply saying is that the tongue is small and able to do very constructive things – it’s also small and able to do very destructive things. And incredibly constructive things have been done with good words across history and incredibly destructive things have been done across history with evil words.
You think, for example, of some of the excellent things that have been done – the Gospel that goes out and changes somebody’s understand and they discover that there is a God who loves them and sent his Son to die for them to give them eternal life and wants them to trust Jesus – what an eternal change comes through those words. Or there is Scripture which is enlightening, comforting, clarifying, guiding, strengthening and supporting. There was a wonderful thing on Friday night to walk through the property and see all the young people of the Youth Group sitting on the lawn in their different groups studying the Bible together and to think how that Word will shape their minds and their hearts – wonderful.
Think of powerful speeches that have been made by Winston Churchill, steadying the nation, may be steadying the Commonwealth. Or think of godly conversations which have taken place which have prevented a person from doing something crazy or stirred a person to do something good or gracious correspondence which is peaceable and helpful.
I was reading that Whitfield and Wesley who disagreed on some theological issues – they were both great preachers in the 18th Century and they disagreed on the Sovereignty of God. Whitfield decided to write Wesley a letter setting out his position. This is how he finished the letter: he said, “Nothing but a regard for the honour of Christ has forced this letter and I love and honour you for his sake and when I come to the judgment I will thank God before all men for what you have done for my soul”. – What a lovely thing to say when you are writing a letter of correction.
But then of course there are terrible ways that words can spread – think of religious lies which plunge people into darkness. Those of you who have travelled have seen sometimes how the lies, religious lies, have tied people up in a terrible bondage, a hopeless bondage. Or there are the attacks on Christianity – somebody has said that the 3 famous speakers of the 19th Century – Darwin, Marx, and Freud affected the 20th Century and the 21st Century.
- Darwin, used by some people to say there is no creator.
- Marx, used by many to say there is no saviour.
- Freud, used by many to say there is no judge.
And these 3 have received tremendous support from the world because they eliminate the need to face up to the God, who is Creator, Saviour, and Judge.
Or think of the speeches by a man like Hitler in World War II – the books and the articles which encourage unbelief or the slander which wrecks reputations so quickly and causes people to unnecessarily divide – or the destructive conversations and e-mails which fly around so quickly.
Bunyan in Pilgrims Progress has a character called “Mr Talkative” and Mr Talkative is described as a saint abroad and a devil at home.
So James’ simple point is in chapter 3 verses 3-6 that words come from a very small tongue but they can do immeasurable good and immeasurable harm. I still remember things that have been said to me – I still remember things that have been said to me about other people – they colour – they infect – sometimes they correct and bless.
The Inconsistency of our Words
Now the third point this morning is The Inconsistency of words (verses 7-12) – the inconsistency of our words. Verse 7 – we don’t have the power to control our tongue. We can (as a human race) tame a lion or an eagle or a killer whale but we cannot control the tongue (verse 7).
One of my friends was preaching at a School Assembly and he said to the boys and girls at the Assembly sensing that the need for Christ was not very real. He said ‘I want to ask you to take the next week and say nothing unclean, nothing unkind and nothing untrue” – Nothing unclean, nothing unkind and nothing untrue for a week. When you have done it, write to me and send me a postcard and I will write back an official permission for you to not have to take Jesus seriously’.
He got one card from one boy and it said “Dear Sir, I was not able, yours sincerely”. It’s a good test and quite a risky test but it’s not really a risk test.
And then in verses 7-12 James talks about this terrible inconsistency (verse 9) “We praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men” with the same tongue. We sing our hymns in the church building and then we say something vicious in the car on the way home. We are all capable of this, let’s be honest. “God bless you” we say to someone in public and then to somebody else we say “I can’t stand them”.
And so verses 10-12 of James are very revealing aren’t they? Because he is kind of doing a scan, he showing what we are like. He is saying ‘how is it possible that out of the same person you can get praise and cursing’. You don’t get this with a fountain; you can’t get fresh and salt out of a fountain. You can’t get a fig tree to produce two types of fruit. You can’t get a vine to produce two different products.
No, says James, something is wrong with us and the point that he is making is that we are divided in heart. The rest of the New Testament tells us that the believer, the Christian, yes the forgiven, saved, secure and heaven bound Christian has a battle going on inside which is the battle of the flesh and the spirit – they are at war. And our sinful nature is very real and our new nature is very real. This is not the non-Christian position – the non-Christian is asking ‘will I or won’t I’? But the Christian is asking ‘will I do what God wants or will I do not what God wants?’
So these verses 7-12 are designed to have a sort of a humbling and exposing and a realistic effect on us so that we ask the question at the end of verse 12 – well what’s the solution? Therefore if you are familiar with James chapter 3 (and many of you are) and you know this morning that we were coming to the subject of the unruly tongue and you were thinking to yourself – he’s going to give us a little bit of a beat-up on say nice things – I want to say to you this morning friends, that would be a big mistake. If you think that James is only raising the topic in chapter 3 to say to us ‘do get a grip on yourself’ when he’s already told us in verse 8 ‘you cannot get a grip on yourself’ we need the whole of James chapter 3.
If we stopped at verse 12 I could say to you this morning ‘so here’s my little, here’s my little practical tip for you – just before you open your mouth ask yourself 3 questions:
- Is this true?
- Is this necessary?
- Is this kind?
That would be very practical and you’d shake my hand and you’d say ‘that was pretty practical’ but one hour later – it’s gone, we are back to normal, waiting another 5 years for James chapter 3 to come around at St Thomas. So we hope James is more a realist and he is.
The Salvation of our Words
Fourthly The Salvation of our words (verses 13-18) – James tells us 4 times in these verses that there are two different types of wisdom. Wisdom as you know is not just information because you can be a very clever person but a very foolish person. Wisdom is a lifestyle and James tells us that there are two types of lifestyles – Look at verse 15.
There is wisdom; there is lifestyle that “comes from below”. He describes it as earthly, unspiritual and of the devil. We might say – the world, the flesh and the devil are involved in this wisdom. It can be very powerful and it can be very influential. Worldly wisdom can get huge results but if you look at verse 16 you will see that the roots are basically selfish and evil and the fruits are disorderly, divisive and evil. A man or woman under the influence of self, their pride or evil can be very, very powerful but it could be the devil’s work that is being advanced.
The other kind of wisdom is in verse 17 and it’s described as “wisdom from above” – what we might call ‘heavenly wisdom’. This has come from God and it’s not come from us. It has not come from the world and it’s come from God. It’s pure, it’s not evil, it’s peace loving, it’s not disorderly and it’s not possible for us to produce this ourselves. It’s no good beating ourselves up and saying we must produce this – we can’t – it comes from God.
And if you turn back a couple of pages James 1:17-18 you will remember that James says in the face of temptation and the evil inside us – verse 16 “don’t be deceived, every good and perfect gift is from above (same phrase) coming down from the Father who does not change. He chose to give us birth through the Word of Truth that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created”. And once again James is talking about the work of God to change us, to give us re-birth through the Gospel and to put within us his spirit who exercises new control, new enabling and new power for us to be able to speak profitably.
And if you are a man or woman, and you are under the influence of God’s spirit, and you submit to his word, and you submit to his Spirit, and you submit to his will, who can say how influential? Look at verse 18 of chapter 3 – isn’t that a lovely verse? It may well be that God will use you to sow for a harvest or righteousness.
Now this is where the chapter of James 3 doesn’t just tell us the problem, it also tells us our hope. James is not out to mock us – he’s not going to say ‘say nice things’. Some of you who don’t understand Christianity but you come here week by week, you may think that the Preacher gets up to say ‘be good – be good because it’s good to be good, be good because then God will love you’. That’s the opposite of Christianity. The message of Christianity is that we are not good, we are a polluted people and therefore we desperately need salvation, we need God’s Son to save us and we need God’s spirit to change us otherwise we are hopeless and helpless. And therefore this salvation for our words comes by the mercy of Jesus.
Jesus our Greatest Example
Do you know that if you’d travel with Jesus for three years and you were one of his friends, you’d never hear him say something inappropriate? He never said something unkind – he never said something untrue and he never said something unnecessary. And you know if you were one of Jesus’ enemies and you followed after him with the aim of incriminating him, you never heard one single word.
And Jesus took his perfect, pure, spotless life and paid for all the thousands and millions of words that I have said that are inappropriate and all the words that you have said that are inappropriate and offers to us forgiveness for the past, present and the future and gives to us his spirit so that we might have a new wisdom at work, from above, strengthening us and helping us not just to say things that are true and kind and necessary but things that might last for eternity.
And I hope as you leave this morning (and I am going to seek to do this as well) you won’t say to yourself – gee we had a little beating up this morning on good speech – I hope you will say to yourself as you leave this morning ‘we were reminded in James that our words are very, very influential – they can do great good or they can do great harm’ and in the end it’s beyond us to control us what we always say. We are so weak and we are so sinful and we are so selfish. But God has given us a great Saviour. Someone who has paid the price for all those ungodly words and God has given us his spirit to enable us to have a new life and a new strength at work.
And we might then find ourselves saying in that famous prayer of the Old Testament: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you – O Lord, my rock and my redeemer”.
Let’s pray, let’s bow our heads: Our Father we come to you this morning wanting to acknowledge completely before you that you have given us a very great gift of speech, able to exercise huge influence. We are conscious that our words are capable of great good and great damage and we are humbled before you as we remember so many things that have been said to us and through us which are false and wrong. We thank you too our Father that even though this speech is beyond our control,that you have given us your Son,our Saviour,and you have given us your Holy Spirit to grant to us a new wisdom from above and we pray that you would day by day increase our appreciation for the Saviour and that you would also increase the influence of your Holy Spirit in our hearts so that we might speak words that come from you,words that honour you and are a blessing to other people. We ask it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.