James Chapter 3
In chapter 2, James has been teaching that the conduct of the believer must match their profession. He teaches that Abraham was justified by works and faith (vv 21-24). Having been declared righteous because of faith being exercised, he demonstrated his righteousness by his conduct. That is a challenge worth repeating: does our conduct match our profession?
It is instructive that, having turned to deal with the issue of how Christians ought to deport themselves in conformity to their profession of faith, James moves to two particular issues. It seems that there were two significant incompatibilities evident among the believers. First, some could not control their tongue in terms of what they said (and how they said it). Second, some fell into another difficulty that afflicts the people of God today: they were displaying the wisdom of the world in the way they lived, rather than the wisdom of God. That was not good for spiritual progress, given that the wisdom of the world does not understand the things of God (cf 1 Cor 1.20), and that worldly wisdom (applying knowledge and judgment based on a carnal outlook) will lead to stunted growth and division among the people of God.
One of the great themes of the epistle is the maturing and development of the saints: “that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (1.4). To develop spiritually, discipline of speech and thought is vital. For convenience, the chapter may be divided as follows: Verses 1-11: The Control of the Tongue, and Verses 13-18: The Conduct of the Wise.
Verses 1–11: The Control of the Tongue
What a person is internally is, of course, important. In this section, however, saints are taught that what they say is vital too. James commences the chapter with a word of warning to those who took the position of teachers. Perhaps some were teaching error or, possibly, there were those teaching truth which they had never known experimentally in their own lives. James reminds them that every teacher will be judged in relation to what they say. To that end, when it comes to teaching, one should only desire to speak if they have a word from God (otherwise, even with godly intentions, the verse is clear that the teacher will fail). If those who take the place of teachers understand the burden of accountability that James speaks of, platforms would be free from men simply seeking to be seen and heard. It would deliver the saints from unnecessary harshness, and many sessions where there is no actual word from the Lord. On the other hand, those who have been fitted, and have a word from the Lord, have a responsibility to discharge it (1 Cor 4.2), but they should move in the fear of God. Those who teach profess to impart understanding. They are therefore more accountable, and will be judged as being so.
Those who discipline their speech show evidence of maturity. Therefore, if saints are still making the same rash or ill-advised comments that they did as spiritual infants, there has been a lack of development. In verses 3-5, James shows that control of the tongue is evidence of being able to master the body. Speech, therefore, is not something of secondary importance but, rather, what is said marks our physical testimony. Just as the bit in the horse’s mouth controls, or the rudder of a boat directs, the tongue sets the course. For example, boastful speech reveals a lack of humility; cruel speech shows that kindness is scant; and filthy speech ruins the effectiveness of a saint’s testimony. How one speaks matters, because it is the physical representation of personal testimony.
Verses 5-7 emphasise the power of the tongue and, consequently, the spoken word. Under the hand of God it can be used to accomplish much good for His glory. However, the emphasis here is on the destruction it can cause, despite its small size. A little fire can ultimately destroy a forest. Similarly, sinful speech can not only damage the speaker, but may also destroy the testimony of others. In its natural fallen state, the tongue cannot be tamed or controlled; it is stronger than fearsome created beings. In principle it is evil, and bears death (Rom 3.13). Later, Paul would teach that it needs to be mortified (Col 3.5). The flesh must be reckoned to be dead, in order that the character of the new man can be displayed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In verses 9-12, James deals with a difficulty that still marks the children of God today. The new nature prompted them to speak to God in worship but, with the same tongue, they cursed others. James challenges such behaviour by giving three examples of how fruit reflects character. Of course, outward conduct can mask inward spiritual difficulties, but that does not alter the general principle. In the same way as one fountain cannot be bitter and sweet, or a fig tree produce olives, the saved should not be speaking in the same manner as the unregenerate. Notice too, the emphasis is on wrong speech concerning others. Has not this very failure caused many difficulties among assemblies of Christians? Sometimes believers who profess doctrinal purity display poisonous tongues, and thus bring shame and weakness on testimonies. “My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (v 10).
Verses 13-18: The Conduct of the Wise
In the final section of the chapter, James turns to consider the nature of wisdom, and the conduct displayed by those who please God. Wisdom is the right application of knowledge in living and judgment. The believer can exhibit wisdom from above, resulting from new life in the Spirit, or can display carnality, even the wisdom of the demons, which is selfish and sinful. It is clear from verse 13 that not every saint is wise, for a distinction is made between wisdom and knowledge. Both are necessary, and knowledge should not be despised, but possession of knowledge is no guarantee of wise application. Verse 13 teaches that a wise man lives in a wise way, humbly demonstrating his wisdom by living out his salvation. Bible teaching comes no simpler, yet no more challenging, than that!
The believer’s life is not to be spent becoming wise in the world’s eyes, and the outcome of worldly thinking is predicted in verse 14. If daily life is based on worldly values and judgments, there will be unnecessary conflict and jealousy. Saints should not pretend in these circumstances that they are living according to heavenly wisdom. That wisdom has clear characteristics: it is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy, fruitful, impartial, and sincere. It is interesting to note the harmony between this list and Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.22). That, of course, is no accident. While it will be seen later that practical sanctification comes at a cost, and does not ‘just happen’ (compared with ‘positional’ sanctification, which happened immediately upon salvation), heavenly wisdom will only be displayed in a life that is filled and controlled by the Holy Spirit. These are all features that were seen fully in the life of the Saviour, and assembly testimony would be very different if the features of heavenly wisdom were consistently demonstrated in the lives of believers today!
The final verse of the chapter continues the theme that personal wisdom is particularly important in the treatment of others. James teaches that sowing peace (see Proverbs 6.19, where God is said to hate the sowing of discord among brethren) rather than strife (which, sadly, is the legacy some saints leave for harvest) will yield fruitful righteousness. That fruitfulness will bring glory to God and blessing to those who make peace. Peacemaking is a feature that should mark the children of God (Mt 5.9), but seems to be in short supply at times. There remains a need for peacemakers among the children of God who, particularly in matters of personal differences, will pursue peace (Rom 14.19). May the wisdom from above be exhibited in the lives of believers today! (To be continued …)