Faith at Work

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Is your tongue tamed?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 3:1-12

What is the most hateful or hurtful thing anyone has said to you? How long ago did they say it? Why do the words still hurt? Has anyone hurt you more than with their words?

I was in elementary school, probably the second or third grade. For some reason I cannot remember, I was angry with my parents. It was raining outside, a common occurrence in Houston. Friends of my parents were at our house for some reason. I wanted to punish my parents, so I went outside and stood in the rain. I have no idea why this seemed a good idea, but it did. My father went outside to find me. For the first and only time in my life, he spoke a hateful word to me: “Son, are you stupid? Don’t you have enough sense to come in out of the rain?” I knew then and know now that he didn’t mean his words. I know that he was simply embarrassed before his friends. He never said such a thing to me again. But though his words were spoken more than 35 year sago, I can still remember how deeply they hurt.

Now think about words you wish you could take back. A statement made in anger, or pain, or deception. Have you made greater, more hurtful mistakes than with your words?

Our secular materialism measures success and failure in quantifiable ways. Words are a means to our ends. “White lies” are acceptable and common. Say whatever you must to get ahead. I worked as a graphic artist while completing my masters degree at the seminary. One day, one of my customers showed me his “lie book,” a little green spiral-bound book he kept in his shirt pocket. He explained proudly that whenever he lied to one of his clients, he wrote it down so he could remember it for the next time he saw the person. I wondered how many of his words to me were in that book.

You may not be keeping a book recording your lies, but the people you know are. And the Judge of the universe is. Despite the conventional wisdom of our materialistic culture, you do not control your life until you control your tongue. Your words matter, more than you can measure. You cannot unring a bell, or a soul. So let’s learn how and why to make our words holy this week.

We’ll look at what James says, then find ways to apply his words to our own.

Verse 1. Become not many teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive greater judgment.

Become shows that we grow into the ministry of teaching the word of God; this is not just a position, but a ministry. Become not could be rendered, “stop becoming many teachers,” a clear complaint that many were attempting to teach what they did not yet understand (Robertson 39). Not is placed at the beginning of the verse for emphasis (Martin 107). Probably some not qualified by natural ability or spiritual gift coveted this office and ministry (Burdick 186).

Teachers means those who teach the word of God. In the Jewish context it pointed to rabbis, those who had studied the law and its application to life and now taught others (Rienecker 385). The “teacher” in Christian context also transmitted to the faith community the growing Christian tradition: “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim 2:2; Moo 149).

This was a significant position of spiritual leadership (Ephesians 4:11), counting in its number Paul and Barnabas (Ac 13:1). In the early church, the office carried high status and responsibility: “Whosoever then comes and teaches you all these things aforesaid, receive him. But if the teacher himself be perverted and teach another doctrine to destroy these things, do not listen to him, but if his teaching be for the increase of righteousness and knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord” (Didache 11:1-2).

Knowing is a common Pauline word used to denote a piece of agreed traditional teaching, suggesting that the heavy responsibility associated with teaching was known already to James’ readers (Martin 108). We is in the first person because James is himself a teacher of God’s word, and thus includes himself in those who are accountable for their calling.

Greater judgment in that teachers know the word and will of God and so are accountable for their knowledge. The phrase means that teachers will receive the “greater sentence” (Robertson 39) or that they are exposed to the greater danger of judgment (Moo 149-50). Adamson (139-40) speculates that this may be because God expects more of those who teach his word, or because the damage done to others by our sins is greater. The OT denounces evil speech against God (Numbers 21:5) and man (Psalm 49:20) more often than any other offense (Adamson 176). And Jesus was plain; “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

The problem of unfit teachers was acute in the early church, as the following references make clear (Martin 108):

•”There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them–bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).

•”If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words (1 Timothy 6:3-4).

•”The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).