I preached on James 3:1-12 last Sunday night at HTD. Click here to listen to it! (Right click and chose the 'save' option to save a copy to your hard disk!)

My notes/sermon text...

Tongue facts:
  • Close to fifty percent of the bacteria in the mouth lives on the surface of our tongue.

      • when kissing, we tend to swap 256 colonies of bacteria with our partner

  • 85% of the population can curl their tongue into a tube.

  • Every person has a unique tongue print.

  • Relative to size, the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body

  • And not only is it the strongest muscle but, as we heard in the reading, the bible tells us that even though the tongue is small, it boasts of great exploits. And tonight we're going to unpack just what it is our tongues are capable of, and hopefully you will feel encouraged to tame the weapon of mass destruction that is your tongue.

The idea that the tongue is a weapon of mass destruction is not new to James 3.
Earlier in James

1:19 – Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger

1:26 – If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but devieve their hearts, their religion is worthless.

Elsewhere in the NT we see that our speech is important. In Eph 5:4 Paul says:

Entirely out of place is obsecene, silly , and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving.

Jesus also has a bit to say about the potential destruction that the tongue can bring.

Matthew 12:34 – How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

12:37 – for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned

In Proverbs in the OT we also see that the bible warns us about the tongue and our speech.

11:9 – With their mouths the godless would destroy their neighbours

11:11 – A city is overthrwon by the mouth of the wicked

18:6 – A fool's lips bring strife, and a fool's mouth invites a flogging

18:7 – The mouths of fools are their ruin and their lips a snare to themselves

18:21 – Death and life are in the power of the tongue

Finally, right back at the beginning of human life on this earth, in Gen 3:12, after the fall, one of the first sins humans are guilty of involved our tongue, as Adam tried to weazle his way out of his own responsibility.

It is clear that as far as the bible is concerned, the tongue is capable of mass destruction. The way we speak has power, and since the beginning of time, right though to Jesus coming, and then into the early days of the church, our ability to speak, to use our tongue, has been the cause of many problems.

So lets look more closely at what James says about the tongue. James 3:1

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters,* for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

James begins this passage, where he talks about the power of the tongue by warning people that they should think twice about becoming teachers, because those of us who teach will be judged with greater stirctness by God. Why does James start here? When he is going to talk mainly about the great and dangerous things the small tongue can do, why start with a warning about becoming a teacher?

Well teachers teach with their tongue. They use words to educate. They stand up, and with their tongue they teach people what to think, say, feel. They encourage people, and rebuke people. Because the tongue is so vital to the teacher, and because the tongue is so difficult to control, not many of us James says, should want to be teachers.

James continues:

2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.

We all make mistakes. We all do things we regret... If you've never done something you regret, you will have certainly said something you regret. I do this all the time. I can be quick to form an opinion and even quicker to express it. Over the last few years I've mastered the art of saying something and then going into back tracking damage control. I've been known to open my mouth without thinking, and to dig very large holes with my mouth and jump right into them!

Now thankfully, often this is superficial and ends up being funny. But not always. Sometimes my tongue gets the better of me. I say things that are mean. I say things to make people think more of me, or that I'm better than someone else. Towards the end of my high school years, I was part of a group that dished out some very mean and vicious speech towards another guy who was part of our youth group, who we found a bit annoying and frustrating. He was understandably devastated by our childish actions, and I think our speech probably damaged this guys relationship with Jesus as well as essentially destroying his relationship with his Christian brothers and sisters.

No one in this room has spoken without making a mistake. And what we say has power. James goes on to show this in the next verses:

3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.

I just want to take a moment to get our heads around these two analogies... According to Wikipedia,

“A bit used in equestrian activities is a piece of metal or similar synthetic material that is placed in the mouth of a horse... and allows a rider to control the animal”

A wild, running horse is a powerful thing. There's a reason when you talk about the power of your car you talk about horse power. But these big impressive animals, which can run in any direction can be relatively easily controlled... By placing a small bit into their mouth. This allows the rider to direct and control the horse.

Likewise big sailing ships are impressive things. I remember watching a Tall Ships race finish in Hobart one year, and I was suitably impressed with their size and the way such a big boat could be propelled by the wind. Likewise, when I've been sailing, I really love it when the engine of the boat gets turned off and we are just sailing under the power of the wind. But, in both cases, the rudder is vital. It determines direction. When you're sailing on a yacht, you need to turn the rudder to make sure you stay in the right line. It's the same on a big Tall Ship. Both these boat's direction is ultimately determined by the rudder.

And James is saying that our tongues are like the bit in a horses mouth, or the rudder on a ship. They determine our direction. You see if we keep using our tongue to say bad things about other people, to slag them off behind their backs, to stir up rumours and gossip, then we are not heading in a direction that is making us more like Jesus. But if we are building up each other, encouraging, not spreading rumours, not gossiping, praising Jesus, speaking up for our faith to our non-Christian friends, then we are heading in a good and Godly direction.

As both the horse bit, and ship rudder are small when compared to the thing they give direction to, so too the tongue, James says in verse 5a:

5aSo also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

Our small tongue is capable of a lot. And it's not all good. James continues:

5bHow great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature,* and is itself set on fire by hell.*

James again is saying that the tongue, even though it is small, can have a devestating and damaging effect. Like a spark that sets a massive forest on fire, so our tongues can cause us to sin, and if left unchecked can draw us away from Jesus.

We know that it is hard to control the tongue, to control what we say. James is saying in verse 6 that our tongues are so hard to control, because they are by nature, sinful.

The tongue, by virtue of being the most difficult of all parts of the body to control becomes the way that all the evil of the world around us comes to expression in us.

And it's so easy for the devil, to use our tongue to cause mass destruction to our lives, and the lives of our friends.

No other 'member' of the body, perhaps wreaks so much havoc on the godly life.

James continues:

7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Not only is the tongue the place where our sin comes to the fore. But the tongue is untamable. You can practice all you like at saying nice things, you can try really hard to be nice. But you won't be able to tame your tongue. When you get tired, or a bit annoyed at someone, your tongue will slip... you might be tempted to slag someone off behind their back, or swear at the ref when they make a terrible call. Even when you're in a great mood but you stumble and stub your toe... you will see that your human efforts to tame your tongue will have been worthless.

But as followers of Jesus, we believe that we are given the Holy Spirit. And it is by the power of the Spirit that we can tame the tongue. The Holy Spirit can start us on a process of transforming the tongue, into a vessle that praises God. But the fact that our tongues are being transformed doesn't mean it is ok to allow our tongue to be a weapon of mass destruction, a spark setting ourselves on fire. James continues:

9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters,* this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters,* yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

In these verses James is warning us about the relaity of sinful humanity.

Last week we heard Jono talk about how our faith saves us, but that that faith is only genuine if it gives birth to acts of love, that is real faith changes us, and makes us behave in a different way. James says in 2:17:

“faith by itself, it it has no works, is dead”.

One of the works that faith will produce in us is changed speech. And this is what James is alluding to in these final verses of tonights passage. You say you have faith says James, well look at your speech. Do you praise God one moment, and then curse other people the next? Can the same spring produce both fresh and distasteful, salty, brackish water? Even if there was some fresh water being produced, it would be being polluted by the distateful water, making the spring useless.

James wants us to use our speech as a way to check how our faith is going. A fig must have at it's source a fig tree. A grapevine produces grapes. Loving speech which brings glory to God must have at its source God. A heart that is changed by the Holy Spirit is the source of speech that builds up, that encourages, that praises God. The flip side is that speech which tears down, which is deliberately harmful, full of bitterness, has at it's source an unchanged, sinful heart.

Questions to consider:

Have you done some major damage with your tongue that you need to fix?

What does your tongue say about you?

What does it say about the direction you are heading?

Are you allowing your speech to be changed by the Holy Spirit?

Are you relying on your own strength in your battle against the tongue?