Home » Various Sermons » Silence is Golden: James 3.1-12

Silence is Golden: James 3.1-12

(A quick note of apologies I’ve posted two James Sermons ups this week due to forgetting to put the one I did last week up, also note I have some more theology to place up at some point…)

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.  If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.  Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.   For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,  but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?  Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” – James 3.1-12

There are different things which God has called us for, some of us have been given a harder job from God then others and that’s okay.  We’re not all meant to have the same job and the same responsibilities.  God has as James notes here called some to be teachers, but not everyone and few should want it.  James moves into Chapter 3 with a warning about becoming a teacher but he quickly moves into another warning about misuse of the tongue.  That small little part ourselves which can an does get us in some much trouble.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” – James 3.1

This section of James returns to thoughts that James had already mentioned before, that of the issues that come from our tongues[1].  Remember that James said in 1.19 “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;” And he also said in 1.26 “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”  Already we know that our use of the tongue is important, but James isn’t finished in explaining the caution we must have.  For now James moves into furthering other things that deal with the tongue.  The first of which is the position of teachers, before he moves onto to full power of the tongue[2].

James begins this chapter by addressing his readers once more as “my brothers,” and which he’ll say twice more and in a sense he’s softening the blow[3].  In talking about teachers James hits a very important point that was for the church as whole back then as it is so today[4].  The term “teachers” here is the Greek word didakalos, and in a sense we can see that this word has the similar idea of Rabbi and is used of Jesus in the Gospels[5].  Matthew 23.8 for example “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.” Or John 1.38 “Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?””

Moreover one can see that  this word comes up again as a sort of title for people within the early church movement[6]. As seen in Acts 13.1 “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” To Saint Paul teaching was as Moo puts it “high on the list of gifts of the Spirit[7].”  As 1 Corinthians 12.28 says “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” Or Ephesians 4.11-12 “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,”  In a sense one could say that the role of the teacher was indeed and “important and honorable[8].”

A teacher was different from the other well known role of Prophet whose main task was of receiving messages from God; they instead had the task of explaining the words of God, as noted before, basically what a Rabbi would have been in James’ community.  To be a teacher was to be something in of importance, it was a way to gain class that seemed impossible for those of lower rank[9].  The idea that we should be careful about being teachers is one that is similar to Jesus’ teachings back in Matthew 23.5-8 “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,  and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues  and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers[10].”

We aren’t supposed to become Teachers because we want to hear how good we are or to be look on with a sort of admiration.  “To be called Rabbi,” so to speak.  James likely picking up on his brother’s teaching gives us the idea that while the position of Teacher is a great one, it is not one we should seek out for the wrong reasons.  We need humility in teaching; we need to be doing so for the right reasons, not for the wrong ones.  Before we even worry about messing up we have to worry that our desire to teach isn’t out of a desire to be recognized as something more worth then what we are.

James explains that “we who teach,” will have greater judgment and it’s interesting because James has moved from you, to “we,” and thus James is placing himself in this category of teacher[11].  This group which will receive great judgment is once again something that Jesus has talked about, noting for example: Mark 12.38-40 “And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”” As a teacher on begins find that they have more and more responsibility and in a sense by teaching in the church we affect people’s spiritual growth good or bad[12].

One can look toward one of Jesus’ parables: “Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?  Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.   Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions.  But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful.  And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.  But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” – Luke 12.41-48

As a teacher one is given more, as teacher one has a higher degree which they have be held up to.  As every teacher in church needs to take this warning to heart, so do I, “Our greater knowledge brings with it a greater responsibility to live according to that knowledge[13].” We must become teachers for the right reasons, such as God’s calling and gifting, not for the wrong reasons such as the hope of earning respect and who know what else.

“For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” James 2.3-8

Everyone have a problem with their mouths getting them in trouble, but teachers speak more often and so they more often than others have a problem with their lips.  “For we all stumble,” God has given us a standard, and it’s interesting because James has already included himself in the group of teachers and now includes himself in stumbling like the rest of the world, if one the leaders have troubles then in a sense we can feel comfort when it seems hard, that it’s hard for everyone, from the founders of the church to the common person sitting in the pew[14].  That this is connected with the previous sentence, the “For,” or “because,” (Greek gar) indicates that James is talking in specific of teachers[15].

The word “stumble,” Greek ptaio, gives the sense of “be ruined or defeated,” to “make a mistake,” or to “sin,” if talking about sin, it would seem to suggest a “minor or inadvertent sin[16].”  And it would in this sense that James seems effected once again by extrabiblical wisdom: “A person may make a slip without intending it.  Who has not sinned with his tongue?” (NRSV Sirach 19.16).  In general however the idea of “Silence is Golden,” was one which was at home in Jewish (and Hellenistic) Wisdom teachings[17].  For example Proverbs 12.13: “An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, but the righteous escapes from trouble.” Or 13.3 “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” Or as our friend Ben Sira in 20.18 says “A slip on the pavement is better than a slip of the tongue; the downfall of the wicked will occur just as speedily.” (NRSV)

Once more James has given a piece of wisdom and is now following it with several pictures.  All of which have one thing in common, something small controls something big.  Our tongues are small and yet they get us into some of the biggest of troubles.  In the context of being warned about wanting to be teachers we get the sense that we are being warned about the very true fact that we are in essence giving ourselves over to role which involves such an easy way to fail.  And as pointed out by the other pieces of Wisdom, our lips, our tongue can mess us up easily, but we need to avoid such things.

“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?  Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” – James 3.9-12

Not only do our tongues control us though they be small, with our lips we do two things which are completely opposite of what ought to be, blessing and cursing. Note that James once more uses “we.”  The idea of Blessing could be found within the Jewish prayer, we can often find in the Old Testament similar phrasing such as[18]:  1 Samuel 25.32: “And David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me!” or Psalms 89.52: “Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and Amen.”  Moreover Blessing God was something which was becoming a part of the Christian community as we find Passages such as 1 Peter 1:3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” or 2 Corinthians 1.3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,[19]” To bless God is to do something good and common, there is nothing wrong with this, in fact it should be done!

The verb katarasthai means to “call curses down on someone”The idea of Cursing our brother is constantly looked down upon in the New Testament, Jesus does say in Luke 6:27-28 “”But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” And Paul in Romans 12.14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them[20].”

The words of Clement are very applicable here: “Therefore let us unite with those who devoutly practice peace, and not with those who hypocritically wish for peace. For somewhere he says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me”;and again, “They blessed with their mouth, but they cursed with their heart.” And again he says, “They loved him with their mouth, but with their tongue they lied to him; their heart was not right with him, nor were they faithful to his covenant.” Therefore, “let the deceitful lips that speak evil against the righteous be struck dumb.” And again: “May the Lord utterly destroy all the deceitful lips, the boastful tongue, and those who say, ‘Let us praise our tongue; our lips are our own. Who is lord over us?’ (6) Because of the misery of the needy and because of the groaning of the poor I will now arise, says the Lord. I will place him in safety; I will deal boldly with him.”[21]

By Blessing God we’re doing right, but by cursing man we are doing the opposite of what God wants, it doesn’t matter what man has done to us, for we told to bless the very ones who are in the act of persecuting us, those who abuse us and hate us.  If we are to bless the worst of men against us, we are to bless all men.  But by doing the opposite, by cursing man we break God’s hearts, we sin with lips, with tongues which is so easily and sadly done.  This is all the more saddening for the people whom we are cursing and made in God’s likeness as the beginning of Genesis 1.26 says[22]: “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”  This in essence means that by cursing man we are cursing God, by whose image they were made.

Which is why James shouts “this ought not be!”

In Conclusion:

James finishes this bit of letter by talking about teachers and way in which our words can make a mess of things.  We need to be careful with our mouths,  so that they don’t get us in trouble and if we are teachers we need to be careful that we remember that there is stricter punishment for the task that we have been given.  We need to be ready if God has called us to teach, but we need to be sober about it, that we don’t allow ourselves to get a bigger head then we ought to.  That we don’t allow ourselves to have our words matter more then God’s.


[1] Holloway James 3.1

[2] Moo 148

[3] Holloway James 3.1

[4] Richardson 146

[5] Johnson 255, Moo 148

[6] Johnson 255

[7] Moo 148

[8] Leahy 374

[9] Moo 148

[10] Holloway James 3.1

[11] Moo 149

[12] Moo 150

[13] Moo 150

[14] Richardson 147

[15] Johnson 256

[16] Moo 150

[17] Johnson 256

[18] Johnson 261

[19] Moo 163

[20] Johnson 262

[21] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers : Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999). 45.

[22] Moo 163

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1 Comment

  1. kristi says:

    I really enjoyed this.. I speak with many people about the Lord Jesus Christ and always come back to James. On my tongue how it is full of power and fire. It can’t be good and evil.. Just like choosing one master and not serving both. God and money… It’s so really that the bible is alive…It moves on you and the Holy Spirit that is with in you is just amazing… God has blessed you and keeps you safe.. Kristi….

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