Epistle of James, Chapter 3 – Sins and blessings of the tongue

Pasi Hujanen
Taisto Sokka

Consider what you say – James 3:1–2

The first and second chapter were mainly exhortations, but the remainder of the letter beginning from chapter three focuses mostly in warnings.

Again, it is important to note that Apostle James is not imagining a sinless life to be possible as some might accuse him. In verse 2 James states that “we all stumble in many ways”. It stays unclear whether James speaks there only about those called to be teachers in Congregation (Acts 13:1; 1 Cor 12:28; Gal 6:6; 1 Tim 5:17) or more broadly about all leaders of the Church.

The Bible is familiar with the idea of the leader of the church to be judged more strictly. Ezekiel spoke of the duty of a servant of God twice (“I have made you a watchman to the house of Israel”- Ezek 3:17–21; 33:7–9). Also, the words of Jesus Christ should not be forgotten: “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 12:48).

James’ warnings about the sins of the tongue are for all Christians. The Jewish Rabbis honoured teachers very much, even more than fathers. While a father brought them into the world, the teacher led them into the world to come. Therefore, especially teachers must observe their speech closely, although the same exhortation goes to everybody: “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36).

But nobody can avoid transgressing against God and his neighbour by his tongue. Only one person could do it: Jesus; “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22); “No one ever spoke like this man!” (Joh 7:46). Facing the holiness of God inevitably reveals our sin, especially in our speech. So happened to the prophet Isaiah (Isa 6:5) and so will happen to every human-being (Rom 3:13­–14).

A Little leaven leavens the whole dough – James 3:3–12

Also, Greek literature is familiar with the examples of the ship’s rudder and the small spark that sets ablaze a large fire. But Apostle James does not use these images to describe the superiority of the human soul to the powers of nature as the Greeks did. He rather wants to point out how a small thing can cause a great harm.

The sins of the tongue remind us that evil is not just something on the outside which tries to make us unclean. Evil is foremost inside ourselves (ref. Matt 15:10–29; “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”, Matt 12:34).

James wants to remind his readers that you can never be a part-time Christian. The nature of your Christian faith is revealed by your daily life, not some speech at a feast.

In the beginning man was set as the lord and ruler of the Creation (Gen 1:28; 2:15). One way man is easily distinguishable from animals is the ability to speak. But if this gift of God is misused in works against God, then how great is darkness (Matt 6:23)? The origin of that kind of darkness can only be from the adversary of God. That is Hell, Gehenna (verse 6), which originally meant the valley of Gidron, where child sacrifices were burnt during the time of Sidkia, king of Judah, Jer 32:35.

What does James mean by “the entire course of life” (literally “wheel of birth”) in verse 6? In Hinduism this course of life means reincarnation, the wandering of souls into a new birth. The intention of James is apparently to speak metaphorically about all life in general, the circulation of life.

To conclude, James takes a few examples from nature to show how it cannot be right that the same tongue blesses and curses (verse 9). Every tree bear fruit according to its kind (verse 12; Gen 1:11–12).

We can add to this that one litre of fresh water does not make a great amount of wastewater to be drinkable, but one litre of wastewater spoils a great amount of fresh water.

If people see two types of behaviour in us, they must ask, which one of them is according to our true nature. Unfortunately, it seems that a small amount of bad spoils the good, but not the other way around.

True and false wisdom – James 3:13–18

Wisdom and intelligence are different things. In the Bible wisdom means life experience and understanding (verse 13; ref. Proverbs and other Wisdom literature in the Old Testament). The wisdom that the Bible teaches about cannot be measured by IQ, but behaviour, like Apostle James does.

According to the Bible, Truth must live in your heart in order to for you to become wise (verse 14). Cunning and exploitation of another person is not true wisdom though it might be clever. The Book of Proverbs speaks of the foundation of wisdom as follows: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7; ref. also Prov 2:1–19).

James depicts two types of wisdom, which both have their own roots, their own effect on human behaviour and ultimately their own results. True wisdom comes from God (verse 15), it effects to good behaviour (verse 13) and its results are good fruits (verse 17; a list which is similar to the fruits of the Holy Spirit by St. Paul in Gal 5:22–23).

The wrong, worldly wisdom comes from the devil and the demons (verse 15). This “wisdom” effects to quarrels, bitterness, and jealousy (verse 14) and ultimately results in disorder and every vile practice (verse 16).

Jealousy and bitterness are probably the most destructive emotions in a human-being. They can turn everything backwards so that nothing is sufficient for them.

Peace (verse 18), on the other hand, brings blessings also to your neighbours, not just yourself.

Unfortunately, the history of the Church shows us how quarrels have divided Christendom into numerous denominations and sects. James himself was restoring the connection in the divisions of the Early Church (Acts 15.13–21). It is difficult to say when division has been needless and originating from humanly differences, and when it has had a good outcome by preserving the true biblical doctrine and living faith. In any case, we should be cautious about any intentions of starting a new group of Christians inside a Christian denomination or detaching themselves from it.

The list of “the fruits of wisdom” in verse 17 end in the word “sincere”. The opposite of sincere is pretence, which means wanting to avoid honesty and trying to be something else than what they really are. Often, we conclude that it is wise to please people, but James exhorts us to be honest in every situation. Of course, honesty does not mean that we must say every thought we might have about another so that we offend them. James wants us to avoid speaking things we do not really think or opinions which are not our own.