The Pulpit Commentary

James 3:1-12 (James 3:1-12)


- The Pulpit Commentary

James 3:1 (James 3:1)

(1) Warning . Be not many teachers . The warning is parallel to that of our Lord in Matthew 23:8 , seq. , "Be not ye called Rabbi; for one is your Teacher [ διδάσκαλος , and not, as Textus Receptus, καθηγητής ], and all ye are brethren." Comp. also 'Pirqe Aboth,' 1.11, "Shemaiah said, Love work and hate lordship ( תונברה )." The readiness of the Jews to take upon them the office of teachers and to set up as "guides of the blind, teachers of babes," etc., is alluded to by St. Paul in Romans 2:17 , seq. , and such a passage as 1 Corinthians 14:26 , seq. , denotes not merely the presence of a similar tendency among Christians, but also the opportunity given for its exercise in the Church.

- The Pulpit Commentary

James 3:1-12 (James 3:1-12)


I. THE GREAT RESPONSIBILITY OF TEACHERS . This is forcibly shown by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:15 , etc. Even of those who have built upon the right foundation the work is to be tested by fire, and "if any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire." What, then, must be the "greater condemnation "in store for others whose very foundation was faulty? In a commentary especially designed for teachers of others, a strong recommendation may be permitted of Bishop Bull's noble sermon on the text, "Be not many masters:" 'Concerning the Great Difficulty and Danger of the Priestly Office' (Bull's 'Works,' vol. 1. sermon 6).

II. IMPORTANCE OF MASTERY OF THE TONGUE . Without a bit in the horse's mouth it is impossible for the rider to have command over his steed. So, without a bridle on the tongue, no man can govern himself aright. David felt this, and said, "I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me" ( Psalms 39:1 ). Even Moses, the meekest of men, was shut out of the land of promise because he "spake unadvisedly with his lips." And with regard to the one sin, of which we read that it "hath never forgiveness, neither in this world nor in the world to come," it is clear that it is a sin of the tongue, for it is always spoken of as " blasphemy ," and never in general terms as" sin against the Holy Ghost." "We rule irrational animals with a bit; how much more ought we to be able to govern ourselves!" (Wordsworth).


1. Sins directly against God; e.g. blasphemy, the mockery of holy things, swearing.

2. Sins against our neighbor; e.g. evil-speaking, lying, and slandering.

3. Sins against ourselves, infringing sobriety, discretion, or modesty. (See Barrow's' Sermons,' vol. 1. sermon 13)

IV. IMPORTANCE OF LITTLE THINGS . The bridle is a very little thing, but the rider cannot do without it. The rudder is very small, but it enables the steersman to guide a very large vessel. A tiny spark may set on fire a huge forest. So the size of a battle-field is quite disproportionate to the extent of country won and lost upon it. The tongue is a very little member, but a victory over it will save the whole man; on the contrary, a failure to rule the tongue involves far more than the sin of the moment; for, small as it is, the tongue "boasts great things, and defiles the whole body," and so leads to the ruin of the whole man.

V. THE TONGUE IS A FINE . The apostle is speaking of the tongue as an instrument of ruin, destruction, and devastation. As such it is kindled from beneath—"set on fire of hell" ( 1 Corinthians 3:6 ). But there is another sense in which the tongue is a fire, kindled from above, cheering and warming and gladdening men's hearts, and if its power for evil is great, so also is its power for good. "The fire of man's wrath is kindled from beneath, as the fire that cleanses is kindled from above. Bearing in our minds the wonder of the day of Pentecost, it is hardly too bold to say that we have to choose whether our tongue shall be purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit or defiled by that of Gehenna" (Plumptre).


1. The slanderer injures himself. "The tongue... defiles the whole body."

2. Slander is uncontrollable. "The tongue can no man tame." It "sets on fire the wheel of birth;" that wheel "which catches fire as it goes, and burns with a fiercer conflagration as its own speed increases ... You may tame the wild beast; the conflagration of the American forest will cease when all the timber and the dry under-wood is consumed; but you cannot arrest the progress of that cruel word which you uttered carelessly;… that will go on slaying, poisoning, burning, beyond your own control, now and forever."

3. Slander is unnatural. "These things ought not so to be." It is a contradiction to nature, as much as for a fig tree to bear olives, or for a fountain to produce both fresh and salt water.

4. Slander is diabolical in character. "The tongue … is set on fire of hell." The very name of Satan is "the slanderer." (See Robertson's 'Sermons,' vol. 3. sermon 1)

- The Pulpit Commentary

James 3:1-2 (James 3:1-2)

A dissuasive from ambition to teach.

Throughout this chapter the apostle sounds a loud note of warning against sins of the tongue. The opening exhortation directs our thoughts to the responsibilities and dangers of the religious teacher. No one is under more constant temptation to sin with his lips; for it is the daily work of his life to speak regarding the most solemn themes.

I. THE CAUTION . " Be not many teachers, my brethren" ( James 3:1 ). It would appear that the Pharisaic Jews of the time of the apostles vied with one another for distinction as teachers. At Church meetings it often happened that the time for free conference was consumed by those who had least to say which was likely to be profitable. So James counsels the members of the Church to be " swift to hear" and " slow to speak" in the religious assembly. While the office of the spiritual teacher is highly honorable, it is difficult to sustain it with honor. To do so demands superior intellectual power, keen spiritual insight, intimate acquaintance with Scripture, accurate knowledge of human nature, and a variety of other aptitudes which few possess. This dissuasive is needed by the modern Church little less than by the congregations of " the Dispersion." Our young men who aspire to the pulpit should consider well whether they have received a heavenly call thither. They should ponder the wise advice of an experienced pastor to a young student: " Do not enter the ministry if you can help it ;" i.e. unless you have a burning desire to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as a preacher. This dissuasive reminds us also of Paul's rule: "Not a novice" ( 1 Timothy 3:6 ). How often is the young convert, especially in times of feverish revivalism, encouraged to narrate his " experience ," and to address large religious meetings, greatly to his own spiritual detriment, and to the damage of the cause of Christ! James's counsel has a relation also to the pew. In its spirit it enjoins those who " hear the Word" to cultivate a docile and teachable frame of mind. Nothing hinders edification more than habits of pert and paltry criticism of the accidents of preaching.

II. ITS GROUND . (Verses 1, 2) How weighty is the responsibility of the religious teacher! He undertakes to perform the most important of all kinds of work, and by the use of means which involve the most difficult of all attainments, even to a godly man. The minister of the gospel is especially tried as regards the government of the tongue; and, alas! the most experienced pastors, even James and his fellow-apostles,—often "stumble in word." Teachers who are habitually unfaithful are guilty of peculiarly heinous sin; they shall be indicted at the bar of God for blood-guiltiness. Since the pastor is like a city set on a hill, his errors work more mischief in society than those of an ordinary member of the Church. The lowest deep of perdition shall be occupied by unconverted preachers of the gospel.


1. To Christian teachers. Let us labor and pray, with heart and mind, and with books and pen, so that our pulpit utterances shall not be hasty or unguarded, and that we may be "pure from the blood of all men."

2. To the members of the Church. Give your minister your loving sympathy, and do not continually advertise and bewail his infirmities. Seeing that his work is so arduous, maintain the habit of constantly " helping " him with your prayers.—C.J.

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James 3:1-12 (James 3:1-12)

The ethics of speech.

In these verses is dealt a rebuke against the craving for authority, which, as he reminds them, involves "heavier judgment." How? Partly as coming under judgment itself (see Matthew 23:8-10 ); partly as involving increased responsibility. And responsibility and judgment are very near akin. More especially, in these words of warning, he has in view that confused assembly of theirs, in which all vied together in attempts to speak. How great the danger of "stumbling" in such speech! A stirring up of impatience, rancor, strife. This leads to thoughts on the power of the tongue, for good and for harm; with practical conclusions as to the inconsistency of unbridled speech.


1. For good. ( James 3:2-5 ) Speech? It is the quick, instinctive, volatile expression of the man. A subtle effluence, showing the inner life. And as the inner life is agitated and stirred, tossing first this way, then that, how readily may the words also be committed to the impulses of the heart! And as those impulses may so easily be, for the moment, wrong impulses, how easily may wrong words be spoken! And so the transient feeling has fixed itself in a word that bites, and is not forgotten. And the feeling itself is fixed by the word that has uttered it; the man is committed to what otherwise he might have been glad to forget. James's first meaning, then, in the statement that the man who stumbles not in words is "a perfect man," is perhaps this: that one who has attained to mastery over so subtle and delicate an activity of the nature as speech, is perforce a man who has mastered all the more tangible and more controllable activities. The "whole body," all conduct, is brought into subjection, if this element of life is rightly swayed. Is it not so? Your experience will tell you that this is the last, the most intractable of the activities which you are called on to subdue. But there is another meaning in the words than this. The man who schools himself to such restraint as absolute mastery over speech implies, has not merely learned perfection of self-control in the matter of other and more tangible activities, but is learning a better perfection than that—even the self-restraint of his whole interior nature. To restrain conduct is much; but to restrain thought, purpose, passion! to lay a firm, a mastering control on all the complex desires and impulses of our nature! Oh, surely that is a perfection of self-restraint indeed! And the bridling of the tongue means thus the bridling of the unruly passions of the heart. The restraint of expression is the restraint of the impulse that seeks to express itself (see for converse of this law the former exposition, where we have noticed how the exercise of a faculty perfects the faculty that is exercised: James 2:22 ). Do you not know this also from your experience? Let loose the word, and you have let loose the feeling; conquer the word, and you have conquered the feeling. So, then, the illustrations: the bridle, the helm. And the tongue, a little member, boasteth great things.

2. For harm. (Verses 5-8) The remarks under this head have been partly anticipated above. Let loose the word, and you have let loose the passions. An unbridled tongue is an unbridled nature. Unchecked speech is unchecked wickedness. Yes; the activities of the man and the interior impulses are alike let loose for harm if the tongue be uncontrolled. Illustrations: fire among wood. So the "world of iniquity," defiling the body, setting on fire the wheel of nature, and itself set on fire of hell! And then? Tame the tongue, and tame the nature, who may! Even ravenous and noxious creatures are not untamable as that is; a restless evil; full of deadly poison. So the psalmist (140:3). And your experience? A subtle, insinuating poison, which works its way into your whole nature, and infects all social joy.

II. THE INCONSISTENCY OF UNBRIDLED SPEECH . Picture their quarrelsome assemblies again: their invectives against one another, their common virulence towards the Gentile Christian Churches. And withal hymns to God! That is, hate and love in the same heart together, and all essentially towards God himself (verse 9)! The inconsistency (verse 10). So illustrations: fountain, tree (verses 11, 12). These contrarieties, impossible in nature, can exist in us! And yet in truth they cannot. For ours is one nature. Can salt water yield fresh (verse 12)? Neither can a cursing nature bless, or a hating nature love. And so our very praise is vitiated, and our worship becomes blasphemy. Oh, what are our dangers daily in this matter of speech! And perhaps, to shun them, we say we will hold our peace, even from good ( Psalms 39:1-13 ). Nay, but we must rather learn of him who was meek and lowly in heart. And so our speech shall be pure as his was, and our turbulent nature shall find rest.—T.F.L.

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