James 3

James 3:1

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.

(a) Teachers. Don’t judge people.

The word for teacher (didaskalos) is sometimes translated as master. In a Jewish context a master was revered like an Old Testament judge (e.g., Luke 12:13). When the rich young ruler said to Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16), he was saying, “Jesus, I recognize you as a Master in the law. Please judge my law-keeping performance.” When the law-experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and said, “Teacher, the Law says stone her. What do you say?” (John 8:4–5), they were saying, “Apparently you’re an expert in the law. Prove it by judging this woman.”

To be a teacher or master was to be one of the Big Dogs when it came to dispensing law and passing judgment. Jesus was reluctant to play that game and we should be to. When James says, “Don’t presume to become a teacher,” he’s saying “Don’t judge others” (see Jas. 4:11–12).

The wrong way to read this passage is to think you cannot preach and teach the gospel. By the grace of God, we are all called to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ (Mark 16:15; Heb. 5:12). You may not be gifted to teach (see 1 Cor. 12:29), but are qualified because Jesus the Teacher lives in you, and his Spirit teaches you all things (John 14:26).

(b) Brethren; see entry for Jas. 1:16.

(c) A stricter judgment does not mean that preachers and teachers are held to a higher standard, or that bad teachers are sent to hotter parts of hell. The stricter judgment is the condemnation that comes from living under the law. Those who play the judgment game are setting themselves up for failure by pushing standards which they themselves cannot meet. By their own words they condemn themselves as lawbreakers and sinners (Matt. 12:37).

Note that the stricter judgment is analogous to the greater condemnation that comes to the religious and the self-righteous (see entry for Matt. 23:14).

Further reading: “Who dares to be a teacher?

James 3:2

For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.

(a) We all stumble, fail, and make mistakes. We say things we later regret. Yet under law you have no margin for error. One mistake and you are condemned as a lawbreaker (see entry for Jas. 2:10). Either you must be perfect or you need a Representative who was perfect on your behalf (Heb. 2:10).

(b) A perfect man is someone who never misspeaks. By this standard, Jesus is the only perfect man. Jesus never uttered a false word. He never insulted anyone or uttered any threats (see entry for 1 Pet. 2:22–23).

(c) Bridle the whole body. If you can control your tongue, you can control your whole body. But no one can tame the tongue (Jas. 3:8).

James 3:3–4

Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.

(a) Horses are powerful beasts yet they can be controlled through a tiny bit.

(b) Ships are among the most powerful of our machines yet they are turned by small rudders.

(c) The inclination of the pilot. Just as the pilot turns the rudder, the inclinations of our hearts direct the tongue. If the tongue speaks evil, the problem is in the heart. See entry for Jas. 3:14.

James 3:5

So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.
See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!

(a) The tongue has influence far beyond its small size. Like a horse’s bit or a ship’s rudder, your tongue can shape the course of your life, for good or ill.

(b) Boasts. The tongue makes grand statements. Think of the settlers of Shinar and their plans to build a tower with its top in the heavens (Gen. 11:3–4). Think of President Kennedy and his dream to send men to the moon. Every great accomplishment was first spoken into life by someone’s tongue.

(c) Fire. The tongue also has the power to destroy. With our tongues we can release life or death (Pro. 18:21). We can condemn, criticize, and kindle conflict. With little more than words and rhetoric, people have ignited wars.

James 3:6

And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.

(a) The tongue is a fire that can set the world ablaze (see previous verse).

(b) The very world of iniquity. The tongue is a world of trouble.

(c) Defiles the entire body. An unbridled tongue can ruin your life.

(d) The course of our life. The tongue is extraordinarily powerful. With it we shape our destinies. The words that we speak can build and destroy, heal and hurt.

(e) Hell. The original word (geenna) was the Greek name for Gehenna, a small valley southwest of Jerusalem where garbage was burned. Gehenna was both a real place and a metaphor for the eternal or unquenchable fire. See entry for Matt. 5:22.

James 3:7–8

For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.

(a) Tamed by the human race. We can control the animal kingdom, but we can’t control ourselves. We can tame tigers but not our own tongues.

(b)No one can tame the tongue yet some seem to think that we can. “We need to watch our words and discipline ourselves to speak positively.” This try-harder message produces either Pharisees or failures. “No one can tame the tongue” means you cannot fix yourself. A wicked tongue belies a wicked heart (Matt. 12:34). If the mouth speaks evil, it’s because the heart is evil (Mark 7:15, 20–23), and all the trying in the world cannot repair it. Only the Holy Spirit can give us a new heart and a new tongue.

(c) A restless evil. An out of control tongue is a loose cannon inflicting damage left and right.

(d) Full of deadly poison. Like the tongue of the serpent, the tongue is truly dangerous. A loose tongue can sink a friendship, destroy a marriage, end a career, kill a business, start a war.

James 3:9–10

With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.

(a) Father; see entry for Jas. 1:27.

(b) Both blessing and cursing. With our tongues we build up and tear down, and this is a sign that something is terribly wrong.

(c) In the likeness of God. Unique among all of God’s creatures humans were made to bear the Creators image and to represent him to creation (Gen. 5:1). We do not represent him well by cursing one other.

(d) Ought not to be this way. Something is wrong with humanity, and the evidence is in the way we talk. We are made in the likeness of God, but sometimes we talk like the devil.

James 3:11–12

Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

(a) A fountain cannot send out two kinds of water and a fig tree cannot produce olives. If our mouths speak blessing and cursing, something is wrong with our hearts (see entry for Jas. 3:14).

(b) Brethren; see entry for Jas. 1:16.

James 3:13

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.

(a) Wise and understanding. If you think you are wise, prove it with your actions.

James places a high value on actions. “If anyone thinks he is religious… If anyone says he has faith… If anyone thinks he is wise… let’s see your good behavior.” He is setting us up because he knows we can’t deliver. We all stumble in many ways (Jas. 3:2), and no one can control their tongue (Jas. 3:8). James is not trying to embarrass us, but to highlight our self-deception. We are just not capable of living the good life that God intends for us. True wisdom – the kind that leads to good behavior and fruitful living – is not innate, but comes from above (Jas. 3:17).

(b) Good behavior. Wisdom is proved by her deeds (Matt. 11:19). A bad tree cannot produce good fruit, and natural man cannot deliver a lifetime of flawless behavior.

(c) Gentleness of wisdom. The wisdom that comes from God purifies our hearts, sweetens our speech, and smooths our rough edges. It defuses our selfish ambition, giving us a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Pet. 3:4).

James 3:14

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.

(a) But. If there is wickedness in your heart and curses in your mouth, you are not the good person you think you are. You are deceiving yourself (Jas. 1:26).

To those who don’t see their need for grace, James delivers a two-punch combination. In chapter two, he challenges those who are religious to keep the law perfectly (Jas. 2:10). Here in chapter three he challenges those who think they are good to deliver perfect behavior and speech. Both standards are unattainable. No one can tame the tongue and no one can keep the law. We all need the grace that God provides (Jas. 4:6).

(b) Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition are the tell-tale signs of an insecure and unregenerate life (see entry for Jas. 3:16).

(c) Your heart may be the root of the problem.

Trying harder is never the solution when an untamable tongue is involved. What we need is a new heart, and this is what God gives us (Eze. 36:26).

(d) Do not be arrogant or boast about your so-called wisdom or morality. Your best efforts are worth less than dung (Php. 3:8).

(e) Lie against the truth. Face the facts and stop deceiving yourself. You’re not fooling anyone. Bad fruit means the tree is bad.

James 3:15

This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.

(a) Wisdom is the ability to make good decisions and sound judgments. See entry for Jas. 1:5.

(b) From above. Heavenly wisdom that comes from the Lord.

Living in the intersection of two realms, the physical and spiritual, we are exposed to two sources of wisdom: earthly, or human, wisdom and spiritual, or heavenly, wisdom. The wisdom that comes from above is vastly superior to earthly wisdom.

(c) Natural wisdom is based on natural understanding and is limited to what we see, hear, and think. It is sensual (based on the five senses) rather than spiritual and primarily concerned with the preservation and elevation of self.

Natural wisdom is what Adam and Eve employed when they chose to distrust God in the Garden. They saw that the forbidden fruit was pleasing to the eyes and they thought that eating it would make them wise (Gen. 3:6). While their judgment was consistent with their natural understanding, it was contrary to the word of the Lord. By preferring their own wisdom to that which is from above, Adam and Eve unwittingly opened the door to sin and death.

(d) Demonic. Earthly wisdom is influenced by the spirit of this world as opposed to the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:12). It is captured in the selfish and satanic boast, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Is. 14:14).

James 3:16

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.

(a) Jealousy and selfish ambition are the symptoms of the independent life. To be selfish is to put yourself before others. It is the antithesis of love, which is other-focused.

The unregenerate heart is selfish because it has not been born of the spirit. It knows no other way to live. No matter how hard it tries to be good and decent, its ultimate concern is taking care of itself and looking out for Number One. Only the sacrificial love of God can free us from the grip of sin and selfishness.

(b) Disorder. The selfish life is restless and unstable because it runs contrary to the divine order instituted by the Creator. We were created for koinonia-fellowship. We were not made to be independent and alone. When we put ourselves first, we become unbalanced and lose our place in the world. We lose touch with Christ’s reality and wander the shadowlands of our self-centeredness.

(c) Every evil thing. Selfishness is the root of all evil. Selfish ambition leads to discord, quarrels, arrogance, slander, gossip, greed, hatred, rage and murder. A mind set on the flesh leads to death (Rom. 8:6).

James 3:17

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.

(a) Wisdom; see entry for James 1:5.

(b) The wisdom from above comes to us through our revelation of Jesus. “Christ Jesus is our wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:30). Everything you need for life and godliness is found in him. If you need wisdom for your marriage or business or church, your first and last port of call is a greater revelation of Christ (Eph. 1:17).

The wisdom from above is infused with the favor of heaven and is characterized by the following eight traits:

(b) Pure. Earthly wisdom, especially when it comes wrapped in religious ribbons, will leave you feeling dirty and sinful, but God’s wisdom is pure and purifying. It purifies the heart (Jas. 4:8) leaving you as pure as the driven snow.

(c) Peaceable. Earthly wisdom leads to strife and discord, but the wisdom from above releases supernatural peace (Php. 4:7). If your spirit is troubled by a decision you have to make, that is a sign you have not yet received the peaceable wisdom that comes from God (e.g., 2 Cor. 2:13).

(e) Gentle. Earthly wisdom is intrusive, inconsiderate of others, and stress-inducing. Don’t miss out! Grab it before someone else does! But the wisdom of the Lord is gentle because he is gentle (Matt. 11:29). The Good Shepherd guides us gently and without pressure. If we hesitate to follow he does not scold us or get angry with us. He waits patiently for us to come to our senses, and when we do he embraces us without judgment.

(f) Reasonable. Earthly wisdom is demanding and intolerant. Do what you’re told. Don’t ask questions. In contrast, the wisdom of God is compelling and convincing. Our heavenly Father does not order us about like mindless robots, but he invites us to consider, reckon, and reason together. “Come now, and let us reason together” (Is. 1:18). “Consider the lilies” (Luke 12:27). His words may not always appear reasonable to our natural understanding. You want me to do what, Lord?! But his wisdom is always proved right in the end (Matt. 11:19).

(g) Full of mercy. Earthly wisdom is unhelpful and unforgiving. It’s all up to you. You messed up. In contrast, the wisdom from above meets our needs and lifts us up. Our compassionate Father does not expect us to climb up to heaven; he comes down to us and stands with us in our trial. He responds to our cries of distress with mercy and grace.

(h) Good fruits. Earthly wisdom appeals to our natural understanding – It seems good to me – but its fruit is rotten (Pro. 14:12). Earthly wisdom may come packaged in scripture. “Faith without works is dead, so get busy for Jesus.” But if the result is dead works and anxiety, you can be sure it is demonic in origin (Jas. 3:15). In contrast, the wisdom from above produces good fruits of righteousness (see next verse).

(i) Unwavering. Earthly wisdom is vague and unreliable and leaves you uncertain and full of doubts (Jas. 1:6). You’d be foolish to bet your life on it. But the wisdom from above is clear and trustworthy. Commit yourself to the Lord and his wisdom and you’ll never put a foot wrong (Pro. 3:6).

(j) Without hypocrisy. Earthly wisdom is bogus, but the wisdom that comes from God is the genuine article. Your Father is not a guru out to enrich himself. Nor is he a capricious con man out to trick you. Your heavenly Father’s desire is to reveal his love, bless you, and help you succeed (3 John 1:2).

James 3:18

And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

(a) The seed whose fruit is righteousness is Jesus, the Righteous One. When we receive the wisdom from above, we receive a greater revelation of Jesus (Eph. 1:17), and the result is right living and righteousness with God.

(Note that the seed is not mentioned in the original text but is implied. A literal translation of this passage reads, “The fruit of the righteousness in peace is sown by those making peace.” Since we don’t sow fruit, translators have added the word seed for clarity.)

(b) Righteousness is the state of being right with God.

We all desire to be righteous, but we may not agree on what righteousness is. Earthly wisdom says righteousness is being moral or good or keeping the rules. It’s something you do. But heavenly wisdom says righteousness is something to reap or receive, and in Christ you have it (Rom. 5:17, 2 Cor. 5:21, Php. 3:9).

See entry for Righteousness.

(c) Those who make peace do so by proclaiming the gospel of peace. We reveal the way of peace (Luke 1:79), which leads to the God of peace (Rom. 15:33), who gives us life and peace (Rom. 8:6). We make peace by revealing Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

To put this in context, James is addressing assemblies where there is discrimination, judgment, and quarrels (Jas. 2:1–4, 4:1). These are not happy assemblies, but they could be. The way forward is to recognize that we are all sinners in need of grace (see entry for Jas. 3:14), and that the righteousness we crave is the fruit of living in right relationship with the Righteous One. Communities that are infused with the wisdom from above enjoy righteousness, peace, and joy.

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  1. My biggest trouble on this scripture James 3:1, is the part that says that teachers will face a more strict judgment. What does that mean, will believers have to be judged as well especially on how they conducted themselves on earth?

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