James 3:1-18

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The admonition that not many should seek to become teachers appears to be directed to those who were not qualified. Addressing fellow believers as “my brothers,” James reminded them that teachers were subject to a severer judgment or greater scrutiny than others in the community of believers. As instructors of fellow believers, teachers had a larger sphere of influence, and any errors they might make could have serious consequences. They needed to be exemplary in their personal conduct, and those being taught would rightly expect them to adhere to the highest standards possible. (3:1)

James included himself when he acknowledged that all of us stumble often or make many mistakes. A man who does not stumble in word, making no mistakes, would be a “perfect man, able to bridle his whole body.” Even for qualified teachers, making mistakes is inevitable. The potential for serious error is far greater in the case of persons who are in no position to be teachers. This should have prompted those who wanted to be teachers to think seriously about whether they were prepared to face greater accountability than others, especially since the potential for making mistakes was very real and could cause harm to those who followed the erroneous instruction. Only a “perfect man” would succeed in being able to express himself correctly at all times and with the right disposition. Sound teaching involves more than one’s imparting and applying information accurately. What is being taught also needs to be conveyed with the right disposition and with a deep interest in all who would benefit from good teaching. Considering the difficulty of flawless control over one’s speaking, the man who would have perfect mastery over what he says and how he expresses it would be able to exercise like control over his whole body, using every part of his body in a faultless manner. (3:2)

With bits in the mouths of horses, humans control the entire body of the animals, forcing them to move according to the will of the riders. Large sailing ships, driven along by strong winds, are controlled by the small rudder which the pilots steer. Both of these examples illustrate that a comparatively small device can control something that is far larger. Moreover, the two examples also serve to confirm that perfect control of the comparatively small tongue would mean that the one who had such mastery of it could bridle his entire body. (3:3, 4)

As the organ of speech, the tongue, though a small body part, is involved in voicing great “brags” or pretensions. Often the uttered claims fall far short of actual accomplishments, and the expressions of the tongue can also cause much harm. James illustrated that something that may appear insignificant in size can be responsible for great damage. It takes just a little fire, a spark, to set a whole forest ablaze. (3:5)

The tongue, when used to utter slander, inflammatory remarks, or abusive speech, is a “fire,” unleashing a destructive force that can reach out to harm many. James added that, among the parts of the body, the tongue is a “world of unrighteousness.” Every conceivable evil or injustice can first be expressed or incited by the tongue. In a sense, therefore, the tongue is a whole world of wickedness in miniature form. (3:6)

When used to express hurtful, abusive, or slanderous words, the tongue becomes an instrument of defilement. The whole body is soiled, for the utterances come to identify the whole person as a slanderer, a liar, or a hateful individual. (3:6)

A misused tongue sets the “wheel of the birth” or “existence” ablaze. The expression “wheel of existence” could designate the course of life. Translators have rendered it as “the entire course of our lives” (NAB), “cycle of nature” (NRSV), “a person’s entire life” (CEV), “our entire environment” (unsere ganze Umgebung [German, Hoffnung für alle]), and “our life from birth to death” (unser Leben von der Geburt bis zum Tod [German, Gute Nachricht Bibel]). The misused tongue damages the individual speaker and can corrupt everyone who is directly affected by it, polluting the whole environment into which a person comes at birth. (3:6)

James referred to the destructive power the misused tongue can unleash as “being set ablaze by Gehenna.” The designation “Gehenna” is evidently to be linked to the Valley of Hinnom, where unfaithful Israelites anciently engaged in idolatrous rites. Godly king Josiah eradicated idolatry and defiled the location, at which time or later the valley came to be used as a refuse dump. (2 Kings 23:10) It appears that this is the reason fire and worms or maggots are associated with Gehenna. With reference to the tongue, the meaning appears to be that the destructive power of the tongue is fueled by the intensity of the blazing Gehenna. (3:6)

Humans have tamed and been able to tame all kinds of wild animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures. (3:7) Ancient accounts reveal just how successful people have been. Among the tamed animals were lions, panthers, bears, elephants, apes, and monkeys. Apes were taught to play musical instruments, and they were trained to drive chariots to which dogs were hitched. According to Suetonius (Twelve Caesars, Tiberius, 72), Caesar Tiberius had a serpent that he fed “from his own hand.” Pliny the Elder (in his Natural History, Book X, chapter 43) mentioned that nightingales were very popular among the Romans, frequently being sold for as much as the price of a slave. Often the birds would “sing at command.” In his fictional work, the first-century writer Petronius, says about the home of Trimalchio, “A golden cage hung in the doorway, and a spotted magpie in it greeted visitors.” Ravens were also popular for imitating human speech, as was the green Indian parrot. Mullets and eels were trained to feed from the hands of their owners.

While able to manage, train, or tame a great variety of creatures, sinful humans have not been able to restrain their tongue from speaking what should never be uttered. As the organ of speech, the tongue has proved to be injurious and filled with lethal poison. The lies, slander, bad advice, and error it expresses repeatedly are responsible for much harm and even death. (3:8)

With the tongue, humans can bless or praise the “Lord and Father,” the God to whom all owe their existence. Yet with the same organ, people can curse men who are made in God’s likeness. They direct abusive words against persons who are his creation and, being in his image, are endowed with attributes like his. These godly qualities include the capacity for thought, wisdom, love, a sense of right and wrong, compassion, fairness, sympathy, and an appreciation of beauty. (3:9; see the Notes section.)

“Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” That this would be the case is incongruous, contrary to the norm in the natural world. When directing his words to fellow believers, his “brothers,” James noted that this should not be so. (3:10)

Using rhetorical questions directed to fellow believers (his “brothers”), he then illustrated how this is contrary to what occurs in the natural world. Spring water flowing from the same opening does not change from fresh to brackish (literally, “pours forth the sweet and the bitter”), does it? Can a fig tree yield olives or a grapevine produce figs? Of itself, salt water does not produce fresh water suitable for drinking purposes. (3:11, 12)

The emphasis on the great harm that the tongue can cause served to warn individuals not to be hasty in considering themselves qualified to teach others. James then raised the question, “Who among you is wise and knowledgeable?” This relates to the wisdom and knowledge needed in order to teach others. Wisdom requires being able to impart knowledge in a manner that has a wholesome effect on those who are being taught. Therefore, James stressed the need for the right disposition. A man who is truly wise should be able to show by his good conduct that his deeds give evidence of the gentleness, meekness, or humility that comes from wisdom. For his teaching to be effective, a teacher must be able to engender a favorable response in those whom he instructs. This requires treating the ones being taught with respect, not making them feel that they are ignorant inferiors. An arrogant bearing and harshness are repelling, whereas kindness, gentleness, and an unassuming disposition on the part of a teacher invite a positive response in those who are being taught. (3:13)

If in the “heart,” the deep inner self, a man were to harbor bitter envy or jealousy and contentiousness, selfish ambition, or a quarrelsome spirit, he would have no basis for boasting about how suitable he was to function as an instructor of others. Instead, any of such bragging about himself would actually be “lying against the truth.” Bitter envy, or begrudging what others are or may possess and being resentful toward them, and a quarrelsome attitude run counter to what an exemplary teacher should be. Accordingly, any claim by envious and quarrelsome individuals about their suitability as teachers would be a lie. It would be “false to the truth,” the truth being that they are unfit as teachers because of their jealousy or envy and their contentiousness or selfish ambition. Their quarrelsome disposition would also be contrary to the words and example of Jesus Christ and, therefore, would grossly misrepresent the truth he taught. (3:14)

“Wisdom” that is linked to envy and contentiousness is no real wisdom. It does not “come down from above,” for it does not have a heavenly or a divine source. God is not the one responsible for this ignoble kind of “wisdom.” It is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” In being “earthly,” this professed “wisdom” is of a debased nature as if derived from the dirt. It is the possession of earthlings who are not endowed with the genuine wisdom that comes from God. This ignoble “wisdom” is unspiritual (literally, “soulical”), being more like that of an animal that has no moral discrimination and is controlled by its senses to act instinctively. In being demonic, it is a wisdom associated with evil, corruption, hatred, and depravity. (3:15)

Jealousy or envy and contentiousness, strife, or selfish ambition destroy good relationships and give rise to ill-will and constant quarreling. Therefore, wherever these destructive traits exist, there will be a disorderly or tumultuous environment. Insecurity, suspicion, hatred, and divisiveness will prevail. Envy or jealousy and contentiousness or selfish ambition provide the breeding ground for every base or morally corrupt thing. (3:16)

Traits that are of an earthly, unspiritual, and demonic kind are the antithesis of the wisdom that comes from above, the wisdom that has God as its source. This wisdom is “first pure” or “chaste.” There is nothing of a defiling nature associated it, and those who are guided by it conduct themselves uprightly and interact with fellow humans in a loving and caring manner. (3:17)

The wisdom from above is “peaceable.” Persons who possess this wisdom are not quarrelsome nor vengeful. In their dealings with fellow humans, they promote good relationships with and among them. They endeavor to resolve differences amicably and seek to understand others better. (3:17)

Persons who have the wisdom that comes from above are forbearing (epieikés), tolerant, gentle or courteous. Instead of insisting on the letter of the law, they look at matters humanely and understandingly. (3:17)

Heavenly wisdom is revealed in an individual’s readiness to comply with whatever is right and fair. The Greek word eupeithés is descriptive of a person who is compliant and cooperative, not stubborn or resistant but yielding when the situation calls for making changes. (3:17)

Individuals who are “full of mercy” would be ready and eager to aid persons who are in need. Compassionate people would be willing to forgive, not harboring grudges or becoming resentful. They would give others the benefit of the doubt, not putting the worst construction possible on what fellow humans may do or say. (3:17)

“Good fruits” would include all actions that are morally good, deeds that stem from pure motivation and even exceed what others might expect from an upright person. Good fruits would be an evidence of love, a selfless and kindly disposition. (3:17)

Partiality is not the product of heavenly wisdom. Persons who manifest this wisdom do not show favoritism, not giving preferential treatment to those who are wealthy, prominent, or influential. In their interactions with others, they are considerate, kind, and loving, diligently striving to accord everyone the respect that is their rightful due. (3:17)

A hypocrite is a person who dissembles or puts on a pretense. In its basic sense, the Greek word for “hypocrite” (hypokrités) designates “one who answers” and came to be the term for an “actor,” a person who plays a part on the stage. Actors wore large masks equipped with devices that amplified the voice, and so the term hypokrités came to be used in a metaphoric sense to apply to a person who plays a part, a pretender, or a dissembler. Persons who are free from hypocrisy do not put on a false front. Their words and actions are a true reflection of their inmost selves. (3:17)

The “fruit of righteousness” may refer to all the good that results from righteousness, uprightness, or right living. Another possibility is that “righteousness” (that is, what God considers to be right, just, or upright) is itself the fruit. Either what righteousness yields or righteousness itself can only flourish where peace prevails or in an environment of mutual understanding and unity. One way to understand the concluding verse of chapter 3 is that persons who promote peace, working to further good relationships with and among others, are the ones who sow the seed that yields righteousness or right living as a fruit or that produces the deeds that are right and good. (3:18; see the Notes section.)

Notes:

In verse 9, numerous later manuscripts read “God” instead of “Lord.”

Verse 18 has been variously understood, and this is reflected in modern translations. “And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (NASB) “When peacemakers plant seeds of peace, they will harvest justice.” (CEV) “And the wise are peacemakers who go on quietly sowing for a harvest of righteousness — in other people and themselves.” (J. B. Phillips) “Peace is the seed-bed of righteousness, and the peacemakers will reap its harvest.” (REB) “And peace, for those who strive for peace, is the seed of which the harvest is righteousness.” (Weymouth) Die Frucht der Gerechtigkeit aber wird in Frieden denen gesät, die Frieden stiften. (The fruit of righteousness, however, will be sown in peace for those who promote peace. [German, revised Elberfelder Bibel]) Die Früchte, die vor Gott bestehen können, wachsen dort, wo Friedensstifter eine Saat des Friedens säen. (The fruits that can remain before God grow there where peacemakers sow a seed of peace. [German, Neue Genfer Übersetzung]) Die Saat der Gerechtigkeit, von Gott gesät, geht nur bei denen auf, die auf Frieden aus sind, und nur bei ihnen bringt sie Frucht. (The seed of righteousness, sown by God, only springs up among those who aim for peace, and it bears fruit only among them. [German, Gute Nachricht Bibel]) Wo Frieden herrscht, wird (von Gott) für die Menschen, die Frieden stiften, die Saat der Gerechtigkeit ausgestreut. (Where peace prevails, the seed of righteousness will be scattered [by God] for the people who promote peace. [German, Einheitsübersetzung])