Sunday, April 07, 2013

[Matt's Messages] "The Fearsome Tongue" James 3:1-12

“The Fearsome Tongue”
The Tongue of the Wise - Spring 2013
April 7, 2013 :: James 3:1-12

Today, we’re starting a new sermon series for the Spring of 2013.

And we’re going to call it, “The Tongue of the Wise.”

One of my all-time favorite passages of Scripture is Proverbs 12:18.

Which says, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Foolish reckless words are like handing one of the Three Stooges a sword.

They get us into so much trouble.

I was going to call this series, “Me and My Big Mouth!”

Do you ever feel that way?  Wish I could just stop making mistakes with my big mouth?

Well, that’s what this sermon series is going to be about.

What the Bible says about a Christ-follower’s WORDS.

And not just what we do wrong, but we should do instead. And to do it.

Because the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Proverbs 15:2 says, “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.”

I don’t want to just talk about the fool gushing folly, I want to talk about the tongue of the wise.

I want our church to be full of wise tongues.

Does that sound good?  I hope so.  I feel like we all need this.

“The Tongue of the Wise.”

Now, the wisest place to go in the Bible to start learning about the tongue is where?

James chapter 3, and that’s where we are.

This is the watershed passage in the Bible on the use and abuse of words.  And James uses the word “tongue” to stand for the many ways that we communicate with words–especially talking. 

In 12 verses, James has a lot to say about the tongue.  And I would like to summarize it with the word: “Fearsome.” “The Fearsome Tongue.”

James pulls out all the stops and uses every word-picture in his toolbox to describe the power and trouble of the fearsome tongue.

This passage stands as a warning to us to take the tongue seriously and to do something serious about it.

James begins his teaching on the tongue with a warning against desiring too greatly to become a teacher of God’s people.  Look at v.1.

“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

This verse has often served as a sobering reminder to me of the weighty importance of my role as your pastor.  “Not many of you should presume [or desire] to be teachers.”  To teach the people of God the Word of God.  Why? Is it because the church doesn’t need many teachers?

No.  We all know that the church always needs more gifted and dedicated men and women who will study the Bible and teach it to God’s people. 

But the great need for teachers in the church is for a certain kind of teacher in the church–one who will be faithful to the message and try to live out the message as an example.  It’s important to be the right kind of teacher.

Because to whom much is given, much will be expected.  James says, “because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

Because of the influence of the teacher’s tongue, the teacher will be judged more strictly at the Judgment Seat of Christ.

Now, James is not saying, “don’t ever become a teacher.”  He’s saying examine your motives and your lifestyle before you do (and while you are one). Because your motives and your lifestyle will come up before the Judge of All the Earth.  And because every word that you have ever taught will be a part of the record at the judgment.

Do you see the connection with the tongue?  Sometimes we tend to see v.1 as separate from the rest of the passage, but they are really intimately connected.  V.2 makes it more plain.

“[For] we all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says [the tongue], he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.”

James is saying that being a teacher (by definition) involves the tongue. And everyone stumbles with the tongue! Everyone struggles with words, saying the right words, using good words, using words in the right way.

That’s why we’re doing this sermon series. This is everyone’s problem.

So, before you become a teacher, you need to examine whether you have made any progress with your tongue. And even James struggles with this! Notice he includes himself in v.2.  “WE all stumble in many ways.”  And a key way that we all stumble is with our words.


There is something wrong with them.  They don’t match up with what they are supposed to be.  We stumble with them.  We all have slips of the tongue.  Slips into sin.  V.2 again.

“If anyone is never at fault in what he says [an impossibility in this life], he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.”

Our Men’s Bible Study is working the book of James right now, and I’m sure that they’ve already discovered that this is James’ favorite word, “perfect.”  It means, here, complete, whole.

That’s the goal. James is saying that if you want to be a Whole Christian, if you want to be perfect, then you have to start with and master the tongue.  And if you do that, then you will master all of your life.  That’s what he means by your whole body.  He means that your actions (your deeds) will all fall into place if you can master your words.

Getting the rest of your body into shape spiritually will be easy once you’ve mastered your mouth!


You won’t reach tongue-perfection in this life, but if you reach towards it, you will have increasingly greater effectiveness in all of the rest of your life.  And don’t think about becoming a teacher until you’ve seen some progress in this area.

Pursue perfection by mastering your mouth.  Because when you do, you will have increasing mastery over the rest of your life.

Do you believe that?  Do you believe that our words have that much influence?  James has some word pictures to convince us.  He elaborates in the next two verses on the powerfulness of the tongue.  If you can change the tongue, there will be major changes in your life.

Point #2.  OUR TONGUES ARE FORCEFUL.  They have a great power.  V.3

“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.” 

Our tongues are forceful.  They are small but mighty.  

They have great power.

The key words in vv.3&4 are “turn” in v.3 and “steered” in v.4.  Our words can be very small, but they have great effect in determining the direction of our lives–and the lives of the people around us.

You know this from experience.

You know that sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words can really devastate me!

You know that it was the right word at the right time that drew you to Christ.

You know that it was the wrong word at the wrong time that marked an end to one of your relationships.

You know how the way people are talking about you at school or at work or in your family is determining the direction of your life.

Proverbs says, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
The power of life and death!  Our tongues are forceful.

They are like a bit in the mouth of a horse.  Kent Hughes says, “A horse is a half-ton of raw power.” (Hughes, 137).  Think about all the power of a horse running at full speed.  But a little 75 pound girl who knows what she is doing can make a horse dance if she has a bit in his mouth.

Our tongues are forceful.  

They are like the rudder on a ship.  One of our aircraft carriers in the ocean is as big as a city with a city-full of servicemen on it.  And comparably small is the rudder of that ship. But it steers the whole thing.  V.5 again.

“Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.”  Or, “It can boast of great things!”

Our tongues are forceful.


It can do great good or it can do great evil.

That’s the whole point of this sermon series.

“Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

The tongue is forceful, and we cannot minimize its might.  If we use words recklessly, we can slash people and make them bleed all over.  But if we remember the might of our mouths, we can use our words like a skillful surgeon to bring healing.

What would happen?

What would happen in our marriages if the power of our tongues was harnessed by love?

What would happen in our parenting if the great boasts of our tongues were honed in on gentle but firm correction and wise instruction?

What would happen to our workplaces if the power of the tongue was directed to building each other up, instead of tearing each other down?

What would happen if all of the Christians online used their social media networks to speak upbuilding, edifying, encouraging, helpful words?

What would happen to our church if the power of the tongue was unleashed in ministry to one another, to the lost, and in whole-hearted prayer?

What would happen in your life or mine if the power of our tongues was harnessed to only righteous uses?  

We’d be perfect, I tell you!   We’d be able to keep our whole body, our whole person, our whole lives in check.

We must not minimize the might of our mouths. Our forceful tongues will set and are SETTING THE DIRECTION of our lives (and other people’s lives, too).

Unfortunately, our tongues are SO OFTEN NOT forceful for good..but for evil.

Point #3. OUR TONGUES ARE FIERY.  Look again at v.5.

“Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

I think that this is James’ most frightening word-picture.

He likens our tongues to a destructive, spreading fire.

“Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”  

One of my cousins lives in Rancho Cucamongo, California.  They have wonderful weather there year round.  But they also almost lost their home Summer of 2004 in the wild fires.

There are few scarier things in nature than a fast-moving, uncontrollable, destroying-everything-in-its-path wildfire!

And that’s what James says our tongues so often are. V.6

“The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.”

The forceful power that the tongue possesses is all too often a fire that destroys thing after thing in a person’s life.  Job after job.  Decision after decision.  Church after church. And worst of all: relationship after relationship.

“A world evil among the parts of the body.”

Instead of directing the body, the life, the person towards righteousness, v.6, “It corrupts the whole person, it sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

So often, the tongue is a doorway into hell.  Hell’s priorities and hell’s smoking stench is on the effects of the tongue.  Destruction, decimation, and devastation.

Do you think that James is overstating the case?  Do you think that James is exaggerating?  Maybe he’s just having a bad day?

I don’t think so.

I think that we’ve all felt the fiery power of words.

For example, my favorite sin of the tongue is...?  Gossip, of course.

What are some other fiery sins of the tongue?

How about criticism?

Have you seen someone go from this to this because they were cut down by biting criticism?  How many marriages have been torn asunder by a spouse’s constant belittling of their mate?

The tongue is a fire.

How about sarcasm and cruel humor?

I have seen the harmony of an entire floor of Bible college men destroyed by what some of them thought was funny at the expense of others. Meanness.

The tongue is a fire.

How about flattery?

Have you seen how flattery divides people?  Truth has gone out the window because of what someone greedily thinks they can get out of the other by buttering them up.  And it never has good long term effects.  It ruins perspective and balance and honesty.

The tongue is a fire.

How about boasting?

How many friendships have been ripped apart because one friend suddenly seems to think that they are better than the other?

The tongue is a fire.

How about insults?

They’re fiery on the surface!

The tongue is a fire.

One of the worst is complaining.

But a small spark will burn down the entire forest.  The tongue is a fire.

How about lying?

You say one thing but do another?  One lie demands another lie until you your forest is burnt down by lies.

Have you caught someone in a lie recently?

The tongue is a fire.

And Satan just laughs as we speak in His native language of lies!

“It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

Here’s the application: REPENT OF YOUR WILDFIRE WORDS.

Where you have sinned in speech, repent.  Turn from your wicked words.

Where I have sinned against someone in how I talk, I need to repent of that.

Ask yourself this question:


Who have I sizzled with some fiery, destructive word?

Either to their face or behind their back.

And then, go and make that right.

Repent of Your Wildfire Words.

You can’t take them back, but you can own them and seek forgiveness!

What fire category have you been playing with the matches in?

Gossip, criticism, sarcasm, cruel or mean humor, flattery, boasting, insults, complaining, lying?  Something else?  Profanity?  Enticing words?  Provoking words?

Those are some of the reckless words that we’re going to be talking about for the next several months.

Make this personal right now.  Don’t just look into the mirror and say, “Yeah, the tongue is fiery.”  Say, “Yes, MY tongue has been fiery in this way.  It’s been destructive.  And I need to own it in this situation. I’ve burnt this person or these people.  And I need to repent, seek forgiveness, and turn.”

How have your words been incendiary?

How have your words been kindling for the devil?

Repent of your wildfire words.

Because our tongues are fiery.

Of course, it seems like there should be a simple answer to this problem!

Just cut it out!  Take control of the tongue!  Tame your tongue!

But we know it’s not always that easy.  And James knows it.  He goes on to say:

Point #4.  THE TONGUE IS FEISTY.  It’s un-tame-able.  It’s restless and unstable.  V.7

“All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

That’s some bad news right there.

The tongue is un-tame-able.  I’ve seen elephant training up close.  It’s really cool.  I’ve been splashed upon by trained dolphins and whales.  I’ve seen some dogs do some really cool stuff. But NO PERSON can tame the tongue.

It’s feisty. Just when you think you’ve got it nailed, it jumps out and zaps you!  It’s a restless evil.  Full of deadly poison for others and for you.

Have you ever thought through what you were going to say in a conversation (maybe  a hard conversation that you knew you were going to have) and you rehearsed your words over and over again, but then you got into the situation and you just let them have it?  Self-control went right out the window?

I’ve had that happen so many times with my kids. I want to be patient and gentle yet firm and decisive, but I end up storming through their rooms, demanding my way, and raising my voice in a way that is intended to bully them into submission not to teach them glad submission to my authority!

I’m sorry, Mitchell kids.

What’s the answer to this?  Look again at v.8.

Perhaps “no MAN can tame the tongue.”  But we know there is Someone who can.


You want to change, but you feel like you can’t.  That’s because you can’t...on your own.  Only Jesus can do it IN YOU and THROUGH YOU.  No self-effort program will do it.  He alone can tame your tongue.  He alone can stop the trouble that your tongue is getting you into.

Surrender Your Speech to the Savior.

That’s what we’re going to be learning about over the next few weeks and months.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, God can tame your tongue as you turn it over to Him.

How do we do that?  Well, this passage doesn’t say directly, but it has a very strong hint in the last four verses.  They start out with more bad news, more denunciation of our tongues, but there is a hint in how it points to Jesus’ teaching that shows us the way forward.  Verses 9-12.

“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.  Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”

James says, point #5: OUR TONGUES ARE FORKED.

They often point in two different directions at the same time.  Praise for God and curses for people made in the image of God.  Out of the same mouth come praises and cursing.

Our tongues are forked!

And James says in the strongest way possible.  “My brothers, this should not be!”

Change is required here.

Change must happen now.

Our tongues cannot be divided.

Notice again, that James includes himself in these words.  This is not just for new Christians that still struggle, but not for pastors and church leaders.

James says, “WE praise our Lord and Father, and WE curse men, BUT my brothers, this should not be!”

We need to change!  We must have a change of tongue.


Again, James paints a word picture.  Fresh water and salt water from the same spring.

Not how it works!

Fig trees bearing olives, grapevines bearing figs.  Not the way it works!

Where is James getting this kind of metaphor?

From the Lord Jesus, right?  The whole book of James is based on the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus said in Luke 6, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.  Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. [Sound familiar?]  The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”  (Luke 6:43-45)

There is a source problem for our tongue problem.  What is coming out of the mouth is sourced within the heart.

And therefore, we need God to work on our hearts so that our tongues will glorify Him all the time.

We can’t just work on our tongues.  We can’t just surrender our speech to the Savior. Something more fundamental is required–heart change.

We need, not just half-hearts that also worship other things above God–idols of the heart, no, we need God to give us whole-hearts that worship Him above all else and then our words will overflow in sweetness and fresh water.


Trust God for a change of heart.  Seek God for a change of root.

Your spring needs to be changed from salt water sometimes to all fresh all the time. 

And that change needs to happen at the source.

So, ask and allow God to switch your source.

The overflow will be sweet and the tongue won’t be so fearsome any more.