Broadcasting now. Watch Live.

Watch Your Mouth! - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 3:1-12


Well, it's our joy this morning to return again to the letter of James. It's been several months, and I enjoyed our study of the Lord's Prayer, but it's time for us to return again to this great letter, the first letter, probably that was written in our New Testament. We come to the third chapter of James, which, if you had known that I was speaking on it this morning, you might not have come. Because none of us will escape this morning's method message, and I mean, literally, none of us unscathed. It's a passage that deals with the most troublesome issue that faces us, and that is, the control of our mouths.

What we say, I have discovered, and I'm sure you have, as well, has a way of coming home to roost. About a year ago I bought a book at Barnes and Noble called Foolish Words. It documents some of the most foolish statements ever made; some of them made by political figures; others made by great scientific minds and technological geniuses. These are a couple of my favorite. Charles Dual was the commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents. He suggested in 1899 that the office that he oversaw should be closed with these words: "Everything that can be invented has been invented."

But even great minds can be misled. Thomas Edison remarked, quote: "I have determined that there is no market for talking pictures." Pierre Pochet was Professor of Physiology at a French university and one of the greatest medical minds of his day. He wrote in 1872, "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is a ridiculous fiction." In 1876, there was an internal memo that circulated at Western Union Telegraph Company. And it said this: "The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." Of much more value to me, but those words are (Laugh), those words haunt Western Union.

Another shocking statement was written on the paper of a student at Yale University. The statement by the professor was this: "The concept is interesting and well-formed; but in order to earn a grade better than a "C," the idea must be feasible." This was a Yale University management professor responding to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. By the way, Fred Smith went on to found Federal Express. He got a "C" on his paper, but it turned out alright.

I'm sure all of those people wished that they could take their words back. You've experienced that, as well. But words, once they leave the cages of our mouths, stand forever, marking us as either foolish or wise, righteous or wicked. Words, once they are out of our mouths, can never be rescinded. So, the only way to truly control what we say is to control it before it leaves our mouths. That is the message of James 3. Let me read the passage for you. It's one we've all read many times before, I'm sure. See if you can listen with a sort of first-time attitude, a first-time spirit, as though you've never heard it before. Listen to the words of our Lord through the pen of James.

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such, we will incur a stricter judgment. 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. 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 great, and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder, wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 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. 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. For every species of beasts and birds and 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. With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men who've been made in the image and likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 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?

The theme here is fairly obvious. James identifies for us, using a variety of words and images. His most common image, throughout this passage is that of the tongue. You see it in verse 5 and verse 6 and verse 8. Now this is a figure of speech called a metonymy, in which an attribute or figure is substituted for the thing itself. For example, sometimes we'll say something like this: "I need you to go and count heads." Now we don't, we aren't just interested in heads. But in this case, the head, a part of the person, substitutes for the whole person. That's how he's using the word "tongue" here. To make sure we don't misunderstand his figure of speech in verse 2, he alludes to what he says: literally "in word." "If anyone does not stumble "in word," he is a perfect man." In verse 10, he refers to our problem as one with our mouth. Now this is important for us to understand, because we don't usually use the word "tongue" in the way. Instead, in similar English figures of speech, we use the word "mouth." For example, I remember, on a couple of occasions in my growing-up years, hearing from my parents something like this: "Watch your mouth!" Or "Your mouth is going to get you in trouble!" That's how James is using the word "tongue" throughout this passage. It is simply substituting for the issue of human speech.

The obvious theme of these verses is what we say. James personifies our problem, and calls our problem of speech by the primary physical instrument through which words are formed, the "tongue." This is a crucial issue to James. He's already exposed us to how important this is in his theology. Turn back to James 1. You remember in James 1:26 he says: "If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue, he deceives his own heart, and this man's religion is worthless." When we studied it together, we learned that this is a kind of rebuke against outward obedience that leaves the inner life unchanged.

He says, "If anyone." This is universal. "If anyone thinks himself," that is, comes to the subjective opinion about himself, that he or she is religious. James is talking to anyone who has concluded that, by his external obedience, by his religious activity, he is acceptable to God, or that his religious activity is acceptable to God. "If that person, however, does not bridle his tongue…," In other words James is saying this: "If you think you're religious, if you think that you're a doer of the Word, if you generally practice external obedience, but you don't control your mouth, if you don't evidence an inner change by what you say, then you're deceiving yourself." You're deceiving yourself. In fact, look at the end of verse 26: "This man's religion is worthless." The Greek word is literally "useless, vain, empty."

All of your external religious activity, all of your compliance with Scripture, all of your external religious activity matters not a hill of beans to God if there hasn't been a change in your speech. Why? Because your speech becomes one of the most reliable indicators of the reality of your faith. The words you speak are a wonderful barometer on whether or not your faith is genuine. "You control your tongue," James says. "That manifests a transformed heart." Now by the way, this doesn't mean, that if you're by nature a quiet person, that means you're a holy person. No, what James is saying here is, "When you speak, it reflects the Word of God; it reflects the standards outlined in Scripture. It is righteous speech." If that's true, then it indicates that your faith is genuine.

Now in chapter 3, James come back to this theme that he introduced in 1:26, to develop it a little more fully. He wants us to know that a renewed heart, a truly changed heart will result, or manifest itself, in a change in how you speak. But that change, like all of sanctification, as we've been learning, doesn't come without an effort on our parts. We must work hard, James says, to control our tongues.

Now in this third chapter, in the first 12 verses here, James gives us five reasons that you and I must learn to control our tongues. He wants us to understand why this is so important. And so, as he goes through this passage, he lays out for us five compelling reasons as to why this should be important. Why we should care about what it is we say. This morning we're just gonna get started. We're going to look at the first two that he gives us.

The first reason that James lays out here for why you and I should worry about our tongue, why we should control our speech is this: Our tongues condemn us. Our tongues condemn us. Notice verse 1. "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that, as such, we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways." Now at first glance, that doesn't seem to fit the flow of James' argument. It's been several months since we were in this wonderful letter written by the half-brother of our Lord, to those Jews who had been a part of the church in Jerusalem, but'd now been scattered because of the persecution recorded in Acts 12. And as their pastor, the head of the Jerusalem church, he now writes to these former members of his church, who've been scattered as a result of this persecution, with some serious concerns about their faith. Let me just remind you of where we've come.

In James 1:2 - 12 , James begins, as you might expect, with the issue of trials. They find themselves chased from their homes, scattered all around the area of Asia Minor. And he's concerned that they understand the roll that those trials play in their lives. And so, he begins with trials. Then in verse 13, down through verse 18, he turns to the next obvious subject; and that is: "Don't allow those trials to become a source of temptation." And he helps us learn how to respond to, or deal with temptation. Beginning in verse 19 of chapter 1, running through the rest of the chapter, James lets us know that one of the best and clearest ways to get a grip on whether or not we are believers, and how spiritually mature we are as believers is by our response to the Word of God. We studied that at length, the last part of chapter 1.

That brings us to chapter 2. In 2:1-13 James moves on to the issue of the sin of partiality. That is, the sin of treating someone differently because of merely external factors; whether you give them special preferential treatment, as here in James 2, or whether you treat them worse, it doesn't matter. If you're responding to people based on purely external factors, and treating different people differently because of how they're dressed, or where they come from, or where their homes are, what kind of cars they drive, then it's a sin.

In verses 14 - 26 of chapter 2, James comes to really the heart of his letter, which is: he wants to warn these people that there are two kinds of faith. There is a dead faith. That is, there is a kind of believing that is a non-saving faith. You can believe that Jesus is the Christ. You can believe that He died. You can believe that He was raised again, that He sits in heaven, and still not be a Christian. There is a dead faith. And there is also a living faith. There is a kind of faith that manifests itself in the life; that shows itself by obedience to Christ. Those are serious issues. But notice he ends verse 26 with these words: "Faith without works is dead." And then, immediately, in verse 1 of chapter 3, he goes to the issue of speech.

What's the connection? Well, one of the clearest indicators of whether we have a living faith or a dead faith is what comes out of our mouths. In the words of one commentator, "Words are also works." Our words are also works. And they tell a lot about the genuineness of our faith. But then we need to ask, "O.K. I understand the connection with chapter 2. But how does this first verse about teachers fit into the warning about words?" Well, let me remind you of the historical context, because this will help you appreciate it.

Remember that James is probably the first New Testament book that was written. The church is still in its infancy. It's written to those Jews, as I've said, who fled Jerusalem under persecution. And at this early stage in the life of the church, the church greatly resembled the synagogue, where most of these Jewish people had grown up, learning the Old Testament. The leaders in the synagogues were teachers. That, by the way, is why, when Christ came, He was immediately referred to as a teacher. Even His enemies, the Pharisees, called Him, in Matthew 9:11, "the Teacher." That is also how his disciples referred to Him, and it's how He wanted them to refer to Him. In John 13:13 He says, "You call me teacher, and you do well; for so I am." Teacher.

It's not surprising, then, that in light of all of that, that when the church began, the leaders in the church were teachers. In Acts 13:1 the church in Antioch, one of the groups of leaders there is called "teachers." Paul, when he comes on the scene, in 1 Timothy 2:7, calls himself a teacher of the Gentiles. But then that crux passage, in Ephesians 4, Ephesians 4:11, Paul tells us that in every church, including our church, there are to be pastor-teachers. These are gifted men that God has given to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry: pastor-teachers, literally "shepherding-teachers," or "teaching shepherds". That was the cultural context of the first-century, in which this letter was written.

The role of teacher, as you can see, was highly esteemed. If you were a man, you wanted to be a teacher. And if you were a man who wasn't a teacher and you had a son, you wanted your son to be in the role of a teacher as he grew up. So, in that kind of environment, you can understand why there were many who wanted to be teachers. But James' response to that is this: literally, he says, "Many teachers do not become, by brothers." Now James, here, isn't downplaying the role of a teacher. He is one. Notice in verse 1, he says, "We will incur the stricter condemnation or judgment." He calls himself a teacher here. In context, this is what James is saying: "Don't quickly, unthinkingly, pursue the role of a teacher. Why?

Well, the answer's beginning in the second part of verse 1. "Knowing that as such, as teachers, we will incur a stricter judgment." That's an interesting phrase. We'll look at it in just a moment. But notice he goes on. In verse 2, he says, "For, or because, here's the reason we'll receive the greater judgment: we all stumble," [which of course, is a figurative expression for sin,] "in many ways." James, here, includes himself with every other Christian. He says, "We all stumble, or sin, in many ways." And in the context especially when it comes to how we use our mouths. Nobody's exempt from this reality. If you talk, you sin! Proverbs 10:19 says, "Where there are many words, transgression is unavoidable." You can't get around it!

Now, follow James' argument. Here's the flow of his argument. He's saying, "Don't crave the role of a teacher, if God hasn't gifted you and called you to that role, because the primary tool of a teacher is his words. That's what comes out of his mouth. And because he teaches, he uses more words." (I resemble that comment.) And even though we all sin in many different ways, including with our mouths, it's even truer if you're a teacher, simply because you use more words, and because you're held to a stricter standard. "Teachers," he says, "will be judged with a stricter judgment."

What does he mean by that? Well, teachers'll be held to a higher standard in not understanding the truth. John 3, you remember Jesus' confrontation with Nicodemus, the leading teacher in Israel. In John 3:10, He says, "Are you a teacher? And you don't understand these things?" That would've been a scathing rebuke, wouldn't it, to have heard from the Lord? Teachers are expected to understand. But teachers are also expected, or judged to the stricter level, in practicing what it is they teach. In fact, turn over to Romans 2. There's an interesting comment by the apostle. He's in the middle of showing that all men are guilty before God; that all have sinned. It's sort of his main point. And he's, particularly here in chapter 2, showing that even the religious Jews, those the people of God, have sinned and are guilty of sin. He says in verse 17,

If you bear the name Jew, and rely upon the Law and boast in God, … [you] know His will … [, you] approve the things that are essential, [you got the law, and you've been instructed out of it; you] … are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth….

He says, "Listen, you've got it all. You've got the truth. And you're a teacher!" As it were, the nation of Israel was a teacher to the nations of the world about God and who He was, and what He expected. Then he says,

… you, therefore, [verse 21,] who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You, who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You, who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You, who abhor idols, do you rob temples? [This is probably a reference to the sort of pious practice of going to pagan temples and stealing things and selling them for personal profit, all under the guise of religion.]

He says, "Listen, you say you're a teacher. Are you doing what you teach? As a teacher, you're expected both to understand God's truth, and you're expected to practice it."

You know, I understand this. This happens to me all the time. As a teacher, people come up to me, and they'll come up and ask some obscure question about some passage in Zephaniah, and expect me to know what it says and what it means. Or then there's Sheila. She has this really annoying habit of actually expecting me to live what I teach. She's kind and gracious about it. But let me tell you there's nothing so humbling as being or I should say, as hearing your own words repeated back to you. It's not uncommon sometime during the week my words on Sunday come back to condemn me.

James' point, in this first section, as he introduces the importance of controlling our tongues, is found at the end of verse 1. He says, "Control your tongue; because just as it is with teachers, what comes out of your mouth will also condemn you."

Now, it's important that you understand here. It is true that in this life, our words often catch up with us, that friends and family, and even enemies, will sometimes use our words against us. But that's not what James is talking about here. James is not talking about the way our words condemn us with each other. He uses the future tense. We will incur, or we will receive greater judgment. James is talking about the future judgment when we all stand before God. Jesus made it clear that the words of unbelievers will come back to haunt them. In fact, turn to Matthew 12. In Matthew12, a passage we'll look at again next week, Lord willing, in more detail. Matthew 12, Jesus says in verse 33: If you've got a good tree, then its fruit's going to be good; or you got a bad tree, and its fruit's going to be bad. The tree is known by its fruit. Now here, He's talking specifically about words. Because He goes on to say in verse 34,

"You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart." [He says, "Listen, the fruit of your words shows the true content of your heart.] The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good. The evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment."

You know, how often do we read past those kinds of expressions, without really letting the truth of that sink in? Listen to what Jesus says again about unbelievers. He says,

"… every careless word that they speak, they shall give an account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."

Now the Greek word for "condemned" here is an interesting word. It literally means "to pass sentence on." It's really a chilling thing to realize that at the judgment, unbelievers will hear their own words passing judgment on them. In fact, the verdict has really already been passed. Look at Romans 3. You remember in this great passage, Paul lays out the fallenness of man and his utter sinfulness, his inability to do anything that will please God. In verse 10, he says

"THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS; THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD." [By the way, that's an interesting expression:] "There is none who seeks for God."

You say, "Wait a minute. What about all those people in religion all over the world? Aren't they seeking for God?" No. Paul says, "They're running from God through their religions; not seeking Him. There's none who seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have become useless. There's none who does good, not even one."

Now when he gets to the specifics, what is it that makes us guilty before God? The very first place he goes is what we say. Notice verse 13. "THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE. WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING. THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS." We've all known people like that, and been people like that (in the past I hope), "whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness." Paul, quoting the Old Testament says, "If you want to see the essence of human depravity, if you want to see what it is that will be the first line of argument before the Divine Tribunal of heaven, look at people's words. They'll convict 'em. Their own words will pass judgment on them.

But it's also true that our words, as believers, will cause us to be judged. James says, in verse 1 of James 3, "We," including himself and talking of all Christians, "will incur," (particularly teachers, here,) "will incur a stricter judgment." What's he talking about? He's referring to the Judgment Seat of Christ. Turn over to 1 Corinthians 3, where you really have a sort of commentary on this, I think. First Corinthians 3 you here see described this judgment, (called "The Judgment Seat of Christ" in another passage.) In verse 10, now understand the context. Paul has been talking about his work as a minister of the gospel: the fact that he lays a foundation, and the other gospel workers build on that. He says,

According to the grace of God (verse 10) which was given to me like a wise master builder, I lay a foundation, and another is building on it. [Apollos or Peter, one of the other leaders in the church.] But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation, other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation….

Now, here, Paul's primary application, in this reference to the Judgment Seat of Christ, is for spiritual leaders and teachers. It certainly applies to all Christians. We'll all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. But here he's primarily talking to spiritual leaders and to teachers. He says,

"… if any man builds on that foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man's work will become evident. For the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire. And the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work, which has been built on, remains, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

Paul is saying, at the Judgment Seat of Christ, those who are in leadership in the church, who are building on the foundation that he's laid, will give an account to God for how they served, for their faithfulness in guarding the truth, for their faithfulness in carrying out their commission. Somehow, (and I don't understand how. We don't understand all that will happen at the Judgment Seat of Christ.) But somehow, our motives (Paul tells us elsewhere) and our words will come into play at the Judgment Seat of Christ. We're not going to be judged for our sins. Those have been dealt with on Christ. But we will be, our works, will be judged. And our attitudes, our motives and our words will figure in to that judgment. And we will not be judged for sin. But we will suffer loss of rewards, if, in fact, we have not been faithful. Listen, if you are a teacher, or you want to be one, this passage should sober you. Douglas Mooh, in his commentary says, "Teachers, because they bear so much responsibility for the spiritual welfare of those to whom they minister, will be scrutinized by the Lord more carefully than others." Remember what our Lord said, in Luke's gospel: "To whom much is given, what?" "Much will be required. Much will be expected."

God has entrusted teachers with the treasure, according to Paul, in 1 Timothy, of sound doctrine. And we will be judged on how well we teach and defend and pass on that treasure to others; how we handle the treasure. Listen, if you stand in front of God's people and say, "This is what God says," it better be what God says!

John MacArthur records in his commentary, that John Knox, the great Scottish reformer, was so moved by the responsibility of claiming to speak for God, that when he got behind the pulpit for the first time, he began to weep uncontrollably. And he literally had to be led off until he could compose himself and come back and deliver his sermon. Is that how seriously you take your responsibility as a teacher? I can give you a measure of how seriously you take your responsibility. It's this. How hard do you study to make sure you get it right? Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman, who doesn't need to be ashamed, accurately handling the Word of truth." The only way to keep from being shamed as a teacher is to be diligent, to be prepared, to make sure it's the truth of God you're teaching.

But James isn't just talking to teachers here. This passage makes it clear he's talking to all of us. Everybody here falls under this instruction. His point is much larger than teachers. Here's what he's saying: "When you understand that your words are really important, and that your words may actually bring you into a stricter judgment before God, then you begin to understand how important words are. Just like teachers, your words, too, will enter in to the Judgment Seat of Christ."

Now, James identifies the second reason that we must learn to control our tongues: not only because our tongues condemn us, but also because, (and this is surprising) our tongues control us. Our tongues control us. Notice verse 2, the middle of the verse. "If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man." Now the word "perfect" is the key to understanding this sentence, and there are two possible ways to take the word "perfect". It could mean perfect in the sense of, in the sense of absolute perfection, or without sin. In this case, James could be saying something like this: "If you could keep from sinning with your mouth, which is the most difficult thing to control, then you would be absolutely perfect, without sin, because you then could control everything else in your life." If this is what James means, then he's speaking hypothetically. He's saying, "If you didn't stumble in what you say, which is an utter impossibility, then you'd be perfect."

There's a second way to understand the Greek word translated "perfect", however. It's in the sense of complete, or mature. And this is probably the sense James has in mind, which you'll see in just a moment. In this case, James is saying, "If you can learn to control your tongue, then you have arrived at spiritual maturity, able to consistently use self-control in every other area of your life, as well." Notice the remarkable statement James makes at the end of verse 2. "The man who reaches spiritual maturity in what he says is able to bridle the whole body, as well (whole body, here referring to the entire person). If you can get control of your tongue, then you can gain control of everything else." Now why is that? Well, it's because, in a sense, your tongue controls you. We don't often think of it this way. And so, to help us grasp this truth, James gives us two illustrations of exactly how it is that something small can control the direction of something much greater than it is.

His first illustration is the horses' bit, verse 3. "Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths, so they will obey us, we direct their entire body, as well." You know, horses are some of the most majestic creatures God ever made. I really don't have time to do this, but I did the first hour, and I'm going to do it again. Turn back to Job. Let me read you God's own description of these majestic creatures. In the mouth of God, their creator, in Job 39, he says this to Job in verse 19. Says, "Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with a mane? Do you make him leap, like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrible. He paws in the valley, and rejoices in his strength. He goes out to meet the weapons." (Course, here he's talking about the war horse). "He goes out to meet the weapons. He laughs at fear and is not dismayed. And he does not turn back from the sword. The quiver rattles against him; the flashing spear and javelin. With shaking and rage he races over the ground, and he does not stand still at the voice of the trumpet. As often as the trumpet sounds, he says, "Aha!" and he scents the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains and the war cry."

Here is this powerful, majestic, fearless creature. Most breeds of horses weigh somewhere between a thousand and two thousand pounds. And yet James says, "If you simply take a small piece of metal, and you put it in that horse's mouth, you can control that majestic animal. You can make that animal obey you. In fact, back in James 3, he says, "You can direct their entire body, as well."

His second illustration is a ship's rudder. In verse 4 he says, "Look, also, or look at the ships, also. Though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires." Now in Roman times in the first century, there were ships already of very large size. Josephus, the Jewish historian, for example, writes of a ship that he sailed to Rome on that held 600 people. By the way, that ship ended up shipwrecking, just as Paul's does in Acts 27. Paul, of course, later, as it is recorded in Acts 27, sails to Rome on a similar route, on a ship that we're told in Acts 27 holds, or held, 276 crew and soldiers and prisoners, plus a load of grain.

Writing in the second century, a man named Lucian writes about an Alexandrian grain ship that, he says, was sixty yards long and fifteen yards wide, a huge ship and "could carry enough corn to feed all Attica for a year. And all this a little old man, a wee fellow had kept from harm by turning the huge rudders with a tiny tiller." You see, compared to the size of a ship, a rudder is a very small thing. But notice verse 4. "Ships, though they are so great, and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder."

I was reminded of this in my own life. Sheila and I were suffering for the Lord on an Alaskan cruise. When I was at Grace to You, I had the responsibility of leading the annual trips. And we would have several hundred people from all across the country come for a week of Bible study and enjoying the beauty of God's creation. In one of those trips, we got caught out at sea in the middle of a storm. Now, as storms go, it wasn't a big storm. We were on a ship that was twelve stories (decks, for you, those of you who are nautical people) twelve stories high. It was a huge ship! But the winds began to blow, and gales picked up, and the seas began to roll at about twenty-five to thirty feet. Now again, that's not that much as some of you have possibly encountered. But for land lovers, like we were, that was a pretty serious ride. More than half of the people on the ship were sick, and trying to find their way not so gracefully to the infirmary. At supper that night, less than a third of the people came. Of course, those of us with iron stomachs loved it. But in spite of those conditions, what amazed me is that that huge ship, twelve stories high being pushed by the wind, being thrown about by the waves, could still be directed on the course the captain wanted by a relatively small piece of metal hinged at the back. That's James' point here.

Now in both of these illustrations, the horse and the ship, he uses the same keyword. Notice in verse 3, "direct" and in verse 4, "directed." The Greek word used in that context was used in the Septuagint for "taking someone captive and controlling where they go." The word literally means "to guide in another direction, to lead to another place." It's what a bit does to a horse, what a rudder does to a ship. So, look at his application: verse 5. "So, also, the tongue is a small part of the body; and yet it boasts of great things." Now you may be tempted to think, "He's talking about arrogant boasting." And that's true. The tongue does often boast in that sense. In this context, however, these are not empty boasts. James is saying, that like a small bit can boast of controlling and directing a horse, a huge animal: and just as a tiny rudder can boast of controlling and directing a great ship, even in a storm, so even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it can legitimately boast of controlling or directing the entire body. Have you thought about this?

The tongue, or our words, can guide us, can direct us, can lead us in another direction. That's what he's saying. It's true. Listen, if I could listen to your speech, to what you say for a week, I could not only tell you where you are spiritually today; I could tell you where you're going, and where you'll be a year from now; ten years from now. You see, not only are you and I responsible to control our tongues, but our tongues, in a sense, control us. Proverbs 18:7 says, "A fool's mouth is his undoing; and his lips are a snare to his own soul." What you say can lead and direct you down a particular path. Now obviously words come out of the heart. We're going to learn about that next time. The words that come out of your mouth are an expression of your heart. And yet, verbalizing those thoughts, expressing those words, can lead you down a path toward actually carrying those things out.

Think about it. What you talk about freely, you will ultimately do. If you talk about and joke about sexual sin, your tongue is leading you toward that sin. I've told couples, who are having trouble in their marriages, "Don't throw around loosely the word "divorce." The first time you do it, it'll just be a sort of idle threat. You have no intention of divorcing, and you would never even think about it. You're just using it to inflict pain on your partner. But if you use that word enough, if you do that in argument long enough, your mouth will lead you down the path toward that action.

Commentator Jay Mochner writes, "If our tongue were so well under control that it refused to formulate the words of self-pity, the images of lustfulness, the thoughts of anger and resentment, then these things would be cut down before they have a chance to live." The control of the tongue is more than an evidence of spiritual maturity; it is the means to it, or I could say, it is a means to it. This is where many Christians are naïve. They assume that sins of behavior are the most important issues. But James assures us, here, that if we could get control of our mouths, the rest of our lives would be better able to follow. George Stulak writes this in his commentary:

Learning godly ways of speaking will help us learn godliness in other ways. Therefore, the issue of speech should not be put off while one works on other areas of behavior. If you want purity and Christ-likeness to characterize your life, here is a valuable strategy: start with your tongue."

So how are you doing watching your mouth? How many of the common sins listed in Scripture characterize your speech? Let me just give you a little list. And here's what I want you to do. You can write it down on your paper that you have in front of you, or you can make a mental list. But I want you to keep a list, as I go through, of the sins of speech you struggle with.

Lying, deceit, dishonesty, gossip, slander, quarreling and arguing, whining and complaining, self-justification, bragging, blame-shifting, meddling, coarse, vulgar speech, cursing, taking God's name in vain, talking too much, talking too little, (by the way, both of those are signs of selfishness.), excessive jesting and joking, flattery, bitter words, angry words, selfish words, and self-pity.

Those are just a few of the biblical sins of the mouth. Let me ask you, "How did you do?" How many sins on that list do you struggle with? Here is a starting place for you. Take seriously the sins of your speech. Do as we've been learning on Sunday nights. Determine what sins you're tempted by, and find the opposite biblical virtue that you're to put on, and pursue that virtue. Why is it important? James tells us that your words and my words will condemn us. We will receive stricter judgment at the Judgment Seat of Christ for what we say, just as teachers will. And your words control or direct your future.

Next week, we'll look together at three more reasons that we are to control our tongues.

Let's pray together.

Our Father, we acknowledge to You that we all stumble in many ways. And certainly, this is especially true with our tongues. Lord, there's not a single one of us here this morning that's exempt from these words. Neither was James exempt, as he included himself. And Father, we learned, just a little this morning, of how important it is to You that we control what we say. Lord, help us to realize that it is by our words that we will be judged. Lord, I pray that You would help us as Christians, those who genuinely know your Son, Lord help us to take this seriously.

Help us to put on those virtues that are the opposites of the sins of speech we should put off. And Father, I pray that You would help us to understand, as well, that our words direct us, that they lead us down the path toward sins of behavior, if we leave them unchecked.

Father, I pray especially for the person who's here this morning, perhaps who grew up in the church, who'd made a profession of faith for years, or perhaps someone who's just come in this morning and has never been exposed to church at all in their lives. And yet they come this morning, Father, someone here this morning, who professes Christ, and yet whose very words condemn them.

Father, I pray that you would, by your grace, strip away the deception, the self-deception, and help them to see that their religion before You is worthless; it's useless. And I pray, Father that You would bring them to genuine faith and repentance. And if You do this, we'll be careful to give You glory and honor, cause it'll only be through the power of Your spirit, and through the death and sacrifice of your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.


Your Faith: Dead or Alive? - Part 4

Tom Pennington James 2:14-26

Watch Your Mouth! - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 3:1-12

Watch Your Mouth! - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 3:1-12

More from this Series



James: First Lessons

Tom Pennington James 1:1

Bridge Over Troubled Water - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 1:2-12

Bridge Over Troubled Water - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 1:2-12

Bridge Over Troubled Water - Part 3

Tom Pennington James 1:2-12

Hook, Line & Sinker - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 1:13-18

Hook, Line & Sinker - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 1:13-18

Look in the Mirror! - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 1:19-27

Look in the Mirror! - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 1:19-27

Look in the Mirror! - Part 3

Tom Pennington James 1:19-27

Look in the Mirror! - Part 4

Tom Pennington James 1:19-27

Pride and Prejudice - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 2:1-13

Pride and Prejudice - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 2:1-13

Your Faith: Dead or Alive? - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 2:14-26

Your Faith: Dead or Alive? - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 2:14-26

Your Faith: Dead or Alive? - Part 3

Tom Pennington James 2:14-26

Your Faith: Dead or Alive? - Part 4

Tom Pennington James 2:14-26

Watch Your Mouth! - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 3:1-12

Watch Your Mouth! - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 3:1-12

Wisdom from Hell vs. Wisdom from Heaven - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 3:13-18

Wisdom from Hell vs. Wisdom from Heaven - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 3:13-18

Wisdom from Hell vs. Wisdom from Heaven - Part 3

Tom Pennington James 3:13-18

Wisdom from Hell vs. Wisdom from Heaven - Part 4

Tom Pennington James 3:13-18

Wisdom from Hell vs. Wisdom from Heaven - Part 5

Tom Pennington James 3:13-18

War and Peace: Learning to Deal with Personal Conflict - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 4:1-10

War and Peace: Learning to Deal with Personal Conflict - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 4:1-10

War and Peace: Learning to Deal with Personal Conflict - Part 3

Tom Pennington James 4:1-10

War and Peace: Learning to Deal with Personal Conflict - Part 4

Tom Pennington James 4:1-10

War and Peace: Learning to Deal with Personal Conflict - Part 5

Tom Pennington James 4:1-10

War and Peace: Learning to Deal with Personal Conflict - Part 6

Tom Pennington James 4:1-10

A Rush to Judgment

Tom Pennington James 4:11-12

God Rules! - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 4:13-17

God Rules! - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 4:13-17

God Rules! - Part 3

Tom Pennington James 4:13-17

Filthy Rich

Tom Pennington James 5:1-6

When Life's Not Fair - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 5:7-12

When Life's Not Fair - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 5:7-12

Prayer For All Seasons - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 5:13-18

Prayer For All Seasons - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 5:13-18

Prayer For All Seasons - Part 3

Tom Pennington James 5:13-18

Search & Rescue: Every Believer's Mission

Tom Pennington James 5:19-20