From:  A Torah Commentary on James 3-5                         Return to Home        

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2014




[Page 111]     





Chapter 3C:

Problem Texts



Not all should teach


            “Let not many of you become teachers.”  CEV:  “we should not all try to become teachers.”  “Let only a minority of you become teachers” (ATP).

[Page 112]                  In one sense the ability to teach is a New Testament fundamental.  It is by teaching, that the gospel is communicated and spread:  “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

            However, there is “teaching” and there is “teaching.”  We all recognize it in everyday life.  We “teach” our children certain things before they attend school and even while they are there.  Yet we easily conceptualize into separate categories our teaching and that of the “teacher.” 

James argues this should be true among those who embrace the gospel:  There is a type or form of teaching that all should not aspire for and that would be the public proclamation of the gospel either in an “entire congregation” or “individual class” setting.

            Paul certainly would have had no problem with James’ words of prudence.  In Romans 12, he stresses that there are important roles a person can play besides being a teacher,


                        3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among

you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think [which can

lead one to insist on doing things that are actually beyond his or her capacity],

but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. 4 For as

we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the

same function, 5 so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually

members of one another. 6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace

that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion

to our faith; 7 or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in

teaching; 8 he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he

who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

[Page 113]

            The important thing is to do whatever we can do to the best of our ability.  We are (to use a contrast from an earlier generation) to be “craftsmen” (= experts, top of the field) rather than amateurs.

            James pleads for caution in seeking to be a teacher on the basis of the inability to control the tongue:  Most simply can’t do it well because of a failure in this area.  Therefore for them to actively desire to be teachers is actually a self-destructive wish, since it will bring (James tells us) “a stricter judgement.” 

That is true of our secular school teachers, who every one expects to meet a higher teaching standard than we ourselves possess.  When they broach the proper boundaries of their craft, they are likely to receive a strenuous parental backlash—with full justification.  The same is true in the church.


            Trouble can erupt from a number of areas.  A goodly number teach who lack the right approach.  If you don’t believe the Scriptures are fully authoritative, how can you credibly convey the message that its teachings are to be obeyed?  If you have no interest in whether your students are learning more, how likely is it that they will learn?  (Boring teacher produces bored student!)  If you don’t take the time to prepare for the class, how do you avoid being the proverbial “blind leading the blind?”  If the material can’t arouse your interest, how is your lesson going to arouse that of the student?[1]   

[Page 114]                  In addition, some people think that because they know a lot—or even have an impressive area of Biblical knowledge—that they will be capable teachers.  They are, if you will, knowledge qualified but not necessarily emotionally qualified.  (Others think they qualify simply because they want a leadership position or because they are, well, them.)

            Rather than tackle these or all the additional reasons that could disqualify a person, he seizes on the one that is most widely applicable and most easily obvious:  if you can’t control yourself.  His argument clearly hinges on the assumption that this is the case with many if not most people. 

            And today is certainly no different!  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin lectured around the United States in the late twentieth century and one of his topics envolved the language we use.  He challenged the listeners for a candid response to whether they could avoid saying unkindly things either about or to others for just twenty-four hours,[2]


Invariably, a minority of listeners raise their hands signifying “yes,” some laugh, and quite a large number call out, ‘no!”  Those who can’t answer “yes” must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you cannot go for twenty-four hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol . If you cannot go for twenty-four hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine.  Similarly, if you cannot go for twenty-four hours without saying unkind words about others, then you have lost control over your tongue. . . . There is no area of life in which so many of us systematically violate the Golden Rule.


[Page 115]                  Going beyond the tendency of the tongue to find bitter words more pleasing than constructive ones, if one pays attention to how people argue (from emotions, prejudices, preferences, twisted scripture, etc.) one can also easily grasp why James would be so cynical about the bulk of folk:  because it was fully deserved.

            By approaching the topic this way, James gets away from individual personalities and stresses the qualifications of every capable teacher—of everyone who wishes to exercise such a responsible post.  Furthermore, it permits him to emphasize the matter of verbal self-control that he regards as obligatory upon all Christians from the standpoint of a post that all listeners would have to agree it was essential:  An uncontrolled teacher can create spiritual chaos.   (Would any have thought to even think about challenging this reality?) 


            Why, though, would a person carrying heavy self-control issues desire to be a teacher in the first place?  Though the inherent disqualification should have been obvious, often we are the last person to recognize our own weaknesses and failures.  So if a person has blinded himself, the post would still have multiple attractions.

            First, in the ancient world, teachers were automatically assumed to be deserving of respect, even great respect.[3]  Hence one could enhance ones social status by being accepted as a teacher.  Even if outsiders would regard Christianity as a silly movement, there would be at least a tiny enhancement of the person’s reputation among them.  Among insiders the increase would be significantly greater.

            However this would hardly last beyond the time the man opened his mouth if he had control issues as described by James.  Certainly not beyond the first serious disagreement.  Indeed, outsiders hearing that a person was bragging about his new status—and knowing that he had unquestionable problems of this kind—would surely react even more intensely, wondering how any self-respecting religion could possibly permit such a person to have an important position.

[Page 116]                  Second, a teacher automatically is an “authority figure.”  He or she will not uncommonly be cited as a reason to embrace a certain interpretation of scripture.  (What really counts, of course, are the arguments in its behalf.)  At the least, his interpretation will surely be examined more carefully than it otherwise would be.

Now if such a person turns out to be a “hot head,” there is likely to be a backlash against the interpretation even when it is fully accurate.  Perhaps it is mere human nature, but we find it hard to take seriously what a person says, when the behavior “drowns it out.”  Is the truth to be discredited because the teacher is a jerk?      


            Reconciling James 3:1 and Hebrews 5:12.  In this text is found the superficial advocacy of the opposite of what James says:


                        12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need

someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you

have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes

only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But

solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of

use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.   


[Page 117]                  Assuming that the two have the same definition of “teacher” in mind.  “By this time” implies they had been Christians for a good while.  But they were extremely limited in their knowledge and had made so little effort to go beyond the bare minimum, that they had become shaky on even the basic fundamentals:  “you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God.”  There was the real danger they did not even understand those right any more!

Hence the Hebrews writer is addressing those who he regards as potentially qualified to be teachers, but who have failed to make the effort to become such or to even gain the knowledge basis required.  In contrast, James is zeroing in on those who lack the right temperament of self-control.  Hebrews speaks of those who have a factual deficit and James of a temperamental deficit. 

            Hence they are addressing two different issues and the readers are given two different sets of advice as the result.  Does even the most devout “contradiction seeker,” really believe that Paul (?) would give this rebuke--of not being a teacher--to those who have a self-destructive disposition? 


            In the broader context of anyone misusing the tongue for abusive purposes—surely that includes teachers!—Paul made his opposition crystal clear.  In Romans 1, for example he condemns:  “maliciousness, . . . strife, deceit, evil-mindedness” (verse 29), “backbiters . . . boasters” (verse 30), “untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful” (verse 31).  Put one or more of those in a preacher or class leader / teacher and you are going to have the kind of verbal abuser James criticizes, won’t you?

[Page 118]                  Hence Paul works from the same type of assumptions that led James to say what he did.  Facing a similar group of people, is it in the least unlikely that Paul would have been willing to deliver the same rebuke?  In short, there is a basic underlying unity in the perspective of both men.


            Assuming that the two do not have the same definition of “teacher” in mind.   The quite valid observations we have just presented, still do not get us to the separate issue of in what sense is Paul using the term “teacher:”  In the stand-in-front-of church or class type, as in James?  Or in the sense of being able to privately teach an unbeliever the fundamentals of Christianity in the first place?  (1 Peter 3:15: “ . . . be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you. . . .”) 

The broadness of Paul’s (?) generalization in Hebrews can certainly be used to argue for the latter to have been in his mind, while it clearly was not in James’.  






“Teachers . . . shall receive a stricter judgment.”


James does not tell us why this would be the case, perhaps because he considered it so self-evident that an argument was not even needed.  In other words, the listeners would have automatically agreed to the reasonableness of his assertion without having to be convinced of its validity.

[Page 119]                  Even today it is easy enough to provide reasons.  Ken Matto provides one useful summary of explanations,[4] 


                        1. They influence their hearers

            2. They must make decisions about acceptance or rejection of materials [that they teach from]

                        3. They can increase in pride

                        4. The church will follow them          

            5. Credentials [advanced degrees] can cause one to be unteachable [because they no longer feel that there is more to learn]

                        6. People put faith in those with more knowledge   


Craig Blomberg provides a barely overlapping list,[5] 


1.  More people may be affected.

2.  A closer relationship of trust may be violated.

3.  The very person who should be the student's best model fails in that capacity.

4.  The resulting hurt may be greater.  Apologies can be made and errors can be corrected but the damage from untruthful or unloving words may not be able to be fully eradicated.  Forgiveness may, in some instances, come quickly, but trust always takes longer to be re-earned.


[Page 120]                  Craig Blomberg, in a different analysis, points out that the Jewish tradition—out of which most of James’ readers probably came—had a well developed concept of teachers as role models both in regard to embracing their teaching and following their example.  When they messed up, they set an example unwise students could easily embrace as their own.  In other words their bad example had a “multiplier effect” through the agency of their students,[6]


Teachers in James' day, even more than in our own, relied on speech. In fact, what typically distinguished the teacher from other forms of leaders or speakers was that they were responsible for passing on a fixed body of catechetical tradition related to the subject at hand.  Many times this information was carefully memorized and students were expected to memorize it as well. . .

The point is that teachers were committed to a higher standard of accuracy than others because they were the bearers of the tradition.  But teachers were also expected to practice what they preached.  In ways not nearly as frequently true in our modern, Western world, students were meant to observe their teachers in every situation of life, so that they could learn how to act in all those situations, including those in which a person sinned and had to repent.


Their students would regard this as the definitive and proper way to act themselves.  Our modern age sums up the danger of such things in the adage, “Never give a person with a drinking problem a bottle of beer.”  The person already given to excess is given—by your example—an ongoing endorsement that his mind frame is just and proper and, even more important, “scriptural.”  (For why else would you be doing it?   You are the Bible teacher aren’t you?)

[Page 121]

            Some take James to refer primarily to how fellow church members will react and, secondarily, outsiders.  Steven Davis argues it this way, “Those who lead and teach will be judged more harshly by the people under their leadership and from those in the community.  If a person wants to be a leader, he or she needs to realize that many peoples’ favorite game is ‘Hate the Leader.’  Some will hate you simply because you are the leader.” [7]  When you provide “fuel” to reinforce their inclinations you simply intensify the opposition. 

            Whether this is James’ point in the passage, it is certainly a reality in everyday life.  I must admit the observation startled me at first.  I should already have already known it!  But in spite of several decades of Bible class teaching and preaching and having been on the receiving side of flak, usually unjustly but occasionally by my own blunder, that reality had never quite made its way all the way through my (obviously) “thick head.”  Perhaps too much assuming the best out of other people and not being realistic?  Be that as it may, you do land up a public target because the very act of using your spiritual talents makes you more noticeable. 

            Yet if James’ point (at least his primary one) was that the teacher is going to be subject to hypercritical condemnation, wouldn’t one expect pointed criticism aimed at the critics as well?  Without it, wouldn’t James’ silence provide a kind of tacit “approval” of such excesses? 

[Page 122]                  If, however, James’ mind is on legitimate criticism—and doesn’t that sound far more likely in light of this omission?—such would obviously not be needed.  So if James’ words are intended in this manner, he is talking about the teacher who had made a terrible misjudgment that will justly upset his audience.


            Regardless of what extent James intends the reaction of the human listener to be under consideration--even if it is in no way envolved at all--it should be remembered that the listener still has an ethical obligation to be fair and reasonable in that response.  Just as the speaker does not have a blank check to assume the worst of you, who gave you the right to assume the worst of the preacher or teacher?  In other words, just as he should never do an injustice to you, no one gave you the right to be malicious toward him either!

            A Nevada preacher provided some good practical guidelines to remember when encountering such situations,[8]


                        Please don't nitpick our words. . . . Please understand that we're all

going to make mistakes. It may be a matter of semantics or phrasing.  Have a

lot of patience with us in these areas.  Now, if someone shows himself to be

consistently careless, then absolutely, take him aside and urge him to be more

careful with his words. But if you're going to disagree, make sure that it's


            Please don't expect a dozen disclaimers for every controversial point.

Over the years, I've preached and taught on a number of controversial

topics. Now, I try to be very careful in how I present the truth in these areas,

and so, yes, I do usually offer disclaimers for the sake of avoiding confusion.

But even still, it's not reasonable to expect every teacher to cover ALL bases

when dealing with controversial topics. . . . We'd never get through a lesson if

we sought to clarify every potential point of confusion.

[Page 123]                  Don't assume he's talking about you. . . . [F]or the most

part, don't take sermons personally unless there is clear evidence to the


            If you have a substantive disagreement with a teacher, go to him. This

is one of my biggest pet-peeves as a preacher.  If you disagree with something

I've said or an approach I've taken to an issue, please don't tell all your

friends about it, don't complain to your family or to others in the church;

just come and tell me. . . .

            Hearers have a responsibility, too. There is no question that teachers

need to make a concerted effort to "preach the truth in love."  We need to

choose our words, our tone and our method of presentation carefully.  At the

same time, those in the audience also have a responsibility to "listen to the

truth in love."  Try not to judge the teacher's motives. Instead of being

overly-critical of his tone, grasp the truth of what he's saying. . .

            Finally, it's not your right to hold the teacher to a higher moral or

spiritual standard. There are many folks who think that preachers should be

held to a higher standard.  They can wear blue jeans and a nice shirt on

Sunday, but the preacher has to wear a suit and tie. . . .  They can have a nice

house and car, but if the preacher makes any such purchase, he's

materialistic and/or squandering the church's money.  Their families can be

dysfunctional, but the preacher's family has to be perfect.  You get the point.


[Page 124]     

            What he’s basically driving at is criticize the teacher by the same standard you yourself are willing to be criticized.  Be as critical of him as you feel it would be right for others to be critical of you.  Be tolerant—yet not oblivious to right and wrong.  Recognize that there are profound differences between a verbal stumble and brazen blunders and false teaching, between mistakes in judgement and malice.  For we all stumble in many things” (3:2)—teacher and student alike. 


The condemnation threatened as coming from God at the final judgment.  James’ point, then, would be that teachers’ failures have repercussions not just in the “here and now” but in the “hereafter” as well. 

After citing James 3:1, Leonard Ravenill zeroes in on a double condemnation that could occur at that time, “Can it be possible that as they stand condemned before the bar of God, men will turn on some and say:  Preacher” if you had preached with the Divine power you should have had “I should not now be going to hell-fire”?[9]  

Perhaps lest the Final Judgment approach be misinterpreted as anti-teacher or anti-preacher, Truman Smith quotes the text and stresses that these aren’t the only ones to face that Divine hearing, “Remember, we will be held accountable in the day of judgment, whether we are elders or Bible class teachers; yes, all of us must give account in the Great Day (Matthew 12:37; Hebrews 13:17).”[10]

[Page 125]                  Some imply this approach rather than directly embrace the conclusion that this Judgment is under consideration.  For example, one takes James 3:1, by quoting it, and juxtaposes it with the next text quoted, Revelation 21:8, about being cast into “the lake which burns with fire and brimstone:  which is the second death.”[11]


            The text as condemnation of teaching erroneous or outright false doctrine and its consequences in the final judgement.  Among evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, this is often a prime lesson from the text.  For example, such a teacher “will be judged more harshly if teaching incorrectly” (though using the KJV rendering of “condemnation).[12]

            Taking it in the sense of inadequate or twisted understanding is Jimmy Tuten, Jr., who writes, “The obvious meaning therefore is that Jewish Christians were attempting to teach what they did not clearly comprehend.”[13]

            Expressing the approach even more vigorously is Robert L. Deffinbaugh,[14]


How many cults have been the fruit of a winsome teacher’s heresies? How many churches have been split by a teacher of error?  How many seminaries have been corrupted by a charming teacher who departs from the truth of God’s Word?  The damage that has been done – and is yet to be done – is great, and so is the judgment that will fall on those who teach with wrong motives and a wrong message.


[Page 126]                  Although James would surely have been just as passionate on matters of false teaching, the context of what immediately follows is in regard to how one uses the tongue constructively or destructively.  Yes, the text (if properly understood as of the Divine, final judgement—and I think it is) stresses how one’s reception in the next life will be severely affected by one’s teaching. 

This has an obvious application to the scenario of false doctrine, but it is simply not the sole or specific point James is trying to make.  There is nothing in the following verses that give any support to such a “narrowing” of the thrust of his words. 

In other words, the warning against verbal excess applies to erroneous and heretical teaching, but it also applies to valid exegesis.  You can’t get away with vicious harshness simply because your reckless rabble rousing is done in the name of the truth.  You bring dishonor upon it and encourage others to reject it out of anger at your axe-grinding. 

            Hence we seem to have here an example of a phenomena we often run into in the interpretation of the parables of Jesus:  They illustrate far more than they were actually intended to directly teach.  So far as they are used for that purpose, the dual usage is quite reasonable; when the illustrative use of a passage drives out the actual intent, however, one is on extremely shaky ground.


            James explicitly asserts that the “judgement” will be “stricter;” assuming this is a reference to the final judgement, does this mean there will be degrees of reward and that the teacher will suffer accordingly?  This obviously ties in with the question of whether God puts differing degrees of importance on different sins.  That one seems easier to answer than the degrees of reward controversy, though it is easy to see how one’s answer to this might well affect the answer to the other question as well.

[Page 127]                  One concise analysis of the matter that has impressed me is this one:[15]    


         In the Old Testament, what was the punishment God ordered for someone who stole something from another person?  It was restitution (Exodus 22:1-4; Leviticus 6:2-5; 2 Samuel 12:6).  They had to repay what was stolen plus interest.  Now, what was the punishment God ordered for someone who murdered another person?  The person who murdered another person was to be killed (Exodus 21:12-14, 23-25; Numbers 35:16-21, 29-31; Genesis 9:6).
                   If God viewed the thief's sin as equal with the murderer's sin, why didn't He order the thief to be killed just like the murderer?  Or, why didn't He order the murderer to pay restitution just like the thief?  On the contrary, God said the murderer cannot pay restitution (Numbers 35:32).  Obviously, God does not view the sin of the murderer as equal with the sin of the thief.


            In a wide selection of other texts (all appearing to be KJV) these are a few that particularly stand out in the New Testament as well:  Condemnation by Jesus of his betrayers:  they have “the greater sin” than Pilate (John 19:11).  Ezekiel 16:52:  “Thy sins that thou hast committed [are] more abominable than they.”  Mark 12:40, of the hypocritical religious leaders:  “These shall receive greater damnation.”  Matthew 11:24, of the final judgement:  It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.”[16]    

            Can you possibly have greater sin without reaping greater punishment?

[Page 128]

            Of course if one is convinced that there are degrees of punishment, then a natural (but not essential) corollary to this are degrees of reward.  It must be remembered that we are talking about rewards that go with salvation rather than salvation by itself.  That is the same for all.  As, one must assume, the presence of happiness in heaven for one and all.

            David R. Pharr can serve as a useful introduction to this controversy,[17]


                        It must be admitted that the scriptural evidence for degrees of reward

in heaven is less obvious than it is for degrees of punishment. . . .    

            Jesus said plainly that “he shall reward every man according to his

works” (Matt. 16:27). Brother [Guy N.] Woods, who was adamant in his

convictions on this subject, explained, “According to his works” can only

mean proportionate to his works.  If you have a dozen people working for

you, and you pay them “according to their work,” it is most unlikely that a

check in the same amount will be issued, by you, to each of them!”

            An article in Reason & Revelation cited Jesus’ answer to the request

by James and John for positions beside his throne.  “But to sit on my right

hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for

whom it is prepared” (Mark 10:40).  “Some glorified beings (whether angelic

or human) will occupy a place of distinction beside the Savior–a unique and

special place reserved solely for them.”

[Page 129]                  A strong case can be made also from I Corinthians 3:10-

15.  Paul is discussing the work of preachers, as those who “build” on the

holy foundation (v. 11).   The work is represented by “gold, silver, precious

stones, wood, hay, stubble.”  All are to be tried by fire.  The fire of hell is not

in view.  Rather, fire is part of the illustration to show the difference in the

quality of the work done.  “If any man's work abide which he hath built

thereupon, he shall receive a reward.  If any man's work shall be burned, he

shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (vv. 14f).

            The “reward” is not salvation, because he will be saved even if his

work burns.  The reward must, therefore, be something in addition to eternal

life.  On the other hand, if his work is “burned,” he will suffer loss.  Loss of

what?  Not loss of heaven, but loss of the reward he would have had if the

work had endured.    



            But are teachers being specifically singled out for extra severe judgement at all?  Is James’ point that they will be judged extra severely because they are teachers or because they are Christians?  Mentally, we read the text as in the ESV, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  This is common though some will fudge it just a little as in the NASB, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.”  In other words, “as teachers.”

            The NKJV has a translation that provides a more exact rendering that leaves out that emphasis, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we [no “teachers” added] shall receive a stricter judgment.”  The assumption is far from illogical since that he refers to teachers since he specifically mentions them.  Even so, an impressive case can be made that though he includes teachers in his caution, he does not have them alone in mind—that his words are just as applicable to all other church members as well.  As Lionel Windsor presents the evidence,[18]

[Page 130]

                        The first reason is the immediate context. In verse 2, James gives the

reason for verse 1: “For we all stumble in many things”. He then goes on to

speak about the dangers of speaking, seemingly for all Christians.

            The second reason is that every time James speaks about ‘we’ or ‘us’

or ‘our’ in his letter (1:18, 2:1, 2:21, 4:5, 5:11, 5:17), he seems to be including

all his readers. So it’s less likely that ‘we’ in 3:1 refers to some group other

than his readers.

            And the third reason comes from a brief survey of what James teaches

about judgment in the rest of his letter:


                        [H]ave you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become

judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:4)

            So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of

liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no

mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13)

            Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil

of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges

the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a

judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who

are you to judge another?  (James 4:11-12)

[Page 131]                  Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest

you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!  (James


            But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or

by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes,” be “Yes,” and

 your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment.  (James 5:12)


There is a pattern that quickly emerges from this brief survey: almost every reference to judgment in the book of James teaches us that God will hold all Christians accountable for the way we speak.



            So, yes, it does apply to teachers—but only as an application of a principle that applies to all believers:  As followers of Christ’s gospel we all have a far stricter standard to uphold than those who make no pretense of having religious faith at all.  If we abuse the tongue as a weapon against others we will be called to account—whether teacher or not.

            Being a teacher won’t spare us.

            Not being a teacher won’t spare us.   

            Lionel Windsor suggests that this judgement for our conversation is an application of what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:21-22, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire”[19]   


[Page 132]


3:2, 3, 8, 10:

Reconciling the inevitability of verbal sin

with the ability to avoid such.


There is a fascinating tension in verse three.  First there is the emphatic assertion that no matter how hard we try, somewhere and at some time we are going to fail:  “We all stumble in many things” (3:2)  Not “some,” but “many.”  Yet James immediately adds, as if it is possible to avoid this happening:  “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.”

            The same tension is also found a few verses later.  3:8 insists, that “No man can tame the tongue,” yet verse 10 insists, “Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not to be so.  Which would seemingly imply that they can be.


[Page 133]                  Partial control can lead to full control—or, at least comparative full control, when contrasted with what had been our custom?  The tension between these statements might be resolved in multiple ways.  One is to argue that though no one can be fully perfect, if we can gain full self-control in this limited area, then we have the potential to gain it in other areas.  Without at least partial success, we’ll never strive for more.

The speech is of special importance because it is the key tool through which we ignite problems in other areas of life.  This would work quite well in regard to verse 3, but would seem to falter in verse 8 where the “impossibility” element is stressed even harder.

That we have a greater control than the “naked facts alone” might indicate can be reasonably argued from Jesus’ warning, “17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7).

The fact that they are conspicuously not held as blameless surely argues for a considerable self-control over their actions—at the very minimum.  Of course that may not come easily.  At the extreme, think of the pain and anguish a liquor or drug addict often has to go through to get their life straight.  Not to mention the need to continue to be vigilant lest they fall back into their old habits.  But they never reach their goal of full control—or, at least, of usual self-control—without a struggle first.

In approaching the meaning of our text, Steve J. Cole seems headed in the direction of sinless perfection as a special gift from God (an option we discuss later) when he writes, “James does not say that the tongue is untamable.  He says that no one can tame it. It is humanly untamable.  Only God can tame it.”[20] 

[Page 134]                  Yet he also stresses that the language of James was never intended to carry the connotation of sinlessness, “James then zeroes in on the tongue, saying, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.”  Perfect does not mean sinlessly perfect, but rather, mature.  We can never achieve sinless perfection in this life, but we can grow to spiritual maturity.”[21] 

As I read it, that comes down to a recognition of comparative control being reachable rather than perfect control.  We recognize this distinction throughout all areas of life:  Certain foolishness seems to come inevitably in the teenage years—behaviors marked by immaturity, lack of control, and lack of concern. 

But when one has grown up, these are considered anathema.  We have reached the mature years.  That doesn’t mean we are incapable of any of our youthful errors.  It’s just that we don’t make a habit—a lifestyle of it.   


            The obligation to try regardless of success?  Another approach is to argue that the inability to reach perfection does not remove the moral obligation to try.  Indeed, without that effort, we will not only fall short but fall grotesquely short of our full potential.  Perhaps a useful analogy would be with swimming:  you may never develop the skills or have the ability to be an Olympics class swimmer, but you can still learn enough to keep yourself from drowning!  Or drowning someone else while you are both in the water!

            Robert Deffinbaugh seems to embrace a form of this approach when he writes,[22]           


[Page 135]                  It took me a while to see the strong contrast James is making here. In the previous section (2b-4), James engaged in a little wishful thinking: If only the tongue could be tamed, then the whole body could be brought under control.  Now, in verses 5-8, we see the ugly reality of the matter:  The tongue cannot be controlled, and there is a devastating result for the whole body – it is corrupted by the tongue.  The key to our body’s control is also the key to our body’s destruction.


            His remarks lead us to the edge of (or even over into) this approach:  We are dealing with hyperbole.  A hyperbolic ideal rather than an accomplishable goal?  Or a hyperbolic description of the degree of entrapment as contrasted with a goal that can be reached?  Hence another approach to the tension between the “impossible to control” and the “control is essential” language is to assume that one is “exaggerated,” that James is using hyperbole in one or both cases. 

If so, for example, “no man can tame the tongue” (3:8) carries the freight of “no man easily can tame the tongue; it seems an impossibility.  You try and try again and fail.  You feel like you are “hitting your head against a stone wall.”  It testifies not so much of literal impossibility as to the extraordinary difficulty that is involved.

On the other side one could contend that the goal of “absolute” control is the hyperbole.  The point being that we can make it the norm, the usual.  But that would not necessarily have to connote that there will never be failures.  When we insist, “I’ll never do that again”—whatever it may be—we may count ourselves a failure if we ever do it again . . .  or a tremendous success if it doesn’t occur for a decade. 

The meaning we put on the language will vary according to how “serious” the “offense” is.  The greater the harm, the greater the danger if it is repeated.  For something relatively “minor,” if a long duration passes before it happens again, we count it a success.  If it is something particular traumatic, it is horrifying if it ever repeats.

[Page 136]                  It is simply a matter of how we actually use language.  Why should we impose on James a linguistic straitjacket that we would never impose on ourselves?


            A goal we can never accomplish on our own.  Hence we must rely on God’s help to accomplish the goal.  Sliedrecht Family introduces words from chapter four to come to this conclusion,[23]  


“Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you” (James 4:7-8).  Nothing is beyond His omniscient and omnipotent controlling capabilities.  By accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord, a person is untied from the Tongue-Twister’s rope of sin and is subsequently tied to Jesus by the rope of righteousness. . . .


            With the Lord’s help—Family argues it is done through the Holy Spirit in particular—we can accomplish a control that we never could by ourselves.  Contextually, Family clearly assumes direct, miraculous, supernatural intervention.  Who do we blame then when the transformation fails to occur?  

We have the same problem as advocates of the impossibility of apostasy:  If the person falls away from his or her religion, then the person wasn’t saved in the first place.  Wouldn’t it be a necessity—if this “miraculous” transformation fails to occur—to argue that this person . . . superficially very much a believer, present at every service and a generous giver . . . was never saved either?

[Page 137]                  However the position, stripped of the overtly miraculous element, has much to commend itself.  A Pauline comment would certainly fit well inside such an interpretive approach, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

            Yet caution still would need to be used lest we read something far more dramatic into the language than was ever intended.  This is because an overdevelopment easily leads into the far more dramatic alternative we discuss next.

            It should also be noted that in both Philippians 4:13 and James 4:7-8 that Divine assistance does not come in place of what we do, but in addition to.  If you wish a nautical analogy:  God will throw us the life jacket, but it’s up to us whether we put it on.  God will give us opportunities, but it is up to us to take advantage of them.


            Accomplishable only by a special Divine blessing of sinlessness that many or most neither seek nor obtain?  Finally, there is the approach of insisting that there is a kind of greater or second blessing of grace that will make sinlessness possible.  As Karl Kemp expresses the argument against sin being inevitable, “The all-important answer, the new-covenant answer, is that what man in the flesh cannot do, he can do by the ‘greater grace’ (spoken of in James 4:6) which God makes available to His born-again children.”  And then a bit later he adds, “Especially relevant is what James said about God's ‘greater grace’ in 4:6,” which he regards as a decisive proof of the possibility of a sinless life.[24]  

[Page 138]                  First there is the matter of translation.  Holman, the NASB, and Young use that expression “greater grace.” The more normal translation is “more grace” (ASV, BBE, KJV, NKJV, RSV).  Others render “even greater” (CEV) and “even stronger” (TEV).

None of the renderings, however, require what this approach assumes.  Being forgiven, being blessed, being helped, being aided (and various other ways of expressing it) are manifestations of Divine favor or grace.  Nothing in the term “greater” or “more” requires a miraculous act—in the suggested interpretation, the removal of the capacity to sin. 

It is “hanging a doctrine” on a text that might allude to it if we were sure the doctrine were right in the first place.  Otherwise it proves nothing at all.    

            Kemp contends that, “Many commentators agree that James was speaking of the enabling grace of God that would meet the need to rise above the sinful state pictured in 4:1-5.”[25]  What is overlooked is that there is a profound difference between becoming far, far better than what we once were and ridding ourselves of all our imperfections. 

The recognition of this explains what he regards as the oddness of some of the same commentators--explaining 3:2 as that of the sins that Christians inevitably fall into:  He assumes that the enabling grace of 4:6 raises the believer fully above such failures; these commentators (rightly) did not.  They believe we can rise above them (much / most / as a normal rule) but had no illusion than the escape was total or permanent.     

            If the apostle Paul could not rise to the level of being free from sin due to some second act of grace, who in the world possibly could?  Yet we read even him confessing, “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Romans 7:15).  “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (7:19).  He was ever striving, but never quite reaching the ideal goal. 


[Page 139]



The tongue as “a world of iniquity.”


Two aspects need to be considered here.  First of all that the tongue stands for all speech; not just oral speech with the physical tongue would be included.  In our technological age, it is wise to remember that you don’t have to use the literal tongue to sin with the “tongue:”  Whenever you say something outrageous and out-of-line—whether verbally or in writing—one has just as much violated James’ teaching as if one shouted it from the roof top. 

The fact that electronic media in one fashion or another is utilized does not alter this fact in the least.  Indeed the severely limited number of letters permitted in texting actually encourages bluntness to the point of insult, vulgarity, and obscenity.  One is simply denied the necessary length to present a reasoned argument. 

            Even when one’s word length is not so restricted, some insist on being just as malicious.  Even when one is literally and unquestionably in the right, such extremes are still not justified.  Indeed, one can easily imagine James being more horrified since we naturally expect the one in the wrong to be exercising such tools of overkill.  The inquisition mentality of “anything goes since I have the truth” sadly still exists.

[Page 140]                  One online commentator speaks of those who respond “as if it doesn’t matter how they speak so long as what they speak is right (or at least ‘right’ in their own eyes).”[26]  He has wisely (and with a touch of dark humor) labeled people with this kind of spiritual (and psychological?) problem as “blog trolls:”[27]                     


A blog troll is someone who makes outlandish, rude, and offensive comments. A blog troll is not someone who simply disagrees with you. In fact, you might even find yourself involved in a thread in which the troll agrees with your point of view! . . . Blog trolls are often prone to unqualified hyperbole, name-calling, caricature, and insults. In short, the blog troll fits the profile of the Proverbial “fool” who is not able to control his tongue:

Proverbs 18:2 – “A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in

revealing his own mind.”

            Proverbs 12:18 – “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a

sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”


            The ancient rabbis were also well aware of how explosive the tongue could be—though they would have in mind far more often verbal communications than written ones.  A Rabbi Samuel once asked, “Why is the evil tongue called a triple slaying tongue?  Because it slays three persons:  the person speaking, the person spoken to, the person spoken about.”[28] 

[Page 141]                  Its destructive capacity was “compared to the cruelty of an arrow that can strike and slay at a distance.  It is compared to a fire, but a fire that can consume stones as well as wood.”[29]  In other words the tongue can gut even those we would normally regard as too “strong” to be affected--and invulnerable to everything thrown their way.

            Hence the importance of using the tongue for useful rather than destructive purposes.  As Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel has a servant say, in discussing Proverbs 18:21, “Good comes from it and bad comes from it.  When the tongue is good there is nothing better and when it is bad there is nothing worse.”[30]  James would not have had any problem with that idea either.


            Secondly, the admittedly odd expression “a world of iniquity” must be analyzed.  How the tongue can be conceived of as a “world” apart from the rest of the body has been perplexing to many.  Yet we use the expression “have a mind of its own” as to how our body—especially our sexual instincts—can, somehow, without even trying it seems, lead us into compromising situations.  Would it seem odd if, when our tongue goes rogue on us, that we might describe it as “having a mind of its own”?  We know it doesn’t—but yet the result is as if it did.  James might well be thinking along such lines:  “It is a world of its own in which we seem to have no control.”

Because of the difficulty of picturing the tongue as “a world”--as if a fully self-contained entity in its own right, some have attempted to find a conceptual parallel that would avoid this difficulty.  “The whole of evil,” or “the sum of evil” have all been suggested.[31]  The Bible in Basic English renders the text, “it is the power of evil placed in our bodies.”

[Page 142]                  The Greek could be translated (though this meaning would be less common), “the adornment of evil.”  With that rendering the connotation would be that the tongue rationalizes, excuses, and vindicates whatever course of conduct we embrace--no matter how ill advised or outright improper it may be.[32] 

            The idea is of the tongue being like a planet/world, however, does yield a satisfactory sense in its own right.  After all, it seems  totally on its own and with nothing else seemingly able to influence or control it.  This may be called hyperbole,[33] but if so it is still close enough to grim reality that the candid soul recognizes how easily inflamed rhetoric can take on a “life of its own” independent of the conscious intent.





The “course of nature

[ATP:  course of our life].”


The RSV and NRSV renders this the “cycle of nature.”  The NAB prefers the “entire course of our lives.”  The NIV brings in a very similar rendition, “whole course of his life.” 

The expression is literally “the wheel of birth.”  In its original pagan form it referred to how all human beings were doomed to the pain, anguish, and disappointments involved in repeated reincarnations.  The only way to escape this literally endless pattern was through the “salvation” that Orphism offered to its adherents.[34]  This extremely pessimistic doctrine is incompatible with James’ insistence upon moral self-responsibility rather than despair.[35] 

[Page 143]                  Therefore it is hardly likely to have been in his mind to teach such a doctrine.  (Not to mention the difficulty of imagining where he would have found Torah roots for the concept.)  It is the type of expression that could easily take on a life of its own, however, among those either not acquainted with or even outright rejecting the doctrine intended by its original users:  even today we “bend” old adages, axioms, and expressions into a somewhat “parallel” idea but still distinctly different from the original. 

The ancients did too:  Authors long before James were already using it in a non-technical, broader fashion.  Virgil refers to, “All these, when they have rolled the wheel through a thousand years. . . .”[36]  In the first century we have Philo of Alexandria  (a Jew) writing of how, “After that he puts on a golden necklace, a most illustrious halter, the circlet and wheel of interminable necessity. . . .”[37]

In short we have both contemporary and earlier usage of the expression outside its technical meaning.  Was James to avoid the expression when others were already using it in such a manner?            

It should also be noted that the normal term used by the Orphic mystery cults was “circle of nature,” and that there is only one single author who described it as “the wheel of fate and becoming” (Simplicius).[38]  Hence the very foundation for any alleged “borrowing” is shaky at the very best.


[Page 144]                  Some more moderate critics have avoided the effort to fully “paganize” James’ convictions through Orphic contamination by arguing that the broader non-Orphic Greek concept of a “wheel of life” is referred to:  i.e., we repeatedly encounter the same type of difficulties, obstacles, and hindrances no matter how long we live.  Having done so, such critics then have argued that this was incompatible with the Christian concept of a definitive end to history, in which all the tears are wiped away in triumph.[39] 

Yet within any specific individual’s life the same patterns (usually) do occur time and again and are permanently triumphed over (if at all) only through patience or good fortune.  Or death. 

In short, it is a grim but quite accurate description of reality on this earth and in no way denies that there is a great transformation coming at the end of time when all the failures in the here and now are permanently wiped away.  These are supplemental concepts and not contradictory ones. 

            Whether applicable to all of life or not, there does seem to be an obvious and clearly recognizable truism in the concept when applied to the specific problem under consideration, control of one’s tongue.  Taken this way the text means that “from the beginning of life to its close, the tongue is an ever-present inflammatory element of evil.”[40]

            Some stress that the word “wheel” can also mean “course.”  Hence, in this text, “course of nature.”[41]  Its application would be the same as the one just considered.


[Page 145]



The tongue as “set on fire by hell

[ATP:  inflamed by hell].”


Since James elaborates at length on the evils that are unleashed by an unbridled tongue, an obvious question is “whose ultimate interest does it serve?” and “who or what is its ultimate inspiration?”  God or the Devil, heaven or hell?

Since the consequences are so harmful he has only the two negative options available of the Devil / Satan or hell.   Since Hell is pictured in fiery terms and he utilizes the image of the tongue being a “fire,” the invoking of Hell rather than Satan seems quite logical.  A “fire” is lit by a fire:  therefore the imagery of Hell is the one that has to be utilized for the internal “fiery” logic of the verse to hold up. 

(Of course the Devil—an intelligent, functional, reasoning being—would be the one to stir up our worst instincts.  But that picture simply doesn’t fit if the “fire” imagery is to be pursued.  Hence the Devil’s destination in eternity is presented as a euphemism for the intelligent hostile force that is at work against us.)  

            Hell here is “Gehenna” and, in its earthly setting, referred to the valley of Hinnom.  It was the city dump and at least parts of its contents were always burning.  If the book of James was written from Jerusalem and before the fall of Jerusalem, his Diaspora (1:1) readers were likely to take the term in its New Testament usage as a place of punishment.  While his local readers would certainly have this in mind, they could hardly have avoided making the local connection as well. 

[Page 146]                  Gehenna was their trash dump and the stink of its fires destroying the city’s debris was probably seen and smelt by virtually every one at some time or other.  And in allowing their tongue to set “the world on fire” they were unleashing a similar stink of decay and destruction as came from their local site.[42]  


            Henry Morris, the creationist who has done so much to further “creation science” in the United States, has written of the possibility that the expression is intended to reveal us a little of the nature of Hell,[43] 


Since the tongue can be “a world of iniquity” if it is “set on fire of hell,” this implies that hell itself may be a world of iniquity, where “their worm dieth not” and where “he that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still” (Mark 9:44; Revelation 22:11).  It may also be possible, since this final mention of gehenna in the Bible suggests that the “fire of hell” is what makes the tongue so iniquitous, that the fire of hell in these other references is a figurative description of the inconceivable horror of a world of nothing but eternal wickedness, hatred and violence, everlastingly separated from the holiness, peace and love of God.


            He reasons—for those who will obviously cite the traditional picture of Hell as a burning fire—that that image might well be used because the actual reality “is so terrible that it can only be visualized as everlasting fire, where “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever” (Revelation 14:11).”[44] 

[Page 147]                  In other words, it uses the most threatening and frightening physical image we can mentally conjure up—not because that is what the “physical” reality will be, but because nothing in our earthly experience can hope to convey the true horror.  In short using the known “fires” to give insight into a depth of pain and horror alien to our worst experience.


            Some have argued that Gehenna is referred to because that is the Devil’s current base of operations.  The concept of the Devil already being there can be documented as slowly evolving in nature and depth in Christian circles only beginning in the third century.[45]  A few pseudepigraphal writings have been cited, but opponents argue that the texts are having something read into them that isn’t there in the first place.[46]  

            Richard Bauckham briefly discusses the one New Testament passage that has been presented as proof that Satan was believed to currently live in Gehenna,[47]


Milton attempts to support the idea that Gehenna was considered Satan’s base of operation, by citing the phrase “child of Gehenna” in Matthew 23:15 as though it meant “child of Satan.”  But the phrase actually means “someone destined for Gehenna” (cf. “the son of perdition:” John 17:12), and diverges not a bit from the usual view of hell as the place of punishment of the wicked.


            Furthermore, the New Testament speaks as if his current dwelling place is earth.  The imagery presented is that he was still functioning there in the first century: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). 

[Page 148]                  Of course this is not incompatible with his “home” being somewhere else and that his functions on earth are of the “search and destroy” kind rather than representing his permanent location.  Beyond the earth itself, in the New Testament we read of him “residing” in only two places, however. 

            First there is the Pit, “He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished.  But after these things he must be released for a little while” (Revelation 20:2-3). 

            Then there is a (relatively) brief period of freedom.  Only then comes his second extra-earth location.  This is introduced in Revelation 20:10, “The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are.  And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”  In short, once there, there will be no leaving it.

The “pit” imagery of 20:2-3 doesn’t fit the “fire” imagery of 20:10, does it?  Conceptually do they not require two different kinds of domiciles?  Of course one could argue that it was a pit of fire, but if so how is the lake of fire all that much a different punishment?  Wouldn’t the lake of fire (presumably equivalent to Gehenna) then simply become a mere synonym for the Pit? 

Even if so, he is mentioned as leaving that Pit only once, at the end of the millennium.  Hence it’s not a base for on-going earth troublemaking.  And leaving the fiery lake—never.

[Page 149]                  If the millennium is still future (rather than the gospel age we currently live in) then Satan could be personally functioning to subvert us.  If the millennium is currently in existence, then during this period his activities are through secondary influences that represent him and do his work (often unknowingly) on his behalf.         

In neither case is it conceivable that we are supposed to believe that his “home” is currently in Gehenna and that he departs there to do his evil.  As a functional, intelligent being, why in the world would he return there?  For if the imagery is to even seriously hint of the place’s nature, it is hostile, unfriendly, uncomfortable, painful.  Where (if anywhere other than earth) the Devil spends his “off time”) surely it would not be Gehenna! 

            For these reasons we find it totally inconceivable that Satan now—or in the past—has worked out of Gehenna. 



“Fire” Punished by “Fire”


            Although related to our theme only by virtue of it occurring in the same verse, this makes it as appropriate a place as any to introduce another topic that may intrigue a number of readers and there simply seems no better place to bring it to attention.  This is in regard to the broad theme of the entire verse:  as argued by Bauckham, the point of the verse is that our fire breathing tongue will be punished with a retribution that corresponds to the sin that has been committed.  That is, sin will be punished with a parallel retribution, fire with fire,[48]

[Page 150]

The punishment, in other words, fits the crime:  the tongue which sets on fire the wheel of existence will itself be set on fire by hell.  This verbal correspondence between the crime and its punishment is reinforced by the pun which aligns the object of the crime with the agent of its punishment.  While the pun is purely verbal, it aids the impression of a perfect correspondence between crime and punishment which the sense of strictly just judgment expressed in the concept of ius talionis requires. 

Other examples of the eschatological ius talionis expressed by verbal correspondence between the crime and the punishment are:  “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person” (1 Corinthians 3:17).  “[The time has come] to destroy those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18). . . .

There is even another example in the letter of James itself:  “For judgment will be without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13a).

As well as the negative ius talionis (the sinner will receive a punishment equivalent to the crime committed) there is a corresponding positive principle of just reward (the righteous person will receive a reward equivalent to his or her good deed).  This too can be expressed by verbal correspondence . . . [and] James has an example of this too:  “A harvest of righteousness in peace is sown for those who make peace” (James 3:18).

Hence the way in which the eschatological ius talionis is expressed in James 3:6 corresponds closely to a common way of expressing God’s eschatological justice, one which James himself uses elsewhere in the letter.   



[Page 151]



“Every kind” of creature has “been tamed by mankind.”


Critics of the Bible’s accuracy have often mocked this, by providing purported exceptions.   Others argue in the same direction by insisting that James’ experience level of such things was far too narrow to justify what he says,[49]


Although James asserts nearly the exact opposite of the earlier Genesis authors, perhaps due to a widespread effort to tame all wildlife over the preceding few centuries, he runs straight into the same problem: limitations of an individual human perspective.  Like the earlier writers, James probably never ventured too far outside of Mesopotamia. If he had taken the time to make this journey, he would have eventually realized that there were other animals yet to be discovered, let alone tamed.  James’ premature proclamation hardly seems consistent with what I would consider a divinely inspired statement.


[Page 152]                  Two obvious problems immediately jump out at the reader:  James wrote from Jerusalem or some other geographic Palestinian site, not from “Mesopotamia” (the Tigris-Euphrates area).  Furthermore more than a “few centuries” passed between Genesis and James.  By a conservative approach you are most likely talking about the 1400s B.C.  Even the most liberal approach to dating (including the attribution of it to everyone but Moses) would surely make it in the 500s B.C. at the very latest.  Neither figure would justify the allusion to a mere “few centuries.”      

Defenders of the text (not always believers in literal inerrancy either) have responded to the denial of James’ “universalism” with examples of supposed untamable creatures being tamed.  In a circus or at an amusement park, there would be few of us who hasn’t seen how a “lion, a bear, an elephant can be taught simple elemental commands of obedience.”[50]  It does seem impossible, doesn’t it, yet it clearly can be done.  This is even true of more exotic animals, but these examples should be adequate to prove our basic point.

One could also approach this from the standpoint that the Greek term underlying “tame” need not carry the connotation of fully controllable; partial control would fit as well.  Although “tame” is overwhelming the normal rendition, it can also be translated “subdued” (NET, YLT) or “subjected . . . kept in subjection” (Weymouth).  In that sense a far broader array of creatures would easily fall under the description—ones that are, more or less, under control but who do not necessarily respond but a minimum to any human efforts to get them to act in a specific manner.


Now let us approach the matter from the how language is actually used perspective.  We routinely use “universal” language and no one expects it to be interpreted in such a fully literalistic manner.  For example, “I have every thing done.” 

[Page 153]                  Every thing?  Did you cut the grass?  No.  Perhaps because it’s January and it hasn’t entered growing season yet.  Perhaps because it hasn’t grown enough to cut again.  Perhaps because my spouse or teenager does it and not me.  Even though it is one of the tasks on the agenda, it’s not something intended to be covered by what we are saying.  “I have every thing done that I need to have done” is the intent.

            Try “I’ve overcome every obstacle I’ve ever faced.”  Good as a generalization but is literal universalism intended?  In full candor, haven’t at least one or two smashed us to the ground—hard?  Would we expect James to have intended hyper-literalism when his goal is to emphatically convey a basic truth and not deliver a scientific discourse?  Why?  

            In many ways this is a silly controversy.  James is engaging in generalization:  one would be pressed to find an exception, not that one would not be found--just that one does not normally spring immediately to mind and this reality is quite sufficient to explain James’ blanket assertion—it conveys a fundamental perceived reality. 

James may, of course, be engaging in outright hyperbole--but the element of “exaggeration” is clearly limited.  Most types of creatures have been tamed at one point or another though they may have been few in number or not worth the effort to do so on a general basis.

            Possibly more relevant is the objection that James was not acquainted with all the types of animals in the world and makes a false statement because of that.  Yet those he was acquainted with were—at least by and large—tamable.  Would those then living in those areas he never traveled to have been made in a manner to make it impossible? 

Would not his listeners and readers quite naturally have reasoned that since the bulk of animals they were acquainted with were tamable, that “all” were?  Hence we are dealing with the kind of logic that virtually anyone, anywhere would have used.  

[Page 154]                  Furthermore, to the extent that an exaggeration is present, is it not essential to make his argument work?  He argues that humans have far more difficulty taming the tongue than they do the animal world (James 3:8-9).  In fact he says the latter is impossible:  “No man can tame the tongue” (3:8). 

Yet he makes his arguments on the assumption that they can (1) curb their excesses and, ideally, (2) eliminate them.  To make this argument work the animal comparison drives the dagger in:  Surely those who can, seemingly, tame any and everything should be able to tame themselves, shouldn’t they?


Finally the potential tamability of all creation seems to be reasonably rooted in the Old Testament itself.  To Noah God says, “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea.  They are given into your hand” (Genesis 9:2).  “They are placed under your authority” (Holman).  “They've been assigned to live under your dominion” (ISV).  “Have been put under your control” (GW).

In a passage that has obvious Messianic application, such broad language was, in its original setting, applied to the entire human race,


3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained,  4 What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?  5 For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor.  6 You have [Page 155]  made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet,  7 All sheep and oxen—even the beasts of the field,  8 The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas (Psalm 8).


If one wishes to go to the apocryphal works, we find that this concept of creation tamability was firmly rooted there as well.  In Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 17:4, “He filled all living things with dread of man, making him master over beasts and birds” (Jerusalem Bible).  Or as the KJV rendered it (we often forget that it did), “And put the fear of man upon all flesh, and gave him dominion over beasts and fowls.”  The TEV has it, “. . . he gave them authority over all the animals and birds.”

None of these texts use the exact language of James, but can we doubt that anyone acquainted with them would agree that James’ language was an appropriate and valid application of them?  So it isn’t as if James stood alone and out on a limb no one else would dare climb.  He represents a stream of thought that long existed.

If one wishes to say that these, too, are somewhat “exaggerations,” well then that is fine as well.  It simply establishes that rhetorical exaggeration on this point was a well-established speaking and argumentive tool.  So wherein should James receive any blame? 

The polytheists were also willing to embrace the imagery of all creatures being under human control as well.  Vincent, in his Word Studies, gives this extract from the chorus in Antigone of Sophocles (lines 343-352):

[Page 156]

            The thoughtless tribes of birds,

            The beasts that roam the fields,

            The brood in sea-depths born,

            He takes them all in nets,

            Knotted in snaring mesh,

            Man, wonderful in skill

            And by his subtle arts

            He holds in sway the beasts

            That roam the fields or tread the mountain’s height

            And brings the binding yoke

            Upon the neck of horse with shaggy mane,

            Or bull on mountain crest,

            Untamable in strength.


Quibble with the validity of James’ assertion as you wish, the fact remains that it was well rooted in the Biblical tradition, acceptable to Jewish tradition outside the traditional canon, and even to pagan thought.  James was not out to make a scientifically precise analysis; he was simply out to make a morally and intellectually compelling one.  Hence to fulfill his goal he used imagery that would have been accepted as valid by one and all. 

And he was quite successful in doing it.       



[Page 157]



The nature of the “blessing” and “cursing” engaged in.


Both these terms are a bit misleading in our society.  When we speak of “blessing(s)” from God, then we think in terms of Divine gifts and generosity.   When we think in terms of our “blessing” God, we tend to hit a mental wall since there is nothing immediately obvious that the term conjures up.  Hence the ideas of “praise,” exaltation, or “words of thanksgiving” convey the intended sentiment far better than “blessing” does.[51] 

When presented this way, the scriptural roots of the concept are easily found. One commentator briefly summarizes how this is a recurring pattern in both testaments (using the KJV in particular to demonstrate it),[52]


"Praise ye the Lord: for it is good to sing praises unto our God; for it is pleasant; and praise is comely" (Psalm 147:1).  The last four Psalms are filled with praise to God.  The Lord says, "Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me" (Psalm 50:23).   Every once in a while a New Testament writer will burst forth in a doxology of praise (Eph. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3).

"By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name" (Heb. 13:15).  The Lord delights when brothers and sisters meet to worship Him; when they gather to [Page 158] praise and extol His name, remembering Him.  "Let them exalt him also in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders" (Ps. 107:32).


“Bless” carries with it the connotation of positive words, words that approve and appreciate what has been done.  And since God is the one being spoken of, it intensifies just how positive the expression is for it would be natural to express the most passionate and appreciative words of thankfulness to the Creator than to anyone else.

James contrasts how praise / blessing easily flows toward God, and contrasts that with the ease with which cursing is aimed at our fellow man.  His implied point is that not only should the cursing cease, but that we should seek opportunities to bless our fellow man instead.  This would cover not only doing good toward, but also speaking constructive and beneficial words to them—especially things that upbuild, make them stronger, encourage them.


            To “curse” is also subject to misunderstanding due to the way the idea has evolved in our society—it is far, far broader than just using profane language of them.  The Biblical concept is of wishing something bad upon another person--and telling him you wish it.  It is ill-will expressed in word:  the “Greek word ‘katarometha’ means to call down curses, to speak down or wish evil, condemn, to invoke evil on someone.”[53]

            It can involve misrepresentation, distortion, slander,[54] maligning.[55]  Whatever will be insulting and has the potential to hurt—up to and including vulgarity and obscenity.  But it doesn’t have to go anywhere near that far to fall under the same condemnation, however. 

[Page 159]                  When “cursing” is contrasted with “bless,” it clearly has the connotation of equally intense negative thoughts and feelings.  As “high” as our words are to speak well of God, as “low” our words sink to gut, insult, and harm our fellow man.  We might think of it as fighting others with brass knuckles, to assure the maximum damage, hurt, and injury. 

Hence:  Blessing = nothing held back in praise.  Cursing = nothing held back in criticism and condemnation.  


Of Vulgarity, Obscenity, and the Choice of Language


“Cursing” does not have to carry with it the modern concept of vulgarity and obscenity.  On the other hand, if a person is sufficiently contemptuous to wish the worst on another, that individual is just as likely to lace the barb with such expletives in order to maximize the degree of insult.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine it being omitted—at least in our own “anything goes” society!   

In my youth in the 1950s it would have been considered an abhorrent aberration at the best.  Now it is the “new norm.”  But “norm” does not always equate with moral character any more than the fact that the law permits something--and no longer punishes it--equates to it being moral.  Legal, yes; moral, not necessarily.   

One of the great problems throughout the second-half of the twentieth century and probably long before is that most folk tend to define what is “right” in terms of “legality.”  Legality can only provide a rough guide, at the best, and when evils are legislated into permission and endorsement (as it happens in our permissive age), it guts even the modest connection it had previously.   

[Page 160]                  One of the fascinating changes in my lifetime (negatively speaking) has been the use of cursing without any particular reason or provocation.  Traditionally, when a Marine has thrown out a few choice words in combat, you recognize that he’s been considerably provoked! 

In the contemporary civilian world, its become a mere idle word or expression.  Outrage isn’t even required.  Provocation isn’t even required.  You just use it because—well, you are mildly annoyed and who doesn’t drop “an atomic bomb” because the waitress forgot to bring sugar with the coffee?

Would this kind of “cursing” have met the approval of James?  Both because of the extreme language used and because of its pure un-neededness—would James have been unacquainted with the application of the words of Jesus?  “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36). 

It fits the term “cursing” and it fits that mode of “idle words” that is so common today as well.  And yet it also fits the type of thing a person says when he or she has completely lost control of how their tongue talks and is launched on a “search and destroy mission,” the kind of phenomena specifically under discussion in James. 

One could prolong this discussion by discussing what language falls under the condemnation we are discussing.  Eric Pement says it well, “You know what it is, whether you speak English, Russian, or another language.”[56]  The literal words may change from one language to another, but within your own you have a pretty good idea where the line is.  The problem is deciding whether to respect that line or ignore it.


[Page 161]                  If one wishes Biblical guidelines, one might think not only in terms of what kind of language is wrong, but also what kind is right.  We can ask ourselves, is this language in accord with these principles:[57]


Timothy was to “set an example for the believers in speech, in life . . . and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12 NIV).  Church leaders are to be “sober-minded, just, holy, and temperate.”  Christians must “speak evil of no one,” but be “gentle, showing all humility to all men,” displaying “sound speech that cannot be condemned, [so] that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of us” (Titus 1:8, 3:2, 2:8).  Furthermore, we are told, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29-30).


If such guidelines prohibit verbal excess, how much more so explicit vulgarity and obscenity!


What we’ve discussed, we’ve presented as if all the blame is solely on the speaker.  Sometimes it is.  Sometimes, though, we’ve been goaded by someone who despises us.  Or perhaps wants us to hurl back something excessive.  This way he can gloat to our face—or behind our back to his friends—“I told you those Christians are all hypocrites.  Why he just said” and gleefully provides all the “juicy details.”  Not mentioning, of course, his or her own role in provoking the unholy mess.

[Page 162]                  The words of David apply well to such a situation, “I said, ‘I will guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue; I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle, while the wicked are before me’ ” (Psalm 39:1).  “While the wicked are in my presence” is the wording preferred by the NASB. 

The first wording might misleadingly convey the idea that only a judicial setting is under discussion and the Psalmist is to be the judge.  The other translative approach shows that all types of interaction with those who would do us harm are what is in his mind. 

Since these folks are in some manner dangerous, we watch what we say.  It’s called self-protection.  Silence or near silence is sometimes our only protection since our words are guaranteed to be distorted and misrepresented.       






The kind of “wisdom” that is “earthly, sensual, demonic” (3:15)

is the kind that justifies (rationalizes)  

“bitter envy and self-seeking” (3:14).


[Page 163]                  In the textual analysis section we dealt with the “bitter envy and self-seeking” that their behavior manifested.  But time should also be given to the underlying causes encouraging of such behavior—the “wisdom” that is “earthly, sensual, demonic” (3:15).         

Ruling out an honorable source for their excess, James, in effect, argues that one must seek alternative explanations for why such envy and self-seeking can be so popular.  James suggests three possibilities, perhaps to imply their synonymous nature[58] . . . or that they overlap . . . or even that they are rigid categories.  (The last two seem clearly more likely than the first explanation.)  In effect:  choose whichever of these categories you desire to place the behavior in; it still falls far short of the ideal.


            (1)  “Earthly” (3:15).  Also:  CEV, Holman, NASB, NIV; “belongs to this world,” GW; “belongs to the world,” TEV; “of the earth,” BBE; “it belongs to the earth,” Weymouth; “of earthly origin,” ATP).

            In other words, it is the way of thinking (= “wisdom”) that is characteristic of those we live among.  It is what one would expect, but should hope for better than.  It would be, if you wish, the human norm.  

            It is also “earthly” in the sense of being this-world orientated.  “Its horizon is the earth. . . .”[59]  That is all that is on the mind of the individual—at least when he falls into one of these periods that the speaking ability must be used as a destructive tool to get one’s way or break down someone else.

            The Christian can fall into this mind-frame easy enough.  There are always bills to pay, a job to keep, family chores that may be delayed but have to be done sooner or later.  We look at shrinking paychecks or purchasing power, offspring who believe they should have no rules, politicians who believe honesty is only for the people who elected them and doesn’t apply any closer to home.

[Page 164]                  Some religions promote this mind-frame, unfortunately.  As one preacher worded it, “We cannot see beyond the earth.  All we are expecting from God through salvation are things that belong to this life—prosperity, healing, success, power, who knows what.”[60]  Yet, unless one has immense self-control, sin then becomes easily rationalized:  Since God wants these things for me . . . intends these things for me . . . how can I possibly be wrong in doing [fill in the blank] which would make it so much quicker?  Not intending evil, this-world-centered preachers inadvertently sow seeds that can promote it.   


            Aside:  “Earthly” wisdom may teach us good rules on how to be prudent sinners, but it is hardly in a position to urge us to avoid the sin.  Nowadays it seeks a moral-neutral stance against which to make virtually all judgments on behavior.  To refer to only the most brazen form of this, since secularism has effectively elevated all forms of sexual conduct to the same level of potentially permissible, it is hardly in a position to teach us to avoid any of these.  It may teach us well on why this or that may be “unwise” (for the time being at least), but then, again, it is only teaching prudence and not avoidance.

            Likewise it may caution us astutely on good tactics to stay out of jail for one thing or another.  But its ability to provide a moral case to consider the jailed behavior unethical or evil as well, that pushes it to and even beyond its limits. 

[Page 165]                  Earthly wisdom has always had its limitations, but it was surely only the last fifty years that crippled its ability to make the kind of broad ethical judgments that were once considered universally valid regardless of religion or personal background.  There were some things at least that were fundamentally and permanently wrong.  That list ever shrinks and more “ifs and buts” are attached to those that remain. 


 (2)  “Sensual” (3:15).  Also:  Holman; “unspiritual,” NIV, TEV; “self-centered,” GW; “natural,” NASB, “selfish,” CEV; “the flesh,” BBE; “to the unspiritual nature,” Weymouth)

            One might describe “earthly” as where we are and “sensual” as a reference to what we are.  Adopting common earth values and wisdom, James argues, warps our values—makes us “earthly.”  Similarly our being in the body we have and having the physical nature and instincts we have, likewise warps how we act—our “sensual” aspects at work.

            If “earthly” and “demonic” describe external factors, then “sensual” is included so that sole blame can not be passed on to someone or something else than ourselves.  When all is said and done the way of thinking (wisdom) that leads to verbal excesses is embraced because it appeals to us, not merely because there are other factors encouraging us in the same direction.  Everything is not “someone else’s fault;” we ourselves play an undeniable role in our own weaknesses. 

            The transition from “earthly” to “sensual” is quite natural since on this earth we exist in fleshly bodies—the negatives of one easily interact and reinforce the negatives of the other.  Paul spoke of how these could justly be tied together when speaking of those who had made shipwreck of their faith while maintaining a veneer of Christianity, “whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame [i.e., sensual acts]—who set their mind on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19) 

[Page 166]                  For some the purely temporal / earthly motives will drive them away from faith entirely; for others, they feel most satisfied while wearing a coat of “righteousness” while having a body that is morally decayed and dying within.


            The exact connotation intended for “sensual” has been the subject of discussion.  W. E. Vine, in his popular Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words summarizes, under “natural,” the few usages of psuchikos in the New Testament,


                        “Belonging to the psuche, soul” (as the lower part of the immaterial in

man), “natural, physical,” describes the man in Adam and what pertains to

him (set in contrast to pneumatikos, “spiritual”), 1 Corinthians 2:14, 15:44

(twice), 46 (in the latter used as a noun); James 3:15 “sensual” (RV margin,

“natural” or “animal”), here relating perhaps more especially to the mind, a

wisdom in accordance with, or springing from, the corrupt desires and

affections; so in Jude 19.    


            If one follows Vine’s suggestion then the idea would probably be a reference to our own desires as distinct from the impact of the surrounding world (“earthly,” the first item on the list).  Others prefer to stress that since it more literally means “belonging to the “soul,” we should use the term “soulish” to define the point.

[Page 167]                  Unfortunately in English that seems meaningless.  I remember “Soul Train.”  I remember “soul music.”  But I doubt that “soulish” will mean any more to most others than to me.  Truth be told, if I had to venture a guess strictly on my own, I would take it in the positive sense of “spiritually / soul orientated, a preference for the matters of the soul”--which it obviously couldn’t mean in the current context.

Hence having substituted a term that will not be all that comprehensible, one must immediately put an interpretive gloss on it to bring it within our understanding.  Hence one commentator, for example, argues, “What is the essence of the soul? The ego.  What is it to be soulish?  It is to be ego-centric; to be absolutely concerned with number one, as they say.  The soulish person says, ‘What's in this for me?’  The spiritual person says, ‘How can I glorify God?’ ”[61]

                In essence this reduces what is motivating us to our pride.  But is our pride the only element of our self-seeking nature?  Are not our “sensual” instincts also part of us and can serve as equal motivators?      

            Another preacher goes for the connotation rather than the exact meaning, “The main idea seems to be that of man’s fallen nature as opposed to the new nature given by God.”[62]  God has redeemed us and forgiven our sins, but it represents an ongoing decision whether we will live in a way befitting that new reality.  The old ways are always lurking somewhere in the background.

            If they weren’t, how could they ever emerge again?  Unless one believes that ongoing moral perfection will be attained in this life, the only alternative seems to be to concede that those instincts will never totally evaporate.  Curbed.  Chained.  Crushed at times.  But never totally extinct. 

[Page 168]                  If there weren’t something in us that could be tempted, how could sin ever occur after conversion?  Hence perhaps a better way of conveying that commentator’s core idea is to argue that the point is, “Not to let our worst instincts govern us.”  


            (3)  “Demonic” (3:15).  Also:  ATP, GW, Holman, NASB, TEV; “evil spirits,” Weymouth; “of the devil,” NIV; “comes from the devil himself” (CEV), “the Evil One,” BBE. 

            In other words:  It’s the kind of thinking that we would expect from demons.  As Charles Hess sums it up in just a few words, “Demonic wisdom is associated with that which is sordid, evil and depraved.”[63]  If we want to know what good wisdom is, then, we can virtually define it as:  the opposite of what demons prefer.   

In the kind of case James is describing, we are yielding to the type of thinking that motivates them.  And from the gospel descriptions of them, their actions are hurtful, injurious, debilitating, and destructive.  Hence their way of thinking—the “wisdom” that guides them—encourages such behavior.  In light of the great destructiveness of the tongue that James pictures, it would be a natural description to attribute to them.        

            James clearly has the same conception of demons as does Paul.  James sees them as having a way of thinking that results in the misuse of the tongue and harm to others.  Paul echoes that image when he speaks of “deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:1-2).  

[Page 169]                  A human tongue, stripped of restraints, pours out the “lies” even when one knows it is untrue or almost certainly untrue (hence “hypocrisy”).  Having “seared away” the inhibiting sense of guilt by chronic hypocrisy, their “conscience”—what remnants are left—provides no obstacle for them saying anything that is the most self-serving and self-indulgent.   Their internal thinking, pattern of thought, their intellectual operating standard—the “wisdom” / way of thinking by which they live—now allows anything.  If it will accomplish the result they wish.       

            Such a desensitized human sees words as a tool to accomplish his or her goals and is fully prepared to use them in any and all ways necessary—either to hurt others or gain one’s way.  They use words the way a liquor or drug addict does:  Their tale can break your heart, as they try to get the money out of you to buy more or try to convince you they can get their problem under control and nothing more needs to be done.  But if that does not work, “anyone who stands between him and his drug of choice is in danger of being slandered and accused of various forms of abuse.”[64]

            Yet many who will never touch such things act the same way in order to get their way, to defend themselves against legitimate complaints, or to get revenge for your frustrating their wishes.  When this type of thinking and behavior gain control, the concept of “truth” is crushed beneath their feet.  Surely that qualifies as “demonic!”


            If one wishes to “personalize” James’ remarks from discussing demons in general to the Devil in particular, it should be noted that his remarks fit well with what Jesus had said about Satan, “there is no truth in him.  When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).  It is part of his core nature. 

The NIV speaks of “when he lies, he speaks his native language.”  The GW:  “he's doing what comes naturally to him.” 

[Page 170]                  The picture James paints of an out-of-control tongue could hardly avoid the implication that truth was an irrelevancy and falsehood an “appropriate” usage in order to obtain one’s goals.  The same criteria used by Satan personally, Jesus indicates.

            Hence one can see why a vicious enemy of the truth is labeled a “son of the devil” because he was “full of deceit and all fraud” (Acts 13:10).  From a similar vein of thought comes 1 John 3:12, “Not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother.  And why did he murder him?  Because his works were evil and his brother's righteous.”  When the boundary between good and evil vanishes, in a very real sense the line between morality and Satanic is erased as well.  


            More than a few see in James’ words an implicit warning against falling deeper and deeper into error and insist that each of James’ descriptions refers to a different stage in the gradual plunge into the fullest of evil.  To provide the reasoning of one individual (representative of a form of interpretation I’ve encountered repeatedly in the final revision of this commentary),[65]


                        If that is not bad enough (and it is) when following earthly or man’s

Wisdom it seems to take very little time for apathy or an apathetic spirit to

take root, dragging the individual (and eventually the church) down into the

soulish realm.  No longer walking with the Spirit they are now functioning

according to the flesh or in a sensual way.

[Page 171]                  Then all activities - although still looking good – are

geared to people’s soul or flesh realm and meant to just meet their physical

and social needs and are without the very life and nature of God (Zoe).  The

activities do not contain life, cannot impart life, and no longer transform

lives. They cannot feed a person’s spirit and encourage their spiritual life. . . .

            But the slide downwards continues . . . perhaps even further into the

realm of the demonic.  Thus Paul states, “this wisdom does not descend from

above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic.” A progression downwards that leads

to churches without life; churches that no longer believe or follow the Bible;

people who “hold to the outward form of our religion but deny the power

thereof;” believers who are selfish and self-centered; churches that do not

impact their community; lives that are not being changed more and more

into His likeness; and believers that seldom or never witness and win others

to the Lord.  The church becomes a social club and is then irrelevant and

without any value in and to the world. It looks, acts and sounds like the

world. . . .


            As sermonic material I am impressed, but as exegesis it seems to clearly falter.  (We already discussed the problem with the “soulish.”)  James’ point is not that we are on a roller coaster ride ever downward, from one of these stages to the next.  If that were the case, wouldn’t it make just as much—or more--sense to put the sensual first for that surely represents what is within us and, therefore, that to which we are most immediately vulnerable.  Even more so than the external world / earth.

[Page 172]                  His point is that those elements that cater to our vanity and encourage our excess come from more than one source and regardless of which one it may be, it remains destructive of our spirituality and is inevitably harmful to others as well.






To maintain peace with others is an ongoing process,

not a one time for ever action.


As the NKJV puts it, “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”  The “harvest or fruit of righteousness” is probably the most traditional and common rendering:  ASV, BBE, Holman, KJV, NKJV, Rotherham, RSV.  ATP:  “the harvest of being acceptable with God.” 

            Some believe that something is omitted that is so clearly implied that it needs to be included in the text itself.  Hence the NASB renders it, “And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace. . . .”  The TEV in a different formulation works from the same assumption, “And goodness is the harvest that is produced from the seeds the peacemakers plant in peace.”  The ISV similarly wants to provide the needed omission, “And a harvest of righteousness is grown from the seed of peace. . . .”  The NIV implies it without directly saying it.    


[Page 173]                  Whether one inserts such an interpretive gloss into the translation or not, the assumption of its implicit presence is required to make the verse reflect reality.  You  simply don’t bury the first crop into the ground, for of what value would it be to anyone?  You’ve gotten nothing out of it and it has absolutely no value in assuring that there will be a new crop next year.  Hence you take the seeds and plant them again while enjoying the bounty of the harvest itself.

            What comes from the first crop literally  is what makes possible a second crop.  As Harold H. Buls has rightly written, “All of life is nothing but sowing and harvesting.  All people are constantly sowing and harvesting.  They harvest exactly what they sow.”[66]  And, of course, when they “replant,” the seed from the crop it brings forth is the same yet again and again and again.  No matter how many times it is done.

            Hence the pleasantness, amity, and cooperation that come from the “first year’s crop” of peace making with your brothers and sisters lays the ground work for next year’s.  You “plant” and practice the same kind of actions and behavior that made the first possible, thereby assuring that it becomes an on-going reality.

            And peace is the infinitely valuable crop.   

A Canadian preacher has these interesting words to say on what peace means within the context of scriptural usage,[67]       

[Page 174]

.                       Throughout the New Testament, “peace” is often used when speaking

of confidence or of contentment.  An example of such use is demonstrated

when Jesus said to His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to

you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled,

neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). . . .  In John 16:32, 33 Jesus is

recorded as warning, “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will

be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave Me alone.  Yet I am not

alone, for the Father is with Me.  I have said these things to you, that in Me

you may have peace.”          

            Now underscore the words that follow. “In the world you will have

tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”  Though tribulation

and conflict mark the walk of the disciple, they are promised peace in the

midst of the conflict.  Nor should you imagine that this is a peace that is

somewhere in the distant future; it is a present peace promised to those who

 walk with the Master.


            We live in a socially revolutionary period.  Place after place in our world is enduring politically revolutionary ones as well.  Yet the church can be an oasis of calm and peace even in the most troubled of times.  If its members are following the counsel of James.

            This should be one of the goals of both individuals and the church—to provide a haven of hospitality, friendship, calm and quiet in a sea of chaos.  The pursuit of peace with each other—not unlimited compromise of anything and everything, but fair and equitable treatment and understanding of each other—that is how such a place is constructed.

[Page 175]                  This is not to deny that problems will arise even within your local fellowship.  As the same Canadian suggests, “If your idea of Christian ministry is that everyone gets along and there is never any tension, then you are opting to model the church after a mortuary.”[68]

Yet if one has established a track record of seeking tranquil relations—if time and again (“crop after crop” to use the imagery of James) one has attempted to maintain responsible relations with others in general, whatever periods of unrest occur have an excellent chance of being survived. 

Gails at sea are survived by a well constructed vessel and the experience of the crew.  Congregational problems are similarly survived by a “crew” that has experience in trying to minimize conflict rather than maximizing it.  Folks who regard each other as “brothers and sisters” and not mere strangers who one must be polite to.






[1] For variants of these ideas see Wayne Jackson, “James 3:1—A Warning for Teachers.”  From the Christian Courier.  At:  https://www.christiancourier. com/articles/515-james-3-1-a-warning-for-teachers.  [May 2014.]


[2] As quoted by Steve J. Cole, “Taming the Terrible Tongue (James 3:1-12).”  At:  [May 2014.]  


[Page 176]   [3] Blomberg and Kamell, James, 151.


[4] Ken Matto, “The Biblical Alert for Teachers.”  At: bibalert.htm.  [July 2012.] Bracketed materials explain the point he was driving at; the points themselves are headings for a sermon on the subject.


[5] Craig Blomberg, “Do All Teachers Go to Hell?”  Dated November 11, 2008.  At:  [July 2012.]


[6] Craig Blomberg, “Why Do Teachers Face Stricter Judgment?”  Dated October 26, 2012.  At:  [May 2014.] 


[7] Steve Davis, “Being a Leader Carries Heavier Judgment.”  Chapter 7 of Biblical Church Government.  At: leader%20Carries%20Heavier%20Judgment.html.  [July 2012.]


[8] Casey Head (apparent author), “A Stricter Judgment.”  Dated 8/17/13.  At:  [May 2014.]         


[9] Somehow I managed to lose this citation and have in this footnote two irrelevant sources—one on Job and one on the Sabbath.  My apologies since my effort to relocate the source was unsuccessful. 


[10] Truman Smith, “The Work of Bible Class Teachers.”  At:  [July 2012.] 


[11] [Anonymous], “Why We Keep the Sabbath.”  At:  http://hiddentreasures  [July 2012.]


[12] [Anyonymous], Steve.  “Question 85:  Sin Is Sin.  All Sin Is Equal to God, Right?”  Part of the website.  At:  [July 2012.]


[13] Jimmy Tuten, Jr.  “Teacher, Consider Yourself (1).”  Truth Magazine, XVIII:2 (November 8, 1973).  As reprinted at:  [July 2012.] 


[14] Robert (Bob) L. Deffinbaugh, “Taming the Tongue:  James 3:1-18.”  At:  [May 2014.] 


[15] [Anyonymous], Steve.  “Question 85.”


[16] Ibid.


[Page 177]   [17] David R. Pharr, “Are There Degrees of Weal and Woe?”  Reprinted from The Spiritual Sword.   At:  [May 2014.] 


[18] Lionel Windsor, “The Greater Judgement.”  Part of The Briefing website.  Dated August 28, 2008.   At:  [May 2014.]        


[19] Ibid.


[20] Cole, “Terrible.”


[21] Ibid.


[22] Deffinbaugh, “Taming the Tongue.”


[23] Sliedrecht Family, “Tongue-Truth:  Untied, Untwisted, Un-forked (James 3:1-12).  At:  [May 2014.] 


[24] Karl Kemp.  “James Chapter 3, Verse 1 through Chapter 4, Verse 10, Part 1.”  At:  [July 2012.] 


[25] Ibid. 


[26] Denny Burke, “Don’t Feed the Trolls.”  Reprinted from Christianity.  Dated March 25, 2012.  At:  [July 2012.]


[27] Ibid. 


[28] Mid.Ps. 12:2, as quoted by Baker, 116.


[29] Ibid.


[30] Ibid., 115.


[31] Mentioned but not embraced by Songer, 122.


[32] William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, Revised Edition, in the Daily Study Bible series (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1976), 86-87.


[33] Neyrey, 1223.


[34] Hartin, James, 177.

[Page 178]   [35] Mitton, 127-128.  


[36] Aen. 6:748, as quoted by Hartin, James, 177.


[37] Somn, 2:44, as quoted by Ibid.


[38] In Arist. de cael. 2.168b, 25, as quoted by Ibid.


[39] Cf. Ibid., 128.  


[40] Plumptre, 81.  Cf. Gench, 37.


[41] Bennett, 167. 


[42] John Stevenson, “Tempering the Tongue:  James 3:1-18.”  At:  http://www.angel  [July 2012.]


[43] Henry Morris, “James 3:6.”  From the New Defenders Study Bible.  [N.p.]:  World Publishing, 2002.  Reproduced at  [July 2012.] 


[44] Ibid. 


[45] Bauckham, Fate of the Dead, 122. 


[46] See the analysis in Ibid., 120-122.


[47] Ibid., 122.


[48] Ibid., 123-124.


[49] Jason Long.  “Science to the Rescue.”  Chapter 5 of Biblical Nonsense ([N.p.]:  iUniverse, 2005).  As reproduced at: html.  [July 2012.]  He provides a wide survey of other “scientific” objections to Biblical accuracy as well.


[50] George O. Wood, “Taming the Tongue:  James 3:1-12.”  At:  [May 2014.]  


[51] Bratcher, 37.


[52] [Anonymous], “The Epistle of James:  Blessing and Cursing.”  Part of the website.  At: James/35_Blessing-Cursing.htm.  [May 2014.] 


[Page 179]    [53] Dan File, “The Inconsistent Tongue:  James 3:9-12.”  May 11, 2010 issue of The Capitol Commission.  At: 2010/05/11/the-inconsistent-nature-of-the-tongue-james-3-9-12.  [May 2014.] 

[54] Cf. Adamson, Epistle of James, 146.


[55] File, “Inconsistent Tongue.”


[56] Eric Pement, “Seven Reasons for Swearing.”  Cornerstone (volume 27, volume 115 – 1998?) as reprinted at:  [July 2012]  He also provides a fascinating discussion of how Christians attempt to abrogate such restrictions by arguing that the use of such language is a positive good.


[57] Ibid. 


[58] Neil M. Phelan, Jr. insists that, “According to James, worldly wisdom is ‘earthly, sensual, devilish’ -James 3:15.  This language alone should demonstrate to all of us the dangers of worldly wisdom.”  Some overlap between at least the first two terms makes sense, but don’t we mere mortals get into plenty of trouble without real or alleged demonic help—by our misty-thinking and yielding to our desires?  Hence to take all three expressions as identical in meaning seems a clear case of interpretive overreach.  (Neil M. Phelan, Jr.  “Two Kinds of Wisdom.”  July 1996.  At:  http://www.harmonypb  [May 2014.]) 


[59] Donald L. Norbie.  “Sensual Religion.”  Issue magazine (2008; Volume 63, Issue 4).  At:  [July 2012.]


[60] Derek Prince.  “Earthly, Soulish, Demonic.”  At: Articles/1000085812/DPM_US/Archive_of_UK/Keys/Protection_from_Deception/Earthly_Soulish_Demonic.aspx.  [May 2014.] 


[61] Derek Prince, Protection from Deception:  From Earthly to Soulish to Demonic.  Excerpts selected by P. J. Miller.  At: protection-from-deception-from-earthly-to-soulish-to-demonic/.  [May 2014.]     


[62] Viju Mathai, “Two Kinds of Wisdom:  James 3.”  Dated November 7, 2013.  Part of the “Standing on the Word” website.  At:  [May 2014.]  


[63] Charles Hess, “The Letter of James:  Chapter Three.”  Dated 2001.  At:  [May 2014.] 


[64] Jeanie Crocker, “Speaking Pickle.”  At: %20Pickle.htm.  [July 2012.]  The “pickle” in the title is the nomenclature for an addict; the “cucumber” is the non-addict. 


[Page 180]   [65] Ralph Howe, “Earthly—Sensual—Demonic.”  Dated October 23, 2011.  At:  [May 2014.] 


[66] Harold H. Buls.  “Adapted from his Exegetical Notes Epistle Texts, Series B, Sundays after Pentecost.”  Fort Wayne, Indiana:  Concordia Seminary Press, 1987.  As reprinted at  [July 2012.] 


[67] [Anonymous.]  “A Harvest of Righteousness.”  At:  http://newbeginningsbaptist. ca/clientimages/42652/sermonarchieve/james318aharvestofrighteousness.pdf.  [May 2014.]  


[68] Ibid.