Calvary Road Baptist Church


James 3.1-5

Allow me to ask your forgiveness this morning for failing to pay enough attention to the littlest members of our church. In our efforts to be a friendly congregation, we need to pay attention to all of our members, and not overlook anyone, especially our littlest members. To that end, please turn to James 3.1-5. When you find that passage in the Bible, please stand for the reading of God’s Word:

1      My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

2      For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.

3      Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.

4      Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.

5      Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!

Of course, my earlier reference to the littlest members in the church was actually a play on words about the tongue, said by James in our text to be a little member, meaning a small body part. The tongue, though it is a very small organ, is an extremely powerful member. Because of its great power, the tongue, the speech of the believer, is very important in the life of the believer. How is one’s speech important? Remember that James 1.2-20 addresses the issue of tests of a living faith, with genuine faith tested in a number of different ways and exhibiting a tendency toward passing those various tests. It was in James 1.19 that we were warned, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”

Proceeding through our consideration of this first of the books of the New Testament to be written, we also saw that living faith bears certain kinds of fruit. In James 1.21-27, we learned that living faith bears the fruit of being receptive to the Word of God. In James 2.1-13, we learned that living faith bears the fruit of showing mercy. In James 2.14-26, we learned that living faith bears the fruit of being visible, in that invisible faith produces visible results in the lives of those who possess such faith. Abraham, with his willingness to offer up his son Isaac, and Rahab’s willingness to risk her life to protect the Jewish spies sent by Joshua to Jericho, are wonderful illustrations of the visible fruit of real faith.

Today we begin a portion of the letter James wrote that shows self-control to be an important fruit of faith, with the speech patterns of the believer being a significant indicator of spiritual maturity and a tool that can be used to bring honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. James expands on this theme by drawing the attention of his readers to four relationships the tongue is involved in. Keep in mind as we proceed that although James uses figures of speech and seems to be explaining a physical organ, the tongue, what he is actually referring to throughout is the speech pattern of the Christian, the way the child of God talks.


James 3.1: “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.”

In this verse, the readers are provided with three things from their old pastor James:

First, a bit of warmth is provided. He writes to them, “My brethren.” Up to this point in his letter, James has been quite direct in challenging his readers, seeking to provoke them to show their faith instead of being content with a mere profession of faith in Christ. Beginning in James 3.1, he tones down his intensity just a bit. He becomes noticeably more tender by writing, “My brethren.” This is a reminder that he considers them spiritual kin, fellow members of the family of God. He does this to reassure them and comfort them in the knowledge that he has their best interests at heart.

Second, a bit of wisdom is provided. This letter written by James is often designated as one of the New Testament wisdom books, along with First Corinthians. Thus, James in the New Testament functions for the humble in similar manner as do Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon among the Old Testament wisdom books. There are timeless pearls of wisdom contained in this letter, and there certainly is wisdom in this next statement. “My brethren, be not many masters.” “The phrase means ‘do not be too eager to teach,’ ‘do not press into the work of teaching,’ lit. ‘do not many of you become teachers.’”[1] James is instructing his readers to avoid the temptation so many had succumbed to to jump on the bandwagon to become Bible teachers. My friends, this wisdom is especially good to heed nowadays. We have so many today who believe they are authorized to teach God’s Word simply because they know how to teach, or because they have vast study helps and resources unknown in times past. However, this is not true. Still others think themselves qualified to teach God’s Word because they are entertaining and leave people feeling better afterwards than they felt before, as though teaching God’s Word is so much entertainment, motivational speaking, or some type of cheer leading. John Wimber founded the Vineyard Church movement after being an entertainer/producer who had made a profession of faith, without any willingness on his part to submit to the instruction and mentoring of the pastor he was supposedly saved under, an acquaintance of mine. The theology of the Vineyard Church movement reflects that lack of instruction. As well, was that not a significant issue with the notorious 19th century evangelist Charles G. Finney? He made a profession of faith in Christ, but refused his pastor’s guidance and training, as well as the opportunity arranged by his pastor to attend Princeton for theological training. The result was a supposed gospel minister relying on his professional skills as an attorney, who was woefully ignorant of church history and critical theological issues, while being very persuasive, resulting in his Pelagianism and terrible effects on the cause of Christ that continue to our day.[2] I rather think James is specifically referring to individuals taking on pastoral roles and functions who have not been called by God to do so, or who have been called but are not prepared by reason of inexperience or lack of training. Remember, though an Old Testament scholar who was saved after his vision of Christ encounter on the Damascus Road, followed by personal instruction from the glorified Savior,[3] the Apostle Paul still did not begin his ministry in Antioch (that led to his church planting ministry) until about ten years had elapsed. Therefore, if someone is so inclined to take on a Bible teaching assignment, or if someone is asked to take on a pastoral leadership type of role as a young or somewhat inexperienced believer, my suggestion is to decline. That wisdom comes from inspired James. Working under the oversight of a pastor, who can coach and correct, who can instruct and train, is another matter entirely.

Finally, a warning is provided. Notice that James includes himself in his warning: “knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.” I believe that James is referring, here, to judgment that will take place at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Beloved, all believers shall stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. Paul teaches us that in Romans 14.10 and Second Corinthians 5.10. However, James is informing us that teachers, and I believe he is referring to pastor-teachers here, or those who would presume to enter into this ministry without being God-called or without being prepared, shall be subjected to a harsher scrutiny than other Christians shall. You see, according to Hebrews 13.17, I will someday give an accounting to the Lord Jesus Christ for my watch care over your soul: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” I believe that anyone who watches over men’s souls will give such an accounting. That said, could you imagine standing before Him on that day, and having to give an accounting for a ministry you took upon yourself, without His calling, and without His enabling? This is the thrust of James’ warning in verse 1. Do not presume to pastor or engage in pastor type ministry without divine preparation. What has this to do with the tongue? The master, that is to say, the teacher, uses his tongue to minister.[4] He who would be a master without a master’s calling uses his tongue in an unauthorized ministry.


James 3.2:   “For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.”

In this verse, James sets forth two points regarding the tongue and a person’s spiritual maturity:

First, there is the observation of an obviously mature Christian: “For in many things we offend all.” Who would deny this truth? It happens again and again, with even the best intentioned of people. The word “offend” means to stumble or to lose your footing.[5] Who among us has not said dumb things from time to time? He is pointing out the observation of one who has walked with God for many years. What is his observation? Every Christian blows it from time to time! If that fact surprises you, then you had better read your Bible more carefully. Not only have all sinned, and come short of the glory of God, Romans 3.23, but any Christian who even claims he is without sin is a liar, deceives himself, and the truth is not in him, First John 1.8. In context, we can be sure that James is referring to the tongue, to the Christian’s speech. He is saying that from time to time, you will say the wrong thing, you will be mistaken, and you will misspeak. Does not our own experience show this to be true? The problem, of course, is when you misstate something of real spiritual significance that goes uncorrected, thereby misleading the uninformed or the spiritually immature. Real damage can be done.

Moving from his observation, he points out the occupation of a mature Christian. I find it interesting to observe Christians. I even sit down, reflect on my own actions, and prejudices much of the time. We are real pieces of work, in great need of God’s grace at all times, are we not? Ever notice the tendency of skinny people to judge Christian temperance by noticing that others are too heavy? Heavy people sometimes do the same thing by pointing out that skinny people are too skinny. Those who have achieved physical perfection, such as I have, simply tut, tut, tut. Then there are quiet people who distrust those who talk freely, and we all know that those of few words are sneaky. Seriously, self-control is a mark of mature Christianity. From Galatians 5.22, we see it to be an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. From Second Peter 1.6, we see it to be one of the rungs up the ladder of spiritual maturity. However, we forget, and James informs us, that the target of self-control is the whole body, which I believe is referring to the whole man, your entire personality. That said, what is the real indicator of one’s ability to control the whole man, by the power of the Holy Spirit? “If any man offend not in word . . . .” If you really have your tongue under control, if you can deal with the temptations to gossip, to backbite, to repeat things you should not repeat, to engage in dispute, to speak the truth with the intent to do harm, to say things about others to show how much about other’s business you know . . . then you are a perfect man; mature: “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.” The exact translation of the Greek compound word translated “to bridle” is “to lead as with a bridle.” It does not refer to the actual action of bridling a horse, of putting the bridle into his mouth, but rather to the action of leading the horse to the desired destination through the help of a bridle.”[6] The picture shows a mature Christian who exercises control over himself and his impulses, the way a bridle exercises control over a beast of burden. Self-control really begins by governing what you say and how you say it.


James 3.3-4:    3      Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.

4      Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.

In these two verses, James gives real-life examples that show how the observation of the tongue as a measuring rod of spirituality is valid:

First, there is the example of the bit in a horse’s mouth, verse 3: “Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.” Until you have well-trained horses that know how to respond to shifts in the rider’s weight, the press of the rider’s knees, or the touch of the reins on their necks, it is really the bits in their mouths that control them to do the things that you want them to do. The bit represents the Christian’s control of his patterns of speech, his capacity to hold his tongue. What does such an example as this show? It shows the principle of leverage. Something very small can affect and influence something very large. As a small contraption called a bridle with a bit can almost completely control an animal as large as a horse, so something in a Christian so small as his tongue (of course, representing our patterns of speech) can exert a tremendous influence over other aspects of his life and service.

Then there is the example of the rudder of a great ship, verse 4: “Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.” Once more, we see the principle of leverage. No matter how big that ship may be, the rudder, the helm, if you will, controls its orientation and direction of progress. So, too, the tongue can manipulate situations far greater than one might think, because of the leverage it has in the circumstances of your life. The more spiritually mature you are, the greater skill you possess in the use of your tongue, the more deft you are in speaking the truth in love and ministering grace to the hearer.[7] Obviously, James refers here to something besides cleverness and wit. Cleverness and wit are quite common. What James addresses is a spiritual trait unknown to the unconverted and to the spiritually immature.


James 3.5:     “Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!”

See what James is doing here? He has moved from real-life examples of control to a real-life example of destruction. As the tongue has the capacity to control, so, too, it has the capacity to destroy.

First, the tongue’s size is directly referred to: Small little thing. No big deal. Most people underestimate the size of the tongue, the significance of one’s speech. However, do not forget the principle of leverage. As with the bridle and the rudder, something can have influence all out of proportion to its size.

Next, the tongue’s sensationalism is pointed out: It boasteth great things! O, what bragging. O, what bombast. O, what exaggeration. O, what capacity to manipulate, to flatter, to blow out of proportion, and to distort. It is obvious that James realizes that the tongue does not have a mind of its own, but is it not interesting that as he personalizes the tongue he captures that human tendency to dramatize, to emotionalize, to spice up things that are said, to sensationalize them to make it more interesting to our hearers? A few days ago, I heard a young fellow make the comment, “Everybody says . . . .” I asked him who he meant by everybody. Of course, he was stunned into silence. It took several minutes before he would admit to me in private that by “everybody says” he meant one guy said. That is the sensationalism of the tongue.

Finally, we see the savagery of the tongue: “Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” My friend, it is just a small step from sensationalism to savagery. One person makes an offhanded remark that is overheard. Yet the person who overhears that offhanded remark repeats the comment in a room full of people with the lead in, “Everybody says.” Thus, a small spark of a comment can completely ruin another person’s reputation. You have no doubt heard the rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” That is not true. Words can hurt. Words can ruin. Words can kill. Words can drive other people over the edge so that they commit suicide, thereby killing themselves. I know a pastor on the East coast that decided to start teasing a classmate in Bible college more than thirty years ago. He would ride him and ride him, without letting up. He teased him and said things about him to others. Then, one day, the lad committed suicide, saying he just could not take it anymore. “Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!”

How is it that the human tongue is capable of such savagery? Simple. The Savior said that it is the abundance of things that are in men’s hearts that cause them to speak the things they do, Luke 6.45. Is that not right? Therefore, we know that the wickedness of the heart is the reason our mouths say the things that we do.

Because of James’ plea that we be not overeager to teach God’s Word, our standards for teachers at Calvary Road Baptist Church need to be strict. We simply cannot tolerate idle gossip, or even the truth being told with the intent of doing harm. Because the tongue helps to indicate one’s spirituality and maturity, we shall continue to pray that no one in this church occupies a position of influence who is faithless, vocally negative, and who openly doubts God’s power to work. Are we in agreement? Too much is at stake.

It is a sin for a Christian to be a pessimist. It is doubly sinful for that Christian to be vocally pessimistic to affect others. Because the tongue manipulates both people and events, we want our people to be loyal, not to me, or to this church, but to the cause of Christ. Loyalty to Christ will influence your relationship to me and this church, will it not? As well, because of the tongue’s great potential for destruction, we must pray to God for the power to be forgiving and tender of heart. This will enable us to be free from the pride and bitterness that sets the tongue on its destructive course.

I wonder, this morning. Is the Holy Spirit of God working in your heart concerning this matter of the tongue? Is He dealing with you about how you use this gift of speech that God has given to you? Do you use this gift of speech to tell others about Christ? Do you speak of Him when opportunities arise? Do you warn people when you have opportunity that without Christ they will certainly perish? When men ask you why you are the way you are, do you tell them it is because of Christ? I sincerely hope you do. That Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and rose on the third day in victory over sin, death, Hell, and the grave is very good news. It is good news that Jesus saves sinners from their sins. All that remains is for them to be told.

It is a wonderful thing when the Christian is mature enough to control the littlest member in the church, the tongue, to minimize the damage he does with inappropriate comments. It is also a wonderful thing when the Christian is excited enough about the gospel to eagerly tell people about Christ. The tongue needs to be controlled, not turned completely off.

[1] Joseph B. Mayer, The Epistle Of James, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1990), page (417) 107.


[3] Galatians 1.17-18; W. J. Conybeare & J. S. Howson, The Life And Epistles Of St. Paul, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 reprint), pages 79-82.

[4] James B. Adamson, The Epistle Of James - NICNT, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), page 140.

[5] Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1980), page 732.

[6] Spiros Zodhiates, The Behavior Of Belief, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), Part Two, page 94.

[7] Ephesians 4.15, 29

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