No course in building and delivering sermons can approach the challenges every preacher faces, Sunday after Sunday. To begin, words have a denotation, the definition found in a dictionary. They also have connotations, how they are used on the street and in the work place. I remember a word game we played on our elders. For example, we enjoyed using the word pregnant, such as a pregnant idea. Our beloved elderly ladies were predictably horrified if we used the word around them. Today, of course, no one would raise an eyebrow. Further, different parts of our country have accent patterns that set them apart, such as the accent of someone from Brooklyn or Charleston. I remember a sweet lady from Indiana who struggled to understand what the Sunday School director, from Eclectic, Ala., was saying. She finally admitted, “I don’t understand a word he says.” Supposedly, we were all speaking English. Now, let’s look at a more moral approach to words as penned by James.
He begins with an obvious point, a word’s potential (vv. 1-2). The background which influenced these remarks came from the Jewish desire to obtain the standing of a rabbi, a role that was fraught with the possibility of leading many people astray. James probably recalled the warning of Jesus, “But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:8). Similarly His disciples were cautioned not to call upon their heritage and brag about Father Abraham. Divine lineage, not human, is what counts. A gifted teacher who leads people into error may harm their souls, such as people caught up in Mormon doctrine. Christians strive for soundness of doctrines so as not to mislead the followers.
James sets the mood by alluding to two common occurrences (vv. 3-4). He begins first with the way a horse can be controlled by the bit in the horse’s mouth. The horse must be trained to respond to the bit. We used two different kinds. For a plow horse, the two halves of the bit were loosely joined in the center of the bit. The bit has a large, circular ring to receive the reigns. For high-spirited horses, we used a cur bit, a solid center piece with extensions to the sides of the mouth piece, extending below the chin to receive the reins. The rider can pull on the extensions to control the horse.
James also used the ship’s helm as a means of controlling the ship’s rudder to guide the vessel. I was interested in a former sailor, now a student, who stood in the bridge of the ship, an aircraft carrier, for example. A ship the length of three football fields can nevertheless be guided by instructions from the bridge. The tongue can cause the ship to move at the captain’s command.
James then turns to the tongue’s impact (vv. 5-6). James’ scathing denunciation of the tongue probably reflects two teachings of Jesus. In the first, He cautions against strong denunciations of a person who endangers himself of incurring the fires of hell (Matt. 5:22). In the other, He states that the tongue reveals what is really in the heart. What comes out of the mouth defiles the man, not what he eats (Matt. 15:11).
James then launches into a discussion of the tongue’s destructiveness (vv. 7-10). He begins by lamenting the fact that the tongue, unlike wild animals, has never been tamed. It is full of deadly poison, an unruly evil (v. 8). As proof, he cites the contradiction of blessing God the Father and then cursing men, who are made in God’s image. A fountain cannot send forth sweet matter and bitter at the same time, nor can a fig tree bear olive berries, and so forth (v. 12). James probably remembered that Jesus cursed the fig tree for not bearing fruit (Mk. 11:19-21).
Finally, James builds the case that the tongue requires heavenly control (vv. 12-18). Human wisdom shows itself in its impact, creating every strife, confusion and evil words (v. 16). Conversely, the wisdom from above begins in purity of heart. At this point, we can turn to Matthew 5: 8-12 where Jesus dealt with the same subject. Heavenly wisdom must arise from hearts having been made pure by the grace of God.
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