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Chapter 3

Commentary by Tom Brown

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

presume to be teachers. True teachers will be judge well, but teachers that have presumed to take the role, will be judged poorly, because they are not called by God to teach.  

Teachers. The Greek word describes a master at teaching, not a novice.

judged more strictly. True teachers, nevertheless will be judged more strictly--both by the world and by God.

2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.

never at fault in what he says. Words come from the heart. If a person can "master" his words, then he or she can master their lives.

perfect man. Speaks of full age, totally mature. Not necessarily without errors.

keep his whole body in check. The body follows the heart and mouth. People do not let their bodies do anything without their consent. What you say to yourself will constrain or release your body to action.

3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.

bits... rudder... spark. In the following three verses, James uses three analogies to speak of the tongue. They are all small, yet they determine the direction and course of the objects they control. Your tongue will determine the direction of your life. What you speak, you will eventually possess.

we can turn the whole animal. James is assuming that the reader is headed in the wrong direction, thus, he describes a horse turning around. We need to change the words we speak.

4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.

driven by strong winds. Circumstances and the teachings and words of men often steer us in the wrong direction.

they are steered. It is not the circumstances of life or the false teachings that forces you in the wrong direction. You can go against the winds by using your tongue to speak in the Word of God.

rudder. See verse 3

pilot. A reference to you, the reader.

wants to go. You can go where you truly want to go. No true believer wants to go in the wrong direction.

5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.

tongue is a small part of the body. Even though the legs are the largest visible part of the body, it is the tongue that takes the legs where it wants to go. Don't be fooled by the tongues' smallness.

spark. See verse 3.

6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.


a world of evil. Although the tongue is the instrument to bring the gospel to people, it is normally used in the wrong way.

It corrupts the whole person. The tongue, both of the speaker and hearer, can corrupt their character, mind and spirit--the whole person. You must be on guard concerning what you listen to and the words you speak.

sets the whole course of his life. The course of your life is set by the teachings and words you receive from others and the words you speak over your life.

7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man,


Description of the dominion of the human race. See Genesis chapter 2.

8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

no man can tame the tongue. In your own power, you cannot tame the tongue in the same way you can tame animals. You need the supernatural power of the Spirit to give you power over your tongue. Coincidently, when the Spirit comes to live inside of the believer, the believer's tongue is able to speak in new languages. See Acts 2:1-4.

deadly poison. Possibly a reference to the venom of snakes, in which their bite, is their poison. It's possible that we can bite and devour each other through our words. Gossip and false witness can ruin another person life.

9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.  

He shows the forked tongue, something snakes are known for. It is easy to praise our Lord and Father, but it is harder to praise men. Yet, they are made in God's image, so James is saying that to curse men is to curse God's image bearer.

10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.

same mouth come praise and cursing. Ironically. It is not two mouths, but the same one.

11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?

In nature, fresh and salty water cannot flow from the same spring. In the end, if you mix salty with fresh, it becomes salty. Salty water is not drinkable or good for bathing. In the end, negative, poisonous, critical, doubtful words will overcome positive words. Not the other way around. Proof: it is much easier to remember criticism than it is to remember compliments.

12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.


As much as you want good fruit to be borne in your life, it will not happened until you get control over your tongue.

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

Let him show it by his good life. No one can argue with a good life. This is the evidence of God's wisdom in the life of the believer.

deeds done in the humility. There can be deeds done in pride--done so the person can receive human approval for what he has done. Your good deeds do not need the praise of men.

14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.

harbor. Often our sinful heart lays in a harbor, like a ship, not showing itself to be sinful, until the right moment, when, like a ship, it leaves the harbor. Then the evil heart with envy and selfishness is shown forth. The heart is the harbor. Some deny that bitterness is in their heart, because they have not shown it, yet. But it is only a matter of time that the ship leaves harbor, and with it, all the bitter envy and selfish ambition.

bitter envy. The Greek word "envy" was a word in classical Greek that spoke positively of zeal--a good quality, provided the zeal was in the right thing. So James uses an adjective, "bitter", to make sure the reader understood he was referring to envy, not zeal. The difference, zeal is focused on one's own action, while envy is focused on other people's actions. It is a sin to envy another or to be critical of another. Ultimately, you can tell if you have envy and jealously if you become bitter toward another person who is succeeding.

15 Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.

earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. Three description of worldly wisdom versus God's wisdom. Earthly speaks of worldliness; it has an appearance of wisdom. Unspiritual shows clearly that it is not concern for spiritual well-being, but only natural well-being. Devil shows ultimately the source of worldly wisdom. See the fall of Adam and Eve, and you will recognize all three elements which led to their downfall.

16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.


The true cause of disorder in all organizations--family, church, government, workplace--is envy and selfish ambition. The evil twins of envy and selfish ambition appear wise. Shouldn't people want to advance within their organizations? Yes, but hurting another within the organization, is not the way of advancement.

selfish ambition. It is one word in Greek, meaning to contend for your ideas and ways of doing things. The result is strife within the organization.

disorder and every evil practice. This is the result of envy and selfish ambition. Disorder occurs because people, within the organization, believe their ideas are better than those above them, and they are not content in seeing their ideas discarded. Envy is a desire to replace another person above them. You must avoid strife at any cost. You must humble yourself and accept the position God has given you, and if God sees fit, He will promote you. No need to undermine order within the organization. 

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

wisdom that comes from heaven. There are two kinds of wisdom;  in verse 15 he mentions the bad kind. Now he describes the good kind of wisdom. Most importantly it comes from the God Who lives in Heaven.

pure. A reference to something completely clean. Nothing dirty about this wisdom.

peace-loving. They love peace within the organization more than they love their place in it. They bend over backwards to make sure peace is kept.

considerate. Means to look at things from another person's perspective. Don't get caught up only with your perspective.

submissive. If your ideas and views are not accepted by the organization, you learn to submit to authority for the sake of peace. There is no room for disobedience.

full of mercy. Even though you might rightfully believe others in the organization are wrong, you give them mercy. You choose to forgive them.

impartial. This is one of the most difficult qualities to cultivate. You have to put away your hurt feelings to see things as they really are, not as you think they are.

sincere. In the end, it is possible to pretend to implement the fruits of heavenly wisdom, but James finishes by telling the reader that he must truly be sincere in living by God's wisdom.

18 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

Peacemakers. We are called to be peacemakers, not peace-keepers. A peace keeper does not confront injustice, but sweeps injustice under the carpet to protect themselves. Peacemakers confront injustice even to their own hurt.


Previous  Chapter 4

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