James and Jude
The Heart of Words
One summer, years ago, both my children participated in a kids’ community music camp. The musical they worked on and ultimately performed at the culmination of the two week camp was called, “Words.” This week’s lesson brought back to mind the chorus of the musical’s theme song:
“Say what you mean, mean what you say,
Don’t let false words come into play.
Honesty is the best way.
So, say what you mean, mean what you say.”1
James’ focus this week is the tongue. One nice thing about writing a comment, rebuttal or admonition is that you can take the time to edit it. Not so with speaking off the cuff. More than once, I’ve spouted a response to a situation that I wish I could take back. I look back and see where I’ve done the kind of damage James is going to be talking about. As we’ll discover, the reason we say the things we do can go much deeper than we may care to admit.
For those of us who’ve experienced regret over what we’ve said, this lesson is especially for us.
I. DAY ONE
A. Before James gets to the tongue, he writes a preface cautioning readers in presuming to be teachers.
1. Read James 3:1-2. What are some of the reasons James gives for his advice regarding teachers?
a. According to the second part of the passage, what makes a perfect or mature man?
b. In verse 1, your translation may simply use the word “become” but it has a presumptive or conceited aspect to it. Presuming means “venturing without positive permission; too confident; arrogant; unreasonably bold.”2 With this definition in mind, in what way would presuming to be a teacher not match with being a mature man?
2. I Corinthians 12:28-29 and Ephesians 4:11-12 list spiritual gifts. What word does the Ephesians passage use several times as it gives the gifts’ titles and what does this word imply?
B. Though we’re not all gifted by the Holy Spirit to be teachers, God designed people to communicate and pass on information. As parents, mentors, neighbors, employers and advisors we instruct out of necessity and circumstance. Read Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and Titus 2:3-5.
1. What are some of the benefits of these teaching times in our lives?
2. Simply being believers means we need to share—or teach—the good news (Matthew 28:19-20). Read Hebrews 5:12-14.
a. What does the Lord expect from us?
b. In what areas do you need to mature and how does that reflect your ability to teach and minister to others?
II. DAY TWO
A. As a review from yesterday, read James 3:2 in the Phillips Translation: “We all make mistakes in all kinds of ways, but the man who can claim that he never says the wrong thing can consider himself perfect, for if he can control his tongue he can control every other part of his personality.” Now read verses 3 and 4 in your version.
1. What imagery does James use to show the relationship of something so small guiding something large?
a. What does James say is the purpose of the rider’s actions in the first example?
b. In addition to the vastness of the ship itself, what else works against the course of the ship?
2. In both examples, who are the ones who do the directing?
B. The first step, therefore, in maturing as a Christian is taking responsibility for what we say. Going back to chapter one, James encourages those lacking wisdom to ask God for it. Having wisdom means we understand the power of our words. As we’ll see in the rest of this week’s lesson, what we say can “bless, encourage, unite and bring life … and yet that same mouth can wound, cause division, bring strife, and even kill.”3
1. Read: Psalm 37:30, 49:3; Proverbs 18:4, 31:26; Ecclesiastes 9:17, 10:12. What are some of the things these verses say about wise words?
2. I Corinthians 2:1-16 says a lot about wisdom, what we say, and the maturity of how we say it, especially pertaining to sharing the gospel.
a. What are some of the phrases or ideas Paul uses in this passage to show the importance of wise, mature words?
b. In what way have you been using “persuasive words” of man’s wisdom (v. 4) in your ministry rather than Spirit-led truth?
c. What will you change this week in how you approach others with truths from Scripture?
III. DAYS THREE AND FOUR
A. Today we get to the heart of the matter on this business of the tongue. Read through James 3:5-8. James uses the idea of fire, taming wild creatures and poison to illustrate the power of words.
1. Forest fires are common where I live. Firefighter friends of ours are sometimes called away from home weeks at a time battling blazes around the state. Eight years ago the worst fire in the history of a nearby national forest consumed 150,700 acres. It was begun by a careless camper’s small cooking fire.
a. For another example of something small effecting such a big change, read I Corinthians 5:6-7
b. What other illustration can you think of that shows this concept?
2. In the Bible, fire is used for and represents many things. Skim the groups of verses below for a sampling of the types of fire in scripture and come up with a label for each group.
a. Ezekiel 1:27; Hebrews 12:29; Revelation 2:18.
b. Matthew 7:19; John 15:6; 2 Peter 3:7
c. Proverbs 17:3 (your version may use the term “furnace”); Zechariah 13:9; I Peter 1:7.
d. Matthew 3:11; Acts 2:3.
3. The word for fire used in the second half of James 3:6, where is says “and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell,” is rather unique. It’s the Greek word “phlogezo” and it gives the idea of destruction, where destructive influences are kindled and having a “pernicious power.”4
a. How have you experienced this destructive force in your life?
b. What can you do to help quench this type of fire?
B. James then uses the idea of taming animals. Whether an obedience instructor for a dog, a trainer breaking a young horse, a keeper with a gorilla, or a handler with a huge elephant, watching a person get an animal to behave with just a word or a touch shows their amazing patience and fortitude. Though difficult, taming has been or could be accomplished with every species of animal, according to James 3:7.
1. Read Genesis 1:26-28. What was our relationship with animals intended to be from creation?
2. This concept of dominion is defined as “the power of governing and controlling.”5 How does this idea relate to the tongue?
3. According to Proverbs 25:28and I Timothy 3:4, what are some other things we need to control?
C. Poison, as mentioned in James 3:8, really speaks for itself. Throughout history, poisons have been used as weapons and in assassinations because of their extremely destructive and subtle form of death. The Roman Empire was notorious for poisoning enemies, especially among nobility. Nero was particularly fond of using poison on unwanted family members.6 James had a front-row seat under Roman rule for such a reminder about the destructive power of the tongue.
V. DAY FIVE
A. Today James poses a problem for us to ponder. From our tongues we both bless God and curse people around us. But he points out that things should not be this way. And according to our text for today, James 3:9-12, nature itself shows why.
1. What does James ask us regarding a fountain in verse 11?
2. In verse 12, what crops does James use as illustration? What is one reason why these crops could not combine or be grafted into one another?
3. In this modern world, desalination—extracting salt to make sea or ocean water drinkable—has become something possible, especially in the arid Middle East. But it is extremely expensive and takes a lot of outside manipulation. As James points out, salt water cannot produce fresh water on its own.
a. What is encouraging about the idea of desalination regarding what our mouth produces?
B. As usual, Jesus has similar illustrations regarding the duality of our speech. Read Luke 6:43-45.
1. How is each tree known in verse 44?
2. At the end of verse 45, where does our speech come from?
3. In looking at Jesus’ descriptions, what can you conclude regarding the heart of those who consistently use their tongue for both blessing and cursing (James 3:10)?
It all comes down to the heart. What is truly in our hearts will come out of our mouths. Jeremiah says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
One commentator noted that “…we are to sing a duet; the tongue and the heart are to be in tune.” Then, talking about Jesus’ healing a man who was deaf and mute, he adds, “The gospel writer is very careful to say, ‘He touched his mouth.’ My friend, if He has touched you, He has touched your mouth also.”7
Let’s pray this week that the Holy Spirit would again touch and tame our tongues to only speak words that would please Him. Instead of a destructive fire, pray our words would be a quenching, cool rain.
[Author’s note: I’m using the New American Standard Bible for the study on James unless otherwise noted.]
1. Craig Crawshaw, “Say What You Mean,” from the musical Words, 1996, Tempo Music Publications, Inc.
2. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, (S. Converse: New York, 1828), facsimile reprinted by Foundation for American Christian Education, San Francisco, CA, s.v. “presuming.”
3. Cheryl Hauer, “James: The Guidebook to Holy Living,” Israel Teaching Letter ( Bridges for Peace: November 2009).
4. “Dictionary and Word Search for phlogizō (Strong’s 5394).“(Blue Letter Bible: 1996-2010), 2 Jun 2010.
5. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, (S. Converse: New York, 1828), facsimile reprinted by Foundation for American Christian Education, San Francisco, CA, s.v. “dominion”.
6. “The History of Poison,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_poison.
7. J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible With J. Vernon McGee, vol. 5 ( Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, 1983), 656-57.
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