James Chapter 3
James continues to be increasingly specific as to how the word should act upon us to produce a spiritual character. The whole of Chapter 3 is devoted to showing how our words are the clearest indicator of how the word is affecting our heart, and the emphasis we should therefore give to the control of the tongue and the thoughts behind it.
"My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. 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." (v.1,2).
This being addressed to those leading the ecclesia further suggests that this letter was written primarily to the rich Jewish believers who were the Spirit gifted eldership in the mainly Jewish ecclesias of the first century.
These two verses must have Matt.23:8 in mind: "Be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren". Hence James addresses them as "my brethren", gently reminding them that they were not masters but brethren. The context of Matt.23 is denouncing the Pharisees for loving the prominent seats in synagogues and to be publicly recognized for their righteousness, which again indicates that these brethren were influenced by Judaistic attitudes. We have seen how in 2:2,3 they were placing great importance on having good seats in the synagogue/ecclesia. "Masters" means 'teachers'; and maybe this is echoing Paul's condemnation of the Jews in Rom.2:17-24: "Thou art called a Jew...and makest thy boast (cp. James 4:16) of God...and art confident that thou thyself art...an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes". There are several other links:
"Makest thy boast of God"
The tongue of the teachers in the ecclesia boasted (3:5; 4:16)
"Knowest His will"- so they thought.
They should have said "If the Lord will" (4:15)- implying they thought they already knew God's will.
"An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes"
"Many masters" (teachers); 3:1
"Dost thou commit adultery?"
"Ye adulterers" (4:4; 2:11)
"Through breaking the Law"
"Ye commit sin, and are convinced of the Law as transgressors" (2:9)
"The name of God is blasphemed among the which ye Gentiles because of you (Jews).
"Rich men..the judgement seats(Gentiles) ...blaspheme that worthy name by (Jewish believers) are called" (2:6,7)
Teaching the word
Their desire to be teachers therefore indicated that they were bringing the attitude of their former religion and the surrounding world into the ecclesia. The rest of Chapter 3 is about the tongue; James' argument therefore seems to run 'As a teacher you will have to speak many words, and the chances are (v.2) your words will offend someone in the ecclesia. Remember that as a teacher of the ecclesia you are responsible for the flock, and therefore "we shall receive the greater condemnation"(v.1). Only a "perfect man" who has his words totally in control will not offend anyone, and only he is "able also to bridle the whole body" (v.2)- the ecclesia, the body of Christ'. It is worth noting that our judgement in the last day will take into account the quality of our converts and the effort we have made to build up others- see Digression 8. Our receiving condemnation as a result of being masters may be alluding to Matt.12:37: "By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned". In this case, the words Christ is speaking about are specifically our words to our brethren and sisters. The context in v.34 is Christ telling the teachers of the law that it was impossible for them to "speak (i.e. teach) good things" because their heart was evil. "A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things" (v.35), which connects with the description of the Scribes (teacher of the Law) instructed in the Truth bringing forth "out of his treasure things new and old" (Matt.13:52).
The ideal ecclesial 'master' will not offend any in the ecclesia because his words are controlled on account of his being a "perfect man". 2 Tim.3:16,17 says that the word of God has the power to create a perfect man (cp. 1 Cor.13:8-10; Eph.4:8-13). James 1:4,5 has shown that by the wisdom of the word, a man can be made "perfect and entire". Only such a brother will be able to "bridle the whole body" (ecclesia). Earlier, in 1:26, the bridling of the tongue is spoken of as a result of the word acting on the heart. Thus only someone able to bridle his own tongue can bridle the ecclesia. That this interpretation is on the right lines is also suggested by v.6 talking about the "members..the whole body" being influenced by the tongue. This is the language of 1 Cor.12 concerning the ecclesial body.
"We put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body" (v.3).
This can probably be read on two levels- the need to control our lives by concentrating on the control of the mouths (the tongue), and also the implication that the whole body of the ecclesia can be turned about by their leader controlling the ecclesial tongue- i.e. encouraging the members to control their thoughts and words. And this is exactly what James, the real leader of the Jerusalem ecclesia and the Jewish believers of the Diaspora (1:1), was trying to do. The way he asserts his own leadership like this is so subtle that only the thoughtful and spiritually aware would appreciate it. The Greek 'peltho' translated 'obey' carries the idea of yielding and friendly confidence- as one would deal with a horse; and this is precisely how James was trying to influence this ecclesial "body". This was to the end that the body would be turned about, a phrase implying a total about turn, thus showing the degree to which the ecclesia needed to change.
The reference to bits in the horses' mouths is an allusion to Ps.32:8,9. This teahces that the understanding of God, having experienced His mercy, should lead us to control our tongues, rather than our having to be forced to do so by a bridle. This fits in with the teaching of v.8, that the tongue cannot be tamed by man's human efforts (cp. bit and bridle), seeing that the natural mind which produces our words is 'beyond cure' (Jer.17:9 Heb.)
Against the wind
The figure of the ecclesia's leaders as the rider and the church as the horse is now transferred to that of a captain steering the ship. "Behold also the ships, which though they be...driven of fierce winds (cp. the Jewish ecclesias scattered abroad by fierce persecution), yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the Governor listeth" (v.4). Again, emphasis is given to how relatively easy it is to control the direction of our spiritual lives and the whole ecclesia- by a dedicated concentration on the control of the tongue and the thinking behind it. The ships seem "so great" (translated "mighty" in Rev.16:18); the flesh seems so vast and strong, the task of turning round a wayward ecclesia appears so impossible. They "are driven of fierce winds" representing the winds of false Judaist doctrine (Eph.4:14), and the winds of the flesh and trials of life which beat upon the spiritual house of our lives and the ecclesia, as described in the parable of the house on the rock (Matt.7:25-27). Both these references to winds stress how the temporal ministry of the miraculous Spirit gifts would be replaced by the 'perfect man' state brought about by the possession of the completed word (cp. 1 Cor.13:8-10; 2 Tim.3:16,17), and that then the winds of false doctrine would not blow the church around. Note how the immature ecclesia is again being likened to a ship blown about by the wind. The winds of the parable of Matt.7 were overcome by hacking away at the rock of our hard human heart in order to hear the sayings of Christ and put them into practice. It is significant that the winds of James 1:6 could be overcome by faith, which comes from the word. The wavering believer is likened there to a ship in trouble on a windy sea.
The ship can be turned about "Whithersoever the governor listeth". The word for "listeth" means 'intense desire or will', showing the great concentration of mental effort required by the captain of the spiritual ship. Again, the way to have a powerful will is to have our own personal will merged with that of God. The will of God is in the word (1 Pet.1:23; James 1:18 cp. John 1:13), and a saturation of the mind with the word will result in our mind becoming like that of God. Thus John 15:7 states the tremendous encouragement: "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done". Jesus does not say we must ask according to God's will- but according to our own will, because if the word abides in us then our will becomes that of God- and any prayer according to His will is heard (1 Jn.5:14).
A micro member
"Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things" (v.5). The believer is identified with his tongue. "A little (Greek:micro) member" stresses the small physical size of the tongue in proportion to the vast spiritual effect it has. If the body and its members also have reference to the ecclesia as a whole, it may be that James is implying that one very subtle member- i.e. an individual in the ecclesia- was using his words to mislead the ecclesia (1). The ship can be easily influenced- by either a good or bad governor. The individual referred to was probably an agent of the Judaizers, whom the New Testament often describes as doing their evil work through "Great swelling words of vanity" (Jude 16; see too 3 Jn.10; 2 Pet.2:3; 2 Tim.2:14; 1 Tim.6:4; Col.2:4; Eph.5:6; 1 Cor.1:17; Rom.16:18). The tongue boasting "great things" is looking back to Ps.12:2,3: "They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak. The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh great things" (AVmg.) The context of bad words coming as a result of a double mind is exactly the same as in James (1:8; 4:8). the vain man of Ps.12:2 is mentioned again in James 2:20. Ps.12:4,5 also have connections with James (2). Psalm 12 concludes with praise of God's words: "The words of the Lord are pure words" (v.6), as if to suggest that the word of God is the antidote to proud speaking. This all fits the context of James nicely. Thus "the tongue" here in James 3:5 is being used to represent a group of proud, vain talkers within the ecclesial body, who were probably all influenced by the Judaizers, possibly with one specific ringleader. Being "a little member" of the ecclesia, this group may not have been numerically large.
"Behold, how great a matter ('wood') a little fire kindleth!" (v.5). The Greek word for "little" here is different from that in the phrase "a little member". This implies rather a short period of time- i.e. 'consider what havoc can be caused by fire so quickly'. The implication is that James' readers needed to act quickly both to bring their own tongue under control and also to restrain "the tongue" element that were leading the ecclesia astray, and soon would burn down the ecclesia- represented by the 'wood', composed of "the planting of the Lord". The New Testament epistles often give reason to think that the ecclesia will be in a state of great spiritual weakness just prior to the second coming. Those who find this hard to believe should bear in mind how quickly a small group of brethren can influence the ecclesia for bad.
"And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body" (v.6). The root of all sin is in our hearts (Jer.17:9), and as the tongue so accurately reflects the heart, it is "a world of iniquity". God "hath set the world in (man's) heart" (Ecc.3:11), which means that "there is no good in" man (Ecc.3:12), i.e. in man's heart. The tongue will defile the whole body- the ecclesia, and also our individual lives. Remember how in 2:26 a man's spiritual life is also likened to a body. The tongue defiles the body. This is alluding to the Lord's words in Matt.15:11,18 that "those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man". Jesus says our evil desires defile us; James describes our tongue as doing the same, again showing the effective identification of our thoughts and words. We have suggested that "the body" refers to both the ecclesia and the spiritual life of the believers. There are many references to "the body" which cannot be applied to our physical body (3); most obviously James 3:2 speaks of the body being bridled by control of the tongue. Similarly, every part of the body we have in the Kingdom will be spiritually aware and significant (4). It is for this reason that abuse of the body we now have is such a serious offence. The word for 'defile' is the same translated 'spot' regarding the need for a believer to keep himself and his spiritual garments unspotted by the world (1:27)- thus equating "the body" and the garments, and "the world" with our evil thinking which leads to our bad works. It is worth making the point that we can be spotted by the world in this sense even without watching a television, smoking a cigarette and those other stereotypes of "the world". Remember that God has set the world in our heart, so that there is no good in man (Ecc.3:11,12).
The tongue and the evil heart behind it "setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell" (v.6). We have commented earlier on this. The tongue will be set on fire of Gehenna- i.e. the destruction of the physical body of the rejected at the judgement will be the destruction of his "tongue", seeing that there is a certain association between our spiritual character and our physical body. The language here implies physical fire may be used to destroy the unworthy saints- an idea supported elsewhere (see Digression 6, 'Gehenna').
Taming the tongue
"For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind" (v.7).
"Mankind" in Greek is from two words- 'Man' and 'kind'. The latter is the same as occurs earlier in the verse, and as well as meaning a genus it fundamentally means 'nature' (see A.V.mg). In the same way as a horse and ship can be "tamed" because we can relatively easily analyse their
nature and make them respond in an expected way to a certain stimulus, it seems that some in the ecclesia were thinking that the use of human wisdom could tame our animal human nature. Marshall's Interlinear offers the rendering "every nature of beasts...has been tamed by human nature". The fact animals have increasingly been tamed by man ("is tamed and hath been tamed") perhaps encouraged these believers to think that there could be a gradual progression in the taming of human nature also by human strength. The connection between the animals and our bestial sinful instincts would have been appreciated by these brethren; "every kind" of animals had been increasingly tamed, and thus they thought human strength could also tame human nature. "But the tongue can no man tame" (v.8)- our pets are more obedient to us than our tongues. The Greek for "mankind" well describes the reasoning ability of our human nature that can apparently tame animal instincts. "Man" alone can imply human, semi-spiritual reasoning- e.g. "I speak (reason) after the manner of men", or "I am speaking in human terms" (N.I.V.) in Rom.6:19. "Kind" carries the idea of growth by germination.
But rather than being progressively tamed, human nature is in a progressive downward spiral to death if it goes unchecked (1:14,15). The deception of our natural thinking is that to a limited extent it can be spiritually sound: "The Gentiles...do by nature the things contained in the law" (Rom.2:14), "nature itself" teaches the spiritual principles governing hair length (1 Cor.11:14). Like James' ecclesia, it is possible to live in the Truth adhering to correct doctrine- "the faith"- and make a half hearted attempt to develop a spiritual mind to control our actions in our own strength. James argues for a totality of success in our spiritual lives; he is saying that any striving for spiritual development based on our natural reasoning will fail, ultimately, to develop the high standard of being totally spiritual that James is setting. He holds up Abraham and Rahab as examples of those who did reach a certain point of fulness of faith and subsequent justification with God, showing that such a state is not impossible for us. Jude 10,12 describes the Judaizers speaking "great swelling words...which they know naturally" at the communion service ("feast of charity"). This again suggests that James' warning about using natural wisdom- i.e. from within our own nature- to control the ecclesial body and our own lives is aimed at a group of false teachers within the ecclesia who were controlling the ecclesia and encouraging its members to control themselves by relying on the mental abilities of human nature, rather than on the wisdom from the word filling the mind (5). "But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison" (v.8).
The likening of "the tongue" to a deadly snake invites comparison with the serpent in Eden, and therefore with the Judaizers, who "as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty" were enticing Christians away "from the simplicity which is in Christ" by preaching "another Gospel" based on "another Spirit"- i.e. of the human spirit or mind, as opposed to the Holy Spirit which was in the word of the true Gospel (2 Cor.11:3,4). The serpent in Eden is elsewhere a symbol of the Jewish system (6). The serpent was to be destroyed, not just tamed, by the seed of the woman. The serpent/ devil being in our natural mind, our tongue must be regarded by us as a rampant snake, seeing that it reflects our thoughts. The following verse 9 contains another allusion to early Genesis. By the tongue, the man made in God's similitude is cursed, due to the serpent's tongue. Through the unbridled tongue and also the influence of the Judaist serpent, the new creation of believers could be cursed, as they can be today too.
The tongue cannot be tamed by man; the emphasis being on the word "man". Yet in 1:26 we saw that the mark of a true believer influenced by the word is that he can bridle his tongue. Thus here James is saying that "no man" in the sense of the natural man, a reliance on human strength, can control the tongue. There must be a connection with the demoniac Legion whom no man could tame (Mk.5:4)- perhaps in that he also represented the Jewish system (7). There is also an echo here of Paul's description of how human nature is so impossible for the natural man to control: "The carnal mind...is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be...in my flesh dwelleth no good thing...how to perform that which is good I find not" (Rom.8:7; 7:18). Thus it is not a question of changing the carnal mind by the strength of the carnal mind; Paul says that is impossible; but of creating a "new man" by a spirit or power of reasoning outside the natural man. If the spirit of man is no use, the only other source of power is God's Holy Spirit, available to us from the word. The parallels between the untamable nature of the tongue and that of our evil thinking as described in Romans shows how exactly our words are to be equated with the thinking of our heart. The tongue is "an unruly evil"; Strong defines "unruly" as 'unrestrainable', which fits in with the exposition offered above.
Blessings and cursings
"Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God" (v.9).
The fact that they did use their tongues to praise God tempted James' readers to think that this meant that they had their tongues and therefore their thinking too in control. Again, the warning against semi-spirituality and a 'feel good religion' comes over. We have seen that the rich, proud speaking members of the ecclesia are the target of much of what James is saying. Our previous notes on 2:6,16 have shown that this group were quite aggressive to the lower ranks of believers. The men "made after the similitude of God" may well refer to the creative power of the word making them in God's image. As with Daniel, Nehemiah and other faithful spiritual leaders of the Jews, James totally associates himself with his brethren- we curse men, he says. It is noteworthy that as a faithful shepherd James does not disassociate himself from this wayward flock. However, elsewhere in the letter he repeatedly addresses them as "ye"- e.g. v.14 is in the same passage concerning control of the tongue: "Ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts". The only other places where James associates himself with the readers are in 3:1,2 and 6, again in this same passage about the tongue- it is "among our members". There seem two possibilities to explain this. It may be that James personally felt guilty of misusing his tongue- "If any man offend not in word the same is a perfect man" (3:2). No doubt James had spoken wrongly at some time and was conscious of this, and therefore felt he could not phrase this criticism of them as he does all the others- he could not write 'You both bless God and curse men with your tongue' when he too was guilty. However, James' 'cursing' and thereby offending ("we offend all", 3:2), was no doubt a temporary slip-up, compared to his readers whose generally unbridled tongue was because "Ye (not James) have bitter envying and strife in your hearts" (v.14). This envying and strife within the ecclesia caused the "fightings among you" (4:1), and this again suggests that the cursing of men which they were guilty of related to their words to their brethren.
The other possible explanation of why James personally associates himself with the 'cursing' done by the tongue is that "the tongue" may indirectly refer to a certain group within the ecclesial body. They were part of the body of Christ, as was James, therefore the tongue was "among our members" (3:6), and its cursing of men therefore implicated the rest of the ecclesia.
We have seen that James often bases his reasoning on the sermon on the mount. The ideas of blessing, cursing and men in God's similitude are found in Mt.5:44-48: "Bless them that curse you...that ye may be the children of your Father which is in Heaven (i.e. showing His spiritual characteristics)...be ye therefore perfect" (cp. James 3:2 "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man"). This again suggests that the men in the similitude of God who were being cursed were those of the ecclesia who blessed these rich brethren who cursed them, and thus became the children of God due to their being born of the word, which makes a man "perfect" (8). "Similitude" is from a word meaning 'to assimilate', implying a likeness that has been taken on. The "men" like this are those who have developed the likeness of God, "men having become according to likeness of God" (Marshall's Interlinear). The frequent references to Peter's letters also makes an interesting point. The parallel there is in 1 Pet.3:8-11: "Be ye all of one mind...not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing...refrain (your) tongue from evil...the Lord is against them that do evil". The "evil" spoken of here is therefore that of bitter speaking within the ecclesia which must not be responded to. This type of evil is far harder to resist than being taken to law unfairly, which is how we tend to read this passage. However, the context in Peter is also of physical persecution by the Romans, influenced by Jewish criticism of the Christians. There seems a hint that this group of evil speakers within the ecclesia were associated with the Roman and Jewish authorities (9).
"Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be" (v.10).
There is possibly a passing allusion here to Moses, the only other person in Scripture to be recorded as having blessing and cursing coming from him. He could justifiably do so, because he had the word of God in him. But these who did not have the word in them were not justified in doing so- i.e. the association of themselves with Moses which was being made by these Judaist-influenced brethren was not valid. For another example of this, see notes on v.15 and also 4:12. Verse 11 implies that this sending out of blessing and cursing was simultaneous- the figure is of a spring gushing out both salt and fresh water from the same place (Greek 'hole'- cp. the mouth) at the same time. If the cursing of the other brethren was being done in the name of God, then this figure is apt- i.e. along with praise of God there was apparently righteous condemnation of these other brethren, in the same way as Moses simultaneously blessed and cursed the people on God's behalf.
No doubt the withholding of wages from these brethren (5:4) and refusing to materially alleviate their poverty (2:16) was justified by accusing the poor brethren of spiritual weakness that warranted this cursing by God. The close association of material wealth and spiritual pride throughout Israel's history and also here in James must be taken to heart by us in these last days. Just before the Lord returns there will be some who "eat and drink with the drunken" due to their wealth, and this leads them to beat their fellowservants (Mt.24:45-50). This group will be those who are called to be the rulers of the ecclesia ("his Lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them their- spiritual- meat in due season"). Those James speaks of were the "masters", "governors" and horse-riders in the ecclesia (3:1-5). The fact that some of our ecclesial leaders are in a position to be rich in this world must mean that all this is a serious warning to them- some will, according to the parable, allow the authority and power they have in their secular life to corrupt them, so that they act like that in the ecclesia. Let us all humbly resolve that our Lord's parable will not be fulfilled in us. Note how that parable formed a footnote to the Olivet prophecy- as if to say that this temptation to have a lack of true love for one's brethren in these last days will really be something to be reckoned with.
The blessing and cursing "proceedeth" from the mouth. This is the same word used in Mt.15:18,19: "Those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart...out of the heart proceed evil thoughts". Again, the mouth is effectively identical with the heart, showing the great emphasis by James on a man's words as being the main form of manifestation of his evil heart, and the need to control them if all other sin is to be avoided.
"My brethren, these things ought not so to be". The Greek for "ought" occurs nowhere else and is extremely strong (cp. "my brethren" with the gentle opening gambit of the Lord in His letters to the ecclesias). It is worth noting at this point how well and personally James seems to have known his readership, although they were all "scattered abroad" (1:1) throughout the Roman world. Surely he would not have been so dogmatic in his denunciation of the type of words they spoke unless he knew exactly their situation. The nature of inspiration is such that James could have just sat and wrote as a result of a specific revelation to him of the weaknesses of these people, seeing in vision how they selected comfortable chairs in the meeting room for the rich (2:3), refused welfare to the poor, and spoke such wrong words as described in chapter 3. However, it seems more likely that inspiration worked through a band of dedicated (young?) servants of the ecclesias moving around the scattered pockets of Jewish Christians as they went from city to city (4:13) and reporting back to James. Or maybe James himself moved around visiting them, as a good shepherd; or perhaps he knew them all personally due to them all being in the Jerusalem ecclesia together in happier days.
"Doth a fountain send forth at the same place (Greek: 'hole') sweet water and bitter?" (v.11). We have already made some comment on this in our notes on v.10. The spring gushing out (the idea of "send forth") sweet and bitter water corresponds to the mouth having blessing and cursing proceeding from it. The idea of their words gushing from them corresponds to the rebuke that their tongue was unbridled in v.3. Note that both blessing of God and cursing of brethren gushed from them. For our words in regard to God to be unbridled is a sin, as much as to curse a brother without restraint. It is so tempting to feel that our relationship with God is fine, and therefore to assume that our attitude to our brethren is therefore beyond rebuke. These who blessed God and cursed their brethren fell into this trap. Our praise of God needs to be bridled or restrained by the word. Any ecstatic release of praise to God can therefore only be acceptable if it is within the bridle, or control, of the word- i.e. if its root motivation is in the word rather than human emotion. The word for "bitter" is from a root meaning 'to pierce'; the words of this group in the ecclesia who are being reprimanded must have really pierced the heart of the poor, humble brethren. A spring can either emit sweet or bitter water, depending on the surrounding soil type- cp. the parable of the sower/types of ground. So our words really are an indication of our spiritual status; they will not really alternate between sweet and bitter, although they may appear to in our human self examination. In God's eyes they are either sweet or bitter. There is a significant link with Jer.6:6-8: "Cast a mount against Jerusalem (ecclesia?): this is the city to be visited (AD70 language); she is wholly oppression in the midst of her (cp. James 2:6;5:4 concerning the Jewish believers oppressing their brethren). As a fountain casteth out her waters, so she casteth out her wickedness: violence and spoil is heard in her (i.e. the waters cast out are parallelled with her words of violence- that is how violence is heard)...be thou instructed (the same idea as "endued with knowledge" in the Greek of James 3:13), O Jerusalem, lest My soul depart from thee; lest I make thee desolate, a land not inhabited"- as happened after AD70. The Jewish believers are thus being likened to apostate Jerusalem-fitting, seeing they were all once members of the Jerusalem ecclesia that had since been "scattered abroad" (James 1:1 cp. Acts 8:1,4; 11:19).
The sending out of sweet and bitter waters must also look back to Marah, where the bitter waters were changed to sweet by the tree cast into the waters (Ex.15:25), pointing forward to the cross. James' way of changing the bitter water of human nature into sweet waters was by true obedience to the word in our heart. Ex.15 suggests that this change is due to the cross being applied to the waters. By doing so, "there He proved them" (Ex.15:25) whether they would believe in the efficacy of the tree or not. Therefore our belief in the cross of Christ and the power he has subsequently made available for the development of 'sweet water' is only shown by our zeal to obey the word. The need to obey the word in order to drink the sweet waters is also stressed in Ex.15. The people feared they would catch disease from drinking the bitter water, and so immediately after the tree had been thrown into the waters "there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He proved them, and said, If thou wilt hearken to the voice of the Lord...I will put none of these diseases upon thee...and they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of (sweet) water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters" (v.25-27). Obedience to the word would lead to the bitter waters being changed to wells of good water, as witnessed by their coming to the prosperous oasis of Elim. Compare the wells of Elim with James' fountain (spring) of sweet waters. "Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? So can no fountain yield both salt water and fresh" (v.12).
We have seen that the fountain yielding water represents our heart or tongue yielding our words. The trees bearing fruit therefore must be interpreted as being our hearts bearing the spiritual fruit of our words. Both fig and olive trees are well hacked Old Testament symbols of Israel- as if to imply to these Jews that only by having the real spirit of Israel in their hearts rather than just in their flesh could they bear spiritual fruit. The bearing of fruit by the fig tree is a consistent symbol of the repentance of Israel in the "last days" of AD70 and (hopefully and prayerfully) in the twentieth century. In his usual neat style James is implying that the national repentance of Israel would be imputed to them if the "remnant" of Jewish Christians bore fruit; but with their present attitude of mind this was impossible. This is the same idea as in 5:7: "The husbandman (God? Christ?) waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth (the land- of Israel? i.e. from the Jewish believers especially?), and hath long patience for it"- a connection with 2 Pet.3:15, where Peter says that the delay in the second coming to await the development of "all holy conversation and Godliness" (v.11) among Peter's Jewish readers shows "the longsuffering of our Lord" (Christ). It is possible to argue that the exact timing of the second coming is related to the repentance of Israel, and was deferred from AD70 due to lack of Jewish repentance. Thus we can appreciate why James, knowing this as he wrote before AD70, so earnestly begs the Jewish believers to develop true spiritual fruit that would result in the second coming, as opposed to petty bickering and infighting. Peter's plea is just as intense. The same plea, with even greater urgency, has to be made to natural and spiritual Israel in these days. In practice, let us again notice how all spiritual fruit is epitomized by the type of words we speak; the fruit of the olive is parallel with the water from the fountain.
There is a clear link with Mt.7:15-20: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing (looking like a lamb, appearing to have the gentle, spiritual characteristics of Christ)...ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns? or figs of thistles?...a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit (cp. "so can no fountain...yield")...every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire (cp. James 3:6- the tongue will be destroyed in Gehenna fire). Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them". This almost conclusively shows that this group of Jewish believers within the ecclesia whom James is writing about were the Jewish "false prophets"- or those influenced by them- whom the Lord had warned would try to infiltrate the ecclesia. For those who were attune to these connections with other Scripture, it would have been obvious that these brethren were false prophets because their words so clearly gave them away. Note how James has slightly changed Christ's analogy-from grapes and figs growing on thorns and thistles to grapes growing on figs, and figs growing on olives. Thorns and thistles is used to describe the fruit of the (same?) Jewish false prophets in the ecclesia in Heb.6:5-8, and they would also recall the curse in Eden to any Jewish mind. This would associate these Jewish false teachers with the serpent who brought thorns and thistles into Eden- a simile repeated in 2 Cor.11:3 and elsewhere. James is saying that the thorns and thistles had become figs and olives, i.e. they appeared far more acceptable than the false prophets of Christ's parable, but the fact their fruit was not consistent with what they appeared to be was still the litmus test which proved they were false. Again, there is a warning against thinking that semi-spirituality means acceptability with God. As the ecclesia seemed duped into thinking that because they used their tongue to bless God, all their words must be acceptable, so they thought that because these men didn't appear to be thorns and thistles but rather figs and olives, they must be acceptable even if there was some mismatch between the tree and the fruit.
There is a slight change of figure also with v.11: sweet and bitter water becomes "salt water and fresh". The many links with the sermon on the mount suggest a connection with the group of passages that show that the salt in a believer (Mt.5:13) represents his gracious, "seasoned with salt" way of speaking (Col.4:6) which leads to peace within the ecclesia (Mk.9:50). Both salt water and fresh represent positive spiritual ways of speaking; as their parallel figs and olive berries both equally represent spiritual fruit. The point is thus being made that a spring or tree cannot yield two types of products, and therefore encourages the connection with Mt.7:15-20.
Figs, olives and bitter water recalls Jer.8:13,14: "There shall be no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree...for the Lord our God hath...given us water of gall ('poison'- Dt.29:18) to drink, because we have sinned against the Lord". The lack of spiritual fruit on Israel is here associated with bitter or poisonous water. If James is referring to this passage, the tongue "full of deadly poison" (3:8) and the corrupt mind it reflected was the cause of the Jews' lack of fruit, and there is even the implication that God had given them the 'bitter water' of their tongues as a curse, as He did to Israel at Marah, in the sense that God confirms the spiritual or unspiritual attributes of a man- e.g. He hardened Pharaoh's already hard heart.
Wise men- where?
"Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom" (v.13)
A "wise man" is a synonym for a prophet: "I send unto you prophets, and wise men" (Mt.23:34), the implication being that these brethren thought that they were prophets (i.e. having the Spirit gift of prophecy) and endued with Heavenly knowledge. This follows on nicely from the albeit indirect accusation in the previous verse (through the Matt.7 allusion) that they were false prophets. Verse 14 lends support to this: "If ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the Truth". "Thy word is Truth" (Jn.17:17), and therefore if they had bitterness in their hearts they were blaspheming against the word which they were inspired to speak. The elders of the early ecclesias (the "presbytery" of 1 Tim.4:14) probably had the Spirit gifts, especially that of prophecy- i.e. 'forth-telling' inspired words of God to the ecclesia. Our Lord said that many who had the gifts of the Spirit would be condemned at judgment day (Mt.7:22)- a prophecy hard to apply to anyone other than the Jewish believers and elders of the first century.
Thus it is possible that James is telling these brethren to validate their spiritual position by humbly showing the word at work in their hearts by their way of life ("a good conversation"), rather than thinking that just because they had the gifts this was proof that they were righteous before God. In this case the "blessing" of God (v.9) which they thought justified all their other words would have been blessing or praying to God using the spirit gifts as described in 1 Cor.14:16 and Jude 20. The fact their mouths uttered the "sweet" water of the inspired word along with their own brash speaking was therefore especially serious. Because they possessed the gift of prophecy they thought it unnecessary to make the personal effort of applying the word in their hearts to control their thoughts and subsequent words. Examples abound in Hebrews, Corinthians and the Lord's letters in Revelation of those possessing the gifts being unacceptable to God, hence His withdrawal of them. There are similarities between this and our possession of the word of Truth. A true response to the word must always produce humility- any Bible study that does not result in this in some way is pointless. For other examples of this, see Digression 7 'The word and humility'.
A comparison of verses 13 and 14 shows that "a good conversation" is the same as not having "bitter envying and strife in your hearts". "Conversation" therefore does not simply mean 'way of life' but rather the thinking that is behind that life. "The former conversation" is "the old man...the deceitful lusts" and is replaced by being "renewed in the spirit of your mind" (Eph.4:22,23), showing that "conversation" applies to the state of mind. It is because of this that Timothy's "Conversation" was to be comprised of mental attributes like "charity...faith...purity" (of mind), 1 Tim.4:12. As was argued in Chapter 2, "works" are 'shown out' of the state of the mind, and cannot be separated from it. The context being of the tongue, the "works" referred to are probably words, which epitomize all a man's spiritual "works". Words should therefore be humble ("with meekness of wisdom"), and based on a heart saturated by the word, and this will indicate whether a man is a true prophet. By contrast, proudly speaking inspired words to publicly show off the gift of prophecy, and also gushing out the words of an unregenerated heart, were equally unacceptable. Such a person was not a true prophet in God's sight.
The idea of "showing out" goes back to 2:18, where James asks this class of believers to show him how it was possible to have faith without works. There he is arguing that they are indivisible, and here in 3:13 he is effectively saying the same- that the works or words are an inevitable reflection of the heart, "the faith", or "conversation".
"But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth" (v.14).
The bitter envying in the heart connects with the bitter water of v.11, representing the bitter words of the brethren- again showing that words and heart are effectively identical. "Envying" is the Greek 'zelos' and is the word used to describe zeal for God; it is not the normal word translated "envy". This envying, as we can imagine from what we know already of these brethren, was justified by them with spiritual reasons; similarly Acts 13:45; 17:5 and 1 Cor.3:3 describe Jews and believers envying each other for supposedly spiritual reasons. Envying and strife within the ecclesia were a (conscious?) product of the work of the Judaizers and other false teachers amongst the brethren. It may well be that they were envious of others in the ecclesia spiritually, being jealous of the true spirituality possessed by the poorer brethren. However, the "wars and fightings" of James 4 seem to be associated with desiring material possessions (4:2), resulting in evil speaking between brethren (4:11). In this case the envying of chapter 3 could just be envying the possessions of other brethren. Yet the spiritual associations of "envying" ('zealousing') suggest that either this envying of possessions was couched in spiritual terms- e.g. 'You shouldn't have that car (which I envy) because you should show more generosity to the Truth'- or that the envying was of the more spiritual members. The envying and strife was clearly within the ecclesia, from what chapter 4 and other mentions of envying and strife imply (1 Cor.3:3; Phil.1:15 etc.). But the root cause of this was because this bitterness and envying was "in your hearts".
Glorying in the flesh
Amazingly, these brethren were glorying (boasting, rejoicing) in this: "glory not". Similarly they rejoiced in their boastings about how they made plans to make business trips without taking account of the working of God's will (4:13-16)- presumably because they thought that as prophets they knew God's will. They were clearly rejoicing in what was wrong and evil, doubtless as a result of taking on board the Judaist-pedalled philosophy that "let us continue in sin, that grace may abound" (Rom.6:1). Romans was written largely to Jews- the first two chapters especially describe how the Jewish ecclesia of the first century were repeating the same errors as that in the wilderness. Digression 8, 'Israel and Romans 1', gives more detail here. The Jewish believers were reasoning that because they were Jews they were justified, and Christ being a Jew confirmed the impossibility of sin being held against them. Thus they smugly rejoiced in being able to commit sin and, as they thought, remain justified, thereby spurring their spiritual condemnation of their poorer Gentile brethren.
Wisdom from above
But "this wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is (as there is in your heart-v.14), there is confusion and every evil work" (v.15,16).
This is reminding them that such philosophy was not by God's inspiration- that because one is a vehicle for God's inspired word, it does not follow that all ones' thoughts and reasoning are correct. "Sensual" means 'natural', and looks back to v.7 implying that human nature cannot be tamed by the 'natural' reasoning of human nature, or the human mind- it is "devilish", or 'demoniacal'. James 2:19 has associated these Jewish believers and their semi-faith with the healed demoniacs; James is saying that such semi-faith which has enough hope to be healed but does not respond with works subsequently, is not a positive spiritual attribute at all- it is rooted in the natural, earthly mind.
James is pointing a contrast between wisdom- or the word (cp. notes on 1:5)- which comes from above, and that which is of the earth. There is a link here with Heb.2:2,3, a letter which we have suggested was sent to the same readership as James and may have been known by them already. "If the word spoken by Angels (the Law) was steadfast...how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation...spoken by the Lord". "If they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth (Moses? The Angel who spake the Law?), much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from Heaven" (Heb.12:25). The wisdom that came from the earth is therefore associated with the Jewish system, and it is this which was resulting in all the human reasoning of these brethren; not the Law itself, but the influence of the Judaizers who advocated it. The wisdom from above mentioned in v.17 is therefore that which comes from the new covenant in Christ as opposed to that of the Law. "Descendeth" carries the idea of literal downwards movement, perhaps referring to the Angel physically descending in the cloud to give Moses the words of God by which he was constituted a prophet. If this is the reference, then as we saw in the notes on v.10, this is another rebuke of these brethren who were seeking to parallel themselves with Moses.
If there is envying and strife in the heart, "there is confusion and every evil work"in the same place. Yet again, the works are said to take place in the heart. The Corinthians are twice rebuked by Paul for having confusion in the ecclesia (1 Cor.14:33; 2 Cor.12:20 translated 'tumults'), due to their misuse of the Spirit gifts. This would seem to be relevant to the situation in James' ecclesia; but again, the confusion began in the heart due to the lack of impact the word had made upon it. Another repeated theme is that "every evil work" is parallelled with the uncontrolled tongue, showing that the tongue is the summation of every potential sin that lies within our heart. The Greek for "evil work" only occurs four times; one of them is in Titus 2:8, which speaks of the Jewish and Roman adversaries of the ecclesia seeking to speak evil of the believers. Whilst on its own this would not be significant, in view of the constant parallels between the Jewish system and his readers which James is making, it appears that he is linking the evil thoughts in their hearts concerning their poor brethren, with the evil speaking about the ecclesia being done by the Jewish 'satan' outside the ecclesia.
"But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy" (v.17).
The wisdom coming from above is the gift of the word coming down from God, making us "firstfruits of His (spiritual) creatures" (1:17,18). We have suggested that the wisdom from above is the word of Christ as opposed to that of Moses; in Jesus the word became flesh (Jn.1:14), the whole of God's revelation became associated with the person of Christ, not just the words of the New Testament inspired after His time. Thus this verse describes both the work of the word, and also the character of Christ, the wisdom/word of God from above. If the word was truly in them , they would have the characteristics of purity as opposed to their double mindedness; they did not have peace in their hearts (cp. v.16), their rejecting of their poor brethren's welfare requests (2:16) and harsh treatment of them (2:6; 5:4) contrasted with the gentleness and ease with which brethren should feel they can intreat us with. The word with it's associated spirit of Christ will develop these attributes within us. Purity of mind (cp. Phil.4:8) is of "first" importance; if this is achieved, "then" the characteristics which the ecclesia were so sadly lacking in would then naturally follow. The Greek 'proton' occurs again in Mt.6:33: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness". This is achieved, according to James, by striving to let the word develop now those righteous attributes which will be revealed so fully and widely in the Kingdom (cp. Rom.14:17).
"The wisdom that is from above" must also refer to Jn.3:3-5, which speaks of being born from above, i.e from Heaven. Nicodemus thought that he had already been born from above, seeing that he had a knowledge of the Law. But Christ told him "heavenly things" (Jn.3:12), which Nicodemus found hard to accept. The word which makes us born again (Jn.3:5 cp. 1 Pet.1:23; James 1:18) does so because it reveals Heavenly principles to us.
This wisdom/word in James was "full of mercy and good fruits". The word develops these fruits (Jn.15:5-8), as does Christ (Phil.1:11)- again showing His equation with the word. The language of fruiting goes back to v.12, where the tree that bears fruit is the heart of the believer. Now what bears fruit is the word- because that must be equated with the heart if good fruit is to be produced. Thus we can make the equation: Christ=Word=In heart=fruit. These factors may be arranged in any order, showing how Christ dwells in our heart by faith (Eph.3:17 cp. Col.3:16; Rom.10:17).
The fullness of spiritual attributes mentioned here may refer back to Ex.34:5-7 (R.V.), which describes the name of God as being full of His attributes of mercy, patience, justice etc. The word of true wisdom produces these characteristics in us, thereby giving us the Name of God. For more examples of the word giving us the Name of God through developing His attributes and fullness is us, see Digression 5. Again, James is setting an ultimate standard- aiming for the fullness of God to be developed in us through the almighty power of the word. It must be theoretically possible for a man to be perfect in God's sight; even though in the past he has failed and thus come short of Christ's standard, he can still be justified by the faith which is developed by the word acting upon him. Our Lord was of our nature, and yet still attained perfection. We are invited to follow him to perfection, being perfect even as God is. The means by which we achieve this may be slightly different to how he did; yet through the word "now are we the sons of God" (1 Jn.3:1,2; Jn.1:13; 1 Pet.1:23), Spirit-begotten as He was.
Actors with Oscars
This degree of commitment to the word leads to a brother being "without partiality"; something which the ecclesia were guilty of due to their lack of having the word in their hearts (see notes on 2:4). Having their own minds full of strife, division and confusion (v.14-16) would inevitably lead them to be partial or divided in their dealings with other brethren. The word 'affectionately believed' will lead us to be "without hypocrisy"- again inviting a comparison between these brethren without the word truly in them and the Pharisees, who are those invariably described as "hypocrites" in the New Testament. However, the phrase also occurs in the sermon on the mount, and the many allusions to this discourse in James suggest that he may have had Mt.7:5 in mind: "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye". We have seen that the context of James 3 is of a group of brethren criticizing another group, with the inference that their criticism was masked with pseudo-spiritual reasoning. This is exactly the theme of Mt.7:5. To avoid being a hypocrite, James implies, we need to let the word sink into ourselves- which has the same effect as casting the plank out of our own eye. It is the word which has the power of self-examination; 1 Jn.1:10 implies that if the word is in us, then we appreciate what sinners we have been. The telling thing about the description of the Spirit gifted eldership as "hypocrites" ('play-actors') is that their make-up and costume was the Truth itself. The fact we are wearing this can lead us to think that we really are the part we are playing- but putting on the clothes and changing our heart to truly identify with what we profess are two different things.
"And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace" (v.18).
There are a number of connections here with the Septuagint of Is.32:16-20: "Righteousness remain in the fruitful field...the work of righteousness shall be peace...quietness and assurance...blessed are ye that sow". This is clearly a Kingdom passage, yet it is quoted about our present ecclesial experience. This is one of many examples of where spirituality in this life can give us a foretaste of the Kingdom. Other instances of this will be found in Digression 4.
The wisdom coming from above in v.17 we have shown to have reference to our birth by the word, to become new creatures. Verse 18 has links with two passages which also contain this theme of spiritual re-birth by the word.
The mention of being "full of good fruits" in v.17 may be looking back to the list of spiritual fruits in the beatitudes in Mt.5- the poor in spirit, the weeping, the meek, the pure in heart, those hungering after righteousness, the peacemakers etc. comprise all the main spiritual fruits; and are also a fair description of the oppressed, spiritually minded underclass in the ecclesias to whom James is writing. Now v.18 makes a definite connection with Mt.5:9; "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God". This would indicate that James read the people mentioned in the beatitudes as being within the ecclesia, and "the peacemakers" being the quiet brother who humbly tries to calm the bitter vying for power between the rich, self opinionated leaders.
In this case, James is reminding these leaders of the virtues of those they despised; they sowed the fruit of righteousness because the word developed those fruits in them. By doing so, Mt.5:9 says, they became the children of God. Thus the word led them to develop the spiritual fruits which made them peacemakers, which made them the children of God. Thus possession of the word does not automatically make us sons of God, but the effect it achieves upon us in giving us the family characteristics of our Father.
The other clear connection of v.18 is with Heb.12:11. Having spoken of the persecution of the Jewish believers being a proof of their sonship to God, "the Father of spirits", Paul encourages them that this chastening "yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby". The poor believers in James' ecclesias had also become the spiritual children of God by the word acting on them, making them react to the chastening they were receiving at the hands of the rich brethren by developing peace. Their peaceful sowing of the word , which was the seed sown (Lk.8:11), was going to lead them to "raise a harvest of righteousness" (N.I.V.) in their own characters.
If this line of interpretation is correct, it would appear that the poor, mistreated brethren were humbly responding to the criticisms of them (the cursing of v.9) by quietly quoting the word, in order to try and make peace both between them and the rich brethren, and between the rival factions in the eldership. See notes on 5:7 for more on this. This problem of there being "wars and fightings" amongst this group is continued in 4:1, thus making the chapter division unfortunate.
(1) The "man of sin" must have a primary reference to a Judas-like character within the early ecclesia who was trying to lead them back to Judaism.
(2) Ps.12:4= James 4:13; the sighing of the oppressed against the proud speakers in v.5 parallels James 5:4 concerning the oppressed labouring brethren sighing to God because of the abuses of their rich employers in the ecclesia.
(3) E.g. Matt.5:29; Lk.11:34,36; Jn.2:21; Rom.8:23; 1 Cor.6:19,20; 11:24; Eph.5:23; 1 Thess.5:23.
(4) See 'The Redemption of the Body', The Bible Student, Vol.20 no.6.
(5) Presumably this talking false doctrine at the love feast was in the form of the 'exhortation'. In the same way as in the synagogue any suitably qualified visitor was asked to speak for the edification of the congregation if they wished (Acts 13:15), so in the early Jewish ecclesias it may have been the custom for any brother who so wished to speak a word of exhortation.
(6) See Jn.8:44.
(7) See John Allfree 'Demon Possession' (Bible Study Publications, 1986).
(8) See James 1:4; 3:2; 1 Cor.13:10; 2 Tim.3:16,17.
(9) This would explain why the "man of sin" passage in 2 Thess.2 has so many allusions to Judas; as if the persecuting system it describes has associations with renegade believers.