Main Idea: We are not and cannot be perfect. There has only ever been one perfect man, and His name is Jesus.
Marc Pitman was a pastor of a church in Maine, and when he was invited to preach at a middle-school Bible camp in Sweden, he jumped at the opportunity. He even learned some of the language so that he could better connect with the students. But as he was speaking Swedish, he didn’t realize that the word for “relax” sounds very similar to the word for “passed gas.” So you can just imagine the laughter from the middle-schoolers when he thought that he prayed that the Holy Spirit would help us relax.
What we say, and how we say what we say matters.
So it’s Palm Sunday today, and even though I won’t be preaching specifically about Palm Sunday, our theme today is definitely related. Palm Sunday is all about welcoming and acknowledging Jesus as King. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the people waved palm branches and laid them on the ground for Jesus like rolling out the red carpet. And the people shouted praises to Him, saying “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
But the problem was that they didn’t mean what they said. They were shouting praises to Jesus, declaring Him to be their King, but less than a week later, they were shouting to have him crucified on the cross.
And I think it’s very easy for us to be critical of the people who did that, but how often do we do the same thing? How often do we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and then not do what He says? How often do we praise God with our lips, and then curse people with the very same lips?
So our Scripture passage this morning will encourage us to be more careful with our words. If you want to honor Jesus as your King, then the things you say both inside the church and outside the church ought to glorify Him.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (James 3:1-12)
Father, we confess that we are not always careful with our words. Forgive us for the times we have cursed people who are made in Your image. Help us to learn to speak blessings instead, so that You would be glorified in what we say. In Jesus’s name, Amen.
I read a story about a man with the nickname Bulldog who became a Christian at a small Baptist church in Texas, and immediately felt a ?call to preach.? He began preaching wherever he could, and in less than a couple years, he had become a pastor. He seems like the perfect man for the job, because he had a rough past that Jesus had saved him from.
In fact, before receiving Jesus, he could curse like a sailor. So one Sunday night, in his sermon, he shared how Satan had deceived him for so many years, ruined his life with alcohol and drugs, robbed him of happiness, and caused his family to suffer. His face grew redder and redder, his veins bulged out, his voice grew louder, and the next thing you know, profanities began to flow from the pulpit as Bulldog told the Devil just exactly what he thought about him.
The congregation was mortified and deathly silent. People were stunned. So then the rough preacher realized what he did and stopped preaching. Not knowing what to do, Bulldog took his Bible, hung his head, walked up the aisle with his disgraced family behind him, and left for the parsonage.
And the congregation continued to sit in stunned silence not knowing what to do.
Being a teacher in the church is a very serious thing. What we say, and how we say what we say matters. And it’s just not about whether or not we use profanity. In fact, that’s probably one of the smallest concerns.
I mentioned last week that I’m becoming more and more convinced that what we consider to be the big things aren’t really the big things, and that the little things are actually the big things. Now, I’m not saying that you should start cursing like a sailor in your Sunday School class. But I am saying that we teachers need to be very careful about the opinions that we might share as if they’re gospel truth.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
This is really pretty different from how we usually ask people to be teachers in the church. Normally, we beg, and we beg some more, and when someone is willing to teach, we let them. But maybe we need to take a different approach. Maybe we need to warn people a bit more.
So, here’s your warning. If you think you’re able to teach in the church, be careful about that. Every word that comes out of your mouth ought to glorify God, because as a teacher in the church, your job is to teach God’s word to God’s people. This is a very serious thing! And you’ll be judged according to how well you do. And that’s a scary thought. Verse 2.
For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. (James 3:2)
So basically, pastors and other teachers in the church are in big trouble. We’re literally damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. And I chose those words carefully, because that’s literally what James is saying. He writes that if you’re called to teach, you’ll be judged more strictly. We’re judged for everything we say, and it’s impossible to say everything right, because we’re not perfect men. As it says in verse 8, “No human being can tame the tongue.”
So, really, this passage isn’t just talking about preachers and teachers, but all of us. None of us can tame the tongue. We can’t do it. And if we could, the Bible says we would be perfectly self-controlled, able to bridle the whole body.
James gives two examples of what he means. Verse 3.
If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. (James 3:3-5a)
I’ve been horseback riding exactly twice in my life. The first time, I was like 5 years old, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. But the second time was awesome. I took the youth horseback riding last summer, and I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to figure it out. But it’s amazing how well the horses were trained, and how easily I could turn the horse, not because I was an experienced rider, but just because of the bit in the horse’s mouth.
James is saying that just as a horse can be guided by putting a small bit into their mouths, and ships can be controlled by a small rudder, so also our lives are largely composed of what comes out of our mouths. We like to think we’re in complete control of what we say and do, but in a very real way, what we say actually controls us.
By the way, this is why the music we listen to and sing along with is important. If you’re constantly filling your mind and singing along with junk, you can’t really separate that from the rest of your life. If you want to grow closer to God and glorify Him, then you’ll primarily want to fill your mind and sing along with music that glorifies God.
But even more direct from our Scripture this morning is how we talk about God, ourselves, and others. Do we use our mouths to boast about ourselves, and tear others down, or bless others and bless God? The words that we say will determine the course of our lives. Jesus said it this way:
It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person. (Matthew 15:11)
In other words, as much as we might sometimes think that the most delicious foods we eat are sinful, like a Chocolate Xtreme Blizzard from Dairy Queen, which I can’t figure out it’s straight from heaven or hell, that’s not what defiles us.
The most sinful thing we can do with our mouths is curse God and others. Maybe the Chocolate Xtreme Blizzard is sinful for other reasons, but cursing God and others with our mouths is what truly defiles us. Jesus also said this:
The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)
So real the problem is that our hearts are evil, and we therefore speak evil out of the abundance of evil in our hearts. Look at the end of verse 5 in James 3.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:5a-8)
I hope these verses wake us up a bit to just how damaging our words can be. Sometimes we excuse the things we say as our opinions, and talk about how we have the right to express our opinions. But how we do that can make a huge difference!
Paul wrote that we’re to speak the truth in love. I think when we’re sharing our opinion, we often forget about the love part.
James wrote that a huge forest can be set on fire by a small spark! Entire battles and even wars have been fought over misunderstandings of words! And any married person knows how much our words can cause conflict with the people around us. We ought to be extremely careful about the words we use.
It’s like the man who said to his wife a few days after they got married, “I’m so glad I married Mrs. Right. But I didn’t know until now that your first name was Always.” I think that would quickly learn to be a little more careful with his words.
James says that our words can stain the whole body, setting the entire course of our lives on fire because our tongue itself is set on fire by hell. Listen, if you have a sense of entitlement when it comes to your opinion, even if your opinion is the right one, then your tongue could be set on fire by hell, because the devil tempts us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought.
It’s amazing how we’ve been able to tame some of the most wild animals. I’ve seen lions and tigers and bears completely obey people. And yet not one of us can completely tame our own tongue. James writes that it’s a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
They say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” And we should certainly embrace that idea for ourselves so that we would be resilient, but we should never act like our words can’t hurt others. They can. Our mouths can be like deadly poison, like venomous snakes, hurting and even destroying the people around us. Verse 9.
With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9-10)
Stop to think about how inconsistent this is. It doesn’t matter how much you disagree with someone, they’re made in the image of God. To praise God and then insult someone made in the image of God is to insult God.
And this isn’t primarily talking about a list of words that we call curse words. It’s talking about the way we speak to each other. It’s talking about the way that we respect each other, or show a lack of respect for each other. Listen, no matter what you think about a person’s ideas and beliefs, they’re made in the image of God, and therefore we need to treat them with love and respect. And to fail to do so says less about them, and more about us.
James illustrates this in verses 11 and 12.
Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (James 3:11-12)
So if we claim to be forgiven by God, purified by Christ’s blood, then we ought to speak to others showing the same mercy God showed us.
But notice that in the end, James doesn’t compare us to a fresh spring, but to a salt pond. In other words, by nature, we’re not pure. We’re salty. And it’s impossible for us to consistently produce fresh water.
And yet, we can be forgiven and changed by Jesus.
By the way, there’s a little more to Bulldog’s story.
After Bulldog walked out of the church, and the congregation sat in silence, stunned, for a few moments at Bulldog’s colorful language, an older man got up and walked to the front of the church, and said, “?Brothers and sisters, we all knew what kind of life Brother Bulldog led before the Lord saved him. I’m sure he’s very sorry for what he’s said and probably expects us to fire him. But, you will have to admit that the Devil is everything our pastor just said he was, and I know our pastor regrets what he’s just said, so I say we forgive him, call him back in to finish his sermon, and give him a raise while we’re at it?!”
The congregation cheered, someone ran next door to fetch Bulldog and he finished his sermon and continued to pastor the church for more than a decade.
Now, I’m not saying it was no big deal for Bulldog to say what he said. But I am saying none of us are perfect.
You see, the point of our passage this morning is not primarily to convince us to try really hard to tame the tongue. I mean, obviously, it’s pointing out the inconsistency of believers cursing others, and encouraging us to be people who bless others and not curse, but that’s actually not the main point of the text. The main point is that we’re incapable of getting this right! We’re not perfect people. We’re not fresh springs. Although we certainly ought to try, it says very plainly that we’re not able to tame the tongue.
We are not and cannot be perfect in this life. There has only ever been one perfect man, and His name is Jesus. 1 Peter 2 says:
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. (1 Peter 2:22)
Jesus never stumbled in what He said. And He was able to bridle His whole body. He was always self-controlled and always without sin. So when He died on the cross, it was for no sin that He committed, because He never sinned. He died for our sin.
So I absolutely want to challenge you to think before you speak, and speak truth in love, but even more than that, the Bible directs us to rest in Jesus, who lived the perfect life that we fail to live, and then died in our place, forgiving us of our sin. We sin, but Jesus saves.
Pastor Chris Huff has been with us since July 2009. He and his wife, Abby, have four children. Chris is originally from St. Louis, MO and even though he was raised as a city boy, he has a small town heart. Chris is all over the internet, so you can find him on Facebook, Twitter,… (read more)
James is one of the most simple and practical letters in the New Testament written to encourage and instruct believers. The fact that this letter is in the Bible is interesting, though, because it actually almost didn’t make the cut. Some well-known Christians throughout history didn’t like it or think that it measured up to… (read more)