(To listen to this sermon, go to our ARBC sermons page.)
At my former church, we would take one Sunday a month during the singing time in our evening services to ask for requests of favorite hymns. The music minister’s daughter would always pick one of two songs: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” or “Pass It On.” You may know that song from the 1970’s:
It only takes a spark to get a fire going.
And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing.
That’s how it is with God’s love
Once you’ve experienced it, you spread his love to everyone
You want to pass it on.
We praise God that He gave us words to communicate so many great things. Primary to that is His Word! He used words to show us who He is, what He has done, and what He aims to do in us through Christ. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Even Jesus was described in John 1:14 as “the Word made flesh.”
And Christians are to use their words to build up, encourage, correct, and challenge in Christ! In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, we see:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
I used to have a shirt that had a quote on the back of it that said, “Preach the gospel at all times—if necessary, use words!” That sounds good, doesn’t it? That is until you realize that it’s not mere actions that do it—for the gospel is words! It’s like in the days before cell phones and telling someone, “Make a phone call—if necessary, use the numbers.” We have something to say, not just to do. But what we say is our calling card. What we say clarifies what we are doing!
Words wield a positive influence to be sure! But words can also be weapons! In reference to the song sung earlier, could we not change the words to this?
It only takes a spark to get a fire going.
And soon all those around, can burn up in its blowing!
That’s how it can be with our tongues,
Once you’re unleashing it, you can spread hell’s death with every breath;
You must not pass that on.
Our words are the calling card of our lives. Not just to times we speak in public, saying what we are expected to say. But even in private, when we think no one hears our words. In Romans 1:28-32, when Paul was mentioning the fact that there were some that God gave over to that debased mind, he goes on to list other characteristics of those who worship creation rather than the Creator:
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventers of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, and ruthless.
So being a ‘gossip’ and ‘slanderer,’ using those words as weapons, are numbered among the malicious, evil, haters of God, and the like. Words matter! Washington Irving once noted, “A sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows [sharper] with constant use.” God’s Word reveals His nature—so do our words! Our words set a pattern for our lives. Our words cause damage! Our words need redeeming because, as Jesus said, out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34).
1. God must tame our tongue’s direction.
Join me in reading James 3:1-5a:
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 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. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 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. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
Every word we speak puts forth our view of God! Christian’s actions and speech show the world what our hearts hold. And if Jesus will hold us accountable for every word we as Christians speak (Matthew 12:36ff), this will hold doubly for those who teach.
In the early church, teachers were crucial! Remember, the NT wasn’t completed (and wouldn’t be completed for another 40 years until the apostle John and the inspired Book of Revelation). The letter by the apostle James was likely the earliest NT book we have. Given how young Christianity was at this point, having able teachers was critical for a strong church.
How critical are teachers even today! The nature of individuals is to surround themselves with people they want to hear. Paul warned young Timothy that:
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wonder off into myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Some are not interested in truth. They are interested in personality or presentation. The evangelist Dwight L. Moody was preaching at a church in a prominent city, and many were in attendance. Now, one thing about Moody’s preaching was that he, as some say, “murdered the King’s English.” One rather sophisticated listener was sitting there disgusted at how Moody spoke. Finally, when he couldn’t take it anymore, he took out a piece of paper, wrote something on it, gave it to an usher to take up to Mr. Moody. When he took the paper, only one word was written on it: “Fool!” Moody stopped, then said, “Now this is an amazing thing! There have been many times when people have written a letter without signing their name. This is the first time someone signed their name, and forgot to write the letter!”
This is why teaching is judged with “greater strictness.” It’s not simply about your relationship with God—but what we teach affects other people’s relationship with Christ. Jim Jones’ view of God caused the murder of 38 people. Joseph Smith’s vision led a movement that believed that God was once a man, that we could become God and that salvation is by what we do in keeping with the LDS code. Charles Taze Russell taught that Christ is an archangel and not God the Son—even putting out a ‘translation’ of the Bible that denied such. Mormonism and JWs now have millions of followers worldwide—all started by the deviant teaching of those who hated Orthodox Christianity.
Our words give direction and demonstrate power. Horses are 550 pounds of raw power and can run ¼ mile in 25 seconds. But put a bridle in them and a person ¼ their size who has the skills can make that horse do anything. Rudders that are small in comparison to the entire ship can change the direction of that ship. So can words—the words of Adolf Hitler can start an entire movement. The legislation of the words written in Roe v Wade determined the legalization of 54.5 million unborn children since 1973. Words spoken in the corner of a church building and take off and split churches, harm friendships, and lead those astray from God!
2. Tame the tongue’s damage (James 3:5b-8).
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 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. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
It only takes a spark, doesn’t it? Many of you have heard of the great Chicago Fire of 1871 when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern as she milked—blackening 3 ½ miles of the city, destroying over 17,000 buildings before it came under control. Two days, and 250 lives later it still lives in our collective memory.
We’ve heard of wildfires started by a cigarette flicked out the window. We have heard of houses being burned down by electrical shorts. Fire is different from water. With water, you can just pour it out, and it stays the same amount in the same area. Fire spreads and causes great damage—even destruction!
So it is appropriate that James uses the object lesson of fire! Seldom do words stay put. And isn’t it sad that with human nature, it’s only the bad things that spread fast.
He goes on to say a ‘world of unrighteousness’—meaning that it’s an entire system of evil. Kent Hughes says, “The tongue contains and conveys all the world system’s wickedness. It is party to every evil there is, and it actively obtrudes its evil into all our lives.”
Our entire ‘course of life’ is set on fire—everywhere our life takes us! And the uncontrolled tongue is connected directly to hell itself! The word ‘hell’ is that of Gehenna. This word connects with the Jerusalem city dump (the Valley of Hinnom) where criminals, dead animals, and the garbage would go. As a result of the incoming refuse, the fire that burned in that place burned continually. This is another image to show that not only is our heart fueled by our sinful nature, but it’s fueled by hell itself!
Do we see how our tongue, set among the members of our body, stains the entire body? John MacArthur one time told of a time when he was in seminary and needed a sports coat in order to preach in some of the church in the area. So we went to a local thrift store and bought a $9 sport coat and suited his needs. Soon after, however, numerous people asked him if he was a heavy smoker. Why? Apparently, no matter how many times he dry-cleaned this jacket, a cigarette smell overwhelmed people wherever he went.
This is the affect of our tongues. And it doesn’t take much. Think about this: suppose as I’m preaching along I let slip a profanity. Now, even though I’ve only been here two months, and along with the fact that I’ve been in the ministry for 20 years—if I let that word come out of my mouth, it’s over! I’m done! Like any type of word, once that word is out, you cannot reel it back it. It perpetually stains you. Even if you have been forgiven, that impression remains.
So if you read this, I hope you don’t read this like I often read it a million times before when I was younger. I thought verse 8 read that ‘no one can tame the tongue.’ Animals can be tamed—just go to a circus! The trainer can stick his head into the gaping, powerful jaws of a lion, no problem. Jockeys that weigh 100 pounds can guide a horse that weighs 5x or more his weight. But, again as I read, no one can tame the tongue.
But is that what it says? No—it says “no man can tame the tongue.” While no man can tame the tongue, there is One who can. Only God can tame the tongue. It serves as a poison! It is verbal cyanide. You can commit arson just by a hell-fueled tongue.
3. God must tame the tongue’s distinctions.
Look with me at verses 9-12:
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.
So James again draws from his box of object lessons and brings us to water and vegetation—and where each of these things originates. Sin pollutes even the good things that come from us. If you have a spring that has both fresh water and salt water, how will that water be? Here’s a hint: it won’t be fresh. If you advertize yourself as a fig tree but you bring forth something else—oh, say, olives—will you be believable?
We saw this firsthand in the news this week. Earlier in the week, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation released a statement that they were stopping funding to Planned Parenthood (the nation’s largest abortion provider) for breast cancer screenings. The reason they offered was due to the fact they were under investigation for allegedly using federal money for abortions. But the reaction was very polarizing.
The pro-life groups praised the decision, seeing it as a consistency that life was being seen as valuable not only to the mom but also to the unborn child. The pro-abortion groups reviled the decision, even from it’s own affiliates. Even 26 senators (I won’t say from which party) signed a letter calling for Komen to reconsider.
And reconsider they did. On Friday, the news said they had reversed their decision and offered an apology.
Wherever you fall on this matter, this is an illustration of how words work and how they have an affect on you. The backlash now from many is that the Komen Foundation can be pressured from the outside which affects their convictions (if any) on the inside. Now, both sides of this discussion will always wonder if this organization can be bullied—if their convictions really come from a moral center or just from who yells at them the loudest.
Dear friends, we are here this morning in a church building as the church. This time has been given over to the body of Christ and I pray that everyone of us has surrendered to Jesus Christ as well. We have sung songs with the lines, “Beautiful One, I love; beautiful One I adore,” “I will open up my heart and let the healer set me free; I’m happy to be in the truth and will daily lift up my hands,” “Now I belong to Jesus; Jesus belongs to me” and “open the eyes of my heart, I want to see you.” As for me, there is nothing better than singing and hearing God’s people sing praises to Him in this place.
If you recall though in Genesis 1 that God has created plants and animals to function “according to their kind,” he has also created us as Christians to function after our kind as well—to function as Christ has called us to function to speak and live the Word by for teaching, reproving, correcting, and training in righteousness.”
But yet some turn right around from blessing God to cursing those made in his image! In James’ day, a king or emperor would erect a statue—and anyone who curse that statue would be treated as one who did that to the king or emperor himself!
The next time we murmur something under our breath or shout it loud, whether against an authority figure or against our neighbor, that is a tear-down is as if you were saying it to God’s face!
As you leave, consider the importance of words! God used words to communicate to those who bear His image the glorious wonder of who made creation, and who came to rescue us so we could become a new creation! Words matter! They can be used for well-being, or as weapons!
Consider also the importance of our words! Everything we say reflects on our view of what Christ accomplished on the cross on our behalf and how we view the resurrection! Words matter! Do we use them to build up in Christ, or to tear down?
Consider the importance of these words: repent and trust! Only God can tame the tongue. Only God can forgive the sin that separates you from Him! And He did so through Christ! “All that the Father gives to me will come to me; and whoever believes in me I will in no ways cast out!” There is no faith in Christ without repentance from sin. Faith comes by hearing the word of God. Repentance comes by using words from our hearts to confess our sin and turn to Christ alone!
Words matter! The Word matters! Does it matter to you this morning?