Caution against False Activity in Teaching and the Use of the Tongue.
The danger of teaching and much speaking:
v. 1. My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
v. 2. 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. 3. Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn about their whole body.
v. 4. Behold also the ships, which, though they be so great and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.
v. 5. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
v. 6. And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.
It seems that in many of the congregations, which were composed largely of Jewish Christians, the custom of permitting almost any man to speak that so desired had been taken over. This was a dangerous practice in more than one respect, and therefore the apostle writes: Become not many teachers, my brethren, knowing that we (as such) shall receive the more severe condemnation. In the Jewish synagogues, especially in the Dispersion, in the cities outside of Palestine, there was little restriction in the matter of teachers; almost anyone would be listened to that desired to be heard. But whereas all believers are kings and priests before God and the Lord Jesus, they are not all teachers of the congregation, they may not all arrogate to themselves the office of preacher. But there was not only danger under such circumstances that the Gospel-message would not receive its proper attention, but the speakers were also inclined to let personal matters sway them, the result being that the discourses in the common assemblies were anything but edifying at times. It was necessary, therefore, to remind the unauthorized teachers of the fact that the responsibility resting upon the office and the account which the teachers must give on the last day, Heb_13:17, would make the sentence passed upon them all the more severe.
The apostle now gives reasons for the sternness of his rebuke: For manifoldly we offend, all of us. If a man does not offend in word, that man is a perfect man, able to keep under the restraint of the bridle also the whole body. The general course of life may well be called a way and each individual action a step; therefore any offense or lapse or transgression may well be termed a stumble. All men without exception become guilty of such stumbling, even the best of Christians are subject to sins of weakness. And now James, in applying this general truth to the case in hand, states that a man who can control his speech at all times, never offending by so much as a single word, may well be considered a perfect man, since the ability to control the tongue argues at least for the probability of controlling the entire body and keeping all the members from sinning. If a man is able to perform the more difficult task, he will have little trouble with that which is comparatively easy.
But the difficulty of controlling the tongue is now shown by two examples. The apostle writes, in the first place: But if we put bits into the mouths of the horses to make them obey us, and we direct their entire bodies. This was an example with which his readers were familiar, which they understood. Horses are driven and kept in control by means of the bits placed into their mouths, the driver merely pulling the reins in order to have the horses' head in any direction that he chooses. In another case the ease of control is still more apparent and also wonderful: Behold also the ships, although they are so great and, moreover, tossed about with fierce winds, yet are guided with a very small rudder, whithersoever the mind of the steersman wills. This fact is apparent in our days even more than in the times of small vessels. Ships of many thousands of tons displacement obey the slightest pressure of the helmsman, or slight turn of the wheel on the bridge. Even when the sea is agitated, the pilot or officer has little trouble in directing the course of the vessel as he chooses, as he thinks best, so long as the steering apparatus is in order and the rudder does not break. It is a marvel of human ingenuity to be able to keep a large vessel in control with such tiny devices as compared with its great size.
The apostle now makes the application: So also the tongue is a small member, and yet boasts of great exploits. The writer speaks of the tongue as though it had a personality of its own and made use of its power by deliberate action. As small as it is among the members of the body, yet it can boast of performing great deeds. By way of comparison the apostle again calls out: Behold how small a fire, what a forest it does kindle! or: What an immense fire, what an immense forest the tongue does kindle! It takes only a small fire, a burning match carelessly thrown aside, to start a fire which may consume many square miles of forest. And such is also the destructive power of the tongue: The tongue also is a fire, a world of unrighteousness; the tongue steps forth among our members, and it stains the entire body and inflames the wheel of nature, and itself is inflamed by hell. Like the small firebrand that causes the devastating forest fire, so also is the tongue in its unbridled state. It is a world of unrighteousness, it works a world of mischief, its entire sphere becomes that of iniquity when it begins its transgressions. The tongue steps forth among the members, it assumes the leadership, among them, it rules them, it makes them do its bidding. Thus it happens that it succeeds in staining the whole body, in polluting all the members; it sets in motion and inflames the wheel of nature, the whole circle of innate passions, jealousy, backbiting, slander, blasphemy, and every vile deed. Truly the tongue, if permitted to pursue its course unhindered, is inflamed of hell, is in the control of Satan himself.