The preacher stood to deliver his message. Little did his congregation know that he waited until Saturday night to begin preparing. We’ve heard that preachers only work 2 days a week. This guy took that literally. As a result, he had not studied the passage of Scripture well enough to teach it rightly. His sermon was filled with more personal stories than it was with the actual text of Scripture. In fact, it sounded a lot like the sermon the previous week, and the congregation had heard this particular story almost every Sunday. After repeating the same few words over and over again for 45 minutes, he sat down and the music team returned to the stage to lead. More than a few times I have heard a pastor who didn’t take Scripture seriously enough to prepare well and to teach it well.
The member sat and listened to this preacher. Not being affected, she turned to talk with her friend. After praising God with her lips, she gossiped about another person who sat across the room. More often than not, I see people who claim to love God but spend their time pleasing only themselves.
The manager demanded that all of his workers be punctual and work hard, but he was not even prepared. He worked hard to gain his position, but then failed to live up to the promises he made to get promoted. With his lips, he convinced others that he would fill a position that he did not fill.
The worker complained about his manager, using his manager’s lack of work ethic as an excuse to not do the job well. His words led to action (and inaction).
The teacher was not passionate about what she taught and her job had become just that, a job. With her lips she claimed to pour into the lives of her students, but was distant in her action. The student used his words to disrupt class. The parent used her words to to tear her children down. The teenager used his words to rebel. The husband used his words to complain.
There are many atrocities committed with words. Our speech and our action says a whole lot about who we are. I just have to wonder, what does our speech say about us? Are we people who say we love God even when we don’t? Are we people who claim to love others, but gossip about them? Are we able to restrain our hateful words, criticisms and accusations when they are only based on our own preferences? If not, what does this reveal about the types of people we are?
James 2:26-3:12 (HCSB)
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body.
Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.
Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.
Faith without works
Before this in the text, James argues that faith without works is dead. He tells us in chapter 2 and verse 19 that we do well to believe, but the demons also believe and shudder. We will discover in this life that there are many people who believe that God exists, who believe that Christ is the messiah, and who might even believe that faith in Christ is the only way to be saved. This belief is not the same as having genuine faith in Christ.
For instance, I can believe that my wife exists, but where would I be if I was content with only this type of belief? I’d be at the grocery store and she would be chasing me down the isle without my noticing. We’d be watching a movie and I’d have the popcorn all to myself. We’d go out to eat and I wouldn’t pay attention to her (with cell phones today, people do this anyway). I probably wouldn’t even have the privilege of sleeping on the couch. It would be absolutely impossible to have a healthy marriage. When it comes to my wife, I am not okay with just believing that she is there. I want to pursue her. I want to please her. I want to place my full confidence and hope in her. I even want my attention to be on her when we go out to eat. She is my wife.
Yet, with God we seem to be okay with only this kind of belief. I would hope that having a relationship with God is about more than this. That relationship should cause us to want to pursue God, want to please God, want to place our full confidence and hope in God because He is the object of our affection. He is our King. He is our Father. He is the one who chose to have mercy on us even though we all deserved death.
If we choose to only have the same type of belief that the demons have, then we do not belong to God. He deserves our complete faith. Our hope must be in Him. When our hope is in Him, we will pursue Him. When we pursue Him, our faith works out through our action. This is why James claims that faith without works is dead. We must hear this warning. If we claim to have faith in Christ, but do not live out this faith in our actions and perform good works with Christ as our motivation, then we only pretend to belong to Christ. It is either this, or we have become spiritually unhealthy and still pretend to have a faith greater than we actually have. If we have faith in Christ, it will always produce good works. Faith without works is dead.
It is in this context that James begins to talk about teachers. According to James, teachers will receive a stricter judgment than those who do not teach. He even claims that not many should aspire to become teachers because the judgment is stricter. Here, I have to be humble and honest with you. There is a reason I spend hours looking into the text of Scripture before teaching. I am certain it is why Scripture limits the role of a pastor to prayer, study, teaching and shepherding (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-4, Ephesians 4:12). Even the example we receive in Acts 6:2 states that it is not right for those in the position of apostle/pastor/elder/overseer/bishop to neglect the Word of God in order perform the other functions of the church. This led to deacons being instituted in the church for the purpose of making sure no one was neglected.
The role of the teacher is so important in Scripture that teachers are judged more strictly by God, that they are discouraged from being CEO’s and ministry or event planners and that it is not right that they do anything that could cause them to neglect the ministry of God’s Word in any way.
It’s almost like God actually wants us to pay attention to the words that He took the time to inspire and preserve. This is why most pastors are under so much pressure. The sad reality is, most congregations make requirements of their pastors that force them to neglect the ministry of the Word, which causes them to sin, and which causes the church to become unhealthy.
One of the tragic realities in our day is that most pastors are not dedicated enough to Christ and they end up ignoring the responsibilities given to pastors in Scripture. As a pastor, I will be judged more strictly. For those here who are teachers in any capacity, we will be judged more strictly, so we ought to communicate the Word that God has given us well and with meaning no matter who our audience is. We cannot be guilty of preaching or teaching opinion or preference. It can only be what God has given us to teach. When others ask questions to us, we should prepare to give a Biblically sound answer, not just an empty opinion. The teacher who does not prepare only pretends to be a teacher. This idea can be applied to any position or role that God has called us to. If God has called us to lead music, preparation is key and we will be judged according to whether or not we are good stewards of the position. If we are called to be deacons, preparation is key and we will be judged according to whether or not we are good stewards of the Biblical position. If we are ministry leaders or event planners, preparation is key and we will be judged according to whether or not we are good stewards of the position. Without works, our faith is dead.
The source of our speech
James applies the same idea to speech in general, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body.” This means that if we stumble in what we say, we are immature people. We put so much emphasis on not doing this or that. Don’t go to the club! Don’t play those games! Don’t punch people in the face! The very first thing we ought to work on, brothers and sisters, before anything else is controlling our tongue.
We tend to lash out when we don’t mean it. We tend to cuss when we are angry. We are quick to give our own opinions and offer empty criticisms. We complain about the things that we don’t like. We praise God, then turn and slander people. This is true for what we say in person, what we say on the phone and what we share on social media. Our mouths get us into trouble.
Here’s a challenge, before we respond to anything, let’s take five seconds to think about how we can respond in love before shooting our mouths off (don’t take that statement literally, it’s an idiom). We will be more wise as we speak to one another. It will be less likely that we will come across as offensive in a bad way. It will be less likely that we will hurt others with what we say. This is the first thing that we should work on, but it is often the thing that we ignore. If we think that we obey Christ in every manner, but have not controlled our own mouths, then we have fooled ourselves.
There is a great irony here. James also states that no man can tame the tongue. Thank the Lord for His grace and mercy! Let’s be humble. We can admit that we all make mistakes. I am so glad that Christ’s death and resurrection covers me and washes me clean. We should show the same forgiveness to those who hurt us with their words.
James continues by arguing that things should not be this way. Springs do not pour both sweet and bitter water. Fig trees do not produce olives. Grapevines do not produce figs. A saltwater spring does not provide fresh water.
What comes out of our mouths says a lot about who we are, as does our action. The preacher who doesn’t spend hours in preparation only pretends to be a preacher. The Christian who is not humble only pretends to be a Christian. The worshipper who lifts holy hands and sings passionately but slanders others only pretends to be a worshipper. The church that does not provide for its community and love others only pretends to be a church.
The challenge for us is great. James is not an easy letter for us to read because it means we have to deal with where we fall short of God’s righteousness. Again, I am thankful for God’s forgiveness. In light of this text, I want to renew my commitment and my promise to you. I will continue to dedicate the time necessary to present Scripture well and with passion. I will not neglect the responsibilities that Scripture has given. I hope that I, along with the other teachers here, am always in your prayers as I prepare, because the truth is: teachers will be judged more strictly.
We should all strive to control our tongues. What we say reveals our thoughts. How we speak reveals our hearts. We should strive to control our own tongues, this includes the words we type or write. When we slip, we remember God’s great mercy. We ask for His forgiveness and begin striving again immediately. When others hurt us with their words, we practice forgiveness so that they might experience God’s grace and mercy through us.