The Tongue of the Teacher
James 3:1 says,
1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.
Why does God hold teachers more accountable than others? It is obviously based upon the principle that knowledge of God's will makes one more accountable, as we see in Luke 12:47. A teacher is one of the five-fold ministry in Eph. 4:11, which God has given to the Church to build them up into the full stature of Christ.
Every calling, to be valid, must come from God. Unfortunately, divine callings do not come with certificates or diplomas signed by God. It is left to the people to discern the validity of any man's calling. Callings are evident by their fruit. In the case of a teacher, the main fruit has to do with the ability to see (as opposed to being blind), and the ability to heal the eyes of the blind through teaching.
Jesus, the Great Teacher, encountered many in His day who were blind teachers. Their years of study had not really opened their eyes to divine revelation of the Word. They taught what their own teachers had taught them, and so learned the traditions of men. John 9:39-41 says,
39 And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see; and that those who see may become blind.” 40 Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things, and said to Him, “We are not blind too, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but since you say, 'We see,' your sin remains.”
It is a paradox that the true teacher will open blind eyes, but at the same time his teaching will close the eyes of those blind teachers who claim to see.
One of the curses for disobedience is found in Deut. 27:18, “Cursed is he who misleads a blind person on the road.” While it certainly has some literal application, it is a warning to teachers. It is especially true in the context of living in a time of captivity for the sins of our fathers, because blindness is part of divine judgment. Deut. 28:28 and 29 says,
28 The Lord will smite you with madness, and with blindness and with bewilderment at heart; 29 and you shall grope at noon, as the blind man gropes in darkness....
The calling of a teacher is most important during the time of captivity when blindness is a general condition of the nation. Considering the long captivity to the succession of empires in Daniel 7, along with its blindness and partial blindness (Rom. 11:25), teachers with a genuine calling have not been plentiful.
Jesus too was born during the early Roman phase of this captivity. Teachers were plentiful in His time, but real understanding of the Word was sparse. There were many teachers of the law, but few who had a genuine understanding of it. Jesus' “Sermon on the Mount” in Matt. 5-7 was designed to correct men's understanding of the law. “You have heard that it was said” is followed by “but I say to you.” In all of this, Jesus did not put away the law, but clarified it according to the mind of God.
It is clear that James took Jesus’ words very seriously in Matt. 5:17-19,
17 Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
There is little doubt that this is what James had in mind when he wrote about teachers. In Jerusalem, he was surrounded by the same blind teachers that his older brother Jesus had confronted some years earlier.
There were also controversies among teachers that had to be resolved amicably if possible. Thus, the manner of teaching was just as important as its content.
One of the big controversies of the day was the relationship between faith and law. In his letter, James was attempting to teach the importance of law as an expression of faith. He did this as gently as he could, using all the wisdom that God had given him to bring balance to those who were unbalanced.
It is obvious that many in the Jerusalem church lacked understanding when it came to their treatment of non-Jewish believers. When some of them went to Antioch, where both Greeks and Jews were in the same church, even Peter changed his actions to accommodate them. Whereas earlier Peter had eaten with the non-Jews, he withdrew from them when these “false brethren” (Gal. 2:4) came up from Jerusalem.
There is little doubt that these “false brethren” believed in the dividing wall in the temple, and that non-Jews had to remain at a respectful distance from God. Paul obviously disagreed, saying that the dividing wall had been abolished in Christ (Eph. 2:14). So Paul confronted Peter to his face in front of these “false brethren” from Jerusalem.
This incident gives us a glimpse of the mindset among many in the Jerusalem church. James does not comment on this issue specifically, but concerns himself with the heart of the teachers. In the rest of the third chapter, James showed his inner diplomat. He taught that people should bridle their tongues and discuss their differences with Christian love. When men believe something passionately, they tend to overreact in the face of different opinions. So after telling us that teachers “incur a stricter judgment,” James continues:
2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.
No one has perfect understanding. We all stumble in some areas of life. If we did not stumble, we would be as perfect as Jesus Christ.
A Bridle for the Tongue
James continues in 3:3,
3 Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they may obey us, we direct their entire body as well.
A bridle is a restrainer. We all need bridles, James says. This is a common theme in the Old Testament. Psalm 32:9 says,
9 Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, otherwise they will not come near to you.
Here men without understanding are compared to a horse or mule. Without restraint, they tend to run away and “will not come near to you.” Hence, the ability to bridle one's tongue is a sign of wisdom. Recall what he says in 1:26, that if a man does not bridle his tongue, his religion is worthless.
The tongue leads the rest of the body. Restraining the tongue is a major sign of obedience to God. Even as works prove our faith, so also does restraining the tongue prove our “religion.”
4 Behold, the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder, wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things....
The tongue is the “rudder” of the body. If a man can bridle his tongue, he is like a ship that is under the control of the pilot (i.e., God).
5 ... Behold how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by gehenna.
Here again, James shows how the Gospel of Matthew was the chief gospel used in the church in Jerusalem. He is referring to Jesus' teaching in Matt. 15:11-20.
11 Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.
This came in the context of the Pharisees criticizing Jesus' disciples for eating without first cleansing (baptizo) their hands. It was a form of piety in those days to pour water over their hands to cleanse them before they ate. Jesus' disciples apparently neglected this tradition of men (not found in the law).