The Tongue as a Fire of Gehenna
James 3:6 says that the tongue is a fire which can set the whole body on fire by “hell” (gehenna). How was this concept revealed to James?
This is undoubtedly a reference to Jesus' words in Matthew 5:29 and 30, where He says, “it is better for one of the body parts of your body perish than for your whole body to be thrown into gehenna.”
While many equate this to a burning torture pit, gehenna is actually applied in Scripture to the coming destruction of Jerusalem along with those who fight God's army that He has raised up against the city (Isaiah 29:1-6; Jer. 19). Gehenna is the Greek word for the valley of Ben-hinnom (Jer. 19:2). It was the city dump, which was constantly burning just outside Jerusalem, and hence also known by the word Tophet, or “burning” (Jer. 19:6).
The divine judgment pronounced upon Jerusalem by the prophets carries into the New Testament, for Jesus Himself prophesied of its destruction (Matt. 24:2). Most of this prophecy was fulfilled in 70 A.D., but because the city was rebuilt, there awaits yet another fulfillment, for Jer. 19:11 says “Just so shall I break this people and this city, even as one breaks a potter's vessel, which cannot again be repaired.”
This was illustrated when the prophet smashed an earthen vessel in the valley of Ben-hinnom. Thus, the day has yet to come when the city will be destroyed in such a manner that it will never again be rebuilt. This will mark the final casting out of “the bondwoman” (Gal. 4:30), which Paul says is the earthly city of Jerusalem (Gal. 4:25).
Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, claimed to teach the law of God, but in fact, they had replaced the law with their own carnal “traditions of men,” as Jesus told them in Matt. 15:6, “you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” The traditions of men were men's misunderstandings of the law, interpreted by the carnal mind apart from a genuine knowledge of its Author. The Sermon on the Mount was designed to make those corrections, and in this context Jesus taught about gehenna in Matt. 5:29, 30.
Hence, He said that if your right eye or your right hand makes you stumble, “cut if off.” Better to lose a body part than your whole body in gehenna when God destroys the city. It was a veiled reference to the fact that men were so attached to the city and its temple that they might continue to support the traditions of men being taught in the temple and thereby end up being destroyed with the city.
All of the specific laws on which Jesus provides commentary in this Sermon are just examples of the general problem found in Jerusalem as a city and as a religious center. To many, Jerusalem was as important as their right eye or right hand, but if it causes men to stumble at the truth, then they should forsake the city itself.
James, the Intercessor for Jerusalem
The Jerusalem church itself did not want to leave the city for many years. They believed that they were to provide a witness to the people and to the temple itself. James himself prayed daily not only on the temple grounds but in the Holy Place itself, because he was a Nazarite, and Nazarites were considered to be like the priests themselves. We get this from Hegesippus who wrote about 200 A.D. and is quoted by Eusebius a century later:
“Control of the Church passed to the apostles, together with the Lord's brother James, whom everyone from the Lord's time till our own has called the Righteous [or “The Just”], for there were many Jameses, but this one was holy from his birth; he drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head; he did not smear himself with oil, and took no baths [in the public baths]. He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place, for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel's from his continually bending them in worship of God and beseeching forgiveness for the people....” [Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., II, xxiii]
James was the last great intercessor for Jerusalem during the 40-year grace period that the city enjoyed prior to its destruction. When he was finally martyred on the temple grounds for his witness of Jesus in 62 A.D., his removal paved the way for the start of the war at Passover of 66. A few months later, at the feast of Tabernacles of 66, hostilities broke out, and Rome’s 12th Legion was nearly destroyed by the Judeans at the Battle of Beth Horon.
This ensured that Rome would return with a greater army to avenge their honor and punish the Judean rebels. When the troops arrived, they secured the countryside before marching upon Jerusalem. However, when the Roman Emperor Nero died in 68, the army ceased fighting until they should receive orders from a new emperor.
During this time, the Jerusalem church moved to Pella, a town in Perea near the Jordan River, and so escaped the gehenna of that time. (See Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., III, 5.)
Taming the Tongue
James 3:7-10 reads,
7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.
Truly, as Jesus also said, we are defiled by what comes out of our mouths, not what goes into them.
The Hebrew word lahab means a flame and also the point of a weapon (spear or sword). This word is used in Job 41:21, “His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth.”
Another word for flame is lashon, which means a tongue. It can be applied to a tongue of fire as well. The term lashon lahabah is used in Isaiah 5:24, which says, “Therefore, as a tongue of fire consumes stubble...”
We see from this that the Hebrew concept of the tongue, established in the language of Scripture, connects the tongue with a flame and also with the point of a spear. Thus, also, when John says in Rev. 1:16 that “out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword,” he was referring to the tongue, or the Word of God.
We read the same in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.”
In fact, the first reference to this metaphor is found in Gen. 3:24, where the flaming sword (cherub) guarded the tree of life. In other words, the only way to attain access to the tree of life is through the Word of God. The “fiery law” of Deut. 33:2 prevents imperfect men from having access until the law is satisfied. That is why Jesus died on the cross—to satisfy the fiery demands of the law and thereby give us life.
Using the Tongue to Bless or to Curse
The sword of our mouth may be used to bless or to curse, depending on the words that we speak and the spiritual force behind those words. Here again we see another Hebrew feature. The Hebrew word barak can be translated either to bless or to curse.
In Gen. 48:16, Jacob pronounces a blessing over Ephraim and Manasseh, saying, “the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless [barak] the lads.” But in Job 2:9, Job's wife told him to “curse [barak] God and die.”
It is strange that a word can have opposite meanings, but we see this even in the English language. For example, to cleave means either to divide or to unite.
It is helpful to know a little about the Hebrew language in order to understand the metaphors used by James—and also by John and Paul. James says that our tongue can be used either to bless or to curse. If we barak someone, are we blessing them or cursing them? It really depends upon our intent and the spiritual force behind our words.
James continues in verses 11 and 12,
11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Neither can salt water produce fresh.
Here again, James was referencing Jesus' teaching in Matt. 12:33-35,
33 Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. 35 The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil.
The heart is the source of our words. We may try to tame our tongues, but in the end, the mouth will manifest that which is in the heart, no matter how much we try to restrain it. The tongue cannot be fully tamed, James says. In the end, when under stress, the tongue will reveal the contents of our heart.
Trees are Known by their Fruit
If the source of a fountain is bitter water, the fountain will only flow with bitter waters. Fig trees cannot produce olives. ”The tree is known by its fruit” (Matt. 12:33). This is the spiritual force behind Jeremiah 24 as well, where the prophet speaks of two baskets of figs—each from a different fig tree. One basket contained very good figs, while the other contained very “evil” figs. God interpreted this to reveal two types of Judeans (Jews for short). Those who recognized their sin and submitted to divine judgment were the good figs. Those who refused to repent, submit, and take their punishment as from the hand of God were the evil figs.
The same was true in the first century, though this time God's agent of judgment was Rome, the fourth in the series of beast empires. These two types of Judeans existed side by side in Jesus' time as in the days of Jeremiah. The fig tree was the national symbol of Judah. When John the Baptist began his ministry (shortly before the start of Jesus' ministry), he said in Luke 3:8, 9,
8 Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 And also the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Three years later, toward the end of Jesus' ministry, Luke continues the story in 13:6-9 in the form of Jesus' parable:
6 . . . A certain man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it, and did not find any. 7 And he said to the vineyard-keeper, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” 8 And he answered and said to him, “Let it alone, sir, for this year, too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; 9 and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.”
Did the fig tree of Judah bring forth fruit? No. Jesus then cursed the fig tree (Matt. 21:19), saying, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” In other words, Judah (i.e., Judaism or the Jews as a nation) would never bear the fruit that God required. As a nation, it will never repent—not then, and not now.
On the other hand, those Judeans who repented, submitted to Rome, and followed Jesus Christ, were the good figs. These good figs came from a different fig tree, whose root is Jesus Christ. As individuals, Judeans must change their citizenship from the evil fig tree to the good fig tree in order to find salvation and bring forth the fruits of the Kingdom.
It is strange, then, that some Christians today wish to convert to Judaism or to identify with the cursed fig tree. Do they really think that by engrafting themselves to the fig tree that was withered up from Jesus' curse, that they can somehow revive that dead tree and induce that tree to bring forth fruit? Can they reverse the curse?
I think not.