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Monday, September 19, 2011

"Power to Cure, Power to Kill" - (09/18/11)

James 3:1-12 (Message #7 in James Series)
September 18, 2011

            Many of you know that I am a staunch defender of the American citizen’s right to “keep and bear arms.”  Moreover, I believe that this Second Amendment Constitutional right is in danger here from those who would seek to take away our right to own and use firearms.  They scream, “GUNS KILL PEOPLE!” and people like me yell back, “NO, PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE!”
            The truth is that a gun is a tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver.  In the hands of a responsible person with morals, convictions, and training a gun is of no danger to anyone.  On the other hand, there are many things that can be used to injure or kill people.  Any Corrections Officer will quickly back up what I am saying.  In prison, people fashion the strangest, most unlikely things with which to hurt one other.
            In fact, nearly anything you can think of can be used both for positive and negative purposes.  For example, a moment ago I mentioned a hammer.  A hammer is a very helpful tool for pounding, driving nails, or prying on things.  However, a hammer is a deadly weapon if someone hits you in the head with it.  A hammer has the power to build, and the power to destroy.
            Or take a knife… in the hands of a woodsman, a hiker, or a cook a knife is a very helpful tool.  However, in the hands of an armed robber it’s a very different story.  Or think of a doctor’s scalpel… in the hands of a skilled surgeon in the operating room it is a life-saving tool.  However, that same scalpel held to the throat of a pilot by a terrorist can bring down a whole airplane and kill all of the passengers.  That same tool has the power to cure and the power to kill.

            We could, of course, give many other examples of this duality but in our text for today, in James 3:1-12, the writer tells us of something that is potentially more lethal than any of these things I have mentioned.  Turn with me to that passage.

Verse 1: Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 
  • James starts this section with a warning to all those who aspire to attain a position as a teacher of the scriptures.  While to be a teacher or preacher of God’s Word is a noble calling, it also bears a greater moral responsibility before both God and man.  A person who knows the scriptures can never use the excuse, “Oh, I just didn’t know that.”
  • Notice too that James puts himself into this category: “…knowing that as such WE will incur a stricter judgment.”  He recognizes that he too must one day give an account before God of what he did with his knowledge of the Word.  A pastor’s sevenfold job is to feed, guide, love, protect, train, heal, and correct the sheep that God has placed under his care.  Moreover, I believe that every shepherd will one day stand before God to have his ministry evaluated.  The writer of Hebrews was speaking of that day when he wrote this in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”

Verse 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. 
  • Here James begins to get into his subject—the tongue.  He recognizes that we are all imperfect in every category.  We all make mistakes and mess up in many different ways.  However, the tongue has incredible power, and can do untold damage in a heartbeat, and is very difficult to tame.
  • He says that if a person can manage to control his tongue, his words, then he will be a truly “perfect person” meaning complete or mature, and will find it relatively easy to control the other parts of his anatomy.  For example, if you know how to tame a Bengal Tiger, then you won’t have any trouble taming the family’s cute little housecat.
  • The language that James uses has been used by skeptics and scoffers to say that Christians are just a bunch of uptight, obsessive, self-hating, prudes.  He talks about “bridling the whole body,” while the world says, “let it all hang out.”  He talks about muzzling our mouths (see also Psalm 39:1), but the world says, “Express yourself, no matter whether people like it or not.”  The Bible speaks of reining in our sexual passions, while the world advocates getting all the sex you can, wherever you can, with whomever you can.  They cry out, “No rules, no regrets!”
  • But it’s not that Christians are repressed; it’s just that we believe in biblically placed boundaries, put there by a loving God for our protection.  The world wants to throw off every boundary, especially moral fences of any kind, believing that will make them truly free.  The truth is, without God’s boundaries, man quickly becomes the worst kind of slave, a slave of his own passions and lower nature.

Verses 3-4: Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.  4Look at 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. 
  • James uses two examples to show that little things can control big things.  First, he points to a horse’s bridle with the bit that goes inside the horse’s mouth.  That little bar of steel, when placed in the back of the horse’s mouth behind his back teeth, can control a huge war horse.  Pulling on the reins puts pressure on the sides of his mouth.  That makes him turn his head to relieve the pressure.  By turning his head you make his body go in the direction you want to travel.
  • The same principle works with a ship’s rudder.  Relatively speaking, the rudder is very small compared to the ship itself, yet it can make the ship go wherever the helmsman leads it.  Even in rough seas and with strong winds the little rudder forces the ship to go wherever the captain wishes.

Verse 5a: So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. 
  • Here we have the conclusion, based on those last two illustrations.  James says, in the same way that the bridle bit and the ship’s rudder are both small yet can control something much larger, so also the tongue, though it is a small part of our anatomy, it wields a huge influence.
  • “…it boasts of great things.”  Our mouth is what we use to brag and boast.  It’s also what we use to tell lies.  It’s what we use to curse and carry on arguments.  It’s the instrument of gossip and slander.  Need I go on?  If we are honest we will have to admit that our mouth gets us in more trouble than any other part of our body.

Verses 5b-6: See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!   6And 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 hell. 
  • We are still in the 2011 fire season.  We’ve been watching the out-of-control wild fires in much of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.  And right here in Oregon we have wild fires raging even today.  Though some of those fires were started by lightening strikes, many of them were ignited by a spark from a car or from a carelessly thrown cigarette.  We all know that a huge fire can be started from one tiny spark.
  • James says that the tongue is a fire, and though small, it can do a world of damage.  He says that it can defile, or make dirty, the rest of our life.  That’s because our tongue can verbalize every sort of sin including covetousness, idolatry, blasphemy, lust, and greed.  These all find expression through the tongue, and consequently, James says, “…it defiles the entire body.”  Moreover, he says that the tongue-fire comes originally from hell itself.  Picture this: the fire from hell lights up the tongue, which in turn, sets on fire the whole “course of our life.”  By the way, the word here translated as “hell” is actually the Greek word, “Gehenna,” which was the name of the smoldering, stinking, rotting, putrid garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem.  It was the constantly burning place where the carcasses of animals would be dumped, where all of the refuse of the city would be burned, where the filth of society would be dealt with.  The fires would never go out because there was always plenty of fuel to keep them going.  Gehenna is used in the Bible as a metaphor for the horrors of hell, and is the word that James uses here to describe the motor that runs our mouth.

Verse 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. 
  • We read in Genesis 1:27-28, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  28God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”  Humans have been doing that ever since.  In fact, man has pretty well learned to subdue and control every creature on the planet (except for my dog, Bubba, of course).  We’ve trained falcons to hunt for us.  We’ve trained dogs to find lost hikers and sniff out drugs.  We’ve trained pigs to dig up truffles for us.  We’ve taught apes to talk to us using American Sign Language.  We’ve trained elephants to paint pictures for us.  We’ve trained giant tigers to jump through burning hoops to entertain us at the circus.
  • We can control big animals, but sadly, most of us still haven’t figured out how to control our own big mouth!  And just look at the results.

Verse 8: But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 
  • James makes it sound here like Mission Impossible.  But is that what he really means?  He says “no one can tame the tongue.”  Does “no one” here really mean “no one”?  Of course not.  What is impossible with man is possible with God.  Through Christ our tongue can be tamed but we can’t do it on our own.
  • James portrays the tongue as “a restless evil.”  That gives it a kind of built-in malevolence, an evil nature.  He says too that it is “full of deadly poison.”   I believe he is making reference here to Psalm 140:3, a verse well known to his readers.  It goes, “Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men; preserve me from violent men 2who devise evil things in their hearts; they continually stir up wars.  3They sharpen their tongues as a serpent; poison of a viper is under their lips.”  The Carpet Viper and the Desert Horned Viper, both common to that part of the world, were the most poisonous creatures known in that day.  In both cases, their bite would usually result in a horrible, painful death, drug out over several days.
  • James’ point, of course, is that the tongue can likewise bring about death, and in very painful ways.

Verses 9-10: With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 
  • Here James shows that like the tools I mentioned earlier, which can be used for good or for evil, the tongue can also be a wonderful instrument for praising God and for blessing people, or it can be used for cursing and condemning.  We have a choice in how to use our tongues.
  • “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.”  Just because something can be done, doesn’t mean that it should be done.  You and I are free to use our tongues however we choose.  However, there is a right way, as God intended, and a wrong way, as our old nature prefers to do things.  God created man to have fellowship with Him forever.  He fashioned man’s mouth to offer up praises to Him.  However, like everything else that God meant for good, in our fallen state we use it for evil.  James says, “…this ought not to be,” because to use our mouth for evil is incongruous with God’s purposes.

Verse 11: Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 
  • The obvious answer to this question is, “NO, of course not.”  A fountain or a spring only gives off one kind of water.

Verse 12: Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a [grape] vine produce figs?  Nor can salt water produce fresh. 
  • A second illustration with similar question, expecting a similar answer: “NO, a fig tree can never give olives and a grape vine can never produce figs.  Neither can salt water produce fresh water.”  Now don’t get hung up here.  No illustration ever walks on all fours.  We all know about desalinization plants that produce fresh water from sea water.  And we all know something about grafting on kind of fruit tree onto the stump of some other kind of fruit tree, but those things never happen in nature, without some kind of human intervention.

            So what does James want us to take away from this passage today?  What is the point, the bottom line?  Several things stand out to me.
1.       First, the warning to teachers jumps right out at me.  I believe that the job of interpreting and explaining God’s Word to others is a huge responsibility and should never be taken lightly.  All of us who teach or preach the Scriptures, no matter what the setting or the age group, need to take this seriously.  But before you write yourself out of the story, how about our job as parents to teach and explain God’s Word to our children and grandchildren.  I believe the principle applies there too.
2.      Secondly, in our flawed thinking about the relative awfulness of the sins we commit, we tend to put more emphasis on sins of commission—i.e. doing bad stuff.  For example, we all admit that stealing, killing, cheating, worshipping idols, and committing adultery are terrible sins.  However, we tend to put mouth related sins in a different category.  We don’t lie, we “tell stories” or little “white lies.”  We don’t gossip, we “share a prayer request.”  We don’t fight, we have “spirited disagreements.”  We don’t curse and condemn, we “tell it like it is.”  In general we downplay the negative things that our mouths can do and make excuses for our lack of control in this area, not recognizing that the tongue has the power to kill.
3.      Thirdly, on the other hand, we fail to see the power of the tongue to heal.  Our mouth, when filled with the Word of God and empowered by the Spirit of God has great potential for good.  With our mouth we can bless God and thank Him for all He is and has done for us.  With our mouth we can tell a person about the love and grace of God and lead him to put his trust in Christ.  With our mouth we can build up a person and make him feel like he matters to us and to God.  With our mouth we can bind up emotional wounds from the past, and give new hope, and tell a child he is loved, and make a friend’s day.  The tongue has the power to cure, and the power to kill.  How we choose to use it is up to us.

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About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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