The Deadliest Member (James 3:1-12)

Image Credit: Mt Baker Vapor


Opening Selection: Every Praise by Hezekiah Walker

Intermediate Selection: Speak Life by Toby Mac

Inspirational Selection: I Need You To Survive by Hezekiah Walker

Our Memorial Selection: To remember the NYC terrorist attack victims on October 31, 2017:


Sermon Title: The Deadliest Member
Scripture: James 3:1-12

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” These are often the words of many a person who has been hurt a time or two by the things others have said. And yet, as cavalier as this statement sounds, as much as the statement was designed to empower individuals, it really exposes their vulnerability – for, it is true that words do hurt, especially when they’re said in a demeaning and degrading way.

We live in a world where people are losing their lives due to terrorist attacks (whether domestic or foreign), and our hearts bleed as we hear of yet another situation where innocent lives are lost because of the actions of angry terrorists who don’t care about human life. We’ve had the Las Vegas Massacre last month that took the lives of 58 or 59 victims in what has been labeled the deadliest terrorist attack on human soil, and just this past Tuesday, on what believers have called Reformation Day, we saw an Uzbekistan resident take the life of 8 people and injure at least 13 others by driving a Home Depot rental truck into New York walking traffic. And yet, that did not stop New York residents from celebrating their Halloween bash as a way of remaining firm in their resolve in the midst of acts of evil.

While we think with sadness on the lost lives behind acts of terrorism, we as the Body of Christ often forget that the words we say can kill just as much. If you think I’m exaggerating a bit here, I can point to a show designed by way of a real case where a woman told a pregnant girl to “go hang herself” and “leave the world a better place” – and she did it. The young, teenage girl went and hung herself because she was told by this vicious adult woman that “the world would be a better place without her.” I’ve been active in the journalism field for some years now, and I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve read on websites that have said the exact same thing: “end your life, go hang yourself. You’re worthless. The world doesn’t need you taking up space,” and so on.

We’ve seen the effects of what happens when we take up arms and kill with gun bullets, but we’ve yet to understand that we also “kill” and “hurt” people when we say harmful things that tear down their spirit instead of building them up. The Lord is saying to us today that we must understand that, contrary to “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” words do hurt, words do kill, words do harm, and words can destroy rather than create. Words can bring us up, can elevate us, can give us confidence, can speak peace into our lives – but words can also pull down, degrade, harm, cheapen, and cut like a knife. And if we’re not careful, we can let our tongue, the culprit in all of our harmful words, go too far. It is the smallest member of the body, but don’t underestimate it: it is, as the sermon title says, “the deadliest member.”

James says the same in today’s text, James chapter 3. In verse 1, James warns the congregation with the words, “let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” In other words, teachers will be judged more harshly by God than ordinary believers because they have a position in the church that comes with power but demands much responsibility. “With great power, comes great responsibility” is not just a nice statement in a Spiderman movie; it’s the way things work in the kingdom of God. When you teach, teachers, preachers, and pastors, you speak words. And how do you speak words? With the tongue. You can teach life by speaking life into your listeners, or you can teach death by speaking death into your hearers. The tongue, used to teach, is the thing by which teachers will be judged. Teachers, your words will determine just how strict God’s judgment will be.

Here are the words of Jesus in reference to the condemnation of teachers and their great responsibility in Matthew 23:1-15:

Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. 4 For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. 5 But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7 greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ 8 But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. 11 But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. 14 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.

15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:1-15)

Jesus says to not call yourselves teachers because Christ is your Teacher (and there is only one teacher), but He means that there is only one superior teacher: Himself. You are to acknowledge Christ Jesus above yourselves, teachers, with the humility that comes from God – a humility that says you’re being the best you can be for Christ but that, even at your best, you will stumble.

And this is what James says in verse 2: “For we all stumble in many things.” Even teachers in the church, preachers and pastors too, stumble in many things. I’ve heard Pastors say, “I don’t have a problem tithing my 10% to the Lord,” all while they struggle with pornography and marital infidelity. I’ve heard teachers say, “I don’t struggle with interpreting Scripture,” all while they struggle and stumble in their prayer lives. James says that no matter how great our role in the Body of Christ, we all stumble. For those non-LGBT advocates out there who think that homosexuality is the only hot-button topic to discuss in church life today, let me give you a news flash: you may not struggle with God’s design for sexuality, but you’re struggling in something sexual, or something immoral. You may only go visit a prostitute once a week, or look at a Playboy magazine here and there, but you still struggle. You may have your sexuality under control, but you struggle to pay your tithes to the Lord and to not cheat on your income tax returns, copy sermons or lesson plans from (among other sites), and so on.

Let’s face it: as Paul says in Romans we all have sinned, and to this day, continually fall short, of the glory of God. That’s all of us, teachers or not. The congregation to which James is writing, Jews that are scattered throughout the world, wanted to covet teaching as a church office because they believed it would make them super-spiritual, or that it would give them an edge on their “spiritual resume,” but James points out that “we[teachers] shall receive a stricter judgment,” or a greater condemnation if we fail to do what the Law says. James tells them in James 1:22-25 to be not only hearers of the Word but also doers:

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.

26 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.

Notice that James 1:26 says that bridling one’s tongue, keeping one’s tongue in submission to Christ, checking your tongue on a regular basis (and I don’t mean inspecting it for signs of a fever or sickness, either) is part of what it means to have good religion, good faith, a good walk before God. James says that those who don’t control their tongue and keep it subject to Christ have a religion that is “useless.” “This one’s religion is useless,” James says.

At the end of verse 2, James says that those who do not stumble or falter in their words, in the things that say, “he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.” In other words, control the tongue and you can ultimately master full self-control. Now, it seems impossible to master full self-control, but we can all get a firm grip on it if we keep at it with the grace of God and the power of prayer. And James is here about to show that the tongue is the deadliest member, that, to control it is to control the entire body. One little tongue can destroy the body; keeping it in check can control the body and help it prosper. The tongue is the smallest, deadliest member, but controlling it can reap great reward. The tongue is the fiercest foe against self-control, righteousness, and godly living. Many of us think the greatest foe we have is our thought life, but James says here that the tongue is more deadly than your thought life.

In verse 3 and 4, James gives examples to show how the smallest member of something can control the entire body of that same thing. James says, “Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their while body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires.” The bit in the horse’s mouth is a small item as compared to the size of the horse, but the bit can tame the horse and turn his body in whatever direction the human trainer wants him to go.

And consider the ship: while the ship is large and can be turned in one direction or another by fierce winds, the ship can also turn by way of the small rudder in the pilot’s hands. In other words, both the horse and the ship, large bodies, can be turned and tamed by way of small items (the bit and the rudder). These are examples that, like the human body, show that the tongue, like the rudder and bit, is the most powerful member of the human body. It is the smallest member, but it is also the deadliest member. As verse 5 says, “the tongue is a little member and boasts great things.” It has the power to do great, large, enormous tasks. It is no small body member to laugh at. Its size isn’t significant when it comes to the sheer power of the tongue. James is using these examples to tell the congregation, “never underestimate the large power of the small tongue.”

Verses 5 and 6 go together, though, as James has now turned his discussion from the examples of the horse bit and ship rudder to the tongue and the human body: “See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.” A little fire set off can destroy an entire forest. During the summer, there are a number of forest fires out in California that start by one small fire in a house or out near a random tree; the next thing you know, the fire has spread to so many hundreds of acres and requires lots of California firefighters to put it out. One lit match can destroy homes, trees, and human life. And, as James says, “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.” The tongue is a fire that, like normal fires, can say something small (only a few words) but go on to eventually destroy careers, marriages, reputations, and ultimately, lives. Remember the example above I gave of the woman who told the teenage girl to “go hang yourself”? She was told three words, “Go. Hang. Yourself.,” but those three words led to her completing suicide and taking her own life. Three words is all it took to create a suicide. The tongue is a fire, and it doesn’t need but three words, or one, rather, to create a fire that is near impossible to extinguish.

The tongue is a small member, but it “defiles the whole body and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.” This means that the tongue can taint the body. If the tongue sins, the body sins, and the tongue sets the flesh in motion. One nice comment to a girl took her from serving as a law enforcement officer to getting in bed with a suspect – that then led her to be arrested, jailed for a time, and stripped of her law enforcement job with good benefits. One compliment is all it takes for a godly woman to abandon her husband and go run off with a fellow employee in the workplace. Solomon notes in the Book of Proverbs, chapter 5 verses 1-6, that a married woman’s smooth words can lead to adultery and the fellow perpetrator in the adultery, the man, could possibly lose his life over the act:

My son, pay attention to my wisdom;
Lend your ear to my understanding,
2 That you may preserve discretion,
And your lips may keep knowledge.
3 For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey,
And her mouth is smoother than oil;
4 But in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
Sharp as a two-edged sword.
5 Her feet go down to death,
Her steps lay hold of hell.
6 Lest you ponder her path of life—
Her ways are unstable;
You do not know them.

In short, the adulteress’s words are as sweet as honey and smooth as oil, but in the end, she is a death warrant on your life waiting to happen and a quick ticket to Hell.

It doesn’t take much for the tongue to set the course of nature, the natural inclinations of the body (the flesh wants to sin, keep this in mind) in motion. After setting “nature” into motion, after setting the flesh on its desired path, to sin, to lust, to have the forbidden, the tongue itself is set on fire by hell, James says. In other words, the tongue leads the body into sin, and the sin itself can be the start of a person’s descent into Hell fire. A person’s whole life can be set on the path to Hell by way of the tongue, the smallest member that happens to be the deadliest member.

Verses 7 and 8 show how much more powerful the tongue is than even the animal kingdom: “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” Every animal in the world can be tamed, put under subjection, by mankind. Lions, tigers, and even bears can be put in chains in zoos. Think of underwater sea creatures such as whales, sharks, alligators, and crocodiles; yes, even these ferocious reptiles have been tamed by mankind, have been chained into submission by humanity. The Lord has given us dominion over these ferocious creatures, as well as every creeping and living thing on the earth according to Genesis, so it is our God-given right to subdue these creatures and prevent them from harming innocent human life. And yet, while we are told to have dominion over the earth, James says that few of us have ever exercised discipline with our tongue. “No man can tame the tongue,” he says, meaning that the tongue is more fierce than even the Loch Ness Monster or Leviathan, as the Book of Job refers to what could be one of the fiercest sea creatures of all living. The tongue is more “killer” than the “killer whale”!

The tongue is “an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” Remember last month that we preached on Psalm 11, the Las Vegas Memorial sermon, where we talked about the sinfulness and wickedness of man? I said there that Jeremiah 17 calls man “desperately wicked,” that the heart of man is deceitful. Well, James’s words on the tongue here, that the tongue is an “unruly evil, full of deadly poison,” only confirm the wickedness of mankind. The tongue is evil and unruly. Think of an unruly child. To call a child “unruly” means that the child won’t do what you command him or her to do. The same can be said for the tongue: it will often violate your commands and the commands of God to bring it into subjection. If you’ve ever blurted out something true but hostile in an argument in which you previously said to yourself you wouldn’t engage in, then congratulations – you realize how untameable the tongue is. To be “full of deadly poison” means that the tongue has nothing but words that harm and kill. We know rattlesnakes to be some of the most poisonous snakes on the face of the earth, but the tongue has more poison than even rattlesnakes. The serpent, the snake, isn’t as lethal as the tongue. If this is true, then the tongue is truly the deadliest member of them all.

Verse 9 says “With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God.”
When we think on the lethal, deadly nature of the tongue, we discover that the tongue can harm and kill mercilessly, that the tongue can be the bodily “terrorist” that, like living human terrorists, premeditates harm and death and then executes it without compassion. The tongue is a terrorist in its own right, bringing death to all it intends to chop down when it gets ready. We’ve mourned the loss of those 59 Las Vegas victims who were gunned down by the heartless actions of Stephen Paddock, but the truth is that many of us should have our pictures right next to Stephen Paddock on the evening news! Though we’ve not taken rifles and fired off automatic bullets, our tongues have fired off insults as fast (if not faster) than Paddock’s gun fired off that night at the Jason Aldean concert on the Las Vegas strip. Some of us have insulted so many people and said so many hurtful things to them that there are wounds inside human hearts that have never healed and will likely never heal. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” doesn’t sound as powerful as it once did, huh?

James notes the human condition of the tongue: on one hand, we bless God the Father, give praise to His name, but this action is referring to those within the church, believers, those who are walking with God and have trusted in Christ. So, on one hand, we bless God, which is what we were designed to do: praise God. And yet, on the other hand, we “curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God,” James says. We praise God but curse men who are made by God. The text here in the NKJV says “similitude of God,” but the King James Version says “likeness of God.” We are like God in that we can do creative activities, and we are like God in that He displays intelligence in His creation (and we are intelligent beings that He created). And yet, with all the blessing God has given us, why then do we curse others who, like us, are made in His image after His likeness?

How can we praise God but then curse mankind, His creation? To curse God’s works is to curse God, so when we praise Him and curse His creation, we are cursing Him twice (the praise goes out the window). The Lord tells mankind in Genesis 9:6 to not kill man because He is made in the image of God. It is that very image that is to prevent human homicides. And yet, many of us read about killing and murder but only think of a scenario involving bullets, rifles, blood shed, and fear. And yet, how many times have we “murdered” someone with our lips this week? How many hurtful things have we said to others this week?

Jesus said in Matthew 5:27-28, 27 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And I’m going to go out on a limb and say this: “The Law says that you are not to commit murder, but if you say hurtful, degrading, demeaning things and curse fellow human beings made in the image and likeness of God, you’ve already committed murder in your heart by way of your mouth.” The point James is getting at here is to say that there’s a contradiction with blessing God and cursing His work, because God created humans and gave them honor: God gave them rule over everything on the earth; He even sent Jesus to take on flesh in the Incarnation, a sign that He loves humanity. And yet, when humans curse other humans, they’re cursing God as well as themselves because all humans are made from the dust of the ground. When you treat someone else like dirt, you’re acting like dirt, which makes you no better than the person you’re degrading.

I don’t often say too much on political issues, but I have to say this in my sermon: I highly respect the office of the President of the United States, but I disagree with the way Donald Trump is running it. I’m on Twitter because The Essential Church is an internet church, and I understand the President wants to connect with US citizens on social media, but I think the problem with Mr. President is that he spends too much time tweeting. Every time someone disagrees with him, his nasty comments end up in a tweet for all the world to see – whether they live in the US or not. Meryl Streep disagreed with him, and something about the words of truth from a female actress who won an Academy Award sent him off in a tweet talking about how sad of a person she is and how low-performing she is as an actress. These words from the President were designed to hurt Meryl Streep, nothing more, but it’s symptomatic of the problem with Mr. President: He doesn’t seem to handle rejection too well.

The President’s words have been full of poison from his tongue from before he got elected, and now, he tweets even more words of poison from the POTUS Twitter account. And it’s a shame, really, because the Presidential Office should be an office of distinction; and the man or woman in the office of POTUS should be just as distinguished as the office he or she is appointed to. And right now, I see a distinguished office with an uncivilized president who has more money than social grace. The social grace element is missing, terribly lacking.

Colossians 4:6 says “6 Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” In other words, have social grace and answer each person in kindness, dignity, and respect. It’s unfair for the President to want everyone to call him “President Trump,” or “Mr. President,” when he attacks them viciously and mercilessly. I understand that not everyone is kind to the President, but the Presidential Office is a role model office for every child and teenager in this country, as well as every adult citizen…and if the President can’t model the values of this society, what good did it do Republicans to put their candidate in the office? Republicans voted for a candidate based on an anti-abortion, anti-LGBT agenda, but they forgot to vote in a candidate who has social grace and knows how to speak, when to speak, and when to let certain things alone and focus on what’s best for the country. His words have divided us even further, at a time when terrorists are trying to tear this country apart. And it just isn’t good enough for the office. I respect the office, and I respect the POTUS, but I hate his poisonous words and immature behavior. Our country deserves better. More than honoring the flag, we should have a President who honors the people of this great country. If the President started honoring the people in his words and deeds, perhaps the people, in turn, would honor the flag more. How can you respect a flag in such a manner but then “burn down” people verbally with your words? When did a flag ever become more important than the people you serve?

If the President of the United States will say such hurtful things, that explains why many in the church think it’s okay. When you have leaders in front of you, whether national, political, or religious, who disobey God’s Word and then quote “thus saith the Lord,” you can expect that the constituency will follow. As Proverbs 29:2 says, “2 When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; But when a wicked man rules, the people groan.”

In verses 10-12, James makes the case that we shouldn’t bless and curse with the same tongue because this doesn’t show consistency in our character, but rather, double-mindedness. He’s already made such a statement in James 1:8 by saying that a man that is double-minded in faith (while doubting) is “unstable in all his ways,” so now, he tackles an example of double-mindedness: blessing God and cursing God’s creation. He uses three examples to show the contradiction: first, he points to springs that give fresh water or bitter water. They give out “either…or,” not “both…and.” In other words, you won’t find a spring giving out both fresh and bitter water at the same time. In verse 12, James says that a fig tree doesn’t bear olives. Why? because it’s a fig tree. Figs are for fig trees, not olive trees. In other words, olives and figs are opposites, so they don’t grow together. A grapevine brings forth grapes, not figs, to sum up James’s question at the end of verse 12. With that said, no spring yields salt water and fresh water, either.

Springs with fresh and salt water, grapevines and figs, figs and olives, springs with fresh water and bitter water are all propositions James uses to make the case that blessing God and cursing God’s work is also contradictory and “ought not to be so,” James says in verse 10. His whole point is to say that God made the tongue for us to bless God and bless men, and that we’re not exercising self-control when we say anything to anyone, no matter how harmful or degrading it is.

I’ve always heard it said that the chain is no stronger than it’s weakest link. A person’s self-control is no greater than the person’s tongue. To bridle the tongue, as James said in chapter 1, is to have pure religion that is undefiled. To have a tongue that rages out of control is to lack self-control, and believers should aim to bring even their tongue in subjection to Christ. For the tongue, like the hand, foot, or any other limb, can send a person to Hell fire if he or she doesn’t surrender it to Christ. With men, taming the deadliest member is impossible, but with Christ, all things are possible to him that believes.