3:8 – No man can tame the tongue

3:8. – But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. –

Even though man had been able to tame and ‘reclaim from wildness’ the beasts, he has been unable to tame the tongue. Man’s tongue does not rest long enough for him to tame it. Only God is able to tame this unruly member of the body.

God has given a way for the tongue to be tamed through the power of the Holy Spirit. In Acts we read that the Apostles and those who had been faithful to Christ’s command to wait, received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on them as evidenced by ‘speaking in tongues’.

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”(Acts 2:4)

The Word of God continually mentioned that those who followed Christ spoke in tongues. It wasn’t an occurrence for ‘those times’ but a gift given to those who love Christ. Hebrews 6:2 speaks of   baptisms – two baptisms; a baptism of water and a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Jesus (Acts 1:6), John the Baptist (Matt 3:11, John 1:30 – 33), and the apostle Peter (Acts 11:16) all used this term.

Not only did Jesus, John and Peter mention it but the New Testament is full of people who showed evidence of this baptism by speaking in tongues; that is, having their tongue under the control of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself promised that those who believed would ‘speak in new tongues’ (Mark 16:17).

  • In Jerusalem – They spoke with tongues (Acts 2:1-4)
  • In Samaria – They received the Holy Spirit (What did Simon see and hear that would be evidence of the gift?) (Acts 8:5 – 24)
  • In Damascus – Saul/Paul received the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17 – 19 with 1 Corinthians 14:18)
  • In Caesarea – They spoke with tongues (Acts 10:44 – 48; 11:15 – 17)
  • In Corinth – Acts 18:1 – 11 with 1 Corinthians 12:13,14
  • In Ephesus – They spoke with tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:1 – 7 with Ephesians 1:13)

God takes the one member of the body that we cannot tame and places it under His control through the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Thus it causes us to praise Him and pray in the Spirit.

When we yield our tongue to Him and experience the infilling of the Holy Spirit, there comes upon us a power that enables us to fulfil the commands of Jesus. We are able to reach out and bless others through our tongue.

James’ teaching has been to warn of careless words and false teachings. When we give ourselves, and this ‘unruly member’ of our body, to the One who made it we then manifest a self-control that is part of the fruit of the Spirit.

Instead of having ‘deadly poison’ spewing from our mouths, we start to edify, build one another up and bless others with our tongues.

A tongue that is dedicated to God and yielded to His Holy Spirit has the following five characteristics;

  1. It is under the control and Lordship of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:4, 32 – 39)
  2. It edifies the Body of Christ (1 Thess 5:11)
  3. It testifies of the things of God (Matt 10:20; Acts 4:20)
  4. It builds up the church (1 Cor 14:12)
  5. It prays at all times (1 Thess 5:17; Eph 6:18)

3:7 – Every beast is tamed by the tongue

3:7. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. – In Genesis God gave man the ability to subdue the earth and to have dominion over every living thing.

God was quite specific in saying that man was to ‘have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heavens, and all animals that move upon the earth’ (Genesis 1:28). This command and authority was not taken away from him when man sinned.

After the flood God spoke to Noah and repeated the same command, ‘And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon the animals of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon all the moves on the earth, and upon all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered” (Genesis 9:2).

So too in Psalm 8:6-8 the authority man has over the earth is repeated. “You made him rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet; all sheep and oxen, yes, and the beasts of the field; the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, and all that pass through the paths of the seas.”

Man has exercised this authority to the extreme. The word ‘tamed’ means to subdue. Webster explains that the word means to be ‘reclaimed from wildness, domesticated, made gentle and subdued’. We have domesticated creatures and made wild animals gentle.


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3:6b – The tongue defiles.

Girl (8-10) poking tongue out whilst making hand gestures, portrait

The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body and sets on fire the course of nature; – As we have seen, the tongue can indeed defile the whole body. The mystery deepens when we realise that our tongue is so placed in our body that it does truly affect the entire body, that it affects the soul, the mind, and the physical body For if we speak of evil we soon turn to do evil things. The course of nature refers to the ‘wheel of life’ and is another name for the whole course of life. The body’s cycle is to think, speak and do. The tongue is central to the actions of the body. Uncontrolled tongues can bring about a fiery destruction.

and is set on fire by hell. – The tongue’s iniquity is ignited and set on fire by hell itself. (The word Gehenna (Strong’s G#1067) is used here in the original). The word used for fire is phlogizo (Strong’s G#5394), and means to ‘set on fire, and burn up’. It is used in the present passive participle and refers to a continual source of fire in the tongue. It is not a ‘one-off’ occurrence but an evil that is consistently resident in the tongue and its source is the everlasting fire of Hell. It is a continually consuming element.

Other examples of the Scriptures teaching that the tongue is like a fire and a world of evil include;

Psalm 64:2,3 – Hide me from the council of those who inquire, from the rebelling of the workers of iniquity, who sharpen their tongue, they tread their arrows, even a bitter word.

Psalm 140:3 – They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips.

Proverbs 15:1,2 – A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger. The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, but the mouth of fools pours out foolishness.

Proverbs 16:21 – And ungodly man plots evil, and his lips are like a burning fire.

Proverbs 26:20,21 – Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, the fighting ceases. As coals to burning coals, and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man to kindle fighting.

James 3:6a – The Tongue Is A Fire

3:6. 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 is set on fire by hell – James has already drawn a parallel between the tongue and a fire and goes further to explore this impact.

a world of iniquity – Two ideas are presented and combine to make a powerful statement about the defilement of the body through the use of the tongue.

world – The Greek word for ‘world’ is kosmos (Strong’s G#2865) and simply means an orderly arrangement. It is a complete matrix and the things which run to a strict arrangement.

iniquity – Iniquity is translated as adikia (Strong’s G#93) and means to be unjust, wicked and treacherous.

Vincent in his ‘Word Studies’ sheds greater light on this combination;

‘”Kosmos, primarily, means order, and is applied to the world or universe as an orderly system. A world of iniquity is an organism containing within itself all evil essence, which from it permeates the entire man.”

Every sort of evil that is found in the world can find a friend in an untamed tongue. Evil rejoices with evil, boasts of evil, boasts untruths and takes pleasure in deceiving. It is truly a world of evil, a fire with unrelenting fury.

James 3:5b – The tongue is little, but hold much power

Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things – The tongue has tremendous power.  From the three examples above we can determine that:

1)     The tongue has the power to direct and control.

Proverbs 31:26 – She opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness.

2)     The tongue has the power to destroy, corrupt and tear down.

Proverbs 18:21 – Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

3)     The tongue has power to praise and edify God and build up others and self.

Proverbs 10:11 – The mouth of the righteous is a well of life, but violence covers the mouth of the wicked.

Proverbs 13:13,14 – He who despises the word will be destroyed, but he who fears the commandment will be rewarded.

Ephesians 4:29 – Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.

James 3:3-5 – Horses, ships, forests and tongues

3:3. Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body.

3:4. 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.

3:5. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! – James uses vivid word pictures to paint an imagery of the power of the tongue. The following table shows the clear comparisons between objects and a man’s tongue.

The Controlled Object The Guiding Object The Consequences The Implications on the Tongue
A Horse (Psalm 32:9)

Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, Else they will not come near you.

The bit or bridle in the mouth By applying pressure on the bit / bridle, the whole body and direction of the horse can turn. By speaking a few words, a body can then move into action and have its direction set.
A Ship

(Proverbs 30:18, 19)

There are three things which are too wonderful for me, Yes four that I do not understand: The way of an eagle in the air, The way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a virgin.

The rudder By turning the wheel the pilot controls the rudder and therefore he controls the direction of the boat. When the winds are strong, the pilot is able to hold the boat on its determined course. Our bodies are large in comparison to the size of the tongue. With our tongue we can speak wholeness to overcome the old nature that tries to force us from the path that God has determined for us.
A Forest (Psalm 83:14)

As the fire burns the woods, and as the flame sets the mountains on fire.

A small spark A small spark is able to bring about incredible damage to a mighty forest. The spark can start a large fire that can consume and destroy everything in its path. A fire needs to be fed in order to survive.   Likewise a tongue is fed by the words it speaks. It is able to edify and also destroy. Depending on the path it takes will depend as to how damaging the fire is.

3:2 – able also to bridle the whole body.

able also to bridle the whole body. – This verse is not implying that being without offence in speech makes a man perfect in every area of his life. It does teach however that the man who can hold his tongue has possession of a maturity that can contribute to a control over his nature. The sin of the tongue is powerful and is the easiest to fall prey to. It is important to remember that each man must give an account of the words he speaks (See Matthew 12:36 and Proverbs 15:1 – 4).

3:2 – he is a perfect man

he is a perfect man, – The use of the word ‘perfect’ here (transliterated from the Greek Strong’s #5049 as teleios) and meaning mature is the same one that was used when Jesus taught in Matthew 5:48, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” He also used this word perfect when speaking to the rich young ruler (Matt 19:21). The Bible tells us that God is perfect. He has never said a word out of place or by accident. He speaks good words that are creative and whole. We should follow His example when speaking.

To be perfect is to reach the ideal Christian aim, however we are all ‘imperfect’ beings. Each of us has fallen short of the glory of God and we all need a Saviour. Through this Saviour we are able to set before us this ideal that can make this infinite progression possible. Hebrews 13:21 encourages a Christian to continually look to Him who is ‘able to make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.’

man – The word used here for ‘man’ is that of husband. Robertson’s Word Pictures has this to say about this verse;

“A perfect man (teleios ane’r). “A perfect husband” also, for ane’r is husband as well as man in distinction from woman (gune’). The wife is at liberty to test her husband by this rule of the tongue.”

Vines dictionary contributes this in its definition of G# 435;

[It] is never used of the female sex; it stands

  • In distinction from a woman,

Acts 8:12 – Both men and women were baptised;

1 Timothy 2:12 – And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.

  • As a husband

Matthew 1:16 – And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is call the Christ.

John 4:16 – Jesus said to her, “Go and call your husband, and come here.”

Romans 7:2 – For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives.

Titus 1:6 – If a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.

  • As distinct from a boy or infant

1 Corinthians 13:11 – When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Metaphorically in Ephesians 4:13 – Till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

  • In general, “a man, a male person”, “a man” (i.e., a certain ‘man’),

Luke 8:41- And behold, there came a man named Jarius

In plural, Acts 6:11 – Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.

This little scripture clearly refers to men. Though women too need to control the tongue, the male as head of the household sets the tone and standard for his house by the way he chooses to speak to others. The success of the relationship with his wife can be measured by the way they speak to each other. Likewise, the success of the father – children relationship also hinges on the way he speaks to them. Peace reigns in a house where the husband and father controls their tongue.

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3:2. If anyone does not stumble in word

3:2. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. – The tongue and its fruit is such a powerful entity within a body that James is able to write that were it completely controlled, a man would be made perfect and mature. The control of the tongue is directly related to a person’s self-discipline and the way he controls his affairs and his life.

If anyone does not stumble in word, – The tongue is the teacher’s main instrument. All men sin and the sin or the ‘stumbling’ of the tongue is the easiest to fall prey to. Romans 3:10, 23 tells us that everyone commits sin. The King James uses the word ‘offend’. There is not one man who has not offended with words.

stumble / offend – The Greek translation and definition helps us to understand this passage a little clearer. The word ‘offend’ as used in the King James Version is transliterated from the Greek word ptatio (Strong’s G# 4417) meaning ‘to trip’. To trip is to fall suddenly by taking away support. The tongue or a man’s word can take away a mans integrity and cause him to fall and sin. The use of inappropriate words is an easy trap to fall into. James echoes here the warning of Christ from Matthew 12:36, 37 which says, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give an account of it on the day of judgement. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

3:2. For we all stumble in many things.

3:2. For we all stumble in many things. – Each man stumbles. None are perfect in speech, action or thought. By the use of the word ‘we’ James has once again included himself in this point, showing his humility as a fellow brother of Christ. It also echoes the teaching of James 2:10, where it was taught that if a man fails to keep one point of the Law, he is therefore charged with failing to keep the whole Law. It is only through the grace provided by the Law of Liberty that we can be counted as righteous (see comments on Chapter 2:10 –14).