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).

3:1 – knowing that we [teachers] will receive a stricter judgement

knowing that we will receive a stricter judgement – It could be assumed that the Jewish Christians were starting to teach something that they didn’t clearly understand. This brings in much danger to those who hear the teaching, and even more so to those who give the teaching.

It is important to note that James includes himself in this ‘stricter judgement’. He is fully aware of his part in the Body of Christ – a teacher. He understands clearly his responsibility as an instructor/master (Strong’s G#1320 – didaskalos)

A teacher must live his life according to the standards of the Word he is teaching. A man must check his motives and his ability before he enters into the office. God requires excellence in His house and His bride must be taught and looked after by those He has called and commissioned to instruct the Church. A teacher must teach the truth.

The Word of God speaks clearly about teaching and the judgement of those that give instruction.

Matthew 7:2 – 5 – For with whatever judgement you judge, you shall be judged; and with whatever measure you measure out, it shall be measured to you again. And why do you look on the splinter that is in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the beam that is in your own eye? Or how will you say to your brother, Let me pull the splinter out of your eye; and, behold a beam is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First cast the beam out of your own eye, and then you shall see clearly to cast the splinter out of your brother’s eye.

Mark 12:38 – 40 – And He said to them in His teaching, Beware of the scribes, who love to walk about in robes, and love greetings in the markets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost places at feasts who devour widow’s houses, and as a pretence make long prayers. These shall receive greater condemnation.

Luke 12:48 – But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask for more.

2 Corinthians 5:10 – For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive the things done through the body, according to that which he has done, whether good or bad.

Ephesians 4:11 – 15 – And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 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; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ.

Our words must live up to our lifestyle. The tongue and the words that it speaks must correspond to the life that the person lives. Jesus warned about hypocrisy and was often speaking to the Pharisees about it (Eight times in Matthew 23).

Instructors or teachers will receive a ‘stricter judgement’ because they need to be completely aware of what they are teaching others. Galatians 5:8 – 9 reminds us that a little leaven leavens the whole lump. (See also 1 Corinthians 5:8 – 10). A little bit of bad teaching can go a long way. Bad teaching or a false foundation can corrupt a whole doctrine and guide people away from the truth found in the teachings of Christ and His Word. Teachers should be wary of people stumbling because of their teaching and practise.

Jeremiah was one Old Testament ministry that had a clear calling and foundation from God.

Jeremiah’s Ministry

The ministry of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah was a teaching ministry and based on a firm foundation. He had a two-fold ministry;

  1. To root out and pull down; to destroy and throw down
  2. To build and plant

Jeremiah was called by God to firstly bring down false teachings and philosophies that had rooted themselves in the hearts and minds of Judah at the time of the successive kings Josiah, Jehoiakim and Zedekiah.

Before truth can be established there must be the proper preparation for the foundation. If truth is mixed in with error then heresy occurs and we are unable to rightly divide the Word of Truth.

If we allow truth to build on a doctrinally weak foundation then we arrive at;

  1. False assurance
  2. False religion
  3. False satisfaction

Truth must be built upon truth – line upon line, precept upon precept. (Isaiah 28:10)

3:1. Let not many of you become teachers

3:1. My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgement. – Leadership imposes responsibility and James’ warning here of a ‘stricter judgement’ is also applied to himself. He takes on no higher position than those he is writing to, and by the use of the word ‘we’ he includes himself in this statement.

My brethren – see notes for 1:2 and 2:1

let not many of you become teachers – The King James reads ‘be not many masters’. The Greek word given here is didaskalos (Strongs G # 1320). It simply means instructors or teachers – those who have ‘mastered’ the knowledge of a topic. Teaching brings about a huge responsibility. It is a role that needs accountability. James may have been writing this warning because people may have been presumptuous in assuming the role of teacher and shepherd without the express gifting of such. Some expositors believe that James may have been addressing pastoral problems that were occurring in the churches. These included;

  1. The Upholding of Jewish Traditions

Many Jewish parents ambitions were to have their children become teachers or Rabbis – the highest position of Jewish culture. This may have crossed into their new Christian faith. They may have wanted their children or youths to become teachers. James would be warning the church of placing people who are unprepared and uncalled for in such leadership positions. It is dangerous for anybody to take on a position of responsibility through presumption.

  1. The Coveting of a Prominent Position

The responsibilities of teaching bring about a prominence through necessity, not choice. That person takes on a public front that comes with such a position. It is not something that is chosen but comes with the mantle of teaching. People may well have been giving themselves to teaching based purely because of the fact that the position makes them a well-known and prominent figure within the community.

We know that often the teachers were causing the problems through their lack of knowledge and qualifications. The teachers in the New Testament times (and even extending into today’s day and age) were guilty of the following;

  • Compromising Christianity with Judaism

Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” – to whom we gave no such commandment (Acts 15:24).

  • Living lives that were in contradiction of what they taught

Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law. You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonour God through breaking the law? For the “name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” as it is written. For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfils the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. (Romans 2:17 –19)

  • Teaching things that they themselves knew nothing about.

Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm. (1 Timothy 1:6,7)

  • Pleasing the crowd with false doctrines

For the time will come when they (the crowd) will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (2 Timothy 4:3 – 5)

The whole aspect of teaching is a highly responsible profession, and teachers of the Word are to be judged according to its own strict standards.

2:26. For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

2:26. For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. – When a body and a spirit unite there is life. When a body and spirit separate there is no life. Whether a body is alive or dead it is still a body. If a body doesn’t have a spirit then it is a dead body – a corpse that is useless. Likewise a person may be able to describe his faith and profess that he has faith but without actions it is dead and useless – a corpse.

Faith is the body. Works is the spirit. Without the two operating together there is no life. How can we check that there is life in the body of faith? As in a natural body where one checks the pulse to determine whether there is life or death, so too by checking the pulse of the works of the Spirit one can check the life in the faith. If there are no works, there is no life that can be attributed to the faith professed.

We are all to have a faith that projects works – a dynamic faith.

2:25. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

2:25. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? – James now gives another example of this justifying of faith through works, by using an Old Testament example from a non-Jewish background.


If Abraham was the one who would have been considered righteous in man’s eyes then Rahab would have been completely the opposite.

Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who lived in a house that formed part of the wall at Jericho. Joshua’s two spies lodged with her and she protected them by hiding them in her roof when the King’s soldiers pursued the spies. She knew that Jericho was about to be overtaken by the Israelites and so she asked for protection for herself and her family.

Rahab had both faith and actions. She had faith in the one true God. “The Lord your God, He is God in heaven about and on earth beneath.” She is recorded in the famed Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11:30 as one who was saved because of her faith. Her faith was real because it resulted in good works. Faith was the cause of her actions.

The principle of faith and works combining is again demonstrated in this passage. As a result of her true faith she was included in the royal line of Christ, being David’s great, great grandmother (Matt 1:5).

No matter whether Jew or Gentile, the principle of combining faith with works is important for all. It is a requirement to show that a true faith in God is outworked through actions that glorify Him.

2:24 – You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

2:24. – You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. – With the background behind us of James’ appreciation and acceptance of the doctrine of justification by faith, we can now study this passage in its correct context.

Many people have interpreted this verse as James’ belief that works is what matters and as such is in direct opposition to the teaching of Paul. Both Paul and James worked together to keep the unity of the church (Acts 21:18). There is no reason to believe that these two writers were in disagreement over doctrine.

1. Pauline Writings

The writings of Paul in Romans 3:28 and Ephesians 2:8 – 9 are directed to new Christians or even those who have yet to make a decision for Christ. Paul is talking about justification before God, that faith is a gift. Paul asserts that justification (salvation) cannot be earned by doing good works. It is by accepting, through faith, the work that Christ did on the cross. No one can earn or win favour with God’s forgiveness. It is only by God’s grace that it can be offered. Any who tries to work for salvation by obeying the Law will only fail and become more convinced that he is a sinner. It would be an insult to Christ and his work on the cross. No one is able to make himself right. Only God can help him do that.

Paul is writing to warn people about working to achieve a relationship with Christ. Only faith can be the tool that will bring that.

2. James’ Writings

James is coming from a different pastoral position. He is writing to those who are already Christians and are becoming complacent in their walk. James is writing about justification before men, and that faith should be genuine. James is asserting that when one is justified by faith, that his new life will be a complete change and will result in an outpouring of works, worthy of Christ. It is a life of love and serving that should be molded. If a man is justified by his relationship with Christ then he must show that it is a true faith by demonstrating Christ’s love to other people.

James is writing to libertines who are content to just profess a faith in Christ without backing that faith up with action. The genuine faith of Christians combines the belief in Christ with an obedience of good works.

Paul majors on Abraham’s justification by faith and faith alone. James is agreeing with Paul and further proposes that the proof of Abraham’s justification was seen in the obedient life that he led, and in the offering up of his son Isaac.

Paul James
Concerned with legalists who were striving for sanctification through the law – not through faith Concerned with libertines who were content with sanctification through belief without action
A person who is justified before God through faith A person is justified before men through his actions
Eternally justified through faith by grace Justified through a daily walk by works reflecting Christ.

Working together both Paul and James are bringing out the harmony of the Word of God.

We are saved by faith that then, if genuine should lead to the demonstration of that faith through good works.