Tongues of Poison, Tongues of Fire
The title of our message this evening is . . . . and although I do believe that all of the Bible is the divinely given Word of God, there is probably no truer passage in Scripture than what James wrote here in chapter three about that most unruly of members, the human tongue! That old children’s cliche, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me, just ain’t true, is it? There can be nothing more hurtful, or more damaging to a person’s reputation and life, than the cutting words we fling their way! And you know what? There is no worse place for bad language and hateful words that I have ever been around than this place. Many of us are totally unthinking and uncaring about what we say to others.
Sometimes we say things that take the breath away, don’t we? Will Rogers wrote this: Live so that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip. We have taken what Rogers wrote, though, and perverted it to say, Live and talk so that the town gossip doesn’t even need our parrot. We don’t much care anymore, do we? What was once considered language reserved for military camps and taverns is now the common language of small children on the streets. Rudeness and vileness of speech have become the distinguishing marks of our age. And if you can’t take it, well then, you better figure out a way to toughen up a little bit because we sure ain’t going to give you any slack.
According to an AP-Ipsos poll conducted in March of 2006, the use of profanity in American culture is increasing. Nearly 75 percent of people questioned said they encounter profanity in public either frequently or occasionally. Two-thirds said they think people swear more often than they did 20 years ago.
Not surprisingly, the respondents were more than "hearers of the words." Sixty-four percent said they use the F-word—ranging from several times a day (8 percent) to a few times a year (15 percent). In addition, younger people admit to using bad language more often than older people. They also encounter it more frequently and are less offended by it. The poll showed that 62 percent of people age 18–34 acknowledge swearing in conversation at least a few times a week, compared to 39 percent of those 35 and older. Swearing is also more pronounced among men: 54 percent of men swear at least a few times a week, compared to 39 percent of women.
In what may or may not be a silver lining, the poll showed that many of those who regularly swear do believe that it's wrong for them to do so.
There are many days, as I sit in the office, working or listening to James Lawrence snore, I can hear the vilest speech from outside the window. The smoke-hole is right outside the office window, you know. We have turned into a coarse and vulgar people. And here is the real problem with Toungues of Fire. Our tongues not only ravage others with words, but vile actions will often tag right along after vile words, won’t they? We often become what we speak. So, to say that words don’t matter– to say that’s all they are, anyway, just words–is simply not true. Words enlighten or conceal, convey truth or falsehood, reveal beauty or ugliness, and have the power to create a feeling of security, to bathe us in love, or indeed words have the power to devastate and sow hatred!
And that is what we will encounter this evening from our passage in James–Tongues of Poison, Tongues of Fire!
I. The Perils of Teaching (James 3:1-4)
(1 I believe that faithful, competent Bible teachers are sorely needed in the chruch today. They have always been valuable, primarily because in the past, especially in the apostolic church, so many early believers came from the class of folk who never learned to read or write. So the Epistles, and the Gospels, being circulated among the churches, by necessity, had to have someone to explain them. Even now, in a country where the literacy rate is far higher than it ever was in the 1st Century, there is still a crying need for good Bible teachers. And so if anyone feels the call of God on them to really dig deep into His Word, and then share those truths with others in sermons, Sunday School lessons, or any other medium, I believe that is a high calling. But James attaches a warning along with that calling. Be sure that you are called, because you will judged by a higher standard. And this warning is related to our topic this evening: Tongues of Fire. Words can used as weapons, injuring others, and they can also be used in deception, teaching people, as truth, things that are just unbiblical. Look at your Bibles, verses 1-2.
(2 Henrietta Mears was, by all accounts, one of the greatest teachers of the 20th Century. The list of evangelical leaders that fell under the wings of her influence include Billy Graham, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade, and over 400 other men and women as well who went into full time influential Christian service. Henrietta was a Sunday School teacher. But she was one of the best of the best. She was a prime mover in the founding of the National Sunday School Association. Gospel Light Publications, today a major publishing house, was formed by her to provide quality Sunday school materials. She was also the visionary and tireless force behind the founding of Forest Home, the great conference center where thousands upon thousands of people have come to Christ. When Teacher died in the early sixties, officials at Forest Lawn Memorial Park said it was the largest graveside crowd in twenty years—an astounding fact, considering that many of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities are buried there. Henrietta Mears’s life is an eloquent testimony to the positive influence of a gifted teacher who was totally committed to Christ.
(3 On the other side of the street, however, was Jim Jones. The godly teaching of Henrietta Mears resulted in the salvation, changed lives, and abundant life of countless people. The evil, false teaching of Jim Jones, in 1978, resulted in the massacre of hundreds. Thirty years ago, Time magazine had a photo essay of the events that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana. The pictures displayed Jones’ disciples, his triumphs, and his end—the rotting bodies of hundreds of people in the infamous Jonestown massacre—an unforgettable testimony of the influence of a teacher for evil.
(4 Teachers wield enormous power, don’t they? Teachers of all sorts do: those who teach Scripture and those who teach first graders. The authority that is automatically invested in them is such that it led James, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to issue a warning that is intended to scare those off who might be tempted to wield that power in a manner that doesn’t honor the Lord.
(5 And so it is absolutely essential for teachers, especially Bible teachers, to be above reproach. Young, or untaught, minds in the hands of a skilled teacher are like clay in a potter’s hands. And I am telling you that those of us who presume to teach the Word of God has better be handling it carefully. Because while I will not be judged for your sin, I will be judged if anything I taught you led to that sin, or led you into error!
(6 But if you pay attention to the way life seems to go, there always appears to be more than enough irresponsible teachers, but rarely enough teachers to go around who take their work seriously, and who always strive to rightly divide the word of truth. And things were no different back in the Apostle James’ day either. Ambition, and ambition is the problem, carried to extremes, is not a Christian virtue! All of us must endeavor to do, and be, the very best we can with the talents and gifts that God has given us. But only so that we can glorify God and not ourselves. You see, the truth is, being in front of people with a God-given gift of gab, the ability to exress yourself in words, and then be given the position of expounding God’s Word, is a seductively powerful force. And, even for the man or woman who seeks to glorify God with their teaching, there is the temptation of the sound of your own voice becoming the thing you are most in love with. R. Kent Hughes wrote this: . . . . there is the temptation to give in to a subtle egoism which gives you goosebumps at hearing yourself talk. The more you hear yourself, the less you can be taught by anyone but yourself. And listen, even godly teachers are subject to this. It can become intoxicating to hear your voice and to see people respond! And if someone ever says that they are not affected by this, that they have never been speaking and then filled with a desire to showboat it some, to listen to themselves with approval–they’re lying. All of us forget from time to time that it is God who works through us, and that without His power nothing at all will ever happen! It is not our voice we should want our audience to hear, but the voice of Jesus.
(7 Notice though in verse two James uses the metaphor of a horses’ bridle to illustrate the self-control we are to have, first in the matter of teaching, and then he will develop it further to include every instance where our mouths will overrun our brains. You remember when people used to tell you to count to 10 before opening your mouth when you got angry. It really isn’t, but I used to think that was stupid. How much damage could all of us have averted in our lives if we had just counted to 10, using that as a bridle to control our mouths?
(8 How does a bridle work on a horse? It fits around the horses’ head with the bit fitting into his mouth; and the rider, of course, is able to control the direction of the horse. Listen to me carefully, if we do not allow the Holy Spirit to control our lives, to put His bit into our mouth, as it were, and control us, our tongues will simply become unmanageable, won’t they? James further points out that the sails of great sailing ships, with the winds moving the ships through the oceans, are turned, they are directed, by a small rudder. And people, our tongues are like poison and fire, tongues that must be controlled by God. But we will sometimes teach, and say, what we want, and not what God wants, right? And our tongues will light a fire that we cannot put out! Our tongues will steer the ship of our lives in directions that will devastate ourselves and devastate others.
II. Tongues of Poison and Fire (James 3:5-10)
(1 And then James gets down to brass tacks in our next few verses, doesn’t he? His use of vivid imagery reaches a peak in our final verses. He has previously used a horse’ bridle and a ship’s rudder as metaphors of controlling the tongues of men; James now uses fire and poison as metaphors of what happens when we do not allow God to control the ugliness of our language. Look at your Bibles, verses 5-10.
(2 Fire is seen in the Bible as many things. Both as a purifying agent, and as a destructive force beyond our control. And really both can be true at one and the same time, can’t they? In the books of Deuteronomy and Hebrews, God is seen as consuming fire: Deuteronomy 4:24 (KJV)
24 For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God. Hebrews 12:28-29 (KJV)
28 Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: 29 For our God is a consuming fire.
(3 So, fire can be seen as something that is good, right? Obviously something to be very wary of, but also something that can, in and of itself, be the agent for bringing about needed change. Let me illustrate this for you.
(4 Forest fires are a naturally occurring phenomenon in many ecosystems. And while most forest fires are the result of human activity, many fires are necessary for forest regeneration. When fires occur in certain settings, they can have a creative force, bringing about new growth. And so it is with consuming fire of God’s holiness. It can work in our lives to bring about much needed change. But that, of course, isn’t what James is talking about, is it? He is talking about a fire that is burning uncontrollably and bringing destruction and ruin with it, but no new life.
(5 And people, in proportion to the damage it can do, the tongue is a really small part of the body, isn’t it? And yet all we need to do is look at our own lives and we can clearly see the damage that occurs when we don’t bridle our tongues. Ask yourself this: This past year, if someone paid you ten dollars for every kind word you said, but collected five dollars from you for every unkind word, would you be rich or poor?
(6 People, when we get ready to gossip, we need to consider a few things about the imperfections of Bible heroes: Noah was a drunk; Abraham was too old and liar; Sarah laughed at God’s promises; Isaac was daydreamer; Jacob was a liar, a schemer, you name it; Leah was ugly; Rachel was vindictive; Miriam was a gossip; Gideon was afraid; Samson had long hair and was a womanizer; Jeremiah and Timothy were too young; Naomi was a widow; Ruth was born on the wrong side of the tracks; Job went bankrupt; David started off too young, then his armor didn’t fit, didn’t have the right clothes on, then he had an affair with a married woman and murdered her husband; Solomon was too rich, had too many wives, taxed the people unfairly; Elijah was burned-out and suicidal; Isaiah preached naked–what would the fundamentalists have said about that–Jonah ran from his responsibilities; Amos’only training was as a farmer, he wasn’t a prophet–what was he thinking; Hosea’s wife was, my oh my, a prostitute; John the Baptist ate bugs; Martha worried about everything and nagged everybody; the Samaritan woman was a divorce, several times over; Peter denied Christ; the disciples fell asleep while praying; Thomas doubted; John Mark was rejected by Paul; Paul himself was too religious, plus, he was a murderer, along with Moses and David. And people, when we look at ourselves, we’re going to see just as bad, or worse! We really need to keep our mouths closed about others a whole lot more than we do, don’t we?
(7 And James also writes that our tongues corrupt our entire bodies, everthing that we are! Even further, James writes that the tongue is a world of iniquity. What does that mean? James is saying that our tongues contain and communicate all of this world systems evil and corruption. It is a party to every evil there is, right? How much of the flames of our lives are the direct result of our wagging tongues? Our tongues overloading our brains? And then spreading its flames to others.
(8 And people, Tongues of Poison, Tongues of Fire, according the Apostle James are lit by the very fires of hell. Look at verse 6 again. There is a vivid word picture of what we mean that is found in John’s Gospel. Turn with John 8:1-11. Most of us are familiar with this story of the woman caught in adultery, aren’t we? There are many wonderful truths to be taken from this passage, but what I want us to see right now is the contrast between the poisonous tongues of the Pharisees and the quietness of Jesus. Look at your Bibles, John 8:1-11.
(9 We need to imagine a helter-skelter scene here, one with words being flung wildly about. This woman was brought to Jesus by a crowd; and crowds, by their very nature, are loud and coarse and aggressive. There might have been a rapid pace to the events that resembled certain modern-day camera techniques in movies. There are some action movies that are filmed with hand held cameras, thereby lending an immediacy to the movie, making everything seem to go faster, in a herky-jerky type motion, appearing as if it is happening in the moment, dangerous, on the cutting edge.
Visualize the Pharisees dragging this woman through the streets of Jerusalem, loudly proclaiming her sin to any, and all, passersby. They would probably have stripped her to the waist, to shame her. Their tongues were dripping venom, burning with an unholy fire. They really didn’t care about the law of Moses, and they certainly didn’t care about this woman–they only wanted to trap Jesus, and put the woman to death.
What did Jesus do? Preach? No! In a situation charged with menace and a brooding violence, words would have only added further tension, wouldn’t they? But Jesus stopped the entire situation in its tracks. He stooped down and doodled on the ground, writing something that the world has always wished to know. The Pharisees continued to press, though. And then the show-stopper? John 8:7 (KJV)
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. Jesus squatted down again, and wrote on the ground once more. He never looked back to the Pharisees, who slowly left one by one in embarrassed silence. Only Jesus and this woman caught in sin were left. What did Jesus say to her?
Words! Listen, sometimes silence is not only the best choice, it is the only choice, isn’t it? Jesus gave her a silence that foreshadowed, and made possible, these marvelous, healing words: John 8:10-11 (KJV)
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? 11 † She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
(10 Listen to me! Our words will be lit by the fires of hell, or they will be lit by the fire of the Holy Spirit. And the fact is if we do not allow the Holy Spirit to control every aspect of our lives, we will never gain control of our tongues. Go back to James with me and look at verses 7 and 8 again.
(11 We humans have been able to tame virually anything that lives, haven’t we? I have seen whales playing jump rope and so have you, at Sea World or some other great aquarium, as their trainers hoisted the rope high and the whales sailed over it. I have seen African lions cowed and submissive to the wizardry of Gunther Gebal Williams. I have seen eagles kill their prey and humbly lay it at their master’s feet. I have seen a woman obediently kissed on the lips by a deadly cobra. But I have never seen a man or woman who in their own power could tame the tongue. This is true of all of us every day. People who have been delivered from alcohol or gambling or hard drugs find their most difficult opponent to be the tongue.
(12 Alright, we’ve talked for a few minutes about the tongue, and all the evil it is capable of; and I am sure we can agree that most of us do a lousy job of controlling our mouths. But why do all of us seem to unable, and unwilling, to do so. I think that’s a question we all need to come to grips with. Why is it so important for Christians especially to watch what they say to others? And really even how they say it?
(13 I suppose all of us have heard stories and illustrations of believers getting caught saying terrible things to their neighbors, friends, and families. What happens when unbelievers hear us badmouthing others, or see us losing our cool and using words better left unsaid, or being so cruel to someone else in such a manner that if anyone were looking at us they would hard-pressed to recognize Jesus in us. Kindness is a much overused word. It has nothing to do with weakness; being kind to others doesn’t mean that we never take a principled stand righteousness and truth. But people we must do so in a manner that isn’t hateful! We must do so in a manner that is winsome and draws others to the cross. We must never back away from the reality of sin, and the desperate need of all people for repentance and salvation, but we must never be ugly about it! And some believers are just that, aren’t they?
(14 And by the way, in case anyone is in doubt, Christians are in the same family, right? All believers are belong to the same Lord, and have the same heavenly Father, and are brothers and sisters! Amen! And we get so pious and self-righteous sometimes that we bless God and curse our brothers and sisters, don’t we? Look at verses 9-10 once more.
(15 Let me ask a stupid question. Does the Bible teach we are created in the image of God? Of course! Genesis 1:26-27 (KJV)
26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. Did God create Darnell in His image and not me? Did He make me in His image and not Lewis? And yet we often treat others as if they were dogs! No, the truth is we treat our dogs far better than we treat others.
(16 In our families and other relationships we resemble more the social attributes of seagulls than we do the family characteristics of God! We are supposed to act like Jesus, aren’t we? Back in the late sixties or early seventies, I forget which, a wildly popular book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, was published. The book exalted the so-called virtues of independence and individuality at any price. The seagull is a popular subject for photography, and many people who vacation at the shore end up with some kind of souvenir bearing the picture of a seagull. It is easy to see why people like this figure. A seagull rejoices in its freedom. When flying alone, he thrusts his wings back with powerful strokes, climbs higher and higher, and then swoops down in majestic loops and circles. In a flock, though, the seagull is a different bird. His majesty dissolves into in-fights and cruelty. Concepts of sharing and manners do not seem to exist among gulls. They are so fiercely competitive and jealous that if you tie a ribbon around the leg of a gull, making him stand out from the rest, you sentence him to death. The others in his flock will furiously attack him with claws and beaks, hammering through feathers and flesh to draw blood. They’ll continue until he is a bloody heap.If we must have a bird as a model for our society, there is certainly a better choice. Consider the wild goose. The V-formation they use in flying enables them to fly with more ease and speed. The point position is the most difficult because of wind resistance, so the geese rotate this position every few minutes. The easiest flight is experienced in the two rear sections of the formation, and the stronger geese permit the young, weak, and older birds to occupy these positions. It is also probable that the constant honking encourages the weaker geese. The seagull teaches us to break loose and fly alone, but the wild goose teaches us to fly in a “family.” We can fly further with our Christian family than we could ever fly alone—and, as we fly, our efforts constantly help others in our family. But we can’t soar and fly with our family if we are busy cutting them to shreds with our tongues of poison and fire.
(17 Do you love people? We sometimes say we do, but do we really love others? How can we possibly imagine we love others when we treat them worse than we do our pets? How can we say we love God when our actions are loudly telling the world we hate people? 1 John 4:20-21 (KJV)
20 If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? 21 And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.
(18 You see, we love to say how much we love God, don’t we? I really love Jesus! And yet our Tongues of Poison, Tongues of Fire reveal the falseness of our professed love, doesn’t it? I believe this is as serious a problem for believers as any other sin. More so, really! We loudly, too loudly sometimes, boast of our not being drunkards, drug addicts, prostitutes, pornographers, whatever! And yet we are as mean as snakes, aren’t we? I’m not talking about naming sin as sin either! We have to do that! Without the reality of human sin, what would we need a Savior for? Right?
(19 But people, we must approach others with a loving spirit and a gentle tongue. How are we to do this? Many centuries ago, Augustine said this about this passage of James’: “… he does not say that no one can tame the tongue, but no one of men; so that when it is tamed we confess that this is brought about by the pity, the help, the grace of God.”
(20 So, what to do? First, we must recognize and admit we have dirty mouths, guys. And we must recognize, admit, and repent of it! Along with Isaiah we must say: Isaiah 6:5-7 (KJV)
5 Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undoneb; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. 6 Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: 7 And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.
(21 We must ask God to cauterize, burn, our lips! Next, we have to purpose in our hearts to serve others! We desperately need to develop a servant’s heart! And you do not serve others by being so hateful to them they want to bash your brains out! Rules are important. Without them, chaos would reign in this place. With them, chaos has the upper hand much of the time. But sometimes, we get to loving the rules more than we do people. And that happens, we are no longer servants, but tyrants, albeit on a small stage. And when we become tyrants, our lips, our tongues become evil.
(22 And hand-in-hand with servanthood and asking God to seal our lips is fervent, real prayer! We must be serious about wanting God to curb our tongues. Coupled with our first steps, a clear, detailed and regular petition to God to help us curb our mouths will work a spiritual miracle in our lives. Last, we must resolve to discipline ourselves regarding the use of the tongue—not to criticize, not to give or receive gossip, not to belittle or demean or falsely flatter, not to lie, not to boast. Right?
(23 Offered on the altar, the tongue has awesome power for good. It can proclaim the life-changing message of salvation. Romans 10:14-15 (KJV)
14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
Romans 10:17 (KJV)
17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. And we cannot hear the Gospel unless someone speaks, right?
(24 How is your tongue? As I said earlier, often we become what we say. If our words are vulgar, we become vulgar people; if our words are hateful, we become hating people. Or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that our words, our Tongues of Poison, Tongues of Fire reveal who it is that we really are! Our tongues are often, perhaps always, indicators of our spiritual health. And perhaps, just perhaps, our hateful mouths are an indication we really do not know Jesus Christ at all.
(25 Is that you? Is your tongue uncontrollable? Are you as mean as snake? Is your tongue poisonous, on fire with hatred? I never want to be simplistic about salvation; when we come to Christ in repentance, we still bring our old man, our old sin natures, with us. And we will still sin; we will have times when the words we use are wrong, and our kindness toward others just ain’t there. But listen, salvation changes us! Right? Isn’t that what the book of James is really telling us. Faith without works is dead! Faith without holy living ain’t real! Faith along with Tongues of Poison, Tongues of Fire needs to reexamined!
(26 Let’s bring it all to the cross, people! Do you know Jesus? Have you trusted Him as your Savior? Have you repented of your sins? Guess what? There ain’t no other way! John 14:6 (KJV)
6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
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