By Pastor Glenn Pease
Roger Williams was the founder of the First Baptist Church in America in 1639. He was considered a trouble maker and a nuisance by most church leaders, and they wanted to get rid of him. They finally were able to banish him. Williams told this story to illustrate his experience. There was a passenger on board a ship that made himself obnoxious by constantly warning of a hidden reef ahead. He told his story to the captain, but he paid no attention. He warned the other passengers, but they only smiled and avoided him with contempt. Finally they became so irritated that they threw him overboard, and then all was peaceful. It remained this way until the vessel hit the reef and sank. Williams commented, "They had drowned the giver of the warning, but the reef remained."
Human nature is strange. We appreciate the warning of signs that say, danger ahead, poison, watch out for children, beware of dog, bump ahead, but we very seldom like the person who gives us warning about our spiritual welfare. The prophets were always hated because they were always warning Israel of the dangers ahead. James has been a likable author up till now. He has stepped on a few toes, but basically he has been very practical and helpful, and few can complain. In chapter three, however, James comes to the place where he must make Christians face up to the reality that they are still sinners, and that their sin will bring them to judgment.
This is not a pleasant subject, but no one can be honest with the Word of God and neglect it. It is always more acceptable to look at the judgment of the lost than at the judgment of the saved. The believer would much rather look only at those texts that speak of their escape from condemnation. One of the values of preaching through a book verse by verse is that it forces you to look at all that is written, and not just the things you like to hear and read. James is going to say a lot of things to Christians in the next couple of chapters that many will not like. Some will be shocked and offended, and some may even want to throw James overboard as Luther did. Getting rid of the man warning of danger, however, does not get rid of the danger. And so the only wise approach is to give heed to the warnings, and do something about them.
In verse 1 James gives a warning first of all to those who would be teachers. James makes it clear that teaching can be dangerous. Who would ever dream that a teacher could say, "I have a dangerous job." We want to look at this warning, and the why of it.
I. THE WARNING.
What a paradox! The church is always crying out for teachers, but James says that what we don't need is too many teachers. There is an obvious conflict between the modern attitude and the New Testament attitude. The New Testament takes teaching so seriously that it demands only the most qualified be allowed to do it. The modern church takes teaching so lightly that it will allow anybody who is willing to do it.
It is hard for us to really grasp the significance of this warning of James. It doesn't make much sense to us. We know a lighthouse is to warn ships of the dangerous rocks so they do not have a wreck, and so it makes sense that Christians are the light of the world warning men of the dangers ahead if they follow the path of sin. But here are believers who want to follow the path of Christian teaching, and James warns that they too can make shipwreck of the faith, and so not many Christians should seek to sail in this direction of becoming teachers.
Warning is part of the ministry to Christians. Paul in Col. 1:28 says, "Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ." Apparently no Christian can ever become mature without giving heed to warnings but why this warning about becoming teachers? He does not say that no one should be a teacher, but he says that not many should aim for this goal. Few Christians, therefore are qualified to be teachers. Secondly, we want to consider-
II. THE WHY.
The reason why we should hesitate to take on this responsibility of teaching is that if we do we become liable to more severe judgment. Modern versions make it clear that James is saying the teacher will be judged by a more strict standard. The implications are both frightening and exciting. Frightening, because we will be held accountable before God if we teach what is not His truth, but exciting, because it makes the teacher's task the most vital in the world. As far as God is concerned, the most noble task on earth is that of being a teacher. We might take it lightly, but He takes it so seriously that He has a higher standard of judgment for them.
It is a far more serious sin for a teacher to be in error than for a student. A student is learning, and is forgiven if he makes a mistake, but the teacher is suppose to have already learned, and is more responsible for mistakes than is the student. There is a powerful warning here for teachers, but it opens up a biblical principle that becomes a warning to all Christians. Every Christian will be judged, and will be held accountable for the light they have received. To whom much has been given, much shall be required. Every American Christian will face a stricter judgment than the Christians of many other parts of the world where they have little or no Christian literature. We have more of God's truth, and so we will be judged more severely.
The teacher has a higher level of judgment because he has a higher level of truth than the rest of the believers. If they do not, they have no business teaching. It is a great responsibility, and demands a great deal of study to make sure one is teaching that which is truly biblical. The judgment that James refers to is mentioned often in the New Testament, but there are no details revealed. It is a judgment that all believers will face, and none will escape. Here is a judgment that we will not be saved from. The Christian who thinks that because he is saved he can do as he pleases, and live a slipshod unfaithful life, and have nothing to fear, is greatly deceived.
Let's examine this word that deals with judgment. In the Greek it is krima. It is used for varying degrees of punishment. Jesus used this word in Matt. 7:2 where we read, "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged." Since this word krima can refer to all different degrees of judgment, some translations use a stronger word to translate it at one time, and a less severe word to translate it at other times.
The KJV translates it damnation when Jesus refers to the Scribes and Pharisees. If you read that word into this context you have these Christian teachers being sent to hell, and that is obviously not what James is saying. The proper word is condemnation and not damnation. Translating this word damnation has caused many problems in the minds of Christians. For example, in I Cor. 11:29 Paul is writing about abuse in eating the Lord's Supper, and he says, "He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself." This was a very poor choice of words for the KJV translators to use. The newer translations have judgment, but not damnation.
The fact that the same word that is used to describe the judgment of lost sinners is also used to describe the judgment of saved sinners is not a pleasant thought. It is bad enough however you look at it without using the harsh word damnation. This word of judgment is actually applied more often to Christians than to non-Christians in the New Testament. Christians have a great responsibility because they have greater light. This is a biblical principle. The wicked sinners of the Old Testament in Sodom and Gomorrah will suffer less judgment than the Pharisees because the Pharisees had the very teaching of the Son of God. And Christians today have more access to biblical teaching than Christians have ever had, and so they have a greater responsibility.
Peter says in I Peter 4:17, "For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the Gospel of God." We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ according to Paul, and though the lost sinner will suffer the most severe judgment ultimately, we as Christians will find that day to be no picnic if we have been unfaithful and unfruitful Christians. No Christian will lose their salvation, but there will be a loss that may effect all of eternity. That is why James in 1:19 stressed that we should be swift to hear and slow to speak. If we will be judged according to every word we speak, then speaking becomes serious business in Christian living. And for the teacher it is the most important thing he does. No wonder James uses so much of his letter to warn of the dangers of the tongue. What we will be for all eternity is greatly affected by how we use our tongue in time.
James does offer a word of comfort to us in verse 2. He admits that we all make many mistakes in what we do with our tongue. The man who doesn't make mistakes with his tongue is perfect, and he includes himself in the we who make many mistakes. There is some consolation here, for we all like to know that our sins are common ones. We are glad that we are not alone, and James makes it clear that we have plenty of company when it comes to mistakes of the tongue. It is just because it is so common, however, to make mistakes that very few Christians should be teachers. If you are a person with a tongue problem, you only endanger yourself and others by being a teacher. Teaching is a touchy task, and an undisciplined tongue makes it even dangerous.
A teacher by the very nature of the task is one who is making constant judgments and passing on ideas and values. If a teacher has prejudice, and passes this on to others, or passes on some perverted ideas and values, that teacher will be held responsible, not only for personal sin, but for all the consequences that result from their teaching. For example, if I am teaching the biblical truth that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and then people find out that I have a strong prejudice against people of other faiths and races, my hypocrisy will make them skeptical of Christian truths, and I will be held accountable for their rejection of the church, and possibly even of Christ, because of my poor example. A teacher of truth better believe it and practice it, or he should not be teaching it, for if his life contradicts his teachings he will do more harm than good.
A Christian teacher is often tempted to interject personal feelings into his teaching. He may have some convictions that differ from other Christian leaders, and he may begin to criticize them, and even go so far as to label them heretics. This can lead to hard feelings and division in the body, and be pleasing only to Satan, and never to God. The teacher will be held accountable for any division he creates in the body. A good teacher will very seldom knock the ministry of any other person who is accepted by the church at large as a person of God. Naturally, there is freedom to be critical of that which is non-biblical, or anti-biblical, but to attack a brother in Christ who has a different opinion is high risk for any teacher.
James is concerned that Christians not think they can pass on their judgments, convictions, and values, and not have to worry whether or not they are God's judgments, convictions, and values. James says you do have to worry, and that is why only those who are willing to do the study it takes should accept the responsibility of being a teacher. Only those who have a Christlike spirit, and are humble enough to know that they do not know everything should become teachers.
Over the years I have studied many passages of Scripture, and have spent many hours on them, but I have not preached on them because I was not sure exactly what God was intending to convey. When we are ignorant we need to recognize it and not try to bluff our way through. A good teacher must be willing to admit he does not have all the answers. He ought never to say, "Thus saith the Lord," unless it is quite well established that this is what the Christian church has understood God to be saying through the centuries. The teacher who understands that God demands more from them should be glad, for this will motivate them to demand more from themselves, and they will become better teachers, and a greater blessing to the rest of the body. This warning of James should exclude those not willing to accept the responsibility, and it should excite those who are willing, for it raises their importance in the body to the highest possible level. Teachers should see it as a great honor, even though it is dangerous.