I have long been an admirer of the book of James. The simplistic way that he writes. The boldness with which he writes. I enjoy reading something in James that might seem to contradict what Paul writes in his letters, but when looked into deeper, the two writers are actually agreeing with each other. I appreciate the way James challenges the reader in daily living.
James was a brother of Jesus. Not the kind of brother that we say, “We are brothers and sisters in Christ,” but an actual brother. One of Mary’s kids. The same Mary who bore Jesus. James was the one mentioned in Matthew 13:55-56, which says, “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things? (NKJV)” This is the same James who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and who would later earn the nickname “Camel knees” because of the time he spent in devoted prayer to Jesus, his brother.
There is a lot of wisdom in the five short chapters in the book of James and chapter three is no exception. Here James talks about controlling the tongue. He speaks of how,
We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.(NLT)
But then he adds,
But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body.
The first reaction is often to think, “Whoa, James. Relax a little bit. It’s not that bad.”
But when we think about how powerful words are, we begin to see just how true James’ statement really is. How much love has been poured over your life because of some kind words a friend, relative, parent, or spouse spoke to you. How much hurt has been caused because of an angry word spoken in the heat of an argument. Think back, how much love have you poured out, or hurt you have caused, because of the words you spoke. Yes, James’ statement is more true than we probably care to consider, especially in this day and age. We live in a “me” world. “I” have a right to say or do something because that’s just who “I” am, and “you” have to accept it.
Or maybe not…
But if you look at the end of verse six, we see something curious. Remember, we saw before in verse six that the tongue “is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body.” And James ends the verse with these words…
“It,” the tongue, “can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.”
Wait, the tongue is set on fire by hell? If we remember the teachings of the rest of scripture, we are reminded that we are sinful people. We are born into sin. That is the reason for needing a Savior. But set on fire by hell itself?
This statement had me puzzled so i did a little digging around and came across something interesting. I like reading commentaries. Some of them i can do without, but people have devoted vast amounts of time to studying God’s word, hearing from God, and trying to understand what God is saying in a certain passage. It’s no different than our prayer lives, only they wrote stuff down. One of my go to commentaries, i don’t know why, is the Matthew Henry Commentary of the Bible. Observing this passage, Henry writes,
The snares into which men are sometimes led by the tongue are insufferable to themselves and destructive of others. It setteth on fire the course of nature. The affairs of mankind and of societies are often thrown into confusion, and all is on a flame, by the tongues of men. Some read this as, all our generations are set on fire by the tongue. There is no age of the world, nor any condition of life, private or public, but will afford examples of this. The phrase, “and it is set on fire of hell” we observe: Hell has more to do in promoting of fire of the tongue than men are generally aware of. It is from some diabolical designs, that men’s tongues are inflamed. The devil is expressly called a liar, a murderer, an accuser of the brethren; and, whenever men’s tongues are employed in any of these ways, they are set on fire of hell.
That’s powerful stuff. “Hell has more to do in promoting of fire of the tongue than men are generally aware of.” How much do we say in our daily living that we don’t even know is set on fire by hell.
I have heard many arguments over the years on this passage. Control the tongue they say. Watch your words. Don’t talk too much, because what you say can be damaging. These are all true. But…
Let’s take a look at what Matthew Henry says next, shall we…
The Holy Ghost indeed once descended in cloven tongues as of fire, Acts 2. And where the tongue is thus guided and wrought upon by a fire from heaven, there it kindleth good thoughts, holy affections, and ardent devotions. But when it is set on fire of hell, as in all undue heats it is, there it is mischievous, producing rage and hatred, and those things which serve the purposes of the devil. As therfore you would dread fires and flames, you should dread contentions, revilings, slanders, lies, and every thing that would kindle the fire of wrath in your own spirit or in the spirits of others.
I wrote once, here or elsewhere, about how i was learning to watch out for the opposite in scripture. For example, when we read of a blessing in scripture, there is written within that passage the means with which to obtain that blessing. We may not read of any curses in the passage, but by implication, anything we do that goes against the obtaining of the blessing will produce the curse. Anyway, i’m still learning the whole “opposite” thing in scripture, and this one totally blew by me. My eyes were opened to something incredible here.
Let me explain. James is writing very negatively in this passage. And perhaps that’s a good thing. The warning about using our words carefully, because the tongue “is set on fire by hell itself” is a very good warning. But this passage produces in it a positive, even if it is never mentioned, and Matthew Henry sheds light on it.
Acts 2 is the story of the Holy Spirit descending on the people in the upper room “with tongues of fire.” Here, the tongues of fire come from heaven. In James, the warning is the tongues of fire from hell. James is implying that our words may be lit on fire by heaven, which in turn produces all kinds of good; “there it kindleth good thoughts, holy affections, and ardent devotions.”
I am starting to look at this passage in James in a different light. I’m not completely settled on it, but i think what James is trying to say is, yes, watch your tongue, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t speak. If your words are set on fire from heaven through the power of the Holy Spirit, speak away. Use as many words as needed to ignite the hearts and lives of men and women in your sphere of influence. In our daily lives. With the people we meet. Give a word of blessing instead of cursing.
I want to challenge us, me and you, to ask God to give us words of blessing set on fire by the Holy Spirit, to speak to the stranger in the grocery aisle about the love of God. To set the hearts of our neighbors on fire with a passion for Jesus because of the anointing our words have from the very throne of heaven. May we change our communities with the words we speak that have been lit up from heaven.