On December 4, 2017 a fire began in Southern California. The fire broke out in the foothills just above Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula and was quickly spread by 50 mph Santa Ana winds. The fire burned for a little more than a month as 2,800 firefighters from all over the country worked day and night to stop it from spreading even more. By the time the fire was contained it had burned more than 282,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 structures.
What was the cause of all of the damage, the devastating loss of homes, businesses, lives, and more than 282,000 acres of land? It’s still unclear what sparked the fire, but most wildfires are started from embers from a campfire that wasn’t put out properly, a discarded lit cigarette, lightning strike, and in some cases arson. Something small and insignificant erupts into a destructive force that ravages lives and property.
In the Scripture we started studying last week, James says our tongues are a fire. The destruction and devastation caused by the fires in California, that we heard so much about on the evening news, pales in comparison to the destructive potential of our tongues. James writes,
6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:6 NIVO)
That’s a startling statement isn’t it? I have to tell you, during the past two weeks, as I’ve been studying and praying through this section of James, the Lord has shown me over and over again how careless I can be with my words. Not thinking before I speak, talking just to fill “dead air” in a conversation, speaking pointedly, being harsh, “sharing” things with others that really should only be shared with God in prayer, the way I say things that are just not helpful at all. The Lord brought to mind countless times while our kids were growing up that Connie would say, “Mike, it’s not so much what you said, but how you said it that was hurtful.” I’m afraid I still have that same problem. I also need to tell you how thankful I am for how the Lord exposes me, sensitizes me to blind spots, and shows me areas of my life that I’d rather like to think are really no problem at all. Let’s take a look at our Scripture from James one more time. Turn with me to James 3:1-12 and let’s read together.
1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. 3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:1-12 NIVO)
Last week we began our study of James 3:1-12 and we learned about our untamable tongues. We took a look at a few of the truths James shared in the first twelve verses of James 3. Today, I want us to go back to James 3 and lock in on one verse. You probably noticed last week that we skipped right over the very first verse where James says,
1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1 NIVO)
Pretty convenient for me to skip over that verse don’t you think? I’ve probably spent more time the past two weeks studying and praying about this verse in the context of the entire section of James 3:1-12 than any other verse. I have to tell you that James’ words have convicted me and caused me to weigh my words much more closely the past two weeks.
We all have different tools we use for our jobs; hammers, saws, cash registers, scalpels, medical devices, front end loaders, cranes, computers, etc. For me, words are my tools. I carry them with me wherever I go. I go to the hospital to try and comfort those who are ill. I use words to try to encourage them. I use words to intercede for them in prayer. When people come to see me about problems they are experiencing in life I use words to try and give them good advice, godly counsel. When I teach a Bible study I use the Word of God along with my words to hopefully teach biblical truth to those who come. The past two weeks I’ve become increasingly aware of the damage that can be done through my words; careless words, thoughtless words, frustrated words, manipulative words, angry words, words that fail to accurately represent the One I’ve been called to honor and glorify.
At first glance you might dismiss this verse as not having any relevance for those of you who are not pastors or Bible teachers, but I want you to consider something. We are all teachers. There are eyes on us all the time, there are ears that are listening in, and it is vitally important that we “teach” those things that will bless, build up, and strengthen the lives of others. We are our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, and we should make every effort to do everything in our power to “teach” in the words we speak, the counsel we offer, and the lives we live so that our brothers and sisters are nudged closer to the Lord and not led astray.
There’s something else I’ve been thinking about this past week. We need to be especially aware of those who are young among us. Our kids, and I don’t mean simply our biological children, I’m talking about all of the kids that the Lord has placed in our sphere of influence. Our kids live in a very dangerous world, a world that will take advantage of them at every turn, a world that will use and abuse them, and not think one thing about it. Jesus said,
1 Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2 It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. (Luke 17:1-2 NIVO)
Jesus said that it would be better to have a millstone tied around our neck and then be thrown into the sea than to lead a child into sin. That’s strong language. We are all teachers and I pray that the Lord will increase our awareness of what we are teaching by the words we speak and the way we are living our lives before watchful eyes and listening ears.
There’s another application that I want us to think about before we get to the heart of what James’ intended by what he wrote. After Jesus’ resurrection and just before His ascension to heaven, Jesus told His disciples,
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIVO)
This is instruction for all of the followers of Jesus. You and I are called to be disciple-makers, to share the Gospel, and to help others mature in their walk with the Lord so they too become disciple-makers. Each of us who are followers of Jesus should be very thoughtful of the words we speak, what we tell others concerning biblical truth, as well as the life we are living.
All of these various ways we teach are important, but I do believe James had something specific in mind when he cautioned his readers about a more strict judgment for those who are teachers. We read in Ephesians that God has called some to teach His Word for the purpose of “equipping the body of Christ for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Each of us who are followers of Jesus should no doubt be very careful to teach others from the Word of God rather than our own opinion, but there’s no question in my mind that when James wrote verse 1, he had in mind those who are teachers and preachers of the Word of God.
The question has to be asked, “Why does James say that teachers will be judged more strictly?” I mean, it’s not a very good marketing campaign for recruiting Bible teachers is it? “Come, sign-up to be a teacher of God’s Word and find yourself even more under the watchful eye of God!” I don’t think you’ll find a lot of folks jumping at that opportunity do you? God is not in the least bit concerned with numbers. What He is concerned about is His Name and His Word. In Psalm 138:2, David wrote,
2 I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. (Psalm 138:2 NIVO)
Of all of the wonders of God’s creation, of all of the things God could exalt, David tells us that God exalts, He prizes more than anything, His Name and His Word. There is so much in a name isn’t there? I can mention names this morning and immediately you’ll have thoughts associated with that name. Mother Teresa, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Barack Obama…see there. I don’t know what you thought, but I know thoughts entered your mind at nothing more than the mention of their name. The thoughts we think about people are formed by their words and actions as well as our perceptions. When it comes to God’s Name, He wants us to think accurately about who He truly is and what He does and doesn’t do.
So, how do we gain the knowledge we need to accurately think about who God is, His character, what He does and doesn’t do? It is the teaching of God’s Word. God’s Word instructs us first and foremost about who God is…He is holy, He is righteous, He is faithful, He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, He is full of grace and mercy, He is forgiving. I could go on and on. God’s Word also teaches us about who we are…we are broken, we are sinful, we are alienated from God, we are created in God’s image, we are loved by God, so loved that He sent His Son, Jesus, to bridge the divide between us and God, to offer His life as an atoning sacrifice so that we might be reconciled to God if we will receive His gift of forgiveness. God’s Word also teaches us about life, how God desires for us to live this life He has given us. I can point you in the direction of a one chapter primer on the importance of God’s Word for living life. Psalm 119 is made up of 176 verses, it is the longest chapter in the Bible and every verse is about the importance of God’s commands, the Word of God. Let me give you just a sampling.
9 How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. (Psalm 119:9 NIVO)
11 I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11 NIVO)
24 Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors. (Psalm 119:24 NIVO)
28 My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. (Psalm 119:28 NIVO)
29 Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law. (Psalm 119:29 NIVO)
36 Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. (Psalm 119:36 NIVO)
71 It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. (Psalm 119:71 NIVO)
105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. (Psalm 119:105 NIVO)
It is more than important that teachers accurately teach others the truth about God, the truth about Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, redemption, repentance, sanctification, discipleship, and the Christian life. What we teach must come from God’s Word.
For those in the first century these lessons weren’t only shared in the synagogue or in house churches, but they were also shared between the rabbi and his talmidim, his disciples. The relationship between a rabbi and the talmid, his disciple, was nothing like the relationship of a teacher and his or her student today. These disciples or learners not only listened to the teaching of their rabbis, but they also did everything they could to emulate their rabbis in every way. They watched what their rabbi did and copied him, they ate the same food as their rabbi and in the same way the rabbi ate, and they even tried to copy the manner in which their rabbi talked. They memorized huge chunks of Scripture so they could ask their rabbi questions about the text. They weren’t allowed to ask questions until they had committed the Scripture to memory. The goal of the rabbi/talmid relationship was to pass on, not only the teaching of the rabbi, but the lifestyle as well. A perfect example of this is Paul telling the people in Corinth,
1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1 NIVO)
Because rabbis were respected and honored, many people wanted to be rabbis for the wrong reasons. Their goal was to attain notoriety and honor in the eyes of people and they didn’t give any thought to being obedient or accountable to God. This would prove to be disastrous for those who listened and followed them. This is why Jesus warned the people of His day in Matthew 23:2-7.
2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. 5 “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ (Matthew 23:2-7 NIVO)
“…They do not practice what they preach…Everything they do is done for men to see:” This was not a problem that just came about in Jesus’ lifetime, the problem goes way back in the history of God’s people. In the Old Testament we find God raising up prophets to expose men who called themselves prophets. They may have fooled the people with their persuasive speech and authoritarian tone, but God knew better and He was determined to expose them. God gave Jeremiah a message to deliver to the people in Jeremiah 23:16-22. Read it with me.
16 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. 17 They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The LORD says: You will have peace.’ And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’ 18 But which of them has stood in the council of the LORD to see or to hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word? 19 See, the storm of the LORD will burst out in wrath, a whirlwind swirling down on the heads of the wicked. 20 The anger of the LORD will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart. In days to come you will understand it clearly. 21 I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied. 22 But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds. (Jeremiah 23:16-22 NIVO)
“They speak visions from their own minds.” Those who claimed to speak for God were simply speaking their own message. They were putting words in the mouth of God that God never said. The key to teaching biblical truth is found in verse 22 where God says through Jeremiah, “But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people…”
Over and over again in the prophets we find the same thing, some of those who presented themselves as speaking for God were in actuality only leading God’s people astray. In the New Testament the same problem was present. In our day we still have the same problem. In every generation there have been those who failed to carefully study God’s Word first and foremost for the strengthening of their own relationship with the Lord and secondly to teach others. The same Paul who encouraged the people in Corinth to follow his example as he followed Christ, took the time to encourage a young preacher named Timothy with these words.
15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15 NIVO)
Paul was concerned for those who taught God’s Word, just as James was concerned. To misteach God’s Word is to mislead God’s people. My experience tells me that what most people want today is their own truth and not God’s truth. We want to come up with what we believe about God, about ourselves, determine how we will live our lives, and then put God’s stamp of approval on it, regardless of whether God approves or not. I don’t think we are unlike any generation that has gone before us because Paul went on to tell Timothy just two chapters later in 2 Timothy,
2 Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage– with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Timothy 4:2-3 NIVO)
Timothy’s task was to preach and teach God’s Word “with great patience and careful instruction.” That is still the task of every Bible teacher today. When Bible teachers fail to take their calling seriously, when Bible teachers handle God’s Word loosely, carelessly, and twist it to say what people want to hear then the results are disastrous.
Many years ago I read a book about a pastor named Jim Jones. Early in his ministry God used him in a powerful way in the inner-city of Indianapolis, Indiana. Jones was passionate that all people should worship together. He was disgusted that 11:00 on Sunday was the most segregated hour of the week. Before there were conferences about how to create intentionally diverse churches, he was doing it. He had a heart for those who were hurting. He was serving as a student pastor while he did his undergraduate work at Butler University and graduate work at Indiana University. All the while he was starting a soup kitchen, creating ministries for the elderly, as well as a social service agency. Because of his active role in the community, he was awarded the head position of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission.
Jim Jones was a powerful preacher. People who attended his church said he was the most powerful speaker they had ever heard, he had charisma oozing from every pore. People filled the church. People from every kind of background imaginable. Somewhere along the way things began to change. He began preaching what he called “apostolic socialism.” He would use verses from the Bible to fit his own ideology.
In 1964, he decided to move to California and about 140 members of the church decided to follow him. By 1970, what Jim called, “The People’s Temple,” had grown to 2,500 members. His sermons became totally his thoughts and not the Word of God. One day, Jim Jones stood before his congregation and said, “Do you know what’s wrong with you people?” He took the Bible in his hand, held it up for everyone to see and said, “You believe this book more than you believe me.” That was the beginning of the end. Instead of walking out they followed Jim Jones to Guyana where on November 18, 1978, 909 followers of Jim Jones drank Kool-Aid laced with cyanide and died.
James warning could not be strong enough. We are impressionable people. We are impulsive people. We are easily led astray. Those of us who are teachers must always keep at the forefront of our mind that we are accountable to God for every word we speak, what we teach. We must all be careful of what we teach. We have been given the Word of God which is like honey to our lips, salve to our aching hearts, and salvation to our souls. Teach His Word.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
February 4, 2018