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The Power and Danger of the Tongue

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg
The Truth Network Radio
September 13, 2022 4:00 am

The Power and Danger of the Tongue

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg

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September 13, 2022 4:00 am

It has the power to build someone up or tear someone down. The tongue can either be a weapon or good medicine. On Truth For Life, Alistair Begg looks to the book of James for instruction on how to choose our words wisely.



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There is a small muscle in your body that you won't find featured in most fitness magazines or included in a workout routine, but don't let the size fool you. Today on Truth for Life, Alistair Begg shows us just how powerful and untamable the tongue can be. We're in the third chapter of James, looking at verses 3 through 12. James chapter 3 and verse 3, when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them abeyas, we can turn the whole animal. 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. 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. 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. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives or a grapevine bear figs?

Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. Amen. I can think of only one occasion when sticking out one's tongue at another person is regarded as legitimate. And I'm sure that you already recognize that this is only supposed to take place within the confines of a doctor's surgery—to marvel at the ability of the physician to be able to detect evidence on the tongue of a problem that is elsewhere in the body, to be able to detect from what is seen a problem that heretofore is unseen. And to the extent that that is true in physical terms, the passage of Scripture to which we now turn confronts us unmistakably with the fact that it is also true in spiritual terms. Our tongues say something about our spiritual condition. It is in the first twelve verses of chapter 3 that he gives his most attention to it, and we noted last time his warning to would-be teachers.

There is a great danger, he says, that attaches to engaging in a teaching ministry in a local church, and the danger is directly tied to the instrument of use—namely, the tongue—because, he says in verse 2, it is in this area of our lives that all of us sin most readily. Now, verse 3 to verse 12 is rich in illustrative material. James is a very good illustrator. He uses material from the natural sciences and from around him, and we each of us do well to remind ourselves that the use of illustration is in order to set forward the purpose of instruction. And every teacher of the Bible needs to remember that so that we do not seek to hang the instruction simply on illustrations that will be recalled long after the instruction is forgotten.

There's no risk of James doing that. He weaves exposition, if you like, or explanation and illustration and application in his letter here in a way that is masterful and a lesson to all who teach. But I found myself during the week constantly having to say, I must be careful that I don't take my eye off the ball. And I took a very, very long time before I could gather my thinking around these three thoughts, which will be the observations for this morning. So we begin with the verse. The tongue is small but powerful.

That's what he says in verse 5. But he reaches his application only after he has used these two vast illustrations. Consider, he says, the way that the individual puts a bit into the mouth of a horse. And as a result, a large creature, sometimes carrying another relatively large creature, is able to be steered and moved with relative ease.

Anybody who has observed horses at all will be able to say, Well, I get that. And then he says, Take a ship. The tiny rudder, at least it is disproportionate to the size of the vastness of a ship, is still the mechanism that is used by the pilot or by the captain, irrespective of the nature of the winds that are blowing, in order to direct the course of the vessel and to bring it to its destination. So we have this little bit and this comparatively tiny rudder, and we notice that they receive big results.

That's the point that he's making. And then, having done that, he says, I want you to understand, verse 5, likewise or in the same way, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Now, history records that, and indeed, there is a sense in which the boasting of the tongue in verse 5a—the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts—there is a sense in which the tongue can make legitimate boasts. Because the history of humanity is the history of the use of the tongue and of the ability of men and women to use their tongues in order to change the direction of history, in order to influence lives, in order to stir passion, and so on. It's all the power of language—in the poet, in the playwright, and in the politician. But it seems more than likely, in light of what follows 5a, that James is not focusing here on language used in a positive and helpful way but rather the use of the tongue in a way that is negative and that is harmful. Because while it has the capacity to do good, to speak peace, encouragement, and so on, it also has the capacity to turn harmony into chaos, to spoil the reputation of others by slander, to introduce difficulty and disappointment with bitter thoughts and words in a family, to ruin relationships, to damage the testimony of those who proclaim to be the followers of the Lord Jesus. And when you read from verse 5b on, you recognize that this tongue, for all of its potential, is a real problem.

That brings us to our second heading. The tongue is not only small but powerful, but the tongue is humanly untamable. We get that, because that's exactly what it says in verse 8, No man can tame the tongue. He says that after he is given to as a description of the tongue. He's described it in verse 6 as a fire, as a world of evil, then as untamable, and still in verse 8, as a restless evil and that which is full of deadly poison.

Not a particularly nice list by any standards at all. This tongue, he says, is a fire and is a world of evil among the parts of your body. I spent a long time wondering, What does it mean that the tongue is a world of evil? And I wasn't making very good progress until I turned to my old boss in Edinburgh, and I discovered that he observed that James seems to mean by this that every sort of evil found in the world finds an ally in an uncontrolled tongue.

Think of any kind of evil disposition, and think about how the tongue is able to set forward that evil, either by reporting it, reinforcing it, you know, spreading it far and wide. It is a world within the body. Now, think with me along this line for just a moment, that if there is one thing that should mark the Christian in a world of deception and deceit, it is their truthfulness. That the belt of truth, which is given to us in the armor of warfare in Ephesians chapter 6, is that to which all of the other aspects of the armor attach. It is first and foremost the question, What is true? Therefore, when there is an absence of truth, it is indicative of all kinds of other evil.

Now, I won't turn here, but I'll cross-reference it for you in case you want to go back to it. When you read in Romans chapter 1 concerning idolatry and immorality and greed and envy and murder and deceit and strife and all kinds of malice, you will discover that all of that ugly list is a product of lies. Now, you will notice that what James is saying in respect to this is that this is not some isolated concern, but this world of evil, which emerges from our wrong thinking, from our unwillingness to tell the truth to ourselves, is a corrupting influence. It corrupts the whole person. Or it pollutes the whole person, you may have in your translation. That's the force of it. It has the force to work its way through your entire system. The course of it is it runs through the whole course of a life, and the source of it is that it is set on fire by hell.

This is very straightforward, isn't it? Before too long, he says, having toyed with our thoughts and played with our words, we will follow with our deeds. And our whole life will be on fire. And the source of the fire, the igniting influence, is nothing other than hell itself. Hell, the destiny of Satan and all of his hosts. The tongue, he says, is like an unguarded campfire, one small spark, and the hillside is ablaze. And then in verse 7 he takes us to the zoo and the circus in order to make his point.

He doesn't do literally, I understand, but you know what I mean. All kinds of animals—birds, reptiles, creatures of the sea—are being tamed. We have a dominion over the creatures of the earth as a result of creation in Genesis chapter 1, a lingering dominion that is still there. We are distinct from the rest of the created order in this.

And while we're able to influence them in various ways—we have dominion over them, but we don't have dominion over our own homes. We don't have dominion over our own hearts. It's fascinating, isn't it, that the very means that God has provided, whereby we can communicate with each other and enjoy fellowship with one another, the very means that he has provided allowing us to articulate our praise and honor of God, becomes the means of despising and deceiving others and dishonoring God. Yes, I say to you again, if we were just honest enough to stick out our tongues, then before the mirror of God's Word, we realize how each of us needs a Savior. The tongue is small but powerful. The tongue is humanly untamable.

And thirdly, the tongue reveals more about us than we care to admit. Look at verse 9. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in God's likeness.

In other words, he says, there is a glaring inconsistency that I'm forced to point out. Now, we will go immediately wrong if we think of cursing in terms of the casting of spells or even the use of expletives. Certainly, all wrong, frivolous, immoral, filthy speech is clearly condemned in the Scriptures. But that is not exactly what James is referencing here.

And we can understand that by looking carefully at what he's saying. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, the Creator, and with it we curse men who have been made in his likeness, the Creation. The glaring inconsistency lies in the fact that when we insult and when we denigrate someone else, in one sense we are praising and denigrating the same object. We praise God, and then we run down what God has made. Certainly, the image of God is spoiled as a result of sin, but you will notice that James is reminding us here that all of his creation has been made in God's likeness. And as a result of being made in God's likeness, although they are undeserving of approbation and accolades and so on—just as undeserving as each of us—nevertheless, because each is made in the likeness of God, it is absolutely wrong for us to think that we can, on the one hand, praise God, our great Creator, and then walk out into the community and denigrate those who have been made in his likeness. Because, you see, in one setting we're adoring God, and in the other we are reviling him as he's seen in the likeness of our fellow men. This makes it quite powerful in its impact, doesn't it? Because it takes us beyond the boundaries of Parkside Church. It takes us outwith the realm of whoever's sitting around us in the pew, whether we like them or we don't like them or whatever it might mean.

That's enough of a challenge to face. But James takes it way beyond that. Think of all the people in community that, because of our Christian values, we just actually despise.

We despise their lifestyles. That we feel that we have a legitimate reaction to things that are wrong and so on. James says you'd better be very, very careful. That you don't show up on Sundays to praise God and walk out on Mondays to curse those made in the likeness of God. It's a reminder, isn't it, that if it is the love and grace of God our Father that woos us to himself, wouldn't it be something of the same characteristics in our lives that would see others come to consider the claims of Jesus? What a tragedy to be like Talkative in Pilgrim's Progress, who is described as a saint abroad and a devil at home. To be regarded as a saint on Sunday and a devil on Tuesdays.

That's the glaring inconsistency. And what does he say? Classically, you will notice what he says at the end of verse 10. My brothers, this should not be.

Masterful understatement, isn't it? This in the King James, I think, is, This ought not to be. In other words, he applies the law of oughtness. He doesn't actually appeal to the revealed will of God. He simply says, even according to the laws of nature, This ought not to be.

Every time a culture begins to putrify, it has to enact laws. That's why certain laws are enacted so that fathers are not allowed to shout dreadful things at the baseball diamonds in the local park. They ought to have been smart enough as men to know that's not the thing you ought to do. But since they couldn't apply the law of oughtness, the government had to come in and apply it for them.

We're not there yet in James. He says, This ought not to be. This ought not to be.

And it ought not to be. And he wraps it up full circle, takes us back to his illustrations once again—back to the fig trees, the grape vines, the olive groves, the springs that are bubbling. And what is he saying? Simply what his brother Jesus said on a number of occasions, Like produces like.

Like produces like. And James is confronting each of his readers with the fact that what our tongues say is more than matched by what our heart thinks. And the tongue's relationship to the heart is clear, it's undeniable, and it is uncomfortable.

It is, as Jesus said, that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. So our time has gone, and what are we to do? What are we to do? Shall we then pull up our socks and say to ourselves, Let's go about the business of seeing if we can tame our tongues? Well, that's an act of futility, isn't it? We've just noted that no man—or woman, for that matter—can tame the tongue.

There is no hardware product that we can get that will deal with this. We need a complete new software package. We need to go back to Psalm 51 and say, Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me. Change my heart, Lord, and then my tongue will follow. Change me from the inside, because it is only as my heart is cleansed and put right with God, which is what God offers to do for us in Jesus. And what he reveals we need done when we stick out of our tongues. It is only when our hearts are cleansed and put right and Jesus dwells in us, in our hearts, by faith, and comes and lives in us and reigns in us by his Holy Spirit that our words may be brought under his control. Let me give you three verses, and you can read them at home.

I'll tell you what they are. Romans chapter 8 verse 29 tells us that the eternal purpose of God is to make us like Jesus. He describes those who have been called, who are predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son. From all of eternity, if you are a Christian, the purpose of God has been to make you like Jesus.

That's what he's doing. That's his eternal plan. 2 Corinthians 3 and verse 18, Paul says, we are being transformed into his likeness.

That is, if you like, the contemporary, historical manifestation of God's eternal purpose. And 1 John 3 3, we know that when we see him, we shall be like him. And what of Jesus? They marveled at the gracious words that came from his mouth. No one taught ever as he taught.

He didn't cry or shout out in the streets. We sang our prayer, didn't we? Part of our prayer was, Take your truth, plant it deep in us, mold and fashion us in your likeness. The only hope we have is the only hope that is offered, which is being born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And although we are not all that we need to be, in Jesus we are some distance from what we once were.

And it is to Christ we look in order to achieve his purposes in our lives. The only way we can tame our tongues is to let Jesus cleanse and control our hearts. We're listening to Alistair beg on Truth for Life with a message titled, The Power and Danger of the Tongue. If you're enjoying these practical sermons from the book of James, you might want to listen to Alistair's teaching all the way through all five chapters of the book of James. You can listen for free on the app or online at truthforlife.org. You can also purchase the entire series on a convenient USB for just $5 at truthforlife.org slash store.

Look for a study in James. Thousands of Alistair's sermons can be listened to or downloaded or shared for free on the Truth for Life mobile app as well as on the website. The teaching library is free because Truth for Life is fully funded by generous and faithful supporters we call Truth Partners. These are listeners who give monthly to help cover the cost associated with distributing Alistair's teaching. So if you listen regularly or you benefit from the free downloads, will you think about joining this essential team today?

It's easy to sign up. Simply visit truthforlife.org slash truthpartner or call us at 888-588-7884. And to say thank you, we want to invite you as a new Truth Partner to request the monthly books we offer. Today we're recommending a book titled, Little Pilgrim's Big Journey Part 2. This is a captivating allegory that teaches young children the importance of trusting God through the ups and downs of the Christian life. Be sure to request your copy of the book Little Pilgrim's Big Journey Part 2 when you sign up to become a Truth Partner or you can request the book with a one-time donation at truthforlife.org slash donate.

I'm Bob Lapeen. Is knowledge different from wisdom or are they the same? And does wisdom always come with age? Tomorrow Alistair Begg answers those questions as we explore the source and proof of true wisdom. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life where the Learning is for Living.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-26 04:44:16 / 2023-02-26 04:52:35 / 8

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