Sermon on James 3:1-18 – “The Teacher of All”

Sermon for Sunday, April 3rd, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Old Testament reading:

[Psa 39:1-13 ESV] 1 To the choirmaster: to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David. I said, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence.” 2 I was mute and silent; I held my peace to no avail, and my distress grew worse. 3 My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: 4 “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! 5 Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah 6 Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather! 7 “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you. 8 Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool! 9 I am mute; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it. 10 Remove your stroke from me; I am spent by the hostility of your hand. 11 When you discipline a man with rebukes for sin, you consume like a moth what is dear to him; surely all mankind is a mere breath! Selah 12 “Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears! For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers. 13 Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!”

New Testament reading:

[Jas 3:1-18 ESV] 1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Gospel reading:

[Mat 15:10-20 ESV] 10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

Introduction

In the old Gilbert and Sullivan play called The Mikado there is a character who, to put it lightly, thinks highly of himself. He is Pooh Bah. And if you’ve never seen the play or the movie, you probably still know of this character because his name has come into the vernacular with the term “The Grand Pooh Bah.”

This is a term for a person who thinks they are better than everyone else. “Oh, you think you’re the Grand Pooh Bah” All that and a bag of chips.

Pooh Bah certainly had a grand view of himself. He was very prideful.

In his very first speaking lines he says this:

“I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable. I can’t help it. I was born sneering. But I struggle hard to overcome this defect. I mortify my pride continually. When all the great officers of State resigned in a body, because they were too proud to serve under an ex-tailor, did I not unhesitatingly accept all their posts at once?”

So Pooh Bah became simultaneously the First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief justice, Commander-in-Chief, Lord High Admiral, Archbishop, and Mayor. And he had the knowledge, so he believed, to give consultation to others in each of those roles. He was the teacher of all. Or so he considered himself to be.

We have a warning against considering ourselves as such teachers others from our text today in the book of James.

I. Be Not a Pooh Bah

James says:

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Here James is not speaking against teaching in general, but against those who set themselves up as “the teacher of all.”

While the ESV translates the word as “teachers,” the KJV says “Masters.” If we look to the original Greek we find the word didaskaloi, the plural of didaskalos. You might know the word “didactic” which means “intended to teach, especially in moral instruction.” In most Scriptural instances the Greek word didaskalos is used for Jesus himself. The disciples say “Master” or “Teacher” when they address Jesus. In fact, forty times it is used in that way. It is used for people other than Jesus only eighteen times in the Scriptures.

A good summary of didaskalos is to say that it is “one who teaches, especially concerning the things of God, and the duties of man.” This is a MORAL teacher.

In general throughout the Scriptures teaching is looked upon in a favorable way.

1. We are to teach our children. Deuteronomy 11:19 – “And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.”

2. Older women, says Paul to Titus, are to teach what is good and so train the young women to love their husbands and children. (Titus 2:4)

3. Elders who labor in teaching and preaching deserve double honor. (1 Timothy 5:17)

4. Teaching is even called a gift of God. (Romans 12:7, 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11)

James cannot then be opposed to teaching in and of itself. Teaching is the greatest work that the church does. We are called to teach, to make disciples of all nations. And the more capable we are at teaching, the better. And the more teachers we have, the merrier. Oh that we were all teachers.

What then does James mean when he says “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

Calvin explains that James is opposed not to preachers and Sunday school teachers, but to those who have taken it upon themselves to correct others. He is opposed to those who, like the Grand Pooh Bah, have set themselves up to be the teacher of all.

Calvin’s comments here are instructive. He writes:

“The common and almost universal interpretation of the passage is that the Apostle discourages the desire for the office of teaching, and for this reason, because it is dangerous and exposes one to a heavier judgment. … But I take masters [didaskaloi] not to be those who performed a public duty in the Church, but such as took upon them the right of passing judgment upon others: for such reprovers sought to be accounted as masters of morals.”

“And that [James] forbade them to be many, it was done for this reason, because many everywhere did thrust in themselves; for it is, as it were, an innate disease in mankind to seek reputation by blaming others.”

So James is not warning against taking up work as a legitimate teacher, but is against self-elected judges of morality.

You might say, James is against CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, etc. And there was a time when the news stations gave THE NEWS (imagine that), now they generally give opinions, having elected themselves as the moral arbiters of our world. And, I must laugh, when they on occasion actually call something an “opinion piece” when nearly everything they produce fits that category.

In our age of communication it is not only the networks, but each individual who can be a moral arbiter, a self-chosen master of “what is right.” And, even, as Calvin says they “seek reputation by blaming others.”

I’ve noticed something in the academic world, or the world of discourse in general … that it is far easier and more common to critique the theory of another person, than it is to devise one’s own theory whether in history, philosophy, or any other subject. And so some people find their reputation not upon any positive work but merely on criticisms of others.

Some churches or denominations are like this as well. And while some criticism of things in the world is necessary, I’ve long considered it better to focus on a constructive message. The Ligonier Ministries is one example of a constructive ministry. You will rarely hear them critique another, but instead focus on expounding the Scriptures.

Of course, not all criticisms are bad. I think of Walter Martin, the “Bible Answer Man” who wrote a tremendous book called the “The Kingdom of the Cults” where, from a Biblical perspective, he well-criticized Unitarianism, Oneness Pentecostalism, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses among others. And in doing so he made it more clear to the reader what true Christianity is.

But it is against self-elected moralists, “teachers of all” whom James is opposed. Especially he is against those who set up a standard other than that of God’s standard. For we have only one teacher and master, the Lord Jesus Christ. And we dare not set up any standard against His.

The self-appointed teacher rants online, not usually even in favor of something, but only against others.

I know many of these people, even within the Reformed Christian community. Too much time is being spent in quarrelsome activities. Pride is leading men (usually it is men) to have ambition to be seen. Where they should be teaching their family, or their church if they are called, they have risen to the rank of teacher of the world. Often, usually, skipping those other levels. And it is not dialogue they seek, but followers.

We are to be weary of the prideful “teacher of all.” To be weary of those Grand Pooh Bahs, those who view their own opinions as if they were the Great and Wonderful Oz.

And I see this today with “experts.” They are at once an immunologist, then a constitutional scholar, then the world’s leader in understanding foreign affairs. They are the teacher of all. And never has there been so many teachers of all, as the internet has allowed such widespread powers of communication.

Rather, we are called to submit to the Lord. To have our views corrected by the word of God. He is truly the teacher of all.

So back to the verse. We should say “Not many of you should become [moral teachers of others], [not many of you should judge] for you know that we who [teach morals to others] will be judged with greater strictness.” Judge not lest ye be judged.

The connection to the rest of the passage, I believe, is to understand, that teacher leads many pupils. And, as all do stumble—for no one is righteous—the errors of the teacher extend to the pupils. [REPEAT: The errors of the teacher extend to the pupils]

And the stumbling begins with the tongue, with our language.

II. Have Not a Tongue of Fire.

We must remember that James had was just writing about the importance of good works flowing from our faith. Now he expands on that and gives specifics.

Our good works are to be led by good language.

James had said “be slow to speak” now he says, in effect, “be careful WHAT you speak.” [Especially for teachers.]

And he really expands on this. In three ways he says that the evil tongue leads the body into evil.

1. A bridle on the tongue, like a bit in a horses mouth, guides the whole body.

2. The small rudder guides the whole ship.

3. The forest fire starts with a single flame.

These are to indicate the great importance of taming the tongue. For bad language is not merely bad in itself but leads to terrible sins.

And it is a sin indeed to have a tongue of fire. What an interesting analogy. The fire is ready to be breathed out on others. To light them up, to cause them in turn to speak in evil ways. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

God has rather given us the tongue to communication with others and with Him. So it can be used to bless the Lord. But when we curse people with that same tongue, we have confused its purpose, and have sinned against God himself because all people are made in the image and likeness of God.

I know one group of Reformed churches that believes that the image of God is totally lost in fallen man and is only regained as it is renewed in believers. But verses like this one in James 3:9 indicate that even though man has fallen it remains true that has been made in the likeness of God. James is not merely opposed to cursing Christians, but is opposed to curses against any and all peoples; for all have been made in the likeness of God.

So we’ve had two directives from James. I’ve summarized them as “Be not a Pooh Bah,” and as “Have not a tongue of fire.”

And we do well to heed his commands.

III. Have a Changed Heart.

But there is something more. We must not just correct our words, cover over them, but we must have changed hearts.

Our words reveal our hearts.

The words that we speak show that which we think.

There are two ways in which one might cease speaking evil. The first is to not speak at all; to put a filter over that speech. The second is to change the heart so that you no longer desire to speak evil, so that you don’t even need a filter. But rather the Holy Spirit is working in you to be that filter.

This is ultimately that which we pray for. If you’ve come from a place of bad language, it is a good thing to put on that bridle—that mental reminder to avoid such language. But as you grow in your Christian faith, pray that you will have no desire to have a fiery tongue.

But let you words be encouraging, uplifting others, blessing the Lord who has made you and who has made your tongue.

Though we will struggle in this life, James calls us to purity. We are not to have from the same mouth both blessing and cursing. The spring does not produce both fresh and salt water, not the fig tree produce olives, not the grapevine produce figs. These were made by God each for their own purpose, and they do right to “stay in their lane.”

We should be indeed encouraged to teach.

But pride is discouraged.

And quarrelsomeness is discouraged.

Conclusion: The True Teacher of All

We are to seek, above all, guidance from above.

James says: the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

All of this “wisdom from above” comes from the True Teacher of All, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Rather than devising our own path, rather than pontificating on the world’s issues, we are always to seek the wisdom of God.

And this is not merely an empty “I feel the Lord is leading more to XYZ,” but it is to seek his wisdom IN THE SCRIPTURES, the very Word of God.

Jesus Christ is the Word of God and is the Wisdom of God, and He alone is our teacher. Let us push out all evil thoughts, fiery language, and desires to become teachers of any other morality. And let us seek the Lord with our whole hearts.

Christ, as St. Augustine says, is THE Teacher. He has taught us how to pray. He has taught us how to live. He has taught us how to speak. He is the light that enlightens every man. He is the true teacher.

Let us live for Christ, always remembering his teaching. I pray this in Jesus Name, Amen.