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Why Did I Say That?
The message of the Gospel is beautiful in its simplicity.
We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus.
And yet, the Bible itself can be a difficult book to understand. It’s a collection of 66 ancient books written to real people who lived in a very different world. People who cared about different things and had different challenges in life than we do, but the principles in this God-inspired book are absolutely relevant to us today and essential to the Christian faith.
In the Alpha Course, Nicky Gumbel describes how reading the Bible is like doing a crossword puzzle.
“When I’m stuck on one clue I don’t give up, I move on to the next clue. Every time I find an answer it helps me in resolving some of the other clues. In the end, I am sometimes able to solve most of the puzzle. In a way, reading some of the difficult parts of the Bible is like trying to solve a crossword puzzle. Rather than getting bogged down in a tricky section, you can use the passages you do understand to help you resolve some of the more difficult ones.”
For the past 5 weeks, Coastal Church has been studying the biblical book of James, focusing on how to live a life of faith. You can catch all of those messages here.
This week’s portion of James (chapter 3) has been one of the ‘tricky sections’ for me like Nicky Gumbel described. I grew up in the church, and I remember how reading this chapter often made me feel bad about myself. It’s the section that talks about the dangers of reckless words.
“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us,
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 body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire,
and is itself set on fire by hell.” -James 3:3-6
I’ve got to be honest, this passage never really filled me with much joy or hope… I mean James paints a pretty bleak picture of how incapable we humans are at controlling such an unruly part of us. Reading this as a teenager hit pretty hard. Teenagers already have a hard enough time believing they’re good enough at doing stuff, here was another thing to add to the list. How many times did I crack a joke trying to fit in that really ended up being unkind? Why did I say that? It was frustrating to reflect on at the time, and then James went on to describe the tongue as a relentless evil full of deadly poison. Yikes. Was there any hope for any of us, I wondered?
Going back to Nicky Gumbel’s illustration, we need to consider the whole context of scripture to help fill in some of the blanks and tricky sections of the Bible. James was addressing a specific problem that the church was having. They were great at singing worship songs and praising God, but at the same time, they would be cursing each other and allowing their tongues to be set on fire by hell. I’d imagine that he was addressing gossip, being unkind in speech, and putting others down. If James were writing to us today, he’d probably tell us to stop hating on people via text and social media. The modern-day version of slander.
He’s driving the point home that this isn’t the life that Christians are called to.
Let’s take these verses from James and put them in the overall story of scripture.
James is telling us what not to do and really making us aware of the negative power of our tongue, and our words. But the Bible also has many passages that clearly instruct us on how to use our words for good.
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
-1 Thess. 5:11
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. -Proverbs 25:11
Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. -Proverbs 16:24
Yes, our words can have a destructive power, but they can also give life as well. Our words can encourage, heal, and turn around even the darkest of situations. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can get a reign on our words.
In James his audience had allowed their tongues to be set on fire by hell, but it’s interesting if we compare that passage to what we read in Acts about tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost.
Let’s talk about Peter for a second. Early on in his disciple career Peter was impetuous, quick to speak and slow to think. He was often in need of reigning in and correction in what he said. In fact, Jesus literally said, “Get behind me Satan” in response to one of Peter’s comments. He had some serious issues in controlling his tongue. Just after Jesus was arrested, he denied even knowing Jesus with a string of foul language. Yet, this is the same Peter who a short while later boldly preaches a sermon in front of thousands of people, calling them to repentance and faith. His tongue was fully in check and filled with power and truth that he had not spoken with before.
So, hold on a second, what happened? How was Peter able to change so drastically in such a short time?
In Acts 2, while in the upper room with the other disciples, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire descended upon him and the others. The Holy Spirit was able to speak through him in languages that he had never spoken before. Something had tamed the untameable tongue that James describes. That something was the power of the Holy Spirit. Now instead of having his tongue set on fire by hell, it was set on fire by heaven.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit isn’t a one-time event. The apostle Paul encourages us to continually be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), to allow His power and love to overcome our selfish nature and desires. This is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, and it will help us to guard our tongues and speak life giving words. This is something that is given freely to us. Don’t forget to ask!
“..how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” – Luke 11:13
I’m so grateful that this experience isn’t limited to Peter. I’m also so encouraged to see how quick his transformation was. Every follower of Jesus has access to the same Holy Spirit as Peter, and we can submit, as James said, our most unruly part of our bodies to the power of the Holy Spirit. This is good news! What I love about following Jesus is that we are not only given principles, but we are also given the power to live them out.
“for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” – Luke 12:12