I live in Southern California in a rather arid climate. We are in desperate need of rain right now. So much of our state is on fire so often, it seems like only a matter of time before some small spark sets my town ablaze. Our lives are lived on the lookout for smoke in the air. That is all it takes after all, one small spark. One flick of a match or one stupidly lit firecracker can send a forest up in flames, ruining our homes, community, and livelihood.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire. And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness,” writes James in our text this week (3:5-6). “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” (3:6). Our words matter. Words can cause all sorts of damage. We all know the old, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is utter nonsense. Words can and do hurt. They can abuse, scar, frighten, and lead people away from the truth.

This last point, that words can lead people away from the truth, is what James has in view today as he addresses this portion of his letter to preachers. To be sure, this text teaches us the weight of words and the power they wield. Nowhere is this truer than when referring to words found on the lips of preachers. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). Preachers have been sent on a mission by Christ Jesus to baptize in God’s name and to teach God’s Word (Matthew 28:19-20), to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins from the bloody cross and empty tomb (Luke 24:46-48), to be ambassadors for Christ Jesus who creates faith with the Word of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20; Romans 10:17). They are to bring the refreshing rain of God’s Word to sin-parched hearts. Therefore, to preach something other than what Christ Jesus has given in His Word is to burn down the faith of God’s people. It is to torch the Church.

Therefore, to preach something other than what Christ Jesus has given in His Word is to burn down the faith of God’s people. It is to torch the Church.

James’ concern today is false doctrine. If last week he spent a good deal of time calling out the loveless actions of the congregation, this week he is directing his gaze at the preachers who deliver a false gospel. Last week was love, this week is faith. We once again find James and Paul singing the same tune. James reflects Paul’s Galatians in his zeal for the faithful teaching of God’s Word and his concern for the danger that arises from heresy. Both teachers guide us to follow our Lord, building on the firm foundation of His Word and not on the sandy shores of teachers with other agendas (Matthew 7:24-27).

Sermon Structure

Given the way James employs a variety of word pictures to describe the dangers of false teaching, the Multiple Image structure would be an ideal arrangement for the sermon. If you can utilize pictures in your sanctuary, they may prove helpful, but it is not necessary. A brief description of each image from James will suffice for the hearers.

Using the image of a bit in a horse’s mouth (3:3), you could start by proclaiming the importance of being guided by God’s Word alone. “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well,” James says. The “we” is significant. If the Holy Spirit-inspired authors of the scriptures are guiding the preacher, the Church will be led in a faithful direction. You could find an example from the scriptures or your own ministry where faithful teaching produced faithful practice.

Then, switching images, you can demonstrate how the opposite is the case, as when a storm-tossed boat is driven poorly by a poor pilot (3:4). At this point, illustrations of the dangers of false teaching and heresy producing division, damage, and faithlessness will prove helpful. Consider the damage caused by the Judaizers in Galatia as they tried to take faith away from Jesus and place it in the Law. Or, how the ambitious lies proclaimed by the false prophet Hananiah against Jeremiah (Jeremiah 28) stunted repentance and denied God’s truth. Such false teaching leads to the destruction of faith and the Church.

Then, switching to the image of the burned down forest, show the result of false teaching (3:5-6). You could discuss how a false presentation of the Gospel, or a misuse of the Law, has driven many away from Christ and His Church. A quick google search for: “Why people leave the church,” will provide an ample supply of illustrations, I am sure.

Finally, conclude with a fresh-water/salt-water contrast at the end of the pericope (3:10-12). (I do not recommend pursuing the fig tree illustration in 3:11 as you have already pushed a lot of images). Conclude the sermon by showing that we have been baptized with the fresh water of the Gospel. God finds us in the baptismal stream, speaking words of forgiveness, life, and salvation over us. This baptismal speech brings cleansing, life, and growth. These are all gifts of grace freely given because of the crucified Jesus, from whom the blood and water flowed (John 19:34). From this stream of baptismal water comes preaching which forgives, gives life, and washes away sin by calling for repentance and delivering forgiveness. Such fresh water from the mouth of the preacher will produce the life that comes only from the proclamation of God’s truth.

This baptismal speech brings cleansing, life, and growth.

Christ in the Text

Christ has placed a very particular message in the mouths of His preachers. As we have mentioned already, He has sent pastors to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name, teaching the baptized to obey everything He has commanded. James has no time for preachers who seek to replace the sayings of Jesus with their own agendas, ambitions, or ideas. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and no one gets to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). The danger James addresses is those teachers who would block the path with their words (to use yet another image!). Not only should the preacher warn against messages which get in the way of God’s Word in Christ, they need to deliver it. Announce the forgiveness of sins to the people and then put the forgiveness in their mouths to speak to one another. Pour out fresh water on the parched sinners so they can be quenched and quench one another with the truth of God’s Word. Do not just talk about the importance of preaching Christ, actually do it!

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in James 3:1-12.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach James 3:1-12.