How Metaphor in James 3:1-12 Reveals the Power of Words

James, a fall bible study

James 3:1-12

Today’s approach to James 3:1-12 is going to through the passage verse-by-verse, but pretty soon we will fall upon seven metaphors that reveal the power of words.

Introduction to Maturity

James 3:1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

I read James 3:1 with fear and trembling. Avoidance creeps in, and now it is Sunday. The truth is, I have used James 3:1 as an excuse to not go into ministry and, more immediately, to not finish my blog post. But here I go, opening myself up to stricter judgment.

The word translated as “teachers” is διδάσκαλος, which can also be translated as “masters,” with the idea of teaching other scholars or disciples. Most English translations (e.g. ESV, NIV, or NASB) translate it uniformly as “teacher,” but older translations of the Bible, such as KJV, used “master” when it referred to Jesus. Jesus washes the disciples feet, and he says, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher/Master have washed your feet…”

The word translated by ESV as “brothers” is from ἀδελφός, which can mean a physical sibling from the same parents, and it was also used by Paul to mean fellow believers belonging to the family of God. The plural for siblings of mixed gender would use a masculine ending, so the ESV may have erred by being too gender specific. Other translations, such as the NIV, say, “fellow believers,” or “brothers and sisters” as Craig Blomberg and Mariam Kamell use in their commentary on James. 1


James 3:2For 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.

In this one verse is found the heartbeat of two major denominational branches that have, historically, been theologically incompatible: the Presbyterians and the Methodists.

The Presbyterians are a part of the Reformed tradition, which emphasizes the sinfulness of humanity, and they teach our perfection is highly improbable on earth. I would never call myself Reformed or Presbyterian, but “total depravity” was a concept present in the formation of my faith in college and seminary. The first part of James 3:2 corresponds with their emphasis that everyone stumbles and falls.

The Methodists are a part of what is now called the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. My exposure to the Wesleyan holiness movement has been limited, but from what I can tell, it began with John Wesley and his brother Charles, and their teaching was the antithesis to early expressions of the Reformed movement. 2 Wesley taught that sanctification is a second work of grace from God that transforms a person, enabling him or her to live a holy life without willful sin. He admitted that we would not be perfect in knowledge and that we will still face temptations, but he did not give much room for weakness. (In a sermon I read, he gave the example of someone saying,”‘Every man has his infirmity, and mine is drunkenness,'” and he retorts, “It is plain that all you who thus speak, if ye repent not, shall, with your infirmities, go quick into hell!”) 3 He boldly claimed that a true Christian, although saved by a justifying grace, will be transformed as he or she matures by a sanctifying grace. 4 This idea of perfection sounds foreign to my Presbyterian-influenced ears, but when I see that the word τέλειος, translated as “perfection,” also means fully grown, I begin to wonder if perhaps we are called to “perfection” now after all.

According to James, perfection, or maturity, is encapsulated by the ability to control one’s self. If anyone has read Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, then you know at least some psychologists agree that maturity is a process of gaining self-control. There are other aspects to maturity, such as learning to love, but let’s just stick with James’s emphasis for today. He considers the ability to control the words coming out of mouths to be the same as having a tamed animal that can be led by the bridle. I think that it is important to note that despite James’s harsh tone in the following verses, calling our tongues untamed, wild beasts, that James begins his diatribe against our tongues with a positive metaphor of maturity.

7 Metaphors

1) Bits.

James 3:3 “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.”

Words are powerful. I read about the power of positive thinking or affirmations, and I see sectors of our society affirming that we are affected by what we say. James’s metaphor suggests that words even affect our bodies, and they affect the direction our lives go. Holiness is sometimes challenged by our nature, but words help to direct our nature in the paths of holiness.

2) Rudders.

James 3:4 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.

A horse needs guidance due to its internal motivations, but a ship needs guidance due to external circumstances. Whether distraction comes from within or without, words help guide the way. In fact, James is claiming that words are the means whereby we stay on course. From a psalm, I recall, “Thy word have I hidden in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

3) Fire.

James 3:5-6 “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! 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.

The first two metaphors were positive, but James has suddenly taken a negative twist, portraying the destructive potential of words. Not only do words affect our lives, but they also affect the lives of others, and a few words, like a few sparks, can cause a lot of damage. However, fire is not always a negative image. Tongues of fire rested on the disciples at Pentecost, and the burning bush that Moses encountered was a fire. In the tabernacle, there was a fire representing God’s presence. I suggest that similar to John Wesley’s teaching, that God’s presence can transform our fiery tongues when we are filled with his Spirit.

4) Wild Beast

James 3:7-8a “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.”

Although James began this section on words with a metaphor saying that a mature person is like a well-trained horse with a bridle, he sounds very pessimistic here. The key, I think, is “no human being.” We cannot transform our hearts, but God can transform us. Words come from the overflow of our hearts. Therefore, in order for our words to be tame, useful, and open to relationships with other people, we need to have our hearts changed.

5) Poison:

James 3:8b-9 “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.”

This is powerful imagery. James is saying that our words have the power to harm people. It’s called cursing. Our words do not just create sounds waves or words on a page. Our words profoundly affect people, for better or worse. Poison harms, but James would not be pointing out the destructiveness of words if he did not hope for the opposite. We can be transformed to have words of blessing to bring healing and life. Our words can be a balm or constructive medicine instead of poison; however, just as poison cannot will itself to be transformed, we need God to transform us. I am not sure if this is instantaneous change, slow adjustments, or a fight. John presents maturity as a process and a fight with the devil through scripture, but James presents the instant transformation through prayer model. In the beginning of his letter, he says if anyone lacks wisdom, he or she should simply ask God for it. Then later in this letter, James presents an idea of yielding to God, and that somehow in this passionate repentance and humility, that God “will exalt you.” 

6) Water:

James 3:10-11 “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?”

James is frustrated with the duplicity of his hearers, but I love again the idea that words affect more than just ourselves. Our words should be life-giving. I also see the need for transformation again. Just like poison does not transform itself, neither can salt water become sweet (excluding, of course, modern desalinization processes). Through the Holy Spirit, we can have a well of sweet water. That is perhaps a bit mystical sounding, but blame Jesus – it’s his metaphor (John 7:38).

7) Fruit-producing Plants:

James 3:12 “Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

This additional metaphor underscores that words are the product of who we are. If we want our words to be changed, we need our hearts and minds changed.








This series is inspired (but not sponsored) by FBC (First Baptist Church of Davis) and their fall focus running from October 4, 2015 through November 28, 2015. When I first heard FBC was doing this series, the lectionary reading and sermon that day at my own church, Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church, was from the book of James, and it really spoke to me; James is also the first bible study I completed on my own: I was fourteen, and I wrote with colored markers in a spiral notebook each morning before school, using an observation-reflection-action method similar to the one outlined in FBC’s bible-study guide. I am looking forward to spending more time meditating on this challenging book of the New Testament. I will be using the bible study guide provided by FBC with the accompanying scripture throughout this series; however, my methodology might hop around from anecdotal to more analytical word study. My goal is to do this study daily, or at least a few times a week! A big thanks to FBC for their theme, chosen scriptures, and structure of this study.


Week 6:
Monday  – James 3:1-12
Tuesday – James 3:13-18

This week I will be deviating from the FBC outline to cover last week’s primary reading, James 3:1-12, which I missed, and to finish the rest of James 3. Blessings, folks. 




  1. See Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam J. Kamell,  James, vol. 16 of Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 151, 154-155.
  2. The purpose of their teaching was not to oppose Reformed theology. Rather, they were passionate evangelists with high ideals, and their teaching occasionally contradicted Reformed thinkers. Also, I refer to “their teaching,” but Charles was more of a hymn writer and John was the primary preacher.
  3. John Wesley, “Christian Perfection,” Sermon 40, from Christian Classics Ethereal Library, ed. Dave Sparks, with corrections by George Lyons, repr. by Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, accessed November 7, 2015,
  4. “Our Wesleyan Heritage,”, accessed November 7, 2015,

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