Throughout our study of James’ letter we’ve been reminded over and over again of the powerfully destructive potential of our tongues. From the opening chapter of his letter James has pointed out the many ways our speech can bring harm to others. James has addressed the topic of our anger vented towards others in James 1:19-20 and discriminating and judging others in James 2:1-13. In James 3, he unleashed a barrage of examples of the evil use of our tongues. If none of what James has said about the tongue has grabbed your attention then I’m confident that what he wrote in James 3:6 will. James wrote,
6 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. (James 3:6 NIVO)
What a horrible, terrible description of our tongues. Some people might read James’ words and conclude that he has gone too far, he’s too pessimistic, but if you pay attention to what is going on in our society then it won’t take much of an effort to convince you that James is absolutely right. Then, just two verses later, in James 3:8, he says of the tongue, “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8 NIVO).
How tragic is it that our tongues, designed by God, given purpose by God, can so often be used in such a destructive, demoralizing way against those placed in our lives by God. For people who are not followers of Jesus this is all really much ado about nothing. They’re just words afterall. They say that until the invading army of the alphabet aligns in such a way that their fiery arrows are aimed at them. Then the sharp arrows of slander, being talked against, gossiped about, being harmed and harassed by words can become paralyzing to those who say it’s no big deal as long as someone else is the target. Yet, for the followers of Jesus, we are not to weigh our words simply because we’ve felt the sting of other’s misused tongues. We are to keep a close watch on the way we use our words because what we say is an important indicator of our relationship with Jesus. James pointed this out in James 1:26 when he wrote,
26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. (James 1:26 NIVO)
If there were no other verses in the Bible about the use of our tongue, then this single verse should cause us to pay special attention to the way we speak to and about those around us. Truth is, the Bible is full of direction about the use of our tongue. In our Scripture for today, found in James 4:11-12, James goes back to the topic of the tongue. Let’s read our Scripture for this morning and then we’ll see what we can learn.
11 Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you– who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12 NIVO)
Slander. The Greek word translated “slander” is “katalaleo” and it literally means, “to speak against.” The legal profession uses the word “slander” with a specific definition. Slander is defined as, “Defamation (communication of a false statement that harms the reputation of an individual, business, product, group, government, religion, or nation) in spoken words or gestures.” The biblical understanding of slander is much more broad. Dr. George Stulac writes,
The verb is katalaleo (“speak against”), which could include destructive verbal attacks, gossip behind another person’s back and false accusation. Such offenses are not to be practiced among Christians. (Stulac, George. James. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. pg. 152).
God’s definition of slander is any speech which intends to harm another. It’s not just speaking things which are untrue of others, it also includes saying things which are true about another person with the intent of diminishing someone in another person’s eyes. Alistair Begg says,
Slander is the sin of those who meet in corners and gather in little groups and pass out confidential tidbits of information which destroy the good name of those not present to defend themselves. (Alistair Begg sermon, “Saying No to Slander”)
In both the Old Testament and the New Testament we find reference after reference commanding us not to slander our brothers, sisters, and neighbors. Let me give you just a few examples. In the Torah, Leviticus 19:16, God told His people,
16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:16 NIVO)
It’s interesting that following the command not to slander another we are told, “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.” Can words really endanger our neighbor’s life? That’s a bit extreme isn’t it? This is not the only place where we find such extreme language. Take a look at Proverbs 11:9 with me.
9 With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous escape. (Proverbs 11:9 NIVO)
The book of Proverbs is full of commands about how to use and how not to use our tongues. When you read all of the passages of the Bible that speak about the misuse of our tongues, speaking against other people, you have to wonder, “Where does all of this come from? Why do we do what we do?” We need look no further than Jesus to find the answer to the question. In Matthew 15:18-19, Jesus said,
18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19 NIVO)
Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that insightful? It’s not what someone said or did that made us say what we said, it’s the condition of our hearts. Most people in our day would agree that we shouldn’t slander, gossip, or talk down other people. At the same time, if someone else starts it, if they are spreading malicious gossip about you, if they are airing your dirty laundry for everyone to see, if they are speaking what is true in order to bring you harm, if they are lying behind your back, then you’ve got to fight fire with fire. Not only would many people who are not followers of Jesus agree with this, but many followers of Jesus, though they would never say this is right, they would most certainly respond in the same way. Yet, Jesus, the One who was the subject of all kinds of slander, gossip, and lies said,
27 “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Luke 6:27-28 NIVO)
James said our tongues are a restless evil full of deadly poison. Jesus said our tongues speak only that which is found in our hearts. We have a problem and it is a problem which we are totally incapable of solving on our own. Jesus calls us to bless others, to pray for others, to lift others up while the world seeks to tear them down, but this is not our way, this is not even our desire. Let’s take a look at one more section of God’s Word before we move on. Turn with me to Ephesians 4:29-32 and let’s read together.
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:29-31 NIVO)
Paul covers all of the bases concerning how we slander others, in the biblical sense of the word. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it might benefit those who listen.” This is a total and complete reversal of how we most often use our tongues. God calls us to be students of one another, to learn about one another, and to respond with words which benefit one another according to the need of the other person. When was the last time we approached one another with such interest, intent, and concern?
Let’s get back to James. James doesn’t raise the issue of slander just to insure that no one is stung by hurtful words. It’s much, much more serious than that my friend. Take a look at verse 11 once again. James writes,
11 Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. (James 4:11 NIVO)
What does James mean? To speak against a brother or sister or to judge them is to speak against the law and to judge it? What does that mean? That’s a very important question and one we need to take the time to understand. First of all, we must remember that James was raised according to the law of Moses. He knew the Torah through and through. He knew the verse from Leviticus 19:16, which I shared earlier: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people.” And then, just two verses later, we read,
18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18 NIVO)
If we slander our neighbor, tell the truth about our neighbor when the truth might damage their reputation in the eyes of others, or diminish them in any way through our words, we are speaking against the law of God and not in support and affirmation of it. Our cutting, slanderous, spiteful, and even truthful, yet harmful words contradict the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Alongside of the Scripture from Leviticus, many think James was also thinking about the Ninth Commandment. The Ninth Commandment, found in Exodus 20:16, says,
16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:16 NIVO)
Traditionally most people have understood the commandment to mean we are not to lie about our neighbor, but in actuality the meaning of the commandment goes much deeper than simply lying. John Wesley, the great preacher of the 1700s, said bearing false witness is “speaking falsely in any matter” including “lying, equivocating, and any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbour,” or to speak “unjustly against our neighbour, to the prejudice of his reputation.”
I don’t think there is any doubt that James had all of this in mind when he said that to speak against our brother, sister, or neighbor is to speak against the law, but I believe he was also thinking of one more thing. If you will remember, Jesus was asked one time which commandment of the law was the greatest.
37 Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIVO)
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” We know the power of words, the sting of slander, and the ruin that comes about when some ugly truths about us are told in public. Why would we ever want to subject someone else to that kind of anxiety, pain, and sorrow? I was thinking this past week, I’m ashamed to admit it, but there have been times in my life that I spoke what was true, but I didn’t know the whole story. The piece of the story I knew and told cast my brother or sister in a negative light. Later I learned the whole truth, the whole story, and it changed everything. The same thing happened to Pastor Spurgeon one time.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one of the most powerful preachers ever. He preached in London in the 1800s and was called the “Prince of Preachers. By the time he was 22 years old he was already preaching to crowds of over 10,000 people. They couldn’t build buildings big enough to hold all of those who wanted to hear him teach God’s Word.
Charles and his wife, Susannah, raised chickens in their yard and would sell the eggs the chickens laid. One day they were approached by a woman who wanted eggs. The woman didn’t want to spend the money so she asked the Spurgeons if they would give her the eggs. The Spurgeons said they would be happy to sell her the eggs, but they wouldn’t give them to her. You already know what happened. She stomped off, left irate, and began to tell everyone how unkind and cheap the Spurgeons were. I’m sure she threw in, “And he’s supposed to be a pastor?!” The truth is, the Spurgeons didn’t even give eggs to their closest relatives.
Pastor Spurgeon died in 1892, but it would be another twelve years before the truth of the story about the Spurgeons supposed greed and chinciness would be told. When Susannah died the story was told at her funeral. Charles and Susanna wouldn’t give away the eggs from their chickens because they used all of the profits from the sell of their eggs to support two widows in town. All of those years of hearing the talk going on about them and the Spurgeons never defended themselves.
The lady who stomped off irate that Charles and Susannah wouldn’t give her eggs was telling the truth when she said, “I asked Pastor Spurgeon to please give me some eggs out of the kindness of his heart and he refused. He told me I could have eggs if I was willing to pay for them.” But she wasn’t telling the whole truth because she didn’t know the whole truth. And oftentimes, neither do we, do we?
I would doubt that the lady who spoke about the Spurgeons or the times I’ve spoken without knowing the whole story are isolated incidents. If we were to be honest each of us is more than likely guilty of the same offense.
When we come to James 4:12 we find James elevate the seriousness of the offense to an even greater degree and raise our accountability to the highest heights. We are not just speaking against the law, trivializing the law, and setting ourselves above the law, but in actuality we are setting ourselves above God. James writes,
12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you– who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12 NIVO)
James lets his readers know that there is only One who has the power to save and destroy and it isn’t you and me. This is a truth that is found throughout God’s Word. In 1 Samuel 2:6, Hannah, the barren woman who was blessed by God with a son she named Samuel, prayed the most beautiful prayer. In that prayer she said,
6 “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. (1 Samuel 2:6 NIVO)
In the New Testament, it was Jesus who spoke to His followers about not fearing people who can kill the body, but not the soul. Instead of fearing people, Jesus said to fear “the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). These Scriptures are reminders for you and me. God is the only one who can give life, He is the only One who takes life, and therefore He alone has the right to judge. God alone knows the truth of each human life, He alone knows the full story of each human life, and He alone is able to rightly judge those He has created.
We do need to talk about something at this point. As you listen to what I’m saying some of you are reminded of something else Jesus said in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” This verse has been misused by people over and over again. They quote the verse to justify not getting involved in people’s lives regardless of the destructive decisions they are making. An issue is brought to our attention and we say, “Who am I to judge?” Or we use the verse to keep others at a distance. When we choose to disregard God’s Word and live however we want to live, someone who loves us may come to us to talk about what we are doing. Oftentimes the response we give is, “Who are you to judge me? Don’t you know what the Bible says?” God’s Word is very clear that we are our brother’s keeper, we are our sister’s keeper. We are placed by God in the Body of Christ to work together, to help one another–we need one another’s help. James gives us a great example of one of the kinds of help we need in the last two verses of his letter. Turn with me to James 5:19-20 and let’s read together.
19 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20 NIVO)
There is a big, big difference between talking about someone when they get off track and going to our brother or sister for the purpose of seeing them restored to a right relationship with the Lord. If I get off track, as I often do, and it comes to your attention, please don’t go around telling everyone, “We really need to pray for Mike. Did you know…? Did you hear…?” When I get off track I need you to come to me and say, “Mike, let’s talk.” Jesus gives us very clear direction about how we are to relate to one another when we get off track. Turn with me to Matthew 18:15-17.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17 NIVO)
So, we are not to talk about our brothers, sisters, or neighbors. Our heart’s desire should be for their best, their blessing, and when they get off track, their restoration. I hope that is your desire for me and for one another. If it is, then we will refuse to participate in slander, backbiting, talking down about others to make us look better in the eyes of others.
This command for you and me is really nothing more than a reflection of how Jesus relates to us. Throughout the Bible we learn about Satan and his ways. In the book of Revelation he is called, “the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night…” I know his schemes all too well. How many times has he accused me, reminded me of things I’ve done to try and derail me, distract me, and convince me that I’m a fraud, unworthy of God’s grace and mercy. I have to admit there have been times that he has been successful. I’ve listened too long, I know what he has accused me of is true, and I’ve felt so unworthy before my gracious and merciful God. I would have been completely undone if it were not for God’s Word which speaks to me with an even louder voice and with even greater clarity. Those of you who have suffered the same sorrow, guilt, and shame…listen to this.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. 11 They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. (Revelation 12:10-11 NIVO)
The voice of the enemy, the one who desires to destroy you and me, he has been defeated. And how has he been defeated? “By the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony;” My righteousness before God has nothing to do with how good I am, but it has everything to do with how good He is. He has loved me, died for me so that I might be restored and reconciled to the Father. Praise His holy name! John wrote,
1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense– Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. (1 John 2:1 NIVO)
God’s desire is that we don’t sin, but when we do fall short of God’s will for our lives we have One who speaks to the Father in our defense. If He speaks on our behalf should we not speak for one another? We will never do that apart from His saving grace. Won’t you surrender your heart to the One who loves you and gave His life for you?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
May 6, 2018