The apostle James explains in his letter, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). In a group of verses centered on taming the tongue, this verse is the key to the entire section, especially for those who believed they are called to preach the Word of God. Today, with the wide array of theology claimed to be within the bounds of orthodox Christianity, it seems the moment a particular teaching about the nature of Christ or the sovereignty of God is purported to be in error, the first reaction of onlookers is to cry foul. But this should not be. Why? In this verse, James is saying something we need to heed, namely, be careful to tell the truth about God.
See the progression in the following verses: the tongue is like a bridle, controlling the whole body (v. 3); the tongue is like a small rudder directing a ship (v. 4); the tongue is like a small fire setting a forest ablaze (vv. 5-6); be careful to bless and not curse with the things you say. Yes, there is a need for godly rebuke. Too often, zealous warriors for the truth are rather brutal and barbaric in their confrontation with those who publicly teach error. We do not want to do that. But the wisdom of James 3:1-12, especially vv. 1-6, is still important. There are hills worth defending and dying upon. What we say about God, about his gospel, about his Son, about his creation are not matters to blithely juggle around with our tongues.
The Example of Ignatius of Antioch against Docetism
Take, for example, Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108). This early church leader was an overseer of the church at Antioch at beginning of the second century. Though he was primarily a pastor to pastors, he also combated Docetism (a heresy that claimed Jesus’ physical body was an illusion, therefore also implying that Jesus did not physically die on the cross). In fact, Docetism gets its name from the Greek verb, dokeō, which means “to seem or appear to be.” The ranging implications of this heresy in the early church, especially in view of Christ’s humanity and his death on the cross, would have been ruinous for Christianity.
Let me illustrate this: to suggest that Jesus did not actually suffer on the cross as the God-man who died as our substitute for the forgiveness of sins, the gospel news would be lost. There would be no pure ground for the atonement if Jesus only ‘appeared’ to die for our sins in our place. That is why the early church fathers were careful to contest heresies like Docetism, and they were right to do so. This is also why we should be careful to exposit the Scriptures when we teach so that we may steer clear from error.
Preparing to Teach the Word of God
James 3, of course, applies to whatever we say. In all things, we should be careful to bless rather than to curse. But how great is our responsibility when we say something about God! If a shepherd guides his sheep to danger, the sheep will follow to their harm. If a teacher leads his students into error, they will listen and be deceived. Therefore, James gives caution to teachers. Now, these verses should not necessarily deter teaching. But this counsel is wise. In short, it is telling us that those who teach the Word of God should be aware of what is at stake. Preaching, especially, is a task given by God to proclaim the truths about God and the gospel, to declare the mighty power of Christ who is able to save. Those truths should rivet our hearts and affections to also recognize the weight of the responsibility that comes with the pulpit. They should spur us in love to be evangelists for the glory of God and the joy of repentant sinners. Is this the weighty responsibility you feel when you tell others about God? Is this the joy you hold when you open your mouth to tell others about our great salvation?
Let me mention a few things I think every teacher should consider when preparing to tell people about God. Remember, we are telling people about who God is. First, we should never trivialize the glory of God. Too often, God is portrayed from the pulpit differently than he is. Tell them what Scripture says about his sovereignty, his holiness, his majesty, his transcendence, his immanence, his impeccability, and his mystery.
We should also prepare to feed our congregations the Word of God. We should preach the Word, verse by verse, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, and book by book. This is expository preaching. We must take every opportunity to preach the Word as the Holy Spirit gave it to the biblical writers. With that in mind, we should be careful with your illustrations, and use them only when necessary. They should never detract from what the text actually says.
We should likewise be students of the Word. No pastor or teacher has every exposited the Word of God from the pulpit enough to fulfill the duty of being a student of the Word. That is precisely why, like Timothy, we are to be acquainted with the Scriptures from our youth, and remain closely acquainted with them to our last breath. Therefore, we should prepare our hearts and minds for the sharp edge of the Word of God, and pray as we prepare to expound God’s Word to his people.
Finally, all preaching should be Christ-centered in scope and purpose, so no matter the text we are preaching, we should always endeavor to proclaim the gospel when preaching the Word of God. That is the aim of God’s revelation. It was given to display the bountiful splendor and kingly glory of God and to proclaim the fallen nature of man and their need for redemption that is only offered and given through Jesus, and that is what we should preach.