The Tongue

“Sets Gehenna Aflame!”

“So, also, the tongue, though a small member, yet boasts of great things. Observe how a great forest fire is set afire by a small flame. Also, the tongue is a fire constituting a world of unrighteousness among our members. [The tongue] stains the entire body and sets on fire life’s course, set aflame by Gehenna.” [James 3:5, 6 Christian Scriptures 2001©]

No one who has been slandered needs to be told how it feels. When hateful persons decide to defame, undermine, or denigrate another the damage can be far reaching. Indeed, the very first lie was spoken by the one who became known as Diabolos - the liar, or slanderer. His subtle question in primeval Eden caused the most lovely of all human creatures to sin against herself, her husband, and her God. [Genesis chapter 3]

Of this one, Jesus the Nazarene said to the Jewish hierarchy of his day:

“You [Jews] originated from your father the Devil, and you want to continue to do your father’s desires. [The Devil] was a man-killer from the beginning, and he did not continue to stand in the Truth, because truth is not in him. Whenever he speaks the Lie, he speaks from his own self, because he is a liar and the father of [lies].” [John 8:44 NCMM]

Satan was not just a liar - one telling an untruth, or exaggerating the truth - for his lie was slanderous, placing others in a bad light. So the very first Person who was slandered was God Himself. Thus, He knows something on the subject. He had recorded in His Word abundant counsel and warning against the misuse of the tongue.

Jesus the Nazarene was also the object of slanderous talk. Jesus himself exposes this when he says in Matthew 11:19,

“(And yet) the Son of Humankind came eating (normally) and drinking (wine), and yet they say about him, ‘Look! a gluttonous human and a drunk.’” [NCMM]

Our Lord was accused of being demonized and out of his mind, in some cases by his own relatives. John reports:

“But, many from among them were saying: ‘He is demon-possessed! He is crazy! Why do you listen to him?’” [John 10:20 NCMM]

Mark 3:31 tells of the slander from the Nazarene’s family:

“Now when his family heard about it they all went out to restrain him. For they said: ‘He is out of his mind!’”

In the end he died as something he was not - a criminal.

Since the slanderous tongue is such a disgusting and abominable sin to the Almighty, it is beneficial to review some of the counsel in the Bible from time to time.

The Tongue and Slander in the Hebrew Bible

The Law of Moses contains warnings about harmful talk about others. Leviticus 19:16 states God’s law,

“None of you must ever go from person to person among Israel for the purpose of slanderous gossip.” [NCMM]

David, the Messiah-type, was slandered. [2 Samuel 19:27]

Thus, the psalmist David writes about those who may dwell in God’s Tent:

“O Yehowah, who will be a guest in your tent? Who shall reside in Your holy mountain? The person who walks blamelessly and does what is right. The person who speaks honestly from the heart. The person who does not slander with the tongue, and who has never wronged a friend, nor reproached a neighbor.” [Psalm 15-13 NCMM]

Thus, anyone who does not speak honestly from the heart, or who habitually slanders or wrongs a friend will never be permitted to dwell in God’s Presence.

Psalm 101:5 declares that God will shut the mouths of anyone who secretly slanders a friend. In giving this warning, God associates such slander with haughtiness and arrogance. God cannot stand such a person.

The Proverbs give many warnings against the slanderous tongue.

“He who hides hatred has lying lips. He who utters a slander is a fool.” [Proverbs 10:18 WEB]

“The slanderous person wanders here and there revealing private conversations, but the person of a loyal and trustworthy disposition refuses to disclose such personal matters.” [Proverbs 11:13 NCMM]

“A person with a hidden agenda continues spreading strife and disunity, and a slanderous person causes divisions even among those who are good friends.” [Proverbs 16:28 NCMM]

“The loose talk of the slanderous person is devoured by the glutton for gossip, sinking deep into the very pit of gut feeling.” [Proverbs 18:8 NCMM]

“The slanderous person who gads about revealing personal matters among friends is someone you should never fellowship with.” [Proverbs 20:19 NCMM]

“Don't slander a servant to his master, Lest he curse you, and you be held guilty.” [Proverbs 30:10 WEB]

From the Hebrew Bible Old Testament it is clear that slander must be avoided at all costs. Slander causes division and hurt, and in the end leads to being found guilty before Yehowah. The true worshipper of God should avoid any fellowship or communion with the slanderous tongue. However, did Jesus have anything to say on the matter?

The Warnings of Jesus Regarding the Tongue

Among others, there is one particular warning from the Nazarene about the use of the tongue. It comes in the context when he has just been criticized by his own relatives as “crazy” and also by the Jewish religious hierarchy as being demonized. He was accused of using satanic power in his healings. What was the response of our Lord to these slanderous lies? What can we learn from it?

At Matthew 12:35, 36 the Nazarene says:

“Out of the good person’s heart comes a treasure of goodness; and expelled out of the wicked person’s wicked treasure comes wickedness. But I tell you that every fruitless word human’s speak will be held to account on Judgment Day. For by your words you will be declared ‘Not Guilty,’ and by your words you will be accursed.” [Matthew 12:35, 36 NCMM]

The “good” person can always be identified by goodness, or good fruitage. The Greek is agathos and generally translated “good.” The English word is one that has scores of meanings. Here it means morally excellent or virtuous kindness. Good is something positive toward another. The morality of this Nazarene teacher rises to celestial heights. Though it often means what is upright and honorable, it goes beyond mere righteousness. Righteousness is obedient to law. That is, a law-abiding person. Agathos goes beyond the law to do a kindness not necessarily required by the law.

Such a good person is not only occasionally good, but is good through and through. Such a person possesses a “treasure of goodness.” The Greek for “treasure” is thesaurou, or that which is saved or stored up. It is not a matter of one act of goodness -- but a treasure of goodness. The good tree has been growing for years from a seedling to a mature fruit-bearer.

In contrast the person who is not good “casts off” wickedness. The English word “wickedness” is related to “witch” and in its extreme forms means bad moral character, something evil and depraved. The Greek means hurtful or malicious, so it is rooted in what is unkind and unloving toward others. As a person grows -- like a tree -- certain traits and characteristics are developing and evolving. Everyone has stored up something in attitudes and personality attributes. Some, however, have saved or stored up a treasure with a bent toward wickedness. Essentially wickedness is that character which is self-seeking, unloving, and without faith. It is the ego gone amuck and always manifest in slander.

Thus, the Nazarene mentions “every fruitless word.” The Greek is aergos and rooted in ergon (work) and means “non-working” or idle. It is a word spoken when one is relaxed, not on guard. A word revealing the true character. Other versions render this: KJV: every idle word; TCNT: every careless word; RHM: every useless expression; NEB: thoughtless word. The Greek may mean a word or a message.

The word here in the context was “Beelzebul” directed against Jesus. This is not a mere slip of the lip for none are perfect in their speech. (James 3:1-3; 1 John 1:8; 1 Kings 8:46; Proverbs 20:9) This is evilly motivated out of jealous hatred. An ancient Greek playwright said: “A man’s character can be known by his words.” Pythagoras offered: “Choose rather to fling a chance stone than to speak a chance word.”

Such a person will be “held to account” by God Almighty. That is, such a slanderous person will -- KJV: give account; NWT: accountable; NAS: render account. Jesus makes it clear we will answer for every wicked word on Judgment Day. In the audience was someone who spoke an unforgivable word, “Beelzebul.” A name of accusation against the power behind the Nazarene. Now, surely, his error comes back upon his head to haunt him. Paul expresses something similar in 2 Corinthians 5:10; and, John does so in 1 John 2:28; 4:17. There are two outcomes for the Christian during the parousia-judgment: a clear conscience or shame and embarrassment. (Daniel 12:2; 1 John 2:28)

Note the basis for judgment by Jesus: it is our mouth. Surely a heart full of love will never speak wickedness against another. In the context before us the words are a horror: accusing another of being demonized or apostate. Matthew 5:21, 22 gives a most serious warning:

“You heard it was said to the Ancients: ‘Murder not’ but the murderer will be judged. But, I tell you: Anyone angry with his brother will be judged. But, anyone saying ‘Raca!’ [or, “contemptible”] to his brother will be liable to the Sanhedrin. But, anyone saying ‘Moron!’ [or, “apostate”] will be liable to the Gehenna of the Fire.” [NCMM]

Thus, Jesus associates slander and hate with the cause of slanderous speech.

Counsel in the Christian Epistles Regarding the Tongue and Slander

What do the inspired disciples of Jesus have to say about the slanderous tongue? Paul condemns the slanderous Christian when he writes:

“Or, do you not realize that the unjust will never inherit God’s Kingdom? Do not be misled! These will not inherit God’s Kingdom … slanderers.” [1 Corinthians 6:9, 10 NCMM]

The Christian woman who would serve as a deaconess in the congregation cannot be a slanderous person. [1 Timothy 3:11] The slanderous person is a mark of the apostasy of the early Church. [2 Timothy 3:3]

The mature Christian is not slanderous according to Peter when he associates such a quality with other damnable characteristics:

“Therefore -- having put off all harmfulness, deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all kinds of slander -as new-born babies earnestly form a craving for the non-deceitful milk belonging to the Word so that you might grow into salvation.” [1 Peter 2:1, 2 NCMM]

Peter suggests, like Paul, that the slanderous person is in danger of missing out on salvation.

Peter continues to speak of the slanderous person:

“All of you be like-minded - sympathetic, along with brotherly affection, well-disposed to compassion, humble in disposition, not paying back harm for harm, or slander for slander, but rather, bestow blessings [on others]. So that you inherit a blessing, for unto a blessing you were invited.” [1 Peter 3:8, 9 NCMM]

Those who are habitual slanderers will never inherit the blessings God has in store for true believers.

The disciple Jude also warns of those apostates who are “persons [that] are slanderers and complainers conducting themselves according to their own lusts, their mouths speaking inflated things, admiring personalities to benefit from (their) charity.” [Jude 16 NCMM] Such persons destroyed the unity and harmony of the early Church. Such persons will also knowingly or unknowingly wreck havoc among the end-time Saints. Since the slanderous tongue is so condemn in the Scriptures how can it be stopped among modern Christians?

How to Stop Slander

First, understanding the serious nature of slander will prohibit a Christian from indulging in slander. Slander - the demeaning, criticism, and condemning of another - comes from a hateful heart. For the person who truly loves another NEVER speaks ill of that person. People who love one another always come to the defense of those they love. If someone speaks slander against someone you love, you will always defend that person.

The disciple James devotes a considerable portion of his inspired epistle to the subject of the tongue as a critical and slanderous tool. Indeed, he writes that the person who is slanderous is worshipping God in futility. James 1:26 states:

“If anyone considers themselves to be a formal worshipper and does not bridle the tongue -- but continues deceiving their own heart -- this person’s worship is worthless.” [NCMM]

James continues to describe the problem with the tongue, showing what human attributes cause judgmental slander and also what qualities will cure the problem.

JA3:5 So, also, the tongue, though a small member, yet boasts of great things. Observe how a great forest fire is set afire by a small flame. JA3:6 Also, the tongue is a fire constituting a world of unrighteousness among our members. [The tongue] stains the entire body and sets on fire life’s course, set aflame by Gehenna. JA3:7 For every kind of species -- both beasts and birds, both reptiles and fish -- can be tamed by humankind. JA3:8 However, the tongue -- not one human is able to tame. [The tongue] is unrestrained evil, full of death-dealing poison. JA3:9 With this [tongue] we bless the Lord and Father and also with this [same tongue] we curse humans “made after God’s image. [Genesis 1:26; 5:1] JA3:10 Out of the same mouth comes forth blessing and cursing. My brothers, it is unnecessary for these things to be so. JA3:11 Can both sweet and bitter pour forth from the same spring’s opening? JA3:12 My brothers, is a fig tree unable to produce olives? Or, a [grape] vine, figs? Or, salt making water sweet? JA3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him prove it by his good conduct with works in wisdom’s meekness. JA3:14 However, if you have in your heart bitter jealousy and selfishness, do not boast and continue to lie against the truth. JA3:15 This is not the wisdom which descends from above, but rather, is earthly, soul-like, demonic. JA3:16 For where there is jealousy and selfishness there is disorder and the practice of every kind of evil. JA3:17 In contrast, the wisdom from above is first, pure, then, peace-loving, considerate, yielding, full of mercy and good fruitage, impartial, unhypocritical, JA3:18 and righteous fruitage planted peacefully by those who are peace-makers. … JA4:11 Brothers, do not speak against one another. One who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against law and judges law. Now, if you judge law you are not a doer of law but a judge. JA4:12 One is the Lawgiver and Judge -- the One able to either save or destroy. But, who are you to be judging your neighbor? [James 3:5-18; 4:11, 12 NCMM]

Thus, the slanderous person has a heart filled with “bitter jealousy and selfishness” motivated by the earthly, physical and demonic. This results in congregational disorder and other evils. Such a person is not pure, peace-loving, considerate, reasonable, full of mercy, impartial and not without hypocrisy. Cultivating these latter qualities will help curb the practice of the slanderous tongue.

Also, realizing the repercussions slander can have may cause the person with a vile tongue to stop. For example, slanderous, unkind, and inaccurate words have a way of coming back to haunt the speaker. The phrase “a little bird told me” comes from Ecclesiastes 10:20,

“Don't curse the king, no, not in your thoughts;
And don't curse the rich in your bedchamber:
For a bird of the sky may carry your voice,
And that which has wings may tell the matter.” [WEB]

There is an example of this in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian congregation. Likely he learned of this from the Chloe family who told him what some were saying about him in the congregation. Paul repeats what some had said:

“Because, they say, ‘His epistles are certainly weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his discourse ought to be treated as utterly nothing.’” [2 Corinthians 10:10 NCMM]

Surely the persons who said these unkind and slanderous words were somewhat embarrassed when this letter was read in the congregation.

There is something else revealing in Paul’s words: the slanderous person often begins with a positive statement of praise and then proceeds with the slander. For example, “Brother so-and-so has such good Bible knowledge, that is why I was surprised when …” So do not be deceived by slander couched in words of praise.

What Paul wrote was an example of the truth of Jesus’ words at Luke 12:2, 3:

“There is nothing that is covered up that will not become known, for what is secret will become known. So then, whatever you [disciples] say in darkness, it will be heard in the light; and whatever you whispered in secrecy will be announced from the rooftops.” [NCMM]

At the very latest this will be revealed upon the parousia-judgment at the Return of Christ. [Luke 12:35, 36] So it is only for one’s own protection and benefit that slander should cease. The slanderous person will be ultimately exposed. Paul puts the principle this way:

“The sins of some persons are clearly apparent leading to judgment. However, [the sins] of some [become evident] later.” [1 Timothy 5:24 NCMM]

Slander may be stopped by refusing to listen to it. Proverbs 26:20 counsels:

“A fire stops when no fuel is added to it, and just so contentious ends where no slanderer exists.” [Proverbs 26:20 NCMM]

If each slanderous word is met with a north wind of bitter coldness, such terrible gossip will end. Proverbs 25:23 warns,

“The north wind brings forth rain: So a backbiting tongue brings an angry face.” [WEB]

Will you have the strength of character when someone comes to you in slander to stop them dead in their tracks? Will you have the fortitude to rebuke the slanderer instead of listening to him or her? Will you have the courage to just change the subject? To fail to reprove the slanderous person amounts to agreement, as silence means consent.

Let nothing but honest speech and godly praise come out of our mouths [or, pens and fingertips] as we demonstrate how blessed we are as peacemakers.

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Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller

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