What does James 3:12 mean?
ESV: Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
NIV: My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
NASB: Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, bear olives, or a vine bear figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.
CSB: Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.
NLT: Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.
KJV: Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
NKJV: Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.
Verse Commentary:
James continues making his case that our tongues are naturally out of control, contradictory, and evil. In the previous verses, he pointed out that we use our words both to praise God our Creator and to curse people, His creation. Should it be that way? Obviously not. But it's more than just "wrong," it's not spiritually natural, in the sense that it is not the way God originally made us. We have been corrupted by our sin.

To illustrate that contradiction, James wrote in the previous verse that a spring of water never pours out both salt water and fresh water. That's not how the created world works. Fresh water and salt water come from two completely different sources. Here, in this verse, he gives more examples: No fig tree produces olives. No olive tree grows figs. Neither would you expect to dip a cup into the ocean (or a "salt pond") and pull out fresh water.

It's interesting that James stops talking about the tongue after this verse. His change in subject seems somewhat abrupt, and he gives no explicit instructions about how to fix the problem. Rather, James expects his readers to catch his larger theme: Those who trust God begin to be changed, to make different choices in their lives. We are far from living as if we believe God fully; our faith is far from perfected. But as we grow in our trust in the Father, different works will begin to flow out of us, including the kinds of words we say.
Verse Context:
James 3:1–12 discusses talking. This passage continues James's big idea that faith and works go together. Specifically, that what one does (or says) proves what they really believe. Those who trust God, who really believe Him, begin to be changed in their speech, as well. And yet, everyone still stumbles. The tongue is untamable, capable of great destruction. In fact, James calls it a fire and a restless evil that is itself set on fire by hell. We need to be changed. It shouldn't be that we praise God and curse the people made in His image. And yet, as fallen people, we do just that.
Chapter Summary:
Human words are powerful. Our tongues are small, but they are capable of wreaking great havoc. Any person who could perfectly control their words would be in perfect control of their entire bodies. Instead, as sinful human beings, our tongues are untamable. Our words are fire, igniting the entire course of our lives. Blessing God and cursing people should not come out of the same mouth; we are corrupted. James concludes the chapter by exploring what it means to be truly wise. True wisdom is not necessarily found in those with the most education, money, or friends. Rather, wise people can be spotted living wisely in humility, participating in good works, enjoying peace, singleness of purpose, and gentle lifestyles.
Chapter Context:
What does it look like to lead a life characterized by trusting God? Chapters 1 and 2 introduced the idea of how one's actions demonstrate the reality of their beliefs. Here, in chapter 3, James continues to explore this effect. In this passage, he talks about our words and heaven's wisdom. The one with perfect faith in God would have perfect control over his or her words. Worldly wisdom—envy and selfish ambition—with its me-first mentality is a source of disorder and evil in the world. God-trusting, self-sacrificing heavenly wisdom is the source of peace, gentleness, mercy and, ultimately, righteousness. Chapters 4 and 5 will make specific practical application of these thoughts.
Book Summary:
The book of James is about specifically understanding what saving faith looks like. How does faith in Christ reveal itself in a believer's life? What choices does real trust in God lead us to make? Those are the questions James answers. Most scholars believe the writer was Jesus' half-brother, a son born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus' birth. James may not have come to believe Jesus was the Messiah until after the resurrection. Eventually, though, he became one of the leaders of the Christian church in Jerusalem. This is possibly the earliest-written of all the New Testament books, around AD 40–50. James addresses his letter to Jewish Christians scattered around the known world.
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