What does James 3:5 mean?
ESV: 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!
NIV: Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
NASB: So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!
CSB: So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how a small fire sets ablaze a large forest.
NLT: In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire.
KJV: Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
NKJV: Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!
Verse Commentary:
James continues to draw comparisons between the tongue—the words we say—and other relatively small things which possess great power. First, he pointed to the tiny bits in the mouths of horses which control those mighty animals. Then he talked about the relatively small rudder on a ship, which can turn a great vessel wherever the pilot wants to go.

The tongue is similar, James writes. It is a very small organ in the body that boasts of great things. In this particular case, James isn't referring specifically to the way we can use our words to brag. Instead, he means that our tiny tongues have the capacity to effect massive results. The one who controls the bit controls the whole horse. The one who masters the rudder steers the whole ship. A man who learns to control his tongue will have gained self-control over his entire body.

The fact that the tongue is powerful doesn't mean everything it does is positive. To drive home this point, James uses a dramatic example. A tiny spark can set a whole forest ablaze. In this analogy, the spark is not something used to bring control. Instead, it's a small thing which impacts others around it. This leads to great chaos and destruction. Like the tongue, the spark can boast of great things. And yet, in the case of the spark in a forest, the "great things" are often overwhelmingly negative.
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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