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James 3:5b-6 The wheel of existence on fire

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Or how small a fire sets such a large forest ablaze! 6 The tongue is also a fire. The tongue is placed as a world of sin among the members of our bodies; it pollutes the whole body, sets the wheel of existence on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

James has said that the tongue is small like the bit that steers a horse, small like the rudder that steers a ship, and now small like a little blaze that ignites a mighty forest fire. It is “a world of sin” in our bodies. The tongue gets us into trouble because it betrays some thoughts that should not be revealed, thoughts that were not complete, thoughts that were sinful and should have been suppressed; thoughts that were selfish and should have been brought into step with God’s will. But before these thoughts could be properly controlled, the tongue blurts them out so that they cannot be unsaid, and too often pride then takes ownership of what was said. The urge to speak what shouldn’t be said is condemned by coach James in the clearest and most severe terms: “It pollutes the whole body.” “It sets the wheel of existence (Greek, genesis) on fire.” “It (the tongue) is set on fire by hell.”

This passage and verses like it show that man is responsible for his sin. The devil introduced sin into the world, but man is responsible for sinning. Those who are seduced by the devil “perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). We should also remember that God does not punish sin in our lives with either more suffering or with more temptations to sin. Sin was punished on the cross of Jesus Christ; God does not punish us today for things we have done in the past. To say, “God is punishing me” is a fairly common misunderstanding of the glory of the cross. Jesus our High Priest took all of our sins into himself, enduring the most disgraceful death for us to free us from eternal death. “He became obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8); “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

But if God atoned for my sin through Christ, where does it come from? The true seat of sin in man is his soul. The flesh or body of man becomes the host of sin only because it is the house of the soul. “The contrary opinion,” Pieper writes, “that the body, not the soul, is the seat of sin, the soul being the innocent captive, is a heathen concept” (Christian Dogmatics Vol. I p. 534). Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19). This world of sin begins with what we say, but it is telegraphed out to all the members of our bodies, polluting (as James says) the whole body.

James’ illustration, “the wheel of existence,” must have been something that his readers would have understood easily. It cannot have come, as some claim, from the mystery cults like Mithraism or the Eleusinian mysteries (an ancient cult that explained the change of seasons through mythology) but had a far more ordinary symbolism. Picture a wagon or a two-wheeled handcart. Oil or grease was used to lubricate the axle, and such things attract a lot of dust and debris. In the unlikely (but completely possible) event that the wheel might catch fire as it passed through the embers of the night’s campfire, it might erupt into flame. The entire contents of the pushcart would burn; there might be little that the owner could do except watch in horror. This is the kind of trouble the tongue can bring if it is not held in firm check. I have said before that there have been many times when I wish I would have held my tongue, but I have hardly ever regretted saying nothing at all.

The spark of the tongue is set on fire by hell, by the machinations of the devil with his flint and tinder. Heavenly Father, keep us all from the sins of the tongue! Teach us to use our voices to praise you alone, to build up and encourage our friends, to teach our children, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Luther’s explanations of the Second and Eighth Commandments are always good to review:

The Second (Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God): “We should fear and love God that we do not use his name to curse, swear, lie, or deceive, or use witchcraft, but call upon God’s name in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

The Eighth (Do not give false testimony against your neighbor): “We should fear and love God that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, or give him a bad name, but defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.”

  Oh, bless the Lord, my soul!
  Let all within me join
  And aid my tongue to bless his name
  Whose favors are divine.

  ’Tis he forgives my sins;
  ’Tis he relieves my pain;
  ’Tis he that heals my sicknesses
  And makes me young again. (Christian Worship 238:1,3)

And permit me to add:

  My tongue is like a fire,
  Igniting sin and strife.
  Lord, make my tongue light naught but this:
  The victory of Christ!

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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