Matthew 12:36, 37
“I tell you, on the Day of Judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Columnist Michael Coren advocates a revival of judgemental attitudes. He isn’t suggesting that we need to say one thing and do another, but rather he means that we need to say and do what honours God. I tend to agree with him on this issue. Society is increasingly obsessed with individual rights and “fairness.” However, in our rush to appear non-judgemental and fair we have opted for dishonest speech.
If we can change the name, perhaps we will change the action, transforming it into something acceptable. We no longer call sin “sin;” and crime is no longer “crime.” We have confused morality with manners and compassion with sentimentality; “nice” has supplanted “good.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of sex and sexuality. We're told we should now call prostitutes, “sex-trade workers” and strippers, “exotic dancers.” But they're not. They're prostitutes and strippers. And “Johns” are fornicators.
We use the real, genuine descriptions not to degrade women who sell their bodies and remove their clothes for money but to degrade and denounce the professions themselves. A prostitute may or may not be a good and fine woman, but she is behaving in a manner that is certainly not good and fine.
Coren concludes, “This cult of the euphemism is like a disease. It sickens our understanding, it weakens our defences, and it upsets our sense of truth. And if anyone thinks words don't really matter they're not only foolish but clearly wouldn't object to having their mother called a filthy name.
“We wouldn't, for example, suddenly call a torturer a Pain Operative or, more pertinent perhaps, describe a pimp as a Sex Enabler.
“Marriage is not living together and a common-law marriage may be common but it's not a marriage. It goes without saying, of course, that while homosexual couples may be happy and loving, they can never be married in spite of what politicians and legal zealots try to tell us.
“If you tell lies, you're a liar. If you steal you're a thief. If you betray your spouse, you're an adulterer. If you use drugs for fun you're pathetic. If you believe in unjust wars, you're a coward and a bully.
“If you support abortion, you believe in killing unborn children. If you're indifferent to the poor and the Third World, you're a selfish wretch. Still there? Doesn't matter.
“Any attempt to legitimize what is by nature illegitimate does not make us a more fair society but merely a less honest one.
“We need a restoration of stigma. We need to reintroduce the concept of sin. We need to become more judgmental.”
Words are vital; and they can be used as weapons. Unfortunately, even professed Christians are tempted to change the meaning of words in a display of aberrant social justice for those considered to be unempowered or in order to soften the impact of our actions. In 1974, Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, “Whatever Became of Sin.” He concluded that sin had not disappeared, but that we no longer believed in repentance. In psychological terms, we no longer own our sin. We are not willing to accept responsibility for our actions, and consequently, like Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking-Glass,” words mean just what we choose them to mean—neither more nor less.
When Jesus spoke the words recorded in our text, He was cautioning against permitting our words to be evil, accomplishing what is wicked and evil. He was warning that we must accept responsibility both for what we say and for the impact of our words.
Background for the Message — In order to understand Jesus’ meaning when He spoke the words of our text, it is necessary to remember the context of His words. It was the Sabbath, and Jesus, in the company of His disciples, was walking through a grain field. Passing through the field, the disciples plucked some of the grain because they were hungry. Some Pharisees saw what they were doing and complained to the Master. After all, according to the rules they had established for observing the Sabbath, the disciples were not honouring the Law of Moses [Matthew 12:1, 2].
Understand that the rules were made up by religious leaders. They were not part of the Mosaic Law. Consequently, Jesus responded by citing for them an event that occurred as David fled from Saul. He also quoted for them Hosea 6:6, a passage that pointedly reminded them that God sought a changed heart and not mere outward form, before declaring Himself “Lord of the Sabbath” [Matthew 12:3-8].
If His response to their complaining were not enough to infuriate them, then what He did next was calculated to drive them mad with rage—Jesus healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue. Mark seems to indicate that the situation was a set-up, designed to entice Jesus into deliberately violating the Sabbath laws. Notice especially the first two verses of Mark three. “[Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him” [Mark 3:1, 2].
Did you catch that? A man with a withered hand was prominently situated to ensure that Jesus saw him as He entered the synagogue. Whether the man was party to the ruse or a dupe is not evident. Mark is careful to state that those present in the synagogue “watched Jesus to see whether He would heal [the crippled man].” It is apparent that many who were present on that day were in on the secret that they would catch Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If He ignored the man with the withered hand, they would be able to point out that He was not compassionate. If He healed the man, they could castigate Him as a violator of the Sabbath rules, telling the people that He did not honour the Law of Moses or the teachings of the religious leaders.
The account continues by informing us that Jesus called the man with the withered hand to come to Him. Then, He asked those standing there a question they had failed to consider. “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” However, the Word of God notes that they were silent. I especially want you to notice Jesus’ reaction to this hypocrisy: “He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” The Master then commanded the man to stretch out his hand. When he stretched it out, his hand was restored [Mark 3:3-5].
The response of the religious leaders at being exposed as hypocrites was to conspire against Jesus, making plans to destroy Him [Matthew 12:14]. Something like that happens to this day whenever hypocrites are exposed. They withdraw and conspire against those they hate. Instead of changing their actions and confronting their errant attitudes, they are enraged and begin to plot evil.
Jesus’ response was to withdraw [Matthew 12:15], seeking to lower the tension in the face of pharisaical rage. However, He could not avoid fulfilling the ministry the Father had assigned. When a demon-oppressed man was brought to Him, He healed Him [Matthew 12:22]. The people began to wonder aloud whether He could indeed be the promised Messiah, but the Pharisees responded by speaking ill of Him. Jesus’ response was to caution them against becoming so hardened in their hearts that they were eternally disqualified from the grace of God—He cautioned then against committing what we have come to identify as “the unpardonable sin.”
Jesus continued by saying, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the Day of Judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” [Matthew 12:33-36].
These words are reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching on another day. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognise them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognise them by their fruits” [Matthew 7:15-20]. A tree is to its fruit what a person’s heart is to his or her speech. You can recognise what people are by their speech.
It is important for us to look more carefully at Jesus’ cautionary words in verses 33 and 34. The Pharisees had ascribed the deliverance of a demon-oppressed man to the power of Satan. Jesus pointed out that a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit. If they are calling the tree rotten, then they are confessing that the fruit is rotten as well. Likewise, if they are saying that the fruit is good, then the tree must likewise be good. Fruit and root are intimately interconnected.
In the same way, we cannot say that one has a good message, but that he has evil motives. Either the message is good and the motive is good, or the message is bad and the motive is equally bad. It is a caution for us to avoid making thoughtless accusations against others. Either their fruit, the words of their mouth, reflects the presence of Christ, or their fruit reflects that they are consumed by the self.
In verses 33 and 34, it is evident that Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees. They had accused Him of being in league with Satan; their accusations at last elicited a response. Jesus clearly addressed the religious leaders, calling them a “brood of vipers.” However, in verses 36 and 37, Jesus addresses all people. First of all, this particular saying of Jesus is found only in Matthew’s Gospel; neither Mark nor Luke records these words. However, in the verses of our text, Jesus is addressing all men and not the Pharisees only. When Jesus warns that by our words we will either be justified or condemned, He is speaking to all of us. Finally, He formally introduces these verses with an introductory formula, “I tell you.” This approximates the most formal introduction possible, “Truly, truly,” or “I tell you the truth.” It is a way of setting up a particularly important saying.
What is vital to our meditation today is the knowledge that what is said is indicative of the state of the heart. God is holy and God is omniscient. Therefore, God knows who we are and He knows what we are; He will not excuse even the idle words that we have spoken.
We Must Give an Account to God — One great lesson we should draw from this text is that we must account for who we are. Jesus states this truth by saying that we must “give account for every careless word” spoken. Many sages attest that our speech reveals who we are, but Jesus intensifies the importance of watching our speech by stating that even our careless words are under divine scrutiny. We should be aware that God does not listen to us only when we are in Sunday School or in Bible Study.
There are several judgements identified in the Word of God. There is the judgement of sin at the Cross of Christ. Long years before the First Advent of the Lord, Isaiah wrote:
“Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.”
Paul declares of our Saviour, “For our sake, [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” [2 Corinthians 5:21]. We know that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law become a curse for us” [Galatians 3:13]. All who have faith in the Risen Son of God are freed from condemnation because they have received the forgiveness of sin. Christ has said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” [John 5:24].
We know that the nations surviving the Great Tribulation will be judged before the Master at His return. How awesome is the description provided in the Olivet
Discourse! There, Jesus is recorded as saying, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” [Matthew 25:31-33]. Those navigating those dark days will be judged before the reigning Son of God in the presence of His holy angels.
We also know that all sinners, those who have rejected the Saviour and who died as lost people, will be raised to stand before His Great White Throne. John paints a truly awesome picture of that judgement. “I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” [Revelation 20:11-15].
There is also the Judgement Seat of Christ before which all who are saved shall one day stand. Paul describes that judgement in his second letter to the Corinthian Church. The Apostle testifies, “We must all appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” [2 Corinthians 5:10].
While it is true this judgement is designed to reveal the perfection of Christ’s work in His redeemed people, I cannot escape the knowledge that we will be revealed as an open book before the searching eyes of the Lord Jesus. Paul says of that judgement, “If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” [1 Corinthians 3:12-15].
The apostle’s warning found in Romans 14:10-12, should give all Christians pause. “We will all stand before the Judgement Seat of God; for it is written,
“‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.’
“So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
As a pastor, I am even more conscious of the importance of accountability. At the conclusion of the Letter to the Hebrew Christians is an admonition to all Christians. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be no advantage to you” [Hebrews 13:17].
In the context of the message, I note that this verse teaches that we who have received appointment from God must give an account. I quite properly conclude that the accounting we must give is to the Master and it is for our ministry and for our oversight. However, Christians seem often to neglect the final statement of this verse that cautions that failure to obey is of not advantage to the saints. The reason for this cautionary note is that all Christians must give an account of their life and their service.
Words spoken hastily and in anger are certainly subject to divine judgement. However, Jesus warns that even our careless, thoughtless words will bring us into judgement before His throne. Ours is a rebellious society. We have assumed that the church is a democracy and that 50% plus one lends legitimacy to our actions. However, our actions and our speech are judged by a fixed standard of righteousness revealed in the Word of God. Consequently, the issue is whether we are righteous according to God’s standard and not whether we feel good about what we have done or said. Thus, we are accountable as Christians for every word spoken.
Canadians admire rugged individualism. Consequently, we have a long history of admiring the rebel, a history of looking with approval on resistance to authority. We agree with anyone putting those in authority “in their place.” Should we lack the courage to speak directly to those with whom we disagree, we have no compunction about bruiting about our displeasure and speaking dismissively about the message of God’s leaders. However, as one appointed to this service by the Lord Christ, I caution you to recall David’s words when given opportunity to harm Saul: “who can put out his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless” [1 Samuel 26:9]. This was but a practical application of the words of the Lord, cited by the Psalmist, “Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm” [Psalm 105:15].
How Speech Betrays Us — In order to understand how speech betrays us, we need to look at verses 34 and 35. Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” These words were spoken to the Pharisees. However, they serve to underpin what Jesus would say to all of us.
I encourage you to recall Jesus’ teaching that is recorded in Matthew 15:11. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” The Master would later explain to His disciples, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” [Matthew 15:19]. This instruction is but an iteration of the words Jesus spoke in our text. What you are is not necessarily seen through what you do; but in unguarded moments, your speech exposes the true state of your heart. It is entirely possible to be pious, masking the condition of your heart; but your mouth will ultimately betray you.
Doctor Boice is undoubtedly correct when he observes, “These verses are more sobering even than Jesus’ teaching about the unforgivable sin. In the previous section, the words he is talking about are evil or particularly malicious words, but here they are merely “careless” or idle words. They are something of which every one of us, not just especially depraved or evil persons, is guilty. But, says Jesus, even these words are sufficient to condemn you at God’s judgment.”
Consider the importance the Apostle Paul attaches to our speech as Christians. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” [Ephesians 4:29]. Guard your mouth. “You must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” [Colossians 3:8]. Guard your tongue. “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” [Ephesians 5:4]. Guard your speech.
This is the basis for James’ cautionary words to be cautious about wishing to be a teacher of the Word. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 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! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” [James 3:1-12].
Our words are anything but trifling and unimportant. Instead, what we say is of grave importance to our eternal welfare and to the welfare of those with whom we speak. Solomon observed, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” [Proverbs 18:21]. Our words have an impact in the mind of those we meet; long after we are dead, the impact of our words may live on in the life of those who heard us. A thoughtless scoff or a joke implying that we give no thought of God, may well affect those who hear us. Our children are moulded to a significant extent through the words they hear us speak. And friends will be influenced either for good or for evil through our speech. Our words are physically transient, but morally permanent.
Jesus was saying that one could expect the Pharisees to blaspheme the Spirit of God because their hearts were so corrupt. Though they appeared righteous to most other people in that day, Jesus saw their true condition and cautioned all who claimed to love God to look much deeper than the façade that most of mankind wears.
The doctrine that a pious exterior does not mean anything in the Kingdom of God is disturbing precisely because we want to think that those who are pious are also godly. The teaching Jesus provided is complemented by the testimony of the author of Hebrews. “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit … if they then fall away… If we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” [Hebrews 6:4, 6; 10: 26, 27].
This sorrowful doctrine finds sad proof in much of human relationships. As Bishop Ryle has astutely observed, “the unconverted children of godly parents … and the unconverted members of evangelical congregations are the hardest people on earth to impress. They seem past feeling.”
Focusing on the text, Jesus cautioned that careless words are subject to judgement. We are accustomed to thinking that deliberately wicked words will be judged, but He taught that careless words expose who we are. “Careless” translates a Greek term that meant “without work.” The thought is that these are words that were not meant to produce anything. In other words, He had in view words that were casually spoken with no particular intent. However, the impact of the words was blasphemous. The concept is narrowly defined in our day, but Paul captures the intent of the Master when he says that “some people slanderously charge[d]” him with saying things he never said [Romans 3:8]. The intent of Jesus’ cautionary words is demonstrated as well in Paul’s instruction to Titus that Christians are “to speak evil of no one” [Titus 3:2].
In the parable of the ten minas, the lazy servant is be judged by his own words. There, Jesus states that the master of the servant judged the slacker with his own words, “I will condemn you with your own words” [Luke 19:22]. Where our words do not lead to our justification before God, they must lead to our condemnation.
I speak as I do today, not because I seek to discomfort those who share this service, though the words will undoubtedly make some uncomfortable. I speak plainly because Christ the Lord warns us against presuming against grace. As mortals, we are responsible for our speech. How much greater our responsibility when we claim to bear the image of the Son of God? Therefore, I urge each Christian to check his or her speech, ensuring that we do not dishonour the Saviour through wicked speech. This will be accomplished as we bring our hearts under His rule and resist the temptation of the flesh to exercise our own will against His reign over our lives.
For all who are outside the precincts of grace, for you who have never believed the message of life, you cannot speak well because your heart is not cleansed from sin. You have need to be born from above and into the Kingdom of God. This new birth is the heritage of all who receive Christ as Master of life. This is the meaning of the call of God to “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” By this means, one is saved. “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” [Romans 10:9, 10]. The Word of God is quite clear that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” [Romans 10:13].
If you would honour the Son of God, you must receive Him as Lord of life. If you will speak in such a way as to avoid judgement, you must receive the cleansing that He alone can give. If you would have your words justify your life, you must ensure that fount from which they flow is pure. This is the call of the church to all who listen to the message this day. Believe that Christ died because of your sin. Receive Him as Master of your life and be set free from all condemnation. Do it now. May God bless us as we seek to honour Him, believing His promise and receiving His sacrifice. Amen.
 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 The opening paragraphs were adapted from an editorial by Michael Coren, “‘Tis the time to judge,” Toronto Sun, December 9, 2006, http://www.torontosun.com/News/Columnists/Coren_Michael/2006/12/09/2703254.html, accessed 9 December 2006
 Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin (Hawthorne Books, New York, NY 1973)
 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (Millennium Fulcrum Edition, 1.7, 1994), http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files+34643&pageno=45
 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew: The King and His Kingdom, Volume 1 (Baker, Grand Rapids, MI 2001) 215-6
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew (Marshall Morgan and Scott, London, U.K. 1989) 122-3
 See William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 2, Daily Study Bible (Westminster, Philadelphia 1975) 46