Words Matter

33 “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. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:33-37 ESV

Jesus was anything but politically correct. He did not mince words or sugarcoat His opinions. And while He was filled with compassion for the lost, hopeless, and needy, He could be merciless with the self-styled religious leaders of His day. He viewed these men as overly self-important and enemies to His kingdom cause. He would later describe them as roadblocks to the gospel itself. Not satisfied with their own rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, they were determined to keep anyone from following Him. And Jesus describes the results of their efforts in stark terms.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. – Matthew 23:13 NLT

These men, buoyed by their own sense of self-justified spiritual superiority, were blind to all that was taking place before their eyes. They could not bring themselves to see and accept the evidence of the coming kingdom. They couldn’t explain the miraculous works Jesus did, so they simply wrote them off as demonic in nature. Rather than accept Jesus as Messiah, they accused Him of being a servant of Satan. And now, Jesus is going to expose the damning nature of their own words.

The vitriol emanating from their mouths was nothing more than the byproduct of their own hearts. Words of praise and profanity flowed from the same lips. Somehow, they were able to offer prayers to God, while at the same time uttering blasphemies against the Spirit of God. And their words condemned them.

The apostle James would later describe the nature of their problem.

…no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:8-10 NLT

While Jesus begins His attack on the Pharisees by emphasizing their “bad fruit,” His focus is on their words. All that Jesus says in these verses is tied to the accusation the Pharisees leveled against Him.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

They falsely accused Jesus, and their words revealed the sorry state of their hearts. They despised Him and were out to destroy Him. Their hearts were filled with jealousy, envy, pride, arrogance, hatred, and even thoughts of murder. And Jesus places all the emphasis on their words. What they were saying was important because it exposed the inner condition of their hearts. They didn’t believe in Jesus. That was painfully obvious. And all their outward displays of righteous behavior stood in stark contrast to their words. It really didn’t matter how often they prayed, how many laws they kept, how holy they appeared, or how well-respected they appeared to be. It was the words they spoke in regards to Jesus. And long after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, the apostle Paul would write:

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. – Romans 10:9-10 NLT

The Pharisees refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They would even go out of their way to put Him to death. And even after news of His resurrection would spread throughout Israel, they would continue to reject Him as the one sent from God. Even the empty tomb and the documented appearances of Jesus would fail to dissuade the Pharisees from their disbelief. And Jesus would later describe their stubborn refusal to believe in His parable about Lazarus and the rich man.

If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” – Luke 16:31 NLT

These men were experts in the Hebrew Scriptures. They were intimately familiar with the writings of Moses and the prophets, but they were incapable of seeing all that those writings contained regarding the Messiah. Everything Jesus said and did was in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. But they couldn’t see it.

And Jesus is not surprised by their actions. In fact, He seems to indicate that He expected nothing less from them.

“How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say.” – Matthew 12:34 NLT

Their behavior was in keeping with their hearts. They were bad trees producing bad fruit. Their spiritual reservoirs were filled with bad treasure, so it was not surprising to see them spending their tainted resources to accomplish evil outcomes. But notice that Jesus shifts the focus from the present to the future. While their evil words and bad fruit were making an impact on the here-and-now, Jesus wanted them to know that it was the hereafter they needed to worry about.

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 12:36-37 ESV

Which brings us back to the words of Paul:

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. – Romans 10:9-10 NLT

Jesus was not saying that these men could save themselves from eternal condemnation by saying good things rather than bad things. He was not suggesting that men’s behavior and speech will be the criteria by which they will be judged. He is emphasizing that confession of Him as Lord and Savior will be the only means by which men are justified before God. Only by a declaration of faith in Jesus as Savior will any be saved. Words matter.

Later on, Jesus would ask His disciples an important and revealing question:

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” – Matthew 16:13 ESV

And the answers they gave reveal the confusion among the people concerning Jesus.

“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” – Matthew 16:14 ESV

Notice what’s missing. There is no mention of the Messiah. The people were intrigued by Jesus but still unconvinced as to His true identity. Then Jesus makes the question personal, asking His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15 ESV).

And Peter, always the impetuous and impulsive one, responded:

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” – Matthew 16:16 ESV

And Jesus went on to commend Peter for his answer and to emphasize that his confession of Jesus as the Christ would be the foundational truth upon which the entire church would be built. Belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, would become the sole criteria by which man’s justification with God would be made possible.

But the Pharisees did not share Peter’s perspective. In their minds, Jesus was a glutton, drunkard, friend of sinners, heretic, and a threat to their religious way of life. As far as they were concerned, Jesus wasn’t the Christ, the Son of the living God, He was a tool of Satan and an unwanted pest to be exterminated. But Jesus wanted them to know that their words of false accusation were going to have longterm ramifications.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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