Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 12:36 (Holman) “I tell you that on the day of judgment people will
have to account for every careless word they speak.”
Human language is fascinating. We study it grammatically, arranging sentences according to our society’s accepted rules of communication.
We analyze language etymologically, tracing from other languages the roots of our words. We study language philosophically, viewing words in relation to what they are meant to explain or describe.
Jesus taught us to view language morally. Words matter to God. They are never too insignificant to be on His radar screen. He hears and weighs our every conversation.
The Pharisees, like many of us, did not realize the huge weight of guilt their words were accumulating. They thought they were assessing Jesus, but He was assessing them. He warned them they would be judged according to their words.
Christian faith is vitally concerned with words. We know words matter to God. David said to God, “You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:3). Words of adoration form the seats, throne, and walls of a throne room God indwells and overrules.
On Judgment Day we will better appreciate the value of words. We will be held responsible for all we thought and did, plus for all we said.
Our words are being recorded. They are written not on paper or parchment, which time can erase, but on God’s indestructible pages of Judgment.
“Careless” words will return to haunt us. The Greek term is the negative particle “a” prefixed to the word meaning work. Thus, careless words are words not working, like money lying idle, unused, yielding no interest, profiting no one.
Careless does not refer to routine conversations we regularly engage in. Nor is the reference to innocent humor. These are helpful, not careless, words. As the weekly Sabbath rests our bodies, innocent talking and humor rest our minds.
Our context teaches careless words are ones which defame God, hurt others, or egotistically promote self. Careless words would include profanity, vulgarity, spiritual whining, excessive complaining, malice, envy, anger, deceit, vanity.
By touching our words, Jesus dealt with us in an area we all struggle with. Each of us has trouble with speech. We find it hard to control our words. They can be the ultimate test of our spirituality. “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body” (James 3:2b).
God put a hedge around our words. He ordained babies would not talk until they had a certain level of understanding. He laid a five-fold barrier for our words to hurdle: diaphragm, larynx, tongue, teeth, lips. He set the mouth between the brain and heart, as if to say it needed to consult both before speaking. He gave us one mouth and two ears, as if to say we should listen twice before speaking once.
Despite these built-in God-given precautions, no outward sins are more often committed than those of the mouth. Why is this the case?
One, the huge number of words we speak. The average person daily engages in about 30 conversations, and uses thousands of words, enough to fill a book of 50-60 pages. We annually speak more than 100 books of 200 pages each.
Over a lifetime, we speak enough words to fill a library. Some of you could fill the Springfield Library; some of us could fill the Library of Congress.
We talk a lot. Thus, we are in danger of sinning from the get go. The Bible says, “When there are many words, sin is unavoidable” (Proverbs 10:19).
Two, we underestimate the damage our words can inflict. “Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21a). Words can help and build up people. Words can also quickly tear down much more than they lift up.
Tongues can slash and destroy. Underestimating the widespread carnage our harsh words can cause, we indulge too many liberties with our tongue.
Three, we trivialize verbal sins. We think sins of the tongue, compared to other sins, are insignificant. “God has bigger fish to fry than my piddling words, doesn’t He?” The answer, according to our text, is no.
Ugly words glibly pass over our tongues, defaming God and hurting others, yet we deem these verbal jabs trivial. We don’t think our mean, evil words are a huge crime.
Beware; tread lightly. “The one who guards his mouth protects his life; the one who opens his lips invites his own ruin” (PR 13:3). It may seem a small thing in which I disobey God, but it is never a small thing to disobey God (Melvill).
Unbelievers sometimes seem to understand this better than believers do. Recently I tried to engage a prechristian in spiritual conversation. He quickly launched into what was obviously his oft-repeated excuse for not believing.
He told of two close acquaintances who claimed to be Christians, yet had profane, vulgar mouths. The hypocrisy of so-called believers is never an acceptable excuse for rejecting Jesus, but this man’s story does emphasize the serious nature of verbal sins.
Four, we think we are strong enough to control our tongues on our own. Not true. This battle requires much prayer. The Psalmist, knowing this, prayed, “Lord, set up a guard for my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). We need to have our incriminating words blocked and choked. This requires a miracle only Jesus can perform.
Matthew 12:37 “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
In our parlance, we would say, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law.”
Each of us has been arraigned. We are headed to court. An unbeliever told a preacher, “I always spend Sunday settling my accounts.” The preacher replied the man would spend Judgment Day doing the same thing.
We will be judged on the basis of our words and works because they embody our faith or non-faith. Words and works are “objective, observable evidence of a person’s spiritual condition” (MacArthur). What we say and do accurately reflects our heart.
Heaven and Hell are determined by our acceptance or rejection of Jesus in this lifetime. God’s judgment of our words and works will prove to us His reckoning of our everlasting spiritual condition was accurate.