SPEECH REVEALS ONE’S INNER CHARACTER AND WILL BE JUDGED
Walter Wilson: Sins such as blasphemy and slander warrant particular scrutiny in meting out judgment because speech reveals a person’s true character, a point illustrated by three examples of causal correspondence, namely,
- the correspondence between a tree and its fruit (12:33),
- the correspondence between a person’s heart and his or her mouth (12:34), and
- the correspondence between a treasure and the “things” its owner brings out of it (12:35)
If the structure of 12:31–32 relies especially on parallelism, the cluster of sayings in 12:33–37 is noteworthy for its use of antithesis.
Brian Evans: According to recent research done in the UK, Working men average 2000-3000 words per day, females from 10,000-20,000. However, both average about 500-700 words of actual value (i.e. words which have intent to communicate to another person an item of importance to both).
I’m not going to make any comments on this data except to say we all probably speak too much especially in light of the fact that we are going to give an account of every careless word we say.
Donald Hagner: The pericope can be outlined thus:
(1) the tree and the fruit, consisting of
(a) the good tree/fruit and
(b) the bad tree/fruit, these in perfectly symmetrical parallelism, and
(c) the conclusion of knowing by fruit (v 33);
(2) the relation between the heart and words of the mouth, consisting of
(a) a question directed to the Pharisees and
(b) the concluding point (v 34);
(3) the speech of good and bad persons, consisting again of two perfectly symmetrical clauses (v 35);
(4) the danger of careless words (v 36); and
(5) a concluding and summarizing principle, stated in two perfectly symmetrical clauses (v 37).
As the metaphor of the tree and its fruit was used in 7:16–20 to refer to works, so the same metaphor is used here in relation to words. Both works and words reveal the true nature of a person. The words of the Pharisees revealed their failure to receive the good news of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. It is in this sense that they were bad and they spoke bad things; indeed, they blasphemed the Holy Spirit (v 32). This passage calls attention to the importance of all speech; it warns of irresponsible or thoughtless speech as well as bad speech. It reminds the Christian readers of Matthew that on the day of judgment they will be held accountable for all the words they speak as well as the deeds they do. Righteousness consists always of both word and deed (cf. Col 3:17).
R. T. France: The Pharisees’ malicious charge now provides the setting for some further reflections on the power and significance of words (vv. 33–37); this complex of sayings is clearly applicable to what the Phasrisees have said, but may also be more widely applied, and may originally have been preserved independently of this particular narrative setting.
The imagery of the tree and its fruit recalls 7:16–20 (using the same terms “good” and “rotten”), but this saying is much more concise, and is expressed as a second-person imperative (“make the tree good/rotten”) which probably reflects a popular proverbial style, as in our “Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile” or “Give a dog a bad name.” It can hardly be intended as an actual command in view of the second clause: are we exhorted to create a rotten tree? The point of the proverb is the same as in 7:16–20: a person’s true nature is perceived by how they behave. The relevance of this piece of proverbial wisdom in context will be drawn out in the following verses with special reference to words, whereas in 7:16–20 it was probably more concerned with actions.
Bruce Hurt: Axiomatic means evident without proof or argument, self-evident, self-explanatory. If something is axiomatic, it seems to be obviously true. What Jesus is doing in this section is pointing out the root of the Pharisees’ problem, beginning with the axiom that a tree produces after its nature and is easily recognized by its fruit. Given the fact that the Pharisees have just uttered the most damning words a human being can speak, Jesus launches into a discussion of the tongue in Mt 12:33-37, concluding in verse 37 “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Thus it behooves us to pay careful attention to this section so that we come to understand the importance of our words and how they relate to our eternal destiny!
I. (:33-35) ASSOCIATION OF SPEECH WITH HEART CONDITION
A. (:33) Correspondence between Tree and Fruit –
Speech Reveals the Nature of the Heart
“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.”
Scott Harris: The verb “make” here is in the sense of “consider to be” in the same way we might say that “so and so is not the genius that some people make him.” The tree and its fruit must be considered either good or bad together. In effect Jesus is saying, “Either consider me and what I do as good, or consider me and what I do as bad. What I am will be known by what I do.” Who Jesus is must be determined by what He says and does regardless of personal feelings. Jesus’ words and works point undeniably to His goodness and Divine power.
Grant Osborne: Challenges the crowd to judge carefully between the Pharisees and Jesus. The “good tree” is Jesus, who proclaims God’s truths, and the “bad tree” is the leader who opposes God in Jesus and speaks against him. “A tree is known by its fruit” (cf. 7:20) challenges the hearers to differentiate between the evil talk/blasphemy of the Pharisees and the kingdom truths of Jesus. The point is that the Pharisees have “made” (double meaning) themselves evil, and so their proclamations have become evil.
John Nolland: It is from the fruit that the quality of a tree is finally to be discerned. Despite their pretensions to religious righteousness, these Pharisees have given themselves away by their reaction to what they have experienced.
William Hendriksen: Fruit and tree belong together. They must not be separated. Therefore to say that while the deeds of Jesus, such as demon-expulsion, healing the sick, etc., may be beneficial, yet he himself is bad, being a tool of Beelzebul, makes no sense. Who Jesus is must be determined by what he does: a tree is judged by its fruit.
Bruce Hurt: Ultimately their words put them in a bind as He pointed out in Mt 12:27. Why so? Because if they said what He was doing was evil, then their own sons were doing evil. But they considered what their own sons did as good. So He boxed them in a corner. They were trapped by their own words. Jesus is commanding them to be consistent because the character of His own life (GOOD) should have been clear to them from the good fruit He accomplished (healings and exorcisms were “good fruit“). Thus they should have called Him a “good tree” instead of a “bad tree.”
Brian Evans: The dynamic is that doing good things doesn’t make you good, doing good things shows you already are good through the work of the Holy Spirit has made you righteous so the righteous person does righteous things. The healthy tree produces healthy fruit.
B. (:34) Correspondence between Heart and Speech –
Speech Reflects the Overflow of What Fills the Heart
“You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good?
For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.”
Walter Wilson: In the current context, the emphasis falls on bad fruit, that is, the evil speech of the Pharisees, and as we know from 3:10, any tree that does not produce good fruit “is cut down and thrown into the fire” (cf. 13:30; 21:19, 43). That being the case, challenge (12:33) gives way to reproof (12:34), the latter formulated as an invective (12:34a), an ironic question (12:34b), and a supporting aphorism (12:34c). The last of these elements drives home the main point: sooner or later the mouth will disclose the content of one’s heart, that is, one’s true nature. Being evil themselves, the Pharisees are incapable of speaking anything that is good, blasphemy being among the sins that proceed from the heart, thereby defiling the entire person (15:18–19; cf. Jas 3:6).
Stanley Saunders: Adopting John the Baptizer’s epithet (cf. 3:7), Jesus calls the Pharisees “a brood of vipers” (cf. 23:33). Like the serpent in the garden, they are cunning orators, but their words deceive and destroy. They may sound “wise” and “intelligent” (cf. 11:25), but they will be held to account for their “useless,” “fruitless” words, uttered in order to discredit Jesus and deny God’s power. Whether by their actions or their words, the Pharisees demonstrate what tree they have fallen from.
C. (:35) Correspondence between Treasure and Product –
Speech Reflects Consistency with the Moral Condition of the Heart
“The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good;
and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil.”
D. A. Carson: It is the mouth that reveals what is in the heart. How, then, can those who are evil say anything good? What is needed is a change of heart.
Daniel Doriani: The people must have marveled at this dispute. Jesus healed a man who bore terrible burdens and suffered terrible bondage. His act was so obviously good; how could anyone criticize it? Jesus explained that the heart drives such antagonism. Words are hostile or mean-spirited when hearts are full of such thoughts: “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (12:34–35). Those who have an evil heart speak evil; those with a good heart declare good things. The Pharisees slandered Jesus because there was slander in their hearts. We must have good hearts if we hope to say good things. . .
Jesus says humans act according to their nature. If the heart is full of hate, the mouth says hateful things. The Pharisees slandered Jesus because there were slander and hatred in their hearts. Today, we gossip and criticize others because our hearts desire to promote self by condemning others. Cursing and insults, judgment and condemnation are the same. We speak from the abundance of the heart.
John Nolland: The point is probably that one’s actions (here one’s words) reveal what one most deeply values; they are what one brings out from one’s treasure trove to give to others.
D. A. Carson: It is the mouth that reveals what is in the heart. How, then, can those who are evil say anything good? What is needed is a change of heart.
Brian Evans: In Jesus’ day this word meant treasure house or storehouse. It also has in mind our definition a storehouse of words or a treasure chest of words.
Our Lord is telling us that when we speak it’s as if we go into our storehouse of words and pick from the treasure chest of words. The evil person only has evil words to pick from. Their treasure chest only has evil in it. Their speech comes from their deposit of words…slander, complaining, gossip, lying, manipulation and deceit. That’s what they say because that’s all they have.
The righteous person who is born again also has a treasure chest of words. We speak using words from our thesaurus.
II. (:36-37) ACCOUNTABILITY FOR SPEECH
A. (:36) Words Will Be Judged
“And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak,
they shall render account for it in the day of judgment.”
John Nolland: ἀργός means idle, unemployed, lazy, useless, or unproductive.
Warren Wiersbe: The phrase “idle word” in Matthew 12:36 means “words that accomplish nothing.” If God is going to judge our “small talk,” how much more will He judge our deliberate words? It is by our conversation at unguarded moments that we reveal our true character.
R. T. France: The point is not the casualness of the utterance, but its fallaciousness: “not … ‘thoughtless’ words, such as a carefree joke, but deedless ones, loafers which ought to be up and busy about what they say, the broken promise, the unpaid vow, words which said, ‘I go, sir’ and never went (Matt. 21:29).” The Pharisees’ charge against Jesus, which was far from “casual” or “thoughtless,” is such an utterance, purporting to be a defense of God’s truth but all the time working against his saving purpose. Reading this saying in its context therefore helps to avoid the excessive rigorism which a literal rendering of these words out of context can promote, and which can easily turn conscientious disciples into humorless pedants who are afraid to relax or to join in social banter. . .
What we say about Jesus and his miracles reveals who we are, and we are judged accordingly. This is Jesus’ diagnostic for our soul. He asks, “What do you say about me? What do you say in your most casual words to others?”
B. (:37) Words Determine Justification or Condemnation
“For by your words you shall be justified,
and by your words you shall be condemned.”
Brian Evans: There words did not sentence them to hell. Their words exposed a person who was already bound for hell. The charge that Jesus was really doing these miracles by the power of Satan shows what sort of blasphemers these people really were. The Holy Spirit was working through the ministry of Jesus and they were blaspheming His work.
Grant Osborne: This is a key passage in Matthew, the high point so to speak of opposition in the book. At the same time, the authority of Jesus is never more clear, and we see here that Satan is already defeated and bound by Jesus. Further, there is a stress not only on the Pharisees but also on the accountability of all of us before God for the words we speak. . .
What we say shows the kind of person we are. Jesus in vv. 33–35 shows how the mouth reflects the heart, i.e., the true person within us. James 1:19 states this well: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” In other words, “watch your mouth,” for as in Jas 3:5 the tongue is a small spark that sets a great forest ablaze. We must weigh our words carefully, avoid rudeness, and make certain that we edify rather than tear down others. James 3:1 – 4:12 especially concerns slander, but we must realize that gossip is passive slander and in some ways worse than slander, for slander at least is honest, wanting to hurt another person (cf. 2 Cor 12:20). Gossip doesn’t care enough to worry who is hurt but turns slander into entertainment!
Richard Gardner: In the final two verses, Jesus warns of the consequences for those who utter careless words, words that fail to serve a worthy end. Because the words we speak reveal who we are (cf. 15:18-19), God will acquit or condemn us on the basis of our words. For Matthew, this warning applies not only to Jesus’ contemporaries, but to later generations as well. It rebukes rabbinic critics of Jesus’ community in Matthew’s day. And it admonishes the community itself, especially those called to teach (cf. 5:19; James 3:1-12).
Robert Gundry: The traditional translation, “every idle word,” leaves the misimpression that Jesus is talking about random remarks. A truer translation is “every deedless word.” It goes without saying, at least for the moment, that in the Day of Judgment people will give an account of all their deeds (see 7:22–23, for example). Jesus is saying here that in the Day of Judgment people will give an account of their words as well as, and even apart from, their deeds—that is, whether or not their words had issued in deeds. “Every” individualizes the words and takes in all that’s spoken, whether good or evil. Whether or not followed up by a corresponding deed, speaking against the Holy Spirit examples an evil word that will lead to conviction. But a word of repentance, as in the confession of sins (see 3:6 with 3:2), that produces good deeds (“fruit in keeping with repentance” according to 3:8)—now there’s a basis for justification in the Day of Judgment!
William Hendriksen: The judgment passed upon the individual in the final day (see verse 36) is going to be “by,” in the sense of “in conformity with,” “in accordance with,” “in harmony with,” his words, considered as mirrors of the heart. These words will reveal whether he was a professed believer or an unbeliever; if a professed believer, whether his faith was genuine or faked. To be sure, a man is saved by grace alone, through faith, apart from any works considered as if they have earning power. Nevertheless, his works – this includes his words – supply the needed evidence showing whether or not he was and is a child of God. Moreover, if this judgment turns out favorably, the works, reflecting the man’s degree of loyalty to his Maker and Redeemer, figure in the determination of his degree of glory. They figure similarly in establishing the degree of punishment for those who perish. Jesus wants each individual to meditate upon this important truth, that he may be justified (declared righteous in the sight of God) and not condemned.