The Power of Words, Matthew 12:36-37

Perhaps you remember learning as a child to say, in response to taunts:

Sticks and stones will break my bones / But words will never hurt me.

To the contrary, Jesus says our words can hurt us forever.

Matthew 12:36-37

36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

Who must account for their words?


Frivolous. That is probably my best summary of social media. My apologies to those who indulge. For those who use social media in a hostile way, the summary might be: hateful. The unfortunate truth is that the twenty-first century offers more opportunity than ever to misuse words.

Personally, I subscribe to the speech-act theory, which holds that there is little to no difference between speech and action. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer explains that we do something in speaking: “To speak is not simply to utter words but to ask questions, issue commands, make statements, express feelings, request help, and so forth.”[1] So true!

A great deal of what goes on in Matthew 12 hinges on words. The people light a fire under the Pharisees by calling Jesus “Son of David” (verse 23). The Pharisees attribute Jesus miracles to the power of Beelzebul (verse 24), an alternate name for Satan. Jesus says that such blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (verse 32), either now or later.

Against the idea that the First Amendment authorizes us to say whatever we like, Jesus says that we will be compelled to account for every empty word (verse 36). The crucial word in this phrase is the Greek adjective argon, which the standard Greek lexicon takes here to mean: “a careless utterance which, because of its worthlessness, had better been left unspoken.”[2] In agreement with “careless” are English versions HCSB, ESV and NASB. The NET Bible is close to that with “worthless.” I suppose the reason that I don’t like the NIV’s choice (“empty”) is that speech-act theory leads me to think that no word fails to make an impression. Remember that the words Jesus was condemning were words about God.

Now that we know what kind of words Jesus condemns, we need to return to verse 36 for some important work. Jesus informs us that we will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word. Does this mean that Christians can never joke about anything in a playful way? No! But it does mean that we speak about God in a respectful way without exception.

How will this revelation affect the way you speak, both to God and to others?

Some of you were peeved that the NSA was monitoring your electronic communications. Well, I have news for you: God has a surveillance program that records every word you say! Further, he may react to our words in real time. Jesus signals the importance of what he is saying in two ways. First, he begins with the phrase “I tell you,” a method of highlighting what follows. Second, he uses a certain Greek particle that marks a development in the progress of an account. To say words are important is one thing, but to bring them up on the day of judgment puts the matter on another level.

Verse 37 makes it obvious that our words are considered to be a fruit that makes it possible to show whether we are a good tree or a bad tree, in the metaphor of verse 33. If you have never been to court, understand that the difference between acquittal and condemnation is huge. As my old textbook on sea power said with classic understatement: “A collision at sea can ruin your entire day.” One day that you do not want to be ruined is judgment day!

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally prepared for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) 63.

[2] BDAG-3, argon, careless, q.v.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!

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