In Matthew 7:20, Jesus concluded a short parable in the sermon on the mount by saying, “…by their fruits you will know them.” In Matthew 12, our Lord used the same teaching. Notice:
Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings for evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:33-37)
Earlier in the context of Matthew 12, Jesus healed one who had been blind and mute because of a demon (verse 22). This amazed the crowd, who began to ask, “Could this be the Son of David?” (verse 23). The Pharisees, wanting to quell such a thought, declared, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (verse 24). Jesus’ response was threefold:
- Their claim was an illogical absurdity. Will Satan battle against himself? He is evil, but he is not dumb (verses 25-26).
- Their claim was prejudicial. If Jesus used Beelzebub to cast out demons, what about their sons? On what basis should judge his work to be evil but their work to be good? (verses 27)
- God’s power was on display. This was of God, who is greater than the evil one. (verse 28-29).
The Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus (verse 30) and specifically to the works He did by the Spirit of God was blasphemous (v 31-32) and damning. Their hostility towards Jesus led them to reject clear evidence that He was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God.
Our text follows naturally from this foregoing context. A tree is known by its fruit. The Pharisees failed to rightly judge the fruit and thus the source of the fruit. Jesus did good deeds—many good deeds. Casting out demons and healing the sick were good fruit coming forth from a good tree. Meanwhile, the Pharisees, as Jesus would reveal throughout His ministry, were bad trees bearing bad fruit.
The immediate application our Lord made was regarding their speech. As good fruit is to a bad tree, so is good speech to an evil heart. I met a man for the first time yesterday and spoke to him very briefly, but he left an impression. He had a jovial disposition, but in a 20-second interaction his words revealed the state of his heart. He openly and unashamedly cussed and cursed in the company of people he had just met, including several children. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
From this, the Lord proceeds to give a parallel to His tree/fruit statement. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things” (Matthew 12:35). Our works and our words—what we do and what we say—will reveal our heart.
Jesus gave a stern warning:
…I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36-37)
McGarvey, speaking on Matthew 12:36 said,
It may have seemed to some that Jesus denounced too severely a saying which the Pharisees had hastily and lightly uttered. But it is the word inconsiderately spoken which betrays the true state of the heart. The hypocrite can talk like an angel if he be put on notice that his words are heard. (The Fourfold Gospel)
The Scriptures say we will be judged “according to our works” (Psalm 62:12; Proverbs 24:12; Romans 2:6; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 2:23; 20:12; 22:12). But our character is seen, not just in what we do but also what we say. Thus, Jesus cautions us against “idle words” (Gr. argov, lazy, useless, barren, Strong’s). Wisdom Solomon stated:
…in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity. But fear God. (Ecclesiastes 5:7)
Let us exercise discretion and wisdom in our speech.