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).
Why do words carry so much weight, that we would have to account for every careless word, and that our words would establish our justification or condemnation? Jesus’ words in today’s passage suggest two answers. First, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (12:34). Our words reveal our hearts. Words are not the only things that reveal the heart—Jesus says also that our treasure reveals our hearts—but if you want to know who you are, examine your words. In the end, we stand condemned or justified before God. Our words just show us who we are. After all, a tree is known by its fruit.
Secondly, “the good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (12:35). Words have power, either to cleanse or to contaminate the world into which they are spoken. I have a hunch that the familiar but ridiculous adage that I heard growing up—“sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”—was made up as a defense, precisely because words can be so terribly destructive. We know the destructive power of an evil word. And we know the power of a good word to bless. And because God loves his world, and those therein, he takes words very seriously.
Be especially careful of the careless word—the spontaneous criticism tacked on to a request, the unnecessary revelation of the shortcomings of another, even the unguarded word said in your own heart, unheard by anyone else. Not only will you keep an evil word from infecting the world, but it may even be that ceasing to speak evil and learning to speak good words will effect your own heart. After all, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
Jesus himself understood the power of a word: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Is it any wonder that God sends Jesus out into an evil world on the strength of a good word?
Facing Esau, Facing God
For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Jacob is facing perhaps the greatest crisis of his life—facing Esau. The same brother from whom Jacob took both his blessing and his birthright is now, years later, coming to meet him with 400 men. It is understandable that Jacob fears that Esau still wants to kill him.
In preparation for this meeting, Jacob sends ahead a gift for the very understandable purpose of appeasing Esau. The ESV translates Jacob’s thinking as follows: “for he thought, ‘I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.’” Hidden from view in this English translation are two very loaded OT words, both of which are used of the relationship between God and the sinner. The first is kipper, which is the central word for atonement in the Old Testament, most often used when speaking of the propitiating effects of sacrifice. The second word is nasa, a word that literally means to bear or to carry, and is one of the two words commonly used for forgiveness (e.g. Exodus 34:6). Thus, the sentence could be translated “for he thought, ‘I may propitiate him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will forgive me.’” What Jacob needs is Esau’s forgiveness, thereby being freed from Esau’s wrath. But Jacob remains fearful, and for a very simple reason: he does not know if his gift will turn away Esau’s wrath.
Our predicament is far graver than that of Jacob, for we face not the wrath of a wronged older brother, but rather the wrath of a God who was wronged. And yet, despite the depth of our danger, we are not in the position of Jacob, uncertain of whether or not God will forgive us. Why? Because the gift that buys our forgiveness is not our gift. Rather it is a gift given by God. Hear these words from Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 1:23-25). We can be sure that the gift given to secure our forgiveness is accepted by God because it is the gift of God’s own choosing, of God’s own giving, for it is God who put Christ Jesus forward as a propitiating gift. In other words, it is God who makes propitiation. Would God reject his own gift?
Any gift we might seek to give would be insufficient. But we need not fear. We only need to believe that his gift—the gift of Christ Jesus—is.