What are the “idle” words referred to in Matthew 12:36?
Jesus said we are accountable for every “idle word” we speak
According to Matthew 12:36-37 (NLT) Jesus said this to the Pharisees: “you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you”. The Greek word argos – here translated as “idle” – means “inactive, unfruitful, barren, lazy, useless or unprofitable.” This word was also used to describe inactive workers (Mt. 20:3,6), young widows who were busybodies and gossips who didn’t care for their children and homes (1 Tim. 5:13), gluttonous Cretans (Ti. 1:12), and unproductive believers (2 Pet. 1:8). Notice that in all these instances argos described people.
There are two instances in the New Testament where argos is used metaphorically to describe a person’s words (Mt. 12:36) and faith unaccompanied by works (Jas. 2:20). So the “idle” words of Matthew 12:36 (NKJV, NLT) are those that are ineffective and worthless. Other translations call them “empty” (NIV), “careless” (ESV, NASB, CSB, CEV), or “worthless” (NET) conversation. Now let’s look at the context of this verse.
After Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, the common people thought He was Israel’s Messiah, but the Pharisees disagreed and said that the miracle had been performed under Satan’s power (Mt. 12:22-32). They said “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons” (Mt 12:24). However, Jesus said that the miraculous power had come from the Holy Spirit. Jesus then told the Pharisees that a tree is recognized by its fruit – a good tree having good fruit and a bad tree having bad fruit (Mt. 12:33-35). Similarly, their unjustified accusations came from their evil lives. Then Jesus said, “I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt. 12:36-37NIV). Because the words spoken are an accurate indication of a person’s inner life, they are a suitable basis for the judgment of that life.
Regarding “the day of judgment,” in the case of unbelievers, it is at “the great white throne” where the Lord Jesus is the judge. Their destiny is the lake of fire and their degree of punishment is “according to what they have done” (Rev. 20:11,13,15; Jn. 5:22). The words spoken by unbelievers during their life will condemn them. For example, the Pharisees will be judged for claiming that Jesus was empowered by demons. They said that Jesus performed miracles by the power of Satan rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the case of believers, their judgment is at “the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). Their destiny is to be with Christ forever, as the penalty for their sin – including careless speech – has been paid through His death on the cross. The Lord will reward them “for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). Speech and behavior that is unconfessed and therefore unforgiven will reduce one’s reward at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Jn. 1:9).
So, an idle word is one that is useless for productive communication and somehow does damage. Every such empty or careless word will be judged because it reveals the inner self. Believers should speak as those who are going to be judged at the judgment seat of Christ (Jas. 2:12). Paul says Christians should not engage in “foolish talk” like this, and he categorizes it along with obscenity and coarse joking (Eph. 5:4). In many ways one’s conversation is an indicator of that person’s spiritual health (Jas. 3:1-12).
Jesus applied this teaching to religious leaders (Pharisees). They counteracted the words of the people who said “Could this be the Son of David?” (v.23). They were turning the people against Jesus. Their words harmed the ministry of Jesus. And ministries today face gossip, envy, and spite.
Paul said, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).
Published, June 2010. Updated, January 2019.