In Matthew 23, Jesus Christ gives a rhetorical lashing to the scribes and Pharisees. His words are a scathing exposé of their hypocrisy. He calls them children of hell (v. 15), blind fools (v. 17), greedy and self-indulgent (v. 25), white-washed tombs (v. 27), and serpents (v. 33). So much for the gentle Jesus, meek and mild! Should Christians today ever follow Jesus’ example, and if so—when?
First, it’s important note that believers should not be generally characterized for having “tongues of fire” in the rhetorical sense! Several passages of Scripture make this clear:
- Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
- Colossians 4:5–6, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
- 2 Timothy 2:24–26, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”
- Titus 3:1–2, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.”
- 1 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…”
Some brief commentary is in order: In 2 Timothy, the word translated “patiently” refers to a kind of tolerance in speech. Not tolerance in the way it’s often presented by society today (a religious pluralism that leaves no room for objective gospel truth), but a tolerance that “endures difficulties without becoming angry or upset.” We don’t fly off the handle when wronged but instead speak with grace and gentleness. Commenting on this gentleness, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says, “When authorities or others ask for an account of the Christian life of faith, it is to be given with meekness and kindness, even though injustice which has been suffered might cause indignation or defiance, 1 Pet. 3:16.”
As a rule, we must be patient, gentle, gracious, and respectful in our speech. This is true when speaking to “outsiders,” i.e. the non-Christian world (Col. 4:5), and when addressing struggling sinners within the church (Gal. 6:1). When, then, is the kind of language Jesus used with the Pharisees called for?
Here I think the comments of the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther are insightful. Regarding Paul’s tone in the book of Galatians, Luther wrote,
We should follow [Paul’s] example showing affection to those who go astray, like parents toward their children. That way they will be aware of our fatherly and motherly affection toward them and will see that we don’t wish their ruin but rather their wellbeing. On the other hand, against the devil and his ministers and against the authors of false doctrine and the sects, we should also follow the other example of the apostle. With them, we should show ourselves impatient, proud, cutting, bitter, detesting, and condemning of their trickery and double-talk with all possible zeal and severity. This is what parents do when a dog bites their son and hurts him, they chase the dog, but with the sweetest words comfort and speak gently to the child.
This seems to fit with the example set by Jesus. With the Pharisees whom Jesus likened to the “devil’s ministers” (John 8:44), Jesus frequently used harsh language. This was because they were hypocrites who shut the door of God’s kingdom in the face of sinners (Matt. 23:13) and abused the very sheep they were called to shepherd into the kingdom. To them Jesus says, “Snakes!”
In contrast, Jesus used a gentler approach with notorious sinners—prostitutes and tax collectors—eating with them and offering mercy (Matt. 9:9–13; Luke 7:36–50). While Jesus certainly used harsh language, his ministry was characterized by compassion and gentleness (Matt. 11:29, 21:5; cf. Zech. 9:9). The Pharisees repudiated sinners, leaving them without hope. Jesus came to call them to repentance, and he offers hope to all who confess their sins. This is precisely why Paul commanded believers to “correct with gentleness,” since God may well grant repentance to those who revile us (2 Tim. 2:25).
Believers need wisdom to discern when it’s proper to use the strong language Christ and his apostles modeled. When used indiscriminately, we can drive away the very sinners Christ is pursuing or give accommodation to false teachers who prey on the flock. Harshness toward lost sheep and gentleness toward predators are equally devastating to the church. May God fill us with his Spirit to follow the example of Christ in speech—wooing the wounded, and warding off the wolves.
 See the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Louw-Nida 25.170.
 Bromiley, Geoffrey William. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. United Kingdom: Alban Books Limited, 1971.
 See Luther’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535), 1517 Publishing, 30–31.