I will never forget the first time I saw my mother cry. I was still quite young and my mom was trying to close a window. Somehow it pinched her finger and it must of hurt pretty bad. It made her cry. I remember how it shocked me. I had always seen her (I guess like many young children see their parents) as super human. I knew children cried--I had cried many times--but I didn't know mama's could cry. I don't remember her saying any bad words when it happened, but she did cry.
Growing up, my mother taught me not to use bad language and I so I avoided it. There was one time I was at my uncle’s house and he and my cousin were playing catch with a baseball. One time it missed the ball and it rolled over into the hedges my uncle had recently trimmed. I ran over and carelessly stooped down to pick up the ball. One of the recently pruned limbs cut to a sharp point jabbed me directly in my naked eye! It hurt! And it scared me too! I jumped up screaming "Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!" (Only, I didn't say shoot. I used a bad word that sounds the same.) To my credit, after only four expletives I realized my aunt and uncle (who wouldn't approve of such language) were looking on and quickly switched to "Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!" To their credit, my aunt and uncle never said anything about my language, but they did make sure I made it to the doctor to get my eye checked out. Thankfully, I didn't gauge my eye out and go blind. I just had to wear an eye patch for about a week.
Have you ever though about what makes a word a cuss word? I mean, why is it ok to say your baby has a poopy diaper but another four-letter word for the same bodily function is considered highly offensive? Part of the reason is the value society places on some words. Another reason is sometimes people intentionally use certain words to make a strong statement that won’t be ignored.
Categories of Bad Language
There are actually several categories of language people consider taboo. We tend to use several terms to describe foul language and often use them interchangeably. Technically, however, each term describes a different category of taboo language.
Profanity is using words that profane what is sacred. (Last week I talked about how our actions can also be profane and that’s even worse than using profane words. You can read that blog here.)
Cussing (or cussin’, as we say in the south) is slang for cursing as in “She placed a curse on her ex boyfriend”. (That really gave me pause when I thought about how frequently people cuss in America these days. What spiritual damage might all these curses floating around be doing to our society?)
Swearing was originally religious act. We still see a remnant of this religious practice in our moderns courts of law. People may swear on a Bible to “…tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” However, swearing is taboo if a person swears falsely or swears flippantly (which is why we often use swearing to describe using bad words). Originally, the category of swearing was reserved for taboo language that misused words associated with religious oaths. Today it can describe any kind of bad language people shouldn't say.
Dirty language is a category that uses words for foul things, private acts, or subjects that ought to be avoided if possible. Of course, even unsavory subjects must be discussed from time to time. In those situations, there are polite ways to discuss using the bathroom, spreading manure on your corn field, or making love to your wife. Dirty language takes those delicate subjects and intentionally uses strong taboo words in order to intentionally make language offensive.
And that brings me to a final category that is the subject of today’s message—strong language. Strong language is a category that intentionally uses words from any of the previous categories to make a bold statement that gets people's attention. In church society, we usually avoid using strong language. We prefer to be nice and polite (most of the time). However, we do read several situations in the Bible where people used strong language to make a critical point.
5 People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. 6 And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? 8 Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. 9 Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. 10 Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
Brood of Snakes!
John the Baptist was a wild and fiery preacher sent to prepare the people of Israel for the coming Messiah. John appears at the beginning of the New Testament, but he followed a long line of Old Testament prophets who often used strong language to shock their listeners into paying attention God’s Word.
In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest to see if Yahweh or Baal were real. They both built altars for sacrifice and then Elijah invited the prophets of Baal to ask their god to send fire from heaven to to consume their sacrifice. The prophets of Baal cried out in prayer all day and Baal didn't answer. So, Elijah started taunting them. In verse 27 he mocks: "“You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself." Now, Bible translators tend to soften strong language, because they know these things are going to be read in church. But you can be sure when Elijah mocked the false prophets, he was intentionally using strong terms for Baal when he said Baal was "relieving" himself.
John the Baptist called the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of snakes. Sweet Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 12:34. A brood is a large number of offspring from a mother animal. Usually, we talk of broods being from birds or snakes. However, I have heard some mothers jokingly referred to as having a brood of children when they have a lot of children. In the case of John the Baptist (and Jesus), he was saying these Pharisees were the offspring of a snake. In other words, he was saying, "Your mama’s a snake!" Now, it’s offensive to talk about someone’s mama! Those are fighting words!
Also, remember that in the Bible in Genesis 3, the Devil was a snake that slithered up and deceived Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit and causing sin and death to enter the world. To call someone a snake in our culture is pretty bad. In the Bible, calling someone a snake had an extra strong meaning. John the Baptist was saying these religious leaders were children of the Devil. That’s strong language.
John offended on purpose. Sometimes it takes strong language to verbally slap someone upside the head and get their attention. The way the Pharisees and Sadducees were living was leading them to eternal damnation. Even worse, they were taking thousands and thousands of people to hell with them. First century Jews looked up to these Pharisees and Sadducees as their religious leaders who were supposed to know the right way to live in order to please God. John (and Jesus) verbally slapped them for their damnable behavior.
What do you do when you see someone carelessly walking and texting on their phone and they’re not paying attention and they are about to step out into the road and get run over by a car? Do you say, “Excuse me sir. I don’t want to bother you, but would you mind being more careful.” No. That won’t do the job. You scream: “Hey! Look out!” You pick the right language for the right occasion. And if the person keeps being careless day after day, you might even start yelling, “Hey! You idiot! Stop looking at your phone and pay attention or you’re gonna get killed!” That might be what it takes to shake a person enough to make them be more careful.
A wise person learns to use the right words at the right time in the right way. There's a place for strong language, but overusing strong language weakens its effect and using it inappropriately is just rude and ungodly.
There is another category of bad language people often use—expletives. An expletive is what we might call an empty word added to fill out a sentence. Comedian Grady Nutt joked of inventing a few harmless cuss words for pastors to use. (Here's a funny clip of his routine.) He joked it wasn't fair for ministers who stumped their toe to exclaim "Behold!" So he invented boogley and blotchey. So you could say, “Get your boogley feet of my blotchey bed.” You could say the words boogley and blotchey are empty, meaningless words. But they’re not really empty, pointless words are they? They intensify the the language. It’s one thing to say, “Get your feet off my bed.” It’s stronger language to say, “Get your boogley feet off my blotchey bed.” It carries more passion.
The more common custom in our day, is to use taboo words as expletives. People don’t say boogley and blotchey; they use foul words we all know were quite offensive in the past, but today those offensive words have almost become common place. It may soon be that some of the words our mama told us not to say are just the new adjectives everybody uses.
I hope that doesn't happen, because I believe words matter. Words shape our attitudes and affect the way we relate to one another. I don’t want our world to be a place where offensive language is just the normal way people talk (and treat each other). I want our world to be a place where people are kind and patient and gracious to one another. I want love to be the prevailing attitude in people’s hearts. I want goodness and purity and holiness to abound. And so I want us, as Philippians 4:8 says, to “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” My prayer is that we will use words that express thoughts that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, and excellent, and worthy of praise.
There is a place for strong language. The prophets sometimes used strong language. John the Baptist and even Jesus spoke the harsh truth when they called the Pharisees a brood of vipers. Those weren't empty words. They had meaning and godly purpose.
Flee from the Coming Wrath
Today, I want you to hear me when I say, you need to get your heart right with God. Are you listening? Do I need to use strong language to offend you out of your indifference? John asked the Pharisees: “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”
A common site in New Testament Israel was a farmer burning the tall grass and weeds off his field to clear it for the next season of planting. As the fields burned, snakes that were hiding in the tall grass would come slithering out to escape the fire. John had this common sight in mind as he scolded the Pharisees "Who warned you to flee the coming wrath?" And then Jesus came preaching, "Repent! The Kingdom of God is near!" In other words, a day of reckoning is coming. You're going to be held accountable. You better repent and turn to God and start living right.
The same is true for us today. The Day of reckoning is coming. It is closer than you think. Either Jesus is going to come back for us all (as He promised he would one day) or you are eventually going to die and face God's judgment as an individual. Thankfully, we can repent because Jesus paid the price for our sins on the cross. Jesus invites us to turn away from our sins and swear to follow Him as our Lord. We can be forgiven for all our past mistakes and sins and even find grace for the ones we might make in the future. We must trust Jesus and choose to follow Him as our rightful Lord in order for that grace to be applied. If we do, we don't have to fear the Day of Reckoning. For when God comes to judge us, he will no longer sin a sinful person. Instead, God will see His perfect Son living in us.
Won't you trust Jesus and turn to Him today and so be saved?