Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Call for Decision: Matthew 7:13-14

Throughout this sermon, our Lord has been describing to his audience what it means to follow him.  At this point in the sermon, he moves from description to application, from instruction to exhortation, and he continues in this way to the end of the sermon.  He does so because it is never enough to be merely interested in righteousness; one must become committed to it.  The truths of God were never meant to be treated as museum pieces, admired and studied, but only at a distance.  I read a lot of history, especially military history.  Recently I have started reading a short history of the Korean War.  It describes some of the horrific tasks assigned to the US infantry fighting at the front; one unit started off in a battle with over 200 men, and they ended up assaulting a position with a bayonet charge when they had only 33 men left.  My experience reading about that is infinitely separated from the actual experience of the men who lived through it; even more so from the experience of those who died in that combat.  Now our Lord is telling us that it is not enough to be historians or merely admirers of Christianity; we must go to the front lines in the Christian warfare if we want to call ourselves followers of Christ.  There is no such thing as an arm-chair Christian; if you are not in the trenches then you are not for real.

And so our Lord presents you with a choice.  Are you willing to follow him or not?  He describes this choice in terms of two gates, two ways, two crowds, and two ends.  Which gate will you enter?  Which way will you follow?  With which crowd will you identify?  Which end will you meet?  Of course, these are all the same question put to us in different ways, but the imagery of each helps us to see more clearly what our Lord is calling upon us to do.  So let’s consider each question in turn.

Before we do so, however, I think it’s necessary to point out that there are only two choices.  There is no third way.  You are either in the one or the other way.  Making no choice is to have made a choice by default for the easy and broad way.  To remain indifferent about Jesus Christ in the end is to have rejected him.  In other words, this is a choice that you cannot escape, and it is a delusion to think that you can remain undecided.  So . . .

Which gate will you enter?

There are two gates before you.  One is described as a “strait gate” and the other is described as a “wide gate.”  (“Strait” does not mean “straight” – it means “narrow.”)  The Lord is obviously wanting to convey the impression that the strait gate is difficult to navigate, whereas the wide gate is easy to pass through.  Nevertheless here, it is the strait gate that we are exhorted to enter.  In another place, Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (cf. Mt. 19:23-24).  In other words, the way into the kingdom of God is not easy.  The way into a life of discipleship is hard.  The gate is narrow and you cannot bring a lot of baggage through.  If you want to pass through this gate, you have to drop everything and pass through with nothing but yourself.  If you try to hold onto anything of this world as you pass through, you will only get stuck.

What is Jesus trying to convey here?  Well, if you go back to the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, you will see that this man was unable to part with his riches in order to follow Christ.  So he turned his back on Jesus and left.  He had chosen to pass through the wide gate; the strait gate was too distasteful for him.  We must remember that the reason Jesus confronted him with the problem of his riches was that he was guilty of covetousness – his wealth had become his god.  In the same way, if we want to enter the strait gate, we will have to be willing to drop anything that is more important to us than God – that is what he is saying here.

In our day, Christianity has become easy; it is just a matter of saying a prayer and getting baptized.  It is just a matter of “making a decision” and it is put before people as the easiest thing to do.  And as a result our churches have become full of people who are not born again, who are Christian in name only.  But this is not Biblical Christianity.  We are not called upon to make a decision; we are called upon to enter a strait gate.  What does this look like?

For one thing, we are called upon to repent of our sins.  You cannot take your sins through this gate.  If you want to be a follower of Jesus, you must repent.  We must never forget that this is the message of Biblical and apostolic Christianity.  John the Baptist came preaching repentance (3:1-2).  Jesus and his disciples came preaching repentance (4:17; Mark 6:12).  The first sermon in Acts was a message of repentance (Acts 2:38-40), and really every message from that point on in the early church was just a message of repentance.  Paul summarized it well in Acts 17:30 when he said that “God . . . now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.”

And this is not just a generic call to repentance; we are called to repent of everything that stands between us and obedience to Christ.  We are to repent in specific ways of specific sins.  And sin is not defined by the culture.  It is defined by the Bible.  It is defined by the Sermon on the Mount.  Throughout this sermon our Lord has been telling us that following him is going to be counter-cultural.  You cannot be salt and light in any other way.  It is the culture that has built the wide gate; to listen to its definition of sins is just to enter through that gate.  No, we must listen to what the Bible has to say about sin.  And nowhere is this more important that now, because – as R. C. Sproul has put it – our culture is becoming increasingly neo-barbarian.  No, we must save ourselves from this present generation (Acts 2:40), not listen to it! 

And nowhere is this more important today than in the area of sexual sin.  Even the church has increasingly given into the cultural pressure to conform in this area.  More and more you hear of teenagers raised in the church who are promiscuous, and you are called judgmental if you call it out.  The call to tolerance has replaced the call to holiness.  We need to hear again the words of our Lord in Matthew 5 – that adultery is sin, and fornication is sin, and pornography is sin, and lust in the heart is sin.  And it is so bad that to fail to disentangle yourself from these habits is to endanger your soul eternally to God’s judgment.  We need to hear the words of Hebrews 13:4 – “Marriage (and marriage in the Scriptures is only between one man and one woman) is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”

The call to Christ is not a call to come pad your life with fun and comfort in this world.  It is a call to turn away from those habits and thoughts and acts that are offensive to God.  If you cannot do this, then you cannot enter in by the strait gate.  You cannot bring your sins with you through this gate.

Furthermore, we are called upon to humble ourselves before God and to recognize that we cannot save ourselves.  You cannot be a follower of Christ if you think that you can make yourself good enough to get into heaven.  Again, referring to the rich young ruler, one of his problems was not only covetousness; his main problem was pride in his efforts to make himself worthy of God.  This is why Jesus told his disciples that when it came to entering eternal life: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26).  In other words, it is not only unrighteousness that is the problem; it is self-righteousness. 

You cannot bring your sin through the gate; but neither can you bring your righteousness.  If you would be a follower of Jesus Christ, you must have him as Lord and Savior.  You must trust in him as the only one who can take away your sins and give you access to God the Father.  The apostles would later put it this way: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Jn. 4:12).  You must repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.  You must embrace, not an atonement of your making, but the redemption accomplished by Jesus.

Of course these two things go together: you will never really embrace the grace of Jesus Christ until you have realized the seriousness of your sin before God.  You will yawn at your sin as long as you are blind to your sin.  Sin is like leprosy; it deadens the moral nerve-endings of our soul and we go on spiritually mutilating ourselves without realizing it.  But once you see how really bad you are, you will not be satisfied until you have repented of your sins.  Repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ go together like light and heat.  You cannot have one without the other.

Which way will you follow?

Beyond the two gates lie two ways.  Again, it is not that once you have chosen the gate you now must decide which way to choose.  To choose the gate is to choose the way.  If you choose the strait gate, then you have chosen the narrow way.  If you choose the wide gate, then you have chosen the broad way.  The paths that lead from the gates mimic the character of the gate.  The strait gate does not lead to a broad way – it is a narrow gate for a narrow way.

It is very important to follow our Lord’s words here, because it helps to undermine some misconceptions about the Christian life that are rampant in our day.  Some would give the impression that to choose Jesus is to begin a sort of heaven on earth.  It’s all good from here!  But this is not what our Lord says here, and it is dishonest to convey any other impression about Christian discipleship.  Our Lord does not paint a rosy picture of the Christian life now; it is a narrow way, and it is difficult to traverse.  As Matthew Henry put it, “We are not in heaven as soon as we are got through the strait gate.”

In verse 14, in our version, our Lord says, “Because strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life.”  In some versions, the word for “narrow” is translated “hard.”  The Christian life is hard!  How many people are saying that?  But this is exactly what our Lord said.  Why is the Christian way hard?

Well, look back at this Sermon.  If you are a disciple of Christ, this is what your life is supposed to look like.  Or at least the trajectory of your life is supposed to be pointed in this direction.  Look at the Beatitudes – poor in spirit, mourning over sin, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers – does that describe you?  Or does it describe what you are becoming?  Because if it is, you will have discovered that sanctification is not an easy process.  It requires self-denial, resisting temptation, and doing what you ought when it’s not what you want.  This is why the apostle Paul describes it as putting sin to death (Rom. 8:13), mortifying the flesh.  It is hard.  And it is harder because it is not the work of a day or an hour but the work of a lifetime.  It’s described as running a race; and it’s not important who starts but who finishes.

Another reason why this way is hard is because it attracts persecution.  The Greek word behind “narrow” in verse 14 not only conveys the idea of hardness, but it also conveys the idea of persecution.  As our Lord points out, there are a few in this way; everyone else is in the broad way.  And they look upon “the few” as odd, as misfits, as unworthy of acceptance and approval.  So they persecute them.  And we should not be surprised when this happens, for “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).  Our Lord put it to his disciples, “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:20).  And this is hard.  No one likes to be hated and no one likes to be persecuted.  But this is the only way: “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Act 14:22).

In our day, Christians are constantly being told that they are on the wrong side of history.  Well, this is okay.  It has really always been that way.  It is the narrow and hard way.  And it is the only way we can be salt and light.  When William Wilberforce started his campaign against the slave trade, he too was on the wrong side of history.  And he endured quite a bit of opposition and persecution for his righteous stand.  But in the end, the light of truth quenched the darkness.  We too, need to be willing to endure hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ so that we can be lights in a dark world.  As Charles Simeon once put it, “Brethren, we must not mind a little suffering.”

With which crowd will you identify?

On these two roads are two different crowds.  The few are on the narrow way, and the many are on the broad way.  In other words, if you want to follow Christ, you are always going to be in the minority.  You are going to feel like a stranger at times in your own land.  And the reason is that, if you are following Christ, you really are a stranger, “strangers and pilgrims” as the apostle Peter put it (1 Pet. 2:11).  Or as the apostle Paul put it, our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

But if we are strangers in our culture, we are not strangers and foreigners in the kingdom of heaven (cf. Eph. 2:19).  However, the point is, that you cannot have both.  You cannot feel at home in a world in rebellion against God and simultaneously feel at home in the kingdom of God.  For that would be the same as walking both paths.  You cannot be on the broad way and the narrow way at the same time.  You cannot be molded by the world and different from the world at the same time.

Nevertheless, there is always going to be tremendous pressure to give in to the culture, to side with the majority.  And when that happens we need to keep this in perspective.  The majority is almost never going to be right because they are walking on the wrong road and going to a terrible end.

Before I leave this point, I want to briefly speak to the question that is sometimes raised: Will there be more people in heaven than in hell, or will it be the other way around?  And I think that we need to be careful here.  The point of our Lord’s words is not to satisfy idle curiosity as to the relative numbers in heaven and hell.  When someone else asked him that question, our Lord responded by basically saying, “You’ve asked the wrong question.  Your question ought to be, ‘Will I be among the saved?’  And to answer that question, you need to make sure that you are striving to enter in at the strait gate” (see Luke 13:23-30).  After all, it doesn’t matter how many will be saved, if you are not saved, does it?  Again, the question we need to be asking is: “Will I be saved?  Have I entered in at the strait gate?” 

Rather, the point of our Lord’s words is that we cannot judge the right way, the saving way, by numbers.  You cannot go to heaven with the flow.  You must be willing to strive against wind and tide, and to at times stand alone, to be hated of all men.  We follow a Master who was crucified.  We must not be surprised if we too are rejected by our fellow man.

Which end will you meet?

Why would anyone choose to squeeze through a narrow gate when there is a wide one sitting next to it?  Why would anyone choose to traverse a narrow and hard path when there is a broad and easy highway to travel?  Why would anyone choose to deliberately be in a minority when you can be in the majority?  Why?  Because of the end.  The narrow way leads to life; the broad way to destruction.
Your life is on a road.  It is either on the broad road or it is on the narrow road.  Right now, the broad road is easy and the narrow road is hard.  Each road ends, but what they end in does not end.  The life that is at the end of the narrow way is a never-ending life, and the destruction that is at the end of the broad way is “everlasting punishment” (Mt. 25:46).  Given this perspective, it does not matter how hard the narrow road is or how easy the broad road is.  The narrow road is worth every bit of the suffering along the way if there is life at the end.  And there is absolutely nothing about the broad road that is redeeming when seen from the perspective of eternal destruction.

One of the most terrifying things that has ever been said was said by Jesus.  And he said of Judas that it were better for that man if he had never been born.  That is what hell is like.  No one in hell is thinking, “Well, I’m glad that I was able to live freely, and to satisfy my lusts as I wanted.”  Rather, they are thinking that they wished they had never been born.  In other words, nothing was worth it.  No pleasure, no amount of money, no amount of human praise, no amount of power in this world is worth hell.  I cannot imagine anything worse than that.  No end.  No hope.  No redemption.  Just eternal destruction.

But thank God we are not left with that as our only option.  Not that we deserve anything else.  The fact of the matter is that every human being, from infant to aged, is a rebel against the God of the universe.  We all deserve to perish forever.  But the Son of God in his mercy comes to us and says, “Enter in at the strait gate.”  That is grace!  And it is spoken to you and me this morning.  To enter in at the strait gate is to follow Christ, to embrace him with all our hearts as Lord and Savior.

My friend, this is a command.  It is not something to turn down.  It is not something to casually consider.  Enter in at the strait gate!  Do it now!  Let nothing hinder you from coming.  Come through, follow Christ, believe in him, and you shall be saved and find eternal life.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Matthew 7:12 – The Golden Rule

My parents have a grandfather clock in their living room.  I grew up with its musical chimes and rhythmic dongs.  It chimes every quarter of an hour, and at each quarter it chimes longer until it reaches the top of the hour when it not only chimes but dongs out the number of hours.  And it can be very loud, especially if you are not used to hearing it.  However, having grown up with it in our living room, I became totally oblivious to its noises.  In fact, I could be sitting right next to it at the noon hour and never hear it.  It was different with visitors.  One time, we had some visitors stay with us overnight and they slept in the living room.  Unfortunately, we forgot to turn the clock chimes off and so as a result they didn’t get very much sleep that night!  What I never heard kept them awake because I was used to the sounds of the clock and they weren’t.

It’s the same with truth.  We can hear a truth so often that we don’t really hear it anymore.  And I wonder if our text this morning doesn’t fall into that category.  We’ve all heard the Golden Rule, and even society at large would probably agree that it is a good rule to live by.  But we’ve heard this clock chime so often that when we come to a text like this, we don’t really hear it.  Whereas the previous verses (7-11) are not heard because of misinterpretation or a lack of faith, this verse (12) is often not heard for no other reason than overfamiliarity.

And yet if we stop to really listen to it, we realize that this is not just another saying from a fortune cookie.  These words are incredibly important to learn and to live.  And we can see their importance underlined in the phrase “for this is the law and the prophets.”  In Jesus’ day, “the law and the prophets” was the usual nomenclature for the Scriptures.  In other words, the Golden Rule summarizes the teaching of the Scriptures.  So if we claim to believe that the Bible is the word of God, then we need to listen to these words. 

This is a summary statement of Biblical truth.  Being able to grasp such statements are incredibly important.  You really cannot say that you understand the Bible if you do not understand those grand themes and basic truths that unite everything else together.  As a teacher of mathematics, I see this all the time.  People will say that they understand calculus or even that they are good at it, but when you press them to summarize what calculus is, what it is about, they have no clue.  They cannot tell you.  And, by the way, such people turn out to not be very good at calculus, and one of the reasons is because they don’t understand fundamentally what it is all about.  The same hold true with the teaching of God’s word. It is said that someone asked Rabbi Hillel if he could summarize the whole law while standing on one leg (evidently a Rabbi wasn’t expected to stand on one leg very long): his response was a version of the Golden Rule.[1]  Can you summarize the teaching of the Bible?  Well, our Lord tells us that one way we can summarize the teaching of God’s Word, at least as it respects our duty to our fellow man, is by the Golden Rule.

A question that might come up at this point is, “Why then do we need all that extra stuff in the Bible?”  If we can summarize all the Old Testament teaching on our duty to our fellow man in one verse, why all those extra commandments?  Well, one reason is that we need “all that extra stuff” because we are so easily tempted to leave these summary truths unapplied to our lives.  In other words, we need specific and detailed commandments to convict us and to move us to apply truth in very specific ways to our lives.  Our Lord in some sense has already been doing this in this Sermon.  In 5:43-48, he gives us specific instruction how to do unto others as he would have them do to us.  In particular, he tells us to love our enemies, because God has been good to us even when we were unlovely.  We, who are so glad that God has been good to us, ought to do good to others, even our enemies.  And then we saw that 7:1-5 is another application of the Golden Rule.  We would not want to be judged by others harshly; we should therefore put away a harsh and judgmental attitude.

We need summary truths to give us the big picture and to keep us from legalism.  One way you can define legalism is that a legalist is someone is gets bogged down in details and forgets the big picture.  Like the Pharisees who got so bogged down in the details of how to apply Sabbath law that they forgot to show mercy.  Keeping the overarching truths of Scripture before us keeps us from becoming unbalanced like that.  On the other hand, specific commandments and instruction are necessary because they bring conviction for specific sins and keep us from libertinism.  So don’t be like the person who says that religion really is just about the Golden Rule and therefore there is no need to read the Bible or listen to sermons or exhortation from fellow brethren.  We need all that.  We need both, and we can thank God that he has given us both in his word. 

 “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”  It has been often said that the “Golden Rule” is not unique to the teaching of Christ.  However, among all the variants of the Golden Rule found in the various religions, the words of our Lord are unique in the sense that his version of the Golden Rule is stated positively, whereas in the teaching of others it is always stated negatively.  For example, Confucius is supposed to have said, “Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourselves.”[2]  It is not quibbling to point out the difference, for there is a difference.  If you put it only negatively, you are attacking only sins of commission.  But if you put it positively, you are attacking both sins of commission and omission.  In other words, our Lord was not only saying that we shouldn’t do bad things to other people; he was also saying that we should always do good to others.  To fail to do good to others, even if you haven’t harmed them in any way, is still a breach of the Golden Rule as our Lord puts it before us.  In other words, once again we see the breadth of our Lord’s teaching.

What is the connection of this passage with the forgoing?  The word “therefore” indicates that there is a connection.  However, there is disagreement on how it is connected.  Some say that the connection is not with any specific verse or verses, but with the entire sermon so far.  Thus, given everything that our Lord has said up to this point, it follows that we should do good to others as we would have them do to us.  Others say that this verse is connected with the first five verses of this chapter.  And certainly this verse is tied to those verses in that 7:1-5 is an application of 7:12. In that case, 7:7-11 would be read as a parenthesis.  And this may well be true.  However, it seems to me most natural to read 7:12 as a deduction from the previous verses.  In other words, our Lord’s promise to do good to those who seek him leads naturally to the Golden Rule.  God does good to us; we ought therefore to do good to others.  Another way to put this is that we ought to live out the gospel practically in our lives.  God has been gracious to us; we ought to be gracious to others.  God has been liberal with us; we ought to be generous with others. 

In other words, the “therefore” at the beginning of verse 12 points to the motivation behind the Golden Rule, and this makes this version of it uniquely Christian.  The motivation to do good to others as we would want them to do to us is not rooted in selfishness but in our view of God and his grace.  We should not practice the Golden Rule because we think we are much more likely to be liked (or at least left alone) by others if we practice it.  The ultimate motivation is not love for self but love for God and our desire for others to know him and his goodness and grace.  You see, if all that is motivating you to practice the Golden Rule is some selfish desire for others to like you or appreciate you or validate your existence upon the earth, then you will end up undermining it in your life.  This is because the Golden Rule is primarily selfless, and so if selfish considerations are what are driving you, those very motivations will end up undoing it.  Love to self is the enemy of the Golden Rule, not the driving force behind it.  On the other hand, love to God and experiencing his power and grace and goodness in your life is necessary for living out our Lord’s words.

So do you want to live out the Golden Rule in your life?  Then know God!  Not just in the sense of being a theologian (though that’s important), but in the sense of experiencing God in your life.  We need to be the kind of person who lives out verses 7-11.  Such a person who is full of God’s goodness will overflow with deeds of goodness and kindness and grace to others.  The well-springs behind this kind of life of overflowing love lie in fellowship with the living God and his Son Jesus Christ.  God is the only one who can sustain this kind of life.

This is why Peter wrote, “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. . . . If any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever.  Amen” (1 Pet. 4:10-11).  It’s not just that our motivation lies in God; it’s that our very ability to live this way lies in God.  He gives the ability to do it, so that in our serving others and doing good to them, he may be glorified.  We may give to others, but our gift is from God first of all.  We give what we have first received.  Which means that God gets the glory, not us.

This serves to underline the importance of never taking a Scripture out of context.  There have been many people over the years who have taken a verse like Matthew 7:12, ripped it out of its context, and then used it as a way to make the Christian religion nothing more than doing good to others.  And they’ll claim that it doesn’t matter what you think about God – as long as you are a good person, then you are being a good Christian.  Now, the Christian religion is of course about doing good to others, but that is not all that it is.  As our previous considerations make clear, it does matter what you think about God, it does matter that you have a relationship with him through his Son Jesus Christ.  And if you do good to others all your life and yet turn your back on the Son of God, you are yet in your sins and without hope.

“Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”  These words are very similar to our Lord’s answer to the question: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36-40).  His answer was this: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Love your neighbor as yourself is essentially the same thing as saying, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

Now we’ve been arguing that selfish concerns are not a proper motivator to the Golden Rule.  However, they are a good rule to follow in applying the Golden Rule.  It’s not love to self that ought to motivate me to do good unto others, but love to self should guide me in doing good to others.  The reason for this is that we naturally love ourselves.  Long ago, the French philosopher and Christian Blaise Pascal noted that everyone does what they do to increase their happiness.  This is true even in extreme cases, like when a person commits suicide.  Why do they do that?  Because they think they will be better off dead than alive.  And we do what we do to be happy.  And we want to be happy because we love ourselves.

There is nothing inherently wrong with loving yourself.  What is wrong is when we love ourselves more than God.  What is wrong is when we put ourselves before others.  However, some people come to a verse like this and draw wrong conclusions from it.  They will point at it and say, “Look, there is a Biblical command to love yourself.”

Now that is not what our Lord is saying, and it’s very important to recognize that.  It is very troubling to me that people are taught that their problem is that they do not love themselves enough, and that if they would just have a better view of themselves then life would get better.  But the problem is not that we do not love ourselves enough.  The problem is almost surely that we have sinned in some way because we have loved ourselves more than God, that we are seeking our happiness in something or someone other than God.

Of course people say that they hate themselves, but what they really mean is they hate what they have done (or are doing) because of the consequences that they are reaping from it.  Again, the problem is not a lack of self-esteem but sin which stems from a self-love that has supplanted God.

What our Lord is doing in this text (and with the Golden Rule) is not commanding people to love themselves, but simply recognizing the fact that people already love themselves.  Thy command is to love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself.  And instead of encouraging people to work on their self-esteem, he is reorienting such self-love so that it occupies to proper orbit.  God first, above all else.  And then we must love our neighbor (which in Scripture means everyone else) in the same way (as) we love ourselves.

The problem with this advice to increase your self-esteem is that is turns people away from God.  Now for someone who doesn’t believe in God, working on your self-esteem is all that you’ve got.  The same is true with the oft-repeated advice to “forgive yourself.”  There is no Scripture that justifies telling someone that they’ve got to forgive themselves!  The only one whose forgiveness you need is God’s.  The problem with guilt is not a problem with a lack of forgiving oneself, but a problem with a failure to believe in God’s remedy for sin.  Again, if you don’t believe in God, then the only way you can deal with guilt is to try to forgive yourself.  But you will not succeed.  God is the only one who can forgive sin.  Just as God is the only one who is worthy of your love above all other things.  He is also the only one who can truly make us happy and satisfy the deepest longings of our soul.

Finally, note the universality with which the Golden Rule is stated: all things.  Here again we are faced with the fact that following Christ requires the commitment of the whole person.  All of our life is to fall under his jurisdiction and we are to put every aspect of our life under the rule of Christ.  Moreover, all of our life is to be under the obedience of Christ at all times.  It is not a part-time job.  We are not to seek to live out the Golden Rule on Sunday only to turn into a completely self-oriented person on Monday.  We are not to seek to apply the Golden Rule merely in ways that please us and with which we are comfortable, but we are to apply our Lord’s words even when we don’t want to because it is hard on the flesh.  And especially, we are not meant to live out obedience to our Lord’s command only when it will be recognized and appreciated by others.  We are to do unto others, beginning in our living rooms with our spouses and our children.  Then we are to apply it to our friends and our co-workers, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The greatest example of this is our Lord himself.  He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  He came so that others could experience the love of the Trinity forever.  What he had experienced from eternity, he wanted for his people.  And so he came to earth to be despised and rejected of men, to be crucified and to have their sins placed upon his shoulders so that they might have eternal life and enjoy the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit in increasing and never-ending joy.  The good he had so long enjoyed he gives to others.  It was not easy to get there.  For our Lord, doing good unto others meant the cross.  And now he calls on us to mimic him, to be his followers in this way.  Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (IVP: 1978), p. 190.
[2] Ibid, p. 190.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Asking, Seeking, Finding – Matthew 7:7-11

This is perhaps one of the most comprehensive and comforting promises in all the Bible.  And yet, no sooner do we read a promise like this than we immediately begin to doubt it.  First of all, many people doubt this because it is just not true that God “answers” every prayer (by “answers” we usually mean that God says yes to our request and gives it to us).  There are many things that we have prayed for that simply have not been given to us.

I once read a story about a school in Cuba, where the teachers in order to indoctrinate the students to put their faith in the State rather than in God, told the children to pray to God for a piece of candy.  The children prayed, and of course they received no candy.  Then the teacher instructed the children to pray again, this time to Castro, and as they prayed the teacher went to each child and put a piece of candy on his or her desk.  When the children opened their eyes, there was a piece of candy.  Of course, the lesson was supposed to be that God doesn’t answer prayer, but Castro does.

Now it’s easy to poke holes in this exercise.  For one thing, the exercise did not prove that Castro heard the children’s prayers.  For if they had repeated the exercise in the absence of their teacher, there is no doubt they would not have received candy.  And who is to say that the first prayer to God for candy wasn’t answered by God when they eventually did receive the piece of candy?  However, the fact of the matter is that sometimes we doubt God because we’ve prayed for something and didn’t receive it.  So when we come to passages like our text, though we may read it and think how beautiful a promise it is, we don’t really take it to heart because of past disappointments.

However, we need to stop and ask ourselves what we saying about Scripture if we are not willing to really take this promise seriously?  If this promise is not worth believing then no part of Scripture is worth believing.  If we cannot really be changed by the truth of our Lord’s words here, then how can we logically embrace the truth of the cross?  How can we believe the promise that God is going to take us to heaven when we die and yet not believe the promise that if we ask we shall receive?

On the other hand, what if we really could believe this promise?  What if we really took hold of the reality that “everyone who asks receives?”  Does that not have the potential to radically alter our lives, free us from unbelief, doubt, and discouragement?  It was such a belief in the faithfulness of God to hear and answer the prayers of his people that animated George Muller to support orphans only through prayer and faith.  He tells us in his own words that the main reason he established the orphanage on this basis was so that “God might be magnified by the fact that the orphans under my care are provided with all they need, only by prayer and faith, without any one being asked by me or my fellow-laborers, whereby it may be seen that God is FAITHFUL STILL, and HEARS PRAYER STILL.”[1]  And Muller’s life speaks to us even to this day that God is a prayer-hearing God.

So how can we get like this?  How do we become people who really live upon this promise and whose lives are living testimonies to its truthfulness? 

First of all, we have to really understand both what our Lord was saying and what he was not saying.  In fact, in this case I would say that understanding what he was not saying is as important as understanding what he was saying.  So let’s start there.  He was not saying that God will give us anything that we ask for, that if we just pray hard enough, ask enough, seek enough, knock loud enough, then we will get it.  We can see this in the illustration that our Lord gives in verses 9-11.  Here our Lord is contrasting God the Father with earthly fathers.  And the contrast is this: God is good, but we are evil.  Then our Lord reasons thus (it’s another argument from the lesser to the greater): if fathers who are evil by nature (which we all are) yet naturally have a love for their children that motivates them to give good gifts to their them, “how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (v. 11).

Now a clear implication from these verses is that God is not going to give just anything to his children.  After all, no earthly father would do that.  God is better than any earthly father and he certainly will not be characterized by those characteristics that we would judge an earthly father for.  In fact, we naturally look down on men who pander to their children’s every whim and who do anything that they ask.  This is neither wise nor loving because ultimately it does not do good to the children to give them anything they want.  Now children will sometimes not understand why you are denying them something that they want.  It may even seem to them in their immaturity to be cruel and unusual punishment for you to deny it to them.  And yet as their parent you know the best thing for them is to withhold their request.  So why should we expect God to just deliver upon request?  It is therefore actually dishonoring to God to suggest that he will gratify any desire just because we think we need it and have put it up to him in the form of a prayer.

Also, in verse 11 our Lord specifically says that the Father gives “good things” in answer to prayer.  He is not going to give us bad things.  In the illustration, Jesus says that if a son asks for a fish a good father would not give a snake.  But what if the son asks for a poisonous snake?  What if that is what he wants?  A good father would deny it.  He must protect his children.  Even so with God.  We sometimes ask for things that seem good to us but which really are bad.  We don’t see it, but God who is all wise does, and he refuses to give us something which will ultimately be for our detriment. 

Thus, the context does not warrant the idea that any prayer will be answered.  It does not warrant the idea that the only reason some prayers are not answered lies in a lack of faith or a lack of earnestness in prayer.  It is just the fact that sometimes God will not answer prayer and it is for our good that he doesn’t.  Consider our Lord himself – he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from me.”  Thank God that he did not grant that request!

Why does God not answer some prayers?  We’ve already indicated that God will not grant our request if the request is not for our good.  The Scriptures elsewhere fill up what it means that our prayer request is not good. 

First of all, consider the words of the apostle James says.  He writes to the believers of his day, “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.  Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.  Ye adulterers and adulteresses . . .” (Jm. 4:2-4).  In other words, there are two reasons why you don’t receive what you want.  One reason is that you don’t ask for it (ver. 2).  But the other reason is that what you ask for you ask for it selfishly, to “consume it upon your lusts” (ver. 3).  Here the problem is not so much what you are praying for as why you are praying for it.  Is the motivation behind your prayer the desire for something that has replaced God in your heart?  Or is it discontent with God’s provision that is motivating your prayer? 

An example of this is given in Psalm 78, a history of Israel’s disobedience.  Part of their disobedience in the wilderness consisted in their discontent.  The psalmist reminds his readers how bad this was: “And they tempted God in their heart by asking meat for their lust.  Yea, they spake against God; they said, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?” (Ps. 78:18-19).  Of course it is not wrong to ask for meat.  But their problem was that God had already demonstrated that he would provide for them.  They were unwilling to trust God for provision and to be content with his provision for them.  And that made their prayer wrong.  (Interestingly, in this instance God did answer their prayer, but it was to teach them a lesson, not to bless them: see verses 29-31.)

God will not subsidize the idols of our hearts.  And it is for our good that he does not.  There are some of us that if God gave us what we asked for, we would have promptly forgotten him in the pursuit of our own lusts.  Thank God when he slays our idols rather than judge us by sending leanness into our souls by giving us what we asked for.

Secondly, consider the words of the apostle John.  In his letter he writes, “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15).  The phrase “according to his will” is crucial, and spells out exactly what it means for the Father to give good things to us.  If God is perfectly good and wise, then his will is the best for us.  In fact, anything in opposition to his will in our lives is really bad for us.  It’s why we should pray (and mean it): “Thy will be done.”

There are two ways in which God’s will is spoken of in Scripture.  I think both are meant here.  There is God’s will of decree and there is God’s will of command.  The latter is known to us in the Bible, whereas the former belongs to the secret things of God (cf Deut. 29:29).  Let’s start with God’s will of decree.  An example of this is given in James 4:13-17.  When James says, “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this or that.”  The will of God in this passage is not the same thing as one of the Ten Commandments like, “Thou shalt not kill.”  Rather, this is God’s will or purpose concerning our lives.  He may or may not will for us to travel to a certain place.  We don’t necessarily know it.  But we need to acknowledge this in our lives and especially in our prayers, and ask God to bless us and to guide us.  We are not the masters of our fate, we are not the captains of our souls, God is.

An example of this in Scripture is the apostle Paul’s request that the Roman Christians pray for him as he travels to Jerusalem, “That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints; that I may come unto you with joy by the will of God, and may with you be refreshed” (Rom. 15:31-32; cf. 1:10).  Paul recognized that, at the end of the day, it was God who decided where he went and whether or not he was successful.

The other way God’s will is spoken of in Scripture is his will of command.  The difference between God’s will of decree and his will of command is that God’s will of decree cannot be thwarted.  God is the one who declares the end from the beginning, “and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isa. 46:10).  However, God’s will of command is very often broken.  We do this every time we sin.  For example, the apostle speaks of God’s will in this sense in 1 Thess. 4:3, “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God.”  An example of this kind of prayer is given to us by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews: “Now the God of peace . . . make you perfect in every good work to do his will” (Heb. 13:20-21). 

Either way, we are to pray that God’s will be done in our lives.  We are to pray that his will be done in guiding the direction of our lives and we are to pray that his will be done in governing the obedience of our lives.  We are to pray that we will submit to his providential government of our lives.  In so doing, we will not only be praying that which is according to the will of God, but by doing so our hearts are going to be transformed into the kind of person that God can use.  It’s not just that we need to pray the right things but that we be the right kind of person that God can bless.  If we are sincerely praying like this, we will be the kind of person spoken of in Psalm 37:4-5, “Delight thyself in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.  Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.”  It is this kind of person that is spoken of Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”

This then, is in the background.  When our Lord gives us this promise it is assumed that what is being asked for is good and according to the will of the Father.  In fact, in the parallel passage in Luke, we are told, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:13).  We are not then praying for sport cars and big homes but for the Holy Spirit to bless us, sanctify us, and make us more like our Lord Jesus Christ.

However, this is all implied in the text rather than explicitly stated.  Our Lord does three things in this passage.  First, he gives us an exhortation to pray in verse 7.  Then he grounds this exhortation in a glorious promise in verse 8.  Finally, he illustrates it in verses 9-11. 

In the exhortation he is encouraging us not only to pray but to be persistent in prayer.  Again, if we go back to the parallel passage in Luke, this is the immediate context.  There, our Lord has just finished giving us the parable of the importunate friend.  With this in mind, he exhorts his disciples to ask, seek, and knock.  All three of these words are in the present tense, indicating ongoing action.  Be asking, be seeking, be knocking.  It is what our Lord was inculcating in Luke 18:1, ff and the parable of the importunate widow.  It is what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

Now clearly our Lord is not telling us to badger God.  Surely he does not want us to think that we shall be heard for our much speaking (cf. Mt. 6:7).  Rather, what he is encouraging is a life of prayer, an attitude of continual dependence upon God.  This is the only attitude that glorifies God.  We are so easily tempted to self-dependence and thus to self-exaltation.

This kind of persistent prayer not only characterizes a person whose trust is only in the Lord, but also a person who is intentional is his/her pursuit of God.  How is God honored by a lazy, half-hearted, prayer of formality?  He is not.  He is honored by those who hearts are zeroed in on the will of God for their lives and the lives of those around them.  He is honored by those who “make mention of the LORD . . . and give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth” (Isa. 62:6-7). 

Thus, our prayers are not answered, not only because we are asking for the wrong things, or because we are asking for the right things for the wrong reasons, but because we don’t ask with the persistence, urgency, and intentionality that is consistent with a heart that depends solely upon the Lord.

Then comes this amazing promise in verse 8: “For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”  It is only in light of the previous considerations that we can properly appreciate and appropriate this precious promise.  And it is a promise from the Lord, which means that it cannot fail to be fulfilled. 

Why is it that we do not find our prayers more often fulfilled?  Might it not be that we simply are not praying for the right things?  Could it be that we are so worldly-minded and earth-bound that our prayers are simply off God’s radar?  Could it be that we are living lives whose main purpose is to get as much earthly security as possible?  Or are we willing in the light of Matthew 6:33, are we seeking first the kingdom of God?

You see, I think this is why these verses where introduced in the first place.  As you read through this sermon and you see the incredibly high standard that is raised for the followers of Christ, it makes you wonder how in the world it is possible to live this way.  And of course it is not possible in the strength of our own flesh.  We can only do it through Christ.  And so he reminds us of our absolute need of God’s grace and strength.  We need the Holy Spirit if we are to live a life that seeks first the kingdom of God.  And the promise is that if we seek such a heart and a life by praying for it from the Lord, we will receive God’s grace to live such a life and the consequent blessing that comes as a result of this kind of life.

Do you want to see God answer your prayers?  Then we must be willing to live the kind of life that is consistent with praying for the kind of blessings that God loves to bestow.  First of all, we have to be found in Christ.  The prayer of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, and as long as we are without Christ, we are yet in our sins.  It is only in Christ that we find forgiveness and acceptance with God and are able to come boldly before the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  Then we need to live unto Christ.  Christ calls us to follow him, to take our cross.  If we would see supernatural answers to prayer we have to be willing to live supernaturally. 

[1] Autobiography of George Muller, edited by H. Lincoln Wayland (Baker: 1981), p. 115.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Judge Not: Matthew 7:1-6

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of our nation ruled that gay marriage is legal in all 50 states.  This was not a surprising ruling, given the court’s recent rulings, but it was nonetheless a landmark decision.  It highlights the increasing velocity of moral decline in our country.  Accompanying this moral decline has been an increasingly loud chorus of voices that denounce any attempt by anybody to say that any kind of sexual deviance is sin.  In the present instance, if you were to publish a statement that you believe that homosexual behavior is sinful, you will be roundly condemned on all sides.  And you are almost sure to hear – especially if you are a Christian – that Jesus said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” 

Which happens to be our text this morning.

This text is probably now the most famous passage in all the New Testament, if not in all the Bible.  I am amazed how many clearly irreligious people can quote it.  Whereas in past generations, one could make the argument that John 3:16 was the most loved and quoted verse in all the Bible, now I wonder if people in our culture are even aware that John 3:16 exists.  People in our culture care little for the cross and the message of the gospel, but they love to get Jesus on the side of moral anarchy by eliciting his comment on judging to condemn certain forms of moral discernment.

But this is just the rub.  People who quote Mt. 7:1 as a way to silence those who call out sin for what it is, are themselves guilty of the very thing they are condemning.  For when someone tells me that I cannot “judge others” for their sin, they are themselves judging me for my judging others.  In other words, even those who put up this passage as a way to stop the judging of others must admit that the call to “judge not that ye be not judged” is not absolute and universal.  At the end of the day, no one believes in the abandonment of all moral discernment. 

In our culture, it is not that one group of people believes that judging is right and the other group that it is wrong.  The problem is that our culture no longer embraces a Judeo-Christian ethic, and it has replaced this ethic with the ethic of individual autonomy and sexual freedom.  What is and has always been sin to a Bible-believing Christian is now considered not only good but right to the average person in our culture.  Thus, they see those who call homosexual practice sin as practicing a bad kind of judgment, whereas they see themselves as right to denounce those who call the gay lifestyle sinful.

Again, no one in practice believes that the call to judge not is absolute.  Everyone practices some form of moral discernment.
What then was Jesus saying?

As we look at the text, it becomes clear that Jesus was not condemning every species of judging.  This is clear in the immediate context.  In verses 3-5 of our text, we have this illustration of the mote and the beam.  We are all familiar with it.  And the point is clear: if you are unwilling to deal with the sin in your own life (the beam or plank in your eye), you will neither have the moral clarity or vision or authority to deal with the sin in someone else’s life (the speck in your brother’s eye).  But that does not mean that helping others deal with the sin in their life is always wrong.  In fact, Jesus goes on to say that if you first deal with the sin in your own life, “then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (v. 5).  But of course this implies the right to judge (discern) sin in someone else to be sin.  You are never going to be able to help someone cast out the mote of sin out of their eye if you are unwilling to see it for what it is: a foreign object that needs to be removed from the eye.  In other words, you are never going to be able to help someone repent of their sin if you are unwilling to call sin for what it is.  And that requires the ability to judge.

Or consider what our Lord says in the next verse: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”  This is perhaps even clearer.  Our Lord says that there are people in this world who can be called dogs and pigs, and you have to avoid them.  His point is that you shouldn’t try to force truth on those who are obviously going to reject it.  But in order to put this text into practice, you have to be able to judge which people fall under this category.  It very well could be that Jesus puts this verse immediately after the previous verses in order to balance his previous statement about not judging. 

Later on in this chapter, Jesus will warn his disciples against false prophets (7:15-20).  He says that “ye shall know them by their fruits.”  Again, God’s people have to be able to judge which prophets are false prophets by their fruits – by the deeds of their lives.  If this is not a call to judge others, I don’t know what is!

Elsewhere, Jesus actually calls for people to judge, but according to truth: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (Jn. 7:24).  This is a command, not a suggestion.  Our Lord’s words here are very helpful, for they suggest that there is a bad kind of judgment and a good kind of judgment.  He condemns the former and commands the latter.  What makes a judgment righteous is that it is not based solely on appearance but on truth.  This then suggests that what our Lord is doing on the Sermon on the Mount is not condemning all judging, but only that kind of judgment which does not correspond to the truth.

What then was our Lord condemning?  It seems to me that he is condemning two things: hypercriticism and hypocrisy.  Jesus is condemning a hypercritical attitude in verses 1-2: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”  In those words, he is not condemning discernment, he is condemning a judgmental and censorious attitude.

What do we mean by that?  You are judgmental if you are harsher on others than you are on yourself, if your standards for others are higher than the ones you set for yourself.  You are judgmental if you are unwilling to forgive the faults of others, ready to snatch at the first evidence of wrong in someone as a reason to dislike or even to hate them.  A judgmental attitude is the exact opposite of a loving attitude.  It is the opposite of the traits ascribed to love in 1 Corinthians 13.  Thus, whereas loves suffers long, a judgmental person is quick to call to account.  Whereas love is not easily provoked, a person with a censorious heart will be.  Whereas love does not keep a record of wrongs, a judgmental person does.  Whereas love believes all things, a judgmental person finds anything hard to believe about others.  Or, as John Stott put it, “Censoriousness is a compound sin consisting of several unpleasant ingredients.  It does not mean to assess people critically, but to judge them harshly.  The censorious critic is a fault-finder who is negative and destructive towards other people and enjoys actively seeking out their failings.  He puts the worst possible construction on their motives, pours cold water on their schemes and is ungenerous towards their mistakes.”[1] 

A judgmental person never sees his/her own faults as they see the faults of others.  That is why our Lord reminds us that the judgment we render to others will be returned to us.  We may not judge ourselves as we judge others, but there is coming a day when we too will be judged, and the standard we applied to others will be turned on ourselves. 

Now our Lord is not talking about human judgment here.  When he warns us of being judged “that ye be not judged,” he is not referring to the court of human judgment, but rather to the judgment of God, to whom all men will have to give account.  He can’t be referring to the judgment of our peers, because Scripture everywhere teaches that the opinions of others are in the ultimate sense of no account.  Paul would put it this way to the Corinthians: “But it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self” (1 Cor. 4:3).  So clearly Jesus wasn’t warning us against judging others because we will then be subjected to the judgment of other men.  No, he is reminding us of the Final Judgment, a time when all we will all give account (see Mt. 7:21-27).  It as the apostle James would put it: “So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.  For he [God] shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment” (Jm. 2:12-13).  If you show no mercy, you will receive no mercy.  The measure that you judge by will be the measure by which you are judged.

What is so wrong with this?  One of the problems with a judgmental attitude is that by assuming such an attitude we are taking the place of God.  A judgmental person goes beyond merely condemning sin in another person; they go on to condemn the person himself.  This really is what is behind so much of the harshness.  And this is what Paul condemns in Romans 14, when you had these different groups of people condemning each other and failing to love each other.  The apostle puts it to them like this: “Who are thou that judgest another man’s servant?  To his own master he standeth or falleth.  Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand” (ver. 4).  To judge others is to play God.  It is to anticipate the future Judgment by pronouncing your decree upon a person’s future.  No one has the right to do that.

The cure to such censoriousness is first of all to humble ourselves before God, and to trust him to make all things right.  And then it is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  It is to want the same standards of judgment for others as I want for myself.  Are we hypercritical?  Then we are disobeying our Lord’s words here and we need to repent of it. 

Being hypercritical and judgmental is finally to deny the very gospel we claim to believe.  What does the gospel tell us?  Why do we need Christ?  Is it not because we are so loathsome to God on account of our sins that we are worthy of being everlastingly punished in hell?  Is it not that we have then found grace in the eyes of the Lord, not because of what we have done or because of anything good in us but because of what Christ has done?  Is not the gospel that we have become right with God simply by trusting in Christ and committing ourselves to him, believing the promise that if we do so we will receive his righteousness?  Does not the gospel proclaim that we really deserved the wrath of God but received his love?  How then can we turn around and be utterly graceless to others?  Judge not, because when God could have judged you, he judged Christ in your stead.

Let’s be clear: this passage does not justify pretending that sin is not sin.  It does not okay moral blindness.  The follower of Christ is to be a bold speaker of the truth, even when that truth is not believed by the culture.  And yet, what our text does tell us is that we are always to speak the truth in love.  We are always to show all meekness unto all men.  We are not to usurp the role of God in judging others, all the while we courageously proclaim the truth of God to our neighbors.

Secondly, this passage condemns hypocrisy.  A warning against hypocrisy is already inherent in the first two verses; a judgmental attitude that holds people to a different standard is inherently hypocritical.  But in verses 3-5, with the illustration of the mote and the beam, the warning against hypocrisy becomes even more apparent.  In fact, our Lord closes this paragraph with the rebuke: “Thou hypocrite!”

Again, our Lord is not saying that it is wrong ever to point out sin in others.  Part of the point of being a church is to be around others who will point out sin in us.  The apostle Paul writes: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.  Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2).  Part of bearing one another’s burdens involves helping them to see their sin and to repent of it as verse 1 makes clear.  Or consider the words of James: “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (Jm. 5:19-20).  And then we have this great example of the apostle Paul doing this very thing to none other than the apostle Peter in Galatians 2:11-14.  Peter sinned and Paul openly rebuked him for it.  And as Paul makes clear, that was something that needed to happen because the gospel was at stake.

On the other hand, you have the very opposite attitude of the Corinthians that Paul addresses in chapter 5 of his letter to them.  They had this sinning brother in their church, and they had not dealt with the sin.  However, not only had they not dealt with it, they gloried in the fact that they had not dealt with it!  He writes in disbelief: “And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from you” (1 Cor. 5:2).  In other words, they were so proud of their tolerant attitude – probably believing that it was loving – that they had refused to do anything about the sin.  Paul’s words to the church at this point are biting.  What he says to them simply underlines the truth that sin needs to be confronted.

As we pointed out earlier, the words of our Lord do not imply that it is ever wrong to try to pluck a mote out of a brother’s eye.  It’s just wrong when you’ve got a plank in your own eye.  What Jesus condemns here is what Paul condemns in Romans 2:1, “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.”  Probably the clearest illustration of this in the Bible is given in 2 Samuel 12, when the prophet Nathan comes before King David with his story about the poor shepherd whose precious lamb was stolen from him and butchered by his rich neighbor.  King David was incensed when he heard this story, not realizing that he was the one the prophet was referring to (ver. 7).  We all recognize the incongruity that existed in David’s judgment and his own unrepentant heart.  However, the fact of the matter is that we are often all too ready to judge others of sin when there is unrepentant sin in our own lives.

Of course, our Lord is not saying that you can’t hold others accountable for their sin unless you are sinless.  What he is saying is that you are not ready to help others with the sins in their lives as long as you are unwilling to deal with the sin in your own life.  He is also saying that the priority is our own sin.  In other words, what is most pressing is for me to deal with and repent of the sin in my heart before I even begin to consider the sin that I see in someone else.  You are simply not going to have the moral clarity to help someone else in sin when you have not dealt deeply with the sin in your life.  In fact, you will probably end up hurting them rather than helping them.  Can you imagine a person with a plank coming out of their eye bending over to scoop out a piece of sawdust out of another person’s eye?  They will knock them over or knock them out with the board coming out of their own eye before they can even get close enough to see the speck in their neighbor’s eye!

Then comes verse 6: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs,” etc.  Here is a clear call for discernment, one which balances the warning against a judgmental spirit in the previous verses.  Not judging others does not mean that we do not recognize dogs and pigs for what they are.

Now in the first century, a dog was not a family pet, but a wild, vicious creature.  On the other hand, the pig was an unclean animal (actually they both were) and Jews had nothing to do with them.  In the parable of the prodigal son, the son’s lowest point came when he was sent out to feed the pigs.  That is how they were viewed by Jesus’ audience. 

But what was Jesus referring to?  What is holy is the gospel, the truth.  Jesus is the pearl of great price who is worth the risk of selling all that we might obtain him (cf. Mt. 13:45-46).  Though we are to share this truth with others – this is not a rejection of the Great Commission given in Matthew 28 – yet we have to be discerning with whom we share the truth.  There are people who are so hardened against the gospel that to share it with them is simply to provide another occasion for the gospel to be blasphemed, and possibly for you to get hurt in the process.  King Solomon put it this way: “Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee” (Prov. 9:8).

The connection between verses 1-5 and verse 6 is I think this: you are not to judge others, and that means among other things that you are to be kind and longsuffering and meek to all men.  But that does not mean that all men will react the same to your kindness.  You need to be discerning.  Some are so hardened in their sin that your attempts to share the truth with them will only enrage them, like a pig expecting to find a piece of food in the slop only to find a pearl.  So be kind, but also beware.  You don’t hate them, but recognize them for who they are.  You can as soon reason with such a person as you could reason with a dog or a pig.  Or, to use the language of our Lord in Mt. 10:16, you are to be harmless a dove (verses 1-5) and wise as a serpent (verse 6).

Even so, we must be careful not to stretch this truth into an excuse not to share the gospel with anyone we might imagine might not react favorably to it.  John Stott, in his commentary on this passage, notes that “to give people up is a very serious step to take.  I can think of only one or two occasions in my experience when I have felt it was right.  This teaching of Jesus is for exceptional situations only; our normal Christian duty is to be patient and persevere with others, as God has patiently persevered with us.”[2]

When we look at these verses as a whole, what do they tell us?  There has been a lot of debate as to the place of Matthew 7 in the Sermon on the Mount.  Some have even argued that it has no connection with the preceding material.  But I do not think so.  Our Lord in the previous verses was dealing with the dangers to righteousness: worldliness and unbelief.  In this text, he presents another danger to living a life before God: the misuse of our critical faculties, either in the direction of censoriousness or in the direction of gullibility. 

Regardless of how you see the individual pieces fit together (and any scheme is to some extent arbitrary), it is indisputable that the overall theme of this Sermon is what it means to live before God, what it means to be a righteous man or woman.  And our text this morning reminds us that a person who lives before God is neither going to want to usurp his throne with a judgmental attitude nor to throw what is holy to the dogs with a na├»ve zeal.  The reality of God’s holiness ought to govern everything that we are and do.  It takes harsh people and makes them into humble and longsuffering and kind people.  But it also makes them discerning.  Life is not to be lived in a glib, nonchalant, Bertie Wooster type of life; it is to be lived in the deeply joyful seriousness of life before God.

Do you know this God?  I don’t mean know about him, I mean do you know him?  To be without God is to be without hope in the ultimate sense.  Our Lord said that this is eternal life, to know him.  If you do not know him, I can tell you for certain that he knows all about you: your problems, your secret thoughts and your hidden sins.  You might as well ignore God as ignore the sun.  You will have to reckon with him some day.  All of life is lived before God whether you acknowledge it or not.  This Sermon is calling upon you to acknowledge the reality that you are living before a God before whom you will one day give an account.  And in that day, what will you say?  That you were good enough?  Surely, if this Sermon teaches anything it is that no one is perfectly righteous.  God’s standard is too high.  You will fall short.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  Your only hope lies in Jesus Christ, who came not only as the preacher of sermons but as the redeemer of mankind.  He takes our sin that we might take his righteousness.  And this morning he is calling on you to follow him.  What grace!  What welcome, that he would call sinners like ourselves!  So come today, this morning, bend the knee to Jesus Christ, believe on him, and be saved.

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 176.
[2] P. 183.

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