Balance and Perfection

Matthew 7:1-12

Listen or read the transcript below as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of balance and perfection from Matthew 7:1-12 in the Sermon on the Mount series.

My introductory aside this evening will concern the gospel of John. It is frequently said that there is an irreconcilable tension between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the fourth gospel, the gospel of John, and it is said nowhere does this tension become clearer than in the fact that the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical material it contains is not duplicated in any way in the fourth gospel.

In fact, John’s gospel has much emphasis on believing and coming to faith and knowing and loving but nothing to do with all the ethical compass that Matthew touches. How, therefore, can they both really be dealing with the same Jesus? In fact, the tension becomes even more acute, because in Matthew, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that we are to love even our enemies, whereas in John the enemies aren’t mentioned. We’re just to love each other. Such is the nature of the objection.

Some would even go so far to say that the fourth gospel, the gospel of John, recognizes no sin save the sin of unbelief, that it minimizes all ethical content except failure to respond to the claims of Christ. So in trying to bring these two points of view together, let me first of all lay that one to rest. In the gospel of John, sin takes at least the following forms.

Chapter 2, the cleansing of the temple. In chapter 3, verses 19–20, we learn that wicked deeds prevent belief. Men see the light but refuse it because their deeds are evil. In John 4, adultery is brought to the fore, and Jesus refuses to go further with the Samaritan woman until she comes clean on the matter of her adultery. In John 5, there is sin which leads to illness. At the end of John 5, there is self-complacency in the matter of pleasing God.

In John 6:26, Jesus insists the reason the people want the miracle of the multiplying bread is not even for the sensationalism but because they’re gross crass materialists. Also in John 6 there is a charge of fickleness. In John 6 also there is the beginning of Judas’ treachery. In John 7 there is hypocritical manufactured justice in the court.

Likewise in John 7 and also in John 8 we begin to see the murderous intents of the rulers of the people. Also in John 8 there is reference to the bondage of sin. Sin enslaves. In John 12, death. In John 12 and 19, political and social corruption. In John 18, religious hypocrisy. In John 18 and 19, physical violence, and so on. So it’s not quite true that John is nowhere interested in ethics.

Secondly, whereas he does emphasize belief, it is clear that authentic faith in John shatters the tyranny of sin. It is not simply belief in a vacuum. You believe because you believe because you believe, or you believe so you can join the Christian party. Rather, real belief, authentic faith, shatters sin. The Son sets men free, and the freedom involved is the freedom from the tyranny of sin. “The Lamb of God comes and takes away the sin of the world,” we read in chapter 1.

Thirdly, there is also a great stress in John on the necessity for obedience to Jesus’ commands. “If you love me,” he says, “keep my commandments.” The commandments are not spelled out in great detail, but the principle is laid down that there must be obedience to Jesus himself or else there is no acknowledgement of his lordship. There is no salvation, and we deny the faith.

Fourth, John’s purpose and Matthew’s purpose are quite distinctively different. In my judgment, John well knew of the existence of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and he thought them inadequate. Let me hasten to add, not inadequate as historical theological summaries of the life of Christ but inadequate as an evangelistic tool in his particular cultural setting.

He is restating the gospel, and he is not restating it in all its breadth and depth. That has been done. He’s stating it to focus it in on one particular segment of the ancient Near East, probably Asia Minor, modern churches, and there he is focusing in on the problems no longer of the beginning of the century but of the end of the century when he writes. So he has gathered material from the life of Christ that most speaks to that situation, because that is what interests him. That is what is confronting him.

Hence, at the end of the gospel he says, “There are many other signs which Jesus did, but these I have recorded so that you may know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” Then in his first epistle, by way of distinction, he writes to those who have believed that they may be assured of their salvation. It’s always important in assessing books to see the difference in purpose of the writer.

I have spoken to atheist clubs on why I am a Christian, and I assure you the way I speak to them is not the way I speak to you, despite my North American habits. Furthermore, there are certain common things in John and in Matthew that are simply overwhelming, especially in 1 John and in Matthew. First John is a little book that concerns the test of life. How does a person know he’s a Christian? What things are essential to being a Christian? John lays down four, but three drum through the book with particular emphasis.

The first is you believe certain propositional things. That is, there is an accent on propositional truth. There’s also an accent on obedience. There must be obedience to the will of God. Third, there is an accent on love. If Christians don’t love each other, they deny the faith. So there’s a stress on truth, a stress on obedience, and a stress on love. Now you look at the last chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7. The truth you will find in verses 15 and following.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” Watch out for false prophets. So there is an accent on truth. The accent on obedience you find in verses 21 and following. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” So there’s an accent on obedience.

The accent on love comes out already in verse 12. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” So there is a sense that in their mutual summing up in different styles, they nevertheless come to the same kernel of truth, presented by the Master himself in the sermon on Galilee.

The second problem that is raised, the one perhaps more frequently raised by various books, is this difference between Matthew and John on the extent of the love Christians are commanded to show. Two or three weeks ago, we looked at the end of Matthew 5, where we read, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than the others? Do not even pagans do that?”

When you turn to the gospel of John, there is an implicit limitation. We read in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” You can see that there is a restriction of this love to the disciples. “You disciples love one another so that the outsiders will know that you are my disciples.” What is going on here?

First, the difference in emphasis reflects different concerns. In Matthew, Jesus is speaking against an attitude of retaliation, that attitude which says, “Love your friends, but hate your enemies.” Against that Jesus insists, “No, love your enemies as well.” Whereas John is concerned with love within the church, love within the fellowship of believers, love within the brotherhood.

In the second place, even with this love within the brotherhood in the gospel of John, it’s for the sake of their witness to the outsiders. We read, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Again in chapter 17, verse 23, when Jesus is praying, he says, “Father, I wish you to be in them and me in you. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

In other words, in the gospel of John, John is speaking to outsiders. He wants the outsiders to see a special love that exists within the Christian fellowship, so he’s presenting this to them as a mark authenticating them as the disciples of Jesus. So in his evangelistic appeal, he’s showing the special nature of that love.

That brings us to the third point. The inner/outer distinction, the inner people and the outer people, is actually also a reflection of God’s love. There is a sense in which God loves the world. We read God loves the world so much that he sends his Son (John 3:16). Yet also in the gospel of John we find some very exclusive marks of the love Jesus has for his own.

In John 13:1 we read, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” Again in chapter 17, verse 9, he says, “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.”

In other words, there is a sense in which God’s stance toward the whole world is saving. He loves the world and sends his Son. There is nevertheless a special love for the believers themselves, for his own, for those the Father was giving him. In other words, the whole thing sounds very much like Galatians 6:10, to bring in Paul. He says, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

In other words, it is not so much a question of loving the outsider less as the insider more. The mathematicians won’t like that at all, but that’s nevertheless the truth of the matter. It is not so much a question of loving the outsider less as the insider more. There is a special bond that draws together real believers, men and women who are born again by the Spirit of God. This does not mean we have a negative attitude toward the outsiders. It does mean there’s a specialness within.

At the beginning, I tried to outline the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. I suggested that in Matthew, chapter 5, verses 1–16, there is an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, which is then followed by the body of the sermon, which runs from chapter 5, verse 17, to chapter 7, verse 12. Within this body, the real heart of the issue is chapter 5, verses 17–48.

It deals with Jesus’ relationship to the Law and the Prophets in the Old Testament, which point forward to him, and his enunciation of the claims of God and the nature of this reign, this kingdom that has come. It culminates with that demand, “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As soon as you say, “Be perfect,” and people start striving for that goal, there is a danger of religious hypocrisy, so he then shifts gears, as it were, and warns against that danger in chapter 6.

Then having warned against the danger of religious hypocrisy and showing that the real test involved confirms whose approval we seek, whether we are really seeking the approval of men or the approval of God, he then presents the same case positively at the end of John 6 by showing that what we must do is seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and develop within that framework a whole set of kingdom perspectives.

So when we come to the beginning of chapter 7, he has laid aside that objection, the objection that can turn the demand for perfection into hypocrisy or into something twisted and warped, and he comes now to other ways of twisting the heart of the issue. In other words, chapter 7, verse 1, really picks up again from the end of chapter 5.

To pursue holiness has the danger of hypocrisy attached to it. That we’ve seen. But there are other dangers, and to these Jesus now turns. There are three he mentions: the danger of being judgmental in verses 1–5, the danger of being undiscriminating in verse 6, and the danger of lacking a trusting persistence in verses 7–11. Then the whole thing is summed up and the body of the sermon is concluded in verse 12.

  1. The danger of being judgmental. You can see how this danger would arise. Here is the challenge to be perfect, to be holy, to be pure, and as I strive and seek to discipline myself, it becomes very easy to look down my long nose at all the lesser beings who really haven’t caught the vision that I have caught, and they aren’t trying the way I’m trying. They haven’t beaten off the temptations I’ve beaten off this week.

Not only so, but did you see that preacher the other day? He doesn’t have a real grasp of the truth. In other words, your very appeal to be perfect can pull us back into the nasty position where we’re just being judgmental. Against this Jesus says, “Do not judge.” Let me first say what this verse does not mean but which it is often taken to mean.

It does not mean that we are to be amorphous, undiscerning blobs who venture no opinions about right and wrong under any circumstances. Are we to say nothing, for example, about the right and wrong of Hitler? Are we to say nothing about the right and wrong of the slave trade of the last century? Are we to say nothing about the millions of people massacred under Stalin? Are we supposed to say, “Judge not that you be not judged”? Is that what is meant?

In fact, if you look at the New Testament itself, it precludes that possibility. In the sixth verse, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not give dogs what is sacred.” As soon as you start calling people dogs, you’re being fairly judgmental. Then a few verses later, verses 15–16, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.”

In other words, here is not only condemnation but a means of testing to see who is a false prophet and who is not. But that’s not all. In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle insists that the church there is not exercising sufficient discipline. There is a man in the church who is sleeping with his stepmother, and he hasn’t been disciplined.

He says, “As if I’m already present with you, I’ve already condemned him. I’ve already judged him, and I’ve sentenced him to be turned over to Satan.” That’s very strong judgment. So this verse is not to be used to eliminate the necessity of discipline in the church. Look again at the apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians in the first chapter. He has some very strong things to say about false teaching.

He says in Galatians 1:8–9, “If even we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!”

In the area of truth and falsehood, the early church brooked no tolerance. None. If it’s true, it’s true. If it’s false, it’s false, and there’s no point trying to pretend you can gloss it all over by some easy statement about judging. But that is not all. In Philippians 3 we read, “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” Here there is a reference to people within the church’s compass who are nevertheless leading people in the church astray, and again judgment is being exercised.

On a more positive note, the apostle John in the fourth chapter of his first epistle writes, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Here again there is an invitation to judge, to test, to assess. Hence, at the end of 1 Corinthians 12, we are told to covet earnestly the best gifts. Again, this is involves some sort of assessment, some sort of judging.

Again in John 7:24, Jesus himself says, “Judge righteous judgment.” So then what are we to make of this statement? The verb in the Greek language can mean anything from discern to judge to condemn, and only the context tells you what it means. In other words, it could mean, “Do not discern.” It could mean, “Do not judge.” It could mean, “Do not condemn.” Only the context will tell.

In fact, it means here, “Do not be judgmental. Do not be hyper-critical. Do not be condemnatory.” The same verb is used by Paul in Romans 14, a very famous chapter, verses 10 and following. “You, then, why do you judge your brother?” Same verb. “Or why do you look down on your brother?” Notice the parallel statement. Judge. Look down on.

“For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: ‘ “As I live,” says the Lord, “every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.” ’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.” Same verb again. “Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”

“Do not be judgmental.” Within this context, the injunction given here by the Master is very powerful. So you come home from church. Having sorted most things out, they proceed to have roast vicar for lunch. “I don’t judge. Mind you, since the Master said, ‘By their fruits you shall know them,’ sometimes I’m a fruit inspector, but I don’t judge.”

It’s so hard to pin down, because there is a sense in which we must be inspecting fruit. That’s what the Master said. “By their fruits you shall know them.” There is another sense by which the man stands self-condemned because he’s going around with this sort of inspector attitude.

Or take the gossip who just loves to pass on a little bit of malicious negative remarks, someone with a really keen sense of rumor. This is what Exodus 33 says: “You will not carry a false rumor. You will not join hands with wicked men to be a malicious witness.” Yet this negative stance toward people and toward others can carry on even in the realm of rumor and gossip.

I think that we who are students have particular trouble here, because there is a sense in which we are legitimately trying to sort ourselves out. We’re legitimately trying to come to grips with ideas. We’re trying to see what we ourselves believe, so we often cast ourselves in a role of opposition …

If we’re not careful, we who are Christians can become very negative, way hyper-critical, very glib in our denunciation and rejection of everybody and anybody, probably because we’re trying to protect our own ego. I’m just coming to the place where I have some opinions of my own, and if I assert my own loudly enough.… Well, I can be assured that I’m right if I just put the other chap down.

Perhaps we who are Christian students have special difficulty in this respect, because the Christian student who really does know that he belongs to the Lord, he’s not only sorting himself out in terms of his own ideas, but he is developing his own Christian worldview, his own Christian perspective, and he might belong to this particular party or that particular movement and assess everybody else as just not quite up to snuff.

Let me tell you frankly that the warmest praise I get in speaking to groups comes from students but also the harshest criticism. They’re also the most ruthlessly critical. Sometimes the criticisms are truth, but sometimes they’re just nasty. They’re just judgmental. Instead of coming and trying to find out what went wrong or if I misunderstood or whatever, instead they give nasty criticism.

Believe me, I’m not speaking to anyone here personally. You have treated me far too leniently in these past few weeks, but the principle still speaks to each of us, including to myself. I’m a terrible critic of other preachers if I am not very careful of my walk before the Lord. What does Jesus say? “Do not be judgmental or you too will be judged.”

This may either mean that others will in turn be judgmental toward you or it may be taken to be a pun in the Greek language. The second half of the verse is even stronger. “Do not be judgmental or God will condemn you. Do not be judgmental or else you will be judged in the same way.” You will be condemned by God himself. In either case, the injunction is very searching.

This too gives us a theological justification. “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” The point is not that we should be moderate in our judging in order that others will be moderate toward us, but rather that we should completely abolish judgmental attitudes. In other words, judgmentalism excludes us from God’s pardoning.

This is a picking up again of the theme we first saw in chapter 5, verse 7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” and picked up again by the Lord Jesus in chapter 6, verses 14–15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” “In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

The classic example in the Bible is probably 2 Samuel 12:1–7. King David has stolen another man’s wife. He has lusted after her. He has seduced her, and now, after he discovers that she has become pregnant by him, her absent husband, fighting David’s wars, is tricked, deceived, so that he is left at the front when the front line retires, and he is killed. In effect, David has murdered him.

The prophet Nathan enters and tells David, in effect, a sob story about a poor farmer who had one tiny little lamb and a nasty big rich farmer who had a whole flock of sheep. The nasty big rich farmer came and stole that one poor little lamb. David’s indignation rises to the fore. “Who is he? He shall certainly be tried for this.” Nathan says, “Thou art the man, O king.”

David was judgmental toward this other brother, toward this other person, but he had done, in principle, something that was the same and, in a sense, something that was much worse. He didn’t see it until it was pointed out to him. The rabbis said that God had two measures by which he measured men, and it is possible that Jesus is referring to that common belief at the end of verse 2. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

The two measures in rabbinic thought were the measure of mercy and the measure of justice. How, then, are we to look on a liar? We come across a liar. How do we look upon him? If we measure him by the standard of justice, we will be very critical, very condemnatory. On the other hand, if that same standard is applied to us, how do we fare?

Or we look at an adulterer, something that is still socially frowned upon in some circles, and we think, “Oh, this man is a terrible man. He hasn’t been true to his wife. Terrible.” So when we have any dealings with him, we look down our nose at him and freeze him out and we don’t talk to him and we show him no compassion, because we are being just, and God’s Word condemns adultery.

We go back to the Master’s words about lusting from the heart, about that being adultery. Do we really want the standards of God’s justice to be applied to us with the same measure? In other words, Jesus’ theological justification of the principle, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you,” is one that demands holiness on our part but a merciful attitude toward others.

It is not that we look on the liar or the adulterer or any other sinner and say, “Well, it just doesn’t matter.” Rather, we look on him with compassion, so when we confront, we have to say, “There but for the grace of God go I. God be merciful to me if I think like that.”

Then the Master gives an example. Verses 3–5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

This speck of sawdust.… In Greek it’s one word for a tiny piece of dried wood or straw. The word here translated plank perhaps is better translated log, a big chunk of wood. Obviously, the Lord is speaking hyperbolically. Hypocrite has the primary meaning of acting, playacting. In chapter 6 we saw people playacting at piety. Here they are playacting at ophthalmology, or in a spiritual application, they are playacting at spiritual counseling.

They are playacting at spiritual discernment. They are playacting at spiritual ministry. They think they are going to help the other chap with his problems when their own problems preclude them from helping anybody. Verse 5 can be taken two ways. It may be ironical. “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

In other words, if it is meant ironically, it is not meant to establish the rights and circumstances by which you may judge, but rather it is meant to be taken as a very forceful statement which precludes anything of judgmentalism. You never get rid of all the wood in your eye, as it were. In other words, in this interpretation, this could mean something like the Lord Jesus remarked in John 8:7, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

I think myself that Matthew 7:5 must be taken another way. It can be taken to mean exactly what it says without any trace of irony. Christians must keep themselves holy. They must remove every trace of hypocrisy. They must see clearly. They must apply the most rigorous standards to their own conduct, and then they will confront other men with their sins and their problems, but they will do it without a judgmental attitude. “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

  1. The danger of being undiscriminating. Verse 6: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” You can see also how this danger arises. A person who has been told to love neighbors as themselves, to love even his own enemies, a person who has been told to be perfect, a person who has been told to love people the way God loves the unjust.

This person might become so undiscriminating, so wishy-washy, he sees all men in the same way, and there is a sense in which that is wrong. So after warning against judgmentalism, Jesus warns against being undiscriminating. Notice, nevertheless, that he has reserved only one verse for this warning and five verses for the other. I suspect we are far more in need of the five about judgmentalism than the one about being undiscriminating. Nevertheless, this is the opposite danger.

It is giving what is holy to the persistently irresponsible, unappreciative, and vicious. Dogs here are not pets that cuddle on your lap; they are savage social pariahs. They are great hounds with tongues hanging out of their mouths and not at all the things that wag their tail becomingly when you scratch their ears. They are scavengers who roam the streets, and they are despised by the Jewish people, almost as much as pigs are an abomination and which no self-respecting Jew would keep in his family barnyard.

Furthermore, these swine have tusks. They’re not the lovely little things with round snouts that go, “Oink, oink.” They can be nasty and vicious. In other words, these are the sorts of creatures that can turn and rend you. The same two animals are brought together by the apostle Peter in 2 Peter 2 in again a very negative connection. “The dog returns to his vomit, and the sow to her wallowing in the mire.”

The picture that is used here is of a man who has a little bag of precious pearls, and there’s this evil-smelling pig looking at him hungrily. He takes out these pearls and sprinkles them on the street. The pigs pounce on him, thinking he has some food. Maybe it’s a piece of bread. Perhaps a cookie. Maybe a pie. Or it could be a wee biscuit. So they pounce on these very valuable pearls, but they’re somewhat disappointed. They don’t chew very well. They’re hard on the teeth. So they spit them out, and they turn on the man.

One of the things I like doing in Canada is camping out in the wild. When you camp in Canada, you can get 200, 300, 400 miles from seeing anybody, and there you can unpack a canoe and go in the wild and you will be days without seeing a soul, paddle 200 or 300 miles around various connections of lake. But there is one fundamental rule in camping. There are several, but there’s one in particular. Don’t feed the bears, because if you don’t have enough, they’ll come again and rend you, to use Jesus’ words.

It’s that sort of thing that is envisaged here. You promise them something, and you cast what is valuable before them, but they just turn and tear you to shreds. Now Jesus is saying, in effect, “Do not give what is holy to the persistently vicious and irresponsible.” There are numerous examples of this in the Word of God.

Picture the apostle Paul, for example, in chapter 18 of the book of Acts, verses 5–6. “When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’ ”

The same sort of thing comes up in chapter 13 of the same book. Or think of his injunction to the young man Titus in the matter of pastoral oversight. Titus 3:10–11: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”

I recall a chap when I was an undergraduate at McGill, a chap who was a particularly gifted servant of God in introducing them to Jesus. His name is David Ward. Many of us had friends with whom we talked about the Lord, but we couldn’t quite seem to get them together the way David could. So sometimes we’d get David in for a bit of coffee with some of these non-Christian friends, and David would talk to them about the Lord.

I recall once I went to David, and I said, “David, there are a couple of chaps I’d like you to talk to. They’re not interested, but they’d probably listen.” Quick as a wink, he said, “If they’re not interested, I’m not interested. I’m too busy.” That was a bit extreme, but I understand his point now when I didn’t then.

He was a chap who was burning the candle at both ends, pouring himself out, talking to people about the Lord, people who were interested, people who asked questions, people who were on the verge of entering the kingdom, people who wanted Bible studies, people who were hungry to be taught, and he just didn’t have time for people who weren’t interested.

Now I know there’s a danger of turning off too fast. I know there’s a sense in which the vast majority of people who become Christians first of all put up all sorts of walls of opposition. I know that if you quit too soon you’re not being faithful and persistent. I know that. But there still comes a time when you must spend yourself elsewhere. You are better pouring out your energy and sharing your witness where there is more receptivity, where the ground is a little better.

Here, as in all things, we’d do well to follow the example of the Lord Jesus himself. Look at how patient he is with Thomas and his doubts in John 20 or with bringing Peter back in John 21, but for Herod Antipas (who had often been warned, according to Mark 6:20), Jesus had no words to speak in Luke 23. In other words, this principle means that we are to be careful how we share holy things. We are to be careful with our holy things, and they are not to be cast around indiscriminately but thoughtfully, carefully, responsibly, strategically.

  1. The danger of lacking a trusting persistence. Verses 7–11. Here again you can see how the danger arises. You get some preacher in who really stirs you up. He’s one of these chaps you can listen to by the hour, and he really turns you on spiritually. You really want to become a Christian or you really want to grow in the Lord. Then he moves on to the next town, and you sort of drift back to your normal state of mediocrity.

Then the next chap comes along. He really fires you up and stirs you, and you really feel drawn to the Lord and you make a new commitment. It sounds very, very much like the parable of the sower. Some seed was sown on stony ground. The expression refers to limestone-based ground in Palestine, where the limestone rock is just under the surface of the topsoil.

Because the earth is shallow, it heats up very quickly, so this little plant blossoms quickly. It pushes through the earth, and out comes a leaf. It seems to be the best of the crop, but as the hot Palestinian sun increases in its strength as the weeks roll by, the roots go down and hit no moisture but only limestone bedrock. The sun gets hotter, and the plant dies.

Jesus explains that these are people who hear the Word gladly and rejoice in it, but when the first trial comes or the first persecution or the first discouragement, they demonstrate that they never had the root of the matter. They just wither away. There’s a similar danger in treating a subject like the Sermon on the Mount.

It is possible to get fired up by the wonderful standards, the high ethical tones, the purity, the goal of self-sacrifice. Splendid stuff, and yet somehow there is not the Scripture-rootedness, the determination, the humble thought of constantly depending on the Lord. There is a danger of a lack of persistent trust. There is a danger of lacking a trusting persistence, and it is against this that Jesus here speaks.

He says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” In the perfect threefold symmetry in these two verses, the imperatives are emphatic in the original and in the present tense. “Keep on asking. Keep on seeking. Keep on knocking.” Seek. Ask. Knock. Keep on.

Prayer is in view, but it strikes me that more than prayer is in view. It is not quite prayer in the sense of simply asking for petitions. It is more than that. In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, it is an asking for God, a seeking for God, a knocking at the portals of heaven’s throne room. It sounds something like Jeremiah 29:13: “You will seek me and you will find me when you search for me with all your heart.” To seek and knock and ask entails an acknowledgement of need, and it entails persistence.

Then Jesus gives two illustration, and they are really quite moving ones. He says, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” Bread and fish are selected because they are common foods around Galilee. Here is a young chap who comes to his daddy and says, “Daddy, please can I have some bread?” and his father says, “I have to think of a good trick. This round smooth stone looks like a little loaf. Here you are, son.” It’s silly. No father would do that. Which man would do that?

Some Christians have the idea that God is just a little bit like that. God gets some sort of cheap malicious glee out of watching his people squirm now and then. Now we wouldn’t be quite so crude and blasphemous as to put it in those gross terms, but our attitude toward him is like that sometimes. We come to him and say, “God, I really would like to be holy. I really would like some help with my exams, but probably you don’t care anyway, and probably you think I don’t deserve much help. God, where are you?”

Don’t you ever pray like that? Jesus says this is really ludicrous, really ridiculous. Ask, seek, and knock, because the response to our prayers comes within the father/son relationship. What father would ever do a nasty thing like that to his son? So Jesus goes on in his a fortiori argument, his “how much more” argument, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

We are evil, even the parent who loves his child. He is evil in the way he will sometimes rebuke his son to provide some sort of catharsis for himself. He’s evil also in the sense that sometimes he puts his own interests above his son’s interests, but our Father is not like that. He loves us.

What shall we say of God who gives the sun and the rain to those who shake their puny fists at him? What do we say of God but what Paul says? “He who has given us his own Son, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” He has given us the greatest gift he could. He has given us his Son. Will he therefore not hear us? This is the God who says, “Though a mother forgets her babe at her breast, yet will I not forget you.”

Come, my soul, thy suit prepare

Jesus loves to answer prayer

He himself has bid thee pray

Therefore will not say thee nay

Thou art coming to a King

Large petitions with thee bring

For his grace and power are such

None can ever ask too much.

Note, however, that this asking, seeking, and knocking is within the context of the whole Sermon on the Mount. It is an asking, seeking, and knocking after the will of the Father. It is an asking, seeking, and knocking to know him, whom to know is life eternal. It is an asking, seeking, and knocking to be holy as he is holy, to be pure as he is pure, to be perfect as he is perfect. It is an asking, seeking, and knocking to know his will and to do his will.

It is an asking, seeking, and knocking to pursue the goals and perspectives of the kingdom of God. It is an asking, seeking, and knocking to be found in that position of grace where I’m only interested in serving him. Which of us have approached God like that? Which of us have approached God and asked and knocked and sought him to be holy, really to be holy, to be pure, to be granted eyes of faith to see, to be obedient?

Thou art coming to a King

Large petitions with thee bring

For his grace and power are such

None can ever ask too much.

God is far more willing to pour out on his people a blessing such that there is not room to contain it, and his people are to receive it. So we come to verse 12. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Here is the conclusion of the main body of the Sermon on the Mount. As I noted some weeks ago, there is an inclusion here. There is a reference to the Law and the Prophets again, which binds the whole body together. It is first mentioned in chapter 5, verse 17, and it’s picked up again at the end.

In other words, the kingdom of heaven is tuned in its relationship to the Law and the Prophets, which have pointed forward to it. The negative form of the Golden Rule is known in many religions. Confucius gave a similar statement. In Judaism, Rabbi Hillel before Jesus said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow creature. That is the whole law. All else is explanation.”

Jesus alone has given the positive form of it and the difference is profound. For example, the negative form of the Golden Rule would mean something like this: “If you would not like to be robbed, do not rob others. If you would not like to be cursed, do not curse others. If you would not like to be clubbed over the head, do not club others over the head. If you would not like to be maligned, do not malign.” Fair enough.

The positive form is far more searching. “If you would like to be loved, love. If you would like to be appreciated, appreciate. If you would like to be respected, respect. Whatever you would like done to you, do to others.” How often when you go visiting in homes that know nothing of the gospel there is a barrier of self-righteousness that is immediately propped up? “Oh, I’m not so bad. I’ve never robbed a bank. I’m faithful to my husband. I’m good to my children. There are a lot of bad things I don’t do. You should see our neighbors down the street.”

All these negative things I don’t do. Jesus comes on much stronger than that. What would you like done to you? What would you really like? Then do it to others. We are to duplicate both the quality of these things (“Do so even to them,” the Greek literally has) and the quantity, the extent, in everything. Why? Why are we to act like this? It’s like the old statement “Honesty pays.” Good investment. That’s not the reason Jesus gives. He says, “For this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” In other words, even the reason why we’re to do it is bound in to the nature of the kingdom of God.

Here now all of the pieces are beginning to come together. The Law and the Prophets point to Jesus, who fulfills them. He lays out his own authoritative voice, and we in obeying him are ourselves fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. Here is fulfillment of God’s will. Here is the perfection requirement of Matthew 5:48, not simply in terms of loving others but of obeying the Lord and therefore loving others, fulfilling the Law and the Prophets and demonstrating this outwardly.

In the balanced warnings we have seen in this chapter, all is coming together in balance and perfection. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” God help us to be doers of this Word.

Get a FREE eBook to strengthen your family discipleship!

The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.

Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!

Get your free eBook »

Get a FREE eBook to strengthen your family discipleship!

The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.

Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!

Get your free eBook »