A Study in Matthew 7
Our Lord's 'Sermon on the Mount' comprises Matthew chapters 5-7. The Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon' (Matt.5.3-12) are well known if not so well understood. As we proceed through the three chapters the content becomes less familiar. The 'sermon' has been called Jesus' 'manifesto' and there certainly is much valuable teaching in the whole of it. Chapter 7 is about relationships and how we react and respond to others and to our environment. There are relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, with our Heavenly Father and how we should speak to Him in prayer; with neighbours and doing as we would be done by, and finally with Jesus and being obedient to what He says.
Firstly, Jesus deals with the problem of 'judging others' ‑ being critical and finding fault. Why do human beings criticise one another? Does it serve a useful purpose? Those who are critical of other people, probably like to think that they are helping the one criticised to overcome a weakness. But is the real motive prompting criticism a means of inflating the ego of the critic ‑ an effort to contrast someone else's weaknesses with their own virtues. Jesus makes it clear that if we would have others think well of us we must think (and speak) well of them. The kind of judgment that we mete out to others will be the kind of judgment that we receive from God. The Christian faith is all about reciprocity ‑ the give and take of life ‑ the mutual exchange of privilege that leads to true friendship. We have no choice in this matter. We have no right to choose to whom we will extend the hands of good fellowship. God chooses our brothers and sisters in Christ.. He also oversees those among whom we move every day ‑ the ones who, believers or unbelievers, we must extend the love of God. The way we treat them, is the way in which we are asking God to treat us.
Jesus makes the point of judging very clear with a wonderful little parable about trying to get a speck out of someone's eye while we've got a plank of wood in our own. The large piece of timber tends to obstruct our vision so that we can't see clearly. As Roy Hession suggests, that plank is probably our own judgmental attitude. So long as we are in the critical frame of mind we cannot possibly see to help our 'brother' sort out his minor problem ‑ perhaps a small deficiency or weakness. As we look through the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus wanted to impress His disciples with the principle of never being critical of others.
There is a wealth of material in the Bible, either direct teaching or fascinating anecdotes that help us to see the lessons we must all learn, right from the incident in Egypt when Moses was asked "Who made you a ruler and judge over us", through Paul's letters, notably Romans 14 to the penetrating teaching of James 2. Judging others is wrong because we cannot see into the heart of another. It is also wrong as Paul pointed out in Romans 14 because we are judging another person's slave, something we have no right to do. Becoming a judge in Israel was a responsible and exacting task. Frequently, judges failed because they took bribes which perverted the course of justice. Too often the judges were more concerned with their remuneration or their reputation than they were to see that justice was done, and was seen to be done. Too often justice was not done because the judges were concerned with the outward appearance and what other people said. They had not the power of God who has appointed Jesus judge the world, as Paul said on Mars Hill (Acts 17.31). Jesus can look into the heart as He demonstrated while here on Earth.
So Jesus tells that strange but very pointed little parable. Jesus is a master of hyperbole ‑ he draws an exaggerated picture to press home His point.. To remove anything from another person's eye is a delicate operation, as a nurse would tell us who removes glass splinters from accident prone motorist's eyes. Fault finding can do much harm to Christian relationships.
There is a kind of 'judging by implication' and this is highlighted in Jesus parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, praying in the Temple. Let us be gentle in what we say about others knowing that everything is done, said and thought in the light of eternity. Father hears and sees it all; not standing by with a notebook, for our character is the record our thoughts, words and actions. Are they being shaped into His likeness? Do we cause Him to smile at our love for Him through His people or does He shed tears at being hurt when we fail to show that love?
This does not destroy our privilege of 'choice'. We can chose those whom we believe make good close friends, those who make good confidants and advisors, those from whom we may learn Christian teaching. There is a need for 'discernment'. Jesus makes this point with the reference to throwing precious stones to pigs. But that is very different from carping criticism which can destroy another's reputation.
"Do not give to dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you." (Matt 7.6). As Dr Tasker suggests "A Jew… would not invite a pagan to share his religious feasts." Nor should we disseminate advanced spiritual truths to those who would despise and ridicule and be antagonistic toward the 'pearl of great price'. Lack of common sense can be counter productive in the preaching of the Gospel.
There is a place for judgment. The Bible upholds the principle of those in authority judging the law breaker, (Rom.13.1; 1 Tim.2.2). There is a place for judges, examiners, referees and those in authority. There are times when Church leaders lovingly, must make judgment as Paul writes "don't you know that you will judge angels". But when we pass judgment, let us remember our own sin and strange idiosyncrasies.
In Matt.7.7 Jesus give some simple instructions about prayer. "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you." Jesus draws the parallel between the Heavenly Father and our earthly parents. It looks easy enough but considerable debate as to Jesus' meaning has resulted over the centuries since. Jesus didn't intend this to be difficult; quite the reverse. He wanted His followers to discover how easy was the access to the Father He so loved. There are several rules about coming to God. We are approaching the great and mighty Creator of the Universe. That universe is vast beyond our imaginations. We cannot possibly comprehend the great Mind behind it all. It is not merely large in size but ingenious and complex; and its expression of sheer love. God is love. He wants His children to approach Him. He will draw near to us if we will make a move toward Him. He doesn't demand set formularies and stilted language. He wants us to pour out our hearts to Him. There need be no holding back. He can see into every corner of our lives. He wants us and there is no limit ‑ providing we remember one or two things. Sin places a barrier between us and God and only the blood of Jesus can break down that barrier. If we have an outstanding problem between someone else and ourselves, that causes defect in us, that will be a barrier. When we want to bring a gift ‑when we want to worship ‑ we must do our best to solve that problem before we pray. God knows that while we have bitterness and resentment in our hearts we are not fit to talk to Him, so He says, 'get it put right'. It will not do to blame the other person and expect an apology from them. The onus is on us to be sorry ‑ to admit our fault ‑ better that way even if in the end we were not at fault. Contrition of heart ‑ true contrition is absolutely essential before God ‑ and real humility of heart is prepared to face the hurt party and make it clear that we are sorry. Then, and only then, are we ready to "ask anything in the name of Jesus" ‑ for then are we most likely to ask according to His will ‑ which is the second essential for prayer. Perhaps in the early days of our Christian walk we had little more than Bible study and sound Christian pastorate to discover God's will. Slowly we may have gone further afield than the leaders of the Church where were converted and learned ways of assessing the advice and teaching of other communities.
Maybe the teaching, stories, biographies of men and women of God from across the world have enabled us to know God's will. All along God has made Himself known in the personal circumstances of the lives of His people ‑ which we may have called providence. Hopefully, as we begin to grow spiritually we find that we are conscious of God working in our minds and is being discerned in our thinking, particularly in prayer. Heart to heart communion becomes a reality with the living God and His will becomes readily identifiable almost immediately we seekt it. But sometimes a cloud crosses our pathway and we fail to understand what God is doing in our lives. This may be our Father deliberately letting us discover what it is like to be without Him but more likely we just need to recognise disobedience that is obstructing our communion with Him.
We need to be alert and well tuned to God and His purpose for us. Its of little value having an expert knowledge of the Plan of God for all creation if we ignore God's plan for our own individual life. So what may we pray for?
Jesus said "Whatsoever" and He meant it. We may look back through the lives of great Bible characters ‑ Abraham, Hannah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Nehemiah, Mary, Paul and the Master Himself ‑ they are all wonderfully inspiring with many lessons to teach. There are countless books of prayers and books about prayer; arrow prayers, panic prayers, does God help with bullying and exams, - does God heal? Have we discovered the value, the absolutely vital need, of a Quiet Time, alone with the Lord and His Word.
What might start with 7 minutes with God becomes 15, 30 and for some it runs to one or more hours. Here the stresses and strains are smoothed out.
Here the sorrow and worries are given to Him and in Him alone we find the answer to our questions. For the honest enquiring mind there may be questions about the meaning of a Scripture ‑ about the wonders of Creation and God's wonderful Universe ‑ and our little planet ‑ about the confusing issues in the world of mankind ‑ about what we should do next.
There are times, perhaps many times when the Lord gentle says "Let it be" ‑ it isn't important ‑ its better not said ‑ there are other things to do and say. Listening in prayer is as important as telling God about our problems Mental attitudes in prayer are more important that physical positions.
As we look at verse 12 of this wonderful chapter we are reminded of Charles Kingsley's children's story 'The Water Babies' and the lesson that Tom had to learn' 'Do as you would be done by'. This 'golden rule' had been approached by some of the great teachers in Israel but as Dr.Barclay points out, they had never quite made it. Our Lord seems to have given the first positive rule and not just 'don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you'. There is a very great difference ‑ the difference between sins of omission and sins of commission. We don't live a good life by trying to avoid what is wrong, because it is wrong not to do good when its possible to do it. The priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan did nothing wrong apparently ‑ except fail to help a fellowman who desperately needed their help. Love as you would be loved ‑ and it's the kind of love which Jesus expressed all His life ‑ and which it was left to Paul to define in 1 Cor.13. Love never fails ‑ and we must never fail to express that love in word and action until we become the very embodiment of that Greek word 'agape', until it become the natural things to do and say …and think. We must target with our love those who are unloved ‑ and those we find hardest to love. That is only really possible when the Spirit of God takes hold of us and really shapes us into the likeness of Him who is love.
The remainder of the chapter needs a study of its own for it is about the 'Strait Gate' ‑ false prophets ‑ and above all our relationship with Jesus our Lord. May He open our ears and our eyes to know His will and our mouths to praise His name.
(to be concluded)
(William Barclay and Martin Lloyd Jones have much to offer in their books on the Sermon on the Mount.)