Maintaining the Right Relationships

 

Week of September 23, 2012

 

Bible Verses:  Matthew 7:1-12.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about living in right relationship with others and with God.

 

Don’t Be Hypocritical:  Matthew 7:1-5.

 

[1]  "Judge not, that you be not judged. [2]  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. [3]  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? [4]  Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? [5]  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.  [ESV]

 

[1-5]  How should a Christian behave towards a fellow member who has misbehaved? Has Jesus any instructions about discipline within His community? Yes, in such a situation He forbids two alternatives, and then commends a third, a better, a more Christian way. In this context, judge not does not refer to judges in courts of law but rather to the responsibility of individuals to one another. And our Lord’s command to judge not cannot be understood as a command to suspend our critical faculties in relation to other people, to turn a blind eye to their faults and to refuse to discern between truth and error, goodness and evil. How can we be sure that Jesus was not referring to these things? Because much of Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is based on the assumption that we will use our critical powers. For example, we have repeatedly heard His call to be different from the world around us, in that we are to develop a righteousness which exceeds that of the Pharisees, to do more than others in the standard of love we adopt, not to be like the hypocrites in our piety or like the heathen in our ambition. But how can we possibly obey all this teaching unless we first evaluate the performance of others and then ensure that ours is different from and higher than theirs? Similarly, in Matthew 7, this very command to judge not is followed almost immediately by two further commands: to avoid giving what is holy to dogs or pearls to pigs [6], and to beware of false prophets [15]. It would be impossible to obey either of these commands without using our critical judgment. For in order to determine our behavior towards dogs, pigs and false prophets we must first be able to recognize them, and in order to do that we must exercise some critical discernment. If, then, Jesus was neither abolishing law courts nor forbidding criticism, what did He mean by judge not? In a word, censoriousness. The follower of Jesus is still a critic in the sense of using his powers of discernment, but not a judge in the sense of being censorious. 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. Worse than that, to be censorious is to set oneself up as a censor, and so to claim the competence and authority to sit in judgment upon one’s fellow men. No human being is qualified to be the judge of his fellow humans, for we cannot read each other’s hearts or assess each other’s motives. To be censorious is to presume arrogantly to anticipate the day of judgment, to usurp the prerogative of the divine Judge, in fact to try to play God. Not only are we not the judge, but we are among the judged, and shall be judged with the greater strictness ourselves if we dare to judge others. To sum up, the command to judge not is not a requirement to be blind, but rather a plea to be generous. Earlier Jesus exposed our hypocrisy in relation to God, namely practicing our piety before men to be seen by them; now He exposes our hypocrisy in relation to others, namely meddling with their small faults, while failing to deal with our own more serious faults. Here is another reason why we are unfit to be judges: not only because we are fallible humans, but also because we are fallen humans. We have a fatal tendency to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize the gravity of our own. What, instead, we should do is to apply to ourselves at least as strict and critical a standard as we apply to others. The fact that censoriousness and hypocrisy are forbidden us does not relieve us of brotherly responsibility towards one another. Our Christian duty, then, is not to see the speck in our brother’s eye while at the same time we do not notice the log in our own; still less to say to our brother “Let me take the speck out of your eye” while we have not yet taken the log from our own; but rather this, first to take the log out of our own eye, so that then with the resulting clarity of vision we shall be able to take the speck out of our brother’s eye. Again, it is evident that Jesus is not condemning criticism as such, but rather the criticism of others when we exercise no comparable self-criticism; nor correction as such, but rather the correction of others when we have not first corrected ourselves. In all our attitudes and behavior towards others we are to play neither the judge (becoming harsh, censorious and condemning), nor the hypocrite (blaming others while excusing ourselves), but the brother, caring for others so much that we first blame and correct ourselves and then seek to be constructive in the help we give them. We need to be as critical of ourselves as we often are of others, and as generous to others as we always are to ourselves.

 

Be Sensitive and Discerning:  Matthew 7:6.

 

[6]  "Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.  [ESV]

 

[6]  At first sight and hearing this is startling language from the lips of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, and indeed immediately after His appeal for constructive brotherly behavior. Here Jesus affirms that there are certain human beings who act like animals and may therefore be accurately designated dogs and pigs. The context provides a healthy balance. If we are not to judge others, finding fault with them in a censorious, condemning or hypocritical way, we are not to ignore their faults either and pretend that everybody is the same. Both extremes are to be avoided. Who then are these dogs and pigs? By giving them these names Jesus is indicating not only that they are more like animals than humans, but that they are animals with dirty habits as well. The dogs He had in mind were not the well-behaved house pets of today but the wild pariah dogs, vagabonds and mongrels, which scavenged in the city’s rubbish dumps. And pigs were unclean animals to the Jew, not to mention their love for mud. The reference is at least to the fact that unbelievers, whose nature has never been renewed, possess physical or animal life, but not spiritual or eternal life. His command is that we should not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs. What is the holy thing, and what are the pearls? In this context they refer to the kingdom of God and to the gospel. We cannot possibly deduce from this, however, that Jesus was forbidding us to preach the gospel to unbelievers. So then the dogs and pigs with whom we are forbidden to share the gospel pearl are not just unbelievers. They must rather be those who have had ample opportunity to hear and receive the good news, but have decisively – even defiantly – rejected it. The fact is that to persist beyond a certain point in offering the gospel to such people is to invite its rejection with contempt and even blasphemy. Jesus applied the same principle to the ministry of the twelve when He gave them His charge before sending them out on their first mission [Matt. 10:14]. Paul preached to the Jews in Corinth for a time, but in face of persistent rejection and hostility he turned away [Acts 18:5-7]. Our Christian witness and evangelistic preaching are not to be entirely indiscriminate, therefore. If people have had plenty of opportunity to hear the truth but do not respond to it, if they stubbornly turn their backs on Christ, if they cast themselves in the role of dogs and pigs, we are not to go on and on with them, for then we cheapen God’s gospel by letting them trample it under foot. 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.

 

Be Persistent in Prayer:  Matthew 7:7-12.

 

[7]  "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. [8]  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. [9]  Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? [10]  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? [11]  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! [12]  "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.  [ESV]

 

[7-11]  This passage is not the first instruction on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has already warned us against pharisaic hypocrisy and pagan formalism. And has given us his own model prayer. Now, however, He actively encourages us to pray by giving us some very gracious promises. For nothing is better adapted to excite us to prayer than a full conviction that we shall be heard. Jesus seeks to imprint His promises on our mind and memory by the hammer-blows of repetition. First, His promises are attached to direct commands: Ask … seek … knock [7].  All three verbs are present imperatives and indicate the persistence with which we should make our requests known to God. Secondly, the promises are expressed in universal statements: all who ask it will be given; all who seek will find; and all who knock it will be opened. Thirdly, Jesus illustrates His promises by a parable in 7:9-11. He envisages a situation with which all His hearers will have been daily familiar, namely a child coming to his father with a request. Notice that Jesus here assumes, even asserts, the inherent sinfulness of human nature: if you then, who are evil [11]. At the same time, He does not deny that bad men are capable of doing good. On the contrary, evil parents give good gifts to their children. What Jesus is saying is that even when they are doing good, following the noble instincts of parenthood and caring for their children, even then they do not escape the designation evil, for that is what human beings are. So the force of the parable lies rather in a contrast than in a comparison between God and men. It is another ‘how much more’ argument: if human parents (although evil) know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will our heavenly Father (who is not evil but wholly good) give good things to those who ask him [11]. There is no doubt that our prayers are transformed when we remember that the God we are coming to is our Father and infinitely good and kind. What could be simpler than this concept of prayer? If we belong to Christ, God is our Father, we are His children, and prayer is coming to Him with our requests. The reason why God’s giving depends on our asking is neither because He is ignorant until we inform Him nor because He is reluctant until we persuade Him. The reason has to do with us, not with Him; the question is not whether He is ready to give, but whether we are ready to receive. So in prayer we do not prevail on God, but rather prevail on ourselves to submit to God. Prayer is the very way God Himself has chosen for us to express our conscious need of Him and our humble dependence on Him. In thinking about God’s gifts to humans, we need to distinguish between the gifts of God as Creator and His gifts as Father, or between His creation-gifts and His redemption-gifts. It is perfectly true that He gives certain gifts (harvest, babies, food, life, etc.) whether people pray or not, whether they believe or not. He gives to all life and breath. He sends rain from heaven and fruitful seasons to all. None of these gifts is dependent on whether people acknowledge their Creator or pray to Him. But God’s redemption-gifts are different. God does not bestow salvation on all alike, but bestows His riches upon all who call on Him. The same applies to post-salvation blessings, the good things which Jesus says the Father gives His children. It is not material blessings that He is referring to here, but spiritual blessings – daily forgiveness, deliverance from evil, peace, the increase of faith, hope and love. For these gifts we must certainly pray. But we must not think that God will answer every prayer the way we want. We need to remember that the promises of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are not unconditional. It is absurd to suppose that the promise Ask, and it will be given to you is an absolute pledge with no strings attached. We need to remember that God, being good, only gives good gifts to His children. But, being wise as well, He knows which gifts are good and which are not. We can thank God that the granting of our needs is conditional – not only on our asking, seeking and knocking, but also on whether what we desire by asking, seeking and knocking is good for us. Prayer presupposes knowledge. Since God gives gifts only if they accord with His will, we have to take pains to discover His will – by Scripture meditation and by the exercise of a Christian mind schooled by Scripture meditation. Prayer also presupposes faith. It is one thing to know God’s will; it is another to humble ourselves before Him and express our confidence that He is able to cause His will to be done. Thirdly, prayer presupposes desire. We may know God’s will and believe He can perform it, and still not desire it. Prayer is the chief means God has ordained by which to express our deepest desires. Thus, before we ask, we must know what to ask for and whether it accords with God’s will; we must believe God can grant it; and we must genuinely want to receive. Then the gracious promises of Jesus will come true.

 

[12]  Precisely because Jesus is given to preaching in absolute categories, He takes special pains to bring the parts together in balance and proportion. The first danger Jesus deals with is the danger of being judgmental [1-5]; but He balances that against the danger of being undiscriminating [6]. And the whole discourse is tempered by His warning against lacking a trusting persistence [7-11]; for by this means it becomes clear that Jesus is not advocating a mere determination to improve. Rather, He is insisting that both entrance into the kingdom and progress in the kingdom require God’s saving hand. Thus the whole body of the Sermon on the Mount has been rounded out and knit together with exceptional balance. Thus, Jesus caps it off with the so-called “Golden Rule.” The negative form of this rule is known to many religions as it often appears in the form, “Do not do anything to anyone that you would not want him to do to you.” But Jesus gives the positive form of this rule, and the difference between the two forms is profound. For example, the negative form would teach behavior like this: If you do not enjoy being robbed, don’t rob others. If you do not like being cursed, don’t curse others. If you do not enjoy being hated, don’t hate others. However, the positive form teaches behavior like this: If you enjoy being loved, love others. If you like to receive things, give to others. If you like being appreciated, appreciate others. The positive form is thus far more searching than its negative counterpart. Here there is no permission to withdraw into a world where I offend no one, but accomplish no positive good, either. What would you like done to you? Then, do that to others. Duplicate both the quality of these things, and their quantity. Why are we to act in this way? Jesus does not say that we are to do to others what we would like them to do to us in order that they will do it to us. Jesus does not put the focus on ourselves. Rather, the reason we are to do to others what we would like others to do to us is that such behavior sums up the Law and the Prophets. In other words, such behavior conforms to the requirements of the kingdom of God, the kingdom which is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. It constitutes a quick test of the perfection demanded in 5:48; of the love described in 5:43-47; of the truth portrayed in 5:33-37; and so forth. That the “Golden Rule” does not lay great stress on our relationship to God is not really surprising. The preceding verses have already insisted on our conscious and continually formulated dependence upon Him if we are to grow to meet the norms of the kingdom. In Jesus’ teaching it is axiomatic that we will never love our neighbors in the way we would like to be loved until we love God with heart and soul and mind. As the overwhelming distance between these demands and our own conduct drives home our spiritual bankruptcy, God give us a burning desire to turn to Him with humble, persistent asking, seeking, knocking. Out of this we shall become “doers” of the Word, and not just “hearers.”

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         Why cannot Jesus’ command in 7:1 to Judge not be understood as a command to suspend out critical faculties in relation to other people? What ingredients make up the sin of censoriousness? What important point is Jesus making in 7:3-5 when He talks about the speck and the log?

 

2.         In 7:6 what does Jesus mean by holy and pearls? Who are the dogs and the pigs? How should you apply this verse today?

 

3.         7:7-11 is an excellent example of the danger of taking biblical promises out of context. We must understand Jesus teaching on prayer in 7:7-8 in the context of His teaching on prayer in other passages such as Matthew 6:12; 21:21-22; and 26:39? What conditional element does Jesus give in 7:11 for understanding how God answers our prayers? How does this conditional element provide comfort and confidence to us as we come before God asking, seeking and knocking in our prayers?

 

4.         What is the key difference between the negative and positive forms of the Golden Rule? Pray that you will be able to put verse 12 into practice this coming week.

 

References:

The Gospel according to Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar, Eerdmans.

Christian Counter-Culture, John Stott, Inter Varsity Press.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, D.A. Carson, Global Christian Publishers.