The Sermon On The Mount
During the days of His earthly ministry the Lord Jesus furnished full proof that He was the perfect Preacher as well as the model Man. That fact has not received the attention which it deserves, especially among those responsible for training the future occupants of our pulpits. We have perused numerous works on homiletics, but never came across one which attempted to analyze and summarize the methods followed by Christ in His public and private discourses. If the believer finds it necessary and beneficial to ponder the prayers of the Saviour in order that his devotional life may be directed and enriched thereby, surely the minister of the Gospel should feel it both essential and helpful to make a close study of how He approached and addressed both sinners and saints. If he does so he will discover the use Christ made of the Scriptures, the wealth of illustration He drew from the simplest objects of nature, the particular aspects of Truth on which He threw the most emphasis, the variety of motives to which He appealed, the different parts of man's complex constitution to which He addressed Himself, the repetitions He deemed needful, the searching questions He so often asked, the homely comparisons He made, and the sharp contrasts He drew.
Even if the student confines his attention to the Sermon on the Mount he will perceive how wide was the range of this single Address, how numerous were the themes covered, how diverse the characters dealt with, and thus how many-sided is the work of the ministry. First the Lord depicted those upon whom the benediction of God rests, describing them according to their character and conduct. Next He defined the function and purpose of His servants:
they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Then He declared His attitude unto the Law and the prophets and inculcated the basic law of His kingdom (5:20). Next He expounded the spirituality of the Law and showed it demands conformity of heart as well as of action, displaying the high and holy standard which God will in no wise lower. This was followed by a warning against hypocrisy, especially in connection with prayer and fasting. Treasures in heaven were contrasted with those on earth, and the futility of seeking to serve two masters shown. Expostulation was made against covetousness and carking care. The subject of judging others was opened up, spiritual ambition encouraged, and the golden rule enunciated. The ways of death and of life were faithfully drawn.
This brief summary brings us to our present passage, which opens with a solemn warning. It is not sufficient to enforce the Law and expound the Gospel. Nor has the pulpit completed its task by setting before believers their various duties and calling to the discharge thereof. There are enemies to be warned against. Doubtless it is a far more delightful task to expatiate upon the riches of Divine grace and the excellencies and glories of the Redeemer; but there are also other matters which need attention. If the example of Christ and His apostles is to be followed the saints are to be put on their guard against those who would seduce them, who with "cunning craftiness. . . lie in wait to deceive" (Eph. 4:14). Salvation is obtained by coming to the knowledge of the Truth (1 Tim. 2:4), and they who are deluded into believing a lie shall be damned (2 Thess. 2:11, 12). The very fact that eternal destiny is involved by what we believe is sufficient to show the deep seriousness of the issue here raised. He who has the care of souls must spare no pains in sounding the alarm.
"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves" (v. 15). Herein we behold their "cunning craftiness." They do not appear in their true colors but are cleverly disguised. They pose as true friends of the Lord's people when in reality they are their deadliest foes. They proclaim themselves to be genuine Christians, whereas in reality they are the emissaries of Satan. They feign themselves to be the teachers of the Truth, but their aim is to instill falsehoods. They work not outside in the profane world, but among the assemblies of the saints, pretending to he deeply taught of God, the champions of orthodoxy, men filled with love, earnestly seeking the good of souls. Beware of them, says the great Shepherd of the sheep, for inwardly they are ravening wolves-fierce, merciless, seeking the destruction of the flock. Let that fact alarm you, arouse you to your danger and make you vigilant in guarding against it. Suffer not yourselves to be imposed upon.
And what is the best course to take in order to heed this solemn warning? What is the wisest policy to follow so as to be safeguarded from these murderers of souls? How shall we obtain the needed wisdom that we may be enabled to detect and identify these subtle dissemblers? Vitally important is it that we should obtain right answers to these questions. First, let us duly note the place where this warning occurs in our Lord's sermon. It is found not at the beginning but near its close. Is there not both instruction and comfort in that? Does it not intimate that if we have really taken to heart Christ's teaching in the former sections we shall be fortified against the danger He here warns against? That if we earnestly heed His preceding exhortations, that if we diligently seek to cultivate inward holiness and endeavour to walk according to the rules given by our Master, that if we ourselves have a personal and experimental knowledge of what it is to be a real disciple of His, then we shall have little difficulty in recognizing the false ones?
"The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light" (6:22). That clearly states the principle to which we have alluded above. Our Lord's language here is parabolic but its meaning is quite clear and simple. The activities of the body are directed according to the light received through the eye, and when that organ is sound and functioning properly, perceiving objects as they really are, the whole body is illuminated and enabled to discharge its duties, for we can then move with safety and circumspection. In like manner the faculties of the soul are principally directed by the dictates of the understanding, and where that is enlightened by the Holy Spirit and dominated by the Truth we shall be preserved from the snares of Satan and the stumbling-stones of the world. A "single eye" has but one object-God, the pleasing and glorifying of Him. "But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness." Thus the "single" eye is a holy one, being contrasted with that which is evil or carnal.
When the "eye" is occupied with Him who is Light, its possessor is able to distinguish between the things which differ and form a sound and right judgment both of persons and things. Our estimation of values is determined by whether our minds be Divinely illuminated or still in nature's darkness. Where the soul is regulated by the Truth it will be endowed with a wisdom which enables its possessor to distinguish between good and evil; the understanding then becomes a faculty which discerns between the genuine and the spurious. "Thou through Thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies" (Ps. 119:98). Habitual submission to the Divine authority brings its own reward in this life-part of which is a spiritual discretion which preserves from impostures. When the understanding is dominated by the Word the whole soul is "full of light," so that all its faculties are under its beneficent influence: the conscience being informed, the affections turned to their legitimate object, the will moved in the right direction. In God's light we "see light" (Ps. 36:9), perceiving the difference between good and evil, the things to be sought and those to be avoided.
"If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God" (John 7:17). The fundamental condition for obtaining spiritual knowledge, discernment and assurance is a genuine determination to carry out the revealed will of God in our daily lives. "A good understanding have all they that do His commandments" (Ps. 111:10). Capacity to distinguish Truth from error consists not in vigor of intellect nor in natural learning, but in a sincere willingness and earnest desire to yield ourselves unto the Divine will. Where there is a genuine subjection to the Divine authority and a deep longing to please the Lord, even though it appears to be directly against our temporal interests and worldly prospects, and even though it involves fierce opposition from enemies and ostracism by our professed friends, there will be both spiritual discernment and assurance. Where the heart puts the glory of God before everything else it will be raised above and delivered from the prejudices of pride, self-love, carnal fears, and fleshly aspirations which cloud and bias the understanding of the unregenerate. "Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord" (Hosea 6:3) is the sure promise.
Bagster's Interlinear gives a more literal translation of John vii, 17: "If any one desire His will to practice he shall know concerning the teaching, whether from God it is." The Greek word rendered "desire" signifies no fleeting impression or impulse but a deep-rooted determination. Certainty may be arrived at in connection with the things of God, but in order thereto the heart must first be right toward Him, that is surrendered to Him. Where there is a resolution to perform God's will at all costs, there will be a capacity and an enablement to discern and embrace the Truth and to detect and refuse error. It is the state of our souls which makes us receptive to or repellent against the temptations and lies of the enemy: when the heart is yielded to God and conformed to His will, we have no difficulty in seeing through the deceits of Satan. It is those who are governed by self-will and devoted to self-pleasing who fall such easy victims to "seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils" (1 Tim. 4:1). The Truth frees from deception, but only as the Truth is appropriated and assimilated.
"Ye shall know them by their fruits" (v. 16). Ah, but note well to whom this is said. The Lord does not predicate this of all who make a bare profession of faith: it is very far from being a knowledge common to all in Christendom. The "ye" is definitely restricted to God's own people, to those who have entered the strait gate and are walking in the narrow way of the immediate context, True, even they need to be on their guard, but if they give heed to this warning of Christ, as assuredly they will, they shall at once recognize these impostors. Ye shall know them: but none other will. It is because the sheep "follow" the good Shepherd that "they know His voice," and because they know His voice "a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him, for they know not the voice of strangers" (John 10:14, 15). It is the obedient ear, and that only, which distinguishes between the voice of the true and the false shepherds. II the ear be attuned to the precepts of Scripture it will reject the sophistries of religious charlatans.
"Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them" (vv. 16-20). In these words our Lord intimates that His people should have no difficulty in recognizing the false prophets: if they do but exercise ordinary precaution they will detect the imposture which is sought to be played upon them. The masqueraders are to be identified by their "fruits." At a distance trees look very much the same, but a closer inspection of them enables us to distinguish the fruitful from the fruitless ones, and whether the fruit be wholesome or injurious. In like manner there needs to be a careful examination of those who appear before us as the servants of God, that the true ones may be distinguished from the counterfeit.
In the preceding chapter we suggested that there is a threefold reference in the "fruits" produced by the false prophets, namely their creed, their character, and their converts. Having dwelt therein at some length on the first, a few words now upon the second and third. The character of these men is clearly indicated by Christ's descriptive words: "inwardly they are ravening wolves." It was none other than the Lord of love who employed what this supercilious generation would term "harsh language." Love is faithful as well as gentle, and it was love to His own which moved Christ to tear off their disguise and reveal these enemies of His flock in their real character. He who denounced the scribes and Pharisees as "hypocrites" and "blind guides," and termed Herod "that fox" (Luke 13:32), hesitated not to brand these subtle deceivers as "ravening wolves." When a bottle of deadly poison is placed among others containing healing lotions it needs to be plainly labeled.
That Christ here left an example for His servants to follow appears clearly from the instance of the apostle Paul. When taking leave of the elders of the Ephesian church, he warned them that "after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:29, 30). In that last clause we have another mark of the false prophets. They are inveterate proselytizers. They continually obtrude themselves upon people's attention. They are ever creeping into houses, "leading captive silly women led away with divers lusts." They are continually coaxing and wheedling folk to come to their meetings. But the true prophet never attempts guile or presses anyone to attend his services. No, he is content to follow his Master's practice: "he that hath ears to hear let him hear," and there he leaves it. When a place receives them not they "go their way" (Luke 10:10) instead of pleading and arguing and seeking to draw disciples "after them."
"But inwardly they are ravening wolves." What a solemn but suggestive and revealing word is that. The wolf, like the fox, is tricky and treacherous, subtle and sly, hence the words "cunning craftiness" in connection with the purveyors of error who "lie in wait to deceive" of Ephesians 4:14. They scruple not to employ the most dishonorable tactics and resort to tricks which honest men of the world would scorn to use. The wolf is cruel and merciless: so are these deceivers of souls. They prate about love, but they are full of hatred toward those who expose them. They are greedy, having voracious appetites, and false prophets are men of insatiable ambition, hungry for applause, avaricious. Jeremiah 23:32, speaks of their "lightness" or irreverence, and Zephaniah 3:4, also says, "their prophets are light and treacherous." So far from being sober and solemn they are frivolous and frothy: it cannot be otherwise, for the fear of God is not upon them.
"By their fruits ye shall know them." Not by their profession, nor their sanctimoniousness, nor their zeal, but their "fruits" we understand; third, the converts they make. Like produces like. The parent is more or less reproduced in his children. In Jeremiah 23:16, it is said of those who give ear to the false prophets, "they make you vain." Egotistical themselves, their disciples are also conceited: proud of their letter-knowledge of the Scriptures, boastful of their orthodoxy, claiming to have light which those in the "man-made systems" are without. But their walk betrays them: no traces of humility, no mourning over sin, no experimental acquaintance with the plague of their hearts. They loudly boast of their assurance, but produce not the evidences on which scriptural assurance is based. They prate about eternal security but refuse to examine their hearts and see whether they be in the faith. They have much to say about their peace and joy, but are strangers to the groanings of Romans 7. They boast that they are "not under the law" and give proof thereof in their characters and conduct.
In conclusion let us anticipate a question: why does God permit these false prophets which work such havoc in Christendom? This is a very solemn question, and we must restrict ourselves to what the Scriptures say by way of reply. "Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of the prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut. 13:3). From those words it is clear that God suffers teachers of error for the same reason as He does persecutors of His people: to test their love, to try their fidelity, to show that their loyalty to him is such that they will not give ear unto His enemies. Error has always been more popular than the Truth, for it lets down the bars and fosters fleshly indulgence, but for that very reason it is obnoxious to the godly. The one who by grace can say "I have chosen the way of Truth" will be able to add "I have stuck unto Thy testimonies" (Ps. 119:30, 31), none being able to move him therefrom.
"For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you" (1 Cor. 11:19). Error serves as a flail, separating the chaff from the wheat. Let some plausible and popular preacher come forward with an old error decked out in new clothes and empty professors will at once flock to his standard; but not so with those who are established in the Faith. Thus, by means of the false prophets, God makes it appear who are the ones who hold the Truth in sincerity: they are faithful to Him despite all temptations to turn away unto a "broader-minded" way. The genuine gold endures every test to which it is subjected. Thus too are the unregenerate "converts" revealed: the counterfeit gold will not withstand the fire. Those who are attracted by a novelty do not wear but are soon carried away by some newer innovation. "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us" (1 John 2:19). Thus, they who turn away from orthodoxy to heterodoxy must not be regarded as real Christians.
The false prophets are also ordained of God for the punishment of those who receive not the love of the Truth. "For this cause God shall send them strong delusion that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned, who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (2 Thess. 2:10-12). Ahab could not endure Elijah and Micaiah, the servants of God, therefore he was suffered to follow the priests of Baal unto his destruction.
It is very clear from Matthew 24:5, 11, etc., that Israel's rejection of Christ was followed by the appearing of many false christs in their midst who fatally deceived large numbers of the Jews. It was not until primitive and genuine Christianity had been jettisoned that the religious world was plagued by the monster of Romanism. A very large proportion of those found in the false cults of our day were once members of or regular attenders at churches which were more or less sound in the Faith. Beware, my reader, if you despise God's Truth you will fall into love with Satan's lies.