The Sermon On The Mount
A pondering of Matthew 7:24-27, suggests the need of our seeking to supply answers to the following questions. First, what is the force of the opening "Therefore"? Second, who are represented by the "wise" and the "foolish" men? Third, what is denoted by the "rock" and the "sand" on which they build? Fourth, what is signified by the "house" which each one erects? Fifth, what is portrayed by the hurricane which bursts upon the "house" and tests its security? Simple as these questions are, the replies returned thereto will determine the soundness or unsoundness of any exposition given to the passage. In seeking our answers recourse must also be had unto the parallel passage in Luke 6:47-49, which supplies a number of additional details. The best analysis of these verses we have met with was furnished by one of the earliest of the Puritans, W. Perkins, 1590. He focused attention on three things: the duty inculcated-obedience; the property of this duty-wisdom; the reward-security. The three parts of this wisdom lay in digging deep, in securing a rock foundation, and in building thereon.
First, the force of the opening "Therefore." In addition to the more general remarks made thereon in the previous article let us now point out that Christ was here drawing a plain but searching conclusion from His solemn statement in verses 21-23. There He had declared that not everyone who renders lip-service to His Lordship shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of the Father as made known by the Son; yea, that the many who substitute preaching and performing wonderful works for actual obedience to His commands, He will yet say unto such, "Depart from Me, ye that work iniquity." Then He at once added, "Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock." Is not the connection, then, between the two passages unmistakably indicated? Is not our Lord's design and meaning in the verses now before us crystal clear? In verses 21-23 Christ is viewed in His office of Judge, testing professors, making known unto us who it is that will survive the fiery trial of that dread Day; and in verses 24-27 He reveals the path which must be trod if that Day is to be wisely and successfully anticipated.
In the Day of testing, not what we have said but what we have done in obedience to the Divine will shall alone be accepted as evidence: not the profession we have made, but the verification we have given of it in our Christian walk; not the doctrines we believed, but the fruits they bore in our daily lives. It will be useless to plead that we possessed extraordinary gifts and employed them in "Christian service," that we were leaders in the churches and did much in the name of Christ, if we wore not His yoke and followed not the example He has left us. Real practical godliness is the only thing which will be approved in that Day. Personal holiness is little esteemed here, but it will be everything there (Heb. 12:14). In that Day the Judge of all the earth will "give to every man according as his work shall be" (Rev. 22:12). Therefore, the man who acts wisely now is the one who makes conscience of the commandments of Christ, who regulates his conduct by them; conversely, the one who disregards the revealed will of God and follows a course of self-pleasing, no matter what garb of religion he wears, is playing the part of the fool, as he will yet discover to his eternal undoing.
The answer to our second question has largely been anticipated in what we wrote in the preceding chapter. The "wise" man is the one who "heareth these sayings" of Christ, who "cometh to" Him (Luke 6:47), which involves turning his back upon the world and forsaking the service of Satan, and who "doeth them." "These sayings of Mine" are emphatic, having particular reference to the principles Christ had enunciated and the precepts He had inculcated in the previous sections of this Sermon on the Mount. We have to go unto other parts of the New Testament to learn Christian doctrine, but here we have described Christian practice. Some, like Tolstoi, have magnified this Sermon to the disparagement of the Epistles; others, like the Dispensationalists, have exalted the Epistles above the Sermon: the one is as reprehensible as the other. One part of Scripture must not be pitted against another part. Both this Sermon and the Epistles are essential parts of the revealed will of God. "Who have, in every age, uprightly and unreservedly, obeyed these sayings of our Lord, except they who have firmly believed the doctrines of the Gospel as more clearly and fully revealed in the apostolic epistles?" (T. Scott).
The "wise" man, then, is the one who comes to Christ, hears His instructions and does them. To do that which He has commanded includes, first, a believing of them, that is a definite appropriation of His precepts, a taking of them home to myself. It involves an understanding of them, and that calls for humility and meekness of mind rather than keenness of intellect; a meditation upon Christ's words and a crying unto Him, "that which I see not teach Thou me." It involves a making conscience of them, the realization that these sayings of Christ contain not only good counsel which it is my wisdom to heed, but that they are His imperative requirements which I disregard at my peril. It involves an actual putting of them into practice so that I abstain from those things which He forbids and perform those duties which He specifies: "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them" (John 13:17). "All the sayings of Christ: not only the laws he has enacted, but the truths He has revealed must be done by us. They are a light not only unto our eyes, but to our feet, and are designed not only to inform our judgments but to reform our hearts and lives" (Matthew Henry).
We regard the word "doth" as the all-important one in our present passage, and care needs to be taken lest we improperly limit its meaning. To "do" our Lord's sayings includes very much more than the mere outward performance of those actions which He requires. Our whole inner and outer man must be conformed to them; our character must be moulded by them, our affections must be regulated, our wills governed, and our habits of thought dominated by them, as well as our actions being in accord with them. The Word of Christ must "dwell in" us, and that "richly" (Col. 3:16), and that calls for a definite process of spiritual horticulture. We must "lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness" if we are to "receive with meekness the engrafted Word which is able to save our souls" (Jas. 1:21). Note well that expression "the engrafted Word": that which is addressed to us must be rooted in us, planted in the soul, drawing all the sap of the stock to itself-"all that is within us" serving the Word. Thereby ye are "transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom. 12:2). This, and nothing short of this, is what constitutes a genuine "conversion."
From what has been said above it will appear how intimately related are the several answers unto those questions we formulated in the opening paragraph, how that they necessarily grow naturally out of each other. Cannot the reader now decide for himself what is denoted by this "rock" on which our Lord represents the wise man as building his house? Bearing in mind the scope of our passage and its relation to the context, does not the first half of verse 24 furnish a decisive index to the meaning of the second half? It is "these sayings" of Christ, understood, believed and obeyed, which are the "rock" here. "These sayings are the dictates of eternal truth and righteousness, and the everlasting mountains shall be sooner rooted up than any one of these shall be falsified. This is the foundation on which the wise builder places his edifice: not his own conjectures or reasonings, nor the arguments and reasonings of other men, but the 'true and faithful sayings of God'" (J. Brown)-to which may be added, and not following the carnal desires of our own hearts. If the reader still insists that the "rock" here is Christ Himself, we reply, If so, Christ considered as Prophet and not as Priest, as Lord and not as Saviour, as Teacher and not Redeemer.
There should be little difficulty in determining what is signified by the "house" which the builder here erects upon the "rock" or "sayings" of Christ, though a certain latitude should be allowed as to how it be stated. The principal definitions made by the best of the expositors are: the profession he makes, the character that is formed, the hope which is cherished. When analyzed these three expressions or things differ little in essence. The profession made is valid only if it be verified by a character which is formed by the whole range of Christ's teaching in this Sermon, a character which is displayed by conduct in accordance therewith. So too the hope cherished by the believer, the assurance he possesses, that God has accepted him in the Beloved, is but presumption, a mere carnal confidence, unless it be grounded upon this "rock," that is unless the one claiming such a hope be possessed of that character which alone warrants the expectation of everlasting bliss. Furthermore, the cherishing of a good hope, the possession of a peaceful assurance that I am a child of God, is an essential p art of a character which is formed by an appropriation and assimilation of the "sayings" of Christ.
This figure of the building of a house to represent the formation of a Christian character under the teaching of Christ is employed frequently in the Acts and Epistles. When taking leave of the elders of Ephesus Paul commended them to God and the Word of His grace "which is able to build you up" (Acts 20:32). The Colossian saints were exhorted, "As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in Him: Rooted and built up in Him" (2:7, 8); while Jude bade the saints be "building up yourselves on your most holy faith" (v. 20). The same word here rendered "built" is also translated "edify." Thus, "Follow after the things which make for peace and things wherewith one may edify another" (Rom. 14:19); "Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification" (Rom. 15:2). "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying" (Eph. 4:29). "Wherefore comfort [or "exhort "] yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do" (1 Thess. 5:11). Timothy was instructed, "Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith" (1 Tim. 1:4). How careful we should be in our converse with each other that what we say be of a spiritually constructive character and not destructive.
The "house," then, may be taken first for the profession made, which is yet to be put to the proof in the day of testing. Or more definitely it represents the character of the one making a Christian profession; and by "character" we include the whole frame of his beliefs, sentiments, affections, and active habits. Having by the faith of the Truth found the only sure foundation, he erects on it an edifice of thoughts, feelings and volitions. He is moulded according to "that form of doctrine which was delivered you" (Rom. 6:17). He is not regulated by his own carnal desires, nor the opinions and examples of his fellows, but by the sure and authoritative precepts of Christ. Accordingly he cherishes a "hope of eternal life" (Titus 1:2) and it is a "good hope through grace" (2 Thess. 2:16), for it is based upon a reliable foundation, grounded on the precepts and promises of the Lord; which precepts have been laid hold of and translated into practice, and which promises have been mixed with faith and made our own. Such a hope will prove both "sure and stedfast" in the hour of testing.
From all that has been before us on the different points it will be seen that everything goes back to and turns upon the word "doeth": that strikes the keynote of the verse, and therefore its dominant theme is our practical compliance with the Divine will. The importance which God attaches to and the value which He places upon obedience comes out plainly in the words of His prophet, "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Sam. 15:22). To keep strictly to the path of the Divine commandments is more pleasing unto God than any of the outward forms of religion or the most liberal contributions to His earthly cause. Well did T. Scott point out with regard to the Levitical sacrifices, "their value was entirely from the appointment of God, and they were not acceptable except offered in obedience to Him, and with a penitent, believing and pious mind. When therefore they were substituted in the place of true piety or trusted in as meritorious when the means were used to compensate for the neglect of the end, they became an abomination, however costly and numerous they were." So now.
The same insistent emphasis upon obedience was made by Christ. When interrupted in His talking to the people by one who informed Him that His mother and brethren stood without, desiring to speak with Him, He made answer by stretching forth His hand "toward His disciples" and saying, "Behold My mother and My brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in heaven, the same is My brother and sister and mother" (Matthew 12:46-50). It was as though He said, Those that are nearest and dearest to Me, spiritually speaking, are My "disciples," and they are described as the ones who comply with the Divine will. Again, when a certain woman said to Him, "Blessed is the womb that bare Thee and the paps which Thou hast sucked," He replied, "Yea, rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it" (Luke 11:27, 28). The ones on whom the benediction of God rests are they who keep His Word-in their hearts, as their most precious possession; in their minds, by frequent meditation; in their lives, as the rule of practice.
Conscientious souls are likely to be troubled at this point, sensible that their obedience is so imperfect and faulty. It remains therefore that we should endeavour to set their fears at rest and attempt to show more definitely what Christ did not signify and what He did imply by "whoso heareth these sayings of Mine and doeth them." Our Lord did not mean that His disciples perpetually and flawlessly perform His precepts, for He does not remove from them the carnal nature at their regeneration, nor does He grant them such a measure of His grace in this world as to enable them to render a sinless obedience. God could have done both had He thought well, but it has pleased Him to exalt imputed righteousness rather than inherent in this life. Not only does every saint fail to render that obedience which is required by God's Law as a whole, but he does not obey any single commandment perfectly, for every duty we perform, yea, our highest act of worship, is marred by sin. In the most holy men corruption deprives them of the purity that ought to be there, and lusts fight against the perfect holiness they desire and strive after (Rom. 7:18-21; Gal. 5:17).
Christians perform the sayings of Christ sincerely though not perfectly, in spirit and in truth, though not in the letter and full execution. When Christ said to the Father of His apostles, "They have kept Thy word" (John 17:6), He did not mean they had done so as flawlessly and excellently as He had Himself done. And when we read "hereby we do not know that we know Him if we keep His commandments" (1 John 2:3), consistency requires us to understand it that as we only "know Him" in part in this life (1 Cor. 13:12) so we only "keep His commandments" in part. Where there is a genuine willingness (Rom. 7:18; Heb. 13:18; 1 Tim. 6:18), God accepts it for the deed (2 Cor. 8:12). Because His people have His Law written in their hearts (Heb. 10:16), because they delight in it with their inner man (Rom. 7:22), because they truly desire to obey it fully (Ps. 119:5), and pray earnestly to that end (Ps. 119:35), and repent of and confess their disobedience (Ps. 32:5), God is pleased-according to the terms of the covenant of grace, and for Christ's sake-to accept their imperfect obedience and account it as a keeping of His Law.
To prevent wrong conclusions being drawn from the last paragraph two things need to be pointed out. First, it must not be inferred that God has lowered His standard in order to meet our infirmities: that standard is par excellence and shall never be altered. But the Surety of God's people fully conformed to it and His perfect obedience is reckoned to the account of those who savingly believe on Him, so that imputatively they are flawlessly righteous in the sight of the Law. Inherently they are righteous in the sense that they fully approve of the Law, delight in it, and sincerely set themselves to an unreserved obedience of the whole of it; and thus "the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in them" (Rom. 8:4). Yet because of their remaining depravity they fail to realize their desires (Phil. 3:12), mourn over and confess their sinful failures, and are forgiven for Christ's sake. In this life they are more active in seeking from God the remission of their failures than they are in offering to Him that which is faultless. Some of the old writers were wont to say that the present perfection of a Christian consists in a penitential acknowledgment of his imperfection.
Second, the nature and scope of this sincere but imperfect obedience needs to be amplified and honestly stated. (1) The Christian's compliance with "these sayings" of the Lord is internal and spiritual as well as external. If any man should respond to every positive and negative precept of Christ in his outward conduct and yet his inner man be not affected and influenced by them, it would be like a body minus a soul-a corpse. As someone has aptly expressed it, obedience of soul is the soul of obedience. It is at this point, especially, that the righteousness of the saints exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, for while they rested wholly on their outward obedience of the Law, within they were full of unmortified lusts. The Law is "spiritual" (Rom. 7:14) and requires spiritual compliance thereto. The only worship God will accept is that which is "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). Nevertheless, our obedience is not to consist solely of spiritual meditation and contemplating the mortification of our lusts and the cultivation of our graces: there must be an external walking in the Truth also.
(2) Sincere obedience is impartial, extending to the whole Law as it is explained in the precepts and exhortations of both the Old Testament and the New. To affect much devotion unto the things pertaining to God and then evince an utter lack of conscience and equity in things pertaining to men is horrible hypocrisy. The Pharisees were notorious in this: they made long prayers, yet devoured widows' houses; they fasted twice a week, yet laid burdens on their disciples grievous to he borne; they tithed, yet taught that neither father nor mother was to be relieved if men had placed their substance under a vow to God. Oh, my reader, your attendance at "early morning communion" or "the breaking of bread" is a vile mockery if you are unscrupulous and grasping in your dealings with men. Your psalm singing and lauding of the person and perfections of Christ are a stench in God's nostrils if you lie and thieve. On the other hand, however honest and truthful with your fellows, if you rob God of the submission, devotion and praise which are His due, your heart is rotten. Of the parents of the Baptist it is written, "They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Luke 1:6).
(3) Sincere obedience is universal, by which we mean it includes things to be believed as well as practiced, and hence it is termed "the obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5). God's commandments must not be limited to the prohibition of wickedness, but extended also to false doctrines. If the Epistles be read attentively it will be found that the apostles were as emphatic and stern in their denunciation of teachers of errors as of lascivious livers, and that they pressed the necessity of a sound and holy faith as vehemently as they did a good and pure conscience. A sincere heart is set against heresies as definitely and diligently as against sinful conduct, and sinful conduct as heresies. One who is opposed to ungodliness but indifferent about false doctrines may justly suspect the soundness of his heart; while one who denounces false doctrine but tolerates wickedness in himself or his family has serious reason to question the validity of his profession. Christians are given no more license in matters of faith than of deportment. Stubborn heretics are to be cast out of the church equally with the openly immoral.
This chapter is already long enough, so we must postpone our answer to the fifth question-What is portrayed by the hurricane which bursts upon the "house" and tests its security?-till we consider verse 27.