Authority

“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).

The scribes and Pharisees, writers of the Talmud, constantly quoted one another to establish authority for their positions. No one wanted to take a stand on something that never had been said before. No teacher would dare to proclaim, “I say to you,” without first having the backing of other great teachers in the form of quotations supporting what the current speaker said.

As the Son of God, Jesus had authority to say, “Moses said… but I say to you….” He did not fear using that authority. Such straight-forward teaching amazed the people that heard Jesus teach. They were astounded to hear him speak, without quoting any other teacher, and to listen as he said, “This is what the Bible really means.” Knowing Jesus as we do, his authority does not startle us as it startled his disciples then.

Jesus went beyond contradicting the teachers of God’s Law. He also contradicted the sinful human heart in all its religious manifestations. We want to find in ourselves a goodness that will win God’s approval for us. We seek goodness in ourselves that can help us find our way to God. Jesus preaches the Law in all its severity to show us that we cannot work our way to God by means of the Law. At the very same time, Jesus also describes the gift, the blessing, the way God forgives our sins and opens his kingdom to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is both tragic and comic to hear religious leaders—both Christian and non-Christian—pledge allegiance to the moral standards preached by Jesus. These leaders cannot see that these standards are unobtainable to humans who already have sinned; nor do they comprehend that Jesus offers a better way. Some seek loopholes in his teaching to make us seem good enough for God. Others claim that, so long as we sincerely strive to meet his standards, God will accept us as we are. Neither loopholes nor compromises exist in Jesus’ teaching. He speaks only the Law—which tells us we are deeply in trouble and need help—and the Gospel—which tells us how we have been helped by Jesus.

Jesus is unlike other teachers. He teaches both Law and Gospel, using the Law to show us why we need the Gospel. Unlike teachers who appeal to us to be good, Jesus tells us to be perfect. Other teachers encourage us to live up to God’s moral code. They promise rewards to follow our efforts, and perhaps forgiveness when we try our best and still fall short. Jesus presents instead a message of blessing. He calls the kingdom of heaven a gift given to those who do not deserve it. This gift is given to the people who know that they do not deserve it. Anyone trying to earn this gift is trapped in sand. Anyone who knows Jesus—truly knows him as the one who rescues us, not merely the one who teaches us how to live—stands on the rock. Jesus teaches with authority. He has authority to forgive sins, to rescue sinners, and to give blessings. This authority of Jesus is amazing and wonderful. J.

The house on the rock

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Jesus is the rock. He is the only foundation on which a solid life can be built. Everything else is sand: our money and possessions, our good works and efforts to be good, our understanding and our feelings and even our faith. If we trust anything in ourselves to rescue us from sin and evil, then we will not be rescued. True faith is not a virtue in ourselves that we can trust; true faith means trusting Jesus, putting all our confidence in him and putting no confidence in ourselves.

Many people try to build their lives on God’s Law and on their obedience to that Law. Most religions encourage that kind of thinking. The religions of the world share a common moral code, the ethical principles that God has written in every human heart. This moral code, these ethical principles, tell us why we were made. They explain what God expects from us. Knowing the rules is not good enough. We must not only know them but do them. Doing them requires perfection. No short cuts are provided; nor can we find loopholes or second chances. Either we obey the Law in all its requirements, or we have broken the Law—no middle ground exists.

Jesus does not want us to build our lives on sand. He sets high standards and demands perfection from us so we see how badly we need to be rescued by his righteousness. His high standards are not the rock; his kingdom and his righteousness are the rock. Jesus himself is the rock. As we seek his kingdom and his righteousness, we discover his blessings—gifts given to us because God loves us, not because we deserve them. Nothing we do, not even the way we trust Jesus, earns us a place in his kingdom. We have a place in his kingdom because of what Jesus has done—because of his life and death and resurrection. We build our lives on this rock, because the rock of Christ’s righteousness is his gift to us. J.

I never knew you

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that Day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Jesus’ words seem harsh and frightening, warning that it is possible to call Jesus Lord, to do miracles in his name, and still not be known by him! How then can we be sure that he knows us and will claim us as his people on the Last Day?

Jesus wants us to do the will of is Father. His Father’s will is not just the Law—not just that we do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love our enemies, give to the needy, pray, fast, forgive, and do not worry. Yes, that is the Father’s will for our lives; he created us so we would live that way. But if perfect obedience to this Law is the only way to earn a place in heaven, we are in desperate trouble. Our righteousness is not good enough; we are not perfect like God.

The Father’s will is to change us, to make us perfect. His will; is to give us the kingdom (Luke 12:32)—he gives the kingdom as a gift, a blessing, not a reward for good deeds. Those who come to Jesus on the Last Day boasting of the things they have done for him will show that they did not truly know him. Even if they call him “Lord” and worked miracles in his name, so long as they boast of their accomplishments, they demonstrate that they never knew Jesus. They failed to know him because they looked at themselves and at the things they did. Their treasures are on earth, in their own good works; their treasures are not in heaven, in the righteousness of Jesus. Because they did not know Jesus—because they did not seek God’s kingdom and righteousness in Jesus—Jesus will say that he never knew them.

Not only do we call Jesus Lord; we also believe his promises. We seek his kingdom and his righteousness, not in our good deeds, but in his blessings. We build our lives on him, not on ourselves. Because our lives are built on him, we do not need to fear that, on the Last Day, Jesus might say to us, “Go away—I never knew you.” J.

Wolves in sheep’s clothing

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).

Jesus blends two metaphors—the wolf in sheep’s clothing and the tree identified by its fruit. Both metaphors warn us of false prophets. Certainly we must judge other people! We must use good judgment to determine who is telling us the truth about God and salvation and who is misrepresenting the truth. (Some Christians would substitute the word “discernment” for judgment in this context.) When we judge, we do not consider only outward appearances, which can deceive us. When we judge, we look at the results of a life—its fruit. Thus we see whether the person we are judging—the person who claims to be leading us on the paths of Jesus Christ—is faithful to Christ.

Many false religious leaders have fallen victim to temptation. Their sins are known, and we can avoid their false teachings. What should happen, though, if a teacher contradicts God’s Word and yet appears to be moral and upright? Must we accept them as genuine even if their message differs from the Bible? In Deuteronomy, two kinds of false prophets are rejected (and executed): those whose words do not come to pass, and those who preach in the name of false gods—even if their words do come to pass. Jesus teaches nothing different. False teachers may be able to exhibit the outward appearance of virtue, but if their words do not match the words of Jesus, their fruit will be bad. We do not need to wait for the fruit to ripen before we judge it; we already know that the fruit will be bad when we see that the tree is bad.

We judge teachers by their fruits to know which teachers to follow, but we do not judge ourselves this way. We know our hidden sins too well to be convinced by our fruits that we are holy enough for God. When we try to measure our faith and our salvation by our good deeds, we always see ourselves falling short. Instead of measuring ourselves by what we do, we trust what God says about us: we are forgiven, our sins are washed away, and we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The promise of Baptism says that we have been washed clean and adopted into God’s family. From this forgiveness and adoption, good fruit follows. Others may see our saintly fruit and know that we belong to God’s kingdom, but we continually place our confidence in the promises of God and not in our own fruits.

But anyone who teaches a religion of Law, a message consisting only of ethics and morals and doing the right thing, is teaching an incomplete religion, a false religion. Anyone who omits the Gospel promise of forgiveness through Jesus is a bad tree, a wolf in disguise. We judge them by their own teachings, for we already know that no one but Jesus can fulfill the Law perfectly. Those who affirm God’s Law and also share the promise of forgiveness through Jesus are presenting the true message of the Gospel. They are good trees, and they will bear good fruit. We will recognize them by that fruit. J.

The narrow gate

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Robert Frost wrote about taking the road less traveled; “and that has made all the difference,” he assures us. Jesus also seems to recommend the road less traveled rather than following the crowd. The majority of people are entering the wide gate and are following the road that leads to destruction.

What is this wide gate and this easy road? Some might think this describes worldly living, being concerned about what to eat and drink and wear, having treasures and hearts on earth rather than in heaven. Based on this interpretation, they might say that the narrow gate is the moral life, the ethical way, the paths traced by Jesus in his commands as Jesus explains God’s Law.

But even the ethical way is not good enough for God. Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. We must be perfect. Earthly treasures include the good works that we do on earth. Heavenly treasures consist only of God’s blessings—his gifts—which he gives to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

All the religions of the world know that it is wrong to kill, wrong even to hate. All the religions of the world oppose lust and revenge and injustice. All the religions of the world recommend a relationship with the divine, one based on prayer and fasting and other good works. All the religions of the world warn their followers not to impress the people living here on earth, but to pursue instead a single-minded love for the One who is in heaven.

All the religions of the world tell us to be more concerned with God than we are with ourselves and with the things of this world. But the religions of the world are still trapped in this world. They tell us how to live in this world, offering a promise that if we live right in the present world we earn rewards for the future.

This urge to earn rewards for the future is the log in our eye, the log which blinds us. We want to live up to God’s standards and earn his favor. Even though this is a holy desire, it also becomes the broad way that leads to destruction. The secret of the kingdom tells us that Jesus is the narrow gate. We enter his kingdom, not by our efforts to obey him and imitate his goodness, but by his gift, his blessing, the things Jesus has done for us.

God himself mourns that so few people find this gate, that so many follow the broad way of trying to be good enough for God—a road that leads, not to perfection, but to destruction. God speaks to the sinners of the world through his apostles and his prophets. He sends the members of his Church to share the good news that we are rescued from evil and reconciled to God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations, to share the Gospel with all creation; he said that repentance of sins and forgiveness must be proclaimed in all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. The Bible was written so we would believe in Jesus; and believing, we have life in his name.

Many people who claim to be sharing the teachings of Christ speak only about the rules and commands, neglecting to share the promises and blessings. Jesus wants us to know the rules so we understand why we need a Savior. Because we are rescued, forgiven, and blessed by God, he expects us to use his power to do what is right. The road to the kingdom of God still does not include our obedience. Jesus is the way. Jesus is the gate. Only through Jesus are we rescued and brought into God’s kingdom. J.

The Golden Rule

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

The Golden Rule is one of the basic principles of God’s Law—so basic, in fact, that it is found (in one form or another) in every religion on earth. Even most atheists and agnostics favor this rule (with a few exceptions such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand). Most people agree with Jesus that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated. We love our neighbors when we care as much about them as we do about ourselves, when we are as concerned about their wants and needs as we are concerned about our own wants and needs.

Because this maxim is so basic, we sometimes treat it as a stand-alone saying. Bible verses always have a context; they draw meaning from the verses that precede them and the verses that follow them. But this saying appears to be misplaced. It stands between a promise of gifts from the Father and an admonition to choose the narrow gate. Did Jesus want to connect this verse to either of those teachings, did it slip into this place by accident, or did Matthew jumble the teachings of Jesus, throwing together a few pithy sayings near the end of the Sermon on the Mount?

The Bible is God’s Word. Nothing written in the Bible was placed there by accident. The organization of thoughts presented in the Bible matters to God, so it matters also to God’s people. Jesus was making an important point about the Law and the Prophets. He spoke the Golden Rule at just the right time in his sermon.

Jesus had shown the strict demands of God’s Law, the Law which tells us to be perfect. His promise that God answers prayers was spoken in a context of promised forgiveness and rescue, a promise tied to the blessings of the kingdom of God. Jesus now appears to be saying, “The Law is simple. Just treat other people the way you want to be treated. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.” The Golden Rule is not the narrow gate to heaven. The Golden Rule is the wide gate, known to everyone. Seen as the road to heaven, this commandment is on a path that is completely wrong. It summarizes the Law and the Prophets, because everything God expects us to do is included in this simple command. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; he came to fulfill them. He came to do for us those things he wants us to do. The sinless life of Jesus is God’s answer to our prayers as we ask God for his kingdom and his righteousness.

We cannot rescue ourselves by obeying God’s commands. Not one of us is perfect; only Jesus is perfect. Jesus credits us with his righteousness. He does everything that he wants us to do. In this way he answers our prayers. He forgives our sins. He adopts us into God’s family. He calls us “sons of God.” This blessing, this gift, is given to us, but not because we deserve it for our efforts to be like him. It is given because Jesus loves us and because he has paid to claim us for himself and his kingdom.

Now that we are rescued, Jesus still wants us to obey his commands. He wants us to love God and to love one another, because love is the nature of God. We were made to be loved and to love. Jesus still wants us to do for others what we would have them do for us. He expects this from us. Although this commandment is not the gate to God’s kingdom, we live according to the Golden Rule. Our proper treatment of our neighbors is a result of being forgiven, being adopted, and being called sons of God. J.

Good gifts

“Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 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!” (Matthew 7:9-11).

Two kinds of gifts come to us from God. Some meet our needs in this world—we call these gifts our daily bread. Other gifts we need for eternal life. Jesus promises that God the Father will give us both kinds of gifts. He is good, far better than we are; he will not trick us by giving us the wrong thing. Since Jesus tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, we can expect those gifts to be God’s highest priority as he hears and answers our prayers. Since he has already given us these gifts, we have no reason to think that God will forget to give us the things we need for our daily lives in this world.

Jesus pointedly says that we are evil, but God is good. We need this reminder because, being evil, we tend to think the worst of God. We think it is possible for God to forget us or to play tricks on us. Jesus reminds us that God is our Father. Jesus himself paid the price for our adoption, making God our Father. If God loves us as a Father, he surely will never forget us or play tricks on us.

Hidden in this promise of Jesus is another fatherly fact about God. When we pray, we can count on this fact to be true. If a child is hungry but asks for a stone to eat, the child’s father will still give bread to the child. If a child needs a fish but asks for a serpent, the father will still give the fish. This substitution is no trick. Fatherly love gives what is best to children even when the children do not know how to ask for things that are good.

When we pray to God about the things we need in this world—what to eat, what to drink, what to wear—God already knows what we need. He knows even before we ask. He will give us good things, even in spite of our requests. God wants us to talk with him about everything that matters to us. His fatherly relationship with us includes his interest in hearing what we have to say. When we pray, we remember that God is the source of everything good in our lives. We speak to him as children speak to a Father they love and trust. We know that if our Father makes any substitutions, choosing not to give us what we seek, his changes will be for the better.

When we pray about God’s kingdom and his righteousness, we are fully confident that our prayers will be answered. God will substitute nothing for his kingdom and his righteousness. Jesus takes our guilt upon himself and pays the penalty we deserve. We receive his righteousness and the rewards he earned. We receive a place in God’s kingdom. We pray with confidence about the forgiveness of our sins and about our lives as his people. Our Father loves us; he is not going to withhold from us any of the blessings he wants us to have. J.

Ask, seek, knock

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).

Jesus first makes radical requirements of his followers. Now he makes radical promises. He invites us to ask, promising we will receive. He encourages us to seek, promising we will find. He tells us to knock, and the door, he says, will be opened to us.

Common sense assures us that Jesus cannot possibly mean what he says. His demands are unreasonable, his standards are too high, and so we look for exceptions and loopholes in what he commands. His promises are equally senseless. Surely God will not grant our requests so easily. Surely God has freedom to say no to our prayers. Rather than trusting Christ’s promises and acting as if we believed they were true, we allow God exceptions and loopholes. In our hearts, we deny the truth of what Jesus says.

Our common sense is not qualified to judge the Word of God. If Jesus says, “Do this,” we should do it. If Jesus says, “I promise,” we should believe it. At the same time, we must be sure that we know what Jesus means by his messages, so we do not embarrass ourselves or make his Word seem ridiculous to others.

Jesus encourages us to pray for daily bread. He tells us not to worry about food or drink or clothing. He tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Along the way, Jesus shows us what is wrong with our righteousness. We are not perfect. We need a greater righteousness than we have produced. We have such a righteousness from Jesus himself. He blesses us with gifts, granting the kingdom of heaven to each of us. When we put his gifts first in our lives, then we can live with confidence, because what matters most to us has already been given to us; it is already ours. When we are distracted by other things, even by the good things we have done (or are trying to do), then we will not be content; what we achieve will not be good enough for God or for ourselves.

We are not to judge ourselves, or other people, by the Law alone. Instead, we see ourselves and others through the blessing of the Gospel. People who think that they don’t need the Gospel do not treat it as a treasure; they must first be shown their need for the Gospel by being measured by God’s Law. When our eyes are opened and we see our need for God’s forgiving and restoring power, nothing should keep us from asking God for those things that we need. Jesus offers this gift unconditionally: his blessings of the kingdom of heaven, his mercy, his love and forgiveness, his rescue from sin and evil and death—all these are delivered to us because of the work Jesus has done on our behalf.

God will not ignore our prayers for physical needs. He knows what we need even before we ask. “All these things will be added to you.” God has already given his Son for our redemption; why would he withhold smaller blessings? When we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, we are confident we will find them. His kingdom and his righteousness are gifts God is eager to give us. J.

Dogs and pigs

“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” (Matthew 7:6).

After telling us not to judge, Jesus adds a statement that calls for judgment. What is our holy treasure, our pearls? Who are the dogs and the pigs? What is Jesus warning us not to do?

Our greatest treasure is the Gospel, the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, given to sinners through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. God wants us to share this good news with everyone we know. He wants the whole world to know what he has done, so everyone can take advantage of his blessings. When Jesus tells us not to judge, he warns us not to live by the rules only and not to force others to do the same.

But when Jesus speaks about dogs and pigs, he is warning us against the opposite extreme. We are not truthful when we tell a sinner, “God loves you just the way you are.” A more accurate statement would be, “Jesus loves you in spite of the way you are, and for that reason he is going to change you.” When we speak only of God’s love to sinners who are resisting God’s rules for their lives, they might reach the conclusion that God does not care what they do. In the end, they will reject God’s promises along with his commands. If they do not understand the high cost of their sins again God, they cannot comprehend the meaning of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. He paid the price for all sins. Some sinners, though, reject his forgiveness and turn away from him because they do not realize how desperately they need God’s gifts.

Jesus gave us a thorough look at God’s high standards. As he tells us the rules—do not hate, do not lust, and so on—he describes to us our need to be rescued. He diagnoses the fatal illness from which he can cure us through his life and death and resurrection. We see the beauty of his promises, how precious they are, when we first see the diagnosis of our desperate need, our inability to rise to the required level of righteousness and perfection on our own. Without this understanding of our need, we too would be dogs and pigs.

We do not ignore the dogs and the pigs. We gently and respectfully share God’s rules with them, working to help them gain an understanding of the treasure they need, the good news of the Gospel. We do not withhold this good news from any sinner who realizes his or her need and wants to be rescued. Such a sinner is a repentant sinner, not a dog or a pig. Like us, they can comprehend the depth of the riches of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

But, to the sinner who prefers his or her sin to the Savior, we must be careful not to share our sacred treasure. The sinner who does not repent is a sinner who cannot be absolved of sin. Even though Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, some people reject his grace and gain no benefit from his promises. If we keep speaking of God’s love and forgiveness to a sinner who does not love God and does not want to be forgiven, we waste our breath and we invite their attacks upon us. Jesus does not forbid every kind of judgment. He wants us to judge who has repented and should be told of Christ’s forgiveness and who refuses to repent and should only be warned of the penalty for sin. J.

The log in your eye

“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? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? 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” (Matthew 7:3-5).

Jesus has a sense of humor. He intends for us to laugh at the image of the hypocrite who wants to remove a speck from his brother’s eye without noticing the log in his own eye. With vivid exaggeration, Jesus depicts what happens when someone lives by the Law alone and judges other people according to God’s Law.

The Law is natural in men and women. God placed his Law in our hearts. Each of us has a conscience that tells us the difference between right and wrong. Most religions—and most moral people who have no religion—agree on the basics of what is right and what is wrong. The moral teachings of Jesus win approval from most of the world, but most of the world is blind to two things. First, we sinners are unable to live perfectly by the high standards of Jesus; therefore, his commands condemn us rather than rescuing us. Second, our rescue from condemnation comes through the blessings of God and not through our efforts to obey his commands.

The log in the hypocrite’s eye is refusing to repent of sins and refusing to seek forgiveness through the work of Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees made this mistake. Many people who call themselves Christians make the same mistake. They try to use God’s Law to correct the sins of other people, but they are too blind to realize that the same Law condemns them, warning them that they need a Savior. As long as these people persist trying to improve the lives of other people by the power of the Law, they will be unable to help anyone. Their blindness to God’s plan of salvation sticks like a log out of both their eyes.

God removes the log, not through his commands, but through the promises of the Gospel. When God removes the logs from our eyes, he turns them into a cross where Jesus is crucified. On that cross, the payment for all sins is accomplished. Jesus takes the log from our eyes when he carries our sins to the cross, paying in full to provide us forgiveness. This Gospel promise is the source of our cure, our rescue, and our life.

Jesus has taken away our sins. He has removed the logs from our eyes. We can see clearly now. Seeing clearly, we are able to help other people to see. Equipped with both the commands and the promises of Jesus, we can help our brothers to remove specks for their eyes. “Judge not” does not mean “remain silent about every sin.” “Judge not” means “do not deal with other people only on the basis of God’s Law.” When we are blind to the blessings of God and his forgiveness, we cannot help anyone. When Jesus has removed all impediments to our sight, then we can help. We warn people about their sins, but we also share Christ’s forgiveness with them in the same way we have been forgiven. J.