By J.C. Ryle
JESUS AND THE SABBATH
We should notice, in this passage, what excessive importance hypocrites attach to trifles. We are told that, "One Sabbath day as Jesus was walking through some grainfields, his disciples broke off heads of wheat, rubbed off the husks in their hands, and ate the grains." At once the hypocritical Pharisees found fault, and charged them with committing a sin. They said, "Why do you that which is not lawful to do on the Sabbath days?" The mere act of plucking the heads of wheat of course they did not find fault with. It was an action sanctioned by the Mosaic law. (Deut. 23:25.) The supposed fault with which they charged the disciples, was the breach of the fourth commandment. They had done work on the Sabbath, by taking and eating a handful of food.
This exaggerated zeal of the Pharisees about the Sabbath, we must remember, did not extend to other plain commandments of God. It is evident from many expressions in the Gospels, that these very men, who pretended such strictness on one little point, were more than lax and indifferent about other points of infinitely greater importance. While they stretched the commandment about the Sabbath beyond its true meaning, they openly trampled on the tenth commandment, and were notorious for covetousness. (Luke 16:14.) But this is precisely the character of the hypocrite. To use our Lord's illustration, in some things he makes fuss about straining out of his cup a gnat, while in other things he can swallow a camel. (Matt. 23:24.)
It is a bad symptom of any man's state of soul, when he begins to put the second things in religion in the first place, and the first things in the second, or the things ordained by man above the things ordained by God. Let us beware of falling into this state of mind. There is something sadly wrong in our spiritual condition, when the only thing we look at in others is their outward Christianity, and the principal question we ask is, whether they worship in our communion, and use our ceremonial, and serve God in our way.
Do they repent of sin? Do they believe on Christ? Are they living holy lives? These are the chief points to which our attention ought to be directed. The moment we begin to place anything in religion before these things, we are in danger of becoming as thorough Pharisees as the accusers of the disciples.
We should notice, secondly, in this passage, how graciously our Lord Jesus Christ pleaded the cause of His disciples, and defended them against their accusers. We are told that He answered the cavils of the Pharisees with arguments by which they were silenced, if not convinced. He did not leave His disciples to fight their battle alone. He came to their rescue, and spoke for them.
We have in this fact a cheering illustration of the work that Jesus is ever doing on behalf of His people. There is one, we read in the Bible, who is called "the accuser of the brethren, who accuses them day and night," even Satan, the prince of this world. (Rev. 12:10.) How many grounds of accusation we give him, by reason of our infirmity! How many charges he may justly lay against us before God! But let us thank God that believers "have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous," who is ever maintaining the cause of His people in heaven, and continually making intercession for them. Let us take comfort in this cheering thought. Let us daily rest our souls on the recollection of our great Friend in heaven. Let our morning and evening prayer continually be, "Answer for me, answer for me, O Lord my God."
We should notice, lastly, in these verses, the clear light which our Lord Jesus Christ throws on the real requirements of the fourth commandment. He tells the hypocritical Pharisees, who pretended to such strictness in their observance of the Sabbath, that the Sabbath was never intended to prevent works of necessity. He reminds them how David himself, when suffering from hunger, took and ate that show-bread, which ought only to be eaten by the priests, and how the act was evidently allowed of God, because it was an act of necessity. And He argues from David's case, that He who permitted His own temple rules to be infringed, in cases of necessity, would doubtless allow work to be done on His own Sabbath days, when it was work for which there was really a need.
We should weigh carefully the nature of our Lord Jesus Christ's teaching about the observance of the Sabbath, both here and in other places. We must not allow ourselves to be carried away by the common notion that the Sabbath is a mere Jewish ordinance, and that it was abolished and done away by Christ. There is not a single passage of the Gospels which proves this. In every case where we find our Lord speaking upon it, He speaks against the false views of it, which were taught by the Pharisees, but not against the day itself. He cleanses and purifies the fourth commandment from the man-made additions by which the Jews had defiled it, but never declares that it was not to bind Christians. He shows that the seventh day's rest was not meant to prevent works of necessity and mercy, but He says nothing to imply that it was to pass away, as a part of the ceremonial law.
We live in days when anything like strict Sabbath observance is loudly denounced, in some quarters, as a remnant of Jewish superstition. We are boldly told by some people, that to keep the Sabbath holy is legal, and that to enforce the fourth commandment on Christians, is going back to bondage. Let it suffice us to remember, when we hear such things, that assertions are not proofs, and that vague talk like this has no confirmation in the word of God. Let us settle it in our minds, that the fourth commandment has never been repealed by Christ, and that we have no more right to break the Sabbath day, under the Gospel, than we have to murder and to steal.
The architect who repairs a building, and restores it to its proper use, is not the destroyer of it, but the preserver. The Savior who redeemed the Sabbath from Jewish traditions, and so frequently explained its true meaning, ought never to be regarded as the enemy of the fourth commandment. On the contrary, He has "magnified it, and made it honorable."
Let us cling to our Sabbath, as the best safeguard of our Country's religion. Let us defend it against the assaults of ignorant and mistaken men, who would gladly turn the day of God into a day of business and pleasure. Above all, let us each strive to keep the day holy ourselves. Much of our spiritual prosperity depends, under God, on the manner in which we employ our Sundays.
THE WITHERED HAND HEALED
These verses contain another example of our Lord Jesus Christ's mode of dealing with the Sabbath question. Once more we find Him coming into collision with the vain traditions of the Pharisees, about the observance of the fourth commandment. Once more we find Him clearing the day of God from the rubbish of human traditions, and placing its requirements on the right foundation.
We are taught in these verses, the lawfulness of doing works of mercy on the Sabbath day. We read that before all the Scribes and Pharisees, our Lord healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. He knew that these enemies of all righteousness were watching to see whether He would do it, in order that they might "find an accusation against Him." He boldly asserts the right of doing such works of mercy, even on the day when it is said, "you shall do no manner of work." He openly challenges them to show that such a work was contrary to the law. "I will ask you one thing," He says, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good, or to do evil? to save life or to destroy?" To this question His enemies were unable to find an answer.
The principle here laid down, is one of wide application. The fourth commandment was never meant to be so interpreted, as to inflict injury on man's body. It was intended to admit of adaptation to that state of things which sin has brought into the world. It was not meant to forbid showing kindness on the Sabbath to the afflicted, or attending to the needs of the sick. We may drive in a carriage to minister comfort to the dying. We may stay away from public worship, in order to fetch a doctor, or be useful in a sick room. We may visit the fatherless and widow in trouble. We may preach, and teach, and instruct the ignorant. These are works of mercy. We may do them, and yet keep the Sabbath holy. They are not breaches of God's law.
One thing, however, we must carefully remember. We must take heed that we do not abuse the liberty which Christ has given us. It is in this direction that our danger chiefly lies in modern times. There is little risk of our committing the error of the Pharisees, and keeping the Sabbath more strictly than God intended. The thing to be feared is the general disposition to neglect the Sabbath, and to rob it of that honor which it ought to receive. Let us take heed to ourselves in this matter. Let us beware of making God's day a day for visiting, feasting, journeying, and pleasure parties. These are not works of necessity or mercy, whatever a self-willed and unbelieving world may say. The person who spends his Sundays in such ways as these, is sinning a great sin, and proving himself entirely unprepared for the great rest in heaven.
We are taught, secondly, in these verses, the perfect knowledge that our Lord Jesus Christ possesses of men's thoughts. We see this in the language used about Him, when the Scribes and Pharisees were watching Him. We read that "He knew their thoughts."
Expressions like this are among the many evidences of our Lord's divinity. It belongs to God only to read hearts. He who could discern the secret intents and imaginations of others, must have been more than man. No doubt He was man like ourselves in all things, sin only excepted. This we may freely grant to the Socinian, who denies the divinity of Christ. The texts the Socinian quotes, in proof of our Lord's manhood, are texts which we believe and hold as fully as himself. But there are other plain texts in Scripture which prove that our Lord was God as well as man. Of such texts the passage before us is one. It shows that Jesus was "God over all, blessed forever." (Rom. 9:5.)
Let the remembrance of our Lord's perfect knowledge always exercise a humbling influence upon our souls. How many vain thoughts, and worldly imaginations, pass through our minds every hour, which man's eye never see! What are our own thoughts at this moment? What have they been this very day, while we have been reading, or listening to this passage of Scripture? Would they bear public examination? Would we want others to know all that passes in our mind? These are serious questions, and deserve serious answers. Whatever we may think of them, it is a certain fact that Jesus Christ is hourly reading our hearts. Truly we ought to humble ourselves before Him, and cry daily, "Who can tell how often he offends?"--"Cleanse me from secret faults." "God be merciful to me a sinner!"
We are taught, lastly, in these verses, the nature of the first act of faith, when a soul is converted to God. The lesson is conveyed to us in a striking manner, by the history of the cure which is here described. We read that our Lord said to the man whose hand was withered, "Stretch forth your hand." The command, at first sight, seems unreasonable, because the man's obedience was apparently impossible. But the poor sufferer was not stopped by any doubts or reasonings of this kind. At once we read that he made the attempt to stretch forth his hand, and, in making it, was cured. He had faith enough to believe that He who bade him stretch forth his hand, was not mocking him, and ought to be obeyed. And it was precisely in this act of implicit obedience, that he received a blessing. "His hand was completely restored!"
Let us see in this simple history, the best answer to those doubts, and hesitations, and questionings, by which anxious inquirers often perplex themselves, in the matter of coming to Christ. "How can they believe?" they ask us--"How can they come to Christ? How can they lay hold on the hope set before them?" The best answer to all such inquiries, is to bid men do as he did who had the withered hand. Let them not stand still reasoning, but act. Let them not torment themselves with metaphysical speculations, but cast themselves, just as they are, on Jesus Christ. So doing, they will find their course made clear. How, or in what manner, we may not be able to explain. But we may boldly make the assertion, that in the act of striving to draw near to God, they shall find God drawing near to them, but that if they deliberately sit still, they must never expect to be saved.
CHOOSING OF THE 12 APOSTLES
These verses describe the appointment of our Lord Jesus Christ's twelve apostles. That appointment was the beginning of the Christian ministry. It was the first ordination, and an ordination conducted by the Great Head of the Church Himself. Since the day when the events here recorded took place, there have been many thousand ordinations. Myriads of bishops, elders, and deacons have been called to the office of the ministry, and often with far more pomp and splendor than we read of here. But never was there so solemn an ordination as this. Never were men ordained who have done so much for the church and the world as these twelve apostles.
Let us observe, firstly, in these verses, that when our Lord ordained His first ministers, He did it after much prayer. We read that He "went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, He called unto Him His disciples, and of them He chose twelve, whom also He named apostles."
We need not doubt that there is a deep significance in this special mention of our Lord's praying upon this occasion. It was intended to be a perpetual lesson to the Church of Christ. It was meant to show the great importance of prayer and intercession on behalf of ministers, and particularly at the time of their ordination. Those to whom the responsible office of ordaining is committed, should pray that they may "lay hands suddenly on no man." Those who offer themselves for ordination, should pray that they may not take up work for which they are unfit, and not run without being sent. The lay members of the Church, not least, should pray that none may be ordained, but men who are inwardly moved by the Holy Spirit. Happy are those ordinations, in which all concerned have the mind that was in Christ, and come together in a prayerful spirit!
Do we desire to help forward the cause of pure and undefiled religion in the world? Then let us never forget to pray for ministers, and especially for young men about to enter the ministry. The progress of the Gospel, under God, will always depend much on the character and conduct of those who profess to preach it. An unconverted minister can never be expected to do good to souls. He cannot teach properly what he does not feel experimentally. From such men let us pray daily that the Church may be delivered. Converted ministers are God's special gift. Man cannot create them. If we would have good ministers, we must remember our Lord's example, and pray for them. Their work is heavy. Their responsibility is enormous. Their strength is small. Let us see that we support them, and hold up their hands by our prayers. In this, and in too many other cases, the words of James are often sadly applicable, "You have not, because you ask not." (James 4:2.) We do not ask God to raise up a constant supply of converted young men to fill our pulpits, and God chastises our neglect by withholding them.
Let us observe, secondly, how little we are told of the worldly position of the first ministers of the Christian Church. Four of them, we know, were fishermen. One of them, at least, was a tax-collector. Most of them, probably, were Galileans. Not one of them, so far as we can see from the New Testament, was great, or rich, or noble, or highly connected. Not one was a Pharisee, or Scribe, or Priest, or Ruler, or Elder among the people. All were, apparently, "unlearned and ignorant men." (Acts 4:13.) All were poor.
There is something deeply instructive in the fact which is now before us. It shows us that our Lord Jesus Christ's kingdom was entirely independent of help from this world. His Church was not built by might, or by power, but by the Spirit of the living God. (Zech. 4:6.) It supplies us with an unanswerable proof of the divine origin of Christianity. A religion which turned the world upside down, while its first preachers were all poor men, must needs have been from heaven. If the apostles had possessed money to give their hearers, or been followed by armies to frighten them, an infidel might well deny that there was anything astonishing in their success. But the poverty of our Lord's disciples cuts away such arguments from beneath the infidel's feet. With a doctrine most unpalatable to the natural heart--with nothing whatever to bribe or compel obedience--a few lowly Galileans shook the world, and changed the face of the Roman empire. One thing only can account for this. The Gospel of Christ, which these men proclaimed, was the truth of God.
Let us remember these things, if we ever strive to do any work for Christ, and beware of leaning on an arm of flesh. Let us watch against the secret inclination, which is natural to all, to look to money, or learning, or high patronage, or great men's support, for success. It we want to do good to souls, we must not look first to the powers of this world. We should begin where the Church of Christ began. We should seek pastors filled with the Holy Spirit.
Let us observe, lastly, in these verses, that one whom our Lord chose to be an apostle, was a false disciple and a traitor. That man was Judas Iscariot.
We cannot for a moment doubt, that in choosing Judas Iscariot, our Lord Jesus knew well what He was doing. He who could read hearts, certainly saw from the beginning that, notwithstanding his profession of piety, Judas was a graceless man, and would one day betray Him. Why then did He appoint him to be an apostle? The question is one which has perplexed many. Yet it admits of a satisfactory answer. Like everything which our Lord did, it was done advisedly, deliberately, and with deep wisdom. It conveyed lessons of high importance to the whole Church of Christ.
The choice of Judas was meant to teach ministers humility. They are not to suppose that ordination necessarily conveys grace, or that once ordained they cannot err. On the contrary, they are to remember, that one ordained by Christ Himself was a wretched hypocrite. Let the minister who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.
Again, the choice of Judas was meant to teach the lay-members of the Church, not to make idols of ministers. They are to esteem them highly in love for their work's sake, but they are not to bow down to them as infallible, and honor them with an unscriptural honor. They are to remember that ministers may be successors of Judas Iscariot, as well as of Peter and Paul. The name of Judas should be a standing warning to "cease from man." Let no man glory in men. (1 Cor. 3:21.)
Finally, our Lord's choice of Judas was meant to teach the whole church, that it must not expect to see a perfectly pure communion in the present state of things. The wheat and the tares--the good fish and the bad--will always be found side by side, until the Lord comes again. It is vain to look for perfection in visible churches. We shall never find it. A Judas was found even among the apostles. Converted and unconverted people will always be found mixed together in all congregations.
BLESSINGS AND WOES
The discourse of our Lord, which we have now begun, resembles, in many respects, His well-known Sermon on the Mount. The resemblance, in fact, is so striking that many have concluded that Luke and Matthew are reporting one and the same discourse, and that Luke is giving us, in an abridged form, what Matthew reports at length. There seems no sufficient ground for this conclusion. The occasions on which the two discourses were delivered, were entirely different. Our Lord's repetition of the same great lesson, in almost the same words, on two different occasions, is nothing extraordinary. It is unreasonable to suppose that none of His mighty teachings were ever delivered more than once. In the present case, the repetition is very significant. It shows us the great and deep importance of the lessons which the two discourses contain.
Let us first notice in these verses, who are those whom the Lord Jesus pronounced BLESSED. The list is a remarkable and startling one. It singles out those who are "poor," and those who "hunger"--those who "weep," and those who are "hated" by man. These are the people to whom the great Head of the Church says, "Blessed are you!"
We must take good heed that we do not misunderstand our Lord's meaning, when we read these expressions. We must not for a moment suppose that the mere fact of being poor, and hungry, and sorrowful, and hated by man, will entitle any one to lay claim to an interest in Christ's blessing. The poverty here spoken of, is a poverty accompanied by grace. The need is a need entailed by faithful adherence to Jesus. The afflictions are the afflictions of the Gospel. The persecution is persecution for the Son of Man's sake. Such need, and poverty, and affliction, and persecution, were the inevitable consequences of faith in Christ, at the beginning of Christianity. Thousands had to give up everything in this world, because of their belief in Jesus. It was their case which Jesus had specially in view in this passage. He desired to supply them, and all who suffer like them for the Gospel's sake, with special comfort and consolation.
Let us notice, secondly, in these verses, who are those to whom our Lord addresses the solemn words, "WOE unto you." Once more we read expressions which at first sight seem most extraordinary. "Woe unto you that are rich! Woe unto you that are full! Woe unto you that laugh! Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you!" Stronger and more cutting sayings than these cannot be found in the New Testament.
Here, however, no less than in the preceding verses, we must take care that we do not misapprehend our Lord's meaning. We are not to suppose that the possession of riches, and a rejoicing spirit, and the good word of man, are necessarily proofs that people are not Christ's disciples. Abraham and Job were rich. David and Paul had their seasons of rejoicing. Timothy was one who "had a good report from those that were outside." All these, we know, were true servants of God. All these were blessed in this life, and shall receive the blessing of the Lord in the day of His appearing.
Who then, are the people to whom our Lord says, "Woe unto you?" They are the men who refuse to seek treasure in heaven, because they love the good things of this world better, and will not give up their money, if need requires, for Christ's sake. They are the men who prefer the joys and so-called happiness of this world, to joy and peace in believing, and will not risk the loss of the one in order to gain the other. They are those who love the praise of man more than the praise of God, and will turn their backs on Christ, rather than not keep in with the world. These are the kind of men whom our Lord had in view when He pronounced the solemn words, "Woe, woe unto you." He knew well that there were thousands of such people among the Jews--thousands who, notwithstanding His miracles and sermons, would love the world better than Him. He knew well that there would always be thousands of such in His professing Church--thousands who, though convinced of the truth of the Gospel, would never give up anything for its sake. To all such He delivers a dreadful warning. "Woe, woe unto you!"
One mighty lesson stands out plainly on the face of these verses. May we all lay it to heart, and learn wisdom! That lesson is the utter contrariety between the mind of Christ, and the common opinions of mankind; the entire variance between the thoughts of Jesus, and the prevailing thoughts of the world. The conditions of life which the world reckons desirable, are the very conditions upon which the Lord pronounces "woes." Poverty, and hunger, and sorrow, and persecution, are the very things which man labors to avoid. Riches, and fullness, and merriment, and popularity, are precisely the things which men are always struggling to attain. When we have said all, in the way of qualifying, explaining, and limiting our Lord's words, there still remain two sweeping assertions, which flatly contradict the current doctrine of mankind. The state of life which our Lord blesses, the world cordially dislikes. The people to whom our Lord says, "woe unto you," are the very people whom the world admires, praises, and imitates. This is a dreadful fact. It ought to raise within us great searchings of heart.
Let us leave the whole passage with honest self-inquiry and self-examination. Let us ask ourselves what we think of the wonderful declarations that it contains. Can we subscribe to what our Lord says? Are we of one mind with Him? Do we really believe that poverty and persecution, endured for Christ's sake, are positive blessings? Do we really believe that riches and worldly enjoyments, and popularity among men, when sought for more than salvation, or preferred in the least to the praise of God, are a certain curse? Do we really think that the favor of Christ, with trouble and the world's ill word, is better worth having than money, and merriment, and a good name among men, without Christ?
These are most serious questions, and deserve a most serious answer. The passage before us is eminently one which tests the reality of our Christianity. The truths it contains, are truths which no unconverted man can love and receive. Happy are those who have found them truths by experience, and can say "amen" to all our Lord's declarations. Whatever men may please to think, those whom Jesus blesses are blessed, and those whom Jesus does not bless will be cast out for evermore.
LOVE FOR ENEMIES
The teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, in these verses, is confined to one great subject. That subject is Christian love and charity. Charity, which is the grand characteristic of the Gospel--charity, which is the bond of perfectness--charity, without which a man is nothing in God's sight--charity is here fully expounded and strongly enforced. Well would it have been for the Church of Christ, if its Master's precept in this passage had been more carefully studied and more diligently observed!
In the first place, our Lord explains the nature and extent of Christian charity. The disciples might ask, WHOM are we to love? He bids them "love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, bless those who curse them, and pray for those who despitefully use them." Their love was to be like His own towards sinners--unselfish, and uninfluenced by any hope of return.
What was to be the MANNER of this love? the disciples might ask. It was to be self-sacrificing and self-denying. "Unto him that smites you on the one cheek offer also the other." "Him that takes away your cloak, forbid not to take your coat also." They were to give up much, and endure much, for the sake of showing kindness and avoiding strife. They were to forego even their rights, and submit to wrong, rather than awaken angry passions and create quarrels. In this they were to be like their Master, long-suffering, meek, and lowly of heart.
In the second place, our Lord lays down a golden principle for the settlement of doubtful cases. He knew well that there will always be occasions when the line of duty towards our neighbor is not clearly defined. He knew how much self-interest and private feelings will sometimes dim our perceptions of right and wrong. He supplies us with a precept for our guidance in all such cases, of infinite wisdom; a precept which even infidels have been compelled to admire. "As you would that men should do to you, you do also to them likewise." To do to others as they do to us, and return evil for evil, is the standard of the heathen. To behave to others as we should like others to behave to us, whatever their actual behavior may be, this should be the mark at which the Christian should aim. This is to walk in the steps of our blessed Savior. If He had dealt with the world as the world dealt with Him, we would all have been ruined forever in hell.
In the third place, our Lord points out to His disciples the necessity of their having a HIGHER STANDARD OF DUTY to their neighbor than the children of this world. He reminds them that to love those who love them, and do good to those who do good to them, and lend to those of whom they hope to receive, is to act no better than "the sinner" who knows nothing of the Gospel. The Christian must be altogether another style of man. His feelings of love, and his deeds of kindness, must be like his Master's--free and gratuitous. He must let men see that he loves others from higher principles than the ungodly do, and that his charity is not confined to those from whom he hopes to get something in return. Anybody can show kindness and charity, when he hopes to gain something by it. But such charity should never content a Christian. The man who is content with it, ought to remember that his practice does not rise an inch above the level of an old Roman or Greek idolater.
In the fourth place, our Lord shows His disciples that in discharging their duty to their neighbors, they should look to the example of God. If they called themselves "children of the Highest," they should consider that their Father is "kind to the unthankful and the evil," and they should learn from Him to be merciful, even as He is merciful. The extent of God's unacknowledged mercies to man can never be reckoned up. Every year he pours benefits on millions who do not honor the hand from which they come, or thank the Giver of them. Yet every year these benefits are continued. "Seed time and harvest, summer and winter, never cease." His mercy endures forever. His loving-kindness is unwearied. His compassions fail not. So ought it to be with all who profess themselves to be His children. Thanklessness and ingratitude should not make them slack their hands from works of love and mercy. Like their Father in heaven, they should never be tired of doing good.
In the last place, our Lord assures His disciples that the practice of the high standard of charity He recommends shall bring its own REWARD. "Judge not," He says, "and you shall not be judged--condemn not, and you shall not be condemned--forgive, and you shall be forgiven--give, and it shall be given unto you." And He concludes with the broad assertion, "With the same measure that you mete out, shall it be measured to you again." The general meaning of these words appears to be, that no man shall ever be a loser, in the long run, by deeds of self-denying charity, and patient patience love. At times he may seem to get nothing by his conduct. He may appear to reap nothing but ridicule, contempt, and injury. His kindness may sometimes tempt men to impose on him. His patience and forbearance may be abused. But at the last he will always be found a gainer--often, very often, a gainer in this life--certainly, most certainly, a gainer in the life to come.
Such is the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ about charity. Few of His sayings are so deeply heart-searching as those we have now been considering. Few passages in the Bible are so truly humbling as these eleven verses.
How little of the style of charity which our Lord recommends is to be seen, either in the world or in the Church! How common is an angry, passionate spirit, a morbid sensitiveness about what is called honor, and a readiness to quarrel on the least occasion! How seldom we see men and women who love their enemies, and do good hoping for nothing again, and bless those that curse them, and are kind to the unthankful and evil! Truly we are reminded here of our Lord's words, "Narrow is the way which leads unto life, and few there be that find it." (Matt. 7:13.)
How happy the world would be, if Christ's precepts were strictly obeyed! The chief causes of half the sorrows of mankind, are selfishness, strife, unkindness, and lack of love. Never was there a greater mistake than to suppose that vital Christianity interferes with human happiness. It is not having too much religion, but too little, that makes people gloomy, wretched, and miserable. Wherever Christ is best known and obeyed, there will always be found most real joy and peace.
Would we know anything by experience of this blessed grace of charity? Then let us seek to be joined to Christ by faith, and to be taught and sanctified by His Spirit. We do not gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles. We cannot have flowers without roots, or fruit without trees. We cannot have the fruit of the Spirit, without vital union with Christ, and a new creation within. Such as are not born again can never really love in the manner that Christ enjoins.
A TREE AND ITS FRUIT
We learn, in the first place, from these verses, the great danger of listening to false religious teachers. Our Lord compares such teachers and their hearers to the blind leading the blind, and asks the reasonable question, "Shall they not both fall into the ditch?" He goes on to confirm the importance of His warning by declaring, that "the disciple is not above his master," and the scholar cannot be expected to know more than his teacher. If a man will hear unsound instruction, we cannot expect him to become otherwise than unsound in the faith himself.
The subject which our Lord brings before us here deserves far more attention than it generally receives. The amount of evil which unsound religious teaching has brought on the Church in every age is incalculable. The loss of souls which it has occasioned is fearful to contemplate. A teacher who does not know the way to heaven himself, is not likely to lead his hearers to heaven. The man who hears such a teacher runs a fearful risk himself of being lost eternally. "If the blind lead the blind both must fall into the ditch."
If we would escape the danger against which our Lord warns us, we must not neglect to prove the teaching that we hear by the holy Scriptures. We must not believe things merely because ministers say them. We must not suppose, as a matter of course, that ministers can make no mistakes. We must call to mind our Lord's words on another occasion, "Beware of false prophets." (Matt. 7:15.) We must remember the advice of Paul and John--"Prove all things." "Try the spirits whether they are of God." (1 Thess. 5:21; 1 John 4:1.) With the Bible in our hands, and the promise of guidance from the Holy Spirit to all who seek it, we shall be without excuse if our souls are led astray. The blindness of ministers is no excuse for the darkness of the people. The man who from indolence, or superstition, or affected humility, refuses to distrust the teaching of the minister whom he finds set over him, however unsound it may be, will at length share his minister's portion. If people will trust blind guides, they must not be surprised if they are led to the pit.
We learn, secondly, from these verses, that those who reprove the sins of others should strive to be of blameless life. Our Lord teaches us this lesson by a practical saying. He shows the unreasonableness of a man finding fault with "a speck," or trifling thing in a brother's eye, while he himself has "a beam," or some large and formidable object sticking in his own eye.
The lesson must doubtless be received with suitable and scriptural qualifications. If no man is to teach or preach to others, until he himself is faultless, there could be no teaching or preaching in the world. The erring would never be corrected, and the wicked would never be reproved. To put such a sense as this on our Lord's words, brings them into collision with other plain passages of Scripture.
The main object of our Lord Jesus appears to be to impress on ministers and teachers THE IMPORTANCE OF CONSISTENCY OF LIFE. The passage is a solemn warning not to contradict by our lives, what we have said with our lips. The office of the preacher will never command attention unless he practices what he preaches. Episcopal ordination, university degrees, high-sounding titles, a loud profession of doctrinal purity, will never procure respect for a minister's sermon, if his congregation sees him cleaving to ungodly habits.
But there is much here which we shall all do well to remember. The lesson is one which many besides ministers should seriously consider. All heads of families and masters of households, all parents, all teachers of schools, all tutors, all managers of young people--should often think of the "speck" and the "beam." All such should see in our Lord's words the mighty lesson, that nothing influences others so much as consistency. Let the lesson be treasured up and not forgotten.
We learn, lastly, from these verses, that there is only one satisfactory test of a man's religious character. That test is his conduct and conversation.
The words of our Lord on this subject are clear and unmistakable. He draws an illustration from a tree, and lays down the broad principle, "every tree is known by his own fruit." But our Lord does not stop here. He proceeds further to show that a man's conversation is one indication of his state of heart. "Of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." Both these sayings are deeply important. Both should be stored up among the leading maxims of our practical Christianity.
Let it be a settled principle in our religion that when a man brings forth no fruits of the Spirit, he has not the Holy Spirit within him. Let us resist as a deadly error the common idea, that all baptized people are born again, and that all members of the Church, as a matter of course, have the Holy Spirit. One simple question must be our rule. What fruit does a man bring forth? Does he repent? Does he believe with the heart on Jesus? Does he live a holy life? Does he overcome the world? Habits like these are what Scripture calls "fruit." When these "fruits" are lacking, it is profane to talk of a man having the Spirit of God within him.
Let it be a settled principle again in our religion, that when a man's general conversation is ungodly, his heart is graceless and unconverted. Let us not give way to the vulgar notion, that no one can know anything of the state of another's heart, and that although men are living wickedly, they have got good hearts at the bottom. Such notions are flatly contradictory to our Lord's teaching. Is the general tone of a man's communication carnal, worldly, irreligious, godless, or profane? Then let us understand that this is the state of his heart. When a man's tongue is extensively wrong, it is absurd, no less than unscriptural, to say that his heart is right.
Let us close this passage with solemn self-inquiry, and use it for the trial of our own state before God. What fruits are we bringing forth in our lives? Are they, or are they not, fruits of the Spirit? What kind of evidence do our words supply as to the state of our hearts? Do we talk like men whose hearts are "right in the sight of God?"--There is no evading the doctrine laid down by our Lord in this passage. Conduct is the grand test of character. Words are one great evidence of the condition of the heart.
THE WISE AND THE FOOLISH BUILDERS
It has been said, with much truth, that no sermon should conclude without some personal application to the consciences of those who hear it. The passage before us is an example of this rule, and a confirmation of its correctness. It is a solemn and heart-searching conclusion of a most solemn discourse.
Let us mark, in these verses, what an old and common sin is profession without practice. It is written that our Lord said, "Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" The Son of God Himself had many followers, who pretended to honor Him by calling Him Lord, but yielded no obedience to His commandments.
The evil which our Lord exposes here, has always existed in the Church of God. It was found six hundred years before our Lord's time, in the days of Ezekiel--"My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain." (Ezek. 33:31.) It was found in the primitive Church of Christ, in the days of James. "Be doers of the word," he says, "and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves." (James 1:22.) It is a disease which has never ceased to prevail all over Christendom. It is a soul-ruining plague, which is continually sweeping away crowds of Gospel-hearers down the broad way to destruction. Open sin, and avowed unbelief, no doubt slay their thousands. But profession without practice slays its tens of thousands.
Let us settle it in our minds, that no sin is so foolish and unreasonable as the sin which Jesus here denounces. Common sense alone might tell us that the name and form of Christianity can profit us nothing, so long as we cleave to sin in our hearts, and live unchristian lives. Let it be a fixed principle in our religion, that obedience is the only sound evidence of saving faith, and that the talk of the lips is worse than useless, if it is not accompanied by sanctification of the life. The man in whose heart the Holy Spirit really dwells, will never be content to sit still, and do nothing to show his love to Christ.
Let us mark, secondly, in these verses, what a striking picture our Lord draws of the religion of the man who not only hears Christ's sayings, but DOES Christ's will. He compares him to one who "built a house, and dug deep, and laid the foundation on a rock."
Such a man's religion may cost him much. Like the house built on a rock, it may entail on him pains, labor, and self-denial. To lay aside pride and self-righteousness, to crucify the rebellious flesh, to put on the mind of Christ, to take up the cross daily, to count all things but loss for Christ's sake--all this may be hard work. But, like the house built on the rock, such religion will stand. The streams of affliction may beat violently upon it, and the floods of persecution dash fiercely against it, but it will not give way. The Christianity which combines good profession and good practice, is a building that will not fall.
Let us mark, lastly, in these verses, what a mournful picture our Lord draws of the religion of the man who hears Christ's sayings, but does not obey them. He compares him to one who, "without a foundation, built an house upon the earth."
Such a man's religion may look well for a season. An ignorant eye may detect no difference between the possessor of such a religion, and a true Christian. Both may worship in the same Church. Both may use the same ordinances. Both may profess the same faith. The outward appearance of the house built on the rock, and the house without any solid foundation, may be much the same. But the day of trial and affliction is the test which the religion of the mere outward professor cannot stand. When storm and tempest beat on the house which has no foundation, the walls which looked well in sunshine and fair weather, are sure to come to the ground. The Christianity which consists of merely hearing religion taught, without doing anything, is a building which must finally fall. Great indeed will be the ruin! There is no loss like the loss of a soul.
This passage of Scripture is one which ought to call up in our minds peculiarly solemn feelings. The pictures it presents, are pictures of things which are daily going on around us. On every side we shall see thousands building for eternity, on a mere outward profession of Christianity--striving to shelter their souls under false refuges--contenting themselves with a name to live, while they are dead, and with a form of godliness without the power. Few indeed are the builders upon rocks, and great is the ridicule and persecution which they have to endure! Many are the builders upon sand, and mighty are the disappointments and failures which are the only result of their work! Surely, if ever there was a proof that man is fallen and blind in spiritual things, it may be seen in the fact that the majority of every generation of baptized people, persist in building on sand.
What is the foundation on which we ourselves are building? This, after all, is the question that concerns our souls. Are we upon the rock, or are we upon the sand? We love perhaps to hear the Gospel. We approve of all its leading doctrines. We assent to all its statements of truth about Christ and the Holy Spirit, about justification and sanctification, about repentance and faith, about conversion and holiness, about the Bible and prayer. But what are we doing? What is the daily practical history of our lives, in public and private, in the family and in the world? Can it be said of us, that we not only hear Christ's sayings, but that we also do them?
The hour comes, and will soon be here, when questions like these must be asked and answered, whether we like them or not. The day of sorrow and bereavement, of sickness and death, will make it plain whether we are on the rock, or on the sand. Let us remember this betimes, and not trifle with our souls. Let us strive so to believe and so to live, so to hear Christ's voice and so to follow Him, that when the flood arises, and the streams beat over us, our house may stand and not fall.