This passage is difficult to link to the one which precedes it and, therefore, the chapter division which begins here is wholly justified and doesn’t get in the way of any development of thought or continuation of exposition as occurs in other places in the Bible.
There appears to be a large scale change of tack for Jesus in His teaching but the same phrase (‘the law and the prophets’) which occurs in Mtw 5:17 is repeated here in 7:12 where there are grounds for seeing the inclusion of the phrase as being indicative that the verse is meant to be a summation not just of the few verses which precede it but of the entire passage.
However, it more rightly sits as a conclusion to just 7:1-11 as the disciples’ actions towards fellow believers is only developed fully at this juncture, the previous section being the teaching that the disciple must decide whether he goes after the things of the world or the will of God. Even here, though, the teaching of brother to brother is split by a reference to prayer and the overall thrust of the passage is broken.
Whereas Mtw 6:19-34 hold together with the theme of earthly provision and Mtw 7:13-27 with the theme of walking and continuing in the Way, it’s difficult with this group of teachings to see a common thread which runs right the way through and they seem to represent certain teachings that Jesus wanted to impart to His listeners before He concluded His discourse with an appeal to walk in the way of the Kingdom of God and to be committed to following wholly what had been heard and received.
These verses have done a fair amount of mileage since they were first spoken and are quite often heard on the lips of both christian leaders and those amongst the congregation who are so spiritual that it’s a wonder that they haven’t been accepted into some sort of religious institution or other, heard as a response to something that another believer has just said.
Unfortunately, in my own experience, the mileage they’ve been used for has often been a drive away from the actual destination of the words and we need to get back to, not a literal interpretation of these few verses segregated from the rest of the NT, but an understanding that seeks to explain other Scriptures which speak of the need to judge and so define what exactly it is that Jesus is saying here.
For the spiritual leader whose life is being lived against the will of God through the commitment of open sin and questionable decisions, these verses are a great mask to hide behind especially when said with a fair degree of authority and shock - and more especially when a young christian is the intended object who is more likely to believe the words of an elder christian than he is when he’s been following Jesus for a few years and reading his Bible.
If a christian should go to their brother and say
‘Why on earth did you give that guy a right cross and lay him out?’
the response has often been
‘Brother, you shouldn’t judge another believer because you yourself will be judged by God for doing so [that is, for judging rather than for mimicking the right cross]’
and so another religious mask is put up which conceals truth (and, sometimes, sin) - the meaning, as we saw, of the Greek word translated ‘hypocrite’ in Mtw 6:1-8 (see here) and which is used by Jesus in Mtw 7:5.
While it is quite true that each of us is answerable to God in this life and that it is really not, therefore, all that important whether or how we are judged by men and women (I Cor 4:3-4), and that the final judgment of believers after death is what really counts for anything (I Cor 4:5, Rom 14:12), there is still the need for righteous judgment to be employed by the Body of Christ - both individually and corporately.
Of course, in the scenario I mentioned above, it is all too easy for the leader or older christian to claim that (I Cor 2:15)
‘The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one’
and so obscure the issue that needs addressing. Brothers are responsible to each other for the life they lead and it cannot be maintained that one’s sin does not affect the rest of the group. After the initial shock in Paul’s words in I Cor 5:1 in which he writes that
‘It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife’
he goes on to rhetorically ask his readers (I Cor 5:6)
‘...Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened...’
showing that, if the Church maintains it’s stance of tolerance towards the erring brother, they are in grave danger of becoming like he is, through the advance of his error throughout their fellowship. The problem with taking Jesus’ words as an absolute statement that no judgment is to be ever exercised towards believers is that Paul teaches exactly the opposite using the same Greek word (Strongs Greek number 2919) that is employed in Mtw 7:1.
Summing up the problem in the Corinthian Church, Paul commands his hearers by reminding them that, in his previous letter, he had instructed them (I Cor 5:9-13 - my italics)
‘...not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber - not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside - “Drive out the wicked person from among you”’
There’s quite a bit of truth here that we would do well to consider, including Paul’s insistence that they should not retreat from their existence in the society of their day to become monks and nuns because of the wickedness of the world - something that, unfortunately, we have neglected to apply not only amongst the two groups just mentioned but even in the unnatural phenomenon of ‘Bible Colleges’ which can too easily segregate believers into a learning academy which removes them from experiencing the real world while, at the same time, learning about Christ.
It’s no surprise that many of the younger christians, when they finally find themselves as a leader of a christian fellowship, fail to be able to respond to the needs of the believers because they have neither experienced them nor learnt how to receive God’s provision in such situations to overcome.
But, I digress!
Paul urges the believers at Corinth to judge their fellow believers in matters of sin - but this shouldn’t be seen to contradict Jesus’ words in Mtw 7:1-5. Here, the context of Paul’s words is sin, when sin is evident and obvious but when a fellowship seems too weak or indifferent to the problems associated with a fellow believer who maintains a life that is lived in rebellion to God.
Paul says that believers in such a situation must be judged - and that, sooner rather than later. If they repent and turn from their way of life, all well and good (as seems to have been the case - II Cor 2:5-11) but, if not, the apostle is plain in his command that they should be removed from the fellowship.
Our society today is built upon humanistic principles and such a thought that one’s behaviour could be the cause of another’s downfall is normally disregarded amongst adults who like to do as they please and insist that, if there are consequences, it’s the fault of the other person not them. Moreover, our present day society sees nothing wrong with much of the behaviour that Scripture finds abhorrent to God and which is condemned as being unacceptable and needful of being removed from the Body of Christ.
It's not surprising that many christians have either been influenced by the world’s teaching or have brought baggage with them once they’ve come to acknowledge the work of Christ and who fail to see the need to let go of the old way of living that they may fully embrace the new. The Church will always be in a difficult situation as it seeks to put certain things right in the fellowship that are blatantly against God’s will - I’m not talking about legislating rules against addictions that the believer has not yet discovered power over, such as cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption (though notice Paul’s words in I Cor 5:9-13) or even, in more and more cases, drug abuse, but in the need to approach believers who, in the example of Paul, are committing immorality, theft or, it may surprise you to read, greed (I Cor 5:11), and challenge them to forsake their way of living that is opposed to the will of God.
When I first became a christian, I learnt of a relationship between two individuals which had been going on for a number of years and which, today, I would probably have accepted as being a partnership similar to marriage. But I approached the leader of the fellowship and asked him why this was allowed and his response, because I hadn’t named the individuals concerned, was ‘which one?’!!!!
Evidently, there was more going on in the church than met the eye! But christians mustn’t shrink back from dealing with sin - not only in their own lives (which is where one should start) but in the corporate life of the Church. That doesn’t mean that we should either go on a witch hunt to root out every last bit of sin that we can find (for, if we did, our buildings would be empty!) or that we should interpret actions in terms of sin when they are innocent or even to criticise one another for certain aspects of our lives which we don’t like, making them out to be inherently sinful and unacceptable to God.
And therein lies the burden of Jesus’ words in Mtw 7:1-5.
Jesus seems to be saying not ‘never judge’ but ‘don’t judge with criticism’ because the very same attitudes which you condemn will be found in yourself and, in passing judgement on other brothers, you will actually be condemning yourself.
Matfran comments that the word
‘...often carries the connotation “condemn” and it is in that sense that it is used here’
While Rom 2:1-5 could be applied here to even those things which are not, in themselves, sin, Rom 2:17-24 hints at the problem with ourselves who point the finger at one another when we are doing the very same things though, probably, in a different form.
So, if you rightly state that christians shouldn’t be leaving shops without paying for the items they have in their pockets, do you record CDs for friends so that they don’t have to go out and buy their own copy (when it comes to deleted albums, availability and promotion, the disciple needs to discern what is right to do and my all-pervasive statement does not necessarily hold)? Both are ‘theft’ and both are unacceptable to God but, in condemning one, we naturally condemn ourselves.
Or, if we say that we should obey Government rules and pay taxes, why do we break the speed limit? Again, both are Government rules and we can’t pick and choose which civil laws we need to obey.
In the Mishnah, this idea of receiving the measure one gives to others is noted in Sotah 1:7 where we read
‘With what measure a man metes it shall be measured to him again...’
paralleling almost identically the words of Christ when he speaks of receiving the measure of judgment back upon oneself that one has handed out to another (Mtw 7:2). The Mishnah also states that (Aboth 1:6)
‘...when thou judgest any man incline the balance in his favour’
so that any misinterpretations may be left to one side and not be included in a judgment which would obviously be full of error. After all, just because we condemn in our own minds and through our own mouths, it does not mean that our pronouncements are correct because we often fail to perceive the attitude of heart which justifies the action before God.
Therefore Jesus told the Jews (John 7:24 - see also John 8:15)
‘Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment’
where their judgment of Him healing on the sabbath being against the Mosaic Law was shown to be incompatible with their insistence that they ‘work’ by performing circumcision on a child on the sabbath to fulfil the Law.
Although this has relevance for the walk of the christian, it does not appear to necessarily be the intention behind Jesus’ words here. Rather, He is telling the disciples not to nit-pick and not to do it with criticism (can you nit-pick with anything other than criticism?).
If the disciple was to truly understand how unacceptable to God their life was (notice Jesus’ words in Mtw 7:11 where he calls the disciples ‘evil’), and yet have found acceptance before Him, they would realise that criticism is futile for God will accept the believer regardless. If mercy, therefore, has been received from the hand of God, it must necessarily be handed out to those who are believers such as ourselves.
As Mattask also points out
‘Such censoriousness depresses those against whom it is directed and weakens rather than strengthens their moral fibre. It also increases the self-righteousness of those who display it and invites others to retaliate by indulging in equal measure in the same type of nagging fault-finding’
Criticism destroys - not only does it undermine the confidence that a believer has before God of being accepted by Him the way he is, but it puffs up the accusers who can too easily see themselves as being better off and ‘more righteous’ than those who they put down. This comparison of lives is a natural trait of a legalistic life which sees rank in the Kingdom as determined by moral uprightness (where ‘moral uprightness’ is often not defined by what God considers as being pure!) and which fails to see that equality in Christ is a standard which cannot be denied (II Cor 10:11-12).
A solution for our criticism would be to direct our critical gaze at ourselves and so see the state of our own lives before God. Although not referring to this scenario, I Cor 11:31 does give us an insight into how Paul regarded believers at Corinth when he says that
‘...if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged’
That is, God would not need to judge us if we turned our attention to our own lives and, in the context of Mtw 7:1-5, stopped looking around at others.
This is exactly what Jesus is saying when he moves on to speak of the speck and log in the eyes of accusers and accused. The point is not that the accuser should be careful to make sure his life is free from condemnation so that he can start again his life of criticism directed at those around him, but that he needs a totally different object for his critical sight.
Matfran states that the Greek word translated ‘speck’ (Strongs Greek number 2595) was used metaphorically in secular Greek to denote something minute, Matmor that it
‘...can denote a little piece of anything, especially of sticks or straw; it points to what is quite insignificant’
whereas the word for ‘log’ (Strongs Greek number 1385) was employed more for objects such as the main beam that would support the structure of a roof or that which would hold up a main floor and which could have been not much less than the majority of a tree trunk.
The comparison couldn’t be much more stark and contrasting.
Let the critical believer start to consider his own life and he’ll soon realise that the little speck (Mathag - the ‘insignificant shortcoming’) that he’s pointing the finger at in the life of his brother is so small compared to what’s in his own life that he really needs to do something about his own condition - perhaps even ask the brother for help!!
Matfran comments that
‘Unless verse 5 is to be read as sarcastic...there is in fact a fault in the brother [being judged]; the hypocrite’s error is not in his diagnosis but in his failure to apply to himself the criticism he so meticulously applies to his brother’
Though I have taken the criticism of the brother to be, generally speaking, something that is misunderstood in the context of the brother’s life, it is quite possible that, although there is something which is wrong in the brother, the real problem is with the enormity of the state of the life of the accuser.
If such a problem exists in the accuser, how can it be possible for him to ever consider being able to sort out the other’s life by his judgment? It’s as if a blindman might offer to lead someone with perfect sight to somewhere he has never before been and which he cannot, therefore, effectively arrive at, or of a man born deaf criticising someone for failing to appreciate the complexities of one of Beethoven’s symphonies (Mtw 7:4)! The absurdity of the situation brings home to the disciples the stupidity of ever trying to judge others by standards which inherently condemn ourselves - and it also gives us ample justification for believing that Jesus frequently used humour in His teaching to demonstrate the point He was making (not in the sense that He’d say ‘There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman...’ but that He’d demonstrate the absurdity of such an attitude in the disciple so that he could laugh at the stupidity of his position and so reject it for what it was - against the will of God).
Matmor is correct by speaking of this position as a
‘curious feature of the human race in which a profound ignorance of oneself is so often combined with an arrogant presumption of knowledge about others, especially about their faults’
James 4:11-12 hints at another colouring of Jesus words when, before the author goes on to pose the conclusion to the reasoning
‘...who are you that you judge your neighbour?’
he commands his readers to
‘...not speak evil against one another, brethren...’
The reason Jesus is concerned to forbid His disciples from passing judgment upon one another is not because, in the Church’s life years later they shouldn’t identify sin and remove it from the Body, but that the judgment He’s referring to is that which can only be considered as ‘speaking evil’ - that is, unhealthy criticism which undermines the work of Christ no matter how spiritual the language employed.
Mattask quotes McNeile as saying that
‘...our unkind criticism takes the form of a kindly act’
and comments that
‘evil is in fact parading as good’
for it is all too easy to ‘express a concern’ about a fellow believer that is only a precursor to a critical statement that is far from any possible pastoral concern that could be construed in the words. Spiritual language does obscure a multitude of sins and the believer should be warned against it - not just in the format of prayer (Mtw 6:7) but in the way we shroud our intentions in the phrases we use.
After all, which is more likely to be accepted? The statement
‘You know, I’m really feeling concern for Brian - I saw him picking his nose last Sunday and sticking the bogies [US - read ‘boogers’! This is about the only alternative word I know in the American language which may tell you something about the people I mix with...] on the seat in front of where he was sitting. Perhaps we need to pray for the spirits of nose-picking and bogie-sticking to be cast out of him? Or do you think it’s just a problem with the flesh he’s having?’
‘That Brian needs to be stopped! He’s been sticking bogies all over the seats in church! Who does he think he is?’
Very often, criticism can be shrouded in religiosity. After all, picking one’s nose is not a hindrance to entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
This verse stands as a strange insertion into the overall flow of Jesus’ teaching, especially in the context of the twelve verse passage which is being dealt with on this web page.
The concluding statement of Mtw 7:12 could be equally applied to both the preceding five verses (7:1-5) and the following five (7:7-11) and so stand as a fitting conclusion probably not just to these but to the entire section which has begun with Mtw 5:17.
But why is a short sentence or two about dogs and pigs included here?
For one, the verse contrasts the type of judgment that has been condemned in 7:1-5 with the kind of judgment which is a necessary part of the disciples’ experience. After all, in so deciding whether the situation demands that what is ‘holy’ and what is regarded as ‘pearls’ should be withheld, one has already made a quality decision as to the condition of the people you are confronting!
As Matfran notes
‘The use of our critical faculties in making value-judgments is frequently required...’
and it is that which is presupposed in the instructions contained here. If the disciple is not to judge the spiritual state of those he encounters, how can he determine whether they are swine or dogs (spiritually speaking)? This is all the more reason to take Jesus’ command not to judge (Mtw 7:1) as referring to criticism which is inaccurate and unfounded and which needs to be applied here also if the disciple is to accurately determine the spiritual condition of his hearers.
It would be too easy for the disciple to condemn even fellow believers as ‘swine’ and ‘dogs’ if he is hypercritical of their life and lifestyle. Therefore, being warned of the dangers in judgment, the follower of Christ must take care and accurately assess the state of each person he meets to know what is the best course of action with regard to the proclamation of the Kingdom of heaven.
Similarly, when the disciples were sent out into the towns and villages of Israel, they were told (Mtw 10:11) specifically to
‘...find out who is worthy in it...’
or, as Luke 10:5, to determine who was a
‘...son of peace...’
and so remain in their household until they moved on into another place. Jesus even went so far as to instruct His disciples that they may find the need to shake off the dust of their feet as they left the town if the message which they brought failed to be received (Mtw 10:14), something which, again, implies that judgment has been exercised in the life of the believer.
This calls for quality judgments to be made which are neither critical nor condemnatory but accurate.
As Levertoff, quoted in Mattask, says as a contrast to the preceding five verses and this one
‘We may not judge or condemn anyone, but on the other hand we must have a “sense of judgment” in our contacts with our fellow-men’
and Matmor states that
‘Disciples are not to be judgmental but that does not mean that they are to lack discernment. They must recognise the realities of life’
The opening phrase of this verse (‘do not give’) is, according to Matmor
‘...a firm command; this is not a tentative suggestion’
and we must bear in mind that we are now reading something that is of vital importance to the christian. While the disciple is urged to go into all the world and preach the Gospel (Mtw 28:19), there is a balancing command here which, if applied to certain situations, redefine the commission laid upon them.
There are two images here - one which concerns the dog and the other, the pig. Neither are the main subject of the verse - this is reserved for the ‘holy’ and the ‘pearls’ - but these concepts cannot be properly understood without some reference to the animals in question.
The thought of feeding dogs what is holy is an image which conjures up the sacrificial system. Such food which was considered ‘holy’ to be eaten by both the offerers (for example, Lev 7:15) and the priesthood (for example, Lev 2:3) would hardly likely to have been taken from the Temple compound and laid out before the wild dogs for them to eat, for the food would be totally inappropriate. That food was, rather, meant for the offerers and priests and had been set apart solely for their use.
These dogs should not be considered to be the loving little pets that are in many households throughout the western world but, as Mathen
‘...pariahs, large, savage and ugly [ugly to who?!]. One could see them almost everywhere, prowling about the garbage and the rubbish thrown into the streets’
Besides, dogs were to be given that which was considered unsuitable for human consumption (Ex 22:31) presumably because the flesh could be disposed of before it decayed and rotted, bringing uncleanness to anyone who had contact with it. Cansdale here notes that
‘...the dog was mainly a scavenger and did in larger towns what hyenas helped to do in the villages and outside the walls...the Hebrews’ low view of the dog as utterly unclean meant that most dogs in Palestine were semi-wild, like the pariah dogs that still haunt some countries’
The underlying teaching here, then, is that certain people should not be given those things which have already been set apart for the Lord’s use and His benefit. Interestingly, the concept of ‘dogs’ is used in Phil 3:2 where the legalistically religious are necessarily in mind. It would be too narrow an interpretation to see that as the sole meaning in this passage but it should, nevertheless, be included.
Pigs, on the other hand, being offered pearls would find them of no use to themselves at all and so simply walk all over them, treating them with disdain. Such animals would not be ameliorated by such ‘food’ but would turn on their heels and attack the ones who were offering them something in which they had no interest and for which they had no use.
The ‘pearl’ will be used by Jesus to represent the Kingdom in Mtw 13:44-46 (though commentators take it to refer solely to the Gospel) but we needn’t insist on such an interpretation here. The pearl represents only that which is valuable and useful to the disciple and which the pig can’t appreciate. As Mathen notes
‘...Pearls...were fabulously priced, way beyond the purchasing power of the average person’
and, applying this to the passage in question, Matmor comments that
‘Things of value and beauty will not only not be appreciated by pigs [after all, which pig do you know that likes art?] but will be abused. What is precious is not to be given to people who have no appreciation of it’
Pigs and dogs are also allied in II Peter 2:22, a part quote from Prov 26:11, which reads
‘It has happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire’
The application to the present verse is somewhat limited but it does show that both pigs and dogs could be rolled together into one sentence to teach something which was similar. They seem to have been regarded as the ultimate unclean animals with behaviour that could be cited on occasions to show what shouldn’t be done.
But the verse teaches that both that which is set apart for the Lord’s use (the ‘holy’) and that which is of intrinsic spiritual value (the ‘pearls’) should not be given over to people who would either abuse or ridicule what is being offered. This has a great many interpretations that one needs to meditate on fully and carefully for, the perplexing problem remains as to how far we are to go between holding back and remaining silent or of broadcasting the message of the Gospel to whoever we can but who would more than likely treat such a message with ridicule
But what of the possessions of our lives? There is a sense that, if we have set apart something solely for the Lord’s use (whether cars, accommodation and similar), we should be careful to continue to use it for the intention we have committed it to and, ministries which can overbleed into the secular world, should also be protected from the derogatory response of people who do not know God.
The Didache’s application of the Lord’s words here may be relevant to the verse as it deals with the sharing of the bread and the wine and notes that (Didache 9 - late first century)
‘No one is to eat or drink of your Eucharist but those who have been baptized in the Name of the Lord; for the Lord’s own saying applies here “Give not that which is holy unto dogs”’
But this is too narrow an interpretation if taken to refer exclusively to the breaking of bread. In similar manner, to simply take the ‘holy’ and the ‘pearls’ as being representative of the Gospel of the Kingdom is too narrow and needs to be expanded, perhaps more vaguely, into the two types of examples which are being taught on - that is, the things which are set apart for the Lord’s use and those things which are of spiritual worth.
Mathag suggests - through a consideration of the words for both ‘dogs’ and ‘swine’ - that
‘...it is possible that this logion prohibits the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles...’
but we should dismiss this without too much consideration. After all, Jesus spoke the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven to all who came to Him - He didn’t have His disciples go round the multitudes and exclude those who they knew to be non-Jews!
Only in delimiting the application can we see the vastness of the possible relevance and the need for each disciple to be wary in the situations he finds himself in to properly judge the condition of those around him and to respond accordingly.
Finally, Mattask’s warning here is relevant when he summarises the verse as teaching that
‘We must...discriminate carefully between those who possess and those who lack the sensitivity necessary to appreciate such intellectual, artistic [?] or spiritual benefits that we may have it in our power to bestow’
As the reader has been following the exposition of the Sermon on the Mount from Mtw 5:1 onwards, he may have noticed that I have, on occasions, noted that certain commentators regard sections as being not part of an original discourse but put together by the author from various records of sayings that were available to him into one coherent format.
I have maintained my disagreement with these theories and stated that, just because a modern day preacher might speak on the same subject in a different place, it doesn’t follow that we should regard the time and date of his sermon as being identical simply because there is similar content. Jesus would have tailored His teaching to the perceived needs of His hearers and not reeled off teaching parrot-fashion like some automaton.
Additionally, I have not always made mention at every point in the text where it is asserted that such a compilation has taken place and one only has to pick up commentaries available in most christian bookstores to see that the belief is quite widespread.
But, this passage in question (Mtw 7:7-11) is a case in point that would push us away from the belief that it is not part of the original discourse and that it was simply compiled from a list of available sources into a logical and systematic order - the reason being is that it is not placed in the text in a logical place and, if this discourse is really only the product of a scribe’s harmonisation, he must have been brain dead to place this where it now appears!
In Mtw 6:1-18, it is generally pointed out that the text of the Lord’s prayer (6:7-15) breaks up what is a systematic teaching passage on the subjects of almsgiving, prayer and fasting and that it was probably only included by ‘the scribe’ because it referred to prayer and he felt the need to keep ‘prayer teaching’ together in one place.
If that’s the case, why did the scribe relegate Mtw 7:7-11 (which is also taken to be about prayer) to a position where it stands almost out of context with the surrounding passages? Why, if 6:7-15 proves compilation from various source documents, doesn’t 7:7-11 appear immediately after 6:15?!
The systematic way that Jesus teaches the disciples here cannot, I believe, be explained by presuming that the compiler must have brought different sources together when the logic of the inclusion of our present passage is somewhat illogical.
As Mathag comments (my italics), who is one of the chief exponents of the view of scribal compilation in my list of commentaries
‘This is another self-contained unit having no real connection with the material that precedes or follows it’
This should set the alarm bells ringing. A scribe who has been so thorough and persistent in his approach to present Jesus’ teaching systematically who suddenly decides to insert a passage that sticks out like a sore thumb into a position which is alien to its setting calls into question his qualifications and reliability in other matters.
As far as I understand it, this passage appears in its original position in an original discourse and it’s inclusion here is more likely to disprove the theory of compilation than the ‘inclusion’ of passages such as Mtw 6:7-15 could ever do.
As we come to the text of the passage, we need to first note that the tenses which are used in the Greek indicate that what is being taught is not, for instance, asking for something once, but a consistent commitment to asking that is more than a forgetfulness in the mind of the requester once that the words have been uttered.
Luke 18:1-7 again sees Jesus urging His disciples to be persistent in prayer - though we would mistakenly take this passage to refer only to the vindication of the disciples rather than, as the first verse says, that
‘...they ought always to pray and not lose heart’
outlining why the unrighteous judge answered the widow’s petitioning - simply because he got so fed up with her continual bombardment of the request. The thought is similar to that in Mtw 7:11 where Jesus contrasts the reaction of the disciples in giving to their children what they ask even though they stand before God as condemned and in need of forgiveness by the goodness of God who can be relied upon to give His children what it is they necessarily require.
Neither should the disciple think that there is a right time and place for prayer.
As Luke 11:5-8 teaches, it is only the wrong time at which the friend comes to borrow provision from him which actually causes the friend to receive what he needs. That may sound foolishness to us but it is the clear teaching of Jesus’ words when He tells His listeners that
‘...though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs’
In a similar way, says Jesus, should prayer be conducted - not when it’s convenient but even when it’s not. That is, why should the disciple wait til the hour of prayer (as the Jews practised three times a day) when there is a pressing need that requires immediate attention? And why should the disciple wait until the midweek prayer meeting or the morning Communion service to bring his requests to God? Or, even more poignant, why is there a need for a follower of Christ (who is kept awake by nagging worries in his own mind during the night) to get up, kneel and pray when a quick prayer under the bedclothes is all that’s required? There is nothing intrinsically evil about prayer whether it’s conducted either above or below a duvet cover.
This is going beyond the scope of the present passage but, even in today’s present Church, there needs to be a radical change of attitude to prayer which consigns it very often to specific moments in the calendar when everything can be done decently and in order.
Persistency in prayer, as Mtw 7:7 implies, can only be done if the place and time of prayer are neither defined nor restricted.
Interestingly, most commentators see, as Matfran, that all three words - ask, seek, knock - imply (my italics)
‘...continuous, persistent prayer’
strengthening the case for them to be taken this way by asserting that
‘”knocking” is found also in Rabbinic sayings as a metaphor for prayer’
Although this is the best way to take the words, they shouldn’t be limited to include solely the action of the disciple in prayer to the Father, especially when the word ‘seek’ is considered which has an element of earthly action implied behind the use of the word.
It is not correct to accept that all three words are no more that substitutionary words for prayer when the disciple seems to be urged to actively do something about his situation and what he requires. It may be all very well to ask the Father in heaven for a new car with which to do His business, but there also needs to be a seeking out of that car very often and a knocking on the car salesperson’s door to see what cars are available and whether any that they have are suitable!
True, God could materialise a car on your parking lot and post the keys through your door - this has probably happened somewhere or other! - but, normally, God expects His believers to actively seek out what is needed.
What Jesus means to say here, then, is not that this is the be-all-and-end-all of teaching on prayer but that the Father delights to give good things to His children who ask Him for them, who seek them out and who try to have them opened to them.
Although prayer is definitely being referred to in the first word ‘ask’, ‘seek’ may well mean the disciple’s pursuit of what is right and ‘knock’ his attempts at trying to get into situations to bring about God’s will. But the disciple must realise that it is only God who answers the request, who allows what is being searched for to be found and who opens the door that is being knocked at.
As Matmor comments (who sees all three metaphors as referring solely to prayer)
‘The point is not that human persistence wins out in the end but that the heavenly Father who loves His children will certainly answer their prayer’
Neither should we limit Jesus’ words to be related solely to an earthly, material provision. In the parallel passage of Mtw 7:11 in Luke 11:13, the words ‘good things’ are substituted by the phrase ‘the Holy Spirit’ which implies spiritual, rather than natural, provision.
Mathag disagrees with Carson for teaching that what Jesus is fundamentally meaning to say is that the disciple will receive everything that they need to be able to live the way that they are being instructed to do throughout this discourse, but that necessarily must also be the case for there are no defining words here which would make us believe that there is any limit around the ask-seek-knock principle.
Jesus gives two examples here of the principle from human life which, again, are examples which, because they are finite, prove the rule of what is being taught concerning God and His dealings with mankind (Mtw 7:9-10). After all, if man has been created in God’s image, there remains the image of God in mankind even though there is much that has been tainted by sin (Eccles 7:29) and this can shine through to demonstrate to others what He’s like.
The bread-stone and fish-serpent examples are two which give the listener to understand that what is being substituted for the request is not something that is superficially different but which is inherently so.
The bread-stone analogy has already been recorded for us in the forty day wilderness experience of Jesus (Mtw 4:3) where the similarity between the shape of the stone mirrored that of the common type of bread being baked in Israel at that time. The point with the wilderness temptation is not that Jesus is being urged to change something which has no resemblance of food into something useful to His present need but that the shape and form of the stones themselves remind Him of His hunger and so the temptation becomes all the more pointed and relevant.
The fish-serpent example is more difficult to correspond to the preceding verse’s principle but it is not altogether impossible. Mathag simply notes that
‘...a snake can resemble a fish...’
while Matfran goes further by noting that
...a snake might be taken for a fish, particularly the eel-like catfish of Galilee, Clarias lazera’
The problem with this identification is that the catfish of Galilee, according to Mounce quoted in Matmor was
‘...according to Lev 11:12... not to be eaten’
and, according to Cansdale
‘...is reckoned good eating today but was earlier forbidden as food’
This would, therefore be difficult to reconcile with a Jewish child’s request to be given an unclean food and being supplied it by a father against the direct command of the Law of Moses. But we are probably going too far to have to identify the fish in question - the point is, surely, that a fish and a snake are similar in appearance though not identical.
The principle, then, is as Mathen notes, that the earthly father
‘...will not deceive the child...for a real father such an act of base deception would be unthinkable’
As Mathen notes, Jesus concludes the two examples by jumping from the finite to the infinite. If the earthly father who stands in a wrong relationship with God would never think to deceive his children by a false answer to an honest request, then neither will the heavenly Father give answers to prayer that deceive the recipient and only bring about harm.
The phrase ‘who is evil’ is strong language and shouldn’t be lessened in its force, but we naturally tend to summarise ‘those who are evil’ only in terms that fail to include ourselves. Even amongst the convicts in prison, there are despised criminals such as sex offenders who are looked upon with disdain simply because they have committed a crime outside the morality of those who have, for instance, been convicted for theft or murder.
Jesus will return to this subject of the evilness of the heart of man when we get to Mtw 15:10-20 (where I shall take the parallel passage in Mark 7 as the subject for my exposition) but, for Him, the point is not that mankind needs patching up because he is generally good but that he needs something radical to happen within if he is ever to be able to be pleasing and obedient to God.
We should note here, though, that the disciples are spoken of in terms which teach that they are acceptable to God and that they stand in a relationship with Him as sons even though the work of the cross has not yet been achieved and been applied to their lives.
These entire instructions must be balanced by what Jesus has already said previously in 6:5-15 and what He will go on to teach His disciples in, for instance, Mtw 21:22. Even the implications of Mtw 26:39 where Jesus’ prayer to the Father remained unanswered because He realised that, although He would prefer one course of action, He knew that the Father’s will was something wholly different, must be considered alongside these words.
But the principle for the fulfilment of all three promises of asking, seeking and knocking is in Mtw 6:33. When that is true in the believer’s life, whatever they need to fulfil their desire for the advance of the Kingdom will be given to them.
Most commentators see this verse as not just summarising Mtw 7:7-11 which immediately precede it but all the teaching contained in 5:17-7:11. A lot of what’s contained there, though, mentions man’s response to God rather than a response to our fellow man so that it can only rightly be interpreted to be a fitting conclusion of the manward aspects of the teaching.
This may be illuminated by the phrase ‘the law and the prophets’ which occurs here once more as it has done in Mtw 5:17 and which seem to bracket the intervening teaching into one basic unit, even though in Mtw 7:12 the phrase is applied to what can be rightly considered to be a correct attitude and right action directed towards mankind by the follower of Christ. In 5:17 there is simply the statement by Jesus that He has not come to abolish either the law or the prophets.
Mathag, one of the principle believers in my list of commentators that the entire discourse was constructed from different sources rather than spoken by Jesus at one specific time, comments that
‘This separate logion is probably added here by the evangelist because of the reference in the preceding pericope to the giving and receiving of good things. But the connection is not that clear...’
but there is a good reason for placing this verse where it stands (even if the point is conceded) and as a fitting conclusion to the immediately preceding verses. If the disciple receives provision from the Father and the provision is to do with whatever the disciple needs, then he is in a perfect position to be able to give to others the treatment that he himself is receiving at the hand of God.
As Matmor points out
‘...the example of the Father in His goodness in answering prayer is a magnificent incentive to His people to do good to others’
and, therefore, the conclusion of 7:12 sits very easily with the statement of Jesus to ask, seek and knock and that they will be heard and receive what they desire.
The first part of Mtw 7:12 is known generally as ‘the golden rule’, so named because the Emperor Alexander Severus was reputed to have it written on his wall in gold, but the truth of the statement by Jesus is attributable not only to years preceding His statement but to a whole host of other religions which rose afterwards and which seem to have echoed Jesus’ words without demanding either allegiance to God or necessarily seeing the phrase as a fulfilment of the OT law and prophets as Jesus does.
While it’s quite true that Jesus appears to have been the first to render this rule in its positive form (the positive form of ‘doing’ rather than of ‘not doing’), this active command is hinted at in certain places which we will look at below which do precede the date of the delivery of the Sermon on the Mount. But, generally, the ancient thinkers and writers spoke of the golden rule as a negative duty of man to not do what they did not want done to themselves.
As Matfran comments
‘...the negative principle...is found in a wide variety of ancient literature from the Athenian Isocrates to Rabbi Hillel...’
This latter person, the Jewish Rabbi Hillel (c.60BC-20AD), is cited in Shaabath 31a in the Talmud where he went on to also claim for his negative version (quoted in Matfran) that
‘This is the whole law; all else is commentary’
Many consider this to be the first summation of the Law into one all-embracing principle, but the actual wording of the principle, according to Mathag, runs
‘What is hateful to yourself, do to no other...’
and it can be seen that this is, in effect, a quotation from Tobit 4:15 - rather than a totally original thought - where the Apocryphal text reads
‘And what you hate, do not do to anyone...’
But, even before this, Confucius (551-479BC) quoted in Mathen from Mahabharata 13.5571 commands his readers to
‘Do nothing to your neighbour which afterward you would not have your neighbour do to you’
Again, this is a purely negative form of Jesus’ statement but it must be pointed out that, although it’s consigned to be the obverse of the positive principle, his words are actually preceded by the statement that the sum of all true righteousness is
‘...treat others as you would yourself be treated’
so that we can be certain that the positive principle was not without its acceptors even before Christ uttered the saying.
Where people like Confucius and Christ differ, however, is that the former doesn’t see the principle as the sum total of the Mosaic Law but as an all-pervasive guiding principle apart from it.
But, even amongst the Jews who lived prior to Jesus’ day, the positive aspect of the golden rule was certainly hinted at in, for instance, Sirach 31:15 which reads
‘Judge your neighbour’s feelings by your own and in every matter be thoughtful’
and, in the letter of Aristeas normally taken to have been written somewhere in the middle of the second century BC, verse 207 records that a certain king asked
‘...“What is the teaching of wisdom?” And the other replied “As you wish that no evil should befall you, but to be a partaker of all good things, so you should act on the same principle towards your subjects and offenders, and you should mildly admonish the noble and good. For God draws all men to himself by his benignity”’
There is a radical difference between charging someone not to do anything which is wrong in the eyes of one’s neighbour and commanding someone else to do something that is considered right by the same person.
Mathag seems to get himself confused when he initially states that
‘The negative and positive forms are two ways of saying the same thing’
but goes on to conclude that (my italics)
‘The positive form must include the negative form but not vice versa’
If the negative and positive aspects are the same then they must mean the same. But, as it is, there is a subtlety of difference between the two sayings.
The negative form is summarised, for instance, in all the commandments which speak of things like ‘do not kill’, ‘do not commit adultery’. Here in Mtw 7:12, though, the positive aspect doesn’t urge disciples to be passive in their actions but active in that they are concerned to please others as they themselves would like to be treated by their fellow men.
The Law was certainly not without the principle but, generally, it is the censorship of what is wrong that is normally taken to be man’s response of trying to treat the fellow Israelite with love. Ex 23:4-5 demonstrates the positive aspect of the golden rule well when it commands the Israelite
‘If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, you shall help him to lift it up’
The Scripture doesn’t just say that the Israelite is not to do his enemy any harm but it insists that he does him some good. Though most of the Law told the Israelite not what should be done but what shouldn’t, there are good examples such as these two to show that the principle could have been extracted from the Mosaic Law even before Jesus came along and taught it to the disciples.
Notice also that both the servant who stands condemned in Mtw 25:14-30 and the believers at his left hand who are condemned in Mtw 25:31-46 are not pronounced unacceptable because of something they transgressed but because of something they failed to do. Discipleship, therefore, is much more than not offending people but of positively doing them some good based on the consideration of how oneself would like to be treated in the same situation.
Jesus later (Mtw 22:35-40) went on to summarise the entire Mosaic Law in two all pervasive principles (which were taken from the Law), the manward aspect of this being that believers should
‘...love your neighbour as yourself’
an echo of Lev 19:18 where it stands as the conclusion to a negative commandment rather than a positive one. Paul also spoke of this principle in Rom 13:8 where he told his recipients to
‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law’
If ‘love’ is the overriding principle of the Law and, likewise, doing to others as you would have them do to you, it can be immediately seen that ‘love’ is an active word, not a passive one. Love spurs the believer into acts of kindness rather than causes him to abstain from acts of sin (though this latter position should also be the disciple’s experience).
The concept of what love is, therefore, must be interpreted not as gooey feelings but as demonstrable in the positive benefit of another person by the believer’s presence.
Jesus words are, as always, radical and still must remain the guiding principle in all that the believer does which will influence the life of mankind. As Mathag perceptively points out
‘If this teaching of Jesus were to be lived out in the world, the whole system of evil would be dramatically shaken’
Unfortunately, though, the living out of the positive principle cannot come without the Person who taught it - humanistic principles can never change mankind to become the person that Jesus died to make them be.
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