In Matthew 5, Jesus explains that true righteousness is internal, a matter of the heart, not just of behavior. In chapter 6, he explains that our religious activities must be sincere, not performances designed to make us look good. In those chapters, Jesus addresses two problems that occur when people focus on external behavior as the main definition of righteousness: external behavior is not all that God wants, and people are tempted to pretend instead of being changed in the heart.
In chapter 7, Jesus addresses a third problem of a focus on behavior: People who equate righteousness with behavior tend to judge or criticize others.
The speck in someone's eye
"Do not judge," Jesus said, "or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Matt. 7:1-2). Jesus' audience knew the kind of judging Jesus was talking about: the condemning attitude held by the people Jesus had already criticized—the hypocrites who focused on external behaviors (see John 7:49 for an example).
But those who are quick to condemn, those who feel superior to others, will be condemned by God. All have sinned, and everyone needs mercy. But some people find it hard to admit that they need mercy, and find it hard to extend any mercy. So Jesus is warning that the way we treat other people may be the way that God treats us. The more we feel our own need for mercy, the less judgmental we will be toward others.
Jesus then gives a humorous, exaggerated illustration of what he means: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (Matt. 7:3). In other words, how can you complain about someone's sin when you have a bigger one?
"How can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye" (vs. 4-5). Jesus' audience must have laughed at this cartoonish depiction of hypocrites.
The hypocrite was claiming to help someone else identify sin. He was claiming to be wise, claiming to be zealous for the law. But Jesus is saying that the man is unqualified to help. He is a hypocrite, a play-actor, a pretender. He needs to get sin out of his own life first, to realize that his own sin is large.
How can the plank be removed? Jesus did not explain that here, but we know from elsewhere that sin can be removed only through God's grace. Only after experiencing mercy can a person really help others.
"Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs" (v. 6) is usually interpreted to mean that we should be wise in the way we preach the gospel. That may be true, but the context here has nothing to do with the gospel. If we keep this proverb in context, it could have an ironic sense: "Hypocrite, keep your pearls of wisdom to yourself. If you think the other person is a sinner, don't waste your words on him, for he won't appreciate what you say, and will just get mad at you." This would be a humorous way to cap off Jesus' main point: Do not judge.
Good gifts from God
Jesus has already talked about prayer and our need for faith (chapter 6). Now he mentions them again: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (vs. 7-8).
Jesus is describing an attitude of trust, of reliance on God. Why can we have such faith? Because God is trustworthy.
Jesus then makes a simple comparison: "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (vs. 9-11). If even sinners take care of their children, then we can certainly rely on God, who is perfect, to take care of his children. He will supply our needs.
But we don't always get what we want, and sometimes our greatest need is discipline. Jesus is not commenting on those things—his point here is simply that we can trust God.
Jesus' next comment is the golden rule. The thought is similar to verse 2. God will treat us the way we treat others, so we should "do to others what you would have them do to you" (v. 12). Since God gives good things to us, we should do good to others.
If we want to be treated kindly, to be given the benefit of the doubt, to be forgiven, then we need to be gracious toward others. If we would like someone to help us when we need help, then we need to be willing to help them when they need it.
The golden rule, said Jesus, "sums up the Law and the Prophets" (v. 12). This common-sense rule is what the Torah is really about. All those sacrifices should have told us that we need mercy. All those civil laws should have told us to treat others fairly. The golden rule gives us a focus to clarify God's way of life. It can be easily stated, but it is not easily done. So Jesus ends his sermon with some warnings.
The narrow gate
"Enter through the narrow gate," Jesus advises. "For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (vs. 13-14).
The path of least resistance leads to ruin. Christianity is not the most popular path. It involves self-denial, it involves thinking for oneself, it requires a willingness to step out in faith even if no one else is. We cannot just go along with the majority. Nor can we prefer a little bandwagon just because it is little. Truth cannot be measured by popularity or rarity.
"Watch out for false prophets," Jesus warned. "They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves" (v. 15). False preachers look good on the outside, but their motives are selfish. How can we tell whether they are false?
"By their fruit you will recognize them." It may take some time, but we will eventually see whether the preacher is trying to benefit himself, or whether he is truly serving others. But appearances can be misleading for a time. The agents of sin try to look like angels of God. Even the false prophets look good for a while.
Is there a faster way to tell? Yes, there is—Jesus will get to it in a moment. But first, Jesus warns the false prophets: "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (v. 19).
Building on a rock
The Sermon on the Mount ends with a challenge. Now that people have heard Jesus, they must choose whether to obey. "Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (v. 21). Jesus is implying that everyone must call him Lord. But words alone are not enough.
Not even miracles in Jesus' name are enough: "Many will say to me on that day, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' " (vs. 22-23). Here Jesus implies that he will be the judge of all humanity. People will plead their case before him, and their eternity is described as being with or being excluded from Jesus.
How can anyone be saved? Hear the parable of the wise and foolish builders: "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice..." Jesus equates his words with the will of the Father. Everyone must obey Jesus in the same way that they obey God. People will be judged by the way they respond to Jesus. We all fall short, and we all need mercy, and that mercy is found in Jesus.
A person who builds on Jesus "is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock" (vs. 24-25). But we do not have to wait for the storm to come in order to know what the end result will be. A person who builds on a faulty foundation will come to ruin. Anyone who tries to have a spiritual life on any basis other than Jesus is building on sand.
"When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law" (vs. 28-29). Moses spoke in the name of the Lord, and the scribes spoke in the name of Moses. But Jesus is the Lord, and he spoke with his own authority. He claimed to teach absolute truth, to be the judge of all humanity, to be the key to eternity.
Jesus is not like the teachers of the law. What the law said was not enough, and behavior is not enough. We need the words of Jesus, and he sets a standard that no one can attain. We need mercy, but with Jesus, we can be confident. Our eternity depends on how we respond to Jesus.