STUDY TEN: A CALL TO RADICAL DISCERNMENT [Matt 7:1-29]

© Rosemary Bardsley 2012

A. THE PROHIBITION OF JUDGING [Matthew 7:1-2]
As we have already seen, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains the attitudes and life choices that are appropriate for the true believer/disciple identified in the Beatitudes [5:1-12]. What he teaches us from 5:17 and through to 7:28 is how to live out this identity in the context of the world, and in the sight of our heavenly Father – how to be the ‘salt’ and the ‘light’ that will cause our Father to be glorified [5:13-16].

In Chapter Seven Jesus turns to the question of ‘judging’ telling us first of all not to judge, then presenting us with a series of intense situations in which the most acute and discerning judgment has to be made. In reminding us of the fact of God’s judgment he uncovers the extreme necessity for us to make judgments. 

A.1 New Testament meaning of ‘judge’ and ‘judgment’
The New Testament Greek words are translated as: 

Krino, katakrino [verbs]
• Judge
• Condemn
• Punish
• Sentence
• Call into question or account

Krisis, katakrisis, [nouns]
• Judgment
• Condemnation
• Damnation
• Punishment
 

While the foundational meaning of the verb is to ‘separate’ or ‘to make a distinction’, the common usage in the New Testament is to judge in a legal sense [whether formal, religious or personal], and the resulting judgment is legal condemnation with a view to exacting punishment [whether formal, religious or personal].  It is this kind of condemnatory judgment that Jesus warns against. Such judgment is God’s prerogative, not ours. [Though there are instances where he establishes human authorities as the agents of his judgment on a temporal level.]

 

Reflection and response: Study and discuss this level of judgment in these verses. Think in terms of:

  1. What is the context of the judgment?
  2. Is it personal criticism/condemnation or formal judgment?
  3. On whose authority is the judgment carried out?

Romans 13:1-5

 

 

 

1 Corinthians 6:1-8

 

 

 

1 Corinthians 5:1-12

2 Corinthians 2:5-11

 

 

1 Peter 2:13-14

 

 

 

 

In 7:1-2 Jesus forbids the personal judgment of another person that assumes the right to pass judgment, condemn, and impose penalties either theoretically [in one’s own mind and attitude] or in practice.  Such judgment and condemnation is totally contrary to one’s identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ defined in 5:1-12. The disciple of Christ knows as a foundational truth that he himself is a recipient of mercy, that he himself no longer stands under the judgment and condemnation of God. For him to exercise condemnation and judgment against another, is to deny the very basis of his relationship with God. [This concept is in focus in another study.]

 

B. COMMANDS TO PRACTISE DISCERNMENT [Matthew 7:3-29]

But there is another kind of judgment: that of assessment, of personally weighing something up and coming to a conclusion about its rightness or wrongness. This is the judgment of discernment, and it is this kind of judgment that is in focus in the rest of Matthew 7, and which Jesus, without mentioning the word, commends to us, indeed commands us to exercise.  As we study this chapter we will see that the impending judgment day [verse 1,2] is what makes personally practising this discernment so essential and so critical.

While 7:1-2 forbids us to judge on one level, it is not forbidding on another level. To use Jesus’ ‘judge not’ to support the current climate in which all opinions and actions are seen as equally valid and equally acceptable is far from Jesus’ intention.

 

B.1 Discerning the fact that there is ‘a plank’ in one’s own eye [3-5]
The person described in Matthew knows that he has ‘a plank in his own eye’. That is why he is ‘poor in spirit’; that is why he ‘mourns’. That is why he is ‘meek’ and ‘hungers and thirsts after righteousness’. That is why he is ‘pure in heart’, focused on and trusting in God alone. That is why he is a ‘peacemaker’. He knows that in the sight of God who is holy, compared with the enormity of his own sin and disqualification, the ‘speck in his brother’s eye’ is insignificant. It is not worth mentioning. It is not worth criticising.

[Note the humour contained in Jesus’ exaggerated imagery! If I did have a ‘plank’ (a great wooden beam used to support a roof) ‘in my eye’ I think I would actually be dead! The visual image created by Jesus’ choice of words highlights the utter incongruity of judgment of the verse 1 & 2 kind, and the extreme necessity for discernment.]

This is the first lesson in discernment:

that we discern our own sin and our own sinfulness,
that we recognize that we ourselves are not as godly as we appear, or even as we think,
that we acknowledge that our sinfulness actually prevents us from seeing how sinful we are.

With this discernment, this knowledge, the disciple of Christ deals very gently with his brother’s sin.

 

Reflection and response: Discuss the role played by this discernment in these verses:

Luke 7:36-50 [demonstrated by Christ’s example]

Galatians 6:1-5

 

 

  

John 8:1-11 [demonstrated by Christ’s example]

 

 

Colossians 3:12-14

 

B.2 Discerning the nature of your audience [6]
Jesus gives two very firm commands:

Don’t give what is holy to dogs.
Don’t throw your pearls to pigs.

‘Holy’ means set apart by God for God and his special use. ‘Pearls’ are treasured items of immense value. The term ‘dogs’ was an expression of derision and rejection, and ‘pigs’ were considered unclean and untouchable.

This statement of Jesus' puts to silence those who rule out and avoid all expressions of judgment.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones comments:
‘If Jesus had finished His teaching with those first five verses, it would undoubtedly have led to a false position. Men and women would be so careful to avoid the terrible danger of judging in that wrong sense that they would exercise no discrimination, no judgment whatsoever. There would be no such thing as discipline in the Church, and the whole of the Christian life would be chaotic. There would be no such thing as exposing heresy and pronouncing judgment with regard to it. Because everybody would be so afraid of judging the heretic, they would turn a blind eye to heresy; and error would come into the Church more than it has done. So our Lord goes on to make this further statement here, and we cannot fail, once more, to be impressed by the wonderful balance of scriptural teaching, its amazing perfection.’  [Vol 2 p184, ibid]

In this incredibly divisive statement Jesus is likening people to ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’, that is, he is judging them as unholy, unclean and incapable of recognizing spiritual truth, and basically saying that it’s useless, even counterproductive, to give them what is ‘holy’ and precious. What does he mean? By this command he is telling us to exercise discernment and discretion in dispensing God’s truth – the message of the gospel which is holy and precious, a ‘pearl of great price’.

Further quotes:
William Hendriksen: ‘… we are now able to conclude that here in 7:6 Jesus is saying that whatever it is that stands in special relation to God and is accordingly very precious should be treated with reverence and not entrusted to those who, because of their utterly wicked, vicious, and despicable nature, can be compared to dogs (see also Phil. 3:2) and hogs. This means, for example, that Christ’s disciples must not endlessly continue to bring the gospel message to those who scorn it. To be sure, patience must be exercised, but there is a limit. A moment arrives when constant resistance to the gracious invitation must be punished by the departure of the messengers of good tidings …  Staying on and on in the company of those who ridicule the Christian religion is not fair to other fields that are waiting to be served, especially in view of the fact that the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few … Besides, the capacity of the disciples to endure persecution so that they will be sufficiently vigorous to continue the work elsewhere has its limits.’ [p360-361, ibid]

Leon Morris: ‘… we must keep in mind that for the followers of Jesus there is nothing more holy than the gospel. This message is to be offered to all, but there is a limit to the time that is to be given to its obstinate rejecters. Disciples are not to be judgmental, but that does not mean that they are to lack discernment. They must recognize the realities of life… We must bear in mind that some hear the gospel only to rebel. Disciples are not called on to keep offering it to those who continue to reject it with vicious contempt. Jesus taught all sorts of people generously, but before Herod he refused to say a word (Luke 23:9). Paul preached to the Jews in Corinth for a time, but in face of persistent rejection and hostility he turned away (Acts 18:5-7).’ [p167-168, ibid].

John Calvin:  ‘… nothing is more certain than that (the gospel) is every day held out to unbelievers, by the command of God … As ministers of the Gospel, and those who are called to the office of teaching, cannot distinguish between the children of God and swine, it is their duty to present the doctrine of salvation indiscriminately to all. Though many may appear to them, at first, to be hardened and unyielding, yet charity forbids that such persons should be immediately pronounced to be desperate. It ought to be understood that dogs and swine  are names given not to every kind of debauched men, or those who are destitute of the fear of God and of true godliness, but tho those who, by clear evidences, have manifested a hardened contempt of God, so that their disease appears to be incurable. … Hence it is evident, how grievously the words of Christ are tortured by those who think that he limits the doctrine of the Gospel to those only who are teachable and well-prepared. … The remedy of salvation must be refused to none, till they have rejected it so basely when offered to them, as to make it evident that they are reprobate and self-condemned.’ [p153, Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol 7]

 

Reflection and response: What do these verses teach us about the discernment [judgment] that Jesus commands in Matthew 7:6?

Matthew 10:11-16, 23

 

 

Luke 13:6-9

 

 

Acts 13:45-46

 

 

Acts 14:5-6, 20b,

 

 

Acts 18:5-6

 

 

Romans 16:17-18

 

 

Titus 3:9-11

 

 

Note in relation to commanding this discernment, Christ’s reasons are twofold:
[1] the holiness of the message, and [2] the well-being of the messenger.

 

B.3 Praying for discernment [7-12]
A superficial reading of these verses severs them from their context and assumes that Jesus has changed topic, and that these verses are simply about prayer [7-11] and the ‘golden rule’ [12]. Such an abrupt change of theme is out of character with the rest of this Sermon on the Mount, especially so when we come to the following verse [13-27] which are obviously verses about discernment.

So, why are these verses about prayer here in the middle of a chapter about wrong and right judging? Jesus has told us that we are not to judge [7:1-2] and that we are to judge [7:3-6], leaving us with the impossible job of working out when and in what manner judgment is appropriate. In the face of this heavy question God’s wisdom is essential. It is in this context that Jesus commends us to consistent prayer. Issues of judgment and discernment arise all the time. Clarity of thought and wisdom are needed all the time. So Jesus says:

Ask. Seek. Knock. God will give you what you need.
You, as human parents, give your children what they need, how much more will your heavenly Father give you the wisdom and discernment you need [see James 1:5-7]!
You exercise judgment and discernment in the same way you would like people to do to you.

William Hendriksen comments:
‘The Lord has been admonishing his listeners to abstain from judging others (verse 1-5), yet also to judge (verse 6); not to be hypercitical, yet to be critical; to be humble and patient, yet not too patient; etc. after a detailed examination of the entire preceding paragraph (verses 1-6) the question cannot be suppressed, “And who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16 KJV). This question Jesus answers by urging the necessity of persevering prayer accompanied by earnest effort.’ [p361, ibid]

While these verses do indeed teach us about prayer, their original context tells us that their specific original application was in the need for wisdom to exercise the right kind of judgment and discernment.
Similarly ‘the golden rule’ is given here in the context of judgment and discernment; though it, like Christ’s teaching on prayer, has wider application, its point here is in relation to this particular issue.

 

B.4 Discerning between the wide and narrow gates [13-14]
This is a command to discern between truth and error, to personally choose the road that leads to spiritual life and to personally reject the road that leads to spiritual destruction. It is a command to join the small minority, to leave the mindset of the masses and, if necessary, to seem to stand alone for God and for his truth. It is not an easy call. It is not a popular call. It is a call that, when we obey it, causes us to identify the other road as ‘wrong’ and by our choice to invalidate the choice of the multitudes on that other road, for no one would choose this road, this narrow one, this difficult one, unless totally convinced that this road, this gate, is the only right one.

We will be looking at this commitment to the narrow road in a later study.

 

B.5 Discerning between true and false prophets – between ‘sheep’ & ‘wolves’ in the church [15]
B.6 Discerning between good and bad ‘fruit’ and ‘trees’ [16-20]
B.7 Discerning between true and false believers [21-23]
B.8 Discerning between ‘wise’ and ‘foolish’ ‘builders’ [24-27]

Jesus is again warning us to exercise discernment in the area of truth and error, but this time in relation to those who are false prophets and false believers or disciples. He does not assume that everyone who does things in his name, or verbally acknowledges his name, has real faith. In fact he assumes the opposite, that there are, and always will be, those within groups of believers, who are fake, irrespective of appearances. He teaches clearly that within the church there are:

• True and false prophets [a ‘prophet’ is one who proclaims the word of God]
• Good and bad ‘trees’
• True and false believers
• Wise and foolish ‘builders’

How are we to discern the difference? How are we to know which teachers are genuine? How are we to tell which believers are genuine? From these passages we can identify a few answers.

 

Reflection and response: Comment on the statements below by discussing Matthew 7:15-27. List the verses that support your answer.

It is not always possible to discern between true and false teachers or true and false believers simply by looking at the immediate outward evidence.

 

Sometimes the only way to discern between the false and true is to wait and see; time and circumstances will provide the evidence in the long run.

 

Verbal claims mean nothing unless backed up by consistent lifestyle choices.

 

 

Jesus knows all along who is false and who is true

 

 

 

The urgent need to discern between true and false teachers and teaching is a dominant theme of the whole Bible. In the Old Testament it focused largely on the choice between the one true God and idolatry or occult practices. In the New Testament the focus is more on discerning between the pure gospel and corruptions of the pure Gospel. The warnings are very strong and leave no room for doubt that as far as God is concerned there is truth and there is non-truth, and that non-truth must be avoided and exposed. This command for discernment in this area again cuts across the mentality of our age, and isolates all, who having chosen the narrow way, have of necessity, to identify the broad way, the way of the multitudes, as false.

 

Reflection and response: Discuss the meaning and significance of the need for discernment taught in the passages below.

Matthew 15:12-13;

 

 

 

Matthew 16:5-6

 

 

 

Matthew 24:5,23,24

Mark 13:21-23

 

 

Romans 16:17-18

 

 

2Corinthians 11:2-4,13-15

 

 

Galatians 1:7-10; 5:1

 

 

Colossians 2:4,8, 16-23

 

 

2Thessalonians 2:9-11

 

 

1Timothy 4:1-7

 

 

2Timothy 3:1-9

 

 

1John 4:1

 

 

 

 

C. REFLECTION AND RESPONSE:

C.1 What are the implications of this discernment within the church ?

How can we be ‘discerning’ but not guilty of ‘judging’?

 

What is the difference between ‘assessing’ and ‘condemning’

 

What are the dangers of failing to use discernment in the church?

 

What criteria do Jesus and the New Testament give us for discerning?

 

C.2 What are the implications and impact of obeying this command to discernment in your individual life?

What are the potential problems for you?


What Biblical warnings do you need to listen to?


What are the potential benefits to you if you exercise this radical discernment?


C.3 How does Jesus' command to be discerning relate to the multiculturalism and ‘new’ tolerance that our society has embraced?