Character vs. appearance
The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount (SM). There are many perspectives and interpretations of the SM. My position is that it portrays people who have their identity grounded in Jesus Christ. Scot McKnight confirms this when he writes that the “Sermon on the Mount is the moral portrait of Jesus’ own people.” The concluding units or pericopes of the SM provide some indicators to evaluate a person in light of that “moral portrait.”
Breaking in at Matthew 7:13-14, we encounter a command to “enter through the narrow gate” in contrast to a broad gate. This is followed by another imperative to “watch out for [beware of] false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (7:15). Picture a wolf draped with a sheep fleece. The inner character is what matters, not the outer appearance. How do we pierce these disguises to discern a person’s real character?
Good vs. bad
Next, Jesus provides an agricultural metaphor of plants and their fruits (7:16-20). The contrast is between “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (7:17). The unit begins and ends with the refrain, “by their fruit you will recognize them.” What does this mean?
What is this “fruit” and how do we identify and evaluate whether it is good or bad?
As a basic observation, fruit reproduces the life of the plant. After all, you do not get oranges from apple trees, you get apples from apple trees. So, the fruit – in this case, an apple – tells us what kind of tree it is. We might say that the fruit is the outer evidence of the inner character. And yet, even there we need to be cautious and discerning.
Jesus follows immediately with:
“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. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name perform many miracles. Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers!” (7:21-23)
At first, this may seem confusing. After all, what better “fruit” could you ask for – addressing Jesus as Lord, and “in your name” prophesying and performing miracles. But Jesus tells us who will enter the kingdom of heaven: “only he [or she] who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus does not contradict these people when they say they have prophesied and performed miracles in his name. However, he does say that entry into the kingdom is about doing the will of his Father. These people were not doing the Father’s will, they were doing their own thing. Their words and actions were so much religious presumption.
This helps us target what good “fruit” is. It is doing the “will of my Father in heaven.”
Doing vs. not doing
Good “fruit” is doing the “will of my Father in heaven.”
This is confirmed in the next and concluding pericope about the wise and the foolish builders (7:24-27). It is the person who “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” that is building on a foundation of rock. The person who “hears these words of mind and does not put them into practice” loses everything. So, what is this “fruit” and how do we identify it?
In the final analysis, Jesus has provided us with four scenes that give us insight into evaluating the true from the false, the good from the bad. The test is this: does the character of a person result in that person hearing and doing the words of Jesus?
Thus far in Matthew, what have been the words of Jesus?
As we listen to the SM again, we begin to pay more careful attention to his words, words about anger and reconciliation (5:21-26), lust and purity (5:27-30), covenant faithfulness in marriage (5:31-32), honesty in what we say (5:33-37), actions and reactions toward attacks and enemies (5:38-48), and more. As we listen well to Matthew we will hear the words of Jesus and be directed and empowered to a radical obedience of doing what he teaches.
This is not a salvation by works; it is a salvation that works. More on this later.
The next post will present one more element to evaluating the growth of disciples.
This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Matthew Paradigm: reclaiming an ancient way for being and making disciples. To get further resources and news subscribe here.
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