Invitations and Warnings
Charles G. Dennison
From a simple literary and rhetorical point of view, this latter section of the Sermon on the Mount is a pure masterpiece. The movement in these verses is amazing in itselfthat movement quickening the pulse, exciting the vision. This section moves from the most magnanimous invitation (note how it begins in verse 7: "ask, seek, knock") to the deepest and most serious of warnings and challenges. On that level alone, it is sermonic in the very best sense.
But note also the movement in this regard. As we are carried along by these verses, we are carried from the general application to the whole of that community Jesus organizes around himself, to the narrow application to the shepherds that would arise within that community, then back once more in the concluding remarks (vv. 24-27) to the broadest of applications to the community as a whole. You start out with the broad invitation, "ask, seek, knock." In the middle of these verses things are narrowed down to an address with respect to false prophets (those who would pretend to shepherd): "being on your guard." Then you broaden out at the end where there are statements with regard to the wise man and the foolish man, generally applicable to all in the community of Christ. There is, therefore, something of an hourglass configuration to this entire section. You start out wide, you narrow down at the middle, and you end up wide at the conclusion.
We also have the interlocking effect of Jesus' statements as he moves from section to section within this portion. You will note particularly how a certain feature introduces the next section for consideration. As an example of that, note how you move from the 20th verse to the 21st. The sections respectfully in view there are verses 15-20 and then 21-23. The focus of verses 15-20 is the false prophets or the false shepherdsthat very narrow consideration. In view specifically are those who are called to the gospel ministry. That theme is carried on then in verses 21-23 because there you have specific mention made by Jesus of those who prophesied, those who cast out demons, those who performed miracles in his name. In other words, the theme is carried through as you move to those latter verses, verses 21-23. Yet, at the same time, in the midst of those verses, you are prepared for what comes in verses 24-27. There is a general application there that carries you on to the next section. The note struck in the 21st verse, "he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven shall enter the kingdom of heaven" is a general statement that pertains not just to shepherds, but to sheep. You are not able to say that Jesus' concern in verses 21-23 is the shepherds or the ordained ministry alone.
There is the interlocking effect that Jesus uses as he moves from paragraph to paragraph, from consideration to consideration. You will note how that powerful conclusion (v. 12) of the very first section in this segment of the Sermon on the Mount (vv. 7-12) dominates the exposition of every section that follows. It is as if you cannot properly understand anything that Jesus is saying unless you keep in mind that 12th verse, which has been called the Golden Rule ("therefore, whatever you want others to do for you, do for them for this is the law and the prophets"). You keep that in hand as you move through the remaining verses to the conclusion of Jesus' message here, as if to say there will be an exposition now for you of what that Golden Rule means.
Now let's keep in mind the literary and rhetorical featuresthe structural considerationsas we look at this gem from Holy Scripture. We have Jesus' abundant use of images. What grand language he uses! That my language were as grand. That I had at the tip of my tongue the images and the imagery that Jesus so wonderfully and so easily uses: images of inquiry and search, doors to be opened, of loaves of bread and of stones and fish and serpents; images of gifts given and received, gates and roads and cities and destinations; images of sheep and wolves and grapes and thorns, figs and thistles, trees and fruit; houses, rock, sand, rain, floods and wind; images of permanence; images of dissolution and collapse, of confirmation and judgment. Rich powerful images!
Note also the power of the section as you move from the marvelously encouraging invitation to "ask, seek, knock" to that devastating concluding line with respect to the house built on the sand that fell. There is drama abounding in merely observing the movement as you press on to that concluding remark from Jesus, "and great was the fall thereof."
If you are into literature or rhetoric, on those levels alone you are dealing with a masterpiece here. Note one other thing in this regard. As Jesus presses on to his conclusion, we hear him set in antinomy (that is, over against one another) the two ways, the two points of view, the two worldviews. There are only two ways. There is not a multiplicity of ways. There are only two. And as Jesus pushes on to the conclusion of his message, he sets out clearly the antinomy that exists between those two points of view in a series of contrasting couplets. He warns and challenges his hearers with the contrasts that exist between the two gates (there are only two gates, no more), the two ways (there are only two ways), the two trees (there are only two types of tree, the good and the bad). Finally, there are only two foundations. There are only two kinds of houses: those that are built upon Christ's word and those that are not.
So you see what Jesus has to say is powerfully worked out in a wonderful literary and rhetorical scheme. We are face to face with the rich and beautiful, deep and compelling, integrated and dynamic aspects of this message that comes from our Lord.
But what if all we see there are literary featuresa rhetorical scheme used marvelously by Jesus? These features which truly enrich our appreciation for the word of God, as helpful and as interesting as they are, are of but relative value. One of the unfortunate facts of modern biblical interpretation (and most of those who have ventured into the seminary and theological world of our time have found this to be true) is that it seems to nearly exhaust itself with these peripheral or relative concerns. There seems to be a preoccupation with literary framework, and endless detailed analysis of the facts of verbal, linguistic structure. Where it isn't linguistic and literary, the interests veer off in the direction of sociological, if not psychological analysis. But all of these matters end up on the periphery. They are of relative value. Truly in many respects a lot of what is said is merely speculative and not helpful.
We must push on. We are appreciative of the literature, are we not? We are appreciative of the rhetoric of Christ, but we must press on to the heart and substance of Jesus' wordshis message. And what is the message that is dressed up so nicely with these literary and rhetorical considerations? Here is the message: the new day has come; the new day is here. The day the prophets longed for and looked for has arrived. The kingdom of heaven has dawned. The new day of the kingdom of heaven has come, and this new day means unprecedented access to the Father in heaven. Never before has he been accessible as he is now. He has never been known as he is nowthat knowledge of him being mediated through the Son who has come to reveal him. The new day has come, therefore, "ask, seek, knock." The invitation is open and you will find the Father wonderfully willing to give you what you need.
But hear this great and all-important note in what Jesus has to say. This new day of access to the Father has a reciprocal effect upon you. That's the force of verse 12 and the Golden Rule. Yes, God the Father is accessible as never before, for the kingdom of heaven has dawned. But that being true, the reciprocal effect is this: never before have you been as accessible.
Read that 12th verse again keeping that in mind. "Therefore, whatever you want others to do for you when you ask of them, do for them when they ask of you." You ask of God and you receive, but now in this new day of access in which the initiative of the Father in the Son actually determines the life of those who belong to the kingdom, others will ask of you and they will receive as never before.
The very heart of the message then that Jesus has for the people in light of this unprecedented day of the dawning of the kingdom of heaven regards giving and receiving, offering, expending of oneself that others may have and be benefited. That's the heart of it. That's the law and the prophets. And this reciprocal character of the kingdom now becomes that small gate and that narrow way by which we are then entering into life, that is, into the fullness of the heavenly kingdom. You can't get in without it! If you are not being conformed to the image of the Father who gives himself to you, you will not enter.
It is this reciprocal character of the kingdom then which is absent from those would-be guides or shepherds (called false prophets in verse 15) who after all are nothing more than wolves. These folk are sheep-eaters, not sheep-feeders. They cannot give after the similitude of God's giving in Christ. They cannot give in the kingdom sense of giving because they have never been gripped by the kingdom. They are bad trees bearing bad fruit. Watch out for them. They cannot give up themselves as God has surrendered himself in Christ. They are strangers to suffering. Their gospel contains no cross, and what cross they do speak of is merely image, form, symbol, nothing more.
This reciprocal character of the kingdom, then, scrutinizes ministers claiming to know Jesusministers claiming to have prophesied, cast out demons, performed wonders in his name. It scrutinizes and judges all of them. Therefore when you read in that 21st verse about entering the kingdom of heaven and that one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven, you are reading about the one in whom the reciprocal character of the kingdom is manifest. This is one who has learned by route of the opening up of heaven, by the revelation of the Father in heaven, by an intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ, how to give of himself to the uttermostcross-like, even unto death. Those in whom Jesus recognizes himself are those alone who gain access to the fullness of the kingdom.
Therefore, as we come to verses 24-27 and Jesus takes up this matter of hearing him and doing what he says, it is once more the reciprocal character of the kingdom that is in view. Those who hear Jesus and do what he says will endure. They will endure as houses anchored and built upon the rock. Even though rains and floods and winds assault, even though apocalyptic upheaval comes and the dissolution of the elements arise, they will endure. Those who have learned to give, as they have been given unto, have learned to give like God gives in Christ. But those who either reject, or who hear but don't obey, are houses built on sand, incapable of standing when the storm of God's final judgment strikes.
But having said this, we have to say a little bit more. Even grasping things at the level where we see the reciprocal character of the kingdom (tied up in verse 12 and working itself out through the whole) is not enough to entirely satisfy Jesus' intent. Is it not plain as we come to the conclusion of this sermon from Jesus, just how central he himself is to the whole matter? Certainly this should be clear to us from verses 21-23, as well as these concluding verses, 24-27. Note the way Jesus speaks. He is bold to speak of himself in the first instance (vv. 21-23) as the judge. "Many will say to me in that day." What day is it? It is the day of judgment. What are these confessions that are being madethese protestations that are offered in the light of the day of the Lord, the coming judgment? And who is sitting on the throne? Who is making decisions in that day? Jesus is the one! He is the judge! He is alive, he is exalted, he is sitting on the throne and the day of judgment approaches.
But note what he says in verses 24-27. The image shifts a bit there. For now, Jesus portrays himself to be the primary, exalted source of all divine wisdom. You have to listen to me. It is my word and no one else's. It is my word and my word alone. And you are obliged to obey mefor wisdom, primarily in an exalted sense, resides in me alone.
But if we are going to grasp the great significance of his words here, we must see that it is he who is cloakedhiddenwithin the very words of the Sermon itself. He, Jesus Christ the one who speaks, in his person is the veritable appearance of the kingdom of God in the flesh! Jesus on one occasion will say to his detractors, "If I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." He is the living testimony to the guarantees of that kingdom, for he asked and received, he sought and found, he knocked and it was opened to him. He is the embodiment of the Golden Rule in the gift of himself upon the cross; he gives that others may be profited and benefited. He is the gate, he is the way, he is the door. He is the truth, he is the life. He is the good shepherd who stands over against all false prophets and false shepherds; he is the one who gives his life for his sheep.
He is the Son of God who perfectly does the will of his Father who is in heaven. He is the rock; he is the stone rejected by men, but made most important of all, because by the activity of God he is transformed into a house, his body being raised on the third day as the new temple of God. And we are his house, his body, his temple, if we abide in him. And if we abide in him, we will reside in that one edifice of all the edifices of the world that is given this promise: "the gates of hell shall not prevail against her."
You don't walk through the Sermon on the Mount without grabbing hold of the Christ himself in all of his gloryhis matchless might, wonder and righteousness. So that as you come to perform the least of these in his name, you do in and from him alone. In him is life for all who trust and obey.