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Matthew 7:1–12 is part of the “Manual for Kingdom Living” otherwise called the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), which actually seems to be a sampling of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom conducted over a period of time (see Matt. 4:17, 23). The kingdom of God or of heaven is the new creation to be consummated at the return of Christ. The first creation or kingdom of the world (Rev. 11:15) is dominated by sin and death for its subjects, while we who trust in Christ receive the gracious gift of citizenship in the new-creation realm, though now we must suffer for a little while until the consummation (Matt. 5:3, 10–12; see 1 Peter 1:6; 5:10).

Jesus’ teaching clarifies that the heirs of life in the kingdom of heaven live on this side of glory in the old creation alongside and thus in view of those who are of the world. We are not of the world, but we are in it and are to act as salt and light emissaries to the earthly kingdom even as we temporarily share in its afflictions (John 15:16–19; 2 Cor. 4:16–5:5, 17; Phil. 3:19–21). For us, afflictions are sanctifying, not acts of divine judgment (Rom. 8:1; James 1:2–4), and we know that our witness to Christ in this era is part of God’s patience as He grants time for the lost to repent (Acts 17:30–31; Rom. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9–10).

Our passage, Matthew 7:1–12, consists of four sections: verses 1–5, 6, 7–11, and 12. One of the main issues that we will face is how these sections relate to one another, which we will do as we look at each in order.

Matthew 7:1–5 (see Luke 6:41–42) is relatively easy to interpret on its own. It is, ironically, both a stern and a humorous warning against hypocritical severity among the people of God. The rigor of the Lord’s statement is underlined by His reproof: “You hypocrite” (Matt. 7:5; see Prov. 3:11 for wisdom and heeding the Lord’s reproof). Elsewhere, Jesus speaks about those outside as hypocrites (e.g., Matt. 6:2, 5, 16; 15:7; 22:18) on whom He pronounces “woes” (see Matt. 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27; 24:51). But here, the censure of the overly critical hypocrite catches our attention and calls for sober reflection of our own lives and attitudes.

The humor in Matthew 7:1–5 consists of the contrast of the hypocrite with a “log” (or roof beam) in his eye versus the “speck” (or particle of sawdust) in his brother’s eye. One scholar has noted the “extravagance” of Jesus’ teaching in places like this for the purpose of catching the attention of His audience and, in this case, of accenting the absurdity of the hypercritical hypocrite. Ultimately, hypocrisy can have no place among the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and it is particularly heinous because it brings dishonor on God (see Rom. 2:23 in context). Instead, our lives must conform to the transformed reality that we are a divine work of new creation through the Spirit (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:10). The corollary ethic of Matthew 7:1–5 is the purity of love and mercy toward others in obedience to a King who Himself displays gentle compassion toward all (e.g., Matt. 11:28–29).

Our lives must conform to the transformed reality that we are a divine work of new creation through the Spirit.

As we turn to Matthew 7:6, Jesus uses a metaphor that references dogs, which in ancient Jewish culture were quintessentially base animals (e.g., Ex. 22:31; 2 Kings 8:13; Rev. 22:15) comparable to fools (Prov. 26:11) or to false teachers in the midst of a congregation (Phil. 3:2; 2 Peter 2:1–22). Swine, too, were proverbially impure brutes (2 Peter 2:22) such that the Prodigal Son’s debasement is exemplified by his having to feed pigs and even longing for their inedible feed (Luke 15:15–16). Pearls were particularly valuable in the ancient world (e.g., Matt. 13:46; Rev. 21:21), though they are obviously less than useless to swine. These dogs who have no interest in sacred things thrown to them were feral dogs who roamed cities in packs (Ps. 59:6, 14), not house dogs that might eat scraps under the table (e.g., Matt. 15:27).

What, then, is Jesus’ point in making the memorable statement in Matthew 7:6? The best answer connects it to verses 1–5, where Jesus has just warned of the danger of hypocritical judgment of one’s “brother,” which identifies the other person as a fellow member of the church, whether brother or sister. But then Jesus ends with the expectation that we are obliged to help one another even if it involves exhortation and reproof: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5). Many places in the New Testament confirm this responsibility that we have toward one another (e.g., Matt. 18:15–17; Gal. 6:1; 1 Thess. 5:14; Heb. 3:13), with a signal example being Paul’s reproof of Peter in Antioch (Gal. 2:11–14).

What Jesus is saying in Matthew 7:6, then, is that one must take care in offering admonishment to a brother or sister in the church. It requires wisdom and discernment in how one goes about it and to whom it is offered. Reproof of outsiders by us—rather than by the Lord—is fraught with potential failure, as the parable in verse 6 illustrates so dramatically (see Jude). But restoration of a brother or sister is always of great importance and “will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19–20).

We also find that the next section (Matt. 7:7–11) is not hard to understand in general but is difficult to connect to the surrounding statements. The verses open with an assurance that prayer to our Father will be answered because of His fatherly goodness, so that He delights to supply what is needed for His children. “Seeking” here (v. 7) is reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:25–34 about the Lord’s abundant supply for us, relieving us of anxiety for tomorrow.

Yet how do verses 7–11 fit into the context? The answer is provided in the parallel passage in Luke (Luke 11:9–13), which has one key difference from Matthew’s account at the end. In Matthew, the Father provides “good things” to those who ask and seek (Matt. 7:11), whereas in Luke 11:13 Jesus says, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” The Holy Spirit is the quintessential good gift given to the children of God, for in Him we have all things for growth in godliness in this life and for resurrection life in the age to come.

Now we see the connection of Matthew 7:7–11 with its context. It is our privilege to intervene for one another when restoration and repentance of a brother or sister are needed (Matt. 7:5–6). “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death” (1 John 5:16). In some cases, such intercession is granted even for those outside (e.g., Matt. 18:15; 1 Cor. 7:16; 1 Peter 3:1). Eternal life through the Holy Spirit is the supreme gift that the Father can grant to us, so we ought to pray for others all the more zealously in light of what Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:7–11.

The last verse of the passage (Matt. 7:12) also looks disconnected from the context, but it seems clear that the Golden Rule articulated here connects especially to verses 1–5 and the verses that flow from it. Who wants a severe critic with a log in his eye to try to clear sawdust out of our eye? To the critic, Jesus says to treat others as you would be treated. And flowing from this, qualify your actions toward others with wisdom and discernment (Matt. 7:6) and especially with loving prayer for them (Matt. 7:7–11). Who doesn’t want our brothers’ and sisters’ prayers? So we pray for them and fulfill biblical teaching (“the Law and the Prophets”) by acting on our duties toward others with love (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19; 22:37–40).

But if the focus in Matthew 7:1–11 has been on our treatment of fellow citizens of the kingdom of God, verse 12 now broadens this to our actions toward subjects of this world as well (“others”; see Luke 10:29–37). Jesus teaches here essentially what He makes more focused elsewhere: we are salt and light in the world as emissaries of the kingdom of heaven. Without the kingdom’s embassy, the world is tasteless, blind, and groping in pitch blackness (see Acts 17:27). But the way that we treat others inside and outside the church acts as clear testimony to the new-creation work taking place in us: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This place in John is a good summary of the teaching of our King in Matthew 7:1–12.

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Keep Reading A Manual for Kingdom Living: The Sermon on the Mount

From the March 2023 Issue
Mar 2023 Issue