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Matthew 7:1-12 “Practical Righteousness, Part 3a: Desiring Mercy”

Stop judging so that you will not be judged. For with what judgment you judge you will be judged, and with what measurement you measure it will be measured to you. So, why do you look at the twig in your brother’s eye yet the beam in your own eye you do not notice? Or how will you say to your brother: ‘Hold! That I might throw out the twig from your eye.’ And behold! The beam is in your eye! Hypocrite! First, throw out from your eye the beam, and then you will see clearly to throw out the twig from your brother’s eye.

Never give what is holy to dogs nor throw your pearls before hogs, that they trample them with their feet and turning tear you to pieces.

Start asking and it will be given to you. Start seeking and you will find. Start knocking and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks will receive, and he who seeks will find, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there from you who, if his son should ask for bread, he will not give to him a stone will he? Or also, if he asks for a fish, he will not give to him a snake, will he? If therefore you, being evil, know to give good gifts to your children, how much more your Father who is in Heaven will give what is good to those who ask Him.

Therefore, in all things, whatever you might desire for men to do to you, thus also you are to start doing to them. For this is the Law and the Prophets.

The first task for the interpreter is to understand how these verses fit into the larger picture of Jesus’ sermon. At first glance, this appears to be a somewhat random collection of exhortations crammed in before Jesus launches into His conclusion beginning in v. 13. Yet, when we recall the detailed arrangement of Jesus’ sermon thus far and acknowledge his structure of the passages to come (Two Ways (vv. 13-14), Two Trees (vv. 15-20), Two Claims (vv. 21-23), Two Foundations (vv. 24-27)), we would be loathed to assume that these verses are a mere random assortment of sayings. That there is structure to this single unit is therefore a safe assumption. To determine what that structure is requires a review of Jesus’s artistic arrangement of chapter 6.

First, note the symmetry Jesus has provided. In 6:1-18, Jesus addresses three aspects of worship: (1) mercy (vv. 1-4), (2) prayer (vv. 5-15), and (3) fasting (vv. 16-18). He assumes that His disciples will engage in these activities, but with a completely different objective than the hypocrites and pagans. As we have already argued and proven, the following exhortations for everyday righteousness corresponds with these components of worship. The focus of fasting (vv. 16-18) corresponds with Jesus’ exhortations on singular focus (vv. 19-24). The implicit trust in prayer (vv. 5-15) corresponds with Jesus’ exhortations regarding worry (vv. 25-34). The initial teaching on mercy (vv. 1-4) has not yet yielded a practical partner. Perhaps we should anticipate that these verses are that partner.

Second, the grammatical pattern Jesus has laid down continues through this section. Beginning in 6:19, Jesus introduces the area of practical righteousness with a negated present imperative to call His disciples to repent of wrong application; i.e., stop treasuring on earth (6:19), stop worrying (6:25). Each of these calls to repent is followed by another present imperative that reveals the corresponding positive action to repentance; i.e., start treasuring in heaven (6:20), start seeking His kingdom and His righteousness (v. 33). This precise pattern (along with several other nuances) continues through 7:1-12; i.e., stop judging (v. 1), start asking, seeking, knocking (v. 7).

Taken together, these observations not only suggest that 7:1-12 constitute a complete unit, but that these verses also correspond with Jesus’ teaching on mercy (6:1-4). In support of this last statement, we should remember that the term translated in 6:2 as “give” in most translations literally means “do charity” or even better “show mercy” (ποιῇς ἐλεημοσύνην). The noun ἐλεημοσύνη describes an act of mercy (ἔλεος), that is to meet a need simply because the need exists. Mercy does not take into account the worthiness of the recipient but only that the recipient is in need. As divided attention connects to fasting and worrying connects to prayer, so a judgmental attitude connects to mercy.

The concept of mercy is therefore the tie that binds these verses together. For it is not only necessary that Jesus’ disciples extend mercy to others (vv. 1-6), but that they also recognize their desperate need for and thus seek mercy from their Father who is in heaven (vv. 7-12).

Disciples Must Show Mercy (vv. 1-6)

Grammatically speaking, these verses share much in common with the previous section (6:25-34). Jesus begins with a call to cease judging (vv. 1-2 vs. 6:25), illustrates that demand with humor (vv. 3-5 vs. 6:26-30), then clarifies the original call with a command to never attempt a particular action (v. 6 vs. 6:31-32).

Mercy Demanded (vv. 1-5)

The whole of 6:19-7:12 is to show that piety, even if not practiced for the applause of men, is utterly useless if there is no follow-through in one’s everyday life. It is pointless to fast if one’s attention is divided. Likewise, one’s prayers are undermined by constant worry. Just so, it is pointless to show mercy to those in physical need while treating others harshly and with contempt.

Call to Repent of Merciless Judgment (vv. 1-2)

Stop judging so that you will not be judged. For with what judgment you judge you will be judged, and with what measurement you measure it will be measured to you.

The negated present imperative (μὴ κρίνετε) again calls for the cessation of casting judgment. This is an action that Jesus assumes His disciples are habitually engaged in and therefore calls them to repent of it.

A word should be said at this point regarding this judgment, for this is one of the most misapplied statements in the entirety of the SM. Those who reject biblical truth consider this something of a gag order by which no one is able to condemn their wicked practices or heretical teachings less they likewise by judged by God. Obviously, this postmodern interpretation cannot pass muster. Of the myriad of passages that command believers to beware of false teachers, rebuke false teaching, and disassociate from unrepentant sinners, we have only to remain within the context of this same chapter. If we are not allowed to make judgment calls regarding people’s character, conduct, and consultations, then who are the dogs and hogs later described (v. 6), as well as wide way (v. 13), the false prophets (vv. 15-20), those who practice lawlessness (vv. 21-23), and those who reject Jesus’ words (vv. 24-27)? Clearly, making judgment calls regarding men’s character and conduct is part and parcel of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

This judgment therefore needs to be understood in the light of mercy. Jesus is not rebuking the object weighing of what a man does and says but is rather putting a stop to harsh criticism that is unfounded, unjust, and unkind.[1] This tendency to judge in this self-righteous manner is ironic. Jesus’ disciples are those who possess a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20), yet this kind of judgment comes right out of their playbook. The present imperative not only calls the disciples to cease and desist but implies that they are active agents of judgment: stop being judgmental! Believer’s lives should be identified as focused, trusting, and merciful, not subjectively, superficially, and self-righteously judgmental.

These calls to repentance have grown in intensity. When Jesus called for the disciples to repent of their materialism, He immediately followed up with a positive alternative. Earthly stuff disappears yet heavenly treasure is secure (6:19-20). Jesus begins to turn up the heat in His next call by implying that one’s worry indicates a lack in faith in God’s ability to preserve what He has created (6:25). Here, Jesus ratchets up the thermostat by pointing to the eschatological reality of one’s failure to repent. Failure to cease judging leads to being judged. Not only this, but God will apply the same rationale and canon used by you to judge you by. If you judge by appearances, God will so judge you. If you hold in contempt those who socially snubbed you, God will measure the times you so snubbed. Of course, this warning works in both directions: harsh judgment can expect harshness on God’s part while merciful judgment can expect to receive mercy.[2] The necessity of mercy among believers is then illustrated.

Need for Mercy Illustrated (vv. 3-5)

So, why do you look at the twig in your brother’s eye yet the beam in your own eye you do not notice? Or how will you say to your brother: ‘Hold! That I might throw out the twig from your eye.’ And behold! The beam is in your eye! Hypocrite! First, throw out from your eye the beam, and then you will see clearly to throw out the twig from your brother’s eye.

Jesus’ illustration is supposed to be comical and absurd. The “speck” (NASB, NKJV, ESV) that is in the brother’s eye is more like a twig or splinter (κάρφος). Other than this illustration (Matt. 7:3, 4, 5; Lk. 6:41, 42) this term only appears in the LXX of Gen. 8:11 as a description of the partial olive branch that Noah’s dove brought back to the ark. While significantly smaller than a beam (δοκός – a heavy timber used to support a roof or doorframe: 2 Kings 6:2, 5; 2 Chr. 34:11), neither is this something that one gets in their eye and lives to tell about it.

In any case, the comedy of the illustration is apparent. A disciple (Jesus addresses His disciples in the singular to make the point more personal) attempting to extract a twig from a brother’s eye (ἀδελφός indicating a fellow disciple) with what amounts to a railroad tie protruding from his skull is clearly neither trustworthy nor physically able to perform the task. The disciple has bigger issues to deal with (namely, extracting the railroad tie from his eye socket) before he can be of any use to his brother. Yet, we must keep in mind that Jesus intends for this disciple to be of use to his brother.

Regarding this illustration, there are at least three things to consider. First, the twig in the brother’s eye cannot remain any more than the beam in the disciples’ eye. The idea that Jesus contrasts an insignificant irritation (twig) against a massive fault (beam) fails to pay attention to the language Jesus uses or to the action that Jesus describes. As already stated, κάρφος does not describe a speck or a mote, but a stick, twig, or splinter of wood. This is not an inconsequential thing to have in one’s eye and is in fact a serious issue. Any man with a stick in his eye, even a small stick, is unable to see and is therefore unfit for duty. For this reason, Jesus readily commends that this twig be removed, but not by a surgeon who has a beam sticking out of their own eye. Nevertheless, it must be removed.

Second, it is obvious that the twig and the beam stand for something, but it is not altogether obvious what that is. Most assume that both the twig and the beam represent personal sin, the twig being some kind of minor sin while the beam represents a major sin.[3] Others suggest that the beam represents sin while the twig represents a minor shortcoming of some kind.[4] Neither of these explanations are satisfactory for several reasons. (1) It would be unhelpful and even confusing to understand the twig and the beam as representing different realities. They are both placed in the eye and both must be removed. The Bible doesn’t address subjective ideas like “minor shortcomings” but always speaks in objective reality. There is sin and there is righteousness with no subjective gray area in between. (2) If sin is in view, it is odd that Jesus instructs His disciples to first remove sin from their own lives before removing sin from a brother’s life. Not only does this smack of a works-based righteousness, but in the case of a brother, it is impossible to remove the sin of another. (3) If sin is in view, then Jesus is literally demanding that His followers become sinless before correcting the sin of others. If this is the case, then this is the only place in Scripture where it is taught. (4) Jesus’ illustration doesn’t seem to fit patterns of behavior so much as the ability to see. We need to keep in mind that this illustration remains within the context of subjective judgment as the antithesis to objective mercy. Thus, to label either the twig or the beam as “sin” seems to be too specific. Something else is in view here.

Third, it is interesting that Jesus again returns to the eye to relate this truth. A stick or beam protruding from one’s arm, leg, neck, or anywhere else would be just as serious. Why the eye? One can certainly live without the use of his eye (if the twig or beam are left in place), but he is rendered blind and his ability to judge is greatly impaired. Jesus is speaking of perception, blind spots, things that impair or even prohibit our ability to judge rightly.[5] The brother with the twig in his eye has a significant error in judgment that cannot be allowed to remain in place. But the disciple with a beam in his own eye is not able to correct it, though he sees it, for his judgment is monstrously impaired comparatively. This is akin to a man who has had sixteen drinks offering a ride home to a man who has only had two. Neither has any business behind the wheel. But how much more so the former? The point is simple: address your blind spots first and then correct your brother’s perception.

Our world is full of disciples with beams in their eyes. People without children love to judge the failures of parents. Often men judge the apparent failings of others having never heard their side of the story. Theologians revel in minutia while rejecting things like authorial intention to ground their hermeneutics or the historical fact of a six-day creation to steer their understanding of God’s redemptive plan. Jesus has but one word for these people: Hypocrite! They not only pretend to be something they’re not (wise judges of righteousness) but end up fooling themselves. They consider themselves the standard and beckon others to be holy as they are holy. Yet, a disciple is to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect (5:48). These massive beams go unnoticed and are not considered to be an impairment for them to pass judgment on others. It is not that the brother’s twig is to be left alone. It must also come out! But how can you be of any service to your brother while ignoring your own massive blind spots? Your brother needs your mercy, not your judgmentalism. Help him.

Mercy Protected (v. 6)

Never give what is holy to dogs nor throw your pearls before hogs, that they trample them with their feet and turning tear you to pieces.

Earlier Jesus addressed the blind judgment of a brother. Here He speaks of dogs and hogs. Both animals are considered unclean, uncouth, and unwelcome. What Jesus has in mind are people outside the believing community and have no desire whatsoever to become part of that community. Dogs (κύων) does not refer to pets but to packs of feral canines that roamed the streets, alley ways, and outskirts of society feeding on refuse. An animal that died in the field was considered unfit for human consumption but was to be left for the dogs (Ex. 22:31). Likewise, hogs or pigs (χοῖρος) were considered unclean animals (Lev. 11:7) and thus were never kept by Israelites as livestock. When Jesus mentions “what is holy” (τὸ ἅγιον) He refers to the meat sacrificed in the tabernacle/temple that was to be reserved for the priests (Ex. 29:33; Lev. 22:10). Pearls (μαργαρίτης) likewise indicate something that is extremely valuable, held in higher regard than diamonds by the ancient world. To give the consecrated meat to dogs is to treat it as though it were carrion. To give pearls to hogs is an utter waste as they have no use for such treasure. Not only are these actions sacrilegious and stupid but are downright dangerous.

It makes little difference whether it is the dogs or the hogs that turn and tear to pieces. The two images stand for the same people and thus we can assume that their reaction will be one and the same. Wild boars are just as capable of killing a man as a pack of wild dogs. Jesus’ description is quite graphic. What our translations render as “tear to pieces” reflects a single verb (ῥήσσω) that elsewhere describes wineskins that burst (Mk. 2:22; Lk. 5:37), and of a demoniac being violently slammed to the ground (Mk. 9:18; Lk. 9:42). Rather than appreciating what was given to them, these dogs and hogs will turn on the one who has offered such treasures and utterly destroy them.

The imagery is readily understood. What remains is how this picture fits into the wider context of judgment. The same construction used in 6:31 (μὴ + aorist subjunctive = never) is used again here: Never give to dogs…nor throw to hogs… The pattern that Jesus has developed suggests that this statement about dogs and hogs is somehow connected to what He has already taught about judging others with blind spots. Here we have the other side of the coin. Blind optimism is just as dangerous as blind judgmentalism. Forcing kingdom righteousness upon those who have no desire to subject themselves to the king is not only a waste of time but will only end in the ruin of the one attempting to force feed them.

Make no mistake, unregenerate man has no desire for the mercy of God which comes through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ alone. They abhor His mercy and grace preferring to trample it underfoot and persecuting those who preach it. This by no means indicates that we are never to preach the mercy of God in Christ to dogs and hogs, for such were all of us. To attempt to read the minds and intentions of men is exactly the kind of judgmentalism already prohibited. However, if men reject the plain proclamation of God’s mercy in the gospel, they reveal themselves to be dogs and hogs. It is time to move on and shake the dust from your feet (Matt. 10:14).

It should be noted that dogs and hogs tend to occupy church pews as much as they do bar stools. It is not how they appear on the outside that bears judgment, but how they respond to God’s mercy as He defines it. This is a warning. Jesus says never to waste your time with those who refuse and reject God’s mercy. They’ll tear you up.

We will continue with the second half of this exposition next week.

[1] Broadus, p. 155.

[2] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 284.

[3] Ibid, p. 286.

[4] David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 206.

[5] Lenski, p. 290.


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