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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Matthew 7

Verse 1

VII.

(1) The plan and sequence of the discourse is, as has been said, less apparent in this last portion. Whether this be the result of omission or of insertion, thus much at least seems clear, that while Matthew 5:0 is mainly a protest against the teaching of the scribes, and Matthew 6:0 mainly a protest against their corruption of the three great elements of the religious life—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—and the worldliness out of which that corruption grew, this deals chiefly with the temptations incident to the more advanced stages of that life when lower forms of evil have been overcome—with the temper that judges others, the self-deceit of unconscious hypocrisy, the danger of unreality.

Judge not, that ye be not judged.—The words point to a tendency inherent in human nature, and are therefore universally applicable; but they had, we must remember, a special bearing on the Jews. They, as really in the van of the religious progress of mankind, took on themselves to judge other nations. All true teachers of Israel, even though they represented different aspects of the truth, felt the danger, and warned their countrymen against it. St. Paul (Romans 2:3; 1 Corinthians 4:5) and St. James (James 4:11) alike, in this matter, echo the teaching of their Master. And the temptation still continues. In proportion as any nation, any church, any society, any individual man rises above the common forms of evil that surround them, they are disposed to sit in judgment on those who are still in the evil.

The question, how far we can obey the precept, is not without its difficulties. Must we not, even as a matter of duty, be judging others every day of our lives? The juryman giving his verdict, the master who discharges a dishonest servant, the bishop who puts in force the discipline of the Church—are these acting against our Lord’s commands? And if not, where are we to draw the line? The answer to these questions is not found in the distinctions of a formal casuistry. We have rather to remember that our Lord here, as elsewhere, gives principles rather than rules, and embodies the principle in a rule which, because it cannot be kept in the letter, forces us back upon the spirit. What is forbidden is the censorious judging temper, eager to find faults and condemn men for them, suspicious of motives, detecting, let us say, for example, in controversy, and denouncing, the faintest shade of heresy. No mere rules can guide us as to the limits of our judgments. What we need is to have “our senses exercised to discern between good and evil,” to cultivate the sensitiveness of conscience and the clearness of self-knowledge. Briefly, we may say:—(1.) Judge no man unless it be a duty to do so. (2.) As far as may be, judge the offence, and not the offender. (3.) Confine your judgment to the earthly side of faults, and leave their relation to God, to Him who sees the heart. (4.) Never judge at all without remembering your own sinfulness, and the ignorance and infirmities which may extenuate the sinfulness of others.

Verse 2

(2) With what judgment ye judge. . . .—Here again truth takes the form of a seeming paradox. The unjust judgment of man does not bring upon us a divine judgment which is also unjust; but the severity which we have unjustly meted out to others, becomes, by a retributive law, the measure of that which is justly dealt out to us.

Verse 3

(3) Why beholdest thou the mote . . .?—The Greek noun so translated means a “stalk” or “twig” rather than one of the fine particles of dust floating in the sun to which we attach the word “mote.” The illustration seems to have been a familiar one among the Jews, and a proverb all but verbally identical is found as a saying of Rabbi Tarphon. Like illustrations have been found in the proverbs and satires of every country, all teaching that men are keen-sighted as to the faults of others, blind as to their own. The Gracchi complain of sedition, and Clodius accuses others of adultery. We all need the wish—

“Oh, wad some Power the giftie gie us,
To see oursels as others see us!”

But considerest.—There is the same contrast as between “seeing” and “considering” in Matthew 6:26; Matthew 6:28. Our own faults require the careful scrutiny which we never give them: the faults of others we should be content to glance at.

Verse 4

(4) How wilt thou sayi.e., how wilt thou have the face to say.

Verse 5

(5) Thou hypocrite.—The man deserves this name, because he acts the part of a teacher and reformer, when he himself needs repentance and reform the most. The hypocrisy is all the greater because it does not know itself to be hypocritical.

Then shalt thou see clearly.—Here the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount rises far above the level of the maxims which, to a certain extent, it resembles. It gives a new motive to the work of self-scrutiny and self-reformation. While we are blind with self-deceit we are but bunglers in the work of dealing with the faults of others. When we have wrestled with and overcome our own besetting sins, then, and not till then, shall we be able, with the insight and tact which the work demands, to help others to overcome theirs.

Verse 6

(6) That which is holy.—The words point to the flesh which has been offered for sacrifice, the “holy thing” of Leviticus 22:6-7; Leviticus 22:10; Leviticus 22:16, of which no un clean person or stranger, and à fortiori no unclean beast, was to eat. To give that holy flesh to dogs would have seemed to the devout Israelite the greatest of all profanations. Our Lord teaches us that there is a like risk of desecration in dealing with the yet holier treasure of divine truth. Another aspect of the same warning is brought out in the second clause. The fashion of the time had made pearls the costliest of all jewels, as in the parable of Matthew 13:45 (comp. also 1 Timothy 2:9), and so they too became symbols of the preciousness of truth. The “dogs” and the “swine,” in their turn, represent distinct forms of evil, the former being here, as in Philippians 3:2, Revelation 22:15, the type of impurity, the latter (as in Psalms 80:13) of ferocity. The second comparison may possibly imply, as in a condensed fable, the disappointment and consequent rage of the swine at finding that what they took for grain was only pearls. We are to beware lest we so present the truth, either in direct teaching or by an undiscerning disclosure of the deeper religious emotions of the soul, to men, that we make them worse and not better than before.

We are met by the questions, Are we, then, to class our fellow-men under these heads, and to think of them as dogs and swine? Is not this to forget the previous teaching, and to judge with the harshest judgment? The answer to these questions must be found, we may believe, in thinking of the dogs and swine as representing not men and women as such, but the passions of this kind or that which make them brutish. So long as they identify themselves with those passions, we must deal cautiously and wisely with them. St. Paul did not preach the gospel to the howling mob at Ephesus, or to the “lewd fellows of the baser sort” at Thessalonica, and yet at another time he would have told any member of those crowds that he too had been redeemed, and might claim an inheritance among those who had been sanctified. We need, it might be added, to be on our guard against the brute element in ourselves not less than in others. There, too, we may desecrate the holiest truths by dealing with them in the spirit of irreverence, or passion, or may cynically jest with our own truest and noblest impulses.

Verse 7

(7) Ask, and it shall be given.—The transition is again abrupt, and suggests the idea that some links are missing. The latent sequence of thought would seem to be this, “If the work of reforming others and ourselves,” men might say, “is so difficult, how shall we dare to enter on it? Where shall we find the courage and the wisdom which we need?” And the answer is, In prayer for those gifts.

Here, once more, the words are absolute and unqualified, and yet are clearly limited by implied conditions. It is assumed (1) that we ask for good gifts—for “bread” and not for a “stone,” for a “fish” and not for a “serpent;” and (2) that we ask, as Christ has taught us, in His name and according to His spirit. Otherwise we may ask and receive not, because we ask amiss.
The three words imply distinct degrees of intensity. There is the “asking” in the spoken words of prayer, the “seeking” in the efforts and labours which are acted prayers, the “knocking” at the gate with the urgent importunity which claims admission into our Father’s house.

Verse 9

(9) Or what man is there of you.—The meaning of the illustrations is obvious enough, yet their homeliness is noticeable as addressed to the peasants of Galilee, who found in fish and bread, as in the miracles of the Five thousand and the Four thousand, the staple of their daily food.

Verse 11

(11) If ye then, being evil.—The words at once recognise the fact of man’s depravity, and assert that it is not total. In the midst of all our evil there is still that element of natural and pure affection which makes the fatherhood of men a fit parable of the Fatherhood of God. We mount from our love to His, abstracting from our thoughts the evil of which we cannot but be conscious.

Give good things to them that ask him.—The context shows that the “good things” are spiritual and not temporal gifts, the wisdom and insight which we all need, or rather (as in the parallel passage of Luke 11:13) the one gift of the Holy Spirit, which, in its sevenfold diversity, includes them all.

Verse 12

(12) Therefore . . . whatsoever.—The sequence of thought requires, perhaps, some explanation. God gives His good things in answer to our wishes, if only what we wish for is really for our good. It is man’s highest blessedness to be like God, to “be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect,” and therefore in this respect too he must strive to resemble Him. The ground thus taken gives a new character to that which otherwise had already become almost one of the “common-places” of Jewish and heathen ethics. Perhaps the most interesting illustration of the former is the well-known story of the Gentile inquirer who went to Shammai, the great scribe, and asked to be taught the law, in a few brief words, while he stood on one foot. The Rabbi turned away in anger. The questioner then went to Hillel, and made the same demand; and the sage turned and said, “Whatsoever thou wouldest that men should not do to thee, that do not thou to them. All our law is summed up in that.” And so the Gentile became a proselyte. A like negative rule is quoted by Gibbon (Decl. and Fall, c. liv., note 2) from Isocrates, not without a sneer, as if it anticipated the teaching of the Christ. The nearest approach to our Lord’s rule is, however, found in the saying ascribed to Aristotle, who, when asked how we should act towards our friends, replied, “As we would they should act to us” (Diog. Laert., v. 1, § 21). All these, however, though we may welcome them as instances of the testimonium animæ naturaliter Christianæ (as Tertullian calls it), are yet wanting in the completeness of our Lord’s precept, and still more do they fall below it in regard of the ground on which the precept rests, and the power given to perform it. Yet even here, too, there is, of necessity, an implied limitation. We cannot comply with all men’s desires, nor ought we to wish that they should comply with ours, for those desires may be foolish and frivolous, or may involve the indulgence of lust or passion. The rule is only safe when our own will has been first purified, so that we wish only from others that which is really good. Reciprocity in evil or in folly is obviously altogether alien from the mind of Christ.

Verse 13

(13) Enter ye in at the strait gate.—The figure was possibly suggested by some town actually in sight. Safed, the “city set on a hill,” or some other, with the narrow pathway leading to the yet narrower gate, the “needle’s eye” of the city, through which the traveller entered. Such, at any rate, was the picture which the words presented. A like image had been used before, with a singular coincidence of language, in the allegory known as the Tablet of Cebes, the Disciple of Socrates: “Seest thou not a certain small door, and a pathway before the door, in no way crowded, but few, very few, go in thereat? This is the way that leadeth to true discipline” (c. 16). The meaning of the parable here lies on the surface. The way and the gate are alike the way of obedience and holiness, and the gate is to be reached not without pain and effort; but only through it can we enter into the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem. A deeper significance is, however, suggested even by our Lord’s own teaching. He Himself is the “way” (John 14:6), or with a slight variation of the imagery, He is the “door,” or gate, by which His sheep enter into the fold (John 10:7). Only we must remember that His being thus the “way” and the “gate” does not mean that we can find, in union with Him, a substitute for holiness, but indicates simply how we are to attain to it.

That leadeth to destruction.—The question, which has been much discussed lately, whether this word “destruction” means the extinction of conscious life—what is popularly called annihilation—or prolonged existence in endless suffering, is one which can hardly be settled by mere reference to lexicons. So far as they go, the word implies, not annihilation, but waste (Matthew 26:8; Mark 14:4), perdition, i.e., the loss of all that makes existence precious. I question whether a single passage can be adduced in which it means, in relation to material things, more than the breaking up of their outward form and beauty, or in spiritual things, more than what may be described as the wretchedness of a wasted life. The use of the cognate verb confirms this meaning. Men “perish” when they are put to death (Matthew 22:7; Acts 5:37; et al.). Caiaphas gave his counsel that one man should die for the people, that the whole nation perish not (John 11:50). The demons ask whether the Christ has come to destroy them (Mark 1:24). The sheep are lost when they are wandering in the wilderness (Matthew 15:24; Luke 15:6). The immediate context leads to the same conclusion. “Life” is more than mere existence. “Destruction,” by parity of reasoning, should be more than mere non-existence. On the other hand, the fact of the waste, the loss, the perdition, does not absolutely exclude the possibility of deliverance. The lost sheep was found; the exiled son, perishing with hunger, was brought back to his father’s house.

Verse 14

(14) Narrow is the way.—Literally, pressed, or hemmed in between walls or rocks, like the pathway in a mountain gorge.

Which leadeth unto life.—Noteworthy as the first passage in our Lord’s recorded teaching in which the word “life” appears as summing up all the blessedness of the kingdom. The idea is developed as we advance; the life becomes “eternal,” and finally we are taught that the eternal life consists in the true and perfect knowledge of God and Christ (John 17:2-3).

Few there be that find it.—The sad contrast between the many and the few runs through all our Lord’s teaching. He comes to “save the world,” and yet those whom He chooses out of the world are but as a “little flock.” They are to preach the gospel, and yet the result will be but discord and division. The picture is a dark one, and yet it represents but too faithfully the impression made, I do not say on Calvinist or even Christian, but on any ethical teacher, by the actual state of mankind around us. They are, for the most part, unconscious of the greatness of their lives, and of the interests at stake in them. If there is any wider hope, it is found in hints and suggestions of the possibilities of the future (1 Peter 3:19; 1 Peter 4:6); in the fact that the words used are emphatically present; in the belief that the short span of this life is not necessarily the whole of the discipline of a soul made for eternity; and that the new life, nascent, and feeble, and stunted here, may be quickened by some new process of education into higher energies.

Verse 15

(15) Beware of false prophets.—The sequence again is below the surface. How was the narrow way to be found? Who would act as guide? Many would offer their help who would simply lead men to the destruction which they sought to escape. Such teachers, claiming authority as inspired, there had been in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and there would be again. The true gift of prophecy is always followed by its counterfeit. Even at the time when our Lord was speaking, the influence of such men as Judas of Galilee (Acts 5:37), Theudas, and other popular leaders, was still fresh in men’s memories.

Which come to you in sheep’s clothing.—The illustration implies something like the conception of the wolf disguising himself as a sheep in order to gain entrance into the fold. So far a special feature is added to the general allegory of John 10:12 and Acts 20:29. It is possible, though not, I think, probable, that there may be some allusion to the “rough garments,” the “sheep-skins and goat-skins” of Hebrews 11:37, worn by false prophets of the hermit or ascetic type.

Verse 16

(16) Ye shall know them by their fruits.—The question, What are the fruits? is not directly answered. Those who attach most importance to the ethical side of religion, see in them the practical outcome of doctrine in life, character, and deeds. Others, who live in a constant dread of heresy, dwell on doctrines rather than acts as the “fruits” by which we are to discern the false teachers and the true. Good works, they say, may be but the sheep’s clothing that hides the heretic wolf. The analogy of Scriptural language, and even of that of most theologians, the familiar phrases which speak of good works as the fruits of faith and the like, are, it is believed, entirely in favour of the former view. Still more decisive are the “fruits meet for repentance” of Matthew 3:8. We are to judge of the teaching of those who claim authority by the test of the measure in which, in the long-run, it promotes purity, peace, and holiness.

Verses 17-18

(17, 18) Even so every good tree. . . .—The two verses state nearly the same fact, but each presents a different aspect. First it is stated as a matter of practical experience, then the general fact is referred to a necessary law. If the tree is corrupt, i.e., rotten or decayed at the core, it cannot bring forth good fruit. If there is falseness in the teaching, or in the man, it will sooner or later show itself in his life, and then, even though we judge of the doctrine on other ground, we should cease to feel confidence in the guidance of the teacher.

Verse 19

(19) Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit.—The crowds who listened must, for the most part, have recognised the words as those which they had heard before from the lips of the Baptist, and they served accordingly as a link connecting the teaching of our Lord with that of the forerunner. (Comp. Matthew 3:10.)

Verse 20

(20) Ye shall know them.—As before, in Matthew 7:16, the word is one which implies knowledge that is full, clear, decisive—such as that to which St. Paul looks forward in the life to come (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Verse 21

(21) He that doeth the will of my Father.—The continued stress laid on the ethical side of religion, on the nullity of the confession of a true faith (as embodied in the “Lord, Lord”) without doing the will of God, more than confirms the interpretation of Matthew 7:16 above given. A further development of the same thought is found in John 7:17, and we are taught that it is by doing the will of God ourselves, or rather by willing to do it, that we gain the power to distinguish, so far as we need distinguish, truth from error, man’s teaching from God’s.

The previous words imply that the disciples had already begun to use the title Lord (κύριος) in speaking to their Master (comp. Luke 5:8); but as that word was at the time in common use as one of courtesy (Matthew 8:2; Matthew 8:6; John 20:2), it would not necessarily follow that they had used it in all the later fulness of its meaning.

Verse 22

(22) Many will say to me in that day.—No part of the Sermon on the Mount is more marvellous in its claims than this; to those who see in Christ only a human Teacher with a higher morality than Hillel or Seneca, none more utterly incomprehensible. At the commencement of His ministry, in a discourse which, though it is spoken in the tone of authority, gives no prominence to His mission as the Messiah, He yet claims, with the calmness of assured conviction, to be the Judge before whom the faithful and the hypocrites will alike have to give an account. In “that day” (the words, though they would not suggest, as afterwards, the thought of His own advent, would yet carry the minds of men to the “great and dreadful day” of Malachi 4:5) the words “Lord, Lord,” would mean more than the expression of human courtesy.

Have we not prophesied in thy name?—Here, also, there is the implied calm assertion of a supernatural power, not resting in Himself alone, but imparted to His followers, and exercised, or at least claimed, by some who did not themselves fulfil the conditions of His kingdom. Here, as everywhere in the New Testament, “prophesying” is more than mere prediction, and includes the whole work of delivering a message to men, as coming directly from God.

Verse 23

(23) Then will I profess unto them.—The words form a remarkable complement to the promise, “Whosoever shall confess Me before men, him will I confess also before My Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). The confession there recognised is more than lip-homage, and implies the loyal service of obedience. And the condemnation is pronounced not on those who have wandered from the truth, but on those who have been “workers of iniquity,” or, as the word more strictly means, “of lawlessness.” The words remind us of those of Psalms 15:2-3; Psalms 24:3-4, and are, perhaps, a transfer of what David had spoken of his ideal of his earthly kingdom to that of the kingdom of heaven which the Christ had come to found.

Verse 24

(24) Whosoever.—The Greek is more emphatically universal, every one whosoever.

These sayings of mine.—The reference to what has gone before tends, so far as it goes, to the conclusion that we have in these chapters a continuous discourse, and not a compilation of fragments. On the assumption that the Sermon on the Plain was different from that on the Mount, the recurrence of the same image there makes it probable that this or some similar parable was not an uncommon close to our Lord’s discourses.

I will liken him unto a wise man.—The surrounding scenery may, in this as in other instances, have suggested the illustration. As in all hilly countries, the streams of Galilee rush down the torrent-beds during the winter and early spring, sweep all before them, overflow their banks, and leave beds of alluvial deposit on either side. When summer comes their waters fail (comp. Jeremiah 15:18; Job 6:15), and what had seemed a goodly river is then a tract covered with debris of stones and sand. A stranger coming to build might be attracted by the ready-prepared level surface of the sand. It would be easier to build there instead of working upon the hard and rugged rock. But the people of the land would know and mock the folly of such a builder, and he would pass (our Lord’s words may possibly refer to something that had actually occurred) into a by-word of reproach. On such a house the winter torrent had swept down in its fury, and the storms had raged, and then the fair fabric, on which time and money had been expended, had given way, and fallen into a heap of ruins. Interpreting the parable in the connection in which our Lord has placed it, it is clear that the house is the general fabric of an outwardly religious life. “The rock” can be nothing else than the firm foundation of repentance and obedience, the assent of the will and affections as well as of the lips. The “sand” answers to the shifting, uncertain feelings which are with some men (the “foolish” ones of the parable) the only ground on which they act—love of praise, respect for custom, and the like. The “wind,” the “rain,” the “floods” hardly admit, unless by an unreal minuteness, of individual interpretation, but represent collectively the violence of persecution, of suffering, of temptations from without, beneath which all but the life which rests on the true foundation necessarily gives way.

Such is obviously the primary meaning of the parable here, but, like most other parables, it has other meanings, which, though secondary, are yet suggestive and instructive, and are not unsanctioned by the analogy of our Lord’s teaching. (1.) Already He had bestowed upon one of His disciples the name of Cephas, Peter, the Rock, and in so doing had at least indicated the type of character represented by the “rock” upon which the wise man built. When He afterwards said, “Upon this rock will I build my Church,” He was speaking in the character of a wise Master-builder who saw in fervent faith and unhesitating obedience the ground-work on which the Christian society, which He designated as His kingdom, was to rest. (2.) Personal experience and the teaching of the Spirit led men to the thought that there must be a yet deeper foundation, a rock below the rock even of obedience and holiness; and they found in Christ Himself that Rock and that Foundation (1 Corinthians 3:10-11). Only in personal union with Him could they find the stability of will without which even their firmest purposes would be as the shifting sand.

Verse 28

(28) When Jesus had ended these sayings.—The words again point to the conclusion that the Evangelist believed that he had been recording one continuous discourse.

The people were astonished at his doctrine.—Better, at his teaching; with greater prominence given, as the words that follow show, to its manner than to its substance.

Verse 29

(29) He taught them.—The Greek implies continuity, He was teaching.

As one having authority, and not as the scribes.—Some instances have been already pointed out: the “I say unto you,” which is contrasted with what had been said “to them of old time”; the assumption that He, the speaker, was the Head of the divine kingdom and the Judge of quick and dead. More striking still is the entire absence of any reference by name to the teaching of other interpreters of the Law. As a rule, the scribe hardly ever gave his exposition without at least beginning by what had been said by Hillel or by Shammai, by Rabbi Joseph or Rabbi Meir, depending almost or altogether upon what had thus been ruled before, as much as an English lawyer depends on his precedents. In contrast with all this, our Lord fills the people with amazement by speaking to them as One who has a direct message from God. It is the prophet, or rather, perhaps, the king, who speaks, and not the scribe.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Matthew 7". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/matthew-7.html. 1905.