THE WISE BUILDER
D. M. PANTON, M. A.
The main body of our Lord's teaching, and the clearest of all His instructions on practical living, are embodied forever in the Sermon on the Mount; and His whole revelation in the Sermon is based on a studied contrast of the Church's grace with Israel's law, thus launching a new dispensation which is still in full force. And the emphasis with which our Lord stresses the necessity of obedience - an emphasis of 'solemn awfulness', as Archbishop Trench called it - is expressed in a vivid figure. "These sayings of mine," He says - these sayings, that is, the Sermon on the Mount just uttered - are the foundation rock on which every believer is to construct his living; ¹ for any other foundation of conduct will, to a certainty, the Lord says, hopelessly crash in the coming storms. "These sayings of mine - these words, these utterances, testimonies, as I have now given them in one entire and perfect harmony; the whole discourse appealing to the conscience as the word of the future Judge" (Rudolf Stier).
It is first of all extremely important for all of us to master the fact that our Lord is not distinguishing between believers and unbelievers of the word He has uttered, but between hearers and doers of it. 'Hearing' is a word He uses of faith. "He that is of God heareth the words of God: for this cause ye hear them not, because ye are not of God" (John 8: 47). Both groups which the Saviour is visualizing listen attentively to their Lord speaking: both recognize that these are commands to be obeyed by someone: both then leave the Mount to live their life - that is, to build their house of conduct: one group reproduces the Lord's words in action; the other - possibly believing and warmly applauding them - nevertheless acts, in the points named by our Lord, on other principles of conduct, so building another house, a house on another foundation than the Sermon on the Mount. It is extraordinary illuminating of our Lord's words that a large section of some of the most Scriptural Christians in the world pronounce the Sermon on the Mount as not for the Church, and therefore not to be obeyed by us at all. The fact is, the difficulty of living it is enormous. As a writer has said: "Literally hundreds of volumes have been written about the Sermon on the Mount, yet I read it through recently in eleven minutes. You can read it quickly, but you must take a life time to try to live it; and even then you will fail."
Now a brief summary of our Lord's main points will reveal at once both the reason of their rejection, and the stupendousness of the consequences. For example, if obeyed, they would make a 'State Church' an impossibility and a worldly Christian unknown. In these words Christ claims absolute sovereignty: every main section is not a counsel, or an ideal, but a command: His word is law. Here are seven of the main sections:
(1) "It was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill: but I say unto you that every one who is angry with his brother" [some MSS add, 'without cause.'] "shall be in danger of the judgment" (Matt 5: 21).
(2) "Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery; but I say unto you" that a look can be adultery (Verse 27).
(3) "Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: but I say unto you, Swear not at all" (Verse 33).
(4) "Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" - exact justice: "but I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil" - utter grace (Verse 38).
(5) "Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, Love your enemies" (Verse 43).
(6) "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (6: 19).
(7) "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, so do ye also unto them" (7: 12).
Our Lord summarizes the Sermon as the standard of right conduct for entrance into the Kingdom. "I say unto you" [ 'disciples,' 5: 1,2.], "that except your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees" - the standard of the Law, immeasurably excelled by the standard of the Sermon - "YE" - the disciples whom He is addressing - "shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven."
Over against this marvellous revelation, embodying love in action, we are met with every reason why we should not obey: It is a noble ideal, but impracticable; it is for Jewish disciples before the Church was founded, and therefore it is not for us; it is a revelation for world-law when the Millennial Kingdom shall be established; the commands in it are to be taken figuratively, not literally: the complete difference of these reasons for non-obedience proving at once that they are merely attempted escapes from the obvious. The warning of the Apostle James (1: 23) springs into light: "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves." ²
Now this Sermon, preached wherever Christ is preached throughout the whole world and identified with Him throughout all time, faces every hearer; and every Christian hearer is constructing a building - his religious conduct, enshrining his life - and some believers are building on the Sermon, that is, living it. In this case the life is built, all down the years, out of these sayings: it is not believing them, nor accepting them, nor admiring them, nor even expounding them and teaching them, which our Lord describes as wise architecture, but doing them: "Every one which heareth these words of mine, AND DOETH THEM, shall be likened unto a wise man, which built his house upon the rock." All the hearers are liable to build, and all as a matter of fact are building; the foolish believer builds as carefully on the sand as the wise man or the rock - sand can look like rock; and the house we build reveals our wisdom or our folly. If our conduct is to stand on rock, we must simply obey Christ. "Ye are my friends, if ye" - not quote or approve or even preach, but - "DO the things which I command you" (John 15: 14).
The Lord most carefully reveals the consequences of how we build. "The rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house." Throughout all the ages the believer has had to stand up against the brunt of a hostile world; the subtle floods of the flesh; the hurricanes of Satan: and countless buildings, within the Church of God, crash. Rain assails the roof, winds assail the walls, and floods attack the foundations: rain - the attacks of evil spirits out of the heavenlies; winds - the sagging pressure of false doctrines, "carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4: 14); floods - doubt sweeping our foundations into apostasy.
The Lord's tremendous revelation of the value of living the Sermon now shines out simply priceless. "The rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon THE ROCK." This believer 'digs deep': the Sermon on the Mount deals with the depths of our being - cutting away our lusts, our ambitions, our worldliness, and introducing an amazing standard of spiritual life. The safe depth of the structure is specifically revealed in Luke. "He is like a man building a house, who digged and went deep; and when a flood arose, the stream brake against that house, and could not shake it: because it had been well builded" (Luke 6: 48). He only digs deep whose life gets down to the central realities of the spirit as expressed in our Lord's commands; and sustaining grace confirms obedience, all the way: God's grip on the conduct corresponds with our grip on Christ's words. And the Lord's summary reveals the enormous revelation that if we build on the Sermon, and even if we are in the Great Tribulation, our house stands. No storm can wreck it.
So the Saviour warns us of the consequence of hearing, believing, admiring, but not doing these sayings. "Every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand; and [the elements] smote upon that house, and it fell: and great was the fall thereof." All the hearers are equally skilled in building: where alone they differ is on what they build; and the second class - building on anything but the Sermon on the Mount, however high the ethics or sublime the philosophy - build, our lord says, on sand. "We may build, as our little children do on the seashore, our sand houses, and we may pile them up very quickly too, and be very pleased with them, but they will all come down as the tide advances" (C. H. Spurgeon). The consequent crash is terrific. "GREAT WAS THE FALL THEREOF." WHAT CHRIST SAYS IS ROCK: what man says (if it is contrary to our Lord's teaching) is sand.
Thus, dropping our Lord's figure, we have the unutterably solemn dual truth expressed elsewhere, by Christ Himself, in plain language. (1) "That servant which knew his Lord's will, and made not ready, NOR DID ACCORDING TO HIS WILL, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he who knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten" - for, naturally, it is the duty of the servant of God to find out his Lord's will - "with few stripes" (Luke 12: 47) - for the other servant consciously disobeyed, he unconsciously. And here is the golden reverse. "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, HE IT IS THAT LOVETH ME; and I will love him, and will manifest Myself unto him" (John 14: 21). ³
1. "The 'rock' on which the believer is to build his conduct is thus Christ's teaching; but the 'Rock' on which he himself is already built, by the new birth, is the person of Christ, Christ Himself. "The rock here can hardly be primarily the person of Christ, as in 1Corinthians 10: 4, but is primarily the word, wherein however He Himself is" (Lange)." - Panton.
2. "One example of non-obedience - "Lay not up for yourselves treasure" - will be sufficient. We could name Second Advent teachers and foremost Evangelists, including leaders from among the Brethren, who in the last fifty years have died worth anything between £10,000 and £100,000, amassed by themselves and not inherited or received by gift. The problem each of us has to solve - Where they justified, or were they not?" -Panton.
3. "That the Sermon is the standard for the Kingdom is seen with remarkable clearness by a great Continental scholar. "What is to form the object and aim of our striving is the Messianic Kingdom, the becoming partakers in it, the being admitted into it, and the moral righteousness which God imparts to the believer to assist him to attain the Kingdom" (Mayer). It is needless to add that the Apostlolic Epistles are in exact accord with the general teaching of our Lord." - Panton.
"The Sermon on the Mount contains the principles of the Kingdom of God and its code of laws. It forms the rule of Christian life to us, to whom the Kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. May nothing rob the Church of these most precious chapters of precept and promise; for the Lord here unfolds the character of God as Father, in a way He does nowhere else; and of this He says in John 17: 'I have declared unto them Thy Name, and will declare it.' The precepts of Matthew 5., 6. & 7. are very clear and they cut very close. The sword is two-edged, a sword sharp and piercing, separating and dividing; and the flesh trembles as we read it. But the higher the calling - [in this instance of the "Bride" out from the "body," i.e., the Church - the redeemed family of God] - the profounder will be the perceptive word that is connected with it, and the richer and the sweeter the promises. Let us not get drawn away from the unworldly simplicity of Christ shown to us in these chapters; and may the prayer the Lord has therein taught be our model and our guide, in matter, in order, in character, and in end. - J.N. Darby." ( comments within [ ] brackets is mine. - Ed.
"But I say unto you, Swear not at all."
"False swearing was forbidden of old; but every kind of swearing is forbidden now by word of our Lord Jesus. He mentions several forms of oath and forbids them all; and then prescribes simple forms of affirmation or denial, as all that His followers should employ. Notwithstanding much that may be advanced to the contrary, there is no evading the plain sense of this passage that every sort of oath, however solemn or true, is forbidden to a follower of Jesus. Whether in court of law or out of it, the rule is "Swear not at all." Yet in this Christian country we have swearing everywhere, and especially among law-makers. Our legislators begin their official existence by swearing. By those who obey the law of the Saviour's Kingdom, all swearing is set aside, that the simple word of affirmation or denial calmly repeated, may remain as the simple bond of truth. Believers should not yield to an evil custom, however great the pressure put upon them; but they should abide by the plain and unmistakable command of their Lord and King." - C.H. Spurgeon.
"Our Lord reviews in the Sermon on the Mount much of the Law, and sets up a new and higher standard. The Law generally taught as its principle - righteousness, or strict justice. Man was to render to God His dues; and then he might exact what was due to himself from his neighbour and fellow man. If injured, he was to seek and obtain redress. "If men strive . . . and if mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." (Exodus 21: 22-25).
"This rule Jesus expressly repeals. The Christian is not to resist the evil man; but to be patient under injury, whether that be inflicted on our person, or on our property; by an individual, or by the oppression of a government (Matthew 10: 38-41). We are to forgive without limit the evil world in the midst of which we are set; that God may also without limit forgive us. (Matthew 6: 12, 14). As the Law taught Justice, the Gospel teaches Grace.
"Now this is an answer to those who would distinguish between a Christian's personal enemies, and those of his country. We are to resemble our heavenly Father; and He is not making any such distinction of countries. He is calling men of all nations to be reconciled with Himself. And the Christian is one who has left his standing as one of the nations of the world to become a member of Christ, and one of the Church, which is Christ's body. We are no longer of the world, even as Christ was not (John 8: 23; 15: 19). We are pilgrims and strangers on earth, seeking a better country, even an heavenly (Hebrews 11: 13-16).
"This one principle then, that WE ARE TO RESEMBLE GOD THE FATHER AND HIS SON JESUS CHRIST, AND TO EXHIBIT THEM TO THE WORLD, seems to me to settle this question for those who are candid. Under the Law God took as His title "Jehovah, God of armies" : (Psalm 80: 7, 14; Amos 5: 27, etc.). Then war was lawful: and the courage of Jonathan, and David, and Samson, glorified Him. What says the Son of God concerning Himself? The Spirit of God came on Him "to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and to set at liberty the bruised" : (Luke 4: 18). How then can any resemble Christ in warfare - breaking the hearts of wives and families, seizing prisoners of war, and detaining the wounded? " - Robert Govett.
"In the year 1830 George Muller writes in his journal ; 'My wife and I had grace given to us to take the Lord's commandment, "Sell that ye have and give alms" (Luke 12: 33) literally, and to carry it out. Our staff and support in this matter were Matthew 6: 19-34; John 14: 13, 14. We leaned on the arm of the Lord Jesus. It is now twenty-nine years since we set out in this way, and we do not in the least regret the step we then took.' "
This was written in the year 1860, but his testimony to the possibility of carrying out this command literally lasted to the end of his long life of ninety three years. Thus we have the instance of one man who for sixty-eight years dared to take the Lord's commands literally, and carry it out.
He also remarks about Matthew 5: 39-44 : 'It had pleased God, in His abundant mercy, to bring my mind into such a state, that I was willing to carry out into my life whatever I should find in the Scriptures. For instance: "Resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn thou not away. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you." '
He comments on these commandments thus : 'It may be said, surely these passages cannot be taken literally, for how then would the people of God be able to pass through the world? The state of mind enjoined in John 7: 17 will cause such objections to vanish. Whosoever is willing to act out these commandments of the Lord literally will, I believe, be led with me to see that, to take them literally, is the will of God. Those who do so take them will doubtless often be brought into difficulties, hard to the flesh to bear, but these will have a tendency to make them constantly feel that they are strangers and pilgrims here, that this world is not their home, and thus to throw them more upon God, who will assuredly help us through any difficulty into which we may be brought by seeking to act in obedience to His Word.'
"It is sometimes contended that the Sermon on the Mount is to be in force during the Millennial Reign of Christ. But we can gather from the Sermon itself the character of the age for which it is intended.
Corruption is widespread - for they are to act as salt for the preservation of society.
Moral darkness covers the people - for they are to be the light of the world.
Mammon competes with God for the allegiance of men - for they are warned that it is possible to serve both.
The Lord is absent - for they are fasting.
The 'world-rulers of this darkness' are in control: the Kingdom of God is not yet - for they are to pray, 'Thy Kingdom come'.
The contrast between the age to which the Lord spoke and the age of His Millennial Reign could not be set in sharper contrast, nor can we fail to recognize in it the characteristics of our own." - C. F. Hogg.
"The Korean not only memorizes Scripture; he puts it into practice. One day there came into one of the mission stations a sturdy Christian from the north. After the usual greetings, he was asked the purpose of his visit. His reply was : 'I have been memorizing some verses in the Bible and have come to recite them to you.' He lived a hundred miles away and had walked all that distance, travelling four nights - a long stroll to recite some verses of Scripture to his pastor, but he was listened to as he recited in Korean, without a verbal error, the entire Sermon on the Mount. He was told that if he simply memorized it it would be a feat of memory and nothing more; he must practise its teachings. His face lighted up with a smile as he promptly replied: 'That is the way I learned it. I tried to memorize it, but it wouldn't stick, so I hit on this plan. I would memorize a verse, and then find a heathen neighbour of mine and practise the verse on him. Then I found it would stick.' " - James S. Gale.
"It was a welcome discovery to me, a few years ago, to find that I might learn very much about God from His commandments. Of course we know dogmatically about Him by what He plainly tells us concerning Himself; but it has won my admiration to perceive His attributes as these are reflected in His precepts.
We are told to be holy, because He is holy (1Peter 1: 15, 16); and to be meek and lowly, because the Lord Jesus is this (Matthew 11: 29). In short we are to be "imitators of God as dear children" (Ephesians 5: 1). But, what I find specially precious to my spirit in this is that I can count on God's being, and on God's doing, what He insists on my being and doing.
Anyone who will read his Bible with this thought in mind will learn much about God. My object now is just to direct attention to this as a means of illumination, and to give a few illustrations of its practical value.
Some twelve years ago, in subjection to God and His Word, I renounced the profession that I had wholly depended upon for material support. Having not a cent laid up, I and my family were altogether cast upon God's providence. There were days, and weeks, and months, of stern soul exercise; and there were many fiery darts that made it absolutely essential to wield the shield of faith (Ephesians 6: 16).
One of the most fiery of these darts was a reminder of the principle laid down, 1Timothy 5: 8, that, "if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." Probably none but a father and husband who has had a similar experience could realise how "fiery" that dart was.
But imagine the joy that flooded my soul when I became aware of the fact that this very verse established for me a claim upon God. For I am one of "His own," and one of "those of His house." I could therefore, with holy boldness, remind my Heavenly Father that if it was a denial of the faith for me to provide for my family, how much greater a denial of that faith it would be if He did not provide for me, one of His own, and one of those of His Own House (Ephesians 2: 19)!
It would be wholly unlike God to tell me to do that which He neglected to do Himself. If I had to imitate Him, then He must go before and give me His example. Needless to say He did this; and in faithfulness and justice. He has given me no room to complain of His denial of the faith which He Himself delivered unto the saints (Jude 3). And thus I learned by experience that He wanted me to act up to the faith, because He did.
In view of this principle, who can wonder that "God loveth a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9: 7)? and for the simplest of reasons, viz. because He Himself is a cheerful giver. So this verse teaches us that God gives "not grudgingly, or of necessity," but cheerfully.
He "giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not" (James 1: 5). Fellow believer, have you begun to find out how great God is? The next time you feel disposed to give grudgingly, just remember how unlike your Father you are.
"If you see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldst forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help him" (Exodus 23: 5). How touching! how beautiful! He cares for an ass, that belongs to one that hates Him; and, therefore, He wants us to do the same.
He commands, "Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate." J. N. Darby translates it, : "Go along with the lowly" (Romans 12: 16). God enjoins this because it is just what He does Himself. Let any one read the Sermon on the Mount, and well consider that the commandments thereof reflect the attributes of God : "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect," (Matthew 5: 48).
Do you know what it is to come to God with a great and urgent need? If so, let me remind you of a verse that you can use as a plea to Him : "Say not unto thy neighbour, Go, and come again, and tomorrow I will give; when thou hast it by thee" (Proverbs 3: 28). Yes, I know this is His command to me; but He does not bid me do what He does not do Himself. And even if the Lord Jesus had not told us plainly that "Every one that asketh receiveth" (Matthew 7: 8), I would know that it must be so, for His command to His disciple is : "Give to every man that asketh of thee" (Luke 6: 30).
Unbelief is wont to count God's commandments too severe; but let each child implicitly obey, and at the same time translate the command into a pledge, or promise, and he will find good reason for thanking God for His commandments. When he is told "That which is gone out of thy lips, thou shalt keep and perform" (Deuteronomy 23: 23), he may thereby be perfectly assured that what has gone out of God's lips He will unfailingly keep and perform. " - David Treherne in The Last Hour.