Looking Past Looks

Looking Past Looks

Matthew 7:15-20

Dr. Jim Denison

A little horse named “Seabiscuit” is the most famous animal in the world these days. It’s an amazing and inspiring true story; when we saw the movie, the audience broke out in applause at the end. The little horse who took on the world and won proves that appearances are deceiving. They always have been.

As Jesus nears the end of the most famous sermon ever preached, he tells us how to separate appearance from reality, how to measure true success and false. We need to know, for one day the ones being measured will be us. Each one of us.

Look past looks (vs. 15-18)

Our Lord begins with an imperative: “Watch out.” “Beware”—be on your guard, pay attention. This is in the present tense: “Keep watching out for this….” It is an imperative, a command, with no options. This must be a real problem, or the Lord would not warn us of its existence.

Watch out for “false prophets.”

“Prophet” signifies one who “speaks forth” under divine influence, as the ambassador of God to men. God’s spokesperson.

“False” translates the Greek word “pseudo,” one who appears to be genuine but is not. Those who pretended to speak the word of the Lord but did not were a problem all through the Bible. Moses warned his people about them (Deuteronomy 13:5), as did Jeremiah (Jeremiah 23:31). Jesus warned his followers repeatedly that “false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). Paul, Barnabas, John, and Peter all met false prophets and condemned their deception (Acts 13:6; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Galatians 1:7; Acts 20:29-32; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1-3; Revelation 2:20-23).

Such false teachers “come to you”—they take the initiative to attack the people of God.

Their appearances are deceiving in the extreme:

They wear “sheep’s clothing”—shepherds wore sheepskins, with the fleece against their skin.

But “inwardly they are ferocious wolves,” in places we cannot see with our eyes. Wolves are the deadliest enemies of sheep. Four times the Bible condemns false spokesmen for God as such “wolves” (Ezekiel 22.27; Zephaniah 3:3; Acts 20:29; John 10:12).

So how are we to tell who they are, if appearances cannot be trusted? “By their fruit you will recognize them” (v. 16).

A wolf can disguise himself, but a tree cannot. It must be what it is by nature. An apple tree must grow like one, be the size of one, have the trunk and bark and leaves and roots of one, and produce apples. It cannot help it. The way to tell what someone is by nature is to examine what they do, the results of their way of life.

We bear good fruit through our relationship with Jesus: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Then our character exhibits the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Our lives lead others to our Lord. We reproduce spiritually by helping people follow Jesus, as a tree reproduces physically through the fruit it bears.

And we glorify God as a result: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8).

Such living evidence is proof of who we really are, in our souls. Thorns don’t produce grapes, or thistles figs. A healthy tree must make healthy fruit; a sick or diseased tree cannot. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

So look past looks. Success is not how we appear, but who we really are. Our communion with God, connected to him as a branch to its vine. Our character as we demonstrate the Spirit at work in our lives. Our ministry and witness, as we produce disciples who follow us to Christ. This is success with God. This is what matters to him, and should to us.

Get ready for your final exam

Now, why is this definition of success so urgent? Keep reading: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 19). What is this “fire”? Let’s review briefly the word of God on the subject.

A judgment day is coming for every person who has ever lived and ever will: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

Who will judge us? “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

When will this “final exam” occur? “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:31-32), and he will judge them.

What will happen? Revelation 20:11-15 is the setting. Here, first our relationship with Christ will be judged from the “book of life” (v. 12a).

Moses said to God: “Please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” The Lord replied, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book” (Exodus. 32:32-33).

God has your name in his book, and must “blot it out” if you choose to reject his free salvation in Christ. When you die without Christ, God is forced to remove your name from his book of life, and you’ll be “thrown into the lake of fire.”

Scripture is very clear: “Nothing impure will ever enter [heaven], nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation. 21:27).

But if you have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, your name will be there forever. Jesus said to his disciples, “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10.20). Paul addressed the Philippian Christians as “my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3).


No Doubts About It

No Doubts About It

Matthew 7:21-23

Dr. Jim Denison

Sometimes God must wonder about the human race, and for good reason. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Compaq computer company is considering changing the command “press any key” to “press return key” because of the flood of calls asking where the “any” key is located. A Dell customer called to say his computer would not fax anything. Turns out the man was holding a piece of paper in front of the monitor and hitting the “send” key. A confused caller to IBM reported that his computer could not “find” the printer, even though he turned the monitor to face it. And a person called technical support for help with fixing the computer’s “cup holder.” The caller put a cup on the CD-ROM drive drawer and broke it off.

God wonders about us, and we wonder about him. The most common question I have been asked across my pastoral ministry is “How can I know that I am a Christian?” In recent weeks, very serious and urgent church members have come to me with this very issue. I struggled with assurance of salvation for more than a year after my own conversion. How can you know that you know? How can you help those who have their own doubts?

Don’t trust in religion

First, don’t trust in religion. That sounds strange in a religious service, I know. But it’s exactly the warning Jesus gives us today: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 21).

These are the right words; “Jesus is Lord” is the first and central affirmation of the Christian faith. We find it written in Greek on catacomb walls in ancient Rome. Those who are baptized in our church say first, “Jesus is my Lord.”

Many will say the right words, calling Jesus their “Lord.” They will have the right urgency, repeating their affirmation of faith.

And they will have the right works:They will “prophesy” or preach “in your name,” representing Jesus, claiming to speak his words and carry his message.They will “drive out demons and perform many miracles.” Religious works of the highest magnitude and worth.

We can say the right words and do the right works, and still hear the most terrible statement in all of eternity: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (v. 23).

“Knew” means personal, intimate knowledge, a personal relationship, not just a performed religion. As we will see shortly, this is the only basis for admittance to heaven, for assurance of eternal life. God must know us.

It’s not enough that we know about God. If Cowboys coach Bill Parcells were to walk into the sanctuary this morning, you’d know him. But would he know you?

Jesus makes clear the fact that performance is not the basis for assurance. Saying the right words and doing the right works are the essence of religion. And yet they are not enough to know that you will be in heaven, to be sure of your faith and eternity.

I once read of a 90-year-old preacher who became a Christian.

A new pastor drove by his church one evening to see a crowd assembling. He stopped and asked someone what was happening. The man said, “They’re meeting to pray for the conversion of their new pastor.” The man went to the meeting, and came to saving faith in Jesus.

No seminary degree can give assurance of salvation. No words preached or works performed are enough. Don’t trust in religion—it will fail your soul.

Trust in relationship

How can you be absolutely assured that you will “enter the kingdom of heaven?” Only in one way: “only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (v. 21). So it is imperative that we ask, what is this will?

“My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).

“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).

“This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23).

Then our words and works will reflect our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We will bear the “fruit of the Spirit” as a natural result of branches connected with the vine. We will walk on the road to abundant life, and our words and actions will witness to that life. We will serve Jesus with sacrificial commitment, repentant hearts, and transformed souls. And one day, instead of hearing “I never knew you,” we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21), the most blessed words in all of eternity.

So let us be sure that we know Jesus in this intimate, personal way. For many years I wasn’t sure. I thought God had a scale, with the good at one end and the bad at the other. I hoped I was good enough for the scale to tip in my favor. Millions of Americans still think the same way: I’m good and believe in God, so hopefully that will be enough.

Bruce Wilkinson, in his new book The Life God Rewards, explains salvation this way. Draw a line in your mind. Write “totally evil” on the left end, and “totally good” on the right. Put an X to mark how close to “totally good” a person would have to be to get into heaven. Where did you put your mark?

Let’s say you put the X at 70%. What if God requires 71%? You’d be lost. Where does he put the X? At 100%. His heaven is perfect, and can only stay that way if only perfect people are admitted. The pack of gum I stole at the age of five was enough to keep me out. Romans 3:23 includes every one of us: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All.


Thanking God For The Thorns

Thanking God for the Thorns

Matthew 7:24-27

Dr. Jim Denison

There is a group which monitors “top idiots of the year.” Here are some of their honorees, all of them true stories.

A woman called the poison control center to report that her daughter had eaten some ants. The physician told her not to worry. The mother then mentioned that she had made her daughter eat ant poison to kill the ants in her stomach. The doctor changed his mind.

A man waited in line to rob a Bank of America, with a stickup note written on the bank’s deposit slip. The line was going too slowly, so he crossed the street and gave the note to a teller at Wells Fargo. She told him she couldn’t accept his stickup note because it was written on Bank of America’s note, and that he would have to go back there. So he did. Meanwhile, she called the police, and they arrested the man in line.

A man held up a corner grocery, demanding money and a bottle of Scotch. The clerk told the robber he didn’t believe he was 21, and couldn’t give him the liquor. The robber showed the clerk his driver’s license to prove his age. The clerk called the information to the police, who arrested the man two hours later.

And yet another would-be robber walked into a Burger King in Michigan, early one morning. The clerk said he couldn’t open the cash register without a food order. The robber ordered onion rings, but the clerk said they weren’t available for breakfast. The man, frustrated, walked away.

We are fallen people, living in a fallen world. Jesus warned us: “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16.33). Some of our trials are our fault; some are not. But problems are part of life. The question is not whether rain will come, floods will rise, winds will rage. The question is whether we will still be standing after they do.

There’s only one way to withstand the inevitable storms of life. We’d best know what it is, for the rain is going to fall. Maybe today.

Build on the word of God

Jesus begins: “Everyone who hears these words of mine” (v. 24a). No exceptions, no qualifications. Every person among us can qualify. Each can hear the words of God.

But then we must “put them into practice.” Many do not.

The Lord warned the prophet Ezekiel: “My people come to you…and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice” (Ezekiel 33:31-32). It’s one thing to hear the word on Sunday, but another to obey it on Monday.

James adds: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:23-24).

Every time you and I look into the mirror, which is the word of God, something about our lives should change. Conviction of sin, direction of life, leadership from the Spirit—there should always be life-transformation for hearing from the Lord of the universe. When did the word of God last change your life?

When we seek God’s word for our problems and decisions, and do what it says, we are “like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (v. 24b). “The rock” refers to a strata, not just a specific stone. In the limestone country of Galilee, when a builder digs down through the topsoil and sand, he will always find such a level of solid stone. It was common to dig down to this level, and build the house’s foundation on it.

Now “the rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house” (v. 25a). Rain bombarded the roof, streams flooded the flooring, winds pounded the walls. Every part of the house was assaulted. But “it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (v. 25b).

Proverbs 10:25 says, “When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever.” Because our foundation is solid.

Dr. Earl Palmer has pastored a church in California for more than 30 years. In his excellent commentary on the Sermon on the Mount he writes:

“I live in earthquake country. And the church I serve in Berkeley, California, is next to the campus of the University of California which sits astride the Hayward fault, itself connected to the gigantic San Andreas Fault that stretches from Mexico to Alaska and directly under the city of San Francisco.

“Earthquake specialists have pointed up several important facts about home construction in earthquake terrain: A wood structure is ideally suited for the stresses of horizontal land movement, which is the terror of an earthquake, provided that the wood structure is bolted to its foundation…The non-bolted home moves a few inches away from its foundation, [causing] the collapse of the structure…A safe house is that house which relates as much of the house as possible to its foundation. It not only rests upon a rock; it is built into the rock.”

Dr. Palmer adds that the strategy behind the Golden Gate Bridge is similar: its two great towers are deeply imbedded into the rock foundation beneath the sea. As he says, “the bridge is totally preoccupied with its foundation. That is its secret!” (The Enormous Exception, 144-5).

Refuse every other foundation

We have another option: “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand” (v. 26).


When The Lights Go Out

When the Lights Go Out

Matthew 7:28-29

Dr. Jim Denison

The flashlight can be the most valuable possession in your home.

In 1896, Mr. David Misell invented a device which connected the just-created “D” cell battery to a bulb. The bulb and batteries were so inefficient they could not provide a steady stream of light, so the device was called the “flash light.”

On Thursday, August 14, you could have sold Mr. Misell’s invention to 50 million people. The worst power outage in world history has cost New York City alone as much as $750 million dollars in lost income, taxes, and overtime costs.

No one thinks about a flashlight until the lights go out. And they often do. Last Sunday’s and Tuesday’s storms left thousands in Dallas without power, many through the night. Mr. Misell’s invention is what we need most.

It is a fact that you and I live in a world which is absolutely pitch-black with regard to the future. We do not know when the next power outage will occur. In fact, we don’t know what will happen an hour from now, or whether we’ll even be alive to witness it. Not a single human being knows with certainty what will happen tomorrow. Of all we don’t know, our greatest ignorance regards the next minute.

When the lights go out and all is dark, we have three options. We can feel our way alone; we can follow others who are just as blind as are we; or we can listen to the only One who sees the way, who is already where we want to be.

The psalmist chose wisely: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). Let’s make the same decision.

Live by God’s word

When Jesus finished the discourse we have studied for more than a year, Matthew says that “the crowds were amazed at his teaching.” “Amazed” translates a word which means to be beside yourself with astonishment, to be spell-bound, literally “struck out of themselves.”

Why? Because “he taught as one who had authority.”

“Authority” means literally “out of your own being.” It is power which you possess, which no one need confer on you. I have authority to call a staff meeting, but not a special session of the Texas Legislature. You have authority to do some things, but not others.

Jesus had “authority” to speak these words.

“Not as their teachers of the law.”

The prophets typically began, “Thus says the Lord.” Jesus never did, because he was and is the Lord.

The priests and professors quoted the Law, the Prophets, and writings about both. They collected verse-by-verse commentaries (Midrah), topical commentaries (Mishna), commentary on legal matters in Scripture (Halakah) and devotional applications (Haggadah). Then they made commentary on the earlier commentary (Gemara), and collected it all into their Talmud.

A rabbi would quote a rabbi, who quoted a rabbi. If my sermon today were to quote Barclay quoting Bruce citing the Greek New Testament, I would teach as their “teachers of the law.”

Not so with Jesus. Twelve times in this Sermon he says, “I say unto you.” No rabbi in Jewish history had ever done this. His words were the word of God.

They will be so forever: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8); “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35).

They lead us to salvation: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

They keep us from sin: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11); “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word” (Psalm 119:9).

They instruct and guide our lives: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Choose now to live by the word of God.

What decision is facing you today? Decide that you will consult Scripture before making it and live by the light of God’s word.

What actions or attitudes in your life are unbiblical? Where is there bitterness toward another person, coveting toward a possession, lust of eye or mind, pride of heart? Decide that you will confess it and live by the light of God’s word.

You face a future which is dark. Trust the only light you own.

Listen to God’s word

Now, listen to this, the greatest Sermon ever preached.

See the Galilean hillside, sloping gently down to the Sea of Galilee. Hear its waters as they lap the shore; listen to the calls of the birds as they circle overhead. Smell the flowers and grasses of the spring fields. Feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair.

Join the crowds as they jostle together for a closer look at the One who is speaking. Close your eyes if you wish. Travel back 20 centuries. Join the first hearers of Jesus’ first sermon. Hear it again, for the very first time. And choose to live under the authority of these words, today and for the rest of your life.

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.