Read Matthew 7:1-20 to start.
When I was younger, there was a topic that many of my friends and I were frequently concerned with. It kept coming up, and was never adequately resolved, because some people took a firm stance on one side, and some on the other side. Some people did not care either way, and some said that it was too difficult to really tell the difference. I recall once actually testing some friends to see if their imagined preferences actually lined up with reality, and could they tell the difference.
This is not some great and important spiritual or philosophical matter. This is not about right versus wrong. This is about Coke versus Pepsi.
That’s right, we argued and debated about which is better, Pepsi or Coke. And for that matter, we discussed if you could you even really tell the difference between them, or for that matter, between either of those two soft drinks and a store brand? I know, matters of serious importance here. But evaluating soft drinks was something we did as teenagers and young adults, for some reason. Seems pretty trivial now. Probably should have seemed a lot more trivial then, but that’s how it goes. For the record, Coke is a little bit sweeter, Pepsi a little bit sharper, or at least that’s how they were back in the 1990s. Ironically, because of my diabetes I really can’t drink either of them anymore, unless it’s a Coke Zero. These days if I’m having a cola it’s probably a Diet Dr. Pepper.
Why do I bring this up? There is not a lot of spiritual application to be found in soft drinks I don’t imagine, but there is much to be learned about the topic of evaluation. Telling the difference between Thing One and Thing Two, and determining which is better, that is useful, that is important. In fact, I would say that is needful in our lives every single day, and generally with things far more significant than if your favourite soft drink happens to come in a can that is primarily red or primarily blue.
Evaluation is important, and it is something we all have to learn. Let me make one thing clear right now – I am not a schoolteacher. I have no formal training in education, so when some terminology gets thrown around here in a moment, if I get some of the details wrong, I’m not an expert. I’m not sure if anyone here does have any education of that sort, but if anyone here does, and I get this part all wrong, I’m sorry in advance. For everyone else, well, maybe some of this will be familiar. I’m going to talk about Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning for a moment. If you’ve never heard of it, here’s a quick primer. There are different levels of learning, each one more complex than the one below it. The lowest level is simple knowledge and memorization, leading up to comprehension, application, and analysis, and at the top, evaluation. It’s one thing to know a piece of information, and to know what it means, and how to apply it, that’s all well and good, but it is most important that we are able to evaluate. That is how we deal with what life throws our way, and while I can only speak to my own experience, I think it’s pretty safe to say that most of us have no shortage of stuff to deal with, no small supply of material to evaluate.
That is one of the recurring themes in the passage we read to start. This is from the Sermon on the Mount, which is of course one of the best known passages in all of scripture. In it, Christ states themes and then elaborates on them, giving us some of the clearest teachings that we have on topics such as prayer, pacifism, materialism, and righteousness. The themes are repeated and explained, making the lessons abundantly clear. I believe it’s not by chance that Christ stresses repeatedly that we need to evaluate, and that we need to do that continually.
Now, you might be saying, hey, wait a minute, the chapter opens with “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Isn’t evaluating the same thing as judging? Well, yes and no. The word used here, the Greek word is Krino (KREE-no) which is a root word that can be used in a number of different ways. We have it translated frequently as judge, but we also have it elsewhere as determine, and in Romans 14 as esteem, as in One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. The word is also translated as condemn, and at least once, as damned. It is a powerful and a versatile word, used 114 times in the NT, not a word that we should be quick to dismiss. I would suggest that the meaning here is closer to condemn, rather than to consider and evaluate. We are not to condemn others, to decide that they have failings and flaws, and to run them down because of those shortcomings.
So often, though, that is exactly what we do. We condemn, we criticize, and we generally are dismissive of those whose behaviour is not good enough, who do not meet our particular standards. How often do we fall short of our own standards I wonder? But that really doesn’t matter, because regardless of what our standards might be, what level we hold others to, God’s standard is far above ours. His standard is perfection, and I don’t meet it. You don’t meet it. None of us do, and none of us can, no matter how hard we may try.
The only person who ever lived on this planet who did meet this standard was the Lord Jesus Christ. If there ever was someone who had the right to judge others, and to condemn the people around Him for their wrongdoing, with no fear of being judged Himself, it was Him. He had every right, He had all the authority to do so, both from His divine nature and from His perfect and sinless life. But He didn’t. He had the place, the position, and certainly the opportunity to condemn us all, but that’s not what He did. That’s not what we read in the gospels, far from it. He did not condemn the people He encountered on a day-to-day basis, the humble and the poor, the beggars and the publicans — the sinners, in short. Those in society who were recognized as sinners rather than as upstanding citizens.
Christ specifically said that it was not His purpose to condemn the world. Quite the opposite. In John chapter 3, we read at verse 17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. 18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
The word used here for condemn is the same Greek word, Krino as used in Matthew 7:1. The world is already condemned, that is its current default state. What else can you expect for a fallen world filled with sinful people? There was no need for Christ to condemn the place or the people therein, it was condemned before He got here. He came to save, to seek and to save the lost. The people in the worst situations, the most blatantly sinful states, He did not say they were doomed to an eternity separate from God. Look at the woman taken in adultery in John chapter 8. I won’t have you turn there, but after He challenged the accusers to find a sinless person among them to throw the first stone, and everyone, not qualified to make that claim, had left the scene with their heads no doubt hanging rather low, Christ did not condemn her. Even though He was qualified to do so, He chose not to. Neither do I condemn you, he said. Go, and sin no more.
The Saviour reserved His harshest words for those who would have been among the most upstanding citizens, the scribes and Pharisees, those who studied the law, who knew the law, who in fact taught the law, and who in their deeds followed the law, but in their hearts they were every bit as sinful as the lowest of the low.
They put on a good front, though. They made a convincing display of goodness. Whitewashed sepulchres He called them, all nice and clean on the outside and full of death and corruption and dead men’s bones on the inside. What’s more, those same scribes and Pharisees would be the first people to point out when someone did not meet up to a particular standard. They knew the law better than anyone, and they knew when someone violated the law, they knew that better than anyone, too. And they would no doubt be sure to point this out, to make sure that people knew where they fell short. After all, how can one do better if they don’t know their shortcomings? Best to point those out right away, no matter how small or large those might be, especially if they happen to be particularly immoral or anti-social or otherwise offensive.
When Christ told people not to judge, so that they would not be judged, this is what He was talking about – the hypocritical condemnation of the Pharisees, heaped upon those they looked down on, those whose behaviour was not acceptable. Of course, poor behaviour is one thing, but having an evil mind and a wicked heart is no better. In fact, it might even be a little worse, because it’s easier to ignore, to minimize, to pretend that there is no problem to worry about, when it’s not immediately obvious. No one can see the state of your heart. Oh, they might be able to figure it out, given enough time, because what is on the inside comes out, as we’ll see a little later. But no one can see what goes on inside, no one but God that is. Everyone can see when our behaviour is amiss. Everyone can hear when we use angry words or hurtful and offensive language. Everyone tell when we act poorly, that is not so easily concealed. It’s not easy, it’s all but impossible to convince yourself that you are okay when you’ve done wrong. But when our thinking is sinful, that is a lot easier to dismiss. We can’t see what’s on the inside.
Take a look at me for a minute. Take a look at my blood. Oh, wait, you can’t see that, it’s all contained inside. You can’t tell from looking at me that my blood pressure might be a bit too high. You can’t tell if my blood sugar is on target today or if it’s all out of whack. Either of those conditions could be happening with me right now, and you could not tell. What’s more, I might not even be able to tell. I might feel right as rain, even though my circulatory system could be in a state of disarray. You can’t see it, but it might be a pretty serious problem. Now, if I were bleeding, if I had a nosebleed, for example, you might see some of my blood, and you would know that there is a problem. Blood is not supposed to come out of the nose, that’s an obvious problem. If I were to stand here and let blood run from my nose, that would be offensive and messy and generally unpleasant. You would want me to make sure that was taken care of right away, in fact I would no doubt strive to take care of it right away. But in reality no one dies from a nosebleed. That would be a very unlikely outcome. How many people die because of hypertension and diabetes? How many people die of sicknesses that have no visible symptoms?
If I were to stand up here with blood running out of my nose, everyone would know about it, everyone would see. As I stand here right now, I know that I have diabetes, but the only way you know that is because I told you. You can’t diagnose that from your seat, you can’t look up here and say “He needs to monitor his sugar intake or it will lead to serious problems.” You can diagnose a nose bleed pretty easily, anyone can do that. Is there blood coming out of his nose? Then that’s a nose bleed. My diabetes was diagnosed a few years ago, not by someone on the street, but by my eye doctor, and then confirmed by my family doctor the next day. It took people with expertise to do that, people who were trained and equipped to make that judgement call.
It’s easy to look at someone with an obvious problem and make a call, or apply a label. He’s a drunk. She’s a tramp. They’re dishonest. That whole family has . . . issues. Ever heard those sorts of things before? Ever said those sorts of things before? I don’t think we need to answer that. That is what we are specifically cautioned against here. God does not want us, He does not want His followers in particular, to label and judge and condemn the world. That is not our job. As we read earlier, the world is condemned already.
And besides, if you feel the need to put a label on anyone, you can start with sinner, and you can start with yourself. That one is universal. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
Obvious, visible sins are easy to label, easy to diagnose. That’s why we are quick to do so, because we can, and because it makes us feel better about ourselves if someone else is worse. That’s the sins we can see. That’s the nosebleed.
But the heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, it says in Jeremiah 17, verse 9. The verse goes on to add “who can know it.” We certainly can’t. You and I don’t know anyone else’s heart. We barely know our own. Man looks on the outside, but only God can see into the heart. There are deeper, more serious problems that we can’t see. We can’t judge others based on what we can see, not when there is so much that we can’t. That is not a fair or reasonable evaluation.
While we are not to condemn others, we are called to make judgements. The passage we read to start gives us a number of things that we should evaluate, things that indeed are vital that we weigh and compare and come to a decision. The most obvious is the caution against false prophets, which starts are verse 15. Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. That is where we get the expression a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because of course what is more docile and non-threatening and generally safe than a sheep? As far as common domestic animals go, sheep are on the lowest rung of the threat ladder. Wolves, on the other hand, are among the most dangerous, both to livestock and to people. Now, I should point out that in the wild in North America you are exceedingly unlikely to be attacked by a wolf, unless you happen to provoke the animal, but that was not the case in Europe and Asia in the past, and in fact, wolf attacks are still fairly common in India. People have long been in conflict with wolves, and that was certainly the case when Christ spoke this warning.
Wolves are dangerous, not because they are alpha predators like bears or lions, which are simply larger and stronger than anything which would oppose them, but because they prey upon the weak and vulnerable. Historically, it is children who have been most often attacked by wolves, and women who happen to be alone in or near forests. Healthy adult men, especially those out working in the woods cutting lumber or hunting, are going to have little or nothing to fear from a wolf.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that men have less cause to be wary of false prophets than do women, it is a simply a matter of vulnerability. Someone who is equipped to recognize and deal with this threat is at far less risk than someone who is not, just as the woodsman with his axe has far less to fear than does Little Red Riding Hood. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, male or female, knowing how to identify a false prophet is an essential skill that every believer needs. Thankfully we have the information we need to make that evaluation laid out for us in the passage. Look at verses 16 to 20. Just as you can tell apples trees from cherry trees from pear trees by what grows on them, so you can tell what sort of gospel someone teaches by the evidence of what they say and how they live. By their fruits you will know them.
Yes, you can tell different types of trees from one another by more than just the fruit. Sometimes it’s really obvious with a quick glance. An oak tree looks nothing like a spruce, and neither looks remotely like a palm tree. If you know anything about trees at all you aren’t going to go looking for apples on any of them. Some people are very like that, in that they are obvious in what they are and where they stand, in particular about their opposition to Christ. There are certain prominent atheists I could name which no one would think for a moment might have something spiritually useful and profitable to say. No one who is seeking to grow their relationship with the creator is going to go to Richard Dawkins for guidance, for example. And there are some whose behaviour is so flagrantly offensive and immoral that no one would ever mistake them for a believer, not without some sort of dramatic turnaround – for example, 1970s shock rocker Alice Cooper, who turned to Christ a number of years ago, after battling drug and alcohol addiction for years. But none of us is likely expecting to see, say, Charlie Sheen show up for the meeting this evening.
While certainly the most flamboyant sinner can repent, and praise God that does happen, in fact praise God that any sinner repents, when we get to heaven there will be no shortage of people there who were at one time openly antagonistic to the gospel, we don’t turn to those who oppose God to learn more of Him. That doesn’t make sense.
That’s not what we need help with, not what we need guidance on, and certainly not what we might have difficulty evaluating. We are concerned with false prophets, with the wolves wearing wool. They blend in, they do not look out of place among God’s people. That’s why Christ cautioned His followers to beware of them.
If you ran into a homeless guy on the street and he said “Here, read this book, it’ll change your life,” and shoved a dirty copy of The Satanic Bible or Mein Kampf into your hands, well, I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking that the odds are that you aren’t going run home and curl up on the couch with a cup of coffee and read it cover to cover. You’re probably tossing it into the nearest trash can instead. But if someone in a nice shirt and tie came to your door and offered you a colourful magazine with a picture of a happy family on the cover and tell you that this has some really good articles about God, well, that feels a whole lot safer. You might actually take and read that, maybe more out of curiosity than of genuine interest. Now lets move things another step, and say that someone on Sunday morning after the meeting gave you an article from a newsletter and said that this was interesting and you should take a look at it. That’s sounding all the more safe, because it should be safe. No one is expecting false teaching to come from someone who looks good, who is in the church. That’s what makes it so much more dangerous.
Now, I’m not saying that the next time someone tries to give you something to read that you should crumple it up and throw in back in their face. But consider and evaluate. Look at the source of any message, look at the content, look most importantly at what it may say about God, about His word, and most importantly, about the Lord Jesus Christ. And look at the messenger. If someone speaks convincingly and says all the right “Christanese” keywords, we might assume they bring a message from God. But if they are a different person entirely when it isn’t Sunday, if their behaviour does not synchronize with the sermon, then alarm bells should go off. If they call into question things that should not be questioned, if they say things along the line of “Yea, hath God said,” as said the serpent to Eve, well, those alarm bells should be ringing all the more loudly.
Yes, we are not to condemn. We are not to look at others and judge them as being unworthy or as unfit or as unsuitable for God’s grace or our assistance. But we are to carefully judge what we listen to, and who we listen to, and especially what we believe and trust. We need to evaluate every new source of information that we encounter because false prophets do not show up wearing convenient ID badges. What’s more, we need to be mindful that even those who have in the past been solid and true may themselves stray into error, whether on purpose or by accident, and become false. At no point do we get to stop evaluating, or we will quickly be lead astray.
Speaking of going astray, of going down the wrong path, Christ warned of exactly that in the verses immediately preceding the warning on false prophets. Enter in at the strait gate, follow the narrow path, for only that one leads to life. That also requires evaluation, because if you do not consider the path you are on, what makes you think it’s the correct one? Without examining your course, you could be going in any direction. How likely are you to arrive at the right destination without effort? You might be going in approximately the right way, you might have started out with the correct heading, but that is no guarantee of arrival.
At work we have this happen quite often, someone will be coming down to visit us for the first time, whether it’s a supplier rep or someone coming for a job interview or whatever, and they will have a hard time finding us. I work on Panmure Island, and the office is in the woods past the end of the pavement, about half a kilometre down the gravel road. It takes some effort to find us. People might find their way through Montague and down route 17, and maybe they find their way actually unto Panmure Island, but then they are at a loss. The number of times we’ve gotten phone calls from a visitor who needs us to direct him the rest of the way, well, I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened, it’s dozens. We’ve had people call us twice on the same trip down, whether from confusion, inattention, or maybe in disbelief in the directions. They all needed help finding the way.
We all need to mind what path we are on, to pay attention to it, or we won’t end up where we want. Thankfully, we don’t have to do this blindly, we have been equipped to succeed. God has given us His word to help us evaluate the road we are on, to provide illumination so we don’t need to wander about in the dark. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 119, verse 105. We have been instructed to pay attention to our path, and we have been given the tools to do exactly that. If you’ve ever gone out at night and tried to walk any distance without some sort of light, you know how difficult that would be, and how easily you might end up taking a wrong turn and stumbling into trouble. The verse says broad is the way that leads to destruction. That is obviously trouble, obviously the wrong path.
We need to judge and evaluate and consider what path we are on, or we will end up on the wrong one. There is a way that seems right unto a man, it says in Proverbs 16, but the end thereof are the ways of death. Merely thinking that this seems right is dangerous. We must use the evidence and the instruction provided in God’s word to help us make proper decisions and wise judgements. It is needful that we make judgements, that we compare and evaluate, and so we are able to choose the good, and reject the bad. In fact, it’s not simply a good idea, it’s absolutely vital, not just to choose what is good, but what is best.
That is a judgement we all need to make. One that we need to keep making, so we don’t simply pick the right path, but that we stay on it. To do otherwise is to risk damage, despair and ruin. We need to evaluate, and we need to make the right choice. This is far more important, and with far more lasting consequences than so many of the choices we make. This is salvation we’re talking about. It’s a lot more important than simply selecting a soft drink.