Sunday School Lesson

Sunday School Lesson (July 28, 2019) Jesus Teaches About Spiritual Discernment Matthew 7:1-6, 15-23

Spiritual Discernment Matthew 7:1-6, 15-23

Hello Sunday school teachers, preachers, and students! Welcome to SundaySchoolPreacher.com.  This week I review how Jesus teaches about spiritual discernment in Matthew 7:1-6, and 15-23.  In this chapter we see major teaching points about spiritual discernment, hypocrisy, constructive criticism and others. As Jesus begins to conclude his sermon on the mount we understand what he requires is not easy.  It requires spiritual maturity and being sensitive to the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit.  It can be easy to fall into the trap of a smooth talking false prophet.  It can be especially easy to fall into this trap when the false prophet started out doing good works and as Jesus said they prophesied in his name, cast out demons in his name, and even performed many miracles in the name of Jesus.  What frightens me is that Jesus said there would be many who did these things in his name.  But in the end he declares depart from me you evildoers, I never knew you.  Spiritual discernment is needed by all who follow Jesus.  This week’s lesson gives us a glimpse of how to achieve discernment.  Some of the ideas surrounding this week’s text include the terms: 

Criticism

Hypocrisy

Prophecy

Background: 

Matthew is written about 70 A.D. after the fall of the temple.  It is written to Jewish Christians who are struggling with their own identity.  These Jewish Christians are not accepted in the mainstream Jewish community because they believe in the divinity of Jesus.  The New Interpreters Study Bible notes that with bitterness the Jewish Christians have withdrawn from the synagogue.  The Temple has been destroyed, the Romans have occupied the land of the Israelites, and the Roman soldiers subject and oppress the Israelite people.  Because The Temple is destroyed, the Judeans are confused, distraught, and distressed because much of their religious existence revolved around The Temple.  They question whether God has abandoned them.  Matthew is primarily written to Jewish Christians and it offers unconverted Judeans (and others) a picture of why Jesus is the Savior.

This seventh chapter of Matthew deals with the ideas of judgment, accountability, and discernment among other things.  Part of what this chapter deals with is how we judge the actions and character of others.  When judgement comes from a place of moral superiority it is sinful.  This seventh chapter points that out using examples the people of its day would understand. 

Just as in previous weeks, our text this week continues to show what the righteousness of Jesus looks like.   Jesus is focused on teaching his standards of righteousness and showing how God’s people should be treated.  Some important words to consider from this text include:

Criticism

Hypocrisy

Prophesy

Review of Last Week and How it Connects to This Week: 

Last week the lesson began at verse thirty-eight with Jesus continuing his Sermon on the Mount.  He opens with the “You have heard that is was said” “But I say unto you” formula.  In this verse he reminded the disciples and the crowd of Leviticus 24:19-20 – “19 Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered”.  Jesus reinterpreted this command turning it upside down and in the next verse he literally says to do the opposite.  Instead of “eye for eye” Jesus told them to “turn the other cheek”.  The righteousness of Jesus goes beyond The Law.  His righteousness takes it to the next level.  I also mentioned how this verse causes us to evaluate the idea of retributive justice against the idea of restorative justice.  Retributive justice is “the view that God’s justice intends to give sinners that which their sins deserve (Jer. 5:29, 20:12)”.  Restorative justice “emphasizes an equal concern for crime victims and offenders, while deemphasizing the importance of coercion. It also seeks to focus on the harm done to persons and relationships rather than on the violation of a law” (The Free Dictionary).  In other words, retributive justice would not turn the other cheek whereas restorative justice would require the one who slaps a person to repair or somehow pay reparation to the one slapped.  In this way, relationships can be made whole and community restored because both the victim and the offender are involved in restoring community.

Verse forty dealt with our relationship with the legal system or as Townsend Commentary puts it “legal revenge”.  Jesus was telling us when we are sued to willingly give more than the law requires, even to our own detriment. 

Verse forty-one told us to “go the extra mile”.  I mentioned how Standard Commentary notes that “By law, a Roman soldier could compel a person to carry his gear, but only for one mile”.  Roman soldiers were despised by the Israelites.  The Romans had occupied the land of Israel, destroyed The Temple, and oppressed the Israelites.  To go the extra mile for your oppressor is indeed a radical love.  

Verse forty-two dealt with our relationship with money.  Our economic system and our societal values today are vastly different from this time in ancient history.  The point is for us to be generous when and where we are able. 

Verse forty-three and forty-four returned again to the “You have heard that it was said” “but I say unto you formula”.  In verse forty-three Jesus reminds us the law says to love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).  I mentioned how Standard Commentary notes that “Nowhere does the biblical law command one to hate an enemy”.  The point Jesus is making is that his righteousness requires a radical, life changing, transformative love.  

Verse 45 helped us understand that what happens to someone else could just as easily happen to you.  God makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and God sends rain on the just and the unjust.  Good things can happen to bad people and bad things can happen to good people. 

I noted in verse forty-eight Jesus tells us to be perfect even as God in heaven is perfect.  Townsend Commentary described this perfection as meaning “mature and full grown”.  We are not and cannot be perfect.  Yet, we can be mature and complete in our love toward God’s creation and especially God’s people.  Our goal is perfect love; that is what we are striving for. 

This week’s lesson helps us understand spiritual discernment.  As Jesus continues to outline what the rules of his kingdom looks like, we learn about checking ourselves first before we start correcting others.  We also learn about spiritually discerning motives of false prophets.   Townsend and Boyd’s Commentary title the lesson Jesus Teaches About Spiritual Discernment.  Standard Lesson Commentary titles it Spiritual Discernment.  The scripture text comes from Matthew 7:1-6, and 15-23. 

What Takes Place in This Passage: 

Verses one and two start this chapter with the admonition “do not judge, so that you will not be judged”.  In this context, Jesus is telling us not to look down on or speak against others as if we are morally superior.  Jesus cared about people.  All of God’s people.  Someone else may be farther along in their Christian maturity than me or you but this admonition from Jesus helps us know that they are not superior to me or you.  Not only that, but verse two lets us know that when we judge we will be judged in the same manner. When you were growing up you may have heard someone say “what goes around, comes around”.  That may not be scriptural, but the principle certainly is.

In broad terms, verses three through five deals with hypocrisy.  Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines hypocrisy as “the outward appearance of conveying truth or righteousness that masks the inner state of mind or intention of untruth or evilness”.  These verses help us understand that we cannot act morally superior to others whose faults are small compared to our own very large faults.  We should first evaluate our own motives and actions before evaluating the behavior and motives of others.  While behavior is easy to see, a person’s motives are not always clear.  It’s easy to say “right is right” and “wrong is wrong” but sometimes what we think is right or wrong really isn’t so clear.  The point Jesus is making here is that we should be guided by love.  When love is the guiding principle we are less likely to judge others from a position of superiority.  We should keep in mind that Jesus loves all of God’s people.  As Jesus outlines what righteousness looks like and the rules of his kingdom in chapters five through seven we see again and again the high importance he places on treating people right.  Not just friends and family and the people who look, act, and think like us but all of God’s people regardless of their position in life. 

Verse six moves away from telling the disciples and crowd to not be hypocrites.  Instead it essentially tells them to be good stewards of discernment.  As I’ve stated in previous lessons, Matthew’s Gospel is not kind to the scribes and Pharisees.  When Jesus talks about not giving that which is holy to dogs and not casting your pearls before swine, he is talking about the scribes and Pharisees.  Standard Lesson Commentary notes that Jesus “does not want them to be hypocrites like the scribes and Pharisees yet Jesus knows the potential for misuse of his exhortation not to judge”.  What is important for us to know is that some people will take advantage of your kindness.  This verse helps us to be on guard for the unrighteous who are not really concerned about righteousness or doing right by others.  People like this are not concerned about your well-being and may wish you no good. 

The text skips now to verses fifteen through twenty-three.  Townsend Commentary titles these sections True and False Prophets (verses 15-20) and True and False Disciples (verses 21-23).  Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines a prophet as “One who speaks on behalf of God to God’s people, most prominently the Hebrew prophets whose writings are found in the Old Testament.  In verse fifteen Jesus cautions his disciples and listeners to beware of false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing but are inwardly ravening wolves.  Other words that describe people like this could be huckster, grifter, charlatan, imposter, swindler, cheat, fraud, deceiver, fake, and I’m sure there are others.  Jesus tells us to beware of these kinds of people.  Jesus loves everybody, but that love does not mean we should let ourselves be taken advantage of by them.  One measure of discernment to guard against being taken advantage of is to evaluate how much of what they teach benefits them personally. 

Verse sixteen reminds us that we will know them by their fruits.  It’s true that you can’t know what is in a person’s heart.  But it is just as true that you can see what they do.  You can see who and what they support, and you can see what they condone and how they conduct themselves.  You will know them by their fruit. 

Verses seventeen and eighteen say it plainly.  A good tree produces good fruit and a corrupt tree produces corrupt fruit.  In other words, good prophets will do good things and bring about good on behalf of God.  Corrupt prophets will do corrupt things and bring about corruption in the name of God.  But keep in mind that not every false prophet starts out corrupt.  Sometimes they fall into corruption somewhere along the journey and become corrupt.  So the point for us is to always keep our eyes on Jesus as our guide and not a human who is capable of failing us. 

Verses nineteen and twenty tell us that trees not producing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire and that we will know them by their fruits.  Ultimately the end of false prophets will be destruction.  Unrepentant abusers of God’s people have no place among the righteous. 

In verse twenty-one Jesus explains that those who make it into his kingdom will be those who “walk the walk” not just “talk the talk”.  Jesus expects us to live this Christian life.  Jesus expects us to live a righteous life guided by and actually doing the work of love.

Verses twenty-two and twenty-three close this lesson on spiritual discernment showing us that many will say they have prophesied, cast out demons, and done many wonderful works in the name of Jesus.  Yet, in the end Jesus will tell them “I never knew you, go away from me you evildoers.  What should be frightening to us is that there will be many who say they have done this in Jesus name.  We must be vigilant and diligent so that we are not deceived by these charlatans, grifters, imposters, frauds, and deceivers otherwise known as false prophets.  Our goal is to walk in God’s perfect love and in doing so with discernment we won’t become victims of these false prophets.    

Context:

Spiritual discernment, constructive criticism, and hypocrisy, are some of the major teaching points in this text.  The first two we should embrace and the last we should reject and avoid.  But that is easier said than done.  It takes spiritual maturity to exercise spiritual discernment.  It can be easy to fall into the trap of a smooth talking false prophet.  It can be especially easy to fall into this trap when the false prophet started out doing good works and as Jesus said they prophesied in his name, cast out demons in his name, and even performed many miracles in the name of Jesus.  Spiritual discernment requires being sensitive to the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Again, that requires maturity. 

Constructive criticism happens when someone offers a solution to a problem in a positive way.  That happens best when we have first evaluated ourselves.  When our motives are true, not self-serving but more so in the interest of another we are able to offer constructive criticism without judging others.  When offered in the right way constructive criticism avoids judgement while still identifying and helping to solve a problem.  It is in some ways the very opposite of judging others. 

Most people know hypocrisy when they see it.  When people say one thing but do another its hypocrisy.  When people smile in your face but hate you as soon as you turn your back, that’s hypocrisy.  There are a number of other examples but again, most people know it when they see it.  As followers of Jesus Christ we should strive to never become hypocrites.  As followers of Christ our yes should be yes and our no should be no.  Our goal should be to live and act in love following the righteousness of Jesus Christ. 

Key Characters in the text:

Jesus Christ – Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and according to the Christian church the incarnate second Person of the Trinity.  He was crucified on a cross and was raised from the dead by the power of God. 

Key Words (not necessarily in the text, but good for discussion): 

Criticism – the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything. 

Discernment – The process of assessing and evaluating, particularly in relation to trying to determine God’s will in a particular situation or for one’s life direction. 

Hypocrisy – The outward appearance of conveying truth or righteousness that masks the inner state of mind or intention of untruth or evilness. 

Prophet – One who speaks on behalf of God to God’s people, most prominently the Hebrew prophets whose writings are found in the Old Testament. 

Demon – An evil spirit that works contrary to the divine will (Mark 1:34, 39). 

Themes, Topics, Discussion, or Sermon Preparation Ideas: 

1.  Judgement versus discernment.

2.  When wise as serpents (Matt 10:16) see ravening wolves (Matt 7:15).       

Questions

1.  Discuss ways you have noticed hypocrisy.             

2.  Discuss ways constructive criticism could have prevented hypocrisy.            

Concluding thought:

This week’s lesson teaches us about spiritual discernment.  Just as in last week’s lesson a changed heart brings about a changed life.  The righteousness Jesus calls us to, is to be both wise or discerning and grounded in love.  It is a love that helps others overcome their faults and sins.  It is a love that operates in the righteousness of Jesus and makes effort to first judge ourselves before we judge the intentions, and motives of others.  Sometimes it is indeed a difficult task.  But that’s our goal.  That’s what we are striving for.       

Preview of Next Week’s Lesson:

Next week we leave the New Testament and move back to the Old Testament.  Our lesson comes from I Samuel and deals with a covenant between friends.  The challenge faced by one of these friends will reveal the loyalty of his friendship.  I am reminded of a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends”.  Covenants have meaning.  The mettle of this friendship will be tested in next week’s lesson.  Next week the text continues at I Samuel 18:1-5, and 19:1-7.

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