“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
This passage is the commissioning of those in attendance for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount–as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel account. Leading up to these culminating remarks Jesus has told his listeners things that shocked their senses. Among Jesus’ claims are these: their righteousness must be greater than that of the righteous elite (Matthew 5:20), their good works won’t be enough to merit them entrance into heaven (Matthew 7:21-23), the way to eternal life is difficult and not many find it (Matthew 7:13-14), a disciple of Jesus should expect, and rejoice in, persecution from this world on his account (Matthew 5:11-12), and nothing short of perfection allows a person into God’s presence (Matthew 5:48). These are insurmountable statements for those perishing, but where does the Christian see hope?
Everyone, regardless of what religion or worldview, is building their life around something, some truth, some ultimate reality, something that ascribes meaning to their existence. Here, in his closing remarks of his most exhaustive and lengthy teaching regarding earthly kingdom living recorded in scripture, this is exactly what Jesus is addressing. He likens our lives to the houses found in these verses. Everyone that lives has a house, and we’re all building our houses on something. What we build our houses on has a lot to do with how sure we are that our house will remain standing when the storms of life come (characterized by rains, floods, and winds). Then, Jesus places every person in one of two categories: 1) those that love him, and therefore build their lives on his firm foundation through obedience to his commandments–the wise man, or 2) those that don’t love him, and therefore build their lives on the shifty sands of anything and everything else–the foolish man. With Jesus there’s no middle ground. Love for Christ always manifests itself in obedience to him (John 14:15).
A Shifty Foundation
In our culture, idolatry looks different than what generally jumps to mind when we hear the word. We tend to think of some sort of statue or physical “god” that we bow down and pray to, or worship. And while in some cultures that may still be the case, in 21st Century West idolatry has more often than not taken a much more subtle and dangerous form.
One definition of an idol is: anything apart from God, even a good thing, which has become an ultimate thing. This means when we elevate job status, academic success, wealth, sexuality, parenthood, etc., as “make-it-or-break-it” items that define our existence we have a functional idol. This also means that when our good longings (e.g.; to be a loving spouse, earn a good wage to provide for our families, or have good rapport with others) become the token by which we ascribe ultimate meaning to our lives, we still have a functioning idol.
These examples are why Jesus characterizes living our lives in the pursuit of idols as a fool who builds his house on the sand. Sand is always shifting. At one moment things may seem sturdy, but the wind comes, blows the sand away, and our house falls. We may be able to pick up the pieces and put our house back in order, but then comes the rain and our foundation is washed out from under us once again.
Jesus says that when these houses built upon sand fall, the fall of them is great. By this, he is simply punctuating the functioning idolatry. When the assurance that we build our houses on–a foundation of sand–lets us down (e.g.; laid off at work, a spouse cheats, a child is miscarried, etc.) our world crumbles. Everything we thought was right seems to be proven wrong. All of the things that we have built around and given meaning to are taken away. This fall is great because it catapults a life of comfort into a life of absolute chaos when it seemed as though nothing could ever go wrong. Because of this, many are tossed into depression, harbor hate for others and God, and even contemplate taking their own lives because they feel if this thing–whatever the idol–was able to let them down, then what’s the point of continuing? This idol held all of their hope and it failed them when they needed it most. This is a great fall indeed.
It must also be conceded at this point that many people attempt to use God in the same way–as merely an idol to serve their desires and not a redeemer to be honored and loved. The passage immediately previous to this one demonstrates just that–how people attempt to leverage God into giving them the things they want. In speaking of this kind of people, Jesus says that, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’” (Matthew 7:22). These people are petitioning Jesus that on that day–the day of judgement–they ought to get in to heaven because of all that they have done for him. This is precisely the opposite of what Jesus is after and it causes him to declare that he never even knew the workers of lawlessness that stood before him (Matthew 7:23). They thought they were offering gold, but Christ looked down and saw nothing but filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6, Zechariah 3:3). These people had hinged their obedience, or religiosity, to Christ on a benefit he could provide them with. When their offered sacrifice of so called obedience–or whatever else they thought they were bringing to the table to coerce God’s hand into giving them what they wanted–wasn’t enough, the flood takes their sandy foundation right out from under them. Their religiosity was simply an effort to leverage God in order to receive the idol they had created out of a benefit God could provide them with instead of obeying God simply out of love manifested through faith in him. So what’s the alternative?
A Sure Foundation
One overarching purpose of The Sermon on the Mount is to demonstrate to us our inability to get to God. As I mentioned in the introduction, Jesus has made many claims throughout, and these claims are insurmountable for us. The most difficult claim to swallow is that we must be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). When we hear that statement we want to throw in the towel because the task at hand is impossible. The Bible shows us that we have a sin nature from the womb that has been handed down to us by our priestly representative in the Garden of Eden, Adam (Psalm 51:5, Romans 5:12, 18, Ephesians 2:1-3). So the battle is lost before we even realize we’re in it. It seems that the dream of a rock solid foundation of perfection guaranteeing us eternity in heaven is an unattainable one. With us it is indeed an impossible task, but we must take comfort knowing that while some things are impossible for man, all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26, Mark 10:27).
Leading up to his closing statements here, Jesus has specifically and strategically stated every line in order to display an absolute need found in everyone due to the requirement of perfection from God, and he is over and over again demonstrating that this need cannot be satisfied from within but must come from without. This need is righteousness. Righteousness is what we could put forward as our ultimate justification before God. If we were wholly righteous, then we could build our houses upon our own foundation with security from the elements because we would be able to petition God on account of our perfect love for, and subsequent obedience to, him. But according to the Bible, we aren’t righteous. In fact, no one is righteous (Romans 3:10, Isaiah 53:6). We are sinful, and because of our sin we are not able to stand before God justified (Romans 3:23). So we’re back at square one. What’s the rock we are to build on? We have determined it isn’t anything in this world, and it isn’t even us, so what is it?
Jesus is the rock.
Jesus has been pointing to himself this whole time. He has shown us our incapability and ultimately referring to his complete capability. The claim of the Gospel is that we are sinners and because of our sin we deserve an eternity enduring God’s just wrath, in hell. But God, being rich in mercy, sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to live the life we should have lived, die the death we deserve–taking on our hell–so that by his grace, through faith, we who are unrighteous may be clothed in the righteousness of Christ himself. Only through faith in Christ’s work done on our behalf can we stand justified before God because God made Jesus, who was sinless, to become sin–endure sin’s punishment–so that we who are sinful might be able to receive the reward that only Jesus was due–eternity in heaven with God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
If the claim of the Gospel is what we build our houses upon in faith, we have built upon the rock indeed. Only upon this foundation can we endure the blows of life because, for the Christian, this is not the best there is. The best life is not now, it is yet to come. That means that when the storms of life come, and beat on the house of a Christian, the foundation can withstand it because the foundation is itself the very creator of the world.
By no means am I saying that by placing saving faith in Christ will a Christian not have to endure the storms. The teachings of scripture do not support that, the Sermon on the Mount does not support that, and Jesus doesn’t even give us the room to think that from these four verses here. As we can see in Jesus’ illustration, both the house of the wise builder and foolish builder endure the same three catastrophes (i.e.; rains, floods, & winds). So it isn’t because of the foundation that the house doesn’t endure hardship. Rather, it is because of the foundation that one house remains standing.
So we can surely say that the home a Christian builds upon the rock will endure leaks in the roof from the rain. A Christian’s house will have evident water damage caused by the floods of life. Their houses will be scarred by whatever the wind has picked up and thrown into it over the course of time. But the hope of a Christian is bound up in faith that Christ, being the foundation the house is built upon and no matter the damage, won’t let that house fall (Philippians 1:6).
Hearing and Doing
It would be easy to overlook the “doing” aspect of Jesus’ call to faith here in these verses. Generally, our culture likes the “feel good” message. This is one that sends the hearer away happy but doesn’t require any conforming of their lives if they don’t feel so inclined. This kind of message assumes all of the benefits without any of the cost. There is no message of taking up your cross or losing your life for Christ’s sake in order to find it (Matthew 10:38-39 & 16:24-25).
Allow me to be clear: for those who have received in faith Jesus Christ’s atoning work for their sins, the record of debt that stood against them has been paid in full and nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14). It is finished (John 19:30). So, Jesus’ mention of doing the words he has spoken by no means turns the Christian life into a legalistic system of working to earn, or keep, salvation. However, Jesus also does not allow the hearer to leave this sermon and think that because salvation is by grace, through faith in him, they can continue their life however they please without significant change. While those two responses seem to be the polar opposites of each other, they are actually simply two different ways of avoiding Christ’s saving grace. Gospel obedience, then, is the actual opposite of both, and the only real response produced by saving faith, and the obedience it is bound up in that faith. Gospel obedience says from the beginning, “I can’t do it!” And so it is the same for the entirety of the Christian life. Every step taken, every commandment obeyed, is done so in faith. Faith in Christ’s adequacy before the Father on our behalf must be what sustains every inch of the Christian’s journey through this life (Galatians 2:20).
As mentioned earlier, Jesus says to his disciples that if they love him they will keep his commandments (John 14:15). This is not an either-or statement, nor is it a bi-directional statement–where we can start at either end. The only reason we can love God is because he first loved us (1 John 4:19), and our obedience cannot earn God’s love, but rather it is God’s love for his redeemed in Christ that produces our obedience. So in these final four verses of his sermon Jesus is showing us that his Gospel can only produce two kinds of people: 1) those who hear and do, and 2) those who hear and don’t.
He starts by likening the wise builder to someone who “hears [his words] and does them” he is not making two claims about the man–that he must hear the words and then perform the words. Instead he is actually making one claim about the man’s love for him–that because he has heard the words and believed, or loved, he will perform the words. Upon hearing and believing the voice of their shepherd, the sheep follow (John 10:27).
Conversely, the foolish builder “hears [his words] and does not do them.” Or to put it another way, the foolish builder rejects his words. This is the ultimate manifestation of disbelief. The foolish builder can’t believe what Jesus says is true, and therefore doesn’t do the words Jesus says. These people refuse to give Christ Lordship–control–in their lives. Christ must be both Lord and Savior, not one or the other. These people may be happy to receive the benefits of Christ’s gospel–his salvation or tangible here-and-now benefits–but because they seek the benefit and not Christ himself they are fools and get neither.
For the non-Christian, hear and believe. The sandy foundations you are building upon can’t withstand the storms of life. For the Christian, in faith, build upon the rock. Christ crucified for sinners to be reconciled to God is the only foundation sturdy enough to withstand the storms of this life without the whole house coming down. But don’t do it for the benefit of a house that remains standing. Attempting to build on the rock just for the benefit of a house that won’t fall actually has you building on the sand. Place your hope and faith in Christ–build upon him, in order to gain Christ. Count everything–even the benefits that might come from Christianity–as trash in order that you may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of your own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the very righteousness from God that depends on faith (Philippians 3:8-9).
Photo Credit: @mrsverenaboga