Jesus concludes His sermon with a final application comparing those who look saved with those who truly are. He’s just explained that there are false believers who bear bad fruit and true believers who bear good fruit. And He told us that words will expose the hearts of those who profess the truth versus those who actually obey it. Now He finishes with a warning about those who only hear His words versus those who act upon them. Just like with the other comparisons, obedience is key, and if false believers aren’t exposed, judgment brings tragic consequences.
Verse 46 acts as a summary statement for this section of comparison but perhaps also for the sermon as a whole. If the sermon’s hearers only call Jesus Lord without truly recognizing His authority by obeying, then their hearing is in vain. His words only have value if they’re acted upon.
Each house in verses 48-49 represents a life. Every man effectively builds a house during his time on this earth and has to decide how and on what he builds it. Ultimately, the choices for foundations are only two – build on the truth of Jesus’ words or don’t. There are all kinds of construction materials to use and locations to pick, but the foundation question is simple. Either dig and build on rock or skip the step altogether.
Note that the two men build the same house in the same locality (they both face the same storm). They both want the same thing. They build what they think is a meaningful life that leads to eternity in the presence of God.
Both houses look the same. They both appear to be well-built on the same ground. The differences are not visible to the casual observer since the foundation (or lack of one) is all below ground. The wise builder digs deep to reach rock, so there is no way – once the houses are built – to know one has a foundation and one doesn’t. It could be that the foolish builder himself forgets there’s a difference once the houses have been up for a while.
Once construction is finished there is nothing that can be done to remedy the foolish man’s house. The only hope is for it to fall before it’s completed.
Notice two things about the foolish man. First, he has no patience. He doesn’t want to take the time to do the job right. Digging a foundation takes time. It’s hard, painstaking work. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried” (GK Chesterton). Second, he doesn’t think beyond today. Nothing’s wrong now so everything must be fine. He knows about storms but doesn’t really believe they’ll be a problem for his house. Eternity and the trials of life are out there, but that’s for tomorrow and he doesn’t need to worry about that today.
The storms can be both trials/temptations in this life as well as ultimate judgment. Both men will face difficulties in this life, and both will ultimately face their Creator. It’s important to note that the storms don’t just hit the foolish man’s house. EVERYONE goes through the storms – it’s how they go through them that differentiates the wise from the foolish.
The storms show the foolish man’s house for what it is. Sometimes the discouragements and temptations of this life wash the house away – his faith vanishes under the weight of the realities of life or against the allure of sin. When the hard times or strong attractions come, he finds he has no support to withstand them. This, however, is better than the alternative, since he at least has the opportunity to rebuild the right way. It is MUCH more dangerous to go through all of life deceived and not realizing the truth until judgment. Note that whether in this life or the next, the fall of the foolish man is great. It is complete.
Compare that to the wise man and his reaction to trial: How blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commandments. He will not fear evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord (Ps 112:1,7; see also Job 1:20-22).
Just like with the other comparisons, the difference is obedience. Personal holiness is what distinguishes a true believer from a false one (good tree, bad tree), and acting on Jesus’ words is what distinguishes a wise man from the foolish.
That said, obedience isn’t the foundation of the wise man’s house (life). The foundation is his relationship with his Redeemer. Obedience is the evidence of the foundation. If there’s no obedience, there can’t be a foundation because they always go hand-in-hand. The foolish man shows by his lack of obedience the absence of a foundation in his life.
Profile of the Wise Man
The wise man hears Jesus’ sermon and seeks to incorporate it into his life. He pursues God and asks, seeks, and knocks so to be more and more like his Savior and to glorify his heavenly Father. He desires the characteristics of the citizen of the kingdom of heaven more than any worldly treasure.
Acting upon Jesus’ words means that a man’s supreme desire is to do these things and to be like the Lord Jesus Christ. It means he is a man who not only wants forgiveness, not only wants to escape hell and to go to heaven. Quite as much, in a sense, he wants positive holiness in this life and in this world. That is a man who builds upon the rock. He is a man who desires and prays for holiness and who strives after it. He does his utmost to be holy, because his supreme desire is to know Christ. Not only to be forgiven, not only to go to heaven, but to know Christ now, to have Christ as his Brother, to have Christ as his Companion, to be walking with Christ in the light now, to enjoy a foretaste of heaven here in this world of time – that is a man who builds upon the rock. He is a man who loves God for God’s sake, and whose supreme desire and concern is that God’s name and God’s glory may be magnified and spread abroad. (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount; 564)
Profile of the Foolish Man
The foolish man hears the sermon and agrees that it’s good stuff. He feels convicted that he should probably change some things in his life, but then he goes out into the world with all its concerns and forgets about what he heard until next Sunday. He is like the rocky soil and the thorns that the seed fell on in the parable of the sower (Lk 8:4-15). The seed starts to grow but gets choked off either by persecution or the cares of this world.
James (1:22-25) tells of the foolish man who hears the word and reflects on what it means to his life but then goes away and forgets the reflection. The exercise of hearing does him no good because he never acts on it. James’ message is the same as the message here. There is no point to continually hearing without changing, any more than there is to looking in a mirror and then instantly forgetting what it showed.
Notice that the foolish man does hear the words of Jesus. That means he is in the Christian community. He lives and worships alongside (and looks just like) true believers whose lives have a foundation. If he attends a Bible-believing church, he likely hears the words of Jesus a LOT. But he hears and hears, and it does him no good because the words never provoke change. The truth doesn’t affect his life. He hears, agrees, perhaps even applauds, and then goes away and resumes his life as if he never heard anything at all.
That’s the danger of sitting under good teaching and becoming accustomed to it. It’s very easy to hear great stuff and become desensitized to what it actually means and what it’s supposed to accomplish in our lives. It’s very easy to hear – and even appreciate – and then instantly forget once we leave. And it’s very easy for this hear/appreciate/forget cycle to become habit. We become so accustomed to our numb response to truth that we forget there’s any other response to have.
At the risk of engaging in too much conjecture and reading into the text, let’s make some observations about the foolish man. The foolish man gives mental assent to the Gospel and believes everything in the Bible. He even generally obeys in certain areas. But he’s never willing to radically cede control of his whole life and commit himself to “know God and enjoy Him forever.” He searches for satisfaction in this world, thus making him no different than millions of others doing the same. He doesn’t know what it means to live for the Kingdom of God or to focus on treasure in heaven. He doesn’t give up the idols of this world. He is the double-minded man James talks about (Jas 1:5-8, 4:3-4). He wants God plus the world. He wants God without having to deny himself and take up his cross (Lk 9:23).
The foolish man doesn’t really know what it means to live wholly for the glory of Another. He doesn’t know what it means to wait for God, depend on God, confidently throw the trials of life on God. He doesn’t know what it means to pray his way through life. When in the midst of real life, there’s no thought that we have a heavenly Father who is in control and who walks with us and is the Guide for us in all things. While probably never stated, the idea that prayer by itself is a solution to any real circumstance is considered weak.
The foolish man compartmentalizes his life into sacred and secular. The Bible and prayer are good for church and Bible study, but real life is real life, and it needs practical solutions. Fellowshipping around Christ with other believers generally holds little attraction (but if his Christian friends want to get together for other things, he’s in). Prayer meetings sound excruciating. Sermons sound good at the time but are soon forgotten, and worship music is noted mostly so it can be critiqued later.
It is likely that the foolish man is very comfortable in the Christian community. He goes to church, he has Christian friends, he belongs to Christian organizations. He effectively rides the Christian wave. Everything and everyone around him are Christian, so – he assumes – he must be Christian too. [It becomes almost like an ethnicity more than a relationship. Are you a Christian? Sure! I was born here.]
And that’s the danger for the foolish man. He is so familiar with Christianity as a lifestyle and so comfortable with slipping it on like a robe at the appropriate times, that he loses sight of the fact that it’s supposed to be anything more. Familiarity breeds complacency. My house looks just like his, so I must be OK.
This kind of shallow Christianity is also just what the world expects. The world is very tolerant of a belief system that doesn’t affect how we live. If we say we’re Christians but it doesn’t make a difference outside of church, then we’re just like other religious people who fit into the world seamlessly. The foolish man’s life is generally easier in a fallen world and this ease pushes him further into his shallow faith.
And ease is perhaps one of the clearest symptoms of the foolish life. The foolish man often values comfort more than anything else. The danger of a comfortable life – a life committed to the avoidance of commitment or trial – is that it doesn’t test construction methods. If we protect ourselves from storms at all costs, we can go through life without realizing we built on sand instead of rock.
It is possible to evade a multitude of sorrows by the cultivation of an insignificant life. Indeed, if it be a man’s ambition to avoid the troubles of life, the receipt is perfectly simple — let him shed his ambitions in every direction, let him assiduously cultivate a little life, with the fewest correspondences and relations. (John Henry Jowett (1910), The School of Calvary.)
What Should We Do?
The key response to the comparisons at the end of this sermon is to examine our lives. We must honestly look at how we live and compare it to Jesus’ description of a citizen of His kingdom. Is our life typified by a generally increasing level of obedience? How much do Jesus’ words govern our lives day-to-day? How often do we call to mind biblical precepts when we consider how to respond to circumstances and people? How natural is it to see all of our interactions with others through the lens of what we’ve learned in the word? How conscious are we of living in God’s presence and of wanting to please Him with our obedience? Is the word active in our daily lives or is it left at home or at church and forgotten while we exist in the “real world?” How often do we think about eternity and see things in its light?
And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. I John 2:3-6