When Jesus sat down on that hill to deliver His soul, little did His listeners realize they were about to hear the most famous sermon ever preached. There would be hundreds of great ones and thousands of good ones in the centuries to follow, but none to compare to His immortal Sermon on the Mount.
Why? What was it that set it apart? Today, we have no audio tape recording that would give us the sound and inflections of His voice, so it was not that that made His message memorable. Nor do we have it on film, allowing us the opportunity to study His gestures or watch His face. Obviously, it was not those things that made the sermon significant.
What was it, then? It was His words. The one ingredient permanently preserved for all time was just that — His choice of words, His placement of words, His economy of words, even His eloquent turn of a phrase. Blended together, they form a colorful and timeless tapestry that defies duplication. This should not surprise us, for a word remains the most powerful of all four-letter words.
The Impact of Words Fitly Spoken
“Words fitly spoken,” wrote the wise man of old, “are like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Like Jell-O, concepts assume the mold of the words into which they are poured. Who has not been stabbed awake by the use of a particular word — or combination of words? Who has not found relief from a well-timed word spoken at the precise moment of need? Who has not been crushed in spirit through another’s word? And who has not gathered fresh courage because a word of hope penetrated the fog of self-doubt? Such words become embedded in our brains like shrapnel from a grenade; in many ways, they remain forever.
But “words fitly spoken” endure.
“Fitly spoken” words are right words — the precise words for whatever the occasion. Mark Twain, a unique wordsmith, once wrote: “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
And what power those “right words” contain! Some punch like a jab to the jaw, others comfort like a down pillow, still others threaten like the cold, steel barrel of a .38 Smith and Wesson. One set of words purifies our thoughts, transplanting us, at least for an instant, to the throne room of God, and another set of words ignites lust, tempting us to visit the house of a harlot. Some bring tears to our eyes in a matter of seconds, others bring fear that makes the hair on the back of our necks stand on end.
Returning momentarily to the pen of David’s greater son, we find ourselves smiling one moment and frowning the next:
As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout,
So is a beautiful woman who lacks discretion.
When you sit down to dine with a ruler,
Consider carefully what is before you.
And put a knife to your throat,
If you are a man of great appetite.
Like a bad tooth and an unsteady foot
Is confidence in a faithless man in time of trouble.
Did such power-packed verbal missiles just flash into Solomon’s mind or was he on a quest for them? He answers that question in his autobiography, in which he calls himself, “the Preacher.’
In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly. The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. (
I love that! The man deliberately sought out “delightful” words (the Hebrew is colorful: words that find favor, are easily grasped, readily digested), knowing that they are like “goads” (prodding, pushing us on) and “well-driven nails.” Beautiful — and so true. J. B. Phillips has correctly assessed the impact of such words: “If … words are to enter men’s hearts and bear fruit, they must be right words shaped cunningly to pass men’s defenses and explode silently and effectually within their minds.”
The finest examples of that are the words and phrases of Jesus Christ. Never once retreating from His all-out assault against the scribes and Pharisees, He reserved His sharpest goads for them. I am thinking of the time He took them on before His disciples and many followers, a scene recorded in
No one ever goaded like the Son of God, hence no one’s words ever penetrated like His either. Every time I hear someone in a speech refer to Jesus as if He were some kind of meek ‘n’ mild, spineless wimp, I want to raise my hand and ask, “Ever read
The Power of Jesus’ Penetrating Principles
Let’s keep all this in mind as we get back to His message delivered from the mountain.
Dogs, Pearls, and Pigs
“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (
Talk about shocking! The One who earlier urged us to shake salt and shine light and not judge — the One who would later implore His own to take the good news to the ends of the earth here warns against giving what is sacred to “dogs” and “throwing pearls before swine.”
His choice of words was designed to startle. We can be certain the ears of His hearers quickly perked up. I have no doubt they understood that while we are not to judge and condemn others without knowing all the facts, neither are we to be gullible fools. To borrow a thought from Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between being people of simple faith and being simpletons.
Our Lord neither extols the virtues of gullibility (there are none), nor does He wink at a lack of discernment. To walk with God in a quiet, uncomplicated manner, sharing our faith with non-Christians, in no way suggests that we keep hammering away at stony hearts and indifferent wills.
The life-changing message of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection is a treasure too precious for price. While it is ours to claim and to share, it is much too valuable to defame. We cheapen it by pressing the issue beyond sensible bounds.
Face it, some individuals are impervious to spiritual riches. They are so debauched, senseless, hateful, and closed, their continued resistance and cynicism is signal enough to encourage the discerning to turn elsewhere. There comes a point when persisting is a waste of time and energy. To quote the prophet, “Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone” (
All this brings us to the first of three penetrating principles implied in Jesus’ words: Discernment must temper our declaration. I am aware that endurance and faithfulness are qualities to be modeled by God’s people. No question, most of us were won over because someone didn’t quit when we resisted the offer of eternal life with God through Christ. Nevertheless, Jesus is teaching here that there will be occasions when perpetually closed minds need to be left on their own. In fact, when instructing His twelve disciples, he reminded them of this principle as He released them to spread His message (
More than once, Paul modeled the same discerning style. Because he did, the Gentiles were given the opportunity to turn to Christ (
Perhaps you find the idea of turning away from those who persist in their unbelief difficult to accept. You may be working with a stubborn individual who is closed — but in your heart you cannot release him or her. It is possible you should not; then again, maybe you would be wise to back away and let God take full charge. There is no hard-and-fast, airtight rule on this. There does come a time, however, when it is best to “let stubborn dogs lie.”
Left alone, suffering under the consequences of an unbelieving, empty lifestyle could be what is needed. I have discovered over the years that hostile mates are seldom persuaded by a persistent verbal witness from their believing partners. Also, those whose lives are complicated by substance abuse, often must be given assistance in finding hope beyond that hang-up before they can begin to grasp the gospel message.
Furthermore, some folks, like Pharaoh in Moses’ day, deliberately harden their hearts and become impervious to spiritual truth. In such cases, to keep pounding away is counterproductive. Simply gather up your precious pearls and move ahead. The soil of the soul is too hard for planting — which reminds me of an old Southern expression I was raised with: “You can’t get sap out of a hoe-handle.” There comes a time when it is purposeless to persist.
But you and I can continue to pray. And that is exactly what Jesus addresses next in His message.
Asking, Seeking, Knocking, and Receiving
The following may sound both familiar and simple, but they are yet another example of powerful words:
“Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened. (
What powerful words: “ask .. seek .. knock!” Three monosyllabic words, all commands, urging us not to cave in with discouragement when facing the difficult or the unknown. They are all “present imperatives” in the language Matthew wrote them: “Keep on asking!” “Keep on seeking!” “Keep on knocking!”
The implication is, “Whatever you do, don’t quit; keep it up!” In childlike innocence, we are to turn to our heavenly Father and trust Him to do what we cannot. This is a good opportunity to clarify an issue about prayer. Whoever said we are to ask only once has not understood the Savior’s words: “Keep on asking .. seeking .. knocking.”
The Apostle of Grace later wrote, “Pray without ceasing” and demonstrated it by returning to the Lord again and yet again for relief from his “thorn in the flesh” (
Having reared four children, Cynthia and I have witnessed how our children did this very thing. If we were nearby, they asked. And kept asking. If we happened to be out of the room, they would seek one or both of us. And kept seeking. If we needed a few moments of peace and quiet, we occasionally would go to our bedroom and close the door to read or talk together. Do you think the kids gave up? You know better; they knocked .. and knocked .. and knocked .. and kept knocking!
Our older daughter Charissa and her husband Byron have their hands full with their two busy little ones, Parker and Heather. Now a mother in her late twenties, she made a statement that reminded me of something I had said when she was her children’s age. “Dad, there are days I would enjoy just five minutes all alone and to myself — but it is impossible. These two are omnipresent!”
She admitted that she slipped into her bedroom the other morning and gingerly closed the door — and locked it — so she might sit all alone for only a few minutes and gather her senses. Wouldn’t you know it? Sixty seconds hadn’t passed before she heard two little fists pounding away on her door: “Mom, Mom …. Mom, are you in there? Knocking accompanied their little voices. She waited. They persisted — knock, knock, KNOCK .. KNOCK .. KNOCK!
She flung open the door and looked down into two little cherubic faces as both said in unison: “Hi!” They simply wanted to be where she was. Her heart melted.
The same is often true with us. Therefore, we are invited to persist in our quest for His presence, His assistance.
Don’t miss the threefold promise that accompanies the commands. What happens when we ask and seek and knock?
– “… it shall be given to you”
– “… you shall find”
– “… it shall be opened to you”
You wish to receive something you need? Ask! You desire to find something important? Seek! You long for a door to open that is tightly sealed? Knock! Simple faith calls for nothing more than that: simple faith. No mumbo-jumbo, no voodoo, no need to bargain, beg, plead, or pay penance …. no incantations, no secret password. Nothing but the most difficult thing for high-tech, superefficient, uptight, and overachieving souls to do. Just ask in simple faith.
The second penetrating principle we can draw from Jesus’ words: Persistence must characterize our prayers. There is no place for reluctance or timidity or, for that matter, uncertainty. You have a need? Then do the simple thing (and the best thing!) first: Ask in simple faith.
Bread, Stones, Fish, and Snakes
Jesus concludes this section of His sermon with more “words fitly spoken.” As you hear them, feel free to smile. The words are colorful, even playful, on purpose:
“Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? (
Are you a parent? If so, you have an inside track on understanding what Jesus is getting at.
Your son is hungry and doesn’t hesitate to ask you for a piece of bread, perhaps a hot grilled-cheese sandwich. Would you ever go outside, look around the backyard, and find a rock in the flower bed to give to him and say, “Here, kid, munch on this”? Never! Nor would you or I ever consider doing that to one of our children who is hungry.
I’ll go a step further. Let’s imagine that your boy really loves to fish. I mean it is his all-time favorite thing to do with you when a holiday or vacation time rolls around. Would you — even in your worst moment — ever think of taking him to a swampy, snake-infested area, cruelly substituting something unpleasant and dangerous for his very favorite pastime? Never. You would do everything possible to provide a fishing trip he would never forget.
That is just the way parents are. We may be imperfect and sinful people .. but when one of our own really wants or needs something, we do it up right. “You’re hungry? How about a burger? …. Go fishing together? I know of a great spot, son!”
Now, the clincher:
“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (
Isn’t that magnificent? Our perfect Father in heaven outgives all imperfect fathers on earth — again and again and again.
So? So, persist in your prayers! So, count on your Lord to answer in the best possible manner in His way and in His time. Don’t be discouraged, my friend. He is faithful and generous and just — even though we are none of the above.
Others and Us
Being the ultimate wordsmith, Jesus has saved the most significant part until the last. What you are about to hear is commonly called “The Golden Rule.”
“Therefore whatever you want others to do for you, do so for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (
I appreciate the positive emphasis. Instead of saying, “Don’t do this,” He says, “Do this ….” Study the statement. More importantly, live it. If you have wondered about how to get started in a lifetime of simple faith, here it is.
The best part of the whole principle? It is so simple. Living by the so-called “Golden Rule” prevents the need for laying down an endless list of little rules and regulations to govern conduct. Just put yourself in the other person’s place and think, What is it I would need if I were him or her?” And then? Do it. When you do, you will fulfill the essence of “the Law and the Prophets.”
The Greatest Message We Can Deliver
It is time to turn the tables. I have been referring to Jesus’ greatest message, and have emphasized the words He used, “words fitly spoken,” to be sure. Do you know the greatest message we can deliver? It is the message of Christlike character. No message on earth is more needed or more powerful.
No need to drop gospel tracts from a low-flying airplane or display a bright red twenty-foot-square “Jesus Saves” flag over your house, or stick a fish-shaped symbol on your car, or quote a lot of verses every day to your neighbor, or rant and rave against all the ills of society down at City Hall.
Just take the distilled essence of the Christian message as contained in the Golden Rule and live it out. Morning to night. Day after day. Week after week. Month in, month out. Spring, summer, fall, and winter.
It has been said that the only Bible most folks in the world ever read is the daily life of the Christian. If that is true, I believe the world needs a revised version. Our problem is not that too many of us are being ignored, it’s that we are all being observed!
If you think that “words fitly spoken” are powerful, they are nothing compared to the power of a life fitly lived.
From Simple Faith by Charles R. Swindoll. (c) 1991 by Charles R. Swindoll. Published by Word, Inc., Dallas, TX.