Recently, our family drove from Washington State to Tennessee, to drop our oldest son off at college. One day, in the wilderness of western Colorado, I spied a shiny new Corvette ahead of me. It was plodding along at about 65 mph on a stretch of interstate where the speed limit was 80 mph. Yet, there he stayed—at 65 mph.
I was driving a rented Toyota Prius, set to “eco” mode. In the fast lane travelling at 85 mph, I rapidly ate up the distance between us. I felt certain the Corvette driver wouldn’t let this happen. Yet, I passed him like he was standing still. The driver was oblivious. The wind was in his silver hair, and he had a big smile on his face. He didn’t care about me or my Prius. We left him behind, the Prius whirred onward in “eco” mode, and the shiny Corvette was soon lost to sight.
That man obviously didn’t buy the Corvette to use it. The car was eye candy, a toy to show off, not a “real” car.
Jesus says our faith isn’t eye candy, something to be pretty but not really touched—it’s a serious thing, not a hobby. The problem for too many of us is that it is external, it is eye candy, it never touches our hearts, it never renovates our lives—or it renovates only the most convenient parts of it. We build our lives on other things, while putting Jesus on our dashboard like a divine bobblehead—“I spend time with Him everyday!”
This isn’t a new thing—it’s an old, old thing. Our parable, the Tale of the Two Builders, is about this problem.
Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.
This is a simple, two-point parable that basically explains itself. There is a man, a house, and its foundation. The threat is a flashflood. Will the house stand? Only if its foundation is situated on the rock. The one who does this is the one who hears Jesus’ words and does them. Jesus is the rock.
But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
The same flood sweeps through, but this house is different—its foundation is built upon sand. The ground will wash away from under. Disaster looms. You either build your house on Jesus or on sand—which is anything but Him. Again, hearing Jesus’ words and doing them determines the foundation.
Well … What Did Jesus Say?
The parable is tied to the words Jesus just finished saying—the Sermon on the Mount (“SoM”). The SoM doesn’t outline “conditions of entry” for us into God’s family. Instead, it describes the inevitable fruit of salvation1—renovated hearts + minds = renovated lives.
This isn’t the place to discuss the SoM in any detail. It’s enough to state that it forms the context for the Tale of the Two Builders, and to fashion a sketch outline of Jesus words. There are three categories in the SoM:
|Moral||Adultery + lust (Mt 5:27-30)|
|Cheap divorce (Mt 5:31-32)2|
|Rash oaths (Mt 5:33-37)|
|Allegiance||Be salt and light (Mt 5:13-16)|
|Follow commands—honest fruit (Mt 5:17-20)|
|Honest, quiet prayer with God (Mt 6:1-13)|
|Honest, quiet fasting (Mt 6:16-18)|
|Treasures below v. above (Mt 6:19-24)|
|Seek His kingdom and righteousness above treasures below (Mt 6:25-34)|
|Asking God for help (Mt 7:7-12)|
|Brotherly love||Murder + grudges (Mt 5:21-26)|
|Love v. retaliation (Mt 5:38-42)|
|Love for enemies (Mt 5:43-48)|
|Giving to needy quietly (Mt 6:1-4)|
|Forgiveness (Mt 6:14-15)|
|Don’t be hypocritically judgmental (Mt 7:1-5)|
I’ll highlight two representative teachings:
- Adultery + lust. Jesus went beyond externalism and emphasized that the “adultery” prohibition isn’t simply about the act, but about the heart condition which produces the action. Noting that someone is physically attractive is not the issue—lusting is!3 Sin isn’t about the letter of the law, but the spirit. Sin begins with internal premeditation—in the heart, not with overt physical action.
- Following commands—fruit. Jesus famously said that “anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven,” (Mt 5:1). This isn’t a statement emphasizing the impossibility of following the law. Rather, it’s noting the inevitable fruit of real salvation—loving obedience.4 If you love God, you won’t pick and choose when to follow Him. You’ll just want to do it. This means the enigmatic statement which follows (“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” Mt 5:20) isn’t irony—it’s a real statement of fact. You’ll never see the kingdom of heaven unless your righteousness exceeds the pseudo-righteousness of these “esteemed teachers.”
If you claim to be a Christian, there will be fruit. It might not be the best fruit. It might not even be edible fruit—every tree has a bad year! But, it will be recognizable fruit. This is the SoM. Hence, our parable.
More Than a Coffee Table Faith
The SoM not just individualistic, but communal—the commands throughout are plural! The Jesus community has a mission, and we’re failing if we lose that focus. If we lose our saltiness, we’re off mission.
The challenge is that we can only perform our mission when we’re in contact with the world around us. “The church is properly understood only when it is seen as the sign of God’s universal kingdom, the firstfruits of redeemed humanity.”5 We must be seen for what we are. We gotta be salty, which means we gotta hear and do Jesus’ words from the SoM.
There are at least three ways to view “church v. culture:”
- withdrawal—run for the hills, disengage, fight defensively.
- rule—push for a Christian Americana (e.g. Moral Majority)
- be a prophetic minority—“in the world but not of it” (Jn 17:14-16)
The latter is the biblical option. Prophets nettle precisely because they go against the grain. If we’re not following Jesus’ words, who are we following? What are we doing? How then can we fulfill our mission?
The problem is that there are, right now, two kingdoms + two masters + two cultures.6 God and Satan are building rival kingdoms in parallel and in conflict over the same space and over the same people. Satan doesn’t simply act by persecution—he acts via seduction, too.7
The result of his seduction may well be a “culture Christianity” that’s hermetically sealed from every aspect of your life where it could make a difference. In “culture Christianity,”8 abstract Christian values are always more important than the Christian Gospel.9 It often isn’t “real” Christianity, at all. Like that Corvette I passed in a Prius in western Colorado, it’s meant to be put on a shelf, to be seen and admired, never actually embraced.
In the same way, Jesus can become a figurehead to be seen, spoken about, “worshipped,” but never loved—something else has prime of place. Jesus and the Gospel are a coffee table book.
And that means a coffee table “Christianity” will get run over by a semi-truck—because it isn’t real! It’s not an accident the SoM ends with three warnings, right before our parable (Mt 7:13-23): (1) the narrow gate, (2) false teachers and fruit, and (3) true and false disciples? Why do you think our parable begins with “therefore/οὖν” (Mt 7:24)?
Jesus gives us a clue when He opens the SoM by listing those who are particularly blessed by the Good News; (1) the poor in spirit, (2) those who mourn, (3) the meek, and (4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Why these folks?
Because these are the people for whom Jesus’ counter-cultural call are most attractive, because they’re the ones who feel the injustice of this world most keenly—who are the most uncomfortable. Satan’s seduction has less to work with. So, they’re the ones who are likely the most devoted followers—the folks with their houses on a firm foundation.
Jesus spoke against materialism—the idea that life consists in the abundance of your possessions (Lk 12:14)—and said “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,” (Mt 6:33). What does that mean?10
It means that we take everything else in this world, all our own values, ideals, efforts, and dreams and throw them into the shade for the sake of Jesus and His kingdom more and more as we grow more like Christ, and less like our old selves.
In this parable, Jesus takes a sledgehammer to coffee table Christianity, to the bobblehead Savior, to casual, cultural “faith” that’s designed to look pretty on a shelf, but not actually touch anything in our lives.
In this parable Jesus, in a way infinitely more powerful than if He’d just spoken plainly, says this to each of us:
You can say whatever you like, but everyone builds their life on something. And not everyone who says they love me actually knows me. So—what will happen to your house when the rains come?
1 See especially Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, trans. H. de Jongste(Phillipsburg: P&R, 1962), §29, pp. 241-255.
2 Divorce is allowed in a number of circumstances. See Tyler Robbins, “When May Christians Divorce?” https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2021/03/23/when-may-christians-divorce/.
3 See Sheila Gregoire, Rebecca Lindenbach, The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021), ch. 5.
4 Along this line, see Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, pp. 246-249.
5 Rene Padilla, “The Mission of the Church in Light of the Kingdom of God,” in Mission Between the Times: Essays on the Kingdom, rev. ed. (reprint; Carlisle, UK: Langham, 2010), p. 208.
6 Rene Padilla writes, “The purpose of the Antichrist is to destroy the church either by means of persecution from outside on the part of an anti-Christian government, or by means of enticement into error from within on the part of an anti-Christian religion. The reality of his present activity does not allow us to hold that there exists a road by which humanity can travel from history into the Kingdom of God. The pilgrimage toward the Kingdom takes place in the midst of a conflict in which the powers of darkness are constantly opposed to the fulfillment of God’s purpose in Jesus Christ. Thus there cannot be mission without suffering,” (“Christ and Antichrist in the Proclamation of the Gospel,” in Mission Between the Times, p. 138).
7 Padilla, “Christ and Antichrist,” in Mission Between the Times, p. 141.
8 On this, see especially the discussion in Padilla, “Evangelism and the World,” in Mission Between the Times, pp. 36-42. This paper was Padilla’s talk at the 1974 Lausanne Conference.
9 “… from the very beginning, Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel. That’s why one could speak of ‘God and country’ with great reception in almost any era of the nation’s history but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned ‘Christ and him crucified.’ God was always welcome in American culture. He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America. The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to ‘Amen’ in a prayer at the Rotary Club,” (Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), p. 6).
10 See especially Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, §32, pp. 285-292.
“It is not these values that determine the content of Jesus commandments, but quite the opposite, the Kingdom is again and again represented as the highest good, which dominates and puts into the shade all human values, interests, and ideals. The ‘righteousness’ required from his disciples by Jesus is not the ‘righteousness of the Kingdom’ because it asserts these ‘values,’ but much rather, because it demands the absolute sacrifice of all these things for the sake of the Kingdom. It is the absolutely theocentric character of the Kingdom which determines the content of Jesus commandments. Especially in their radical demands they are intended to govern the whole of life from this theocratic standpoint and to put everything in the balance for this single goal,” (p. 287; emphasis in original).