The Sermon on The Mount
The Sermon on the Mount is holy ground, and we would be wise to know what we are doing before we engage in studying it. Spiritual truth is powerful stuff. Rightly interpreted it blesses all who hear and understand. But if treated negligently or with deceit it can do lasting harm. The Sermon on the Mount is beautiful. It pierces us to the core, it cuts away our sham and exposes us to God. Precisely because of this awesome power I am devoting the first of these articles to an overview. To setting the stage, to rightly dividing the word of truth.
Firstly, why did Jesus
utter these words at all? Did He bring in a new law code? Did He try and show
us what a perfect world would be like - in the Millennium, as some hold? Why
did He teach his disciples and the crowds. I believe the answer is quite simple
- to bless the common people who knew they were sinners and to shame into repentance
those who trusted in themselves. Jesus was teaching from the heart, to the heart.
The Sermon on the Mount is not a new law, it is rather the true nature of the old law explained. It is in many ways a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. Those trying to earn God's approval instead of just accepting His love will be bewildered and frustrated by it. You have to turn cartwheels to get away from the obvious fact that no-one, no-one at all except our Lord, can live like this. And yet to the poor in spirit it is a blessing. It starts by promising them the kingdom and then shows them what is there. Only the humble can read this sermon with joy.
In another chapter I will explain why the Sermon on the Mount is the beginning of the end for the law. Let us suffice to say that it shows us that truly keeping the spirit of God's law is utterly impossible. It makes us cry out "There must be another way to God - I am condemned already! " For instance the passages on who are deserving of Hell and judgment condemn every one of us. There is not a Christian man alive who, if lust is adultery, and it is, does not deserve a thorough stoning. It ends the Pharisee in us, and that is good. It drives us half-way to salvation.
The Sermon on the Mount
has a second function - to reveal to the humble the life of the Spirit. The
life in the Spirit is fundamentally a life of god-like-ness, not a life of spectacular
miracles. John the Baptist 'did no miracles' yet was filled with the Spirit
from his mother's womb (Luke 1:15). He turned a nation back to the truth and
was attested by all as a great man of God. His calling was ascetic, solitary,
powerful and godly.
The Sermon on the Mount calls us back to this very basic spirituality. Its only mention of miracles is to associate them with the self-deceived "workers of iniquity". I do not wish to turn you away from the miraculous. It has its place in the spirit-filled life. I just want to point out to you that our basic calling is to be lovers of God, not miracle workers. There are many wonderful, beautiful Christians who feel utter failures because they have never converted someone or healed the sick or raised the dead. One of my dearest and most precious friends in my late twenties was a saint of God called Jenny Brown who was radiantly Christian and full of mercy. Yet she felt a failure because she had never converted anyone and looked up to me who had been used to convert quite a few. Yet I saw in her character a depth of Christianity that was far beyond me. The Pharisees had done a good job on Jenny's self-esteem.
God does not measure us by our converts, our miracles, our lengthy prayers or our experiences - but by our love, our character, our quiet and powerful godliness. One ounce of self-sacrificing, loving obedience to the Father is worth 10,000 miracles to God. I suspect that when I get to Heaven I shall meet many there who spent years looking after aged parents with sacrificial love, and their crowns will be beautiful.
It is easier to make the
spirit-filled life one of extroversion and action than one of reflection and
godliness. I have had to repent of this. I am by nature intelligent and active,
I make a great church member and a splendid Pharisee. It is much easier for
me to organize a crusade than love my wife when she is cranky. Jesus tells me
that my duty lies in love and forgiveness, meekness and lowliness.
The spirit-filled life is not some loud and noisy thing. It is the quiet work of the Spirit within me toward God and those He has given me to love. Jesus calls us to be meek, humble, seekers after righteousness and the Kingdom. Somehow I cannot align this with the bombastic noisy clatter that passes for the spiritual life in some places. Many of those I went to Bible College with would be horrified if I suggested to them that God would have them support their parents in their old age or that they should live among the poor as one of them. They are too busy with "God's work" to be Christ-like! We have lost our way, we have forgotten the basics of Christian love. We need to come back to the purity of heart that Christ calls us to here. We need to see, with Jesus, that the primary work of the Spirit is making us fit for the Kingdom and eternal life.
As we study this magnificent body of teaching together I ask you to let go of your plans for advancement in your church, to put aside your innumerable activities and ask yourself the question -"If this sermon is really true, what sort of a life should I now be living?" Echo that question through your heart and hold it inside you as you meditate on the words of our Savior. "If this sermon is really true, what sort of a life should I be living?." If , like me, you tend to be a bit too active, that question just may change your life.
Jesus shows us that the
spirit-filled life is one that is disconnected from the world. The godly person
does not strut. The godly person is not clamorous for this world's goods. The
godly person is simple, pure, peaceful - and persecuted. The contrasts our Savior
draws are so stark that I am continually surprised that Christians reading these
chapters do not sell their houses and head for the monastery. What Jesus says
in these chapters is alarming. Before I read them seriously my life plan was
to be an academic with a wife, car, large house and this world's goods. It all
ended when I studied these three chapters. I could no longer call that a godly
life plan. I was called to "seek first..." all sorts of things I had
hardly even thought of seeking. I was called, no yanked forcibly, out of "this
world" and into God's plan for my life. To my worldly heart these chapters
were like cannon fire. They blew me apart, they threw me in the air and set
me upside down. A little rich boy with big ambitions was walloped by God.
Many years later I was preaching in a small church to an evening service of perhaps half a dozen people. For some reason I was preaching on "meekness". I said to the assembled congregation, "I hardly know what meekness is..." and they, who knew me well, all looked straight at me, and nodded. It devastated me that they should see straight through me like that. I was not meek. Cannon fire again. Jesus pierces us here, we cannot, dare not remain the same after encountering such teaching. It blazes with holiness.
The dross of our petty ambitions and grubby, self-centered motives is exposed to our sight and we tremble and plead for the refiners fire. We cannot love worldly things and take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. It casts us adrift as pilgrims, as persecuted seekers of righteousness, as fellow travelers with Jesus, bearing our insults, full of forgiveness, joy and the purity of meek and humble hearts. Oh what a calling! How can we resist it? All too easily . O Lord forgive my apathy. Set me aright. remind us all O God that we are just pilgrims, servants, O God call us onward. May your disturbing mercies cut us adrift from our comforts and niceties and set us seeking Your Kingdom, love and righteousness - today, Lord, today.
To me, St. Francis of Assisi is one of the best "human" examples of someone who has lived these teachings out. He took them literally. He spent 20 years of his precious life obeying them. He died at the age of 44, blind and in great pain. There is no "worldly" advantages in obeying these teachings. To my knowledge, no-one has ever become a millionaire by following them. But then how many millionaires still have followers 800 years later? Godliness is truly a great inheritance. Jesus is quite explicit as He calls us to the treasure that is in heaven and away from the treasure that in on earth. Matthew 6:19-21 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
This godly and holy life
is a life of reactions as much as it is a life of actions. The Sermon on the
Mount has a lot to say about the way we react to life. How we react to injury,
to injustice, to persecution and to loss of our material possessions is important
to Jesus for it reveals what we are really holding dear. Our reactions are instant
tests of whether we have truly comprehended what God is on about. In recent
years people have begun talking about "reacting in the opposite spirit"
and its power for transforming people and situations. I believe that "reacting
in the opposite spirit is a good phrase that neatly summarizes what Jesus is
talking about here. It is laying down your right to retaliation or natural justice
in order to demonstrate the grace and love of God. The second part of that definition
is very, very important.
I am not teaching that "Christians have no rights" we certainly do, we have our full Creation rights and more. But Christians have the right to let go of their rights in order to demonstrate God's love and forgiveness. "Turning the other cheek" is the act of a person so passionately in love with God that they do not care about personal injury if somehow they can get this world to believe that God loves ordinary fallen people. It is an act of spiritual obedience that aims to transform the world. It is a revolutionary thing. It upsets the natural order, creates that moment in people's lives when they sense the unusual, and lets God break in. Many have been transformed by such acts. I will share just one example out of my own life.
The first was when I was
serving as a short-term missionary in Papua New Guinea. Our mission station
had a visit from an unbearable snob, a speech therapist who had been educated
at Cambridge and was filled both with her own self-importance and the deep conviction
that no-one had suffered like her. I was given the task of working alongside
her. At first it was deeply humiliating as she would belittle me in front of
the students out of her own deep insecurity. I, unfortunately, became sarcastic
in response. Every bone in my body wanted to go for the jugular, to rip and
tear, and I confess I let loose more than once or twice. In the grace, purposes
and good humor of God, I was teaching through 1 Peter and came across the verse
about "when He was reviled, He reviled not in return..." (! Peter
2:23) and "Do not repay evil for evil or insult for insult, but with blessing,
because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." (1
I was deeply convicted about my poor example in this area and decided if I was to teach it, then I must live it - for the sake of the students. So I decided to bless her every time she humiliated me. It was sheer obedience at first. It felt like dragging myself across broken glass. But in the end it became easy. After two or three weeks her personality changed completely. She felt genuinely loved for who she was as a person, softened, became civil and above all became vulnerable to people and to life. The last I heard of her she had gone back to Australia, fallen in love and married. Her defiant self-centered singleness was gone and she had been made ready for life and love by a few weeks hard work. Reacting in the opposite spirit transformed a thoroughly obnoxious person to one in whom grace could be truly active.
When Jesus says turn the other cheek, walk the other mile, do not ask for it back, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you; He has a reason or two, and they are very good reasons. You will save your own soul from bitterness and you will save others from their sins. Your life will be a living rebuke to the self-centered people of this world and, after watching you for a while to see if it is real, some of them will follow. You will save many who otherwise could not be won for God. And you will gain a pure and joyous heart in the end. One warning, following these principles is like a refiner's fire. You need to be a Christian first and to have Jesus living in you if you are to succeed. The flesh will not crucify itself so completely. Acting in the opposite spirit is difficult at first and a struggle for as long as we are in this flesh. It is one of those things in life where sheer stubborn, even grudging obedience at first, can lead to everlasting joy later on. Just do it. Its worth it.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is posing an ancient but powerful question "Can it be done?" By the end of the sermon you are utterly convinced that what He has taught is right. But you are (or at least I am) left shaking with bewilderment at how you can ever live that way. For a while I took the approach that "God never commands what we cannot obey..", the Pharisee in me is very clever, and has good theology. With self-deception upon self-deception I really tried to live it. Yet any honest, truly honest inventory of my soul would have shown how fraudulent such a claim was. Yet I feared more than death itself "being a failure as a Christian". If only someone had told me that it is OK, that Jesus knew all along that I would be a failure, that grace is all about failures like me.
I can no longer hold up
my head among the strong. Among those who can preach humility because their
humility means leaving their vast achievements "undiscovered' to slip out
quietly and proclaim their virtue. I am truly a failure, not a pretend one.
I am amongst the millions of men and women who have disasters in their life
of which they cannot be proud. I need God and I need Him badly. I sense that
many of you, like me, look at the Sermon on the Mount and see a huge burden,
an unlivable up to weight of commandments which we agree are right but .....
(and that "but" is very important). The Sermon on the Mount cannot
be done at all in the flesh and can only be imperfectly achieved in the Spirit.
No living person can claim a righteousness like this. This leads to two spiritual
Firstly that we have no hope of a performance-based righteousness. It is done away with. This leaves us with a vacuum. How else do we achieve righteousness? The way Abraham did "And Abraham believed God and it was accounted unto him as righteousness" - the righteousness of a man who depends on his God utterly. The righteousness of relationship. The righteousness that comes from God saying "Simply because you want to be My friend and trust Me and know Me - I will call you righteous. I know your faults but I will cover them over because of love."
That's the only way left open to us. The second spiritual conclusion that the Sermon on the Mount leads to is the sheer necessity of having Christ dwelling in us. These chapters do not explicitly mention the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit but they do leave us with the question "Where will I find the spiritual strength to live like this?" That is a wise question.
A quick inventory of our
own spiritual stock will leave us wondering why Jesus even said such things.
Why did He place such a burden on sinners? Was He worse than the worst of Pharisees
who put heavy burdens on people and did not lift a finger to help them? Not
at all! He knew he would soon be sending the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to
give us a power way beyond ourselves. Now I'm going to be a little bit of a
heretic. Even with the Holy Spirit in your life you cannot live out the Sermon
on the Mount by your own will-power. Uh?? The Sermon on the Mount cannot be
achieved. It can only be lived. Well what's the difference? If you are trying
to achieve it - its still you trying to prove you can do it (to yourself) and
all the glory will go to you. God may, in His grace help you in your folly,
(He certainly helped me for many years) but one day it will all come crashing
God's not very interested in you glorifying yourself. The other way is to say "God I want to live like that, but now I know that I cannot, it is far away and beyond me, help me..." and you will start to live it out, bear it like fruit, gradually increase in obedience, as the life of Christ in you does it. Instead of you trying to produce the fruit by your own struggles God produces the fruit and you pay attention, close attention, to his precious garden. Let me not mislead you. I am not advocating passivity. I just want you to recognize who is doing what and to get your perspective right. Human willpower has never produced a drop of meekness. Jesus is meek. When He lives out through you and you obey His voice in your conscience - you express His meekness. But it is His quality - not yours. Praise be to God!
A book that helped me greatly in understanding this is "Living with Jesus Today" by Juan Carlos Ortiz. Buy it if you are as puzzled by this as I was - even after Bible college. In the end the Sermon on the Mount causes us to surrender our willpower to God's resurrection power. Paul uttered a true mystery when he said "For through the law I died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (Gal 2:19-21)
Our law-keeping will power is broken by the impossible task of attaining God's true righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount. These commands are the nails that put to death our self-righteousness and activate faith in Jesus for salvation. We get driven to the point where "I" no longer live - my ego is no longer the driving power in seeking righteousness, but rather "Christ lives in me" and He is the engine of my sanctification and the Person who achieves all that is good.
Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, the Sermon on the Mount claims to be (and is) true Truth. What do I mean by this? We are given partial truths by the "scribes and Pharisees", some truth, some interpretation, some flattery of our weaknesses, some excusing of sin, some severe legalism. What we hear proclaimed as "truth" and what is truly Truth are two different things. The people noticed the difference between Jesus' true Truth and the opinions of the religious establishment. "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because He taught them as One having authority, and not as their teachers of the law." (Matthew 7:28,29) Jesus had authority - not a presumptuous claim to authority, His authority came from Reality and was perceived by others as genuine. His authority was straight from God in contrast to the authority of the "teachers of the law" which Jesus points out in John's gospel was based on "receiving glory from one another"(John 5:44). Human prestige is no substitute for spiritual reality.
There are many wrong teachings
in the church that are regarded as "true". Jesus' true Truth involved
correcting current misconceptions about "what the Bible taught". In
a series of sayings Jesus starts off with "You have heard it said..."
and then goes on to show how false that teaching is. Many commentators start
off with something like "Here Jesus is updating the OT law on..."
actually he is doing nothing of the kind. He is showing what the Old Testament
law meant when properly interpreted. Jesus did not change one jot or tittle
of the law, He did change how people interpreted the law. I will give one well
known example - His teaching on divorce . It starts with "It has been said
that 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.'
but I say to you that.... (Matthew 5:31-32) There were in Jesus time three basic
schools of teaching about divorce.
The most lax of these rabbis taught that a woman could be divorced for "any and every reason" but that it was necessary to give her certificate of divorce. Jesus reinstates the law of Moses with its requirement that there be a REASON for divorce (Deut 24:1-4). The only acceptable reason is related to sexual impropriety of some kind (ervath darbar - unclean/immoral thing). Jesus defines that this "unclean thing" of Deuteronomy is general sexual misconduct (porneia in Gk.). Because the only valid reason for divorce is sexual immorality then capricious divorce puts innocent people in the same basket as adulterers. All who are divorced are "made adulterers" - innocent or guilty they are all lumped together with the imputed title of "adulterer" i.e. given the status of "adulterer" in the eyes of society - whether or not they deserve it. This is plainly unfair to those women divorced so a man could marry a prettier girl ( a valid reason for this lax school or rabbis). The gross injustice of treating an innocent party as an "adulteress" would be quite obvious and add to the weighty condemnation of capricious divorce that Jesus is here bringing.
Jesus is not rewriting Moses here - He is in fact saying that we need to go back to the full teaching of Moses. We need a reason for divorce - and a good one, as well as a certificate of divorce. He thus takes the prevailing opinions of the day and compares them with "true Truth" and brings them into line with a balanced and total view of Scripture. Jesus demolishes the 'false teachings' that abounded in His day, He hauls into line various Jewish schools of thought and brings us back to what the Bible really teaches. The Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus re-writing the Law and it was not yet the time for abolishing the Law, (that happened on the cross) rather it was a breaking forth of real authoritative light from the Law. It was true Truth shining forth and calling us to follow it.
Well that is enough of an introduction. Your mind is probably quite boggled by now with all these common threads. I hope that some of them have been a real blessing to you as writing about them has been to me. Now we shall go and consider Jesus and the Bible in a bit more detail.
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