Today’s reading is the famous Sermon on the Mount, and it is food for discipleship for the rest of your life. I will personally be tempted to write a really long post today, but I will do my best to refrain. So, without further adieu, let’s dive in…
Prerequisites for discipleship to Jesus
The beatitudes (5:3-12) are often memorized but not too often understood. They are the requirements necessary for following Jesus.
- blessed are the poor in spirit — we’re not talking about virtue of having poor self-esteem; Jesus is talking about understanding our spiritual bankruptcy. To follow Jesus we must realize that we are sinners heading for Hell with nothing special to commend us to God. Not many want to admit this and therein lies the rub. If we think we have something to offer to God to get ourselves out of His debt, if we still think that we’re doing OK spiritually (the common comment I hear is “God and I are doing OK.” — even though they are clearly disobedient); Jesus’ demanding teachings will become options and we’ll become “fair weather”, “sometimes” disciples. On the other hand, realizing that I have made a mess of my life, that I stand condemned before God, that I need God’s grace, paves the way for real discipleship.
- blessed are those who mourn — Christianity is about joy and hope, but before the good news, we need to acknowledge the bad news: that our sin must be mourned over and repented of. Sin is not just a little “oopsy”. It is an affront, an offense, to God. It is choosing to obey Satan. A lightly offered “‘Scuse me” for sin is no more appropriate to God than setting your friend’s house on fire! If I’m not really convinced and convicted about the seriousness of sin, it is unlikely that I’ll be motivated enough to change my life in the way that Jesus commands.
- blessed are the gentle or meek — personal pride is a great obstacle to following Jesus. Not only will pride cause us to resist being told what we must do; but because many will reject His teachings and us, if we follow, the prideful will find following Jesus difficult or impossible.
- blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness — discipleship will also require a real desire, a craving, to do right. Doing right can’t be just a hobby or a side interest in life — it will need to be the main thing. Otherwise, the difficulty of living the Christian life will become “too much”.
- blessed are the merciful — it will be hard to follow Jesus carrying a grudge or a desire for revenge, since He demands mercy and forgiveness toward others.
- blessed are the pure in heart — this purity is about being single minded, focused or having what could be called a united heart (uncompromised by divided loyalties or agendas).
- blessed are the peacemakers — this peace is speaking of peace between God and myself, peace between men and myself, and even promoting peace between God and other men. God’s kingdom is about brotherhood and fellowship and love for God and one another — no matter who you are.
- blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness — Jesus never sugar-coated discipleship to Him. It will always include persecution. Jesus told His disciples (Matthew 10:25), “It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!”
Making a difference
Moreover Jesus also wanted His disciples to know that they were expected to make a difference (Matt. 5:13ff; this is the meaning of being the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Light and salt make a difference where they go and they are also conspicuous in their absence. Those who are content to be completely in “stealth mode” in their faith are not being the disciples that Jesus demands of us.
Surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees
This must have gotten a shocked look from His original hearers! Better than those guys? That’s like saying you have to be stronger than Superman! But Jesus helps them understand that what the scribes and Pharisees were doing was not really righteous to begin with.
- Matthew 5:21 ““You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’” — This is what the traditional teaching was, but Jesus helps us understand that it was much more than simply not physically killing someone. The sin is in hatred, uncontrolled anger, reviling others, failing to mend relationships! Rejecting hatred, uncontrolled anger, calling names, and broken relationships is real righteousness.
- Matthew 5:27 ““You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’;” — But its about more than just sleeping with the wrong person, Jesus told them! We need to control our lustful thoughts. Some might think, “That’s too much!” But Jesus made it plain that it’s better to get rid of the most precious thing to you (right eye or hand) than to go to Hell.
- Matthew 5:31 ““It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’;” — But divorce (the dissolution of a covenant) was never God’s original idea and should never be practiced except when the other person has broken the covenant with sexual unfaithfulness.
- Matthew 5:33 ““Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’” — This isn’t telling us that we must never take an oath; it is to say that our lives need to be so honest that taking an oath is rendered completely unnecessary. Discipleship isn’t looking for loopholes in keeping my word.
- Matthew 5:38 ““You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’” — Here’s one that’s often misunderstood as requiring revenge. The truth is that the original law was a limit of liability rather than a license to avenge ourselves. Jesus is saying, let God take your revenge. You don’t need to return a slap on the cheek, let God take care of it.
- Matthew 5:43 ““You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’” — Here’s a little “add on” that these “righteous” Pharisees and scribes had given to God’s original word; there was never anything about hating an enemy. Jesus requires love of His disciples for those who are acting as enemies toward us. Yes it’s hard, but not impossible, especially when you let your actions do the loving. I can act in someone’s best interest, even when my emotions are going the other direction. Jesus did it on the cross.
- Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect — Some have misunderstood this to require perfection of the Christian, but that’s not what Jesus is saying. This goes back to an old command that serves as a wonderful principle throughout the Bible: “You shall be holy as I (God) am holy”. Be kind because God is kind. Be forgiving because God is forgiving. Be honest because God is always honest. Etc. A modern era way of expressing this is, “What would Jesus do?”
Beware of wanting notice of men
Matthew 6 then shifts to the real essence of righteous deeds. Sometimes, even today, we may do good things to be seen of others and have other people think well of us. Wanting to have a good reputation is not a terrible thing, but Jesus tells us that we should be most concerned about having a good reputation with God. Don’t do your giving just to be known as a philanthropist; do it because you want to be a good steward of God’s money to others. Don’t pray just so folks will think that you’re some kind of spiritual giant; pray so that you can talk with God. If you fast, don’t go around looking like you’re fasting; let it be something just between you and God. If we do things to be seen by men, the applause of men is all that we’ll get.
Jesus next shifts to a really difficult thing for humans to do, handle wealth well. The secret is to understand that it is only material stuff that will decay or be taken by others. Disciples will place God first, not money. Matthew 6:33 ““But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Here’s a favorite quote of many a guilty person — don’t judge me! It seems today that the worst of sins is judgment, but that’s not what Jesus is saying here. In fact, Christians are supposed to exercise good judgment about what right and wrong (see Matt. 7:15ff). What Jesus is forbidding here is simply being “critical”. We’ve all met people like this who can’t seem to find anything right with anything or anybody. Often it is a cover-up for their own failings. Speaking the truth in love is perfectly Christian (Eph. 4:15) and encouraged. But speaking critical, discouraging, hateful things to tear other down is forbidden.
Narrow and wide gates
Here’s a passage that is often overlooked but should be a main focus of understanding. Contrary to popular thought, not everyone is going to Heaven. Not even a majority — look at the passage. Why? Is it because God’s mean and doesn’t want Heaven too crowed (I speak in jest here)? God wants as many saved as possible; the problem is not with God, it’s with people who insist on being disobedient. Many will simply refuse to believe in Jesus at all and thus sink any chance of being saved (John 14:6). Others will do good things and hope that obedience to some of what He has commanded will do or be good enough; but Jesus tells a different story (Matt. 721-23). Others will happy with faith only and eliminate things like repentance, baptism, or discipleship. Others will approach discipleship like a buffet — some of this and that but none of that over there, thank you, as if you could pick and choose Jesus’ commands. It’s important to obey the SUM and not just SOME.
The ending of the Sermon on the Mount is a parable that has been turned into cute children’s songs — and that’s all great, but do we really understand the meaning of the parable. Jesus points out that the difference between building on sand and building on rock is this one critical issue — doing what you’ve heard. Building on the sand is compared to hearing and not doing. Building on the rock is compared to one who both hears and does what he has heard. This, of course, underscores a vitally important question — are you doing what you’ve heard.
Thanks for sticking with me through this longer than usual blog. 🙂
See you tomorrow, Lord willing