Some Thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5-7

Last week and this, I encouraged those on our mailing lists to read this passage at least three times each week. I don’t know if you did that reading. I hope you did, since this is important teaching. This section in Matthew’s Gospel follows the call of some of the first apostles to discipleship. Matthew wanted his readers to grasp the importance of this basic teaching of Jesus about true discipleship. Thinking of this, here are a few general thoughts about the Sermon on the Mount.

It is a large section of teaching (5:2; 7:28-29). Since disciples are learners and followers, we need to listen to the teaching of the Teacher we follow; namely, Jesus. Matthew provides us with the opportunity to sit in one of his extended teaching sessions. While they might be the “notes” of what he taught, the three chapters provide us with much to think on. Regardless of how long we have followed Christ, we ought to sit and listen to our Lord’s teaching repeatedly. Make time and read all three chapters in one sitting, so that you receive the impact of the full teaching session.

  • The Sermon begins with the Beatitudes (5:3-10). They describe the happy situation of those who have repented and become part of the kingdom (4:17, 23). Each description is paradoxical and has a promise about the future of Christ’s learners.
  • Christ’s followers have a purpose in this world (5:13-16). By grace, we function as salt and light to the world. The Lord tells us more about our mission. To fish for people (cf. 4:20) is to make more worshipers.
  • Jesus declared his teaching mission in regard to the Old Testament Scriptures (5:17-20). It is very important to understand that “the Law and the Prophets” and “the Law” both refer to the Old Testament in its entirety and not merely to the so-called “moral law”. The latter term is the invention of theologians, and not a correct or useful one at that! Christ asserts that he is the true Teacher of righteousness, and his followers to hold this truth firmly.
  • After that, we have the Six Antitheses (5:21-48) that set forth Jesus’ authority as the Teacher of his people. These declare his authority to direct our relationships with people. He picks six examples (anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love) and demands that we listen to what he says in each area. Though the particulars are important, let’s not miss the importance of proper personal relationships in general.
  • Next, our Lord talks about three spiritual actions: giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting (6:1-18). In each he highlights our relationship to the Father. It is too easy to get lost in the techniques of these actions. Jesus wants us to focus on our interaction with the Father.
  • True spirituality flows from the priorities in our hearts. Jesus points us heavenward and to God (6:19-24). This is radically different from the people of this world. Yet, there is a struggle: to keep our vision healthy. We must not allow it to be corrupted by amassing worldly wealth. Jesus makes this come alive by telling us to replace anxiety with trust in the Father’s care (6:24-24). We cannot have healthy vision if it is clouded by worry and other priorities besides the kingdom and God’s righteousness.
  • At this point, we can too quickly think of other people rather than ourselves, as if we have our act together and they don’t. So then, Jesus instructs us about the kind of people we must be to give correct judgments about others (7:1-6). Notice that verse one (the favorite Bible verse of sinful people) is balanced by the need to make proper judgments of others in verse six. Always read verses in their context!
  • We also need to have spiritual intensity (7:7-12). The verbs ask, seek, and knock require continual action. To pray requires active trust in the Father’s goodness. We must care for others as we would have them care for us.
  • The Lord concludes this teaching time with a warning that we must be real learners (7:13-27). There are pretenders among God’s people, and we must watch out for them. (This is another time we must judge others.) Being religious is insufficient. Jesus’ followers do the Father’s will, which is also his will. The well-known story of the wise and foolish builders stresses the importance of listening to Jesus’ words and then doing them.

Invest time this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in reading the Sermon on the Mount. Get your Bible and sit in a comfortable chair. Read it three times. Conclude with a prayer for grace to do it. Have a good weekend!

Grace and peace, David

Church Life – Respect (Part 2)


1 Timothy 5:1-2

Never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father. Talk to younger men as you would to your own brothers. Treat older women as you would your mother, and treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters (NLT).

Our subject is the respect that we ought to demonstrate to others in Christ. We are all children in the family of God the Father, and he wants us to esteem one another highly. The Holy Spirit does not give us a lofty ideal, but he directs us in specific relationships. The apostle Paul gave his close associate Timothy direction about how to deliver proper rebuke to other members of a local church. Consider 2 Timothy 4:2: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction (NIV). The fact that Timothy was a minister does not hinder the application of the text to all in the church in their mutual relations, because Timothy was to function as an example to others (4:12). Paul uses a tension-filled time, the need to correct others, as a paradigm for our interactions with each other. Every follower of Christ will have occasion to confront others in our local spiritual family, and the Lord expects us to do it. I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another (Romans 15:14 NIV).

In the church, we should correct, rebuke, and encourage (don’t ignore the need to encourage!) four groups: older men, younger men, older women, and younger women. We must speak in a proper way as we do any of the three actions, but there is special need for caution when the action is rebuke. It is too easy to adopt a harsh tone that harms the person and our relationship with him or her. We ought not to rebuke because we feel frustrated with the person. Neither should we rebuke because we assume we are spiritually or personally superior to the person. We must remember that we are one in Jesus Christ and that each one is deeply loved by the Lord.

In our culture, older people are demeaned, devalued, and disrespected. The Holy Spirit tells us to honor older people. Older men and women are precious to the Lord. We must regard them as our fathers and mothers. This requires us to speak with them lovingly, kindly, patiently, and gently. In other words, we must speak according to the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This is true spirituality. Older people are valued by God, and we must also value them by respect in our thoughts, attitudes, actions and words toward them. God requires us to honor our parents. Older people in our churches should receive the same kind of honor.

Younger men and women are to be treated as brothers and sisters. Spiritual experience provides many benefits, but among them is not a know-it-all attitude that can’t keep its mouth shut. Neither is stubbornness spiritual. Neither antiquity or being on the cutting edge give value to ideas and ways of doing things. Wisdom and truth provide value. We must understand the times in which we live, and younger people can have a better grasp on what’s happening now and where the future is headed. This does not mean that they are automatically right, but it strongly suggests that we ought to listen. A rebuke of younger people demands that we hear them and attempt to understand their situation. It involves patient explanation of godliness and true holiness.

The Holy Spirit values a family attitude. He wants us to do everything, including the hard things like correction and rebuke as brothers and sisters in the Lord. He wants us to prize the family relationship of the people of God. A church is not a business, a club, or an institution, and so it should not be run like a business, a club, or an institution. This Sunday when you are in church, take time to look around at others. They are your family. Take steps to reach out to others as brothers and sisters. Do you know them, their needs and struggles, and what causes them sorrow and joy? Invite them over to share in a family manner. Open your hearts to each other. Listen and feel and sympathize. Laugh and cry. Love.

Grace and peace, David

Can We Pray Differently?

20120605_095529Ephesians 1:16-19

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might (ESV).

Prayer ought to be a joyful experience for every follower of Jesus Christ. When we pray, we have the awesome privilege of communicating with God our Father through Jesus the Son of God with the help of the Spirit of God. Prayer is a time of fellowship with the living, eternal, holy Maker and Sustainer of all things! Yet, do we experience the holy joy of this fellowship? Are we willing to confess our lack of this fellowship? It seems that most do have this lack. From numerous years of experience as a pastor and teacher, I have observed the following.

  • Many churches no longer have a regular prayer meeting. Prayer meetings used to be the hallmark of gospel teaching churches.
  • Churches that do have prayer meetings have less than ten percent of their morning service in attendance.
  • People in prayer meetings look bored, act bored, talk bored, pray boring prayers, and some fall asleep.
  • Prayer times in Bible studies and morning services are perfunctory, people-focused, and usually powerless. When I was young, the pastoral prayer in morning services used to be at least five to ten minutes in length. Through pressure from the unspiritual or to please the unspiritual, such prayers are timed to about one to three minutes.
  • Prayer requests are about ninety-nine percent focused on the physical or material needs of people. This does not count the spiritual requests for the local church, its missionaries, and mission that are printed on a weekly prayer sheet. At a prayer meeting, such spiritual requests are neglected or prayed for in a ho-hum manner.
  • People in local congregations are unaware of the spiritual needs of one another and so never pray for one another as they ought.

I could add more, but to present our problem is not to solve it. At the core is a fundamental disconnect with the Lord. People also pray for the wrong things (for example, James 4:3), do not receive answers to such requests, which then produces little faith and discouragement about prayer. Another difficulty is that we need to pray differently. In articles to come, I want to explore this idea. I dream of seeing believers committed to communicating with God again. I want to see them open their hearts to the Lord, and to one another. I long to join with other saints (people that are set apart to the Lord) in fervent prayer, to hear something like “Can we pray soon? I’ve been bursting at the seams out of a holy desire to pray with you all!” Or, “Can we get together so that we can pray?”

Let’s pray.

Grace and peace, David

A Place for You (Part Three)

IMG_02321 Corinthians 12:7-26

Every believer, every part of the spiritual body of Christ is needed (12:21-26). We must accept each other in his body and value the contribution of each person (12:21). Every local church has a unique gathering of individuals, and these groupings might not seem to offer much promise for friendships at first glance. For example, one person might not be able to approve of much another does. The second might not particularly want a third as you’re their close friend. But for Christ’s sake we must accept one another in love and spur one another on to love and good works. Let me say some things to push us all to consider the actual condition of our local gatherings. In order to make progress, we must see one another as “in Christ” and realize that we are members together of one body. I think most will claim, “Of course we believe this and do this!” But I ask, “Is your assembly (church) really this way? Or are many being rejected in subtle or not so subtle ways (James 2:1-4)? Toleration is not the same as reaching out in friendship.

There is a place for “other-esteem” in the church. We must see each other with the Lord’s eyes. Yes, we will see failures and weaknesses, but we should also see the grace of the Lord, and seeing that, prize each other highly. If a local church is more like a social club than the body of Christ, worldly distinctions like ethnicity, education, economic level will abound. In some churches, people are valued above others because of their attainments in doctrinal knowledge. In other churches, it is because they are skilled social mixers. However, we ought to prize one another because each one is “in Christ”.

Everyone in the body must have a concern for everyone else (12:25). What about special friends? People can be drawn close to one another in surprising ways. Close friendships are not a problem as long as the friendship is holy. Then they become very beneficial to the whole body. You probably will feel closer to some than to others, but do not neglect the whole for the sake of the few. Move out of your comfort zone and seek out fellowship with others that you suppose are unlike you. (You see yourself as an eye or ear, and see others as knees and elbows.) My friend, show some loving concern for those members that you suppose are beneath you. This requires ongoing, special effort; it doesn’t simply happen.

The local church is a spiritual body, and it only develops as the parts of the body enjoy spiritual fellowship with each other. Local institutional churches grow for many reasons: a good location, enthusiastic inviters, an upbeat, contemporary music program, a watered down message that offends no one, or they grow for the fact of being large enough so that those attending can do nothing but attend and enjoy the big crowd, or because they promise healing and prosperity to the faithful, etc. A few actually grow because they are faithful to the Lord, according to the light they have! But we need to ask: what is developing—a gathering of disciples who make disciples who make disciples, or is it merely a weird kind of social club?

The spiritual health of each part affects the spiritual health of the whole body (12:26). Your holiness and sinfulness affect more than you. Your spiritual condition affects all of us. The best course of action is to walk with the Lord in holiness, love, joy and peace and share these blessings with others. If you are taking steps toward heaven with the Lord, why not share that journey with others?

Grace and peace, David

P.S. Yesterday, Sharon and I went all day to the Philadelphia Flower Show, which was the reason for no new article. We had a great time, and we will feature some pictures from our excursion there. For today, a flower from a few years ago.

An Alternative to an Empty Life

DSCN0546Luke 12:13-21

In the Four Gospels we read selected accounts of the earthly mission of our Lord Jesus Christ. He came to set us free from an empty way of life (1 Peter 1:18). Often we fail to realize the depths of that emptiness. Let’s listen to how our Redeemer revealed that emptiness in his teaching and pointed us to a better alternative.

Luke has already set the scene for this teaching session. A crowd of many thousands gathered (12:1), and it was not a calm crowd. Please do not think of a typical church service in our day where people are bored with the building, the pastor, the music, the ritual prayers, the message, and each other. No, this crowd was trampling on each other in their shared eagerness to listen to Jesus. (The time when modern churchgoers trample upon each other is to get out of the building and the parking lot.) This, however, did not mean that this crowd was filled with spiritual, godly, heavenly-minded people.

After the Lord spoke directly to his disciples (12:1-12) about the important topic of fear and worry, a question comes from the crowd. Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” [All italicized quotes are from the NIV.] Ah, there can be many people in “church”, and many of their hearts are not thinking about meeting with the living God and his dearly loved Son, but their minds are on other personal and “important” matters. People are very easily distracted from God.

The Lord Jesus, instead of brushing aside the man’s impertinent request, used it as a teaching opportunity, because he had come to make God known and to reveal what we are to us. Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” It was a dangerous course to ask Jesus questions. The man perhaps thought that Jesus would take his side out of a concern to see justice done. But Jesus unmasked the greed in the man’s heart. Though he had gathered with the crowd to hear Jesus, he was a functional idolater (Colossians 3:5). Jesus warned his hearers of getting their identity from their possessions. This is a problem in our affluent culture. It is too easy to confuse what we have with who we are. We can learn this about ourselves from how we evaluate others by where they live, what they drive, the clothes they wear, or the places they go. People might say they admire those who devote their lives to helping others, but are they willing to divest themselves of their possessions to do it? We can drift into this kind of transfer of identity, which is why Jesus calls us to be on our guard against all kinds of greed. Where should our identity come from?

Next, Jesus told a story to warn everyone about greediness. And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” This parable is very well-known, and I will make only a few observations. First, the providence of God was working for the prosperity of this rich man. While there is skill in being a successful farmer as well as other occupations, God’s rule of the world overrides the skill of people. If there had been a couple years of drought, the rich farmer would not have had a large crop. Second, God’s blessing on his crop had brought the rich man to the need to make new choices. Prosperity and poverty require us to make decisions. What should a person do when he or she prospers? Consider Romans 2:4. Third, the rich man’s heart was filled with himself. He was proficient at using the first person pronouns. Greed is idolatry, and so is a consuming interest in oneself. Fourth, he thought he knew the future. People proudly assume that they are in charge, that they can map out their lives. The rich man’s attitude can be shared by anyone. Fifth, he lived for pleasure. Hmm, it sounds like he was a “last day’s sort of person” (cf. 2 Timothy 3:1-4). Sixth, God interrupted his plans. This is what people forget. The living God can expose our true emptiness in a moment.

Jesus made his point. “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” The Lord Christ is teaching us the nature of true repentance. We must turn from a self-focused view of life to building our life and identity in relationship to God. Being rich toward God is true wealth. We must prefer the true God over all things.

What is the question you would like to ask Jesus? Since he knows your heart, how would he answer you?

Grace and peace, David