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

Continue in the Teaching

img_50112 John 1:9

Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son (NIV).

We must understand the times in which we live, because we can only live in those times. Those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ are never called to live like we are in a fantasy world, where everyone wants to do what is right and wants to hear the good news of salvation. Instead, our Lord and Savior sends us into the real world to live for him, regardless of the difficulties we might encounter. Right now, he is patiently waiting the time set by the Father for his final victory, and we must continue in the task he has given us until that time.

Faithfulness to Christ and the mission on which he has sent us requires us to tell a message and to do godly actions that are not in step with the course the world pursues. This is not a unique problem of our times. When the gospel was first preached two thousand years ago, the people of this world were worshiping many gods, living in violence, greed and sexual immorality, and opposing the message of Christ. The same situation is true today. Therefore, let us not moan about “our difficult situation”. God’s message is never popular in this world. Jesus presented the challenge in a well-known but often neglected illustration.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV). For this reason, it is never our task to make the message pleasing to the many who are on the broad road. In all they do, they reject the knowledge of God, refuse to love God and others, and rebel against God’s ways.

Our problem is that we too easily pick up their attitude (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3-4). People evaluate churches and preaching because of what pleases them, instead of what pleases God. Be funny, be clever, be chic, be whatever, but do not dare to say what God says, because “nobody will listen”. That is a lie. The Spirit says plainly that some will listen, and our mission is to tell the good news of Jesus the Messiah, because it, and not what pleases people, is God’s power for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1:16-17). We must continue in teaching of Christ, because that is where the Lord wants us to be. But we ask, “What does it mean to continue in the teaching? Why is this important? What encouragement does this provide?”

What does it mean to continue in the teaching of Christ? Given the context of John’s letters about holding to the true teaching about Christ as the incarnate God-man, we can translate the phrase “the teaching of Christ” as “the teaching about Christ”. This avoids the impression that it means “Christ’s teaching”—the teaching he gave or the way he taught. But even if it was the teaching he gave, it would still involve the teaching about Christ, because what we read in the New Testament is what Christ taught (John 16:14-15). When we think of the idea of the teaching about Christ, we can think in three general categories:

  • The teaching about his person – the focus of John’s letters, including Christ’s true deity (God has come among us to help us!) and Christ’s true humanity (God knows our struggles personally!) Never lose the joy of these truths.
  • The teaching about his message. We mention three aspects of what Jesus taught: First, the message about the present and future aspects of God’s reign (“the kingdom of God”); God is setting up his authoritative rule in his chosen people; this will result in eternal joy with God. Next, the message about following Christ (becoming his learner or disciple); the need to have a change of mind and believe; how he tells us to please God. And also the message about God’s plan in Jesus; Christ is the theme of the Bible; Christ is the greater prophet; the need for us to pursue a missional way of life because of this
  • The teaching about his redemptive activity. We can think of four important truths: Christ’s crucifixion – sacrifice, propitiation, redemption, and reconciliation; his resurrection – accomplishment of justification and eternal life; his ascension to pour out the Spirit – his victory and present reign at the right hand of the Father; and his personal return in power and glory – salvation and life for his chosen people and justice and condemnation for his enemies

When we follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we commit to his teaching as well. It is part of remaining or continuing in Christ (cf. John 15:1-17). His teaching is to transform our beliefs and our way of life. For a practical start to our thinking, invest time in thinking about the apostle Paul applied Galatians 6:14 to our way of life.  May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (NIV). How should this affect how we think about ourselves?

Grace and peace, David

Christ’s Story of the Great Banquet

img_3539Luke 14:15-24

In the Gospel of Luke, we see often Jesus as the great teacher, sent from God to tell us about salvation. Since he was sent on this mission and was faithful to it, he never missed an opportunity to speak for the glory of God his Father. Many times he happily joined in opportunities to share meals with people. Meals are an excellent opportunity to get to know others and to talk about life with them.

The occasion in our text was Christ’s attendance at a meal offered by a Pharisee (14:1-14). When someone at the meal heard Jesus recommend the attitudes of humility and generosity towards other at meals, a man was moved to make the remark recorded in 14:15, which means, “How happy are the people who will enjoy the feast of eternal life and salvation!” Jesus takes that opportunity to teach that salvation comes from an invitation from God. The Lord used a story to make known the truth that in his goodness, God seeks the happiness of people (14:16-17).

  • God’s goodness is seen in the preparations for the banquet. It was a great banquet. This is an illustration of the happiness and satisfaction that God desires for those who seek him (Psalm 23:5; Isaiah 25:6-9; Matthew 22:2; Revelation 3:20). Many were invited as guests. No small, polite dinner party was intended. God invites many to come to him!
  • God’s goodness is seen in telling people that the feast was prepared. Think of the long (from a human point of view) preparations that God made for the banquet of salvation. Thousands of years of human history had passed from Adam to Jesus the Messiah. The servant is Christ; he is the Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 42:1; etc.). His great word is “Come!” (cf. Matthew 11:28).

We must view God as good and generous, or we have never understood him. His goodness and generosity must influence our attitudes and actions if we claim that he is our Father.

Yet, out of dislike for God, people make excuses to refuse God’s generosity (14:18-20). Observe the character of the human heart. People do not want God to provide them with joy – not really. Yes, people get upset if they think that God is judging them or making their lives unpleasant. But people do not want God’s joy, because it involves God, and God is holy and righteous and the Judge. Behind people’s excuses to come to Bible studies, small groups, etc. is a lack of desire, a lack of desire for God. So people invent excuses, in order that they can avoid God and his blessings. Here are two:

  • People turn from God to property and possessions. The first two excuses are transparently false; they are the excuses of liars or foolish people. Who would buy a field without looking at it? Who would buy five yoke of oxen without checking them out before the purchase? Even if such unlikely events had happened, both could wait to check on their purchases later. They could check them out after the banquet.
  • People turn from God to people. This excuse is of someone plainly disinterested and desperate to find any way out. There was nothing hindering him from bringing his wife, especially considering the generosity of the host of the banquet.

Let us notice that none of the three gave a simple refusal. Each had “some reason of his own why he ought to be held excused… Each differs from the other, and each has its own plausibility; but all arrive at the same result – ‘We have other things to attend to, more pressing just now’” (John Brown). Through the cares of this world and the desire to be rich and to enjoy the passing pleasures of this world, many refuse to accept God’s invitation. But all other preferences must go in the face of God’s invitation. What is your response? “Infidelity and immorality, no doubt, slay their thousands. But decent, plausible, smooth-spoken excuses slay their tens of thousands” (Ryle, his emphasis).

According to the freeness of his grace, God extends the invitation to many (14:21-24).

Since God is the overflowing fountain of goodness, he continues to seek people. Like the host in the parable, God seeks out the disadvantaged and those despised and rejected by other people. God is like the host of the banquet. He is “very big-hearted and generous. He loves to make people happy, especially those down and out” (Hendriksen). In one sense these were the common people of Israel, the “rabble who don’t understand the law”, to use the words of the Pharisees. In another sense they are all who the world deems “misfits”.  God invited all these people purely out of grace (cf. 14:14). They were not bringing anything to the banquet; instead, the feast was for their enjoyment.

Like the host in the parable, God seeks out a “full house”.  In one sense these are the Gentiles, the people of all nations. They were not near the banqueting house, but they are brought near. They would have to be “compelled” with many arguments, because they would not believe that the God of Israel would be generous to them. In another sense, they are any far removed and out of the way. The servant was not to take “no” for an answer (cf. 2 Cor 5:20).

God’s purpose will not fail. The Lord will have a full banqueting house. There will not be empty seats at the table. Everyone who serves the Lord should desire to see his or her Master’s table filled. I would like to see my neighbors in heaven, glorifying God and enjoying his glory, wouldn’t you?

However, since God is just, he gives people what they want. If people refuse God and eternal joy, God will not give it to them. People can and will have justice if they so desire. I did not say that people like the alternative, but they would rather have the alternative of justice than turn from their sins and idols to God. The Lord threatens terrible things to those who refuse to be joyful with him. The Lord is saying in this parable to all who refuse his gospel invitation, “Since you will not receive fullness of joy, my joy freely offered to you, you will receive the opposite, eternal misery.” There is no second chance. “Only one life will soon be past…” Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment… (Heb 9:27 NIV).

There is a great central lesson to this parable. “Accept God’s gracious invitation to eternal happiness. Accept it now!”

Grace and peace, David