For nearly two millennia, the world has been influenced by Jesus of Nazareth. The movement he began evolved into one of the most enduring institutions1 in the history of the planet. It was natural that not only stories of his deeds, but also collections of his sayings, were circulated, collected, and written down. One particular collection of such sayings, presented in Matthew’s Gospel, is known as the Sermon on the Mount.
Whether we understand the primary audience to be the average believer, or the world, or a select group of chosen persons from among the believers, such as the Apostles, there is still a very diverse secondary audience noted in the scripture. It is to this wide secondary audience that he addresses his final words of promise and warning.
Anyone who hears these words (Matthew 7:24), whatever his or her spiritual status or ecclesiastical standing, stands to gain the stability that comes from putting them into practice; or to suffer the consequences of failing to put them into practice. The present study is for the benefit of those who want to be disciples of Jesus3 in fact, whether or not they are his followers in name.
The Kingdom of God
The doctrine of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven as Matthew usually refers to it, (using this circumlocution4 out of respect for the Jews in his audience), appears early and often in the sayings of Jesus. Like John the Baptist, he began his ministry proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God. He spoke of that kingdom as something that could be “seen” by those who were born again (John 3:3), as a reality that could not be observed but was already apparent within or among the people (Luke 17:20-21), and also as a future reality that was yet to appear. It is probably the same as what he calls My kingdom when telling Pilate it is not of this world (John 18:36). It is the subject of most of the parables. It makes most sense to understand it in a “both-and” fashion: it is both a present reality and a future expectation. In this view, the establishment of the Kingdom Jesus preached about is not delayed until the arrival of a new age, nor is it to come about merely by restructuring society. It is something that those who are truly born again can see in the here and now: a realm of right relationships; a kingdom where the watchwords are forgiveness and reconciliation and healing and peace and life; or as Paul describes it, it is a kingdom of justice, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. It is always at hand for those who can receive it. Its culmination will be the time of restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), but its characteristic is always one of restoration.
Luke records a telling comment Jesus made to his disciples about the nature of the relationships within his kingdom (Luke 22:24-30):
Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.“
This passage functions within Luke’s gospel as a counterpart to the narrative of John 13:1-17, in which Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, and told them to do the same for one another. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him (John 13:15-16).
The kingdom Jesus confers on his disciples is one in which service replaces authority, and greatness is measured by doing as Jesus has done.
Jesus, in his teaching, describes for us the characteristics of those who are, here and now, citizens of God’s kingdom. He wants those characteristics to be ours, for when they are we are building on the rock.
The second chapter of Daniel describes a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon – a metallic statue which according to Daniel’s interpretation represents the major political authorities of the world from Nebuchudnezzar’s day until the time of the establishment of God’s kingdom. Many interpreters agree that the political kingdoms represented by the statue in the dream include the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek and Roman empires. The downfall of all these kingdoms is signified in the dream by
a rock cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth
(Daniel 2:34, 35).
In his explanation of this dream’s meaning, Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:44-45),
In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands – a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.
Is there a connection between the kingdom of God which is the subject of so much of Jesus’ teaching, and this kingdom which shall never be destroyed predicted by Daniel? Is the nature of the rock cut out without hands ever spoken of in the New Testament? Does it have anything to do with the teaching of Jesus? Can a kingdom characterized by love and service, and symbolized by the washing of feet (John 13:1-20), smash the feet of political authorities and bring their rule to an end? Jesus, who himself is called the Rock (I Corinthians 10:4), brings our attention to this present reality:
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.
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.
These are the words (Matthew 7:24-26) that form the basis of this book. We will return to them again and again.This remarkable promise and solemn warning forms the conclusion and climax — the punch line, if you will — of the Sermon on the Mount; a passage that is widely regarded as the most sublime of the whole Bible; one that sets such a high standard for both behavior and attitude that it is often viewed as impossibly idealistic and therefore entirely impractical. It is that common, and often unexamined view, that will be challenged in these pages.
The love ethic of Jesus as expounded in the Sermon on the Mount (and not only there, but throughout the New Testament) is so discounted by many of those who name Jesus as Lord that some Christians have mounted extensive arguments to disassociate it from the central doctrines of the grace of God and justification by faith. Some would relegate the application of this teaching of Jesus to a future millennium, or to a short interim period which ended at Pentecost. Others regard it as a belonging to the past, a summation of Old Testament law, which the doctrine of grace allows us to safely, for practical purposes, ignore. Whatever method is used, the plain fact seems to be that it makes people downright uncomfortable to think that these sayings of Jesus are intended to be practical guidelines for daily living; yet his own words suggest that they are just that.
In this study we will see that the gap between the doctrine of grace and these seemingly impractical commands of Jesus is not nearly so wide as we might think. We will find, in fact, that the ethic of love prescribed by Jesus in the passage under study is thoroughly understandable in context of the Pauline theological framework of justification by faith. More to the point, the reverse is true: the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is an outgrowth of the teaching of Jesus, and not an escape from it.
No one can hear the voice of Jesus without making a decision. In the case of the Sermon on the Mount, that decision is made at the point of practical application. To hear these words and apply them (put them into practice) is a decision whose result, according to Jesus, puts us on a firm foundation. To hear the same words and ignore them, or admire them as an impossible ideal, or discount them as interesting but not practical, sets us up for a great fall.
But perhaps that can be avoided by an earlier decision. Perhaps we can decide not to hear what Jesus is saying. He who has ears, he says elsewhere, let him hear. The safest thing might be to close our ears, to get off the mountain, to exclude ourselves not only from the company of disciples but also from that of curious onlookers. This impulse was followed to its logical end by those who were present at the trial of Stephen, when he preached Christ to them: they stopped their ears, and rushed at him. If that is your impulse, please do not read this book.5
On another occasion (Matthew 16:18) Jesus spoke of a rock, and said on this rock I will build my church. He said this to Peter, after the famous confession at Ceaseraea Philippi, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter had recognized that Jesus embodied in his person God’s nature and will, and that no comparison, however favorable, with prophets of the past would do him justice. For Jesus not only spoke the truth as the prophets had done; he not only demonstrated God’s power as some had done on special occasions; he revealed not just some aspect of God’s purpose as had been done at many times and in various ways (Hebrews. 1:1), but everything he did, was, and said revealed the nature of God. This is what Peter had recognized when he called Jesus the Son of God. Such a recognition did not come from human teaching (this was not revealed to you by man) but from divine revelation (but by my Father in heaven).
It remains true that human teaching will not reveal the nature of Christ to us; it requires a spiritual revelation, namely the Spirit of God at work in our own inner life. Without some such divine working, I don’t suppose it is possible to get very far with the application of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus says, If anyone is willing to do God’s will, he will know of the teaching, whether it be from God or whether I speak from myself (John 7:17). And Paul says, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:13).
In short, to study the words of Jesus is necessarily more than an academic or intellectual exercise. At every point we will make choices about whether we can or will put faith in these teachings to such an extent that they become our practice. Those choices are intimately related to God’s working in us, and our willingness to respond to that working in our own situation. There is no neutral ground.
- I suppose it is here obligatory to cite the famous if somewhat cynical comment that Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God, but what came was the church. I have, however, a higher or at least more hopeful view of the relation between the church and the kingdom than that. [↩]
- These sayings probably circulated within the church before either Matthew or Luke wrote them down. Possibly Paul, with whom Luke traveled extensively, was quite familiar with them. One of the things I hope to show is the continuity that flows from Jesus to Paul in light of this. [↩]
- I am continually encountering persons who, it appears, would like to learn from and follow Jesus, but are actually hindered by well-meaning Christians who insist that they must first subscribe to some particular package of doctrines or forms of expression. [↩]
- For those of you that came in late: the name of God is so holy according to the most rigorous Jewish tradition that merely to pronounce it sets one at risk of blaspheming; whence arose the practice of using circumlocutions and euphemistic phrases in place of the Name. Remind me to tell you sometime where the peculiar form “Jehovah” comes from. [↩]
- I would rather live, thank you. [↩]