*NOTE*

On October 1st, 2023, we will be joining our brothers & sisters at True Vine Ministries for Sunday morning worship. The service begins at 10:30am, and the address is 3701 N Spencer Rd, Spencer, OK 73084.

Kingdom Manifesto: Why We Need the Sermon on the Mount

September 10, 2023 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: The New Way to Live: Jesus's Sermon on the Mount

Scripture: Matthew 4:17– 5:1, Matthew 7:28– 8:1

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. 1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. 1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.

Today we begin our study of the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5–7. It’s a well-known passage, and a well-respected one. Franklin Roosevelt once said, “I doubt if there is any problem in the world today—social, political, or economic—that would not find happy solution if approached in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.[1] Even non-Christians have been drawn to its teaching. Mahatma Gandhi said that if he were evaluated only on his views on the Sermon on the Mount he would not hesitate to say, “O yes, I am a Christian.”

Now that’s interesting, especially since the people who seem to have the most trouble with the Sermon on the Mount are professing Christians. There are some pretty different takes on the Sermon among Christians, such that it may be no stretch to say that “one’s reading of the Sermon says much about one’s understanding of Jesus and Christian theology” as a whole.[2]

Any attempt to interpret the Sermon on the Mount will require some stage-setting, and that’s what I wish to do this morning. We need to back up a bit and get a running start. As we approach the Sermon on the Mount, we need to pay attention to the summons to repent, to follow, and then, to learn.

Time to Repent

First, the Sermon on the Mount calls us to repentance. These are the first words of Jesus that Matthew reports to us as he began his public ministry (Matt 4:17), echoing the words of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:2. And if we are going to read the Sermon on the Mount rightly, we must do the same.

The Meaning of Repentance

What does it mean to repent? The basic meaning of the word is to change the mind. But what does Jesus insist that we change our mind about?

We should seek to be as clear here as possible. If we say, “Jesus commands us to repent of sin,” then we will find ourselves in a further dilemma. What sins? And what if there is sin in my life I don’t even know is sin? And what if other Christians disagree with me about whether this or that even is a sin?

The other problem we will have here is the confusion this will bring us about to what degree I will have to change my actual behavior (and not just my mind) about such sins. I don’t know about you, but it is one thing for me to say, “I hate this sin I see in my life,” and it is quite a different thing to actually eliminate it from my life. There may be plenty of things I don’t need to change my mind about; it’s the behavior that needs to change, and that’s not always so easy.

Now, it is interesting that “sin” is not the object that follows the verb “repent.” Not here, and it appears, not anywhere else in the New Testament. I mean, you should repent of your sins, as should I. But Jesus is not calling here for his audience to stop doing some specific sin that God hates. Repent does not mean, “Stop doing this or that.” It is actually more radical than that. He is commanding conversion, a turning away from one way of being to another way of being. He is commanding a total transformation of life.[3]

Notice the reason for the command to repent. Repent “for” (that is, because) the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It is the arrival of the kingdom of heaven that calls for repentance. And the reason we misunderstand the command to repent is because we misunderstand the coming of the kingdom.

‌The Arrival of the Kingdom

The kingdom of God—or the kingdom of heaven, the two phrases are not much different in meaning—is the end to a story that has been a long time coming. Practically the entire Old Testament tells us the story which is set to culminate in the arrival of the kingdom of God. The story we read about in the Old Testament is the story of a Creator God and the world he made. And because God so loves the world he made, he is determined to save it from destruction.

That salvation would come, God had promised, through his chosen people, the people of Israel. The promise was made to Abraham that through him and his descendants, the end of the story would come. God would bring salvation to his world through his chosen agents. This salvation is the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God.

This is exactly what Jesus said was now arriving with his life and ministry. And the call to repentance, then, was a call to believe him, to believe that he was in fact inaugurating the promised end to the story.

The Threat of the Kingdom

What if we don’t believe him? Well, that’s no problem if Jesus did not make good on his claim.

But, if in fact Jesus did establish the kingdom of God, then to not repent, to not believe him, would mean you would be putting yourself against the kingdom he established. The kingdom of God would not be good news for you; it would be destructive news.

And this is how the Sermon on the Mount demands to be read. It is a manifesto about the kingdom of God and how things are going to be done in the kingdom.

The repentance that Jesus is calling for, then, is to put aside all other ways and ideas that run counter to his kingdom policies and agendas and align our minds with his.

If the kingdom of God has come, then citizens of that kingdom must abide by its aims. This makes a huge difference in how we read the Sermon on the Mount. If we read the Sermon as prerequisites to fulfill so that we can enter the kingdom (presumably, when we die), then we will surely be misreading the entire message. Lots of Christian readers make this mistake.

But if, on the other hand, we have a view of a kingdom that has already come with Jesus, then we can read the Sermon for the wisdom it promises to give us as citizens who are already in the kingdom.

Time to Follow

Next, we are told about Jesus calling his first disciples: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus calls them to follow him, and this suggests a second context in which we must read the Sermon on the Mount. We have to read it as disciples of Jesus. Not only is it time to repent; the Sermon on the Mount means it is also time to follow.

Disciples of Jesus

If the call for repentance is a call to change our mind in light of the coming kingdom, reorienting our thinking around Jesus and his way, then it is obvious that the whole point of repentance is for the life-long task of following Jesus, of being a disciple of Jesus. It cannot mean simply affirming truths about Jesus from a distance. It has to be more practical, more true to life than that.

It certainly was for these four men, and the others who would soon join them as the first disciples of Jesus. Following Jesus was not a metaphor for their private religious beliefs. It was as true-to-life as putting down their fishing poles—well, their fishing nets anyway—and going where Jesus was going. They would spend their days being with him and learning from him.

Now what is going on here? Why is Jesus recruiting disciples to literally follow him?

When we get to the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5, these disciples have followed Jesus up a mountain where Jesus sits down and begins to teach them. There is no doubt what Matthew is signaling to us here. For one thing, in the Gospel of Matthew, whenever Jesus goes up a mountain (five times), it signals a moment of divine revelation.[4] And in this instance, there are clear echoes of Moses’s ascent to Mt. Sinai and the receiving of the Torah. As we read through the Sermon on the Mount it will become even more explicit what Matthew wants us to see, that Jesus is the new and final Moses, the final arbiter of God’s law. Not that Jesus has come to replace Moses; as we will see throughout the Sermon, he has come to fulfill Moses and the Torah. He has come to bring the long-awaited promise to its completion.[5]

Let me pause here to make sure we get the point. When we say that Jesus “fulfills” the promise, we do not simply mean that something that was predicted in the past has come true. We are not talking about fortune-telling here. What we mean is something that was started has been brought to its completion. We are talking about a story that has reached its climactic moment.

This is what Matthew wants us to see. For disciples of Jesus today, then, it means we should locate ourselves in the denouement of this great story.

The Mission of Jesus

What, then, are we supposed to do? What is our task as those who follow Jesus?

It must be something similar to what his first disciples were called to do. In verse 19, Jesus tells them to leave their trade as fishermen to become fishers of men. From now on, they are called to catch people. Presumably, this means to go recruit others to join in as disciples of Jesus and subjects in his kingdom.[6] After all, this is what was to be expected when the kingdom of God arrived. It would be time for the nations to be brought into subjection to God’s eternal kingdom. The command to evangelize the world is not a sign that the kingdom has not come but a sign that it has already come.

This is what we see Jesus himself doing right from the start. By the time we get to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we are told that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one what had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt 7:28-29). He is starting to get some attention, attracting people to himself. Presumably, we should share in the astonishment and help others be astonished as well. Our task as disciples of Jesus is to help people see the astonishment of Jesus. It would certainly help if we were astonished ourselves first.

What is so astonishing about Jesus? Looking at what Matthew tells us at the end of chapter 4, we notice that Jesus was going around “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” Strikingly, Matthew reports in the same words the activity of Jesus at the end of Matthew 9, in verse 35. In other words, Matthew is giving us, in chapters 5–9, “a sketch of the mission and ministry of Jesus.”[7] He teaches, and he heals. These two activities are inseparable in defining the mission of Jesus. You cannot just be amazed at his deeds and dismiss his teachings if you want to understand Jesus. But, likewise, you cannot just listen to his teachings and assume that they have nothing to do with real-life problems, not when Jesus himself touches lepers, praises the faith of a Roman centurion, exorcises demons, calms storms, and gives sight to the blind.

‌The Picture of Jesus

‌Matthew is giving us the whole picture of Jesus, and we need to keep the whole picture in mind as we study the Sermon on the Mount. Yes, Jesus teaches. He speaks with authority. But Jesus also touches. He associates with the gentle and the lowly. This is who Jesus is. Matthew wants us to see Jesus.

Jonathan Pennington observes that since the Christian claim is that Jesus is the revelation of God himself in a human being, when we see Jesus as Matthew wants us to see him, we see “a complete image of what it means to be like God.” And it is only now, at this unique moment that “the biography of God can be written.”[8]

‌Matthew wants us to hear Jesus’s message in the Sermon on the Mount and he also wants us to see his actions in the next two chapters and then he wants to impress upon our consciences the question of what we are going to do with Jesus.[9] ‌Some will find themselves impressed with his teachings; others will find themselves drawn by his actions. But together these are meant to invite us in, to catch us like fish, to draw us in, to turn us into his disciples.

The next section in Matthew, starting in chapter 10, begins with these words: “And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” (Matt 10:1). Those who find themselves “caught” by Jesus are challenged not only to hear his words but also to put them into practice for the sake of the world. It’s like the children’s recess game “sharks and minnows.” Have you been caught by Jesus? Then it’s time to join him in catching others.

Time to Learn

Now, how should we do it? I mean, fishing looks easy enough, but anyone who knows the sport knows you have to learn how to do it. There is a technique. There is a skill set to learn. So it is here. The Sermon on the Mount tells us it is time to learn. In Matthew 5:2, Jesus begins to teach his disciples. Are we ready to learn from him? Are you ready to engage with the Sermon on the Mount?

Don’t Evade the Lesson

I have to warn you that it will be so tempting to evade the lessons of the Sermon rather than to engage with them.

During the medieval period, there developed a pietistic way of reading the Sermon. This meant that the Sermon was the way toward achieving a higher level of spirituality than ordinary Christians who simply could not live up to its higher ethical demands. The Protestant Reformers rejected this double standard. Luther’s view was that the Sermon was impossible for everyone to live by and that its whole purpose in setting the bar so high was so that everyone would be driven to the grace found only in Jesus. But Luther’s solution to the pietistic reading of the Sermon has had a similar effect on countless Christians who almost seem to find it more honorable to not even try to order their lives by the Sermon on the Mount.[10]

We should reject both of these ways of evading the Sermon on the Mount. Others in the Reformed tradition have pointed out that it makes all the difference when we see commands like the ones we will find in the Sermon within the context of grace and redemption. The same thing is true with the Ten Commandments, given to Israel, not prior to their exodus from Egypt, but after they had already been rescued and redeemed. Jesus does not give the Sermon the Mount as the prerequisite for entering the kingdom of God but he is teaching us how to be his disciples now that we are in the kingdom of God. He’s teaching us how to be his people. Why should it surprise us that we paupers have to learn how to live as royals?

Being the People of God

What intrigues me at this point is how different the Sermon the Mount is interpreted by Christians in different times and places.

Jonathan Pennington notes a few of these distinctive readings.[11] A typical Chinese Christian reading took it for granted that the Sermon has character formation as its aim and goal. The South Korean perspective often focuses on the material blessings that are promised to those who follow the Sermon precepts. Christians in India found the Semons’ focus on nonviolence and truth-telling to be the essence of true religion. There are also unique distinctions in how African and African-American people read the Sermon. All of this suggests that we bring our own assumptions into how we will read the Sermon. But rather than assuming that only one of these readings is the “right one,” we should be prepared to see them all as making important contributions to our understanding of how people in all times and places must learn how to be the people of God.

Trusting Jesus

At the end of the day, we must remember that the Sermon on the Mount is not actually what we are called to follow. Rather, Jesus is our leader. We are called to learn from him.

But the Sermon on the Mount is given to us as one of the most significant teachings of Jesus in all the Gospels. And we who find Jesus compelling must pay attention to what he is teaching us in these chapters. Why? Because this is his way. And walking his way is how we will catch people for his kingdom. Not walking his way is how we turn people away from it.

Russell Moore, who now serves as editor-in-chief for Christianity Today, said recently in an interview with NPR why it is that he thinks Christianity is in crisis in America.

Well, it was the result of having multiple pastors tell me essentially the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount parenthetically in their preaching—to turn the other cheek—to have someone come up after and to say, where did you get those liberal talking points? And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, I'm literally quoting Jesus Christ, the response would not be, I apologize. The response would be, yes, but that doesn't work anymore. That's weak. And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we're in a crisis.[12]

No wonder we can’t seem to catch people anymore. If we live just like everyone else, with the power of the kingdoms of men as our trusted source of strength, why would anyone think we have something better to offer them.

The Sermon on the Mount will challenge us to live by a different power, a different kingdom. Stanley Hauerwas observed that the basis for its teaching “is not what works but rather the way God is.” The gift we’ve been given for the sake of the world is “not a stratagem for getting what we want but the only manner of life available, now that, in Jesus, we have seen what God wants.”[13]

This is how we must read the Sermon on the Mount. It is a call for us to learn the ways of Jesus by following Jesus and ruthlessly repenting from all other ways of being in the world. This is why we need the Sermon on the Mount, so that as we follow the ways of Jesus others will be attracted to him as well and find themselves caught for the kingdom of God.

_____

[1] Franklin D. Roosevelt, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: F.D. Roosevelt, 1938, Volume 7, 541.

[2] Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 2.

[3] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 120.

[4] See Matt 5:1; 15:29; 17:1; 24:3; 28:16.

[5] Pennington, Sermon on the Mount, 139-140.

[6] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 147.

[7] Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary, ed. Tremper Longman III and Scot McKnight (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 20. Emphasis original.

[8] Pennington, Sermon on the Mount, 149.

[9] McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 20.

[10] Pennington, Sermon on the Mount, 5-6.

[11] Ibid., 10-14.

[12] Scott Detrow, “Russell Moore on ‘altar call for Evangelical America’,” NPR, August 5, 2023, available at www.npr.org/2023/08/05/1192374014/russell-moore-on-altar-call-for-evangelical-america.

[13] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 85.

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