Saturday, November 12, 2016

Epic Fail: The Sermon on the Mount

It seems that there have always been debates surrounding the purpose of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Some believe that His teachings are guidelines for our lives today, and that believers need to strive to meet them throughout their daily lives. I have had it explained to me like this: “the Law was a standard for the Israelites, and it proved to condemn them because they failed to meet up to it. Now, under grace, the standards have been upped but because we have the Spirit, we can meet these demands that Jesus asks of us in the Sermon on the Mount.” 

But such a conclusion fails to take into consideration the overall thrust of Jesus’ teachings here. He is not trying to encourage Christian’s to live “kingdom lives” by imitating what He is teaching. He is trying to convince Jews of what perfection really looks like under the Law. Notice what Jesus says about the type of righteousness that one must have to enter into the kingdom: 

"For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20
In other words, unless you are even more righteous than the Pharisees who behave well outwardly, yet inwardly are sinful, you cannot enter the kingdom. Remember, in many ways the Pharisees externally kept the Law very well. Paul himself claimed that he was blameless according to the Law (Philippians 3:6). Jesus wanted people to stop looking to externals for righteousness, and He did this by teaching them true perfection according not only to external behavior, but inward intentions. His teachings reveal something crucial about the human condition: the sinful nature that every human being inherits. Sure, the Pharisees may have looked good fasting and praying on street corners, people may look good religiously, but deep down something is off. Deep down a change is needed.
Notice what Jesus says about the deeper issue of sin during the Sermon on the Mount. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his hearts.” Matthew 5:27-28 

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You food-for- nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says,‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” Matthew 5:22 

“It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32 

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men…But when you give to the poor do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:2, 3-4

Those who read the sermon and think “Okay, time to roll up my sleeves and get to work on this Christian thing” have missed the point entirely. Those who read the sermon and think “Wow. I suck!” may just be on to something. Whereas many during Christ’s time thought that they could externally keep the Ten Commandments and be square with God, Jesus showed that it wasn’t simply keeping the letter of the Law. It was fulfilling it perfectly in the spirit of the Law. In effect Jesus said, 

“Never cheated on your wife? If you have lusted, then you have cheated. Never murdered anyone? If you have hated, you have murdered. Have you ever divorced someone or even been divorced? Have you ever married a divorced person? If so, under the Law, you are guilty of adultery. Oh, and when you give to the poor, are your intentions right? Do you do it to be seen by man or to honor God? Because if you do it for the wrong reason, you are guilty, regardless of your seemingly good behavior.” 

This sermon stings, doesn’t it? I will admit, the depth of my guilt according to Jesus’ teachings here is great (or was before salvation). The one that is especially sobering is the teaching on divorce. Marriage is such a permanent covenant in God’s eyes that the breaking of it, except in the case of marital unfaithfulness, brings the guilt of adultery upon a person. Furthermore, if anyone marries the divorced person they are guilty of adultery. My first marriage ended in divorce, not by my choosing at all. Yet according to Law, I don’t even avoid the guilt before God. It doesn’t matter how much I wanted to save my first marriage, the bottom line is that I don’t make the cut under Law. And neither do you. Harsh and sobering, isn’t it? I don’t believe Jesus was trying to make people feel bad for their past. This was not His purpose. He was simply showing the Israelites the stringent and impossible standards of moral perfection under the Law. And boy did it hurt! Bottom line: No one can avoid guilt under the Law. The standard is just too high. But the good news is that God has a new covenant for us and it is beautiful. The liberating truth of the New Covenant is that our sins are completely taken away at salvation (Hebrews 8:12). Once we see how far short we fall of God’s standard under Law, expressed in greater detail during the Sermon on the Mount, we can truly receive the grace that Jesus offers so freely. All of our adulteries, lusts, lies, poor motives, prideful intentions….ALL of our failings are taken away at salvation. We are freed from condemnation (Romans 8:1), freed from sin (Romans 6:18), adopted by God (Ephesians 1, 1 John 3:1), made new spiritual beings (2 Corinthians 5:17) and brought into full fellowship with our Father (1 John 3:1). The Law existed to point out sin so that the whole world may be held accountable to God (Romans 3:19). With the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expressed in greater magnitude the standard of perfection that is represented by the Law. If we seek to meet the standards put forth in the Sermon on the Mount, then our failure will constantly be revealed. But if we rest in the fact that Jesus has met the standard for us, then our lives will be a celebration of the amazing grace of God. Once we realize that we have epically failed under Law, we can receive the epic grace and love of God in the finished work of Christ. And then the adventure truly begins!

Andrew Nelson
Author of Fight for Grace
copied with permission

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