Many Christian struggle with the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seems to set impossibly high standards for Christian living (Mt.5:1- Mt.7:29).
In His famous sermon Jesus seems to be setting amazingly high standards of living, which despite our heart’s desire, most of us know we fall short of. However before we fall into condemnation and are driven to do more good works to prove ourselves, we need to read the whole sermon on the mount, beginning to end and ask what was Jesus’ aim, who was He addressing and for what reason?
When seeking to understand this important sermon from the aspect of grace we see that Jesus’purpose was actually to call us to a dependence on Him, His holiness (1Cor.1:30), His righteousness (Matt.5:20) and His Spirit rather than to give us a list of seemingly impossibly high “do and don’t” to endeavor to live by in our own strength. Jesus is in fact teaching that the wonderful sentiments of this sermon can only be lived out as His Spirit and His grace empowers and free us to be His life on earth.
It is important for us to grasp this deeper and significant theme of the Sermon on the Mount least like the famous writer Leo Tolstoy (of ‘War and Peace’ fame) we take the sermon simply to be a list of rules for good Christian living. Tolstoy thought this and in the early 20th century he built a movement solely around the teaching and laws of the Beatitudes. This movement, like most Christianity based on laws, rules and regulations was doomed to failure because rule based living relies on acts of man’s will rather than the empowering and righteousness of the Spirit of Jesus within. The strength, will and obedience of man always falls short unless it is sourced in the grace and empowering of Jesus.
When looking at the Sermon on the Mount one of the critical truths is to recognize is that Jesus preached this sermon to Jews who were following Him as a Rabbi (a Jewish teacher), they did not yet know Him or recognize Him as Lord and Savior. The context of the whole sermon is that Jesus was addressing the issue of righteousness – how we get right with God (Mat.5:20). He was expounding the very, very, high standard of righteous living expected of those under the Law of Moses who were seeking to be righteous through Law keeping (Rom.9:31). Jesus was endevoring to being about a paradim shift as to what righteousness was and how it was attained.
Jesus was clarifying that if we choose to live by laws and rules, the righteous behavior required by the Law must even exceed that of the strictest Pharisee. Jesus points out that these “righteous” Pharisees that lead Israel,were actually hypocrites (Mat.6:2) and were in many instances breaking the commandments and teaching the others to do the same . Jesus taught, if anyone wants to be righteous enough for God based on the Law, it only works if you live perfectly and are perfect just like God …. like Him (Mat.5:38)….. think about that one.
Thank God that in the end of the sermon Jesus reminds us that the solution is to seek first His kingdom and HIS righteousness. His righteousness is not based on our keeping the Law & our works but on the cross and His fulfillment of the Law (Rom.3.21-22). That’s the good news of the gospel of the grace of Christ – our righteousness is a gift from God, not something we work for.
Now some may think that I am are implying that we need to ignore the all the good and beautiful things in the Sermon on the Mount and the high standard of living it alludes to – no, I’m not! But I am are saying don’t think that you can earn righteousness and God’s favor by trying to live out these things – you will never make the grade and ultimately you will fall into self righteousness and /or condemnation. That’s the point of the teaching to show us how we all fall short if we focus on the way we live instead of who we live by. We live by the Spirit of Jesus within us and in this grace we find ourselves living righteously in a natural effortless way that is full of joy , love and a blessing to all around us, simply because of who we are in Christ and who He is in us (Gal.2:20).
It is good and desirable to bless our enemies, endure persecution as a blessing, never break any of the Law’s commandments, to forgive, reconcile, turn the other cheek, be perfect like God, to stop focusing on money, keep pure thoughts, not to get angry with others, to pray, give, stop worrying, fast, not to swear, not to get divorced, to bear good fruit and not to judging others. I’m all for it and I’m sure we all want to live like this, but if the truth be known we just so often fall short (Rom.7:19) – try as much as we want!
The good news is that righteousness is the root not the fruit of good works! We will find ourselves doing the things of the Sermon on the Mount once we have found Jesus’ righteousness, firmly established ourselves in it and realized that we are righteous not because of any good works, obedience, self effort, will or trying. We are righteous purely because we have received the gift of Jesus righteousness (Rom.3:19-24)and for no other reason. Righteous living can only come about as a fruit of knowing that our righteousness is Jesus alone.
It’s not just coincidence that after preaching all the heavy high standards of righteousness to the Jews, Jesus next meeting is with an leper and a Roman gentile, both rejects according to the Jewish Law. Jesus responses radically to their faith, not by preaching but showing grace by healing. Amazingly he make that statement that he has never found such faith in the whole of Israel as he experienced in the Roman gentile “sinner” (Matt 8:1-10), could this amazing faith have come about because this Roman was not under Law and therefore faith could operate? The lesson is that it’s hard for those who choose to place themselves under law, rules, regulations and obedience based on self effort and will (the Jews in this case) to please God. However those under grace please God simply because of their trust and belief in His goodness and His Son. That’s what New Covenant living is all about – our dependence on Jesus and His Spirit within us.
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