The Sermon On The Mount – Introduction

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“Stott, J. R. W., & Stott, J. R. W. (1985). The message of the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian counter-culture (p. 19). Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. Notice what he says there.  different from both the secular world and the nominal church.  That echoes somethin…”

The Sermon On The Mount takes up 3 of the 28 chapters in Matthew’s Gospel.  Obviously, Matthew thought it was important.  Since he was Jewish, much of what Jesus said in that event was earth-shaking for Matthew.  Since Matthew was a tax collector – hated by pretty much everyone, especially other Jews – The Sermon On The Mount was undoubtedly amazingly good news for him.  Jesus turned the whole Jewish world on its head with His words.

The Sermon On The Mount

Jesus begins with nine statements, all beginning with “Blessed are …”.  Most of them are pretty far from the kinds of people the Jewish leaders considered blessed.

Not long after that, Jesus keeps repeating “You have heard that it was said …” in different contexts.  Again, these are statements that just blow away what the Jewish people were taught for generation after generation.

Later, what Christians know as The Lord’s Prayer is introduced.  Once again – mind-blowing to the Jewish listeners.

After that – some warnings and parables.

All of it ends with this reaction from those who heard Jesus speak.

Mt 7:28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

More bad news for the Jewish leaders.  But at the same time, good news for the Jewish people.  But what about us?  We read these statements today.  We know they’re collectively called The Sermon On The Mount.  But are they as mind-blowing and earth-shaking today as they were nearly two thousand years ago?

What was / is The Sermon On The Mount?

I found this quote, while doing research for this topic:

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed. It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do. To my mind no two words sum up its intention better, or indicate more clearly its challenge to the modern world, than the expression ‘Christian counter-culture’.  {[(|fnote_stt|)]}Stott, J. R. W., & Stott, J. R. W. (1985). The message of the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian counter-culture (pp. 14–15). Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.{[(|fnote_end|)]}

Let’s look at some of the things John Stott said in that short excerpt from his book.

Christian counter-culture

Let’s look at the last one first.  Stott called the Sermon On The Mount a challenge to be part of a Christian counter-culture.  You may not realize that “counter-culture” wasn’t even a term until the mid 1960’s.  Here’s how dictionary.com refers to its origins.

counterculture:  A protest movement by American youth that arose in the late 1960s and faded during the late 1970s. According to some, young people in the United States were forming a culture of their own, opposed to the culture of Middle America. ( See hippies and Woodstock.)

If you’re not familiar with hippies and Woodstock, I leave it for you to Google them and find out more.  I will say though – it had nothing to do with Christianity.

These days, counter-culture to some techie people would be more like rejecting email, because that’s what the “old people” use.

I doubt that a huge number of people today would refer to Christianity as counter-cultural.  In fact, being in what’s called a post-Christian era, more people are likely to view Christianity as the old way – much like young people don’t use email, Facebook, and countless other “old” technologies.

The question is – why not?  Christianity should be very much a counter-culture.  The fact that it isn’t, I believe, is more related to how Christianity is practiced than it is to what Christianity is really about.  I’m talking about the Christianity of Jesus – not the Christianity of man.  Not the European model, where people are more into following The Force, as in Star Wars, or being a “none”.  And not the Christianity of America, where the so-called prosperity Gospel seems to have more followers than anything close to what Jesus actually spoke about.

So as you read this, think about Jesus’ words in that counter-culture way.  Maybe it’s not what you’re used to hearing.  But they are, after all, His words.  They aren’t the watered down or misinformed words that are spoken or written about by people who don’t even follow Jesus’ teaching themselves.  Think the “yeast of the Pharisees” here.

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus

It’s hard to argue with this statement.  Since it includes The Beatitudes, The Lord’s Prayer, statements on murder, adultery, love for enemies, giving to the needy, judging others, and more – how can one say that anything else is better known?

But after acknowledging that – it’s almost like, so what?  The next two subsections clearly override any benefit that might have been gained from being the best known.

arguably it is the least understood

Saying that The Sermon On The Mount is arguably the least understood part of Jesus’ teaching seems like saying that we didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching at all!  Other than the so-called sinner’s prayer – what’s not in there?  Oh – by the way, in case you didn’t already know – that sinner’s prayer – it’s not in the Bible at all.

And Jesus never said anything that can be correctly translated as all you have to do is believe in me.  We’ll get into that much more in the details of The Sermon On The Mount, but for an initial look at what “believe in me” really means, please see Are we supposed to Believe in God, Believe God or Follow God?.

certainly it is the least obeyed

OK – that’s scary.  The Sermon On The Mount is certainly the least obeyed part of what Jesus taught.  Given that is covers so much – that’s really bad.  But then, what else can we expect?  If we don’t even understand what Jesus said – how can we possibly expect to obey Him?

Maybe it would be nice if we could just say to Jesus, after our death – “Sorry – I didn’t understand”.  Unfortunately, ignorance of the law won’t work any better after death than it does in this life.  No judge, including The Judge – Jesus – will accept that.

We know this, because Jesus said this, during a conversation with an expert in the Jewish law:

The Greatest Commandment

22:34-40 pp — Mk 12:28-31

Mt 22:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Mt 22:37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Did you catch the part about Love the Lord your God with … with all your mind’?  Yes – with our minds.  I have another article that takes a brief look at the geography and the target audience for Jesus’ most famous sermon.  At the risk of repeating things, here’s the first paragraph from there:

The Sermon On The Mount takes up three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel.  That’s more than 10% of what he wrote.  Matthew was recording this famous event from the point of view of a Jewish person.  That’s important.  It’s gives us a view of what changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament.  More properly – and in more useful wording – what changed from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.  For more on that thought, please read The problem of – With all your mind. Or not?.

The point that’s brought out in The problem of – With all your mind. Or not?  is that using all of our minds was never actually said in the Old Testament.  Yes, the concept was there.  But the words were never actually included.  Jesus, as part of the New Covenant, is now explicitly telling us to use the minds that God gave us.  We are to love God.  And to love God, we also have to get to know God – at least as much as we’re able to.  Further, Jesus says to do this, not with a little bit of our mind – but with all of our mind.

So if we’re hoping for that “sorry, I didn’t understand” thing to work – it’s time to stop hoping.  Time to get out the book, open the mind, and start learning.

Oh – and then obeying.

his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do

John Stott called it Jesus’ manifesto.  For those of you close to my age, we might think of a manifesto as something like the Communist Manifesto.  Or maybe something from Che Guevara.  But it’s more than that.  Here’s what dictionary.com says about a manifesto.

manifesto:  a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, as one issued by a government, sovereign, or organization.

OK – intentions, opinions, objectives or motives.  The thing is, with God, is an opinion really “just” an opinion?  Seems like God’s opinion is “truth” – not an opinion that can be argued over.  For that, let’s look at my favorite verse from the Old Testament:

Isa 1:18 “Come now, let us reason together,”
says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.”

let us reason together“.  Sounds kind of like – let’s sit down and talk about this.  Maybe your sins aren’t really like scarlet.  Maybe I (God) got that one wrong.

No!

That translation is from the 1984 NIV.  I actually like it.  The way it is.  Because I understand what “reason together” really means.

Here’s how the 2010 NIV translates that same verse.

Is 1:18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.”

This one sounds a bit more direct.  Imagine when you were a kid (or maybe you still are?) and your parents said something along the lines of, “let’s settle this here and now!”  Don’t know about you – but mine weren’t talking about let’s make a deal.  They were going to straighten me out – not listen to me.

Now – I know that many of you have / had loving parents.  And this might have been the opening for a discussion with you.  That wasn’t my experience.  And it isn’t / wasn’t for many of you as well.  For those of us – like many atheists I interacted with – we need to realize that “Come now, let us reason together” really is God’s invitation for a discussion.  A discussion where He will explain to us why we were wrong, to be sure.  But it won’t be a beat-down, as long as we’re willing participants in that discussion.

True – at some point – like when we’re dead, discussion time is over.  But while we’re alive – God really does want a two-way conversation.  In fact, that’s what prayer is all about.  See This then is how you should pray… for more on that.  BTW – the topic is about The Lord’s Prayer, which we already saw is part of The Sermon On The Mount.  So maybe learning about prayer being a two-way discussion is part of your learning what the Sermon On The Mount is really about.

Be different

Before closing this Introduction to The Sermon On The Mount, here’s one more excerpt from John Stott’s book – The Message of The Sermon On The Mount.

Thus the followers of Jesus are to be different—different from both the nominal church and the secular world, different from both the religious and the irreligious. The Sermon on the Mount is the most complete delineation anywhere in the New Testament of the Christian counter-culture. Here is a Christian value-system, ethical standard, religious devotion, attitude to money, ambition, life-style and network of relationships—all of which are totally at variance with those of the non-Christian world. And this Christian counter-culture is the life of the kingdom of God, a fully human life indeed but lived out under the divine rule.  {[(|fnote_stt|)]}Stott, J. R. W., & Stott, J. R. W. (1985). The message of the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian counter-culture (p. 19). Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Notice what he says there.  different from both the secular world and the nominal church.  That echoes something I said earlier.  For those that may not be familiar with the word nominal, it has various meanings depending on the context.  In this case, the appropriate one from dictionary.com is:

nominal:  being such in name only; so-called

In other words, the organization calls itself a Christian church – but the reality is that while Christian is in the name, what they actually teach / do there isn’t true Christianity.  Here’s what Jesus has to say to churches like that, from Revelation:

To the Church in Sardis

Rev 3:1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Rev 3:4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

That’s not the kind of message I’d want to get from Jesus about the church I go to.

So, as I said, maybe you’ll read things you’ve never heard before.  It happens.  If so, you really ought to check things out.  Find out why it’s news to you.  Maybe something you missed?  Maybe not applying your mind because of other things?  Or is it really because you go to a church like Sardis?  No matter what, do something.  Find those few people in <your church> who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me <Jesus>, dressed in white, for they are worthy.  Or go someplace that’s more than Christian in name only.

Learn what Jesus really said and meant in The Sermon On The Mount.  Understand it.  And Obey it.

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