Looks can be deceiving. We sometimes misjudge people based on their outward appearances, and sometimes we misjudge God based on appearances. We see a person who has it all together and we assume that the blessing of God rests on them. We see another person who is down and out or sick or weak or hungry or broken and we assume that they are not right with God.
Jesus introduced His Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, where He proposes a greater perspective on life. This sermon is perhaps the most stunning “turning of the tables” ever verbalized, as Jesus challenged His hearers to look at the world, themselves, and God differently than they had before. Those who assumed they had God’s approval were warned that they may not. And you may be surprised to learn who Jesus claimed did have God’s approval.
According to the Sermon on the Mount, some may see our good deeds and persecute us while others may see the same good deeds and give honor to God. Our good deeds, then, should not depend upon others' receptivity. Regardless of the response, we should be having an impact on our world that would be noticeably absent if we were removed. The motivation for our good deeds is to please our Father, but the result of our good deeds is a world divided—some to insult us and others to join us. What is not left to us as an option is an innocuous life. We are not commanded to fit in; we are not permitted to look like the world; we are not made to blend in. We are the salt and light of the world. We live before an audience of many, but we strive for the applause of One as we impact our tasteless and dark world for the King of Kings.
How refreshing it is to come into contact with someone who really understands the mind and heart of God. What a joy to sit under insightful Bible teaching while fresh truths are communicated clearly. It not only drives us to a deeper understanding of God, but it also makes us long to live for Him. If anyone had a direct line of communication with the Father, it was Jesus. And when Jesus taught the Scriptures, people noted His authority and were fascinated by His insights into God and the Scriptures. According to Howard Hendricks, one reason we don’t learn more is that we’ve not been sufficiently confused. Confusion often precedes understanding. Or another way to say it: We won’t learn new answers until we ask new questions. Jesus forced people to ask new questions that stretched their understanding and behavior. My prayer is that we are stretched, too.
“You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . .” Jesus begins a series of six “contests” in which he questions the understanding of Scripture popular in his day. He proves himself to be the authority on Scriptural interpretation and application. The first misunderstanding of Scripture Jesus attempts to correct pertains to reconciliation. According to Jesus, mending fences and true conflict resolution involves more than an external/token gesture—it’s a heart issue. And until one has dealt with one’s anger and feelings at the deepest level, one still risks sinning against the Lord. Burned bridges and unmended fences can hinder worship and invite long-term consequences. But most importantly, pent-up hatred can erode one’s own heart. At some point, our negative feelings about others stops punishing them and begins punishing us.
In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has begun to set right some common misunderstandings about one’s ability to please God. He does so with a series of six “contests” in which he states a popular teaching and then corrects it with one even more stringent. In his second and third contests, Jesus tackles the sensitive area of adultery (forbidden by the seventh commandment) and divorce, and correctly interprets the Old Testament to make it more stringent in these areas. How do you define “adultery”? Webster’s definition differs from Jesus’ definition. According to Jesus, a lingering, desirous look constitutes adultery. Statistics indicate that as many as 50% of us will fail by Webster’s definition (shared by the Pharisees); experience indicates that 100% of us will fail by Jesus’ definition.
How’s your credibility? Are you considered honest? Dependable? Trustworthy? Reliable? Do people take you at your word, or do your words have to be qualified for people to take them seriously? According to Jesus, our words should be able to stand on their own—based upon our solid character and track record—without the need for qualifiers like oaths, vows, and invoking the name of God. God will judge the truthfulness of our words—whether we invite Him to do so or not! Isn’t it interesting that our statements without oaths seem to take on less credibility when we invoke oaths on other statements? Whether we like it or not, our words reflect our character. Unreliable words reveal a character flaw—a lack of integrity. How’s your credibility?
When Jesus talks about loving others He answers some questions we don’t typically ask. You see, many of us have already decided who is worthy of our love, and we’re just looking to love them better. We want to know how to better love our spouse, our children, our family, our friends, our co-workers. Normally those on this list are “easy” to love. But Jesus cuts through our presuppositions. Instead of telling us how to love, He tells us who to love. He challenges us to love those who are not normally on our “love radar.” Our love should be showered upon our neighbors AND our enemies, on those we find easy to love and those we find most difficult. That is, after all, the model our heavenly Father has established for us.
The Jews thought that they had a behavioral problem; Jesus taught that they had a heart problem. Our behavior is often witnessed by others, and sometimes the presence of others inclines us to behave differently than we otherwise would. In contrast, our heart is hidden in a secret place where only God sees it. For this reason, Jesus cautions us to beware of the motives behind our public behavior and warns us to avoid acting differently in the presence of others because of the presence of others. Instead, we should behave in public the same way we behave in private. If our motive for obedience is anything other than to please God, then we are operating out of unrighteous motives. To advertise our piety for the applause of others displeases God and causes us to forego His applause.
Jesus not only warns us how not to pray (long, public prayers to impress others), He also shows us how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer provides some critical elements that should become part of our everyday conversations with God, such as praise, confession, and prayers for sustenance and protection. The prayer was not one that Jesus Himself prayed, and it is not one that we should merely recite as a sort of ritual. Instead, it demonstrates the utter dependence upon the Father that each of us should know. In that way, the Lord’s Prayer becomes our prayer.
We are all involved in investments, whether we play the stock market or not. We each choose where to spend our time, where to volunteer, how involved to get in a relationship, what to purchase, and how much to give. But physical investments seem to attract our attention more often than spiritual investments. Physical investments are tangible, they yield an immediate return, they benefit us directly, and they seem to come with a greater guarantee. Spiritual investments are intangible, they yield no immediate return, they don’t carry an obvious benefit to us, and they seem more risky (there’s more mystery in our returns). Why should we invest in spiritual (heavenly) stock rather than physical (earthly) stock? Jesus answers that question in a way that should make us reconsider our every word, thought, action, and decision: Spiritual investments please God and their returns are superior and everlasting. Is your heart in earthy investments or heavenly ones?
Jesus repeats the same command several times over the course of ten verses. He appeals to logic, provides examples from everyday life, and offers convincing proofs along the way. Yet still we fail. “Don’t worry!” he says again and again. A loving God who wants to provide for you is in control. “Stop worrying!” he repeats. Doesn’t it make sense that God is not planning to abandon you? “Quit worrying!” he says. And focus on eternal things rather than the paraphernalia. Still, we worry. Why? Because we don’t believe Him. Or rather, our faith in our ability to provide for ourselves outweighs our faith that God will do it. Oh we of little faith!
If John 3:16 is the most widely-known verse in the Bible, then Matthew 7:1 is certainly the most widely-quoted verse. Jesus’ instructions, “Judge not lest ye be judged” form our cultural “Keep Out” sign. Stripped from its original context and intention, this verse is wielded in defense against anyone who might presume to interfere with our unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We use it to persuade others to live and let live, to tolerate our every behavior, and to prevent them from meddling with our choices. But what if Jesus was not trying to teach “tolerance at all costs”? What if perfection is not the prerequisite for addressing shortcomings in others? Perhaps another look at this passage will indicate that it is misunderstood almost as often as it is quoted.
For better or worse, our view of our earthly father will often influence our view of our Heavenly Father (how convicting for us fathers, but that’s another message for another day . . .). Today’s passage explores some of the positive similarities that exist between earthly fathers and our Heavenly Father. We serve a Father who wants to give, who intends to provide what is best for us, and who longs for us to get along with our siblings. Yet for all of the similarities He shares with our earthly fathers, our Heavenly Father explodes many of our predetermined constructs. For one thing, He is both good AND sovereign. That means He is capable of providing for all of our needs from His limitless supply. What a privilege to call Him Father!
In these last two portions of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes us to the point of decision by presenting a series of choices. We can choose the more difficult, less traveled path of sacrifice and authenticity, or we can choose the easier, more traveled path of selfishness and pretense. The most important decision in life is one we must make every day: Will I live for Him or will I live for myself? In the words of Robert Frost,
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
More important than the materials used to construct a house is the foundation upon which the house is built. That’s because the best materials cannot withstand the elements of our climate if they’re built on an unstable foundation. And you can’t judge the soundness of a house’s foundation during fair weather conditions. Likewise, everyone’s life appears equally stable during fair life conditions. However, during inclement weather the shell of one’s life will stand or fall depending on the soundness of its foundation. What serves as the foundation of your life and family? Is it trustworthy enough to withstand the storms of illness? The rains of testing? The floods of grief? The winds of heartbreak? At the end of a life trial, will your house still be standing as a monument to Christ—the faithful Foundation?