I want to turn aside and take a look at Jesus’ famous teaching known to us as the sermon on the mount. It is one of the most penetrating explanations of God’s laws and ways ever given. I want to examine exactly what it says, and see how it fits with Paul’s teachings about the law and justification by faith and grace. We’ll start by refreshing ourselves about what the general message of the sermon on the mount is.
This teaching occurs in Matthew 5 through 7, which you might want to pause and go read.
For our sake, here is the basic outline of Jesus’ teaching:
- Blessed are the poor
- Salt and Light
- Jesus came to fulfill all of the law
- Law explained to deep inner motivations on various points
- You’ve heard it said, but…
- eye for and eye
- love your enemy
- practicing righteousness to be noticed
- giving to the needy
- worry about self (food and clothing)
- worry about others (do not judge)
- worry about God (seek, and find; not withheld or given strange things
- You’ve heard it said, but…
- Do it or die
- narrow path
- tree and its fruit
- wise and foolish builder
A Modern Reader Interprets the Sermon on the Mount
Let’s think about this from the perspective of a modern reader. Here is what might really go through someone’s head when they read this. “Poor in spirit … I feel sorry for all those homeless people out there. Mourn … hope that never happens! Meek … I hate those meek Jesus songs. Skipping … skipping … some day I might try to figure this stuff out. Ewwww, here’s the good part! Salt and light … yes! I’m a lamp on a hill, yes! Fulfilling the law, yada yada yada … OK, here we go. Angry = murder. That’s right, except when I got angry at Jane it was justified, she was so wrong. Jesus got angry sometimes, right? Looking = adultery; come on Jesus! As if! Divorce – I’m in, but this is pretty stringent. Oaths – what….? Love your enemies – enemies? I don’t have any enemies, this is probably no big deal though. skipping, skipping, skipping, to the guy who builds on the rock vs the sand. WOW, I should go back and read this better some day!”
The point is, we internally explain all of this away, skip the parts we don’t understand, escape all possible conviction, and then the first part about the poor in spirit makes no sense whatsoever. So we think our fuzzy and anemic understanding of the law is what grace is. We imagine that God just sort of glosses over our sins and shallow minds the same way that we operate. On the contrary, grace presses the law home in a big way, and shows our poverty of spirit, our lack of righteousness, and produces a true hunger for holiness and transformation.
A Jew Hears This, Back in the Day
So let’s suppose you are a Jew back in the day, and you are curious and devout, so you wander up to hear what this fellow is saying. Here is what might go through your head as you listen to Jesus teach. “He is saying some very strange things about the value of being poor and unrighteous! Well, that’s not me! I’ve always pretty much kept the law. This isn’t the law, this is some strange blasphemous new teaching – I’m leaving. He says that he came to fulfill the law – hey, this sounds good, let’s listen a little further. Anger = murder: OUCH! That’s true. Looking = adultery: OUCH! That’s true too! On he goes, this is incredibly convicting. I’m supposed to be perfect? THAT level of perfect? I’m starting to feel pretty poor. He’s right, if I don’t do this, like this, to this level, I’m sunk, it is all a sham. How am I going to do this? I need to hear more, much more.”
Notice that at the end of the “you’ve heard it said, but I say…” section, we get the stinger:
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48, NASB.
So what has Jesus done here? He has taken people who believe in a shallow veneer of righteousness according to the law, who believe they are not in need of help, and pressed the law to apply to their deep inner motivations and secret thoughts. By the end of the message they come to realize that they are indeed poor in spirit. Just like Paul teaches, He uses the law to show them their need, to move them from their complacency to a place of hunger and thirst for righteousness, to a realization of their need for grace and mercy. He doesn’t any more expect that those people were going to hear that message once and immediately walk out and start perfectly doing all of it than I am going to raise a garden on Saturn. He is whetting their appetite for grace!
Pointing Us to Grace
Does this negate any of what He is saying, am I teaching that we ought not to worry about doing these things? Of course not. That is the same old question, should we sin all the more that grace might increase? NO! The spirit-led life looks like this. It knows the reality of God’s presence, and thus prays in secret, in fact does all things in secret, because the secret mind/heart is the always present reality in which the living God works. It gives anxiety over to the Father who loves us. It looks past the present sins of others and blesses always. We can always look back at this teaching, and measure ourselves, and find new and fresh need for grace. However, the tree must be drinking in the rich moist soil of grace to bear this fruit. The narrow way is not the self-motivated natural fleshly minded righteousness. No one is perfect and we all know it. We are the blessed poor, who are merciful, who know mercy, who hunger from our inner soul for righteousness, and who ask the Father for the bread of life, and receive it. The sermon on the mount is all about pointing us to grace.
Someone may object that I am coming in the back door with condemnation and law. Am I saying, ‘you have to get really good and convicted and feel really awful about yourself before you can enter God’s good graces? In a way, I suppose I am kind of saying that, but what I’m really saying is, what use are mercy and grace if you think you don’t need them? What good is the law at pointing you to grace if you end up explaining it all away and you have no need of supernatural virtue, of the leading of the Spirit? Can you really get the awesome benefit from Jesus’ teaching if you don’t bother at all with His actual meaning? We reduce grace from real glorious release and freedom to the milk-toast idea that He just glosses over our minor problems and doesn’t care, leaving us essentially untransformed and stuck in our ways. This isn’t actually grace at all, it is a very sad watered down and weak-kneed pharisaism which says, “I’m basically OK, so why would God be unhappy with me?” On the contrary, He cares, little things matter a lot, the state of the heart is the true issue, and in looking at things this way we have release into a tremendous level of grace. This opens the door to a world of moral virtue that goes extremely deep, and gives us a chance to try and fail in order that we might try and succeed.
Now, you have to ask yourself, which would you rather believe? That the “true gospel of Jesus” is a supremely harsh interpretation of the most difficult parts of this teaching, and that we should just ignore or throw out all of that ‘poor in spirit’ junk at the beginning? Also, throw out Paul’s writings because those aren’t the ‘true gospel’? OR, would you rather believe that Jesus’s whole message hangs together as a unity, that He presses the law home to show you that you ARE poor in spirit, and that this all fits perfectly with the further teachings down the road about the prodigal son and the lost sheep and His desire for mercy and compassion? Would you rather read this in a way that harmonizes perfectly with the writings of Paul, or set them against Paul’s thought and divide the Scripture? Which sounds like a more truthful and scripture-honoring way to look at this? Which sounds like a way you could actually live under?
At the end of the passage, Jesus wraps it all up like this:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” Matthew 7:24-27, NIV.
Which words exactly is He talking about? All of them! That’s right, not just the ones about not lusting and not praying in public. The ones about being poor in spirit, about being unrighteous and weak but wanting badly to be better. He means the baffling words at the beginning that we usually skip over as well as the obvious convicting ones in the middle. If you can only hear the middle words, the obviously convicting word, how can you be said to have a right foundation? The people who skip to the middle section without seriously hearing the beginning are building a house on the sand! Hearing Jesus’ words and doing them means hearing them ALL, and the beginning part, the meek and mild poor in spirit part, is the real game changer! He is saying you can go ahead and come out and admit that you can’t do this, you don’t know where to start, inside you are all full of rottenness. THAT is the right foundation!
You know what is so wonderful about this? It is honest, and it is doable. I look at the tax gatherer who can barely pray, but can only beat his chest and beg mercy and admit his sin, and I say, yes, I can do that. That is easy. I can be honest. God does not require anything of us that we can’t do. He presses the law to a degree that screams, you can’t do this, you may think you can do this, but you cannot do this. The real hearers and doers of His words are the ones who remember the perspective that the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom. It isn’t the guilty and rotten pretenders who enter the kingdom, it is the forgiven. It is not the one who pretends not to look, not to be angry, not to worry, not the one who makes foolish promises to change, but the one who says, “Oh, that is true! I am that man, if there is no mercy I am ruined!” Seek and you shall find!
When you look at the scriptures through the eyes of grace as taught by Paul in Romans and Galatians and such, it all begins to come clear. More than that, we see the picture emerge that there is no question that we have come to a God who is the Father of mercy, who always loves, who knows how to break up our fallow ground and really come to a place of change and true inward transformation, because He truly cares for us. Why wouldn’t anyone want to believe all of that? I believe it, I find it easy to believe. Jesus is teaching that very thing in the sermon on the mount, clearly.
Put another way, our relationship with Jesus is likened to a romance, He is like the bride and the church is like the groom. It is about passion, about desire, about longing. Fuzzy barely alive passionless numb readings of this text don’t really fit with that idea do they? The bride always seeks in every way to beautify herself as her wedding approaches, because of her passion for her husband, her lover. A woman is always at her most radiant on her wedding day. We read this passage, and we see what He who loves us really likes in a bride, and from love, from passion, from desire, we see how far we are from this high mark. We seek grace freely to make ourselves like this:
“And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” 1 John 3:3, NASB.
Grace doesn’t say, all is forgiven, so now I can sin! Grace says, all is forgiven, I want to be better! I WANT it!