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THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: PART ONE

PRESENTED ON 02-03-08

 

       In Matthew chapter five we find Jesus setting down on a relatively flat part of an elevated area and begin what has traditionally been referred to as the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew records that at the end of this sermon the crowds were amazed at what they heard and at the authority in which this message was delivered.  They saw the contrast in the manner in which Jesus taught as compared to what they heard from the Jewish religious leaders they had been listening to all their lives.  They had already come to understand that the teacher before them was no ordinary man.  Matthew records in Chapter four that after Jesus had been tempted in the wilderness, he proceeded from that time on to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."  Matthew then shows Jesus choose some of the twelve men who would become His close companions.  He then traveled throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom.  It’s recorded He healed every disease and sickness among the people. 

        Matthew records that news about Jesus spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases and he healed them. It’s recorded that large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.   

       As I have discussed in the past, the Israelites of the first century were expecting the promised anointed one to arrive.  They understood the time frames involved in the writings of Daniel and they knew the time was at hand for the promised Messiah to appear.  They also knew from the scriptures that the coming of this promised Messiah was associated with establishment of a kingdom.  This kingdom was believed to be the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom which would return them to a place and position of dominance over their enemies.  They would once again possess the land flowing with milk and honey.  When they saw the miracles Christ was performing and heard Him speak about a kingdom, they were obviously excited and wondering if Jesus could be the one.

        Therefore, it must have been somewhat astonishing to the crowds that gathered on this Galilean hillside to hear Jesus begin to teach them about the kingdom not in terms of military might, dominion over enemies, possessing the riches of the earth or any other such material manifestations.  What they heard instead was Jesus characterizing the kingdom in terms of spiritual attributes of character.  Instead of Jesus talking about defeating the Roman enemy, they heard Jesus talk about being meek, merciful and being a peace maker.  Jesus would go on to say that they should love their enemies and pray for those that persecuted them.  What a revolutionary message this must have been to their ears. 

       Yet was this really a new message or was Jesus simple presenting to them what they could have already known if their religious leaders would have been teaching them properly from the Hebrews Scriptures.  As you read through the Sermon on the Mount it becomes evident that Jesus was reflecting on the moral and ethical teaching contained in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Not only do we find Christ reflecting on the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures but we find Him defining their meaning in a manner that religious leaders of the first century were apparently failing to do.  This explains why Matthew concludes with the remark that, “When Jesus had finished saying these things; the crowds were amazed at his teaching because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law."

       The Sermon on the Mount is an expose' on what it means to be in the Kingdom of God.  It’s an expose’ on what kind of righteousness characterizes Kingdom living. In this presentation to the crowds that gathered to hear him, Christ made it plain that unless their righteousness surpassed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, they would certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.  

        In reading through the Gospel narratives, it becomes evident that the righteousness of the first century religious leaders was an external form of righteousness where they appeared to be righteous on the outside but inwardly they were often just the opposite.  Remember what Christ said about these men:

        Matthew 23: 27-28:  "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

        The Sermon on the Mount is all about being righteous on the inside.  This presentation made by Jesus to His followers is a virtual manifesto of Christian living. It is a road map to what it is like to be a partaker of the Kingdom of God.  Its message is what we as disciples of Christ should be all about. 

        It is therefore important that we study this Sermon to determine what it is saying to us so we can better make its teachings a part of who we are.  If we are to be a disciple of Christ, we need to understand the teaching inherent in the Sermon on the Mount.  This Sermon deals with many aspects of kingdom living.  It begins with the Beatitudes which deal with basic character traits and how we should respond to people that are adversaries to us.  It continues with admonition to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  It goes on to instruct about murder, divorce and the making of oaths. This Sermon then turns to a discussion of what it means to love.   

        In Matthew 6 this Sermon goes on to show how to give to the needy and provides instruction as to prayer, fasting and faith. This Sermon is concluded in chapter 7 where Christ discusses the matter of judging, identifying false prophets and living according to the golden rule.

       Today I will begin a series of sermons expounding on the tenets contained in the Sermon on the Mount.  Let’s begin by looking at the first Beatitude.

        Matthew 5:1-3: Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

        Luke records a modified version of the Sermon on the Mount and quotes Christ as saying: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."

        The Greek word translated poor in this passage means exactly that.  It means to be poor, very poor to the point of being destitute.  In Christ’s parable of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus, this word is used to describe the material state of Lazarus. The English word beggar is translated from the same Greek word translated poor in Matthew 5:3.  Lazarus had nothing.  He was destitute. Greek lexicons show this word relates to someone dependent on others for support. 

       Is Jesus teaching in saying, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" that we must be materially poor in order to be in the kingdom?  If we would only read Luke’s account we could draw that conclusion.  Jesus, however, isn’t talking about physical or material destitution.  Matthew makes it plain that Jesus is talking about being poor in spirit and by being poor in spirit we participate in the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus is talking about a frame of mind, an attitude. 

        In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Lazarus is seen as depending on the grace of the rich man for his sustenance.  In giving the parable, Jesus said Lazarus longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Lazarus was dependent on the grace of the rich man for his physical needs.  In the Beatitude, however, Jesus is addressing spiritual poverty.  We humans are spiritually destitute without the grace given us by God through Christ.  David as King over Israel was rich in material things.  Yet he recognized his poverty of spirit and subsequent need for the grace of God.

        Psalm 40: 16-17: But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, "The LORD be exalted!" Yet I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; O my God.

        To be poor in spirit is to be of a contrite heart.  It is to be humble before God, always recognizing it is only by the grace of God we live and have our being and have opportunity for living beyond this physical existence.  To be poor in spirit is to admit to our spiritual poverty and destitution outside of the life giving power of the spirit of God.  

       Isaiah 57:15: For this is what the high and lofty One says-- he who lives forever, whose name is holy: "I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.

       To be poor in spirit has always been associated with contrition of heart and maintaining a humble attitude.  If you do a word study of the word humble in the scriptures you will always find humility contrasted with arrogance, pride, self exaltation and a haughty spirit.  To be humble is to think and act just opposite to such attitudes of mind.

        Isaiah 66: 1-2:  This is what the LORD says: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?" declares the LORD. "This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.

        Here in Isaiah we see God proclaiming that it is He who has made all things and in reality we can’t do anything for Him except to be contrite and humble in spirit and tremble at His word.  We sometimes hear statements to the effect that so and so is doing great things for God.  Well the religious leaders of the first century thought they were doing great thing for God and Christ identified them with tombs filled with dead men’s bones and as a brood of snakes.  Apostle Paul thought he was doing great things for God unto he was knocked off his horse and met up with the risen Christ who he had been persecuting.

        Apostle Paul, from a physical perspective, had a lot to brag about.  Humanly Paul was probably very proud of himself.  Judging by his actions against the Christians, it is quite evident while still going by the name of Saul that he was arrogant, proud and haughty of spirit.  Saul was carrying out a virtual inquisition against the Christian community. You have all heard of the Roman Catholic inquisition against so-called Christian heretics in the tenth century.  Saul was in essence carrying out a Jewish inquisition against what he believed to be Jewish heretics who had converted to Christianity.

         Acts 8:3: Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Acts 9:1-2: Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

        After Paul’s conversion, he had a complete change of perspective about himself.  No longer did he put any stock in his education, religious status in the religion of Israel or his self attained and proclaimed righteousness.  Paul became poor in spirit.  He became empty of himself and experienced a poverty of spirit.  He came to acknowledge and understand that the only thing to be treasured is the saving grace of Christ Jesus.

        Philippians 3: 4-9: If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

        While understanding what it means to be poor in spirit it is also important to understand what it does not mean.  It does not mean walking around with a long face and believing the sky is constantly falling.  It does not mean having a negative attitude and constantly degrading oneself in front of others. I am reminded of the story of the Christian minister who came to town and was met at the airport by a deacon of the church this minister would be speaking at.  Upon arriving at the airport the deacon aggressively grabbed the bags of the visiting minister and ushered him through the airport to his waiting car.  On the way to the church the deacon explained how he was just a lowly deacon in the church, not good for much of anything but just at the beckon call of the church pastor.

        That is not what being poor in spirit is about.  This deacon was demonstrating just the opposite kind of spirit, a spirit of pride in his ability to be a servant in the church.  This deacon is the classic example of tooting ones own horn as opposed to letting others do the tooting.   Christ speaks of this very type of situation later in the Sermon on the Mount when He says:

        Matthew 6:2-4: So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then you’re Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.    

        At one point during His ministry, Jesus called some children to come to Him and made a rather astonishing statement. We fine this account in Matthew’s gospel.

        Matthew 18:1-5:  At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

        Now we all have been little children and most of us have parented little children.  We therefore know that little children can be very self centered, selfish, demanding, easily angered and often a real pain in the butt to put it bluntly.  Yet here we fine Christ saying that, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Is Christ saying we are to become self centered, selfish, and demanding in order to be in the kingdom?   Christ qualifies His statement by saying, “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 

        How is a small child humble?  Small children are humble in so much that they are totally dependent on their parents for their life.  Without an adult caretaker, a child would die.  A small child is dependent on their parents for everything.  Food, shelter, clothing, you name it.  Without their parents, a small child is helpless.  This is how God wants us to be before Him.  God wants us to recognize our total helplessness outside of His sustaining power and life giving grace through Christ Jesus.  To be in the kingdom is to recognize our total reliance on God.     

        Back in the eighteen hundreds, the Swiss evangelist and hymn writer Cesar Malan always liked to speak a word for Jesus. One day, while visiting England, he spoke to a young woman at his table, saying that he hoped she was a Christian.  Charlotte Elliott bristled. She would rather not discuss that question, she said. Malan apologized if he had given offense.

        For Charlotte, however, Mahan's witness was a turning point. She could not get his suggestion out of her head. Three weeks later, she met Malan again and told him that ever since he had spoken to her, she had been trying to find Jesus. How could she come to Him? She wondered. Evangelist Malan said to her, "You have nothing of merit to bring to God. You must come just as you are.  Charlotte did just that and gave her life to Christ.

         In 1835, about twelve years after her conversion, her brother was raising funds for a school. Unable to help with the project because of illness Charlotte felt useless and depressed thinking that perhaps God had rejected her.  She fell into deep doubt. As she pondered her situation, she remembered the words Cesar Malan had said to her twelve years earlier. "You have nothing of merit to bring to God. You must come just as you are."  She reflected upon these words and proceeded to write the lyrics of what has become one of the best known hymns in all of Christendom. 

Just as I am, without one plea (pretext)
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou biddest me come to Thee
O, Lamb of God, I come, I come.

        Just as I am, without one plea.  One dictionary meaning of plea is excuse or pretext. The writer of this hymn was saying just as I am without excuse, without any sort of pretext.  Just a humble recognition of total dependence on God. 

       There were times in the past when some in our fellowship virtually ridiculed this song in saying that Christ will not accept us just as we are.   Our mantra was that we have to repent and change our behavior before God will accept us.  Yes God does require us to repent.  Christ preached repentance in association with entering the kingdom.  It all starts, however, with recognition of our complete dependence upon God.

        It all starts with being poor in spirit.  Being of a contrite heart.  Being humble before God and recognizing it is only by the grace of God that we can be in the kingdom.  To be poor in spirit is to admit to our spiritual poverty and destitution outside of the life giving power of the spirit of God.  Once we come to that point, change will automatically follow.  When Job came to recognize how minuscule he was compared to who and what God is, he repented in dust and ashes.  Repentance flows from becoming poor in spirit.  Christ said "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Being poor in spirit places one in the kingdom which presupposes repentance. 

       Christ began the Sermon on the Mount by telling us what it takes to be in the kingdom.  Next week we will continue exploring the meaning contained in this great sermon.

SERMON ON THE MOUNT: PART TWO