skeleton keys

Skeleton Keys (Photo credit: peatbogyeri)

Most of us learn the Sermon on the Mount as a random, disconnected collection of sayings from Jesus. But that’s not what it is.

It’s a comprehensive action plan for new life, presented in a specific order for maximum results, and recorded in three full chapters of Matthew (5-7).

Following it is how one follows Christ to seek his kingdom. To use Paul’s words, it’s how you put off the old self and put on the new (Eph. 4:22), continually working out your salvation (Phl. 2:12).

The Sermon is where Jesus has “hidden” the keys to the kingdom of heaven, God’s system of goodness and well-being at hand. Even the spiritually destitute can unlock it and enter, provided they’re not merely hearers of the Word, but are also doers of the Word. (Jas. 1:22)

How Did I Miss This New Life From Above?

I used to wonder why, having been a “believer” all my life, the presumed new creation in me never actually showed up, and Jesus’ words and ways still seemed ridiculously unrealistic. Yet they must be crucial to grasp or he wouldn’t have said them.

But the Christian books I read and radio shows I heard insisted that Jesus’ primary value is in his blood. Whatever he taught was back-burner stuff—either too random or too profound to make sense of in real life, and in any case, was separate from deliverance.

This conclusion shows in the lives of multitudes of sincere Christians (including the old me) who nevertheless have no idea how to love their neighbors, themselves, or do what Jesus says to do. We’ve been taught that getting our doctrines correct—the Trinity, justification, atonement, baptism, etc.—takes priority.

However, the new me has learned that doctrines, although helpful, don’t produce the radical, long-term changes that God is looking for. No wonder genuine new creations in Christ are as common as three-legged cats. There’s more to Jesus than his blood!

A Brilliant Savior

The sequence in Jesus’ Sermon is a divine strategy for life to the full. Before he delivered it, he had already provided incentive and hope for scores of people trapped in the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (ROTSAP) by announcing his good news of an alternative system available for new life, i.e., his gospel of the kingdom of heaven at hand.

So here’s a quick run-down of his plan that invites even the most spiritually impoverished people to follow him into the kingdom of heaven in the life they’re living now. It’s a matter of “yoking” with him, through practice and grace, to eliminate the following habits of mind, heart, and behavior.

1. Willful, retained, “righteous” anger and contempt. The Pharisees were constantly angry at Jesus. The more he went on about God’s kingdom, the more offended and contemptuous they became. People rarely say, wow, my anger is wrong. It always seems right, so we cherish it and hold it dear, refusing to let go. This leads to:

2. Adultery and divorce. Individual human affairs/divorces aren’t Jesus’ direct target here, although they are micro-reflections of the systemic target he’s aiming at. This is primarily a spiritual adultery “in the heart” and a collective divorce from God. It’s about lusting for substitute ways of life, both religious and secular. Together, they become the “harlot” we embrace, which leads to:

3. Swearing oaths. This addresses stubborn insistence, pride, and proving things by swearing this or that, which often backs us into disastrous corners. Recall that Peter swore on oath that he didn’t even know Jesus. So Jesus advises that anything beyond simple Yes or No comes from the evil one. Swearing progresses to:

4. Score-keeping, returning evil for evil. This stems from a greedy sense of fairness that turns revenge into something righteous (eye for eye). It demands “payment” from people who owe anything from apologies to favors to money. If they don’t pay up, pay-back’s a bitch, and a sworn enemy is born. Compounded by anger, it manifests as anything from spiteful insults to mass shootings. Score-keeping leads to:

5. Obsession with outer appearance and reputation. The old fashioned term is vanity, and the Pharisees were experts at it. This is about egotism, looking down on others with contempt if they don’t measure up, or about envy, admiring people for superficial qualities. Both finally create:

6. Judgmentalism and hypocrisy. Here’s the finished product of all the previous habits. It manifests as a compulsion to correct everyone else, whatever it takes, up to and including abuse. Whether it’s snobby social practices, political character assassinations, or “holy war,” the full-grown beast destroys others in self-congratulatory “correctness.”

This is sin and spiritual death in a nutshell, to which everyone falls prey. It’s important to realize that these are not only sequential, but also cumulative. Each new habit is built on the previous one, creating a less and less Christ-like heart.

Getting rid of these habits one by one is what “dying” to self is. Jesus knows that if you start by knocking the legs out from under willful anger and contempt, the rest of the structure gets wobbly and almost falls apart by itself. It’s precisely how you repent, surpass ROTSAP, and seek and enter the kingdom of heaven through Jesus’ well-defined “narrow gate.”

Re-boot

If the forgiveness-only view of life from above purifies the human mind and cleanses the heart, why do we still have obnoxious, forgiven Christians? Wouldn’t these destructive thoughts and behaviors vanish? Forgiveness cleanses guilt, but has no transformative power over sin, the cause of guilt. Wouldn’t it be smarter to aim for the root, as Jesus does, and let the result take care of itself?

If we plan to someday rule the earth with Christ, it’s best to follow his plan and practice. God can hardly entrust dominion to people who can’t or won’t live in His system of total well-being.

So Jesus’ complete package to restore God’s system to humanity consists of his gospel of the kingdom of heaven, his Sermon on how to unlock and live in it, and his death and resurrection to ensure safe passage for those who choose to practice. Faith alone in Christ alone.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (Jhn. 1:4)

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Vanishing kingdom. (Haut-Koenigsbourg castle in the fog [Photo credit: dynamosquito])

Vanishing kingdom. (Haut-Koenigsbourg castle in the fog [Photo credit: dynamosquito])

Last week, we looked at faith alone in Christ alone and putting Jesus’ words into practice. This week, we’ll take a closer look at his gospel.

Gospel means news, message, announcement. Jesus’ gospel is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and “unless you surpass [get past] the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter.” (Mat. 4:17, 5:20) For brevity’s sake, I’ll condense righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees into ROTSAP.

Jesus’ primary mission was to proclaim and manifest the kingdom of heaven. Everything he did (miracles, death, resurrection) was to show the power and reality of his news, the gospel. “I must preach the kingdom.” (Luk. 4:43)

John the Baptist preached it, too (Mat. 3:2). So did Peter (1Pet. 1:11), James (Jas. 2:5), and Philip (Act. 8:12).

Fifty years later, Paul did, too. “From morning till evening he declared the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus… Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God….” (Act. 28:23, 31) “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son…” (Col.1:13) “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you….” (1Cor. 15:1)

Today, we get that backwards. By misreading Paul, death and forgiveness have become the new, entire gospel, with the kingdom mentioned only in passing. Some theologians even say that Jesus didn’t preach the gospel at all—only Paul did! If you’ve ever been confused between Jesus and Paul, this is one reason why.

So it’s crucial to restore Jesus’ gospel. Faith alone in Christ alone. Anything else keeps us blind and crippled, disconnected from the Head, and we’ll never get past the spiritual bankruptcy of ROTSAP.

“Woe to you Pharisees. You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying.” (Mat. 23:13)

 “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’” (Mat. 10:7)

What Is the Kingdom of Heaven?

To see how far the kingdom has vanished from Christian thought today, I’ve been a Christian for 40 years, but until 10 years ago, never knew what the kingdom of heaven is. Like millions, I thought it’s where you go when you die—a vague realm of no real substance because it’s detached from anything solid. So I believed that it’s something set aside from “normal” life.

But I discovered something: If you understand any kingdom not so much as a place, but as the range of its ruler’s effective will, things get clearer. A kingdom is a community—a system or environment in which what the ruler wants done gets done.  

Also, as a function of will, a kingdom is part of the ruler’s being and reflects his/her character. The Nazi regime, for example, was Hitler’s kingdom in which whatever he wanted done got done.

The kingdom of heaven is simply the range of God’s effective will and is part of His being. It isn’t a place, but a way of living, a suitable environment, community, and system of well-being (“blessedness”).

So?

Jesus’ gospel announces that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, or near. He didn’t mean “coming soon” or “far away but getting closer.” He meant all around, as close as the air we breathe. Available. Accessible. And it’s precisely “from heaven” all around that God manifests Himself and interacts with mankind.

Everyone, including the spiritually handicapped and destitute, is within God’s range! That’s why Jesus began his good news with an astounding intro of hope for the multitudes bankrupted by the Pharisee system. “Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is yours.” (Mat. 5:3) They’re about to be enriched in a kingdom that grows like a mustard seed even while some resist it.

The good news is that the kingdom of heaven is already in our midst. The not-so-good news is that we’re not living fully in it. Nor are people aware that it’s possible to tap into its unlimited resources for normal, everyday life.

How Do You Enter, Then?

By seeking. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” (Mat. 6:33) I seek Jesus’ expertise and the well-being found within his system. How? By “yoking” with him and doing what he says to do: surpass ROTSAP.

Well, how do you do that? I obey Jesus, abide in him. Faith alone in Christ alone. I repent of dysfunctional systems and models, become like a child with a tutor, and start practicing what he laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s where he’s “hidden” the keys to a new life in the kingdom. If When I make mistakes, that’s where forgiveness comes in. Jesus has me covered. I can try again without dying.

Now, personally, I’m not a fan of the word “obey” because, like other good words, it’s been misused. It often smacks of something extracted by force, so I prefer abide, follow, or practice.

But I think we follow Jesus the way tabloids follow the Kardashians. We report every move he made, every word he said, what he wore and where he ate, but don’t obey him. We’re too afraid of “works.” Then we honestly wonder when the Christlike “new me” will show up.

If we share this with Christian friends, we’re told that our faith is weak, we’re not praying/confessing hard enough or often enough, or we’re just sinners “saved by grace” who will never measure up. So we “lift up” Jesus’ name and accept the “fact” that no one can really be like him in normal life. Our only hope, then, shifts to the next life—that vague, disconnected realm where forgiveness is all that matters.

But it doesn’t explain how forgiven, but very un-Christlike people could safely rule the earth with him. And it isn’t Jesus’ gospel.

Next week: seeking and finding his keys.

 

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Town Crier Billy Clark

Town Crier Billy Clark

First, let me suggest that faith is not the opposite of work or action. It enables it. And work is not the same as “works.” Works are deeds done just to look good or earn kudos.

For example, you can run a ministry, volunteer at the homeless shelter, or be a peace activist and still be the nastiest person on the block. This was the Pharisees’ problem because their inner qualities remained untouched. “Whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones,” as Jesus put it. (Mat. 23:27)

Work, by contrast, is God’s idea. He placed Adam in the garden specifically to work and care for it (Gen. 2:15). By God’s design, and when it’s not abused, work brings some kind of gain in experience (knowledge) and skill.

More Than Agreement

Which brings me to the phrase, “faith alone in Christ alone” for salvation and deliverance. It’s one of the most misused verses among well-meaning Christians today. If you’ve been a Christian for many years (maybe your whole life), and wondered when the “new creation” in you would kick in, the following might make more sense to you.

Generally, Protestants have been taught to see the phrase as “mental agreement alone in Christ’s forgiveness alone.” But that alone doesn’t deliver us from the myriad lingering effects of evil on our inner being—like constant anger, anxiety, contempt, performance, hurry, the need to lie to save face, or a devastating sense of self-worthlessness—because there’s more to deliverance than atonement alone.

Salvation also includes the quality of character that can safely rule and serve the earth with God, His original and ongoing purpose for mankind. “Let them have dominion…” (Gen. 1:26) The ability to govern, without ourselves being governed by sin, is precisely what Christ redeems in human beings.

But it doesn’t happen to you. It takes work. Intelligent work partnered with his, and vastly different from works. So let’s look at the first half of the phrase. “Faith alone,” as Paul used it, means you don’t have to:

  • Be a Jew
  • Be male
  • Be circumcised or say the right prayers or eat the right food
  • Have  money, education, social status, or a “respectable” job (tax collectors and prostitutes come to mind)

Faith isn’t just mental agreement or acceptance. It’s to act as if something were true, and that alone is all you need to start. But act as if what were true, specifically? Yes, it’s faith in Christ, but what does that actually mean? His divine pedigree and resume? His character? Atonement?

All of these are true, but faith in Christ means faith in him, the person, and his ability to lead us into a better quality of life. New life. Maximum life. Not after we die, but the life we’re living now. It can be lived with confident joy, self-worth, love, and other qualities within the kingdom of heaven at hand, i.e., among us.

You Can Actually Do Something: Work With Jesus

So the second half, “Christ alone,” simply means:

  • No one else
  • Not Peter, Paul, or Mary
  • Not me
  • Not friends, family, or celebrities
  • Not science, academia, political groups, or religious dictates

Faith alone in Christ alone is to act as if what he says to do is reliable and true. You put his words into practice—not because you ought to, or because he wants you to (although he does), but because you want to. You figure he’s the most competent expert on life and well-being, so you venture on him and his ways by seeking and practicing. Forgiveness is only one component.

If you want to become an electrician or a musician and enter those “worlds,” you need to learn and practice certain skill sets, right? I did that when I wanted to be a pilot. Likewise, if we want deliverance from evil, and the strength and finesse of Christ in his world among us, we need a certain skill set that he teaches and manifests. That’s the only way it becomes safe for people to rule anything, let alone the whole planet.

Next week, we’ll look at Jesus’ gospel and the words he specifically wants us to practice for this goal, deliverance, and maximum life. And it might make more sense of Paul’s other phrase, “continue to work out your salvation.” (Phl. 2:12)

 

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