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.”
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)