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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English: Compass

English: Compass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Faith that needs repeated revival or recommitment should probably be examined to find out why it’s so short-lived. (I’m assuming the reason for rededication is a relationship with God that’s flagging in some way; so there may be other reasons that don’t apply here.)

When I worked as a geospatial analyst, the engineering department had a saying for solving design problems: “Your system is perfectly designed to produce the results you’re getting. If you want different results, you need a different system.”

Today’s widely-taught faith system, presented as something God “does” to us, is a big reason it often flags. The believer is subsequently told that he/she isn’t dedicated enough, or hasn’t prayed enough, doesn’t believe enough, has failed God again, and must once and for all swear commitment to the Lord. I’ve heard it a million times, as do multitudes of diligent, sincere Christians who recommit over and over only to get the same disappointing results.

Some even give up on faith and God altogether.

It’s caused by a simple lack of vision, a solid purpose and plan, a means to carry it out, and therefore, a lack of correctly aimed intention. Who can follow through on something they’re unaware of? So when we’re spiritually starved like this, we can pretend to be filled for only so long before the reality becomes evident: faith that limps along or crashes in the sand.

Yet it’s easily remedied if we read and listen carefully to the words of Jesus, his original disciples, and the earliest “people of the Way.” An entire book is needed to adequately address the manifold wisdom of his kind of faith, but we can review the foundational components.

In A Nutshell

The correct vision: Jesus’ rich view and model of new life in God’s kingdom through partnership with Him—God with man. Without this preliminary vision shift, people can’t pursue abundant strength, peace of mind, and love. To use biblical terms, they can’t “enter” into the world Jesus presents or put confidence in him for everyday living. They remain “blind,” stumbling, or conflicted, having eyes but not seeing, ears but not hearing.

This is why Jesus’ gospel message is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” God’s kingdom around us stands ready to guide, enable, heal, and support.

A solid purpose: learn to love ourselves and others the way Jesus loves us. The idea is to become united in spirit and purpose with him and with one another. To live this new life is the assembling of the great Body, or, the marriage of Jews and Gentiles who become the bride wedded to the Bridegroom to rule and serve with him. God planned this objective even before He created the world.

The plan and means: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For example, willfully indulged anger is the first faith-killer he tackles. Turning away from it enables us to increasingly implement (obey) the remaining parts of his plan—get rid of spiritual adultery/divorce, sworn behavior, score-keeping, outer appearance/image, and hypocrisy, in that order. (More info in my series 6 Steps to Un-sabotage Yourself in Every Relationship.)

When we follow his prescribed instructions, the unavoidable result is transformation and spiritual formation in Christ. The best part is that God hasn’t given commands and left us with no ability, or way, to do what He says. Neither will He do it for us since that would rob us of our roles with Him. God is gracious enough to give us some responsibility and to let us participate!

That’s something we can sink our teeth into, put long-term confidence in, and not be stuck with flagging faith that needs frequent re-starts.