Lessons from the Sermon on the Mount (Part III of III)
To this point in his landmark treatise on the law, Jesus had demonstrated its power to cut to the heart of a matter. At one point later in his ministry, he would answer the Pharisees: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matt 22:21) They knew what he meant by this because he had explained it clearly here. Our hearts belong to God. Obedience to the law of God means giving our whole heart to him, not just our carefully scripted actions. We are called to be living sacrifices. And to those who take up the call, God offers his full provision. We need not worry; we need only to obey.
In Matthew 7, Jesus identifies and addresses four distractions and threats that his followers will face as he unleashes us on the world. As D.L. Moody once observed, “the trouble with a living sacrifice is that it keeps trying to crawl off the altar.” The first three distractions are internal – things that we ourselves do that keep us from doing the will of our master.
First, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (7:1) There are parallel verses that help us understand this statement: In John 21, Jesus reinstates Peter and then commissions him. Peter, seeing his friend John within striking range, answers as many of us would…. He deflects: “what about this man?” Jesus would have none of it: “If it is my will that he remains until I come, what is that to you? You follow me.” In Romans 14:4, Paul takes a similar tack when admonishing the Roman church not to quarrel over unimportant matters. He says: “Who are you to judge another man’s servant? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
Jesus understood the human tendency to avoid personal responsibility by casting attention on others, so he addressed that first. A steward focuses on his own charge, not that of his brother. It is not our place to judge our brother’s stewardship. Judgment belongs to God.
Second, “Ask and it will be given you…” (7:7) This statement goes beyond Jesus’ earlier promise to provide for our needs (6:25ff). This is Jesus promising to give us what we need in service of the Kingdom. So we cannot blame a lukewarm response to his commission on a lack of resources. He does not just want us treading water; he wants us moving forward, and he will provide what we need to do so.
Third, “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (7:12) This is the third of three statements against internal distractions that assail the human heart, and Jesus expertly ties it back to the second tablet of the law, reminding us again of the context of his message. He reminds us here that our obedience to the Law of God isn’t just to the first four commandments, but to the whole law.
Fourth, Jesus helps his followers to recognize false prophets (7:15). This passage helps us discern between stewards who are learning to serve their master – and perhaps making mistakes along the way – and those who would maliciously harm his church. Unlike the servant who will be “upheld”, false prophets are like fruitless trees, cut down and thrown into the fire. A steward uses the resources of the master for his master’s benefit. A false prophet takes what belongs to his master for supposed personal gain. A steward acts in faith; a false prophet, in contempt.
Christ closes his sermon with the urgency that his message demands. In verses 21-23, he states in no uncertain terms that our first responsibility is obedience; no acts of service will protect the man who does not obey God’s law. And finally, Christ promises to establish those who heed his message as a house firmly built upon a rock. Those who do not, he says, will be swept away.
As his words echoed into the surrounding rocks, I imagine the reverberation in the hearts of those who heard them. Matthew 7:28 records the astonishment of the crowd at his authority; an authority that was confirmed in the series of miracles recorded in chapter 8. There was no compromise to earthly powers here; no loopholes or safe haven from the truth. But then that was always the intent of the law. Its condemnation of sinful man is complete as it exposes the faithless depravity in every heart.
This is the bad news and Jesus is not shy about presenting it in all its terrible truth. But our God is a gracious and loving father. This, too, we have from Christ – he who commands our obedience has also provided a way for us to do so and to save us when we fail. So if Christ shook our hearts in his presentation of the law, then may the tremors only pre-figure the earthquakes that followed at his death and resurrection!
The good news is that if we trust in Christ for our salvation, God forgives our sin. And what’s more, God deploys his Holy Spirit to our hearts so that we can indeed trust him. So the power of the law to condemn us is delivered and then destroyed by Christ. And then he seals to us our salvation by his Holy Spirit living vibrantly in our hearts.
What then is a believer to take from this Sermon? First that we are forgiven and free to serve God with all our hearts. Second that our service to God is accepted on the basis of Christ’s redemption of us. Third that we can serve him freely, knowing that our needs are met and that he will provide all that we need to that end. And finally, that the call of the Holy Spirit to believe is indeed a call to serve Almighty God, but it is also the service of a child to his or her Father. It is a call to know and love him and to be known and loved by him. It is the call of the blessed to the way of blessing. It is the call of a steward.
Submitted by Ron Vanderwey, Deacon and Chairman of the Stewardship and Finance Committee of Second Presbyterian Church-Greenville. SC