BE PERFECT, THEREFORE, AS YOUR HEAVENLY FATHER IS PERFECT
Living on earth as citizens of the kingdom of heaven
From Marx and Engels’ slogan ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ to Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s address ‘I have a dream’, there have been many revolutionary manifestos and speeches. None though have been as radical as the sermon preached by Jesus in Matthew 5–7. Its phrases are familiar: ‘the meek … will inherit the earth’; ‘turn … the other cheek’; ‘love your enemies’; ‘no one can serve two masters’; ‘wolves … in sheep’s clothing’. But while the words are familiar, Jesus’ heavenly standards are just as rare on earth – and just as challenging and unsettling to his followers – as they were when first he spoke them 2,000 years ago.
I want to give an overview of the main themes of these chapters and help us understand how to approach it. My aim is simple: that as a result, you will want to read Matthew 5:1 – 7:29; and as a result of reading it, you will prayerfully seek to do what Jesus says.
Here are four questions to prepare us for a fruitful encounter with Jesus’ words.
1. Who is Jesus addressing?
Matthew 5:1–2 tell us that Jesus is addressing his disciples. The Sermon on the Mount is citizenship classes for those who have joined the kingdom of heaven. They are emphatically not given to us so that we know the standard we must meet if God is going to accept us as his people. Jesus is not presenting us with a ladder by which we must climb up to God; he is laying out tracks for his saved people to follow so we will know how to live.
2. What does Jesus teach?
It is worth giving particular weight to Jesus’ first and last words. Right at the outset he makes clear that the fundamental attitude of the disciple is a humble awareness of our unworthiness and need of God’s grace and mercy: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (5:3) The final section is a warning that the only true disciples are those who actually do what Jesus says (7:24). This matters because only real faith in the real Jesus can save us from the real storm of God’s judgement. You might call these verses the two bookends of the sermon, but it feels more appropriate to call them a left–right combination because reading Jesus’ words here feels like being punched! Punched in our pride, in our complacency, in our worldliness and in our self-love.
The sermon begins in 5:3–16 with the Beatitudes. The essential point is that the kingdom of heaven turns this world and its standards upside down.
The main body of the sermon is dominated by two themes. First, God looks for heart obedience from us. Our aim should not be to satisfy a tick-box summary of the law we have created, but to be perfect like our heavenly Father! Second, we should look for eternal reward from God, not live for the rewards and approval of humans. We do this confident that even on earth he will provide all we need.
As the sermon draws to a close in 7:13–29, the focus shifts to the need for genuine discipleship and the eternal fate that is at stake.
The sermon calls us to examine ourselves:
- Where is my treasure? Here on earth, or with God?
- Where do I most want to find fulfilment? In this life or the next?
- Whose reward and acceptance do I most crave? Other humans or God’s?
3. What are we meant to do in response?
It seems odd that there is debate in the light of what Jesus says in his conclusion in 7:21: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’ As the slogan goes, ‘just do it.’ The problem is that these instructions just seem so unattainable, so unreasonable! Some respond to the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching by saying we are not meant to live like this in this world. These are a description of what life will be like at the end of time in God’s new world. They are an ideal life in an ideal world, not how God expects us to live in this present one. Others, who recognise we are meant to live out Jesus’ teaching, seek to water it down and ‘nuance’ it so that it sounds reasonable and achievable to us. They try to make his words fit with the ways of this world. If we are honest, most of us don’t respond at all theologically to the Sermon the Mount; we are simply indifferent. We are busy, distracted and don’t want anything that is too costly or difficult.
Jesus, though, calls us to live on earth as citizens of heaven. Theologian R.T. France put it well: ‘The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is not meant to be admired, but to be obeyed.’ Of course we do need to work hard to understand what Jesus is teaching, and sometimes he uses rhetorically extreme language to make a point. But, in general, the answer to ‘how literally should we take this?’ is ‘more literally than we would like to…’ We should not be surprised that God’s good standards sound so radically different from the wisdom of a fallen world that has rejected him. Many of us feel that we can just about manage to follow Christ and be wealthy, be well-thought of and fit in nicely to the world. We rarely feel like we have to choose between Christ and this world, and so we don’t know the true state of our hearts. The radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount forces us to make a choice. It forces us to stand out and live resolutely for Jesus. That is a blessing as it weans us off the worldly distractions, loves and comforts which make our lives small, selfish and meaningless to others.
4. Is it worth it?
My family lived in the US when I was a teenager. Occasionally in our first year one of my parents would forget where we were and pull out onto the left side of the road. It may have been a wonderful encouragement to the rest of us in the car to pray, but it did not make for an enjoyable journey... Seeking to live out the Sermon on the Mount can feel like driving on the left in a right-side world. So why live out Jesus’ radical standards? Do it for the sake of yourself, and for the sake of the lost. Do it because it is the most freeing and fulfilling way to live, and because it will most clearly show those living for this world that God is supremely worthy of their devotion.
The sermon begins with nine statements about the ‘blessed’ life. The word is perhaps better translated ‘happy’ in the sense it has in the American Declaration of Independence: ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. The point is that Jesus is telling us the very best way to live. Here is our Creator telling us how best to flourish as his people in his world. Pennington puts it this way: ‘Jesus begins his public ministry by painting a picture of what the state of true God-centered human flourishing looks like. He is making an appeal and casting an inspiring vision, even as the Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah do, for what true well-being looks like in God’s coming kingdom.’ (p47). It is the best way to live in this world, and it is the only way to live if we want to be part of God’s people in the next world.
But we should also live this way for the sake of those who don’t yet know Jesus. The society Jesus describes is one that all people long for – a place of peace and justice; a place without hypocrisy, vendettas, or dishonesty. Our cynical culture claims God is a figment of our imagination. When the church lives on earth by the standards of heaven, we demonstrate the reality of God and his transforming power.
There was a powerful example of this in the news last year. An off-duty white cop walked into the wrong apartment when she got home and shot the black man who lived there: Botham Jean. On 1 October 2019 she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 10 years. Botham’s brother, Brandt, was allowed to give the victim-impact statement. What he said to his brother’s murderer was absolutely stunning:
‘If you are truly sorry, I forgive, and I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. And I love you just like anyone else. And I’m not gonna say I hope you rot and die just like my brother did, but I presently want the best for you… And the best would be to give your life to Christ.’
Few things prove the truth and power of the gospel like the people of God living out the standards of heaven in the realities of earth.
So why not carve out time to read the Sermon of the Mount? All of it. (It is, after all, only three chapters.) As you read, ask yourself three questions:
1. How would life be better if others lived this way?
2. What specific sins do I need to repent of?
3. How can I live this out in practice?
Having done that, go out and do what Jesus says. Do it for the glory of God; do it for your own good; do it for the good of the world around you.
Phil Allcock - Associate Minister, Christ Church Mayfair
If you would like to work through the Sermon on the Mount in more depth, here are 10 studies going through it. If you meet up with others, you can use the study questions. Alternatively, you can study the passages yourself using the notes to help you.
We would like to thank Phil Allcock and Christ Church Mayfair for permitting the use of these helpful studies.