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15 September 2019

A Sobering Conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus Teaching on the Mount

Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount with an ominous warning:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one who does the will of my Father. Many will declare before him, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many works of power?’ Yet I will declare, ‘I never knew you! Depart from me you workers of lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-27).
Why will some men and women who perform miracles and great works in the name of Jesus be rejected? They are not depicted in the passage as pagans or egregious sinners. The ones who are rejected call him “Lord” and acknowledge his position. They prophesy and cast out demons in his name. They do many mighty works based on his authority, with an emphasis in this text on the word “many.”
Jesus does not claim that their exorcisms and miracles are counterfeit. The problem, it seems, is something deeper than just doing good works or doing mighty miracles in the name of the Lord.
According to Jesus, “everyone who hears my words and does them shall be likened to a prudent man who built his house upon the rock”; whereas, “everyone who hears these my words and does them not shall be likened to a foolish man who built his house upon the sand.” Herein is the key: those who wish to enter the kingdom must hear and do the words of Jesus. But which words?
In his preface to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his audience, “Do not presume that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfill…Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass away from the law, till all things are accomplished… except your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no way enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).
The Pharisees were renowned for their scrupulous observation of the Mosaic Law or Torah, going well beyond its minimum requirements. But that was insufficient for entrance into God’s kingdom. Jesus came to fulfill all the law AND the prophets; he had not come just to reiterate or renew the Torah with its purity regulations, sacrifices and offerings, and its calendrical observations. Something more was required.
The passage recorded in Matthew 7:21-27 comprises the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. In context, the words that must be heeded are the words of Jesus recorded in the Sermon. Anyone who desires to follow Jesus is called to live a life characterized by humility, hunger for righteousness, mercy to others, pure hearts, avoidance of retaliation, peacemaking, honest communications, and a willingness to endure unjust suffering for the sake of the kingdom (Matthew 5:3-12).
Disciples are called to be lights in a dark world (Matthew 5:13-16). Not only are they forbidden to kill, but they also must not harbor any anger toward a brother. They are to make reconciliation with offended parties a priority (5:21-26).
A disciple must not lust after someone who is not his or her spouse. Instead, the disciple is to uphold a lifelong commitment to his own spouse (Matthew 5:27-32). Rather than swear oaths, a believer must speak plain and true words, to let his “Yea be yea, and nay, nay” (5:33-37).
The man or woman who wishes to inherit the kingdom of God must eschew retaliation and violence and is even required to love and pray for enemies. In doing good to one’s enemies, even to those that persecute the innocent, the believer emulates the heavenly Father on the earth and thus becomes “perfect” or “complete.”
Contrary to one popular interpretation, Jesus did not distinguish between “private” vengeance and collective retaliation. Nowhere did he include exception clauses for violence and retaliation carried out at the behest of the State or society (Matthew 5:38-48). Christ's disciples are called to something higher than the world’s way of doing things or the imperfect law-keeping of the Pharisees. The mind that seeks or creates loopholes in the words of Jesus is not the mind of a disciple.
Believers must not do their works of righteousness in order to be seen by men or for the applause of others. Hypocrisy is to be avoided (Matthew 6:1-18).
A disciple of Jesus is to focus like a laser beam on the kingdom of God, to lay up treasures in heaven rather than on the earth. Heirs of the kingdom cannot effectively serve two masters (Matthew 6:19-24).
A disciple need not be anxious about his or her daily needs. God will provide all that is necessary. Instead of seeking the things that the world values, the follower of Christ is to “seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness” (Matthew 6:25-34).
A disciple of Jesus is admonished not to judge or condemn others (Matthew 7:1-6). Judgment is the prerogative of God alone. He or she is to continually seek after the things of God. Treating others as we wish to be treated is how we fulfill the law and the prophets.
The follower of Christ is to stay on the narrow path and not travel on the popular and the broad ways of this age. At all times the believer is to beware of false prophets who can be discerned by their fruits (Matthew 7:7-20).
Much is at stake in how we respond to the words of Jesus. Those who do not hear and do them will be cast off by him. Presumably, they will not enter the kingdom of God. Considering such a dire fate, it would be unwise to ignore the teachings of Jesus or to pick and choose which ones we obey or not, let alone sledgehammer loopholes into them.
The Sermon on the Mount is often written off as unrealistic, an idealistic dream that simply does not work in real life. Such attitudes stem from misunderstanding the purpose of the Sermon. The Sermon is not an agenda for reforming the existing world order.
Instead, it is a guide for how the disciples of Jesus must live in a lost world regardless of the values, demands, and expectations of the surrounding society. Loyalty to God’s kingdom must take precedence over all other allegiances, even loyalty to friends, family, society, or to the State.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus conformed his life to this very pattern in his ministry and, above all through, his trial and execution, a pattern of self-sacrificial service all Christians are called to emulate.
When Jesus claimed that only those “who hear these words of mine and do them” will enter the Kingdom of his Father, he vested his words with ultimate authority. We ignore or modify them at our everlasting peril.

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