At age 19, I left my home and my family in New Jersey to go to an archaeological school in Jerusalem. I had never flown in a plane. I never before had a stamp in that brand new, spotless and blue, US passport. I hadn’t traveled much past the Philadelphia tri-state area for the first part of my life. I hadn’t stayed in a hotel, and (probably because of the size of our family) hadn’t eat outside my mom’s kitchen for most of my life. The trip was exciting, but I don’t mind telling you it was also a bit scary. The languages of Hebrew and Arabic were a mystery, I couldn’t even read their characters. The tribal nature of the Arab culture was utterly foreign to my way of thinking. The only thing I knew of Judaism was that my childhood dentist was Jewish – and I didn’t like dentists as a rule, but that was not exactly an informed decision about a cultural group.
It isn’t an exaggeration for me to say that those days in Jerusalem changed my life. I learned about the Bible’s native culture, and was thrilled to learn about the huge pile (pun intended) of archaeological evidence for the Bible that I had placed so much trust in since I came to Christ. I learned that Arab culture preserved many ancient practices and methods that were familiar to the ancients, while the Hebrew language – revived over one hundred years ago and now spoken throughout Israel – made clear the details of Bible stories that seemed distant and obscure before I studied them. The Bible came alive in the flora and fauna of its ancient home… but those weren’t the only lessons I gained.
I learned what it was like to be in a crowded city, and yet feel intensely lonely. I experienced being “on the outside” as part of a tiny minority as it regards issues of faith and culture. I felt people despise me simply because I was Christian. You see, I was an alien in a place I admired – it wasn’t MY place. Sometimes it hurt because I couldn’t join in the things going on around me – I was different, that was made very clear to me, many times.
I mention all this because I want to assure you as we look at a well-known portion of Scripture, that I understand some of the emotion behind resistance to following what Jesus taught in the “Sermon on the Mount” before we begin our study. I know why this sermon can prick the heart of even the most experienced in the faith….It takes barely fifteen minutes to read aloud in Matthew 5-7, but it is riveting, powerful and penetrating. The problem of the sermon isn’t the complexity – it is very simple. The problem is its proposition – it is painful.
A careful reading of the sermon will yield one clear observation: Jesus repeatedly called for His followers to be DISTINCT from the world around them. He urged them not be like the people who were dominating the religious landscape, (like the Pharisees) nor like those who did not know God… His followers were to be distinct. They were to be different. They were to live out a practical righteousness that was unique in their time, and show themselves to be a disciple of Jesus – a true follower of the Master’s teaching. This is the hard realization: Following Jesus makes us aliens in a world we used to feel at home in…
Key Principle: A disciple of Jesus doesn’t BLEND in. He or she is called to exhibit attitudes, make choices and stand on commitments that are distinct from the world around them.
Look at the beginning of Matthew’s account of the famous sermon of Jesus:
Matthew 5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 2 He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying…
Stop reading in the middle of the sentence before you hear what Jesus taught. It is important to set the message in context. The landscape was set on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. A slope in the early morning drew a crowd, and the early public ministry of Jesus was just getting underway. Fishermen, stone masons, bakers, leather workers, shepherds, cheese makers – the lot gathered to hear what the now rising itinerant speaker was presenting. His preaching voice carried over the rocky slope, and Matthew remembered this as a major address, giving it a large and complete telling in his account. The words Jesus spoke on that mountain were no doubt compelling, but the other Gospel accounts remind us they were delivered again and again in other places and settings. Because that is true, let’s look at these words as a well-remembered “theme message” of Jesus.
The sermon can easily be divided into three major parts:
• The Character Traits of a True Disciple (5).
• The Commitments (Daily Practices) of a True Disciple (6:1-7:12).
• The Choices (Ultimate Direction) of a True Disciple (7:13-29).
The Character Traits of the Disciple
Jesus wanted His followers to understand that He expected them to be unique, to stand out, and to display character traits that would mark their lives. He opened the message with these eight traits, but they offered a coherent sketch of one kind of individual – the dependent kind:
Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Jesus wanted His followers to be absolutely clear about the fact that HE was to be the center of their lives, and He could not use anyone who was unwilling to yield their importance to Him – and make Him the Master of their lives. How did He say it? He said:
You cannot be about YOU and ME (5:1-12) at the same time. I am seeking one who is:
• POOR IN SPIRIT – not self-dependent (3),
• ONE WHO MOURNS – not someone who is self-secure (4),
• ONE WHO IS GENTILE – not a self-reliant person (5),
• ONE WHO HUNGERS AND THIRSTS FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS – not one who is self-satisfied (6),
• ONE WHO IS OTHER PERSON CENTERED – not a self-focused person (7),
• ONE WHO IS SINGULAR IN HEART – not one who is divided within (8),
• ONE WHO MAKES PEACE – not someone with a power agenda (9),
• ONE WHO CAN TAKE THE PERSECUTION – not a self-defensive person (10-12)
If I readily admit that I am bankrupt in my spirit, I am not self-assured. If I look within and see such lack as to fill my eyes with tears – I am not smug. If I seek to offer gentleness to others, I acknowledge my need of them. If I long to be righteous, I admit my current inner darkness. If I am willing to have my heart reduced to purity, I already recognize that without heat, the dross will pollute it.
Step back and you will see one idea that protrudes through these rich words… Jesus had no need of self-made men and women. He wanted the wounded, the broken, the inadequate. That was the room in which He chose to make His closest friends. The less someone believed in themselves, the closer they were to being ready to allow Jesus to change them, run their lives, and follow His commands. Let’s be clear: Weak people make great disciples; self-made and self-assured people make lousy disciples.
A second kind of person was also mentioned by Jesus as one with the character traits that were right for a disciple… that of the loyal kind. Jesus said:
Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.
This saying is often badly misunderstood. There are two facts the Bible student needs to get it right: first, that salt in the region was collected by the Dead Sea and placed on the table in a “chunk” with the dirt mixed in. As people took from the salt chunk all of the salt, what was left was mainly dirt – and the salt lost its savor. Second, the preservation use of salt doesn’t seem to be the main idea here. Mark 9:50 appears to be the cross reference to this passage, and the reference is about loyalty between disciples:
Mark 9:50 “Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Jesus was looking for people who would lock arms together and follow Him together. He wasn’t expecting the “Long Ranger” or “Superman” type. He celebrated the disciple that was willing to do something that others got the credit for; He sought the one who cared more for the team than self-exaltation. Make no mistake about it – Jesus likes team players. He chooses disciples who want to build up others, not those who enjoy tearing down others. Religious people get a special thrill out of tearing down those who don’t measure up – but Jesus chastised that behavior, and didn’t pull that kind of smug and arrogant type on His team. He wanted people who could celebrate others, not run them down and make them feel small.
A third trait also attracted Jesus’ attention – Jesus sought people who recognized they would not blend into the crowd, but rather would walk before others and be the kind that offered an example. Jesus said:
Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
The fact is, Jesus told His followers that they were unable to be a true disciple and remain anonymous. They would not be hidden, because they were not called to be hidden! Their purpose was to live in such a way that others would turn to the Father in Heaven because of their example. They would be a sign of God’s living transformation, and point people to the One who was making the changes in their lives. The simple fact is that Christians don’t blend in, because they want others to see the God that is at work in them. They don’t hunger for personal attention, rather they crave God’s exaltation and serve others to get them to consider the work God can do in them as well. They put their life on display without the desire to be affirmed in themselves.
When we step away from the first sixteen verses of the sermon, we can clearly see that Jesus chose dependent, team-loyal, willing models to join His discipleship team.
The Source of Standards for the Disciple
The thumbnail sketch of those Jesus called for discipleship notwithstanding, there was a second feature of the call that was very carefully taught by the Savior – the source of the standard of ethics for His follower. The standard of their training was not mysterious; Jesus called disciples who recognized the value of God’s revealed Word, particularly in the principles found in the Law. The standard wasn’t other religious people – it was God’s Holy Word – and every timeless principle it revealed.
Jesus plainly said:
Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
No one can claim to be a disciple and have little regard for the Word of God. Even though the Law was given for Israel in a specific context, it was built upon the character of an unchanging God, and not a word of it was spurious. Jesus loved the Word, taught the Word, explained the Word…and is the living embodiment of the Word made flesh. Jesus taught that no command of the Creator could be routinely pushed aside – His Word has pre-eminence over all else. No teacher can decide to carve out of the Word something God has spoken – as the Pharisees did. Religious men often believe the things that offend them offend God – and they entitle themselves to add selections to the Word of God that originated in their own egos.
The law was given as Jesus’ standard but only when understood within its original intent (5:18-48). The measure of a disciple was not the Law plus the additives of the rabbis – but the Law as it was originally delivered – following the principles that the Father in Heaven cared about.
God cares more about people than about religious celebration. Jesus said:
Matthew 5: 21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER ‘ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’
Follow the line of His teaching all the way down to 5:26 and you will see clearly that “killing” was something that could be done to the body OR the spirit. It would be done with the mouth, and it disqualified one from worship. Jesus said it was more important to make right broken relationships than to make offerings and perform religious celebrations.
God cares more about inner disciplines than outward piety. Jesus said:
Matthew 5:26 “Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY ‘;
No sooner did Jesus say that than He made it clear that adultery could occur without a movement, solely in the lustful heart. Every part of the disciple was to be surrendered and cleansed, disciplined and submitted – because God desired that more than their attendance at the Temple.
God cares more about integrity than theological intricacy. Jesus said:
Matthew 5:31 “It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE ‘;
The teachers of the Law of Jesus’ day had taken to word trickery at the cost of integrity when it came to promises – even in the most important area of marriage. They had theologically accepted games that allowed their vows to seem clear, but really have a completely different meaning. Jesus upheld the value of vows, and rebuffed any attempt to water down our word with slick games. A disciple should say what they mean, then stick to their word. His disciples are called to speak honestly, and lived without the complication of deception that marks people who routinely “double speak.”
God cares more about drawing people to Him by life testimony than disciples getting justice now. Jesus said:
Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.
People of Jesus’ day took a standard of Law that was designed to urge than any punishment fit the crime, and turned it into an individual license for revenge. Jesus urged His “would be disciples” to consider the value of doing more than was demanded and giving more than was asked for in order to be a testimony to their Master’s teaching, and draw others to God.
God cares more about how you treat those who mistreat you than those who affirm you. Jesus said:
Matthew 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.
The Master made clear that anyone would naturally care for those who show them love, but the measure Jesus considered was how one handled the persecutor, the hard to love, the dissenter. He made it incredibly clear: “Love your enemies” – period. The standard that was acceptable in the world was not the standard that was acceptable to His disciples. In the end, Jesus made it clear yet again… His disciples were to be distinct. They were to be different… and one of the places that was to be ever clear was in the face of persecution and those who meant harm to His followers. Jesus stood unimpressed by the warm embrace we can offer for those who already love us, for He called us to seek to offer that warmth to those who appear to hate us.
Each of these five statements were examples of how Jesus used the principles of the Law to demonstrate the standard of righteous living to His followers. Yet, a disciple needed more than principles, they needed clarity when it came to daily practices of their faith. What exactly WAS the commitment of discipleship? When they “signed on” what were they agreeing to do?
Eight Commitments (Practices) of My Disciples (6:1-7:12):
Jesus broke down the daily practices into eight essentials:
First, His followers were to give –but their giving was before an audience of One – God alone (6:1-4). They were to avoid public displays for God that were given specifically to be noticed by others. There was to be no intentional show (6:2), and they were to make a concerted attempt to cloak their giving for the “Father’s eyes only” (6:3-4).
In the same way, the second practice was praying intimately (6:5-15), but taking care to avoid hypocrisy (5:5) and seek to pray in privacy (5:6). Disciples avoid meaningless expressions (6:7) and don’t take cues from the pious who don’t know God (6:8). When real disciples pray they acknowledge: the Person of God, the Place of God, the Perfection of God, the Plan and Purposes of God, the Petitions of need, the Pardon from God, the Protection of God, the Power o God and the Praise to God!
A third practice was that of fasting – but again it was for the audience of One (6:16-18), avoiding outward shows (6:16) and deliberately trying to keep from public view the private work of God in us, so that it is not cheapened and we are not tempted to be showy (6:17).
Nicholas Herman worked in the food service industry. He was a short-order cook and bottle-washer. But he became deeply dissatisfied with his life; he worried chronically about himself, even whether or not he was saved. One day Nick was looking at a tree, and the same truth struck him that struck the psalmist so long ago: the secret of the life of a tree is that it remains rooted in something other and deeper than itself. He decided to make his life an experiment in what he called a “habitual, silent, secret conversation of the soul with God.” He is known today by the new name given to him by his friends: Brother Lawrence. He remained obscure throughout his life. He never got voted pope. He never got close to becoming the CEO of his organization. He stayed in the kitchen. But the people around him found that rivers of living water flowed out of him that made them want to know God the way he did. “The good brother found God everywhere,” one of them wrote, “as much while he was repairing shoes as while he was praying with the community.” After Lawrence died, his friends put together a book of his letters and conversations. It is called Practicing the Presence of God and is thought, apart from the Bible, to be the most widely read book of the last four centuries. This monastic short-order cook has probably out-sold novelist John Grisham and Tom Clancey and J.K. Rowling put together. (sermon central illustrations)
A fourth practice was saving in the right place (6:19-24), keeping at center our focus on things eternal, not earthly – to help us keep our hearts on target (6:19-21). We must keep a clear agenda and open heart (6:22-23) determined to serve God above any other agenda or goal (6:24).
A fifth practice was to push worry out of our lives, and learn to trust God with our lives (6:25-34). Disciples must remember God is powerful (6:25-26). Though we have no power over many things (6:27), God is able to meet our needs in elegant ways beyond our comprehension (6:28-30). Our confidence must become a testimony that marks us as different (6:31-32). If we focus on following God, He will take care of the rest for us (6:33-34).
Once time filming a movie in the desert and an old Indian walked up and said, “Tomorrow Rain.” The next day it rained. Week later the old Indian walked up again and said “Tomorrow storm.” Three days later walked up and said “Hail storm.” The director was amazed with the Indian, and he told his secretary to hire the Indian so He could predict the weather for the remaining of the shoot. However, after several accurate predictions the old Indian did not show up for 2 weeks. Finally the director sent for him. They found him and told him the director was counting on him for his weather predictions because there was a big shoot coming the next day if the weather permitted it. “What is the weather going to be like?’ The old Indian shrugged his shoulder and said, “Don’t know… radio is broken.” (sermon central illustrations)
A sixth practice is that of the examining properly our companions and ourselves (7:1-5). We are not to judge another with a standard different than we judge ourselves (7:1-2). We must not overlook our issues to spot theirs (7:3-4) but deal with our issues first (7:5).
Someone has said: “A Buzzard and a Humming bird fly over the same desert. One is looking for something dead and rotting. The other is looking for pretty, colorful flowers. BOTH find what they’re looking for!” (source unknown).
A seventh practice is that of guarding God’s truths (7:6). We are to understand the value of what God has given us, and be careful not to treat His Word as common. Guarding includes where and among whom we share God’s truth.
Finally, an eighth practice includes seeking confidently God’s provision (7:7-12). Disciples ask for what they need (7:7-8) and understand the Father is good, and is FOR us (7:9-12). He is not stingy, nor does He delight in withholding good things!
Four Choices of a True Disciple (7:13-27)
Jesus’ sermon closed with four couplets that emphasized the fact that a true follower must come to a place of choices concerning Jesus’ teachings:
He told of two gates (7:13-14): A true disciple must choose the path less traveled, opting to forego the way “every one else” seems to be going! You have a choice!
He told of two fruit trees (7:15-20): A true disciple will be careful to watch the fruit of a teacher before following their message (7:15-17). He will recognize the fruit exposes the type and usefulness of the tree (7:18-20). You must evaluate my teaching as true!
He pointed spoke of two confessions (7:21-23). A true disciple won’t just speak as though they know me, but will live according to My teaching (7:21). Some will even be self-deceived into thinking they experienced My power in places where My presence was not even found (7:22-23). You must submit to obeying My words!
Finally, He spoke of two foundations (7:24-29). If you hear and then follow My word you are building well (7:24-25). If you hear my teaching but don’t allow it to transform you – you are setting yourself up for a future collapse (7:26-27). My teaching must be transforming you!
Think as we close this lesson of the early disciples of Jesus. They had no history behind their movement. They had no public identity. They had no publishing houses, no music ministries, no publicly performed dramas, no seminaries to train preachers and no architecturally designed church houses. They often met in secret, in the darkness of night, in a private villa. They cared for each other and they shared with each other – even when they barely had enough. They loved Jesus, and they showed that, not by carrying a big Bible and sitting in a prominent place in church meetings – but by how they loved those who persecuted them and how they lived exemplary lives. Soldiers in the Roman army surrendered to Christ in large numbers – because they were the devices of persecution that encountered Christians first hand. The early disciples stood out, even when they had no public banners, building markers or t-shirts. What showed the world their faith and their Savior was their distinct behavior. They acted like they were in love.
A disciple of Jesus doesn’t BLEND in. He or she is called to exhibit attitudes, make choices and stand on commitments that are distinct from the world around them. This is the chief problem with Jesus’ call to discipleship. He wants people who will live like this world is a foreign place – not people who will try to make this world a HOME to them. He wants followers to treat our time here as a journey in a foreign land… where we never “fit in”. That is a tall order – and few there be that truly do it.