If you breeze quickly through social media like Facebook, you may see how little has changed over the centuries in regard to what gets people “wound up.” Imagine if there were social media outlets at the time of Jesus. What would you read about? I suspect posts would have highlighted concerns, and perhaps even voices of outrage at the following realities:
• Economic Inequity: The world seemed very economically divided between those who possessed the best things this life could offer and those who had hardly enough to survive, or were living paycheck to paycheck. In the shadow of Tiberius’ residence in Rome, starving Romans passed through the streets. Among those scratching out an existence in daily labor, many felt their efforts were being sucked off into the purses of the rich and they itched for a justice they couldn’t seem to get through the economic system in place at the time.
• Political Intrigue: Political leaders flopped from one crisis to another as they fixated on the head of state and his personality. How Tiberius felt and whether or not he slighted some Senator would have been all the rage. Politicians jockeyed endlessly through a never ending series of internal divisions to gain or hold some sense of power. They weren’t sure what the Emperor would “tweet” next. They didn’t know who was “in” and who was “out” on a daily basis. Rumors swirled. All they could do was align themselves with strong political allies and hope their party would gain or hold power long enough for them to build a successful political career. They cared about their world, but they were much more invested in holding onto their place than standing firmly on big issues – since those who stood on principle often ended up floating in the Tiber River.
• Theological Incoherence: Religious leaders were vastly separated into different “faith” groups, and they didn’t really attempt to venture out of their little “kingdoms” and encounter one another. There were no great conferences to bring together the long established cults of the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) and blend them with the more “contemporary cults” (like that of Isis). Off by themselves in corners of many cities were the followers of the God of Abraham, and many of their leaders were clinging to arrogance and steeped in minutiae of their own theological debate, while their culture spun out of control around them. Add to that, many of the followers of the God of Abraham could be found to living quite differently than the ideals they taught.
Does this sound like things have changed all that much? I didn’t think so either.
One day truth came like a piercing light into a pitched dark room… When it flashed, it hurt the eyes of people who had grown used to cynicism and dark thinking. Jesus came. He walked among men. He looked humble, but possessed the greatest of wealth. He sounded plain-spoken, but offered the richest truths of mankind’s Creator.
The Gospel according to Matthew followed the saga of Jesus pressing against the political power machine, the confused religious establishment and the raw demonic attacks as the light of truth pushed into a well-fortified castle of darkness. Many were captive there, and God wasn’t content to let darkness prevail. Consider what Jesus did:
• He came to bring truth that would settle people in times of crisis.
• He came to fill the emptiness with real substance.
• He brought satisfaction to those who longed for deep truth.
In this lesson, we begin a short memory of the story unfolded, from its beginning to the first sermon of Jesus recorded in its pages. There is a truth that will become clear:
Key Principle: Jesus’ message made clear his expectations for the character, the commitments and the choices of a true follower.
To grab that truth, we should set the first sermon, found in Matthew 5-7 in the context of the book.
Look for a moment at the opening of Matthew’s Gospel. What do you see? It is a long list of names, a genealogy. In your mind, or in your Bible, write the word “Promise.” The opening verses should remind us that Jesus came in response to a long-revealed promise, and part of a long-blessed family line. His coming included God’s use of unexpected people, as in a group of Gentile women like Rahab and Ruth are found on that list – and none of us would have made a plan that included them. God isn’t like us! (Matthew 1:1-17)
Go to the last part of chapter one (Mt. 1:18-25) and add in your margin or mind the word “Miracle.” It took Divine intervention to bring a child to a womb without a father, but God knows how to make an entrance and enjoys dropping surprises into His story. This was a child born of miracle.
Move on to chapter two, and place beside the narrative the word “Dignitaries” to remind yourself of the story of the arrival of the Magi from the East, when they brought unexpected honor to a meager couple because they recognized the significance of the Child’s arrival (Mt. 2:1:12). At the same time, you may write the word “Reaction” beside the last part of the chapter because His come coming was met with a violent, bloody reaction from those who clung to the power of darkness (Mt. 2:13-23).
Turn to chapter three, where John the Baptizer was preaching from the Jordan, and mark the word “Announcements” because the arrival of Jesus was publicly broadcast by John even as a thundering voice from the Heavens by God Himself proclaimed His satisfaction on His Son’s coming (Mt. 3:13-17).
Now drop your eyes to Matthew 4, and write the word “Temptation” as you note how Jesus stared down the enemy face to face in a direct contest (Mt. 4:1-11). I would add a second word, “Message” beside the summary where He fired a warning shot in His message of life change (Mt. 4:12-17), and mayb e a third word “Disciples” at the point in the text where He gathered close companions (Mt. 4:18-22) to charge into the small villages of the Galilee encountering the sick and demonically abused (Mt. 4:23-25).
We have the story of a fulfilled promise, a miraculous birth, powerful dignitary visitors and brutal political reaction. Jesus emerged from the shadows with the endorsement announcements of a godly man and God’s voice. He faced His enemy, gathered His first followers and began His ministry… now, what did He teach first? That is our lesson…
Matthew chapter five opened the preaching message of Jesus beyond the summary words “He preached repentance and the arrival of the Kingdom” from chapter four.
We shouldn’t be surprise that Jesus knew the kind of followers He was looking for, both then and now. Though the Gospel of Matthew is thematically arranged, this sermon of Jesus was clearly offered early in His earth ministry, and had these three major parts:
• The Expected Character Traits of a True Disciple (5).
• The Expected Commitments of a True Disciple (6:1-7:12).
• The Expected Choices of a True Disciple (7:13-29).
This first major sermon offered the truths about what Jesus expected from His followers.
First, He expected “Character Traits” (Matthew 5)
The first part of the message can be grouped generally into four major character traits Jesus pressed His disciples to exhibit to be a true follower:
His opening remarks offered this: “You cannot be about YOU and ME (5:1-12) at the same time!” Jesus expected His followers to be “other person centered.” Let’s take a look.
Jesus began with words that separated those who were ready to fulfilled and blessed from their countrymen. Promises of blessing were woven into the lives of people who followed His teaching (Mt. 5:1-12). These opening words are called the “Beatitudes.” The setting was a hillside on the north of the Sea of Galilee, where Matthew noted:
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…
A rabbi normally stood for the reading of Scripture, but they sat down when they were about to offer their key teaching. Jesus sat, and the disciples gathered close to hear. He said:
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.
In essence, Jesus said He expected His followers to run from self-reliance into His arms, depending on His strength, not their own. He said: I am seeking one who is:
• Look at the word POOR and read: bankrupt in their own spirit, and not self-dependent (3),
• Look at the word MOURN and see one empty enough to mourn their own insufficiency, not self-secure (4),
• Look at the word GENTLE and see one worn enough to lose a sense of self-reliance (5),
• Hungry for a righteousness denotes they don’t have, and are not self-satisfied (6),
• MERCY reflects an attitude that is caring enough not to be unduly self-focused (7),
• PURE IN HEART suggests an openness that is vacant for God’s use and not divided into other loyalties (8),
• PEACEMAKERS show someone kind enough to release self-serving agendas (9),
• PERSECUTED set them apart as patient enough to endure hardship and not become easily self-defensive (10),
• INSULTED shows they were compassionate enough to be patient while unfairly taunted (11-12).
We fire back at people when we aren’t Jesus centered, but feel the need to protect our own weakness. Jesus isn’t weak. He doesn’t require my feeble voice to protect His strength.
In short, a Jesus follower must become “other person centered.” Paul later said it this way (when addressing Jesus followers):
Philippians 2:5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Jesus wasn’t done. In addition to relying on HIM, they would need to grow to rely on ONE ANOTHER. He said His followers needed to act in concert and not plan to stand ALONE (5:13). This emphasized the loyalty of the believers together in their “salt”. He 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?
In the Near East, the salt was a symbol of loyalty. Mark 9:50 finished the saying this way: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Add to that Jesus’ expectation that we would not come to Him and then hide it. He said: “You cannot remain anonymous!” (5:14-16). You will not be hidden, for you are not called to be hidden! His expectation was this:
Matthew 5:16 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.
Jesus then, made clear He wanted God-reliant, team-oriented and openly outreaching people to be His followers. He expected that.
The Manual of Behavior for a Jesus Follower
It is important that we also understand where the standards of discipleship that Jesus set before the crowd originated (5:17-48). The Law of God was His given standard, (5:17) but only when truly understood with His true intent (5:18-48). Listen to what Jesus said about the Law:
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.”
Jesus had no desire to render the Law void, neither by “keeping it and thereby retiring it” nor by cancelling it. He wanted His followers to recognize the intent behind it. That is why we teach the principle approach to the Scriptures. All Scripture is profitable, but much of it was written NOT TO ME but rather FOR MY BENEFIT. Let me explain:
Jesus offered a series of six “You have heard it said…” type quotes ranging over five issues. Most of them were “word for word” lifted out of the Hebrew Scripture (though not all). He included sayings about:
They heard ‘You shall not commit murder’ – but Jesus argued that His original intent was not to limit the scope of harm to a knife or a club, but to include “murder by mouth” and other kinds of wounds to the heart. The Law appeared to say you were not in violation as long as they were still breathing – but that wasn’t the point of what God intended. As Jesus explained, the point of “Do not murder” was to place the weight of another person’s well-being on your shoulders, and make us care about what we say and do to hurt or hinder one another.
They heard ‘You shall not commit adultery’ and thought God wasn’t upset until they were caught in the sack together. Jesus said God’s real intent was to keep our eyes from roving and our thoughts from fantasizing about physical rendezvous with another that was not our spouse. Adultery occurs in the head, not just the bed. That was God’s point.
They heard ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’ and thought God was fine with them making a covenant of marriage and then finding an excuse to walk out on that covenant. Jesus argued forcefully that our words before God matter, and the covenant promises we made in marriage matter. He went on to press the case by saying, Don’t make complicated arguments to get out of things you promised. Just say what you mean and mean what you say.
They heard ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ and thought God was legalizing revenge. The law of the scales was intended to establish that a punishment was to fit the crime, not license revenge at all. Jesus turned that desire upside down and told His followers to hunger to be helpful instead to hungering to get even.
At that point, Jesus left the words of Scripture and moved to the words of some rabbis who had influence on the crowds, but weren’t accurately reflecting God’s intent at all. He said they heard: ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ Jesus made clear that wasn’t even what God SAID, let alone what He INTENDED.
What God DID say was this:
Leviticus 19:18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
Exodus 23:4 “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. 5 If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him.
Proverbs 25:21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
Here is the point: Jesus said the standard for His followers was His Word, set properly in its context and filled out with the principles behind what was written.
It wasn’t just a set of memorized rules – the Law provided a mindset, an understanding of the bigger things God cares about.
Without the Law, Jesus followers will seek other standards to follow Jesus. They will either get used to walking without the knowledge of what pleases Him, or they will fill in the blanks with things they care about and make it sound like Jesus had the same cares.
List what Jesus said He cared about. It will sound like this:
• I care about people – their feelings, their needs, their success.
• I care about purity – our heart, our inner integrity, our authenticity.
• I care about promises – keeping our Word, particularly when promised before God.
• I care about passion – letting how I feel govern what I do when others hurt us.
• I care about practice – showing love to others and not keeping account of wrongs of others.
Jesus offered eight areas of commitment (Regular Practices) in which His Disciples would regularly engage (6:1-7:12)
We can’t look deeply into these in this lesson, so I am dedicating the next one to these eight intimate practices of a Jesus follower. Here is what we can say to help hold the message together…
The first three practices all focus on ONE VALUE, that of a personal, intimate authenticity that avoids SHOWMANSHIP. Our faith isn’t a public show – our heart is connected to God on the most intimate level.
• Giving for God’s eyes only (6:1-4).
• Praying for God’s ears only (6:5-15).
• Fasting for God’s attention alone (6:16-18).
Next Jesus turned to issues of our genuine trust in God. This second set of practices focused on the temptation we all have to operate life apart from resting in God’s power. He said:
• Save for your “Heaven account,” not just retirement (6:19-24).
• Trust God for things we don’t control and things we THINK we do (6:25-34).
The final set of teachings show our confidence must be in God’s power, not ours. In practice, we should so value the Word, that we guard the truth of it in our daily practice. We should be people of grace, looking to help a neighbor but discipline our behavior as an example to others.
He offered these three more practices…
• He called His followers to judge people properly (7:1-5).
• He called His followers to guard carefully truth vigiliantly (7:6).
• He called His followers to seek God’s provision regularly (7:7-12).
We will take more time here, but don’t miss the key points.
Jesus told us to avoid the temptation to put on a show with our faith – because in the loss of authenticity we become acting hypocrites.
Jesus told us to intentionally place our lives at His command and disposal, and not see ourselves as “un-coached free agents.”
Jesus told us to deliberately seek God’s blessings of provision, and be neither presumptuous nor ungrateful.
Do you see what ties them all together? They are about attitude and they are intentional. Let me say it plainly, if you want to be a follower of Jesus, you won’t be able to think like everyone else, and you will need to deliberately open yourself to allowing the Spirit of God to deal with your attitudes. All of us must make the effort, and our attitudes will show how effective we are becoming at following Jesus. It won’t be our service alone, because we can put on a show. Our following of Jesus will show up in the inner attitudes of the heart that we know we won’t let go, and let God change. It comes down to active choices…
Four Choices of a True Disciple (7:13-27)
When it came down to it, followers of Jesus were, and are measured by our choices to do the unlikely and often unpopular thing – we follow Jesus. We make daily choices:
• He told of two gates (7:13-14): A true disciple must choose the path less traveled, opting to forego the way “everyone 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 told 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!
• He told 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!
Jesus ended His message with four choice statements. Will you choose to follow Him even if it is not popular? Will you choose to follow a world that is killing the fruit that was so abundant when we took His Word more seriously? Will you pretend to know Him, but not obediently listen to Him? On what will you build your life.
Jesus expected us to choose His way over the way of the crowd, the way of convenience, or the way of casual acquaintance. He doesn’t want fans – He wants followers. He made clear the character, commitments and choices He expected in a true follower. It shouldn’t surprise us to know that Jesus knew what He was looking for in a follower. The question is: Are you truly seeking to be one?
Dr. Haddon Robinson writes: “Some people are attracted to Christianity because they have a leaky faucet that they want God to fix. Perhaps they struggle with a destructive habit and they would like to tap into God’s power to help them break it. Or maybe they have broken relationships that they want God to mend. But they learn from this Sermon on the Mount that God is not a plumber. Leaky faucets are minor league stuff to Him. God wants to tear the plumbing out entirely and deal with the well from which the water flows. He wants to change what comes out of the faucet, not merely stop its leak.” – The Solid Rock Construction Company, pg.122
Jesus wants to go deep inside of you, and change who you are. He has the power to do it, and the expectation that you will let Him.