Entering and Embodying God’s Kingdom | Matthew 7:21-29

The Sermon on the Mount is not a series of unrelated teaching clips randomly jumping from one topic to another. There is thematic rhythm flowing through every bit of it. Topically, the sermon pieces together various aspects of the ethical demands for living within Jesus’ kingdom community; as a whole, the sermon is designed to set Jesus’ followers apart to embody a way of living whose root and fruit is his holy character. The Sermon on the Mount is very much a curriculum for creating kingdom culture “on earth as it is in heaven”; to give specific shape to a citizenry whose lives and the way they do life glorifies the Father by reflecting his goodness. As Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to a close, he puts a final touch on the uniqueness that is to characterize his kingdom community.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.”

Jesus’ comment that the Father is in heaven and those who do his will will enter the kingdom of heaven suggests the reality of the kingdom is not exclusive only to the Father’s heavenly location. That is, the kingdom of heaven is also setting up shop on earth where those who do the Father’s will may enter. The expansion of the kingdom’s earthly presence can be further seen in Jesus’ comments in Luke 11:20 and 17:20-21.

As God’s heavenly rule is implemented on earth, there will be those who will name-drop to get in on it. There is always something about knowing a name or identity that somehow makes us feel like we get it or are “in the know”. Jesus makes it clear that knowing his name or using it will not benefit us. The kingdom of heaven is for those who have received the King’s grace and whose lives are committed to reflecting the King’s character.

Clarifying what he means with an example, Jesus says Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’”

Normally we view these actions as quite exemplary. Books are written, ministries launched, and guest speakers fawned over because of activities like these. But are these activities the actual problem? Jesus continues “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

Jesus’ declaration hangs on two words or phrases.

“I never knew you”: In the Greek, the word knew implies a deep level of intimacy; in some cases that level could be sexual. In this case it appears Jesus is speaking to those who use his name or title, engage in religious adventures and wear spiritual façades, but whose lives are not actually intimately acquainted with and characteristically distinguished by the righteousness he embodies and calls his followers to. 

“You who practice lawlessness”: The psalm Jesus quotes is one in which the writer, finding graceful relief from his dismay, discards the iniquitous influences from his life, or, as Jesus puts it here, those who “practice lawlessness”. Just as the integrity of an Israelite’s righteousness depended on their abiding by the Law, the Christian disciple’s righteousness depends on their abiding in Christ. We can’t call Jesus ‘Lord’ if we’re not abiding in him and by his righteous way of living.

This is the uniqueness that is to characterize the followers of Christ, setting us apart from not only a world wanting nothing to do with Christ, but those content to merely mimic Christian habits. Called to be a people whose lives are to be salt and light, we are to embody a righteousness surpassing “that of the scribes and Pharisees, [lest we] will not enter the kingdom of heaven”.

Just as God’s kingdom reality was initially manifested in the person of Christ, it is currently expressed in the lives of Christ’s body, the Church. Kingdom reality requires cultivating; a nurturing of habits that emulate Christ’s holiness. This is not done quickly or assertively, but often quite carefully, as one builds a durable home.

Thus Jesus concludes Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”

Both the beginning (5:20) and ending (7:21) of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contains a theme of entering the kingdom of heaven. Now Jesus concludes his message with imagery conveying how those who have entered may sustain their commitment to the kingdom. It’s not just about hearing Jesus’ words, and then thinking that somehow entitles us to something, but acting upon them. Letting Jesus’ entire message mold our habits and direct our steps. That as his words shapes our ways, the reality being emitted from our lives will imbue the lives around us with sacred seeds that could grow into a kingdom culture rooted in Christ’s rule.

“When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Reality is always made compellingly clearer when conveyed by its author. As Jesus’ words and actions author a new reality in which we are being redemptively restored to God’s good reign, we gladly receive and embody that which is worth seeking first above all things throughout our lives, the good news of the kingdom of heaven.

“You will know them by their fruits” | Matthew 7:15-20

Much of Jesus’ message in Matthew 5-7 is the establishing of God’s Kingdom ethics to guide how his disciples live. Within this “Sermon on the Mount” are designs for a form of discipleship that can easily be characterized as unique. This is important to consider for at least two reasons. One, if we are following a one-of-a-kind King, it stands to reason that our following be done in a one-of-a-kind way. But secondly, if our way of living begins to blend undistinguishably into the milieu of other ways of living, it may indicate a departure from that one-of-a-kind way has occurred.

Such a departure does not happen suddenly, but gradually. Sometimes it just happens due to a series of seasons and reasons. But other times, such departures can be induced or prompted by some form of influence.

Jesus had seen this happen amongst his own people. By his time, hypocrisy had grown prevalent amongst the teachers of the Jewish law; there was a tendency to teach one thing while doing another. This tendency essentially resulted in a culture that ran contrary to what God had already established in Scripture. Concerned this tendency also would occur within the community he was teaching his disciples to cultivate, Jesus issues them an alert: “Beware of the false prophets”.

A prophet’s role is to clarify the way of God and to embody that life in a manner that calls people to it. The false prophet completely undermines this effort. How so?

Jesus’s full statement in Matthew 7:15 is “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

The imagery here seems to be a bit of dark humor. Humorous because the image of a wolf adorning himself in sheep’s wool in order to get close to the flock seems quite cartoonish; yet dark, considering that beneath this cartoonish façade, deceitfulness, theft, and devouring are playing out. These are figures who intend to creep in amongst Christ’s followers, assume authority of Christ’s message for their own agenda, and modify it into an alternative version than what Jesus revealed. Thus Jesus characterizes the future false prophets who will attempt to infiltrate his kingdom community.

In our day of parachurch positions combined with self-promotion, the role of prophet sometimes takes on a somewhat official capacity. While we would not expect to see anyone wearing a name tag saying false prophet, it seems in such a day such a person would appear more obvious. But that’s Jesus’ point: such people will not be so easily recognizable. Therefore, adapting to a new metaphor, Jesus continues “You will know them by their fruits.”

To clarify, Jesus illustratively says Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.”

Everyone in this agrarian culture knew sweet and energizing fruit doesn’t come from dry prickly bushes. Nature only begets its own. What is produced is determined by its nature. Nature cannot mismatch or misproduce. Nature can produce nothing besides its own. Though Jesus’ disciples would identify false prophets by recognizing their fruit’s “bad” nature, doing so required they know what “good” fruit looks like.

Throughout his sermon, Jesus’ usage of good usually refers to the Father’s goodness as framed in his teachings. By keeping to and living out the sermon’s teachings, disciples embody and project the Father’s goodness. The Father’s goodness is the nature of which the disciples are now apart through their following of Jesus. To live a life that reflects a nature different from that of the Father, as framed in the sermon’s teachings, is to disassociate oneself from his nature and his goodness, disabling oneself from producing “good fruit”.

Being able to identify possible distorting hypocrisy and predatory deceitfulness at play amongst our congregations is necessary. Ultimately, however, it’s not about an incessant haphazard heresy hunt, but taking Jesus’ warning seriously by recognizing the reality it portends. That he has called us to a type of living whose root is the Father’s unique goodness and whose fruit is the way of his Son. Since it would not be love on Jesus’ part to validate types of living that would contradict the type of living he is establishing, his words call us to be transplanted out from every alternative type of living, however preferential they might be, and implanted into the Father’s uniqueness facilitated through the Son so what is cultivated will yield a nature sweetened with God’s goodness.

Walking upon the narrow way | Matthew 7:13-14

As Jesus begins moving towards a conclusion to his sermon on the mount, he paints another word picture for his disciples—“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The context does not precisely clarify what imagery Jesus is drawing on.  Perhaps he’s referring to an officer’s door in a city wall in contrast with the main gate for the local population.  Maybe he’s referring to the narrow alleyway one would take leading up to the small door of their home versus the broader main street up and down which crowds would walk and vendors haul their carts.  Whatever specifics Jesus had in mind, the text is sufficient.  Two ways.  Wide and broad; small and narrow.  Within Jesus’ words, three sets of differences distinguish these ways from each other.

The first difference between these two ways is freedom.  A wider, broader way allows more freedom for moving around and about for comfortable maneuvering and exploring.  The smaller, narrower way, however, offers less freedom; the edges are tight and walking space is restricted.  The path has to be taken as it is or not at all.

The second difference concerns the travelers who frequent these ways.  While many enter and walk the wider way, few will find and follow the narrow way.

The boundaries of these respective paths are no doubt a factor for their travelers.  The wide way allows spaciousness for strolling, side stops for meandering, features for customization.  The traveler chooses the pace; it allows them to turn to the left or to the right.  The path is about the traveler’s individual story or experience.  The broader way is for tourists.

The narrow path, however, forces focus.  Care must be taken for each step, how the leg is extended and the foot is planted.  Lest you lose sight of the leader or hold up those behind you, the mind must be melded with every disciplined movement.  The trek is about the path itself and how it works its essence into the travelers who belong to it.

Ultimately, however, the freedom each path seems to offer is ironically inconsistent with where each leads.  The third difference, therefore, is the destinations towards which these paths are moving.  The way that was so wide and broad, scenic and spacious eventually comes down to an undoing of everything it seemed to promise, a dead end with nowhere to go.  The narrow path, as small and limited as it seemed, eventually opens up into a spaciousness that offers elation and beauty with an abundance of life.

As helpful each of these differences are in parsing the picture Jesus paints here, it still remains a bit abstract.  The narrow way Jesus emphasizes and directs disciples toward can be generalized to mean anything, turning it into some existential road less traveled.  If viewed through the context of what Jesus has been saying throughout his sermon on the mount, however, the constrictions of the narrow way become more defined and emancipating.

Rather than allowing murder to remain the epitome of evil and dysfunctionality, Jesus singles out the anger we broadly tolerate as the darkness to avoid.  Instead of measuring our martial fidelity in terms of affairs or incidents of cheating, Jesus characterizes it by the purity of our hearts.  Rather than reinforcing the “eye for an eye” sense of justice, Jesus distinguishes peace as our balancing contribution.  Instead of reserving love for those who will repay it, Jesus stipulates a sacrificial love for all, enemies included.  In each of these examples, Jesus moves the standards of righteousness from the broadly held to the narrowly pursued.  It is the narrow way because it is framed by ways of living that are characteristic of Christ alone.

When the LORD gave Moses the commands, He said “So you shall observe to do just as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right or to the left.  You shall walk in all the way which the LORD your God has commanded you.”

Now centuries later, Jesus here moves his listeners away from broad generalizations about moral goodness by painting this “all the way” visualization of discipleship.  It has been said “we make the way by walking it”.  The narrow way has been formed in the unique footsteps of the Messiah; each of his words and actions has been a step that leaves his way before us to follow, and by following it, we brought into a community who embodies a way of life that reveals the Lord who can always be found along its route.

Oh, be careful little eyes how you see | Matthew 6:22-23

Much of Jesus’ comments in Matthew 6 have concentrated on internal cultivation of the disciple’s piety. Continuing in v22, Jesus employs a metaphor to further clarify this conditioning, saying “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

HerodLampLitRtThe common lamps of Jesus’ day were clay containers with an outlet from which protruded a burning wick. If these lamps contained little or no oil, the flame would sporadically flicker before eventually going out.  If the oil was old, contained impurities, or the wick improperly made, the flame might give off a burning odor or possibly smoke up the room.  The lamp had to be clean, the oil had to be plentiful and pure, and the wick properly fashioned in order for a proper flame to burn and light up a room.  Ultimately the clarity of the room depended on the condition of the lamp and its contents.  This is the imagery Jesus is referencing.  The metaphor he illustrates is that our eyes are the lamps and our bodies the room.

The message of this metaphor is basically that the condition of our personhood depends on the clarity of our perception. The emphasis Jesus places on specifying how the cleanliness of the eye/lamp affects the condition of the person/room suggests the internal condition and cultivation of a disciple’s piety depends greatly on how they are perceiving or processing everything entering their awareness, whether it’s world culture or kingdom culture.  In a sense, it’s like Jesus is saying “How you see shapes what you will be.”

How, then, should we as salt and light disciples see or perceive?

The following are a few patterns I have found helpful.

Think and process with humility, trying to understand and respond to current events or everyday moments in a way that “leaves room” for how God is sovereignly at work in all those vast matters.

Think and process with empathy, utilizing a patience and magnanimity as we attempt to gain a sense of a situation from a perspective besides our own.

Think and process with scrutiny, learning to see beyond the way things seem or are sold by fact checking and examining constructs and conventional thought.

Think and process with a Scriptural mindset, being deeply rooted in God’s textually framed righteousness so your decisions and character yield fruitfulness reflecting Christ’s character.

Think and process prayerfully, allowing constant conversation with God to visualize and cultivate Christlikeness richly into your character.

Think and process decisively, letting everything you have carefully and prayerfully taken into consideration move you to live and act in accordance with the convictions that have developed.

The affairs of this world force us to face an overwhelming barrage of conflict, whether it’s in politics, business, relationships, marketing, or culture. If we are perceiving and reacting to everything around us with the same anxiety, defensiveness, tribalism, and competitiveness the world does, it will only be the same great smoky darkness characterizing the world we are hoping to illumine.  We cannot be “light of the world” if we’re only blowing smoke.

Jesus’ illustration thus aids the imagination in reminding those committed to being “light of the world” to pursue and possess a disciplined insightfulness that enlightens the shadows of ambiguity and shines light both inside ourselves and outward toward the world around.

Journeying Jesus’ way to pray | Matthew 6:9-13

Jesus has been talking about using prayer hypocritically for show, impressing people to gain respect or influence.  He tells his followers, however, to conduct their prayers in secret.  He continues in Matthew 6:9 “Pray, then, in this way…”

In this way.  Everything Jesus has said in this sermon on the mount constitutes a way of living, a kingdom way; a journey in which we are made his disciples.  The way we love, the way we give, the way we talk, the way we overlook an offense, the way we interact—these are all ways we are formed into his followers.  Thus Jesus’ words here provide another way that is formatively foundational for following.  This “Lord’s prayer” is a framework for all prayer; it espouses a substance on which all prayer is nurtured.  All our prayers should mature and grow into the redemptive reality in which Jesus’ prayer is rooted.  Praying the substance of his prayer shapes in us the mindset of Jesus which, to begin with, is centered in the Father.

“Our Father who is in heaven…”  Jesus is the perfect image of the Father; in John 14:9 he says if we’ve seen him, we’ve seen the Father.  Following Jesus is ultimately about abiding in the Father.  Jesus casts our prayerful imaginations beyond our selves and surroundings to perceive the Father whose mighty and majestic sovereign presence permeates the heavens, consequently permeating our minds with his magnificence, captivating our attention.  In this way, prayer humbles our hearts by lifting our minds. 

“Hallowed be Your name…”  Once our minds have been elevated and stretched to perceive the Father reigning over us, we are now able to find satisfaction in his sovereignty and delight in his magnificence by letting our minds ponder the vastness of his splendor, awed in his mystery.  Holy, set apart, unique, hallowed; his is a name regarded with reverence, treasured and cherished above any other.  A name that holds all the hope for the present and the future.  With our minds lifted heavenward, perceiving this heavenly holy one, Jesus opens our mouths to pray…

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The Father might abide a ways beyond us, but he refuses to abide away from us.  He is not content to remain isolated from us but must make his dwelling with us.  His salvation work consists of taking his kingdom, that redemptive reality being shaped in his celestial realm, and establishing it amongst our earthly existence so we in this world may participate in the work of heaven.  In Jesus, the Father chooses to abide in our neighborhoods of flesh and blood, working his will within us.  Seeing salvation at work through incarnation, we see we are not alone, not abandoned; that this is all according to plan.  What was a promised redemption is becoming a redeemed reality, full of a restfulness in which we can now pray…

“Give us this day our daily bread…”  The Father’s sovereignty and salvation work show us we need not fear the future.  We can hope in him here and now and know we are being provided for, protected; we now have the blessed rest-filled assurance to ask for daily bread.  Bread—it’s a very physical, earthy request; moments before, we’re thinking lofty, heavenly, spiritual thoughts about a Father who is hallowed, sacred, above us, beyond us, but now we’re talking about physical, crummy bread.

Asking for bread in a conversation with God connects the physical with the spiritual, a critical aspect for understanding Christian spirituality.  It shows us the Father is as much concerned with physical realities as with spiritual realities.  Christian spirituality is not merely about mystical niceties or pious idealizations, but how these wonderful spiritual realities are lived and worked out within our fleshly limitations and physical boundaries, the preservation and perseverance of which requires bread.  The Father knows we need physical provision, and in providing it, the truth of his salvation is unfolded and revealed, reverberating redemptive reality through our spirits, enabling us to respond to his mercy.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…”  Forgiveness is God’s grace-filled act of balance.  It is a blessed dynamic that brings us into holy harmony with God, each other, and ourselves.  Whereas daily bread preserves the flesh, forgiveness perseveres our spirit, and not just for ourselves.  Forgiveness is not exclusively static, but inclusively vibrant.  It reverberates through the disciple’s relationships, echoing grace all over the place.  The forgiveness graced upon us by the Father flows out from us onto those around us.  Its cyclical nature shows forgiveness is the impetus of kingdom community.  As prayer forms in us a forgiveness-nature, we are cultivated into a God-aware community whose physical and spiritual needs are given provision and preservation from a Father whose salvation work encompasses the whole of our being.

“And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”  The way in which we follow Jesus to the Father will always involve trials, but he teaches us to pray discerningly here that those trials never give way to temptations, potentially corrupting the holy character he is forming in us through prayer.  It’s a request that the Father keep us in this way he started, not turning to the left or the right of this salvation way being paved and furthered in the footsteps of Jesus.

Jesus’ prayer frames the path of our own prayers.  It’s a formational journey for the soul, beginning with a wondrous visual of the sovereign Father, finding satisfaction in his infinite holiness, submitting to the redemptive reality he is establishing amongst us, trusting in his daily provision, resting in his graceful preservation, responding mercifully to others, and persevering in this walk upon his holy way.  As we pray our Lord’s words, they immerse our character into his, forming and navigating life upon his way.

Prayer as following Jesus | Matthew 6:5-8

Moving from giving to prayer, Jesus says “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.”

Like giving, prayer played a pivotal part in Jewish piety. Prayer is not simply sacred conversation; it is spiritual formation. Prayer shapes in us the Father’s abiding presence. Prayer conforms our character to the righteousness of Christ. Prayer forms us into followers of Jesus. Prayer is the Potter’s means of molding for us his clay. As such, prayer has more to do with what God’s doing than what we’re saying. Through prayer he shapes in us his salvation substance; such artistry requires patient, Father-focused prayerfulness so his “will be done”.

So when some of God’s people started praying with a hidden agenda, making a public spectacle of prayer “that they may be seen by men”, Jesus calls them out as fakers, actors showing off for the praise and approval of people. It is a dangerous line to walk; Jesus said those compliments they were after are the only reward or esteem they should expect, from either man or God. Since they were not seeking God’s esteem, they should not expect it later. Praying for men’s pleasure replaces God with men as the potter who molds our soul. It’s worship of men, desiring to be shaped into their image. It’s a hijacking and twisting of holy conversation to engage in idolatry. Years of this kind of practice will leave us routinely sputtering hollow “christianisms” while inside we ache with bitterness, trying to get yet another cup of people’s pleasure to satiate a dry and dusty soul.

This is not the life of prayer Jesus envisions for his followers; so he lays out another way. “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

The average Jewish home was not separated into individual rooms, but was often one large room. Jesus is likely saying to pray as privately as possible in this situation; or his language may imaginatively suggest his followers withdraw to the most inner part of themselves, locking out spectators in order to privately parley in the Father’s presence. When the Father sees his holy estimation is solely sought, regarded more valuable than all others, he will reward us, or saturate our souls with his sanctifying presence.

Jesus further elaborates “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.”

The average Gentile, or non-Jew, had a plethora of gods or deities from which to choose. To incur their favor, they would entreat these god-figures by reciting a series of prayers. Hoping to charm them with these spell-like incantations, they would repeat various phrases associated with that deity until they felt they had done enough to earn their favor. Jesus uses this imagery to expose for his followers another way not to pray. He then qualifies his logic, saying “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”

In his sovereignty God is already aware of our needs. We don’t need to relentlessly babble on as if God is deaf or we must earn his favor. He sees, he knows, and he cares. We need not be panicked and desperate for his acknowledgment. Being aware of his care brings blessed assurance, a restfulness rooted in his sovereign goodness. It affords us a spaciousness to open up to him and creates confidence in the genuineness of his character and concern.

The discipleship reality Jesus’ words cultivate here is a prayerfulness satisfied in the Father’s estimation and sovereignty. An endeavor unlike any other, prayer is our soul’s response to the redemption already at work in Christ. An expansion and maturation of the soul, prayer pulls us into that redemptive work, conforming us to Christ’s kingdom reality. As we continue this lifelong journey of following Jesus, holy conversation keeps us on and further along his way.