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.

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A Kingdom-Kind of Righteousness | Matthew 5:17-20

Throughout the intertestamental period there was no temple, so Judaism became significantly decentralized from Jerusalem and came to be practiced more folkishly with prayers and Scripture readings in local country synagogues.  But with the rebuilding of Herod’s temple and the rise of the Pharisees and scribes, Judaism’s religious leaders sought to develop a more precise devotion to the Law.  As time passed and different rabbinical schools of thought developed, various codes and traditions were added in an effort to map out righteous responses to every possible scenario one might encounter in life.  What resulted was a system so complex, the context and contents of some codes and traditions began to overlap and overrule those of others, nullifying or cancelling out their holy purposes; other traditions were even added as a way to “get around” mandates deemed inconvenient.  Adherences to this system gradually created a tendency to exactingly, yet deficiently fixate on the efficiency of external rule-keeping, consequently reframing their understanding of righteousness to be perceived within this system structure.  Sadly, this reinforced the tendency to emphasize the appearance of righteousness through external rule-keeping, while the internal spirit of holiness through glad, faithful obedience went severely neglected.  Ultimately, this significantly normalized hypocritical living.  It is ironic that in their exacting attempts to keep the Law they affected an abolishing effect on the Law.  It was an irony Jesus would deal with in accordance with the kingdom reality he was putting in place.

Addressing this prevalent situation directly, Jesus told his disciples “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.  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.”

Jesus had no intention of tolerating a system which diminished holiness with hypocrisy.  On the contrary, Jesus would fully embody the kind of personhood the Law had always meant to frame.  The Law, ordained by angels, could not be nullified by man’s traditions, no matter how small the edit; a “living and active” truth, it could not be abolished by checklists of codes and clauses.  The Law has to be lived.  Living it forms God’s people to be wholly holy before him.  Jesus would show them how, filling fully the Law’s framework of holy personhood.

Having esteemed the value of lawful living, Jesus then issues a clear warning to his disciples: “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.”

I once heard a preacher suggest the words Jesus spoke prior to his death bordered on irrelevant because they were spoken under the old covenant; that’s painting the concept of “new covenant” in a dangerously one-dimensional light.  Jesus’ life, words, death, and resurrection would gradually impact the implications of the Law, not by way of abolishing, but fulfilling.  Jesus does not discard the Law, but embraces, embodies, and enacts its fullest essence; he expects his followers to do the same, to live lives that greatly reach for God’s character.  God’s original vision for kingdom community is rooted in the Law; discarding it, ignoring it, exploiting buzz words like “grace” or “love” to shrug it off, and teaching others to do the same is to hinder, like these codes and traditions did, that which helps give form to kingdom living.  Such deluded devotion demotes us to the “least in the kingdom of heaven.”

Therefore Jesus states “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Kingdom living requires a certain kind of righteousness.  Not the kind demonstrated by the Pharisees and scribes in their hypocritical performance-based traditions, but a righteousness that was in accordance to the character of Christ.  Kingdom living must reflect the righteousness of its king.  Jesus said “I came…to fulfill.”  Jesus is the embodiment of the Law’s holy essence, the personification of the righteousness it prescribes.

At some point we believers must honestly ask ourselves “Do we actually want to follow Jesus, or do we just want to look like we are following Jesus?”

The difference between followers of Jesus and those who engage in godtalk is the response to the holy character of Jesus.  Do we wonder what we can get away with or do we go with what God has commanded us?  Do we negotiate his holy essence or do we welcome it?  Do we compromise his character or do we commit to it?  Let’s not avoid the hard thoughts here: being a follower of Jesus means embodying and exemplifying a righteous standard of living that goes the distance.  When Jesus talks about “surpassing” the scribes and Pharisees, he’s not prescribing a righteousness that tries to compete with others, but a righteousness that endures to keep up with Jesus.

As we continue navigating through the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus will reveal a kingdom kind of righteousness he calls his followers to embrace; it is a righteousness that fulfills what the Law always aimed to frame, a righteousness that reflects the holy character of the King, and a righteousness that, when embodied and enacted, will display the reality of God’s kingdom and its redemption into which Christ longs for the whole world to enter.

 

 

 

 

The Beatitudes as a First Impression of Kingdom Reality | Matthew 5:1-12

The first section of the “Sermon on the Mount” is a series of statements often referred to as “The Beatitudes”.  When his disciples come to Jesus on the hillside amidst the crowds, he opens his mouth to teach them and what he says conveys the first impressions of how the Kingdom of Heaven redefines reality.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Poor in spirit” was not a state these Jewish commoners actively aimed for, yet it was a state they were often in.  They believed they were God’s chosen people, yet life under Rome’s fist and religion’s thumb often looked more like abandonment, creating hearts devoid of hope.  Even while persistently reaching to grab hold of hope, their neglected status incessantly fueled their impoverished souls.  Perhaps cursed may have been a more apt adjective to describe their state.  Reality, however, was no longer as it had seemed; new reality rang in their ears as Jesus described them as Blessed.  It was a profound paradox produced by the presence of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed; one that would counteract the cursed reality it contradicted as it expanded with blessedness in the hearts of the hopeful.

The blessedness Jesus bestows is not possession of materials or resources, but the reality of God’s redemptive reign in our midst, enrichening our wanting souls with his salvation work, pulling our poor spirits into the glorious abundance of himself.  While the subsequent blessing statements are in the future tense, Jesus’ first issuance of blessedness here is in the present tense, as if the present blessedness of God’s kingdom reality spills over into every aspect of the life of his listeners.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

The atmosphere of first century Israel weighed heavy, crushing spirits with heartache and mournfulness as the people longed for times of refreshment; but those who would believe the good news of the kingdom of heaven would find themselves wrapped in the comfort of its blessedness.  “Comfort, O comfort…” 

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Though the people of the land tried to humbly delight themselves in the Lord, the exploitative nature of the tyrannical world they knew always reminded them they were not gaining any new ground; but as the blessedness of God’s kingdom reality begins to bring all of life into subjection to the King, the meek shall realize they are sharing in the inheritance of an Earth being redeemed.

Having enriched impoverished souls and comforted mournful hearts, the blessedness Jesus proclaims also proceeds to satisfy the desires that have reflected the character of their God.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

Right living can often get lost in ambiguity as we turn it into obsessive rat-race rule-keeping or the hypocrisy of performance art.  But for those who have craved right living deep in their carnal being, the blessedness of God’s kingdom reality brings them into the essence of righteousness, embodied in the person and presence of Christ.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Those who have made mercy their mission have captured a vision of the dynamics by which kingdom reality is dispensed to the neighborhoods and peoples all around.  Mercy begets mercy.  Those who have shown it shall have it revisited upon them because it is the culture they have cultivated through the blessedness of kingdom reality.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The condition of our hearts shapes the substance of our vision.  When the blessedness of kingdom reality is set into purified hearts, we are given visual of the King through whom everything in life is being encompassed, subjected, and sanctified.  While impurity impedes clarity, purity expands our capacity to encounter God through the blessedness of his kingdom reality.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

First century Israel had no shortage of violence, striving, and tension, the participation of which deluded their identity as God’s people; those who would prioritize and participate in kingdom-centered peace, however, would within the blessedness of kingdom reality find a Father identifying them as his own and aligning them with his redemptive purposes.

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Persecution needs clarifying; persecution is resistance to the cost of kingdom reality, namely humanity’s self-sovereignty.  In persecution, it is not we who are being resisted or rejected, but the righteous life of kingdom reality.  This is important to know because it prevents us from taking persecution personally; inversely it also prevents us from assuming we are blessed because we are being persecuted.  We are not blessed by persecution, but we are blessed in persecution because it brings the kingdom of heaven already in our midst, via the presence of Jesus, to the forefront of reality.

“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The King and his kingdom bring a blessedness that liberates and sanctifies us to freely and fruitfully follow the King.  But blessedness has a cost; it’s a way of life constantly in tension with what human nature prefers.  To foreigners of kingdom reality, it seems like a curse, and so they resistantly respond to it as such.  The paradoxical irony, however, is that Jesus has already redefined reality by calling this way of life Blessed, a reality which refreshes and renews its kingdom citizens.  And so we respond with rejoicing and gladness, because God’s reign is setting his redemption into our weary world.

Jesus’ words provide a first impression of how kingdom reality is encountered and embodied in the lives of disciples: relief in light of God’s kingdom reality, comfort amidst suffering, a humility content with God’s redemptive work, satisfaction in God’s righteousness through Jesus, a heart of mercy towards a world that doesn’t deserve it, a purity that paves our perception of God, a priority for peace which plays us into God’s purposes, gladness that God’s kingdom perseveres even when it’s difficult to see.  God’s kingdom reality has been set in our earthly midst; if we believe that good news and participate in the good life it brings, we shall be brought into its blessedness to give witness to this reality by which God is redeeming this world.

Introduction to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’

IMG_4556 - CopyHaving set the stage of Jesus’ redemptive reality, Matthew now begins to share the substance of Jesus’ redemptive reality.  The “Sermon on the Mount” is the first of five discourses Matthew records throughout his book.

The context for Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” is created by three preceding moments: (a) Jesus’ proclamation to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; (b) Jesus’ healings which demonstrate his kingly authority to establish God’s kingdom reality on Earth; (c) Jesus’ discipleship call for the fishermen to follow him by participating with him in his kingdom reality.

The context for the “Sermon on the Mount” is the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven; the contents for the “Sermon on the Mount” reveal how we participate in and give witness to that kingdom reality.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.  He opened His mouth and began to teach them…”

As he speaks, the redemptive reality of God’s reign begins to be formed in their minds.  The words that flow from his mouth form a way of life afresh with the freedom of his grace and the healing of his holiness; upon this path is a King who reigns over us, a Messiah who walks with us.

In this sermon, Jesus speaks with us, reveals the blessedness of his reality, teaches us to pray, calls us to trust, implores us to forgive, shows us how to live and love.  We learn how to perceive ourselves in relation to the redemptive work he is doing in the world, how we are to redemptively interact with all people, how to live out a righteousness that consists of the character of Christ.

In this sermon, Jesus reveals what life as a citizen of God’s kingdom actually looks like and how our participation gives witness to what will bless the world.