How can we live up to the Sermon on the Mount?

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How can we live up to the “perfect standard” of the Sermon on the Mount?

April 10, 2023 -

A mosaic from a church in Prague, Czech Republic depicts Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount. Artwork by S. G. Rudl. © By Renáta Sedmáková/stock.adobe.com

A mosaic from a church in Prague, Czech Republic depicts Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount. Artwork by S. G. Rudl. © By Renáta Sedmáková/stock.adobe.com

A mosaic from a church in Prague, Czech Republic depicts Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount. Artwork by S. G. Rudl. © By Renáta Sedmáková/stock.adobe.com

The day we trust Christ as our savior and Lord is the start of a relationship that will extend throughout all of eternity. Too often, though, we make the mistake of thinking that eternity doesn’t start until we get to heaven. The truth is that we are called to invest in that relationship in this life as well as in the life to come, and that means becoming more like Christ every single day. So what does that look like? St. Augustine describes the Sermon on the Mount as “a perfect standard of the Christian life.” It covers a wide range of topics that encompass almost every facet of what Jesus expects from those who follow him. It’s essentially his systematic ethic for what it means to be a Christian.

However, given the sheer quantity of insight and lessons found within the Sermon, it can be easy to lose sight of how it all fits together. The systematic context for each teaching can seem less important than what we can learn from the individual passages. And while there is value in unpacking each of Christ’s teachings in detail, it can be easy to lose sight of the larger movements in the Sermon when we take that approach.

In our new book, The Path to Purpose, we approached the Sermon with that broader context in mind, and doing so highlighted a number of truths and applications that can be easy to miss when focusing on the teachings individually.

Christ’s standards for righteousness

In a recent interview with Dr. Mark Turman, I discussed how one contrast God kept reinforcing while I worked on the book was the difference between the righteousness that Jesus wants to see in his followers and the righteousness that was pursued by the religious leaders. We see that distinction spelled out most clearly in Matthew 5:17–20, but it’s a theme that runs throughout the Sermon.

At its core, the difference comes down to a matter of focus. Are we more concerned with obeying laws—the approach of the religious leaders—or on glorifying God?

If our focus is on the law, then it requires us to interpret and emphasize the parts of the law that make keeping it manageable. That’s why the religious leaders placed such a large emphasis on the Sabbath rules while largely ignoring the purpose behind it. It’s also why religious leaders like Rabbi Akiva came to believe that divorce was permissible for reasons as petty as finding another woman more attractive.

While that—hopefully—sounds crazy to followers of God today, it made sense given their mindset on sin.

For the religious leaders, not breaking God’s laws was their top priority. As such, a solution to lust—the sin discussed just prior to this point in Matthew 5—was to simply divorce your current wife to marry the woman after whom you lusted because then it’s no longer lust.

And while that is an extreme example, it shows where a more legalistic approach to righteousness tends to lead. It also reinforces why Jesus wanted our focus to be on loving God and then obeying his commands as an extension of that love.

Seeing how that theme of Christ’s perspective on righteousness runs throughout the Sermon adds depth to the individual teachings in which that theme proves relevant.

The Bible never commands you how to feel

A second theme that runs throughout the Sermon pertains to how God expects us to approach our emotions.

Whether it’s in regard to anger, lust, anxiety, or any number of emotions, Jesus speaks to the manner in which he expects his followers to act throughout the Sermon. In so doing, he emphasizes that while God never commands us how to feel, he does care about how we deal with those feelings.

With anger, for example, the Greek makes clear that Jesus warned against harboring that anger and allowing it to fester in our relationships with others rather than the initial emotion of displeasure. In the same way, his instruction on dealing with anxiety is not an encouragement toward a naïve trust but rather to faith as we choose how to deal with the worries that—often understandably—can shift our focus from the Lord and his provision.

This principle is seen most clearly in Christ’s command to love.

For example, when we think of love as synonymous with affection rather than as a choice, it can be all but impossible to follow through on his admonition to love our enemies. However, God is far less concerned with how we feel about the people around us than with how we treat them. The latter is always within our control and reinforces that there is never a moment when it is beyond our capacity to follow the Lord’s will for a given situation.

That emphasis on the achievability of a Sermon on the Mount lifestyle points to a third lesson that the Lord impressed on my heart and mind across the course of this book’s preparation.

Christ’s standards for today

A third truth that runs throughout the Sermon is the present applicability of what Jesus commands.

One of the temptations against which we must guard when studying Christ’s teachings in these passages is to view them as an unachievable ethic or an insight into what the world will look like when Christ returns. There is some truth to the idea that the Sermon on the Mount style of living will be more characteristic of heaven than what we are likely to encounter on a daily basis now.

However, the standards Jesus establishes in Matthew 5–7 are what he expects from his disciples in the present as well. And while he knows that we will fail in trying to live up to them, he still calls us to try.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the God of the universe has told us what he’s looking for from those who claim to follow him, and it’s a pretty audacious move on our part to say no because it seems too hard. If we write off Christ’s words as something to strive for or look forward to at a future date rather than as instruction for our lives today, that’s exactly what we’re saying.

God deserves more than that from those for whom he sacrificed so much to save.

How will you respond to that sacrifice today?

This article is based on The Path to Purpose: Christ’s Vision for Your Life from the Sermon on the Mount, now available in the Denison Forum bookstore.

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