Gandhi once said something to the effect that Christians will not make a dent in India until the Sermon on the Mount becomes part of their creed. Gandhi saw what many modern skeptics see, which is a gap between the Christian proclamation and testimony and how those same Christians live their lives.
If we are followers of Christ, shouldn’t we model what Jesus preached?
It’s a fair question.
The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew Chapters 5-7. It shouldn’t be confused with the Sermon on the Plain, which can be found in Luke 6:17-49. If you read the two (and you should), you will see many similarities (and some differences). Matthew begins with “blessed are the poor in spirit”; while Luke begins with “blessed are you the poor”. (NIV)
If we take Matthew and Luke at face value, the two sermons were given at different times and in different places. My take on this is that these are themes Jesus often spoke about. Jesus had a public ministry that lasted about three years. In that time, he likely gave dozens, maybe hundreds, of sermons.
I believe the statements we see in Matthew and Luke reflect themes Jesus often addressed. They might even represent a “best of” collection of the things Jesus preached.
That is why the two famous sermons are similar, but different. Unless Jesus committed his “presentations” to rote memory, He likely said things in different ways as the Spirit led Him. In fact, I believe he probably said things differently often as he was moved to tailor his message to his audience.
We tend to want to reduce spiritual things to “the letter of the law”, but Jesus wasn’t like that. He was always probing for the Spirit behind the law. His harshest criticisms were for the teachers of the law whose rigid interpretations sucked out the life and meaning and reduced the Law to rules and regulations that the teachers didn’t (and couldn’t) even follow themselves.
At the same time, Jesus didn’t excuse anyone from keeping the law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it; and he affirmed the requirement of keeping the law, stating,
“[U]nless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Of course, Jesus is the only person who has ever really kept the law perfectly. All of us have fallen short of it. And, I think that was exactly the point Jesus wanted to make.
Our entry into the Kingdom of God does not rest on our keeping the Law. Though it has been required of us, we fall short. We will never be accepted into the Kingdom of God on the basis of our efforts to keep the Law.
In fact, keeping the Law isn’t really the point of the requirement. The point is that we can’t be perfect, we can’t be like God, on our own. We have to come to that realization, which is what the Law is designed to teach us.
We can’t do it; we need God!
God desires us to be like Him, but God doesn’t follow a law; He is the law. The law is more than rules and regulations to follow like ticking so many “to do’s” off a checklist.
The Law points us toward God and what God is like. The Law isn’t the reality; God is the reality. God gives us the Law, which we can’t fulfill, as a teacher to point us toward the Spirit, which is what God desires to give us – Himself!
If we think we can measure up on our own, we are delusional. Thus, to the Pharisees, Jesus said:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment….
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart….
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all…..
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also….
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….
In every way, Jesus ratcheted up the requirements of the Law to levels the teachers of the Law never even imagined. Each time, His words hit like daggers in the heart. Clay Jones in his book, Why Does God Allow Evil?: Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions, speaks for all men (and women) who have survived the hormonal teenage experience, when he asks who among us made it through those teenage years without being adulterous murderers?
None of us, if we are being honest. We can do nothing but repent and throw ourselves on the mercy of a loving God. And, that is exactly the point.
That is what Jesus wants us to do. There, in the place of humble acknowledgement and heartfelt sorrow in our broken, failed condition, God meets us with forgiveness and new life. He is just and faithful to forgive and God cleanses us from our unrighteousness.
Having been forgiven, then, we are moved to freely forgive others. We do this not because of the Law, not because we are instructed to forgive others as we have been forgiven, but because, having committed our lives to Christ, confessing Him as our Lord and Savior, we are partakers of Christ, being born again by the Spirit, and are being molded into His image.
God desires us, not our obedience. If we have truly committed ourselves to Christ, if we have truly been born again and if we have truly become partakers of Christ, we will begin to become like him.
The Law is a standard to let us know where we are in this journey of becoming like God. The Sermon on the Mount is the standard. We and the Church fall miserably short today as Christians and the Church did when Gandhi observed the same thing in his time.
We should not be content to wallow in that condition, but we shouldn’t be surprised, either.
On the other hand, we must realize that every good tree bears fruit. If we aren’t bearing good fruit in our lives and in the Church, we know (by virtue of the standard of the Law) that something is not quite right.
Frankly, it isn’t enough that we make the Sermon on the Mount our creed, like so many “to do’s” to check off our list. God desires something more than that from us and in us. He desires our very hearts and our entire selves to be sacrificed and submitted to Him so He can do His good work in us.
God desires to change our hearts from the inside as we give ourselves to Christ and seek to become like Him, partaking in his divine nature as we are being conformed to His image. That is, if indeed, we have truly committed ourselves to Christ.
 1 John 1:9 (“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”)
 Matthew 5:14-15 (“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”)
 Romans 10:9 (“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”)
 2 Peter 1:4 (“Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”)
 John 3:5 (“”Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”)
 2 Corinthians 3:18 (“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”); and Romans 8:29 (“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”)