READ : Matthew 5:3-12
Ask the average person what he or she imagines “the good life” is like, and you’ll probably get an answer that involves money. But I’d like you to think about what defines the truly good life.
What sort of pictures come to your mind when you hear the words “the good life”? For most people the pictures would be of things like beautiful houses with manicured gardens and tennis courts and swimming pools . . . sleek and gleaming automobiles . . . lavish feasts of rich food and drink . . . expensive clothes . . . frequent trips to places like Hawaii or the Riviera. In other words, the good life is the life enjoyed by the wealthy and privileged, and it is defined by the amount of pleasure it holds; “life styles of the rich and famous,” as they say.
But when I say the words “the good life,” I’m thinking of them in an entirely different sense. Not good as in enjoyable or pleasurable, but good as in moral, virtuous, righteous. (Actually, there is a direct connection between these two kinds of good, because as creatures made in God’s image human beings can never find lasting pleasure in any life that is not ultimately virtuous. One cannot really enjoy “the good life” in the first sense unless one strives to live a good life in the second.)
What is interesting to me is the fact that while so much of popular western culture focuses on the superficial kind of good life, the life of things and feelings, many people elsewhere are desperately searching for the key to the other kind of good life. They want to know about more than just what to buy and what to try and how to look and where to go. They don’t want to know just about accumulating goods; they want to know how to do good, how to be good.
Words of HOPE helps to produce radio programs in various languages for many different audiences around the world. One of the questions I am very interested in is this: “What specific information do people need and want to hear?” I asked a man who is living and working in one of the former communist countries what topics needed to be addressed in that society. He sent back this list of subjects: honesty, family life, love, jealousy, forgiveness, ethics, drugs, alcoholism, the positive teachings of Jesus, moral principles. Our media – our newspapers and magazines, our movies and television programs – are full of stories and images that illustrate some of the bad items on this list, but they are not of much help if you want to learn how to overcome those things. And they do nothing at all to teach anyone how to develop the good things. For that we must turn to the Bible.
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
I would like to study a portion of the New Testament known as “the Sermon on the Mount.” It is found in Chapters 5-7 of the Gospel of Matthew, a section of the New Testament that could very well be titled “The Ethics of Jesus.” Matthew begins his report of this famous section of Jesus’ teaching with a brief introduction:
Now when he saw the crowds, [Jesus] went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying. . . .
That little introduction tells us three things about the discourse that follows, a passage that one expert has called
“the best-known, but perhaps least understood and obeyed, of all the teaching of Jesus” (John Stott, Christian Counter-Culture). First, we learn here where Jesus was when he spoke these famous words. “He went up on a mountainside,” says Matthew; which in itself is not terribly important except that this is what explains the traditional designation of Jesus’ discourse as “the Sermon on the Mount.” The precise location of this mountain (actually more of a hillside), is not known, but most likely Jesus was somewhere near the Sea of Galilee when he delivered this summary of his moral and religious teaching.
Secondly, we’re told to whom Jesus was speaking. “His disciples came to him,” Matthew reports. Now that sounds like an insignificant detail but it is actually a very important point. The word disciple means a “learner,” and refers to one who has attached him- or herself to a particular teacher. In the New Testament the disciples are those men and women who are committed to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. So Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are addressed explicitly to his followers, to those who already know him and are seeking to obey him.
Let me put it this way: The Sermon on the Mount is not the plan of salvation, although it does point to that very crucial information right at the beginning, in fact, in its first sentence. Jesus’ main concern here is not to explain to people how they can be saved; rather, it is to teach them how to live once they have been saved. Salvation is by grace, not by works. It’s received as a gift from God, free, unearned, undeserved, simply by faith. It’s not earned in any way by our morality or by our attempts to do good.
Jesus makes this perfectly clear in the opening sentence of his sermon, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). The kingdom of heaven, a shorthand expression for all the blessings that flow from knowing God and living under his gracious rule, is for no one but the poor in spirit. Salvation is not for the proud or the self-righteous. It is only for those who come to God empty-handed, bringing nothing but their sin and claiming nothing but their need of his mercy. So we must always bear in mind that the Sermon on the Mount is not a set of instructions about how to gain God’s acceptance by doing the right kind of good works. It is rather an agenda for living for those who have already been accepted by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone. If you are a disciple of Jesus (a real, believing, practicing Christian, in other words), think of this sermon as your guideline for grateful living.
Thirdly, Matthew reminds us of the special activity Jesus is engaging in here: “And he began to teach them, saying. . . “ (v. 2). “That’s rather obvious,” you say. “Of course Jesus is teaching.” As I have already pointed out, the Sermon on the Mount is the single greatest collection of Jesus’ ethical teaching in the entire New Testament. But stop for just a moment to think about that fact. The most basic requirement for being a teacher is that one know more about the subject than one’s students. But to teach ethics (ethics is really just a fancy word for right and wrong) also demands that the teacher have more than simply knowledge. It demands moral authority, which is the right to define good and evil. When Jesus finished this sermon on the mountainside, the Bible reports that “the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority,” in contrast to the other religious teachers of the day (Matt. 7:28-29).
The idea that one person can teach others authoritatively about morality requires the existence of a higher authority to which he or she can appeal. Right and wrong or good and evil cannot be merely a matter of personal taste or opinion. If I say, for example, that I like vanilla ice cream, while you prefer chocolate, that’s not a moral issue. One of us is not right and the other wrong, and there is really no sense trying to claim otherwise or persuade each other to change our minds and behavior. (De gustibus non disputandum said the ancient Romans; “It’s no use arguing about tastes.”) But if, on the other hand, you say that it is wrong to kill an innocent person, while I say it’s okay if you can get away with it, we all know immediately that this is a different sort of question altogether. We know that it matters very much what we believe and think on such an issue, and that we cannot both be right about it. We know that if a thing is wrong, it is wrong for everyone; and it’s wrong at all times, whether or not you are caught and punished for it, whether or not anyone even knows you did it. We know that right is right regardless of how many people accept it. The good life – the moral life – is not decided by opinion polls. There must be something else, something above us, that tells us right from wrong.
That “something” is the law. Teachers of ethics and morality have always appealed to the law when arguing their case. Except for Jesus. Which is why his personal moral authority was so startling to those who heard him teach. Jesus does know the law; he upholds the law; he accepts the law. But his relationship to it is different. It’s almost as if he owns the law! He announces at the outset of his sermon that he has come to fulfill the law, not to abolish it. But running throughout his discourse is a refrain that goes like this: “You have heard that it was said of old but I say to you. . . .” Jesus is saying, in effect, “The law says this, but now I am telling you this, this is what it really means, this is what you truly have to do.” It’s not that he denies or contradicts the law, it’s more like he personally has the authority to explain the law’s deepest and inner meaning. Jesus talks like somebody who is “above the law,” not in the bad sense of the law-breaker who thinks he doesn’t have to obey it, but in the good sense of the law-Giver who knows that the law itself derives its authority from him. When we listen to Jesus’ teaching about right and wrong and good and evil, we are listening to the very Source of all goodness and morality.
What this means is that when Jesus teaches us, he expects to be believed because of what he knows, but more than that, he expects to be obeyed because of who he is. He’s not merely giving out his opinions, for what they’re worth; he’s not just offering advice that people can take or leave. He has the right, the authority, to tell every human being who’s ever lived what to do and how to live because he made us all. He is the Creator; he is God.
IS THIS FOR YOU?
Is this Sermon on the Mount for you? It’s true, as I said, that Jesus was speaking to his followers when he gave this teaching. It’s also true that without the help of God’s Spirit, it is almost impossible to even begin to obey the Sermon’s demands. Even with the Spirit, obedience is very hard; just try it some time and you’ll see what I mean. But does this mean that if you are not a Christian you can simply ignore what Jesus says here?
Not really. You see, there is something here for everyone. Anyone at all, whether Christian or not, can profit from his teaching. I have a conviction that, despite all the evil in the world, there is still a widespread hunger for good. One senses in many people throughout the world the desire for justice, for reconciliation between races and among individuals, for honesty and love in relationships. Most of us know that gentleness is better than cruelty, and kindness is preferable to anger, that hatred and hypocrisy are wrong and forgiveness and sincerity are good. We know that we should treat others as we would want them to treat us. What we don’t know is how to do those things, often even how to define them in real life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that and shows us what the truly good life actually looks like. His words can attract and inspire you with their beautiful picture of life as God intended it to be. And if they leave you feeling frustrated because of your failure to live up to them, well, there is one Person you can turn to for help to turn your moral defeat into moral victory.
Once we have learned from Jesus as teacher, we can and must turn to him as Savior