How important for us today is the Sermon on the Mount? Some would argue that its importance lies in its straightforward, no holds barred, portrait of the person of Jesus and how he related to his contemporaries in the first century. We can hardly expect to develop a good grasp on the nature of Christianity apart from this understanding of the carpenter from Nazareth. Others argue that it is important because it is part of God’s inspired and infallible word and is therefore “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Whereas these are both good answers to the question posed, there is a better and more pressing one. The teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is important, indeed eternally important, because in our response to it one can see the relationship one sustains to the kingdom of God. Contrary to what you might think (and what seems to be implied by 5:3,10; 5:20; 6:14-15; 7:21), this is not an endorsement of salvation by good works, as if to suggest that obedience to the principles of the Sermon is the condition on which entrance into the kingdom is suspended. Entrance into the kingdom is granted to those who believe. Salvation, in the Sermon on the Mount no less than in every other portion of Scripture, is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Nevertheless, we read in 7:24-27 about two people. One hears Christ’s words and acts upon them, i.e., obeys them. The result is that in the storm of trial, tribulation, and eventually the final judgment, he/she stands firm. On the other hand, another likewise hears Christ’s words but does not act upon them, or does not obey them. This individual collapses under the weight of the same judgment.
Thus we appear to be confronted with an emphasis on obedience to Christ’s commands with the kingdom of God at stake! How can this be? How is it possible for Jesus, and other biblical authors, to teach that salvation is by grace alone and yet make entrance into heaven dependent upon works? It would seem there are only two possibilities.
· Some contend that the Bible contradicts itself on this issue. In particular, Jesus and James stand opposed to Paul, the former teaching justification by works and the latter justification by faith alone.
· My view is that all the biblical authors, as well as Jesus, speak and write on the assumption that there is an inherent cause and effect relationship between regeneration and obedience, between faith and fruit, between salvation by grace and the works that flow from it. Once again: Sola fides iustificat, sed non fides quae est sola = Faith alone justifies, but not the faith which is alone. Saving faith is a working faith. Saving faith is the sort of faith that blossoms into obedience. In the absence of the latter, there is doubt about the authenticity of the former. Thus works are, in a certain sense, the condition for entrance into the kingdom, not because works earn forgiveness but because works are the evidence of faith.
According to 7:24,26, the obedience essential to entrance into the kingdom of God consists of “hearing” and “acting” on “these words of Mine,” i.e., the words of Jesus in the Sermon. So let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves: We’ve “heard” his words, but are we “acting” upon them?
· Do we feel a deeper sense of spiritual bankruptcy or are we proud of our obedience?
· Do we grieve more deeply over sin than we used to, or are we flippant and casual about our moral and spiritual failures?
· Are we more meek than we used to be, or does arrogance and self-assertiveness continue to thrive and grow?
· Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness, or are we fat and filled with self-congratulation?
· Do we show more mercy to others, or are we as self-absorbed as ever?
· Is our obedience external only, a mere conformity to rules for convenience sake, or is our passion for purity a matter of the heart’s desire?
· What steps have we taken to preserve and promote peace in the body of Christ and among our companions? How have we responded to occasions in the past two months to reconcile with others or to stop conflict before it emerges?
· Are we more willing now, compared with then, to be used and exploited and even persecuted simply because we live righteously for Christ’s sake?
· How has your relationship with the world changed after hearing what Jesus said about our being salt and light?
· What steps have you taken to deal with the anger in your heart to which you formerly so easily gave in?
· Have you dealt drastically and radically with the sin in your life, or do you continue to toy with it and figure out ways to get away with as much as possible without crossing the moral line?
· Do you have a greater love for and commitment to the truth after hearing Jesus talk about oath-taking and the sneaky ways in which his contemporaries evaded honoring their word?
· How have you treated your enemies in the past few months? Have you happily gone above and beyond the call of duty when they intruded into and caused inconvenience to your life?
· Think about the last few occasions on which you gave money to support the work of the church or contributed to a special missions offering or offering for the poor? How frequently since then have you reminded yourself of how much you gave?
· Has your prayer life changed at all? Is it more theocentric than it used to be?
· What is your attitude toward money? Are you as much in the grip of its power and what it promises to do for you as you used to be?
A. Jesus on Jesus – 7:24-27
Note the contrasts: There are two men, both of whom hear Christ’s words of instruction and exhortation. One obeys and one does not. He who obeys is called “wise” because he is like the man who builds his house on a rock. He who disobeys is called “foolish” because he is like the man who builds his house on sand. Thus, when the storm of trials and tribulations descends, one house stands firm whereas the other is destroyed. There can be no mistake: the difference between the two men is in their response to the Sermon on the Mount, and their response reflects whether they’ve ingested the seed of saving faith or simply swallowed a stone. Both men have heard “these words” of Jesus, but only one acts upon them.
Hearing is not enough. Admiration is not enough. Believing the truth of what you hear and admire is not enough. Memorizing and preaching and singing and celebrating and defending what you’ve heard is not enough. There must be acting, doing, obeying.
Observe also that most likely both houses look the same. Both appear secure. There are no visible signs of weakness in either one. The structural stability of the foundation will be revealed only when the storms of divine judgment come. The foolish man does not intentionally build a house he thinks is going to fall. He has all the confidence in the world that his house will stand. But his confidence is in self, not Jesus.
And what of those who build on the foundation of obedience to what Jesus said?
“Jesus does not say that a house built on his words will, for example, glow in the dark or miraculously expand into a mansion, or in any way be particularly impressive. The only impressive fact about this house is that it will be standing when the storm is over. . . . Matthew’s Jesus almost always describes the Christian life in terms of survival rather than sensation. Nor are we told that life built on the foundation of Jesus’ words will be spared rains, floods, or winds, as though Jesus’ teaching were a kind of talisman against trouble. Realistically, Jesus says the same storms hit thoughtful disciples as hit thoughtless ones. Obedience to Jesus’ words, then, is not so much a protection from troubles as it is a protection in them – just as rock under a house does not shield from storms, it supports during them” (Bruner).
It is disturbing to some that the Sermon ends on the threat of hell! Says Carson,
“You may not believe that a hell exists. In that case, you may dismiss Jesus as a liar or a fool. Alternatively, you may be so attached to your sin that even the threat of final and catastrophic judgment may not induce you to leave it. But you will be foolish indeed if you simply accuse Jesus of frightening you into the kingdom. The real issue is the truth behind Jesus’ words, the truth which prompts Jesus’ warning. Either there is a hell to be shunned, or there is not. If there is not, then Jesus’ entire credibility is shattered, for he himself speaks twice as often of hell as of heaven. . . . Whether you accept the existence of hell will depend in large part upon your total estimate of the person and ministry of Jesus. If you can dismiss him, you will have little difficulty dismissing hell” (134).
B. The People on Jesus –7:28-29
What most affected the first hearers of this Sermon was the “authority” of its preacher. “He did not hum and haw, or hesitate. He was neither tentative nor apologetic. Nor again, on the other hand, was he ever bombastic or flamboyant. Instead, with quiet and unassuming assurance he laid down the law for the citizens of God’s kingdom” (Stott, 213).
Those who heard him naturally compared him with other teachers of the day, especially with the Scribes. Unlike the latter, Jesus claimed an authority independent of tradition and human approval. There was a freshness in his words rather than a mere recitation of past principles. The scribes may have spoken “by” authority but Jesus spoke “with” authority. Jesus never introduced his words with “Thus saith the Lord.” Instead, “he would begin ‘Truly, truly I say to you,’ thus daring to speak in his own name and with his own authority, which he knew to be identical with the Father’s” (Stott, 215). Jesus was so confident of the truth of his own words that he dared call those who obeyed him “wise” and those who disobeyed “foolish.”
Perhaps most significant of all in terms of his perception of authority was that Jesus envisioned himself as both the Judge and the standard of judgment on the final day. In v. 22 he said, “Many will say to Me on that day . . .” And then “I” will declare to them, “I never knew you.” Thus we see that “the destiny of human beings will depend not on their knowledge and use of his name, but on their knowledge of him personally” (Stott, 219). Finally, the sentence pronounced on them relates yet again to him: “Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (v. 23).