I sat down with my Bible and coffee and wrote down the question, “What does it mean to follow Christ?” I felt somewhat ashamed that I didn’t know the answer to this. I was raised in church and had been going to Sunday school all of my life. I was steeped in Christian culture but knew very little of the God at the center of it all. As I stared at this question, I could think of no better place to begin my search than the Sermon on the Mount. Who better to learn what it means to follow Jesus than from Jesus himself?
Jesus walked up the mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee, sat down with His disciples at His feet and began to teach the crowds what it looks like to live a life as a follower of Christ. The words Jesus shared were shockingly beautiful. He invited His listeners to be a part of a world that was radically different than the world they knew. His message of paradoxical values was compelling and hopeful. His repeated dichotomy throughout the sermon of: “You have heard it said…But I say to you…” must have been a healing balm to His listeners who had been struggling to work towards God. Jesus taught that in order to be a citizen of the kingdom you must be willing to empty yourself to be filled with God, to live a life of obedience from a heart of faith and to build your life on the person of Jesus. We must empty ourselves of confidence in our own righteousness and strength. “All of our righteous acts are like filthy rags” Isaiah 64:6. We must fill ourselves with confidence in Jesus as our only righteousness. As Paul wrote, “so by the one man's obedience (Jesus) the many will be made righteous” Romans 5:21. Our reliance and trust can only be in Christ.
Finding True Joy
Jesus begins his sermon addressing the universal desire for happiness. Nine times Jesus says, “Blessed are…” At the heart of all that we do is the pursuit of fulfillment. Jesus tells us that by examining our treasures–where we invest our time, thoughts and affections–we see what we think will bring us the most happiness. But the secret to happiness he shares is not what one might expect. Although blessedness (being approved of by God) and happiness are not the same thing, they can go hand in hand. Our temptation is to seek satisfaction in things other than God, but Jesus tells us that our true joy and satisfaction can only be found in Him.
We must be willing to empty ourselves of worldly and selfish gain so that we can experience the greatest and ultimate blessing of entering His kingdom. As D. A. Carson explains it: “We must come to Him and acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy, emptying ourselves of our self-righteousness, moral self-esteem and personal vainglory. Emptied of these things we are ready for him to fill us.” (Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, 18)
This poverty of spirit is the bedrock upon which Jesus builds the rest of his sermon. It is only possible to experience the blessings that come from being pure in heart or merciful if our heart before God is dependent and needy. This must have been encouraging to the crowds who came to Jesus with so much need and spiritual destitution. They had been taught by the super-religious of the day that you must first obey all of their rules before you can see God. Their religion demanded that followers bring something to the table, but Jesus preached instead that we find abundance of life when we recognize and admit that we have nothing to bring to the table.
Hope For Everyone
The good news that Jesus preached was water to weary souls. Jesus’ words were hope for the woman in the crowd who just scraped the bottom of her flour jar to make a small loaf of bread to feed her family, lost her temper yet again with her husband or felt she was losing it under the crushing weight of the world. She had nothing to give. We all have those days when we feel that from the moment our feet hit the ground to the moment we crawl back into bed, we have given everything, but still it was not enough.
The world seems to value those who always have more to give, but Jesus preached a gospel that reminded us it is our weakness that makes us strong in Him. It is when we know and believe that our posture before God is needy and dependent that we experience Him filling us with His grace, satisfying us with His righteousness, and securing our home in His kingdom.
Jesus says, “There must first be emptiness before there can be fullness.” The call of the Sermon on the Mount is to live by Jesus’ example. He made Himself nothing to give us everything. Jesus tells us that it is only through humility that we are able to be persecuted without retaliating, love and pray for our enemies and go above and beyond what others ask of us.
Jesus calls the citizens of His kingdom the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The great call of the believer is to make much of the name of Jesus. We are called to influence the world by living out our testimonies of His gracious rescue before others and to reflect the light of Christ so that others can know Him too.
A Heart to Obey
One of the ways we share Jesus with the world is by how we obey Him. Obedience was not a foreign concept to the crowds before Him. The sermons they heard their whole lives usually revolved solely around rigidly following an extended set of rules. But Jesus redefined obedience when he said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 5:20. The crowd must have sat in stunned silence as the list of the 613 laws they had learned since childhood scrolled through their minds. How were they expected to keep every single law? How could they be expected to exceed the righteousness and obedience of the men who made it their profession to obey and teach the commandments?
I am often reminded of this when my 2-year-old goes to the grocery store with me. We are constantly working on how to “listen and obey.” At home, teaching obedience is messy and time consuming. We spend much of our time talking about why we obey. My desire is that she understands the heart behind obedience. But I must confess, when we are at the grocery store and she’s pulling cartons of blueberries off the shelf and throwing them all over the floor, the “why” seems to be less important.
Jesus cares that our obedience is not merely following the rules and managing our behavior to look good on the outside. He desires that our obedience springs from a heart that is totally dependent upon Him. Because of this great and impossible call, we might be tempted to believe that it would be a greater act of love to abolish the law or lower the bar. Instead, Jesus steps in as our substitute and perfectly fulfills every demand for us. Because Jesus has fulfilled the law for us, we are able to live a life of devotion and obedience.
Jesus continues to address the motivations of the heart and warns us to be careful that we are not practicing a life of devotion and obedience purely to be seen by others. He warns, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others” Matthew 6:5. He tells us that when we do things, even good things, in order to find satisfaction in the praise and approval of man, we are missing out on a greater reward.
The greatest reward of prayer is not to be seen by others, but to intimately connect with God as our Father. As Jesus always prayed to His Father in heaven, He teaches us to pray to “our Father.” God allows and invites us to come to Him with all of our needs, desires, thoughts, questions, and hopes just like a parent does with his child.
Build Your House on the Rock
Some of my most favorite times with my dad were when we would sit on the swing on the back porch and just talk. I would tell him about the boys I liked, how I was doing in tennis, what I felt insecure about, what I wanted to do when I graduated and all of the little things in between. Without hesitation I would ask Dad for money, help on a project or his opinion on a decision I was trying to make. I brought all of my cares and needs to him because I trusted his love for me.
God is the perfect Father who knows all of our needs and cares deeply about us as His children. Jesus speaks to this desire to be loved, protected and provided for. He gently reminds us of this truth–if your Father in heaven takes care of the little things, how much more will He take care of you? He tells the crowd to “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Matthew 6:26. God’s care for us is not dependent upon our works or what we can do for Him, but on His gracious and loving character.
Citizens of the kingdom are free from rigid obedience and invited into intimate relationship with God. As Jesus prepares to close His sermon, He gives one more illustration to help us understand what it looks like as a citizen of the kingdom. He says, “Everyone who then hears these words of mine” will either be like the man who built his house on the rock or like the man who built his house on the sand. He describes the man who hears the words of God and 1) understands them as a wise man and also the man who hears the words of God and 2) does not follow through on them as a foolish man. And Jesus says when, “the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” Matthew 7:27.
Jesus guarantees that the storms will come. Whether it’s losing a loved one, failing at that thing we wanted to succeed at so very much or feeling like life just hasn’t turned out the way we wanted or expected it to, the storms can be unnerving and debilitating. But Jesus knew the trials of life would be tough, so He extended to us the very best offer of security and protection–His life and His words. He says, “Those who hear my words and do them are like the wise man that built his house on the rock.” Jesus is our steady foundation. He is our example for how we should live our lives as children of the King.