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Understanding the Sermon on the Mount in Light of the Kingdom of Christ

Martin Luther is well known for understanding the ethics and commands of the Sermon on the Mount (SM) as a sort of impossible ideal, a standard that no one can truly live up to. And for Luther, that was the point. Jesus was setting the bar extremely high in the SM so that we would see the necessity of grace. We all fail miserably to live by the righteous standard given in Matthew 5-7, and as a result we are driven to see our desperate need for God’s grace granted to us through the cross of Christ.

But, while it’s true that none of us will be able to live out the ideals of the SM perfectly in this life, I don’t think understanding the SM as an impossible ideal is what Jesus had in mind. So how is the Christian, who is redeemed but is still a work in progress, supposed to understand the high standard of righteousness given in the SM? How can we claim to be true disciples of Jesus (which is what the SM is describing), when we all know good and well that we fail to live up to what Jesus teaches here.

This is where understanding the SM in light of the inaugurated kingdom of Christ can help. In the SM, Jesus is giving us the ethics of his kingdom. That kingdom was inaugurated at Christ’s first coming, but it will only be consummated and completed at his second coming. And what is true for the kingdom in general is true for the kingdom ethic in particular. Between the first and second comings of Christ, when his kingdom is already present but not yet complete, we can expect our living out of Christ’s kingdom ethic to be a present but not yet complete reality as well. However hard we might strive for complete obedience to the teachings of Jesus in this life (and we should strive for that!), it will not be until Christ comes again, and his kingdom is consummated, and his people are glorified, that we will fully live according to the ethics of the kingdom. It’s not that the SM presents an impossible ideal. It really will be lived out perfectly in the new creation; and our desire should be to live now in a way that is consistent with how we will live then, knowing that our attempts to do so will be imperfect.

There are a couple of textual hints both right before the SM and within it that clue us in on the need to read the SM in light of the inaugurated kingdom of Christ.

The Kingdom Context of the Sermon

The first thing that ought to clue us in on the fact that the SM comes to us with the inaugurated kingdom of Christ in the background is found in Matthew 4:17-25, the text that comes right before the giving of the SM. This passage tells us that the main thrust of Jesus’ preaching had to do with the fact that in his person and through his ministry the long awaited restoration of the kingdom of God was beginning. The first words of Jesus’ public ministry were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). And then, in the description of Jesus’ ministry that follows, we are told that Jesus was going about “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (4:23). In other words, he was proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God had arrived. This is the point of the healing ministry described in vv. 23-24 as well. Jesus was not only preaching the good the news of the kingdom, he was also demonstrating the presence of the kingdom. The healings were a way of saying, “In God’s kingdom, everything and everyone will be made whole like these people I have just healed.” What’s important to see here is that it’s right after all this talk and demonstration of the kingdom’s inauguration in Christ that the SM is given. So the pattern is: Jesus tells us the kingdom is here (Matthew 4:17, 23), Jesus demonstrates that the kingdom is here (Matthew 4:23-24), and then Jesus elaborates on what life in the kingdom looks like (Matthew chs. 5-7).

The Kingdom Content of the Sermon

This emphasis on the kingdom doesn’t stop with Matthew 4:17-25. The kingdom theme continues right on into the SM itself and becomes an integral part of the content of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5-7. God’s kingdom is mentioned seven times in the SM (5:3, 10, 19, 20; 6:10, 33; 7:21). Sometimes the kingdom is spoken of as a future reality: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (7:21). Other times, the kingdom is a present reality, something you can seek now: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (6:33). Then there is the prayer given in 6:10, where we are to pray for God’s kingdom to come more and more “on earth as it in heaven,” which implies that though it may already be here to a degree, our hope is that it would come more fully.

It’s this understanding of the kingdom of God as already here but not yet complete that is the key to understanding the kingdom ethic given in the SM. If the kingdom of Christ is not fully here now, and won’t be until his second coming, then we should not be surprised when the kingdom ethic of Christ is not kept fully now, and won’t be until his second coming. We long to live perfectly by the kingdom ethic of Jesus in the same way that we long to experience fully the kingly reign of Jesus. The kingdom of Christ and the kingdom ethic of Christ are both to be understood as already present but not yet fulfilled.

Reflections on Preaching through the Sermon on the Mount: Commentaries & Other Resources

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I started preaching through the Sermon on the Mount (SM) at Calvary on March 23, 2014 and finished on March 1, 2015. In all, the series consisted of 42 sermons (here are the links to the audio). I’ve never been more moved and transformed in studying and preaching through a portion of God’s Word as I have been over the past year of living in this great sermon. It gripped me. I loved it so much that it hurt to stop preaching it.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be offering some reflections on preaching through the SM—resources I found helpful, keys to interpreting it faithfully, some of the main ways it challenged me spiritually, etc.

In the first post, I want to share an annotated list of the commentaries, other books, and sermon series that I found helpful in my own preparation.

Commentaries

These commentaries are listed in the order that I consulted them on a weekly basis. Some were better than others, but all of them were helpful.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew
John Chrysostom (c. 349-407) was the archbishop of Constantinople and a preacher whose eloquence earned him the epithet “Chrysostom,” which means “golden mouthed.” He has great insights into the text of Scripture. I found that he often made connections and drew out truths that modern commentators did not.

Saint Augustine, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount
Augustine (354-430) was the bishop of Hippo. He is viewed by many as one of the greatest theologians of church history. Like Chrysostom, I often found Augustine’s insights refreshing, and sometimes unique when compared to modern commentators. There were places when his allegorical interpretation led to what I would consider to be illegitimate deductions from the text, but the good definitely outweighed the bad.

Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church
Charles Quarles’s commentary was my favorite. Where other commentaries left me wanting more, Quarles’s always seemed to be sufficiently detailed, plumbing the depths of each verse. I read this book all the way through before starting the series and then read it a second time during my weekly preparation. It was worth reading twice.

Dale Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination
Dale Allison is a recognized authority on the Gospel of Matthew and his focus in this volume on the SM shows why. Allison has a way of saying a lot in a short amount of space. So even though each entry was usually only a few pages, they were jam packed with great insights. His mastery of the early church fathers and of Second Temple Judaism shines through. There are places where what is written here overlaps with what he and W. D. Davies have written in their larger commentary on Matthew (see below), but for the most part the material here is different from the big commentary.

D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: And His Confrontation with the World
Carson’s work is predictably solid. Any time D. A. Carson has written something on the book I’m preaching through I use it.

John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount: Christian Counter-Culture
Stott is another go-to commentator/author for me. His work on the Sermon on the Mount has been recognized by many as some of his best. This volume has become a classic, and deservedly so. There were many times when, after reading him, I thought, “There’s really no better way to put it than he just did.”

Daniel Doriani, The Sermon on the Mount: The Character of a Disciple
I think this book is a collection of Doriani’s sermons, which added a pastoral element that I appreciated and found helpful in thinking through delivering my own sermons. His redemptive historical approach to Bible interpretation comes through. For example, note the way he frames an understanding of the SM in light of the gospel in chapter 1.

Scott McKnight, Sermon on the Mount
McKnight often provided a unique and provocative perspective on the text. I found him to be similar in his approach to N. T. Wright, to whom he often appeals. His understanding of Second Temple Judaism provides rich historical insights. This book also has an in depth section on application (“Live the Story”) at the end of each entry that helped provide good fodder for my own attempts to connect the text to life.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew
The entries here on Matthew 5-7 are shorter than those in many of the volumes above that are devoted specifically to the SM. By the time I had read the entries in those other volumes I often found that France wasn’t giving me anything I hadn’t already discovered. That’s not the fault of the commentary. It’s just that I read it after the more detailed books. It’s a great commentary, but if you’re going to go through the SM slowly you’re probably going to want the other more detailed works to go along with it.

W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7
Davies and Allison is the gold standard of Matthew commentaries. This commentary was invaluable in my study of the text. Their work is technical, so if you haven’t brushed up on your Greek lately you’ll probably need to do so if you’re going to get the full effect of this one.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
This book is a classic. John Stott (whose book on the SM I would consider a classic) even calls it a classic on the cover. These are Lloyd-Jones’s sermons, and they were always helpful to me. His way of getting at the theology in the text is second to none.

Other Books

In addition to the commentaries, there were two books on the SM that I read before starting the series that helped me get the big picture.

W. D. Davies, Sermon on the Mount
You’ll have to wade through a lot of the form criticism in this book, but there are some gems here. The last three pages of chapter 5 (right before the conclusion) make the book worth it. Davies’s understanding of how the SM should be interpreted in light of the inaugurated Kingdom of God and in light of the gospel were formative for me. He reminded me that when it comes to the SM, the imperatives of the gospel are never to be isolated from the indicatives of the gospel.

Jeffrey P. Greenmail, Timothy Larsen, and Stephen R. Spencer, eds., The Sermon on the Mount Through the Centuries: From the Early Church to John Paul II
Each chapter of this book explores the way key figures in church history understood the meaning and significance of the SM. There are chapters covering John Chrysostom, Augustine, Hugh of St. Victor, Dante and Chaucer, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder, Pope John Paul II and Leonardo Boff, and John Stott. It was helpful to get the perspective of these men before launching in to my own study.

Sermon Audio

Most weeks I listened to sermons that others have preached on the SM as part of my preparation. The ones I kept coming back to were these:

R. Kent Hughes’s series on the Sermon on the Mount (you’ll have to enter “Kent Hughes” and “Sermon on the Mount” into the search boxes)

John MacArthur’s sermons on Matthew 5-7 (part of a larger series through Matthew)

Albert Mohler’s sermon on Matthew 5-7 (part of a larger series through Matthew)

Laying Up Treasure on the (New) Earth

street paved with goldJesus tells us not to lay up treasure on earth but rather to lay it up in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20). On the face of it this might seem inconsistent with examples from the Old Testament where it seems that the accumulation of earthly treasure is a good thing. Why was it okay for Solomon, for instance, to store up massive amounts of gold and other earthly treasures (see 2 Chronicles 9:13-28), and yet Jesus tells us that it’s not okay for Christians to do this? Will there ever be a time when believers will accumulate treasure on earth?

An excerpt from a sermon titled “Where Is Your Treasure?” from Matthew 6:19-20. Download mp3

What Is Fasting? Common Misconceptions & the Biblical View

plateThere’s a lot of confusion out there on the nature of fasting—what it is and what it involves. Search the word “fasting” on Amazon.com and the first page of books will include titles like these: Fasting: Opening the Door to a Deeper, More Intimate, More Powerful Relationship with GodFasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program for Conquering DiseaseThe Fast Diet: Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, and Live Longer with the Simple Secret of Intermittent Fasting; and Fasting: An Exceptional Human Experience. So, some people believe fasting is a way to a more powerful relationship with God, some believe it’s a good way to lose weight and be healthy, and others that it’s a way to have an exceptional human experience.

I want to give what I consider to be three common misunderstandings of the nature of fasting both in the secular culture and in the church, and then offer what I think is a biblical answer to the question “What is fasting?”

Three Misconceptions of Fasting

1. The Diet View
The first misconception of biblical fasting is what I call the diet view. This is the view represented in many health books out there that call for fasting because of its supposed health benefits. One such book advertises that fasting prevents premature aging, makes you more energetic, helps break harmful habits like eating salty foods, drinking coffee, and using tobacco and alcohol, and increases clarity of thought. All these things might be true, but they are not why we as Christians fast.

2. The Mechanical View
This is what D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls “the penny in the slot view” of fasting. It’s the idea that we fast in order to get something in return, like spiritual growth, defeat of sin in our lives, and a better chance of having our prayers answered. This view treats God like a cosmic vending machine. We put our money (fasting) in the slot and we expect to get something in return. It’s a view that not only misunderstands the nature of fasting but that demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of God as well.

3. The Self-Discipline View
This is one of the most common Christian views of fasting. It’s the position of many Christian authors and commentators, and was the primary way I thought about the subject for a long time before I studied in depth the biblical pattern of fasting. It’s the view that fasting is a way to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. We fast because we lack self-control in some area of our lives, and we believe that by fasting we can develop greater degrees of self-control in those areas. The tricky thing about this view is that its basic premise is probably correct for many people. Forcing oneself to go without food for an extended period of time might help a person develop self-control. As we grow in our ability to suppress our desire for food, we might be able to grow in our ability to suppress other desires (sinful ones) as well. The problem, however, and the reason I believe this is a misconception of fasting, is that nowhere in Scripture do you see fasting done as an act of self-discipline with the goal of developing greater degrees of self-control. It’s not that fasting should never be done for these reasons, it’s just that these are not the reasons the Bible gives for fasting.

What Is Biblical Fasting?

Here is the definition of fasting that I believe captures the biblical use of the concept: Fasting is prayerful abstinence from food in response to a severe situation. Fasting is prayerful. A study of fasting throughout the canon of Scripture shows that prayer and fasting are almost always linked. Fasting is prayerful abstinence from food. You cannot do a biblical fast from television, or the internet, or riding your bike. You might need to refrain from these types of things for a while, but to do so is not “fasting” in the biblical sense of the word. Biblically, fasting is always abstinence from food. Furthermore, fasting is prayerful abstinence from food in response to a severe situation. This is the part that distinguishes a biblical understanding of the nature of fasting from the self-discipline view. The pattern of fasting in Scripture shows that fasting is not something we’re meant to make ourselves do because it’s good for us. Instead, the biblical pattern is that fasting is always a kind of natural and fitting response to severe situations in the life of the believer. Most frequently, it’s a response to mourning. For example:

  • The public fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27) was a time to mourn over the sin in the lives of the Israelites for which atonement would be made by the high priest.
  • Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai for forty days and nights (Exod 34:28), not as a spiritual discipline, but as a response to the weightiness of what it meant to behold God’s glory and receive God’s law.
  • David fasted when his son by Bathsheba got deathly sick (2 Sam 12:14).
  • Esther fasted, and called all the Israelites around her to do the same, before she went in to seek audience with the king and attempt to save her people from slaughter (Esther 4:3)—a severe situation indeed.
  • Nehemiah fasted in response to the news that the city of Jerusalem was in ruins (Neh 1:4).
  • Jesus fasted forty days and nights in the wilderness while being attacked with severe temptations from the devil (Matt 4:2ff).
  • Paul fasted for three days in response to the Lord striking him with a blinding light on his way to Damascus (Acts 9:9).
  • The early church fasted and prayed in the context of Paul and Barnabas being set apart and sent off on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1ff).

Interestingly, all of these examples, and many others not mentioned in this list, occur in the context of severe and weighty situations, and are almost always a response to the severity and weightiness of those situations. One of the passages that shows the link between fasting and severe situations most clearly is Matthew 9:14-15. Here the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus’ response is, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” The reason Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast while he was with them is because his being with them was a cause for rejoicing not mourning. But when Jesus was taken away from them (through his ascension) they would fast again. Why? Because then they would have reason to mourn once more—to long for his return, to groan because their king and bridegroom is away and all is not as it should be.

And this is the time we, the 21st century church, are living in today. We fast because we mourn. We mourn, as is appropriate (Matt 5:4; 1 Cor 5:2), because all is not as it should be. And all is not as it should be because our king has not yet come again. We fast because we are still in a time when we must cry, “Maranatha, come quickly Lord, Jesus!” We fast because, as John MacArthur puts it, “fasting is the body’s response to the heart’s anxieties.”

When it comes to fasting, what we need is not to go out there and fast more; to try harder not to eat so that we can become a more disciplined people. What we need is to mourn more. What we need is to walk with God in such a way that we grow more and more sensitive to things that ought to grieve us, but that don’t because we’ve become desensitized to them. We need God to soften our hard hearts and cause us to be more easily moved by the severity of things like sin, death, tragedy, war, poverty, and the weighty matters of the kingdom of Christ. And when we become more deeply sensitive to these things that ought to move us, we will find that sometimes our body’s natural response will be to become so grieved by them that we will not even want to eat, because everything within us is devoted, body and soul, to mourning and prayer. The more our hearts are moved, the more we will fast.