What comes to your mind when you think of a “King”? A crown? Throne? Iron scepter, red-fur cape, and jewel-encrusted sword? I think of someone with total authority, power, and control of a realm, a kingdom. Kings litter the pages of our favorite fairy-tales and stories: King Richard the Lionheart, King Arthur and the knights of the roundtable, or King Aragorn of Gondor.These kings are fair, wise, just, and noble. Our history books, however, offer a bleaker picture of what kings are like. Lord Acton taught us that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The globe has almost universally overthrown the monarchical form of government because one person with monolithic power always is disastrous. Which is interesting, because when Jesus Christ reveals himself in the gospel of Matthew, he primarily reveals himself as a King.
Today we begin a series on what is known as the most famous sermon ever preached: the Sermon on the Mount. And in the Sermon on the Mount we get a detailed description of what a community looks like when it embraces and follows the teaching of Christianity. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount answers the question of what it means to be a Christian: coming under the gracious rule of King Jesus. Now, we become a Christian when we realize the weight of our sin and guilt before God, and by faith trust in Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross to forgive us our debts. But that isn’t the whole story – many people will stop right there and say that is the sum total of Christianity, but it is not. Upon receiving the grace and mercy from Christ we are transformed and we now bow our knees before Jesus Christ and say, “command me.” A Christian is someone who has come under the gracious rule of King Jesus, and the SotM gives us a picture of what that looks like.
So, I’d like to do a bit of an overview of the sermon and describe a couple wrong ways to interpret it, and the right way to interpret it, but before we do, I want to look at the King over our life.
You may say, “Hang on, Marc. When you say we need to bow to Jesus as king, you mean that as a metaphor right? This is America, the land that got rid of Kings. We have a Declaration of Independence – aren’t we all about our own personal freedom?” That’s a good question. What do I mean by a king? When I say Jesus is a King, I don’t mean a counselor or a teacher – I mean a King. A King is a ruler with all authority and power, who can command you to do anything, and punish you if you don’t. And you say, “That’s what you’re saying Jesus is like? That sounds terrible!” Well, not really. I’ll explain what I mean by Jesus being king in a second, but first I want to make the point that you are already familiar with having a king.
C.S. Lewis said that democracy is a necessary medicine, but it isn’t food. It is a crutch that we need for the time being, but the human soul actually longs to be ruled by a king. So much so that we will actually turn things into little Lords over our lives that control us. And we do it so much and it comes so naturally, that we aren’t even aware we are doing it. You want to know what is trying to be your king, just look at what controls you. For example, if you deeply want to feel like a winner in some area of your life, then you’ll throw yourself into a sports or video game addiction, so you can be a winner at something, even if it is virtual or only on a field. And it controls you. Don’t think it does? Then how hard is it for you to go without it? Or what does it feel like when you fail? Or, perhaps you deeply desire to feel important, liked, and accepted, so you create a persona at school or on social media to impress your friends, and feel consumed with keeping it up. You must post more pictures, you must get more likes, you must have your peers admiration, etc.
For example, when I was a freshman in high school I had a social studies teacher that nearly everyone hated. I, however, didn’t have any problem with her. But because I so desperately wanted to have the approval of my peers I began acting out, disrespecting her, and mocking her behind her back. Why? It wasn’t because I actually disliked her. Rather, I told myself, You must dislike her because everyone else does. Why would I do that? Because the king of my life was other people’s approval, and it demanded that I do whatever it takes to earn it. I was controlled by what I wanted most deeply, and it led me to all sorts of problems.
You see, no one is free. We all are controlled by what is the Lord of our life. What controls your life? What is the one thing you feel like you must deeply need? What are you most afraid of losing? What are you addicted to?
A “King”, someone with absolute authority who can command you, is only a bad thing if the king is bad. If it is a bad king, then he will lie to you, disappoint you, and take advantage of you. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what if the King is perfect? What if He can’t be corrupted? Then that would be the one thing your heart has been looking for most: His name is Jesus, and He is your King.
After Jesus resurrected from the grave, we are told that, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” (Phil. 2:9-11).
And the SotM is describing what someone’s life looks like when they come under the gracious rule of King Jesus.
Just like any other part of the Bible, it is possible for us to interpret it incorrectly, so I want to look at two different ways that people popularly misinterpret the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.
- Read the Sermon on the Mount as an entrance examine to enter the kingdom of God. Some people will read over Christ’s teaching in a legalistic manner and think that they must first do everything it says before God will accept them and love them. They read this teaching and it does nothing but heap up mountains and mountains of fear and shame, because the standard that it sets is so high. Not only is this interpretation in direct contradiction with the rest of the Bible’s teaching, but it also contradicts the very teaching within the SotM! When Jesus is explaining how we should pray, he includes that we should daily ask for forgiveness of sins (Matt. 6:12), so he is already anticipating that we will not be able to perfectly keep His commands. It is true that God wants us to obey him, but our obedience is not what saves us. We are saved by grace through faith, not of works (Eph. 2:8-9).
Imagine this being like trying to win the championship game first, to prove to the coach that you should be on the team. That’s ridiculous – you first join the team, practice, play some games, and then you go to the championship.
- Disregard the commands of Jesus entirely, because we are saved by grace not of works. On the other hand, you could read through the Sermon on the Mount and just say, “There’s no way I could ever do that – good thing I don’t have to do it because I’m saved by grace!” Jesus didn’t give us the teaching of the SotM to just ignore it, but to obey it. Now it is true that one of the uses of God’s law is to show us how impossibly high God’s standard is, which leads us to cry out for a Savior who can fulfill the law on our behalf. Just take Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Anybody doing that real well in here? No, but that’s okay because Jesus did – Jesus perfectly followed the commands in the Sermon on the Mount, and when he died he credited to us his perfect record, and paid for our failure to live up to the standard, so now we could be received into God’s family. That is gloriously true!
But, just because the requirements of the law may now be fulfilled through Christ for salvation, that does not mean we just disregard them. Rather, out of love for God and with his Spirit working inside of us, we desire to obey God’s law, because it pleases him and it is for our good. The Apostle Paul explains this issue in the book of Romans, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it,” (Rom. 6:1-2). Is a Christian’s relationship with God just, “Hey, I like to sin, God likes to forgive, it’s a beautiful relationship.”? Not at all! In light of the gift of salvation, and empowered by His Spirit, we eagerly strive for obedience.
Imagine this as being brought onto the sports team, but refusing to ever put on the team uniform, practice or play. That’s equally ridiculous – certainly being a part of the team includes actually playing the game.
So those are two ways we can misinterpret the Sermon on the Mount – there are many more, but those will do for now.
So, what is the right way for us to interpret the Sermon on the Mount? It is a description of the lifestyle of one who has come under the gracious rule of King Jesus.
And perhaps you are looking at the SotM right now and saying, “Oh man, this certainly isn’t what my life looks like. There is no way I could live up to this!” Well, that is a very normal, honest reaction. So how do we interpret the commands given to us in this sermon without slipping into the first or the second error? Here’s how: we remember that we are saved by faith alone, not by our performance, but we are saved by a faith that doesn’t remain alone. In other words, I look at the teaching of the SotM and I want to obey it, not to be saved, but because I am saved. Titus explains,
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self- controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,” (Titus 2:11-12). God’s grace trains us to become more and more holy.
Think of it like this: there is a world-class soccer (or hockey, or football, or basketball) team, and you are not qualified to be on the team. But the coach decides to recruit you, and gives you a jersey. He sits you in front of TV and begins to play clips of the team playing, and it is phenomenal. They are doing things that you are certain that you would never be able to do. But the coach tells you, ‘You’re on the team now, this is how our team plays, and this is how I want you to play.” Now, you know that you can’t do that. You know you can’t. But the coach says, “I’m gonna be with you everyday, and I’m going to teach you everything I know, and someday, you’ll play like this.”
That is the Sermon on the Mount. Christ’s teaching here is the game footage. We are on the team – we are Christians, little Christs. And though we are full of so much failure and so much sin, God has promised that He is not going to leave us in our sin, but transform us. That transformation will be slow, it will be gradual, and it will be far from being complete by the time we leave this earth. But when the Lord returns or takes us home, we will be glorified and our transformation will be complete; we will be able to perfectly obey the SotM. We are promised, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” (Phil. 1:6).
The Sermon on the Mount, like the rest of God’s commands, is a blueprint for us to follow. And when we fall (which we will often), we rest in God’s free grace, pick ourselves up, confess our sin, and keep on moving. Growth as a Christian is not about never falling, but it is about walking. And this is why we need one another – we need to help remind each other of that truth when we are getting discouraged.
The SotM is going to challenge us, it is going to press on us, it is going to push us into places where we may feel uncomfortable. But every week, we are going to be asking ourselves, “Who is my king? Who will I follow?” Maybe as we go through this study some of you may realize that Jesus has never been your King and you’ll realize you need to be born-again! Or maybe some of you will realize that Jesus is your king, but you have been living like he isn’t. And together, we will let the conviction of God’s Word press on us, encourage us, break us if need be, and lead us to continue to pursue more and more coming under the gracious rule of King Jesus.