For years, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) was one of the most difficult passages of Scripture for me to read. The reason had nothing to do with an inability to understand the message that Jesus is sharing. His words are quite clear. No, my issue had everything to do with being completely overwhelmed by His teachings and feeling condemned to failure before I even started.
This is probably a good time to mention that although I am deeply thankful for grace and understand that I can do nothing to earn God’s favor – it is a gift based only on His goodness and not at all on my performance – I still tend to read certain passages through the eyes of a struggling legalist. I did not recognize this tendency for the longest time, but unfortunately, it is real.
My first thought when I read a Scripture that challenges me, is to think about what I need to do in order to live up to the challenge. However, I have learned that Jesus is always far more concerned about who I am than what I do. Much of what the Bible teaches us does call for change of behavior, but those behavior adjustments can typically only be realized through a heart change. The Sermon on the Mount is quite possibly the penultimate example of this reality.
To the legalistic eye, the Sermon on the Mount appears to begin with a list of acceptable personality traits, followed by Jesus cranking up the heat on behaviors that seemed fairly “doable” before He started talking. For example, before Jesus gets rolling, the bar is set at “just don’t murder anyone.” Cool. No problem. But by the time He is done, it is not OK even to stay angry with someone or call them names. If I do, I am just as guilty as if I had murdered them. Not cool at all.
Oh, and somewhere in the middle of this discourse, Jesus busts out with this doozy: “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Be perfect. No big deal.
Yeah, the Sermon on the Mount is the legalist’s worst nightmare.
Pursuing “Perfection” in the Grace of God
As we consider what Jesus is saying when He calls us to “be perfect” in the Sermon on the Mount, I want to share another important verse with you. This one is found in Hebrews 10:14: “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” The word “sanctified” means to be holy, pure, or free from sin. In other words, perfect.
So, according to the author of Hebrews, through Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, we are both perfect and being made perfect.
This Scripture presents two aspects of what it means to be complete, or perfected, in the grace of God. First, we are instantly made perfect in Christ regarding our legal position when we trust Jesus as our Savior. This is called justification. But there is also a process by which we progressively become perfect in obedience in our present living condition. This process is called sanctification.
There is no getting away from the reality that disciples of Jesus are to pursue a consistent and sustained level of obedience to His commandments. However, we must remember that walking in perfect obedience is relative in this age and absolute in the age to come. We must be careful not to make the mistake of focusing all our attention on our legal position, lest we lack motivation to pursue obedience and slip into what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace.” However, if we focus only on our living condition, we can get overwhelmed and depressed by how far we fall short of our goal.
So, what is the moral of the story? Glad you asked.
- Christ followers are to pursue perfection in our obedience to Jesus’s commandments to love Him and love our neighbor as ourselves.
- We must do so with the assurance that Jesus has already made us perfect through His death on the cross.
- Our efforts will be fruitless if we are not acting in partnership with the Holy Spirit. The power to walk in obedience comes through Him, and Him alone.
- If our motivation for pursuing obedience is anything other than as an expression of love for God, then our heart is in the wrong place. We do not pursue obedience to receive love from God, only to express our love for Him.
- If we pursue perfection as a response of love for God, we cannot fail. God is so gracious that even our weakest (but sincere) efforts at obedience move His heart, and he counts them as love.
Tending Our Garden
In order to make sure we are reading the Sermon on the Mount from the perspective of a lover rather than a legalist, I suggest thinking about Jesus’s teachings in Matthew 5-7 in the context of a garden.
Let us quickly go back to the beginning, to Genesis 2, where we learn that God planted a garden called “Eden.” It was amid this garden that He placed man, the prized member of His creation. The garden was intended to be the place of encounter and delight – the place where God would meet with man in a divine exchange of love and refreshment. Genesis 2:15 tells us that Adam and Eve’s primary task was to tend the garden, to nurture the place of encounter.
In the garden, the joy of voluntary obedience was offered. God gave Adam and Eve freedom of will, with safe boundaries within which to enjoy what He had created. The only restriction was that they were not to eat from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Although man was made to have dominion over the earth and to rule over God’s creation, we were not made to do it based on our independent observations and understandings of our environment. Instead, God created man to rule based on encounter and communion with His heart. The presence of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” presented man with a choice. Would we choose God’s plan or his own way?
Well, we all know the answer to that question, and it is an unfortunate one. But we are not going to focus on that today.
So, if the Garden of Eden was to be the place of encounter with God for Adam and Eve, where has God chosen as the place of encounter for us today? Through the sacrifice of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, our hearts are now the garden in which we commune with God and encounter His heart.
And nothing has changed. Our foundational work is still to tend the garden.
In the weeks to come, I would like to spend some time examining the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But as we do so, I would like for you to consider the following:
- The eight beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:3-12, are the flowers that God desires to see come into full bloom in the garden of our hearts. Jesus begins by describing how the garden is to look; what He considers to be a healthy and fruitful environment for encounter with Him. The beatitudes do not describe things we are to do, but things we are to become. It should come as no surprise that Jesus begins by dealing with our hearts rather than our actions.
- In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus turns His attention to pointing out six specific weeds and toxins that can easily choke out life in our garden. Some are obvious. Some are not. We must be aware of all of them and be certain that we do not let them have their way.
- Finally, in Matthew 6:1-24, Jesus goes on to describe five activities in which we can engage that serve as water and fertilizer for our garden. Each is an area in which we embrace voluntary weakness in order to position our heart to receive more grace. These are not activities that somehow cause God to love us more. In fact, they do not earn us anything from God. They are simply devotional practices that help us position our hearts to better appropriate the gift of grace.
Having this type of perspective as we encounter Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is life giving. Take it from a struggling legalist. Any other approach to this passage will leave you feeling condemned and hopeless. Jesus came not only to give us eternal life, but abundant life (John 10:10), and both are found through regular encounters with Him in the garden of our heart.
Tend your garden.