5 Lessons from the Sermon on the Mount

By Matt Sapp

We’re working through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) together at Central Baptist Church, Newnan, Georgia, this summer.  Jesus’ sermon is the most important body of ethical teaching in the history of the world. It redefines how we relate to one another and clarifies how we relate to God. As we grapple with what scripture means in our world today, there’s no better place to start.

Here are five things the Sermon on the Mount encourages us to “BE” this summer.

Be Blessed
Jesus defines what it means to be blessed. God’s blessings aren’t always conferred on those we might expect—or in ways we might expect them to be.

Money, power, and status are nowhere to be found when Jesus talks about blessings. Instead, Jesus teaches that there is blessing in mercy and in mourning, in peacemaking and in poverty, in seeking righteousness and in the pure in heart.

Be blessed this summer by finding ways to align yourself with the things and people God blesses.

Be Interesting
Don’t be boring this summer! God calls us to live vibrant, engaging, interesting lives. You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Act like it.

Your life is meant to be full of flavor and warmth, light and love.

Salt enhances and preserves everything it touches. You should seek to do the same. Light is the source of life and the instigator of activity. Jesus says you are, too.

Be Holy
We often think of holiness as a path toward self-improvement, but improving our individual behavior is only a small part of holiness. Jesus teaches that holiness is really about how our conduct impacts our neighbors.

When talking about holiness, Jesus shifts the emphasis from personal righteousness (the righteousness of the Pharisees) to that which is characterized by the protection of one’s fellow man.

For many of us, a new understanding of holiness requires a significant shift in thinking. Maybe this summer is a time to “be holy” by starting to make the mental transition away from a holiness defined only by personal righteousness toward a holiness that demonstrates concern for those around us.

Be Generous
This summer, stop asking, “What’s fair?”, and start asking, “What’s the most generous thing I could responsibly do in this situation?”  Fairness is about keeping score. Generosity lets you tear up the scorecard.

When fairness ceases to be your standard, you’ll never have to feel the urge to “get even” again. You just get the blessing of being generous to those around you. So go the extra mile. Turn the other cheek. Give more than what is asked of you.

If you could just do one thing this summer, this is the one I would suggest. Jesus thinks it’s pretty important. Try it and see what happens.

Be Humble
Prayer forms us into humble people. When Jesus teaches us how to pray, he’s teaching us to be God-directed rather than self-directed. Even the posture of prayer—head bowed, eyes closed, hands folded—is an act of humility.

In prayer we learn to rely on God’s providence, we come to accept and extend forgiveness, and we recognize that we cannot overcome our temptations alone.

So pray this summer. And pray as Jesus teaches. It will help you be humble.

These are our first five lessons from the Sermon on the Mount: Be Blessed. Be Interesting. Be Holy. Be Generous. Be Humble.  Take a look at all five. Find one that’s a strength of yours and celebrate it, and then choose one that you can work on.  It’ll make for a great summer.

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On the Lord’s Prayer (part 2/3)

the-lords-prayer-kaleidoscopeLast week’s article was the first of a three-part study of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).  The Lord’s Prayer, so familiar and comforting to all of us, is one that presents us with both a challenge and a choice.  Will we do things God’s way or our way?

The last article took a broad view of the prayer, setting it within its historical and cultural context.  Jesus, like other Jewish rabbis at the time, lifted up this prayer to God as a model of prayer for others.  Yet, unlike other rabbis, the prayer communicated an unparalleled intimacy with God (Jesus called God “Abba,” or Daddy, in the prayer) that had a universal reach (Jesus places God’s Kingdom and the earth, not Israel, at the center of the prayer).

Famed commentator George Butrick once stated that the prayer is thoroughly Jewish, but “childlike in simplicity: statesman and man in the street, philosopher and rustic, bishop and the youngest catechumen are one here . . . No prayer could more unqualifiedly set forth God’s sovereign love and man’s dependence” (Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “Matthew”, v. 7 pg. 309).

Look past the lofty poetry and the simplicity, however, and we quickly note that it is made up of six petitions.  Three petitions look heavenward (known as the “Thou petitions”); three petitions reach into our daily, earthly lives (the “we petitions”).

This article explores the first three petitions–the “Thou Petitions”–a little more closely.

The first petition is that God’s name will be “hallowed” or made holy.  There is irony here, for the same God that is intimate with Jesus–Jesus’ very own Daddy–is the same God that is set apart and holy, above all of creation.  Jesus is intimate, but Jesus knows his place; he also knows that God is creator of all and over all.  As theologian Emil Brunner once quipped, “God is not in the world; the world is in God.”

Likewise, when we pray that God’s name is holy, we can’t help but remember the many times that God required us to be holy.  In Peter’s first letter, he challenged his audience, God’s very children, to “be holy in all your conduct” because God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16).

Although we find comfort in praying this prayer and invoking God on our behalf, we must respectfully bow in adoration and humility before a God who does not work for us or according to our own agenda.

This leads to the next two petitions: That God’s kingdom may come and that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Kingdom of God stands central in this prayer because the Kingdom was central to Jesus’ theology and preaching.  The very setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew–in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount–can rightly be called God’s blueprint for kingdom living.  We cannot be God’s children without understanding that we are kingdom citizens in which we live into God’s righteousness in word and deed.

Our prayer for God’s kingdom is not the catalyst for its arrival; rather, it attests to the fact that, in the person of Jesus and in the prescriptions set forth in the Sermon on the Mount, that kingdom is already breaking into our midst.  This petition not only furthers the kingdom, it acknowledges our allegiance to the kingdom.

It is a challenge because we are not praying for our kingdom or our will to be done.  Too often, our prayers to God are but veils of trying to get God to do what we want God to do.  We are God’s emissaries, however; and we work for God.

There is no room for two kingdoms in God’s realm.  It is either God’s kingdom or our kingdom that we devote our lives to building.

Jesus’ first three petitions in his prayer start us off in the right place: On God’s own terms.  It does not end there, but looks forward to how this very kingdom affects our daily living as stewards of that kingdom ethic.  Next week we’ll explore the next three petitions and how they apply to our life.

On the Lord’s Prayer (Part 1/3)

coffee-and-bibleNo matter where we attend church, what doctrines we hold dear, or how diverse our worship may be, we can all agree that one of the most comforting scriptures in the Bible is the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).

I’m sure you can remember the last time you prayed that wonderful prayer.  Some pray it as a matter of routine; others recite it in the midst of hardship.  It’s familiar words are a balm to the soul, and its simplicity still strikes us as uniquely profound.

Couched in the heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer moves the heart heavenward and our longings outward.  Early church father, Tertullian argued that the prayer “summarizes the entire gospel.”

This summer, our church has been going through a sermon series on “Lessons in Prayer.”  A summary of all those sermons in a weekly religious column would bore you, but one of those lessons on the Lord’s Prayer may be worth its while.

With that said, this article will be the first of three related to the Lord’s Prayer.  Why not explore its varied nuances and take a closer look?  Why not draw strength from its soaring poetry and meet with God in both its words and its silences?

This first article takes a broad view of the Prayer.

As mentioned, the prayer is set within the larger context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  The sermon, a prescription for godly living and a blueprint for embodying God’s coming Kingdom, address everything from poverty to fasting.

Set in the middle of the sermon are lessons on prayer.  Jesus gives several instructions.  Do not “heap up empty phrases”; rather, pray in secret, behind closed doors.

Then Jesus gives a simple prayer as a model for how his followers are to pray.  In many ways it is not unlike other Jewish prayers of Jesus’ time.

It begins with God and an invocation of God’s holy nature.  It ends with doxology.  It addresses heavenly realities as well as daily living.

That’s where the prayer’s similarities with other Jewish prayers end.  Unlike other prayers in his day, Jesus addresses God as “Abba.”  This title is an intimate, personal title for God who is father.  No other rabbi would dare address God in such a base, informal tone.

Also, most Jewish prayers are for Israel, but the Lord’s Prayer is universal: It is for the entire earth, and the language is cosmic in scope.  Jesus’ prayer reaches beyond geographic boundaries and bridges heaven and earth in concrete ways.

God’s Kingdom is also central to Jesus’ prayer.  If Jesus is the bridge between God and humanity, it is God’s Kingdom that is the extension of Jesus’ reign on earth “as it is in heaven.”

God’s kingdom stands above every nation and empire, and the Lord’s Prayer is the battle cry for those who seek to embody the values of this kingdom.

The Kingdom comes, for instance, when we trust God to provide for our daily needs (such as bread), when forgiveness and reconciliation win out over resentment and revenge, and when we acknowledge that God is in charge and can protect us from evil.

The kingdom is not far, but draws near, not only in the person of Christ, but in the petitions of his followers who recognize that God is breaking into the daily, routine events that occur in our midst.

In this way, the prayer is more than a mere comforting recitation.  It is a challenge to our entire worldview.

To acknowledge the coming of God’s Kingdom forces us to surrender our own sense of independence.  There cannot be two kingdoms in God’s reign–its His way or the highway.

To acknowledge the need for forgiveness, we must admit that we are creatures who are inherently sinful.  To ask for forgiveness means we have to forgive others.

When we ask for bread or protection, we confront the many ways in which we waste our resources or wander too far from God.

As simple as the prayer seems, it is fraught with a powerful reminder that we who claim to declare “independence” actually face a choice to declare our dependence upon God and God alone.