Copyright 2015 by Bob Rogers
The high standards of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5-7, have encouraged millions to live a better life, while at the same time the sermon has left many discouraged, feeling the bar is set so high, they can never reach it. Who is able to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love their enemies, and forgive those who mistreat them? Then, to top it off, Jesus said, “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
The key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount is found early on, when Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). This statement must have made the disciples catch their breath, because the scribes and Pharisees were considered the holiest people in Israel. Yet Jesus said his disciples must surpass the scribes and Pharisees, or not enter the kingdom of heaven at all! How could this be?
Immediately after this breath-taking statement, Jesus launched into his explanation. The scribes said not to murder; Jesus said not to be angry. The scribes said not to commit adultery; Jesus said not to lust. Jesus was zeroing in on the real issue: faith is a matter of the heart.
This theme of focusing on the heart continued throughout the sermon. Instead of legalistically saying it is okay to hate our enemies as long as we love our neighbors, Jesus called on His disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. This can only happen with a changed heart. Instead of showing off our religion by giving, praying and fasting in public, Jesus called on His disciples to do it in private. Repeatedly, Jesus said that God rewards those who don’t do it for show, and He labeled as hypocrites those who practiced their faith for show. Why? Because giving, praying and fasting in private comes from a pure heart, with no desire for earthly praise. Jesus told His disciples to look at the log in their own eyes before trying to judge their brothers by removing the speck from their brothers’ eyes. Again, this turned the focus back to self-examination– of one’s own heart. Near the end of the sermon, Jesus said that many will say to Him on Judgment Day, “Didn’t we prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Jesus’ reply was astonishing. He said that He would tell many of them, “I never knew you,” and send them to Hell. Why? Because if people have not given their hearts to Christ, it doesn’t matter how many good deeds they have done for Him.
If we have hearts hot with a fire to follow Christ, then we will surpass the scribes and Pharisees, for our faith will be an expression of what is inside of us, not an outward show of religion.
But what about that pesky phrase, “be perfect?” The word used in Matthew 5:48 is the same word used by Christ on the cross when He said, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). It is a word for completion. Just as a baseball player can throw a “perfect” game even though he may throw some balls and even walk some players, we can “be perfect,” if we completely, and wholeheartedly build our lives on Jesus, “the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).