Friday, October 26, 2012
The Significance of the Sermon on the Mount
Atheists love to dwell on the atrocities committed in the name of religion – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and argue from that that "God is not good," and "religion poisons everything." Many of the charges are, unfortunately, true. But they are also beside the point. Many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. But if perverse human beings mangle Scripture to rationalize their own ungodly behavior, that is no fault of God's. In fact, in an ironic sort of way it confirms the moral purity of Scripture. The miscreant acknowledges that the Bible reflects God's moral standard, and he needs to justify his own behavior by God's standards. But when Christopher Hitchens and company attack religion, they think that they are attacking God. But they are not. What they are attacking is a caricature of religion, a perversion of what God intended. The real question, then, is what did God intend?
We are told that when the original audience heard the Sermon on the Mount, "the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matt. 7:28,29; NKJV). What evidently struck them was His authoritative tone. He presumed to tell them what was the correct interpretation of the Torah, and what would happen to them if they failed to heed His words. It was apparent that He was no ordinary rabbi, but was, at the very least, a prophet sent from God.
But was He an impostor? Two things would indicate that the answer was "no." First of all, His personal demeanor would have indicated that He was perfectly honest and sincere. He had obviously made a positive impression on a large number of the people. "Great multitudes" followed Him (8:1).
But more importantly Jesus validated His ministry through miracles. Matthew devotes most of the next two chapters of his gospel describing some of these miracles. Most of the same miracles are also reported in Mark and Luke. As we noted previously ("Who Wrote the Gospels"? – 4/17/12), early church tradition states that the gospels were written in the order in which they appear in our modern Bibles. Matthew was one of Jesus' disciples, an eyewitness of many of the events he recorded. According to early tradition, Mark took down the gist of Peter's preaching and apparently he used Matthew's gospel to fact check his information. Luke was an educated physician, evidently from a Gentile background, who claims to have "investigated everything from the beginning" (Luke 1:3; NASV). Since he apparently used Mark and possibly Matthew as two of his sources, it suggest that in his mind at least the first two gospels were historically reliable. Hence we have the testimony of three First Century authors that these miracles actually took place.
That leaves us with only one conclusion: Jesus was the real thing. Jesus really is the Son of God, and in the Sermon on the Mount He has given us an authoritative interpretation of God's moral law.
That being the case, what are the implications for us today? Most of us have a kind of sociological morality – we more or less conform to the mores of society around us. To get along we go along. Unfortunately this means that there is always the temptation to cheat if we can get away with it.
Jesus, however, has shown us a higher standard of morality. He has reminded us of the fact that we are ultimately accountable to our Creator for what we do. And what God requires of us is not a mere outward conformity to a civil law code, but purity of heart.
In a sense, He has set before us a standard that no man can attain. But this is precisely why we need salvation, and salvation is exactly what Jesus came to provide. The Sermon on the Mount increases our awareness of our guilt, and that is the first step towards finding forgiveness and peace. We must come to see ourselves as God sees us, as fallen, sinful human beings, and then when we cry out for mercy and forgiveness we can receive it. The Doctor has written the prescription; all we need to do is to follow it.