For the longest time, I scared myself away from the Sermon on the Mount.
Praise God that He graciously pursues us even when, like Jonah, we are running in the opposite direction of His will.
I thought the Sermon on the Mount was bland moralism, but it is actually quite different. The Sermon on the Mount is not a mere ethical code; the Sermon on the Mount is a proclamation of grace resulting in heart and ethical transformation.
The very first statement of the Sermon on the Mount is an earth-shattering proclamation of grace:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Transformation of the heart and life in the way God desires is only possible when you start with the realization you are spiritually bankrupt. Someone who comes to the Sermon on the Mount spiritually rich, confident in his own ability to love his neighbor and do good works, has already failed and sinned. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The only way to turn the Sermon on the Mount into mere moralism is to edit the Beatitudes out. Christ’s commands come after the proclamation of grace. (To use the language of English grammar, imperatives always come after the declaratives in the Bible. This is true of the Ten Commandments. “I am the Lord your God who brought up out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (grace, declarative). Then, and only then does the Bible say, “You shall not…” (imperatives). This is true of Romans as well. The imperatives in Romans 12-16 come after the declaration of God’s grace in Romans 1-11.)
But then the imperatives do come (Matthew 5:17-7:29). Christ is covenant Lord, God in flesh, and has the authority to make demands on His creation and on His disciples.
One of the most challenging imperatives Christ gives is found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
Christ desires genuine love for neighbor. He gives a scornful rebuke to the Pharisees doing good to neighbor to earn the praise and approval of men:
“They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5).
When we seek to do good to our neighbors, we must examine ourselves: am I doing my good works because I love God and love my neighbor, or am I doing them because I am a Pharisee desiring the praise and approval of men? When Pharisees like Paul realize their deep sinfulness, they become poor in spirit and are ready to start from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.
In general, Christians who struggle with Pharasaism should do their good works as secretly as possible to combat the desire for self-glorification (Matthew 6:2-4). May we, by God’s grace, genuinely love others rather than use them for praise. Paul, a repentant Pharisee says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3, emphasis mine).