Mankind’s greatest choice – to follow Jesus or not
To end the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents one choice for everyone to make and two destinations for our lives. He warns about false prophets and false disciples.
To end the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents one choice for everyone to make and two destinations for our lives. He warns about false prophets and false disciples.
Hello and welcome to Series 4 and Episode 18, which is entitled ‘Mankind's Greatest Choice’ - the choice of whether to follow Jesus or not.
Introduction and Recap
Series 4 has been a long, interesting and stimulating study of the Sermon on the Mount. I hope that many of you will have been on the journey with me as we've gone through these different episodes and looked at every single section of this amazing, wonderful and hugely challenging teaching which is a central text of Christian discipleship - one of the most important pieces of teaching that Jesus ever gave.
The reason for that is seen by the context, which we've looked at virtually every time we've come back to the text in the last 17 episodes and the context is that Jesus' ministry is growing and developing. He's been in Galilee for some time now travelling around, preaching and healing. He's been gathering disciples, followers, to himself and just before the Sermon on the Mount comes the decisive moment when he chooses twelve men who are going to be Apostles - his formal representatives, his team, the leaders of his community, his discipleship community which will ultimately become the Early Church - from the day of Pentecost onwards and upon which everything else in subsequent history of the Church is built. Having done some amazing work in Galilee and having appointed these twelve, the Sermon on the Mount serves as a foundation stone to help them understand what being a disciple of Jesus really means. It's not just following him around in his ministry and being amazed at all the wonderful things that he does and says. No, it's actually a life of commitment to him and to copying his lifestyle to some measure, and showing through how you live what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be redeemed and saved by God, what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
That's the Sermon on the Mount. It's had so many dimensions. We started with the amazing Beatitudes and Luke's equivalent teaching about those who suffer poverty and difficulty and persecution because of their faith. Then we looked at the amazing introduction in which Jesus explains the difference between his Kingdom teaching and his Kingdom community, and the Old Testament - we'll come back to that in a moment. Then we looked at lots of different ethical issues. We looked at some of the great spiritual disciplines of the Church: prayer, fasting, giving to the poor and needy. We looked at materialism and wealth and how to handle money and how to seek the Kingdom of God above all other things and we came to that great verse, Matthew 6: 33, where Jesus says, ‘“Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”’ We looked at the issue of judgementalism; looked further at prayer and persistence in prayer and now we come to the final statements that Jesus is going to make - which are all about choice.
Fulfilling the Law of Moses
Before we get to that point, let me develop something that I said very briefly at the end of the last episode. I looked at the last verse of the passage we were looking at which was Matthew 7: 12 which is the verse before the passage we're going to look at today. I noted that this verse was a concluding statement concerning Jesus' main teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It says,
‘“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets,”’Matthew 7:12, NIV
I want to link that verse to the opening teaching about the ethical issues (which is in Matthew 5: 17) where Jesus says,
‘“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”’Matthew 5:17, NIV
These verses are quite important in terms of understanding the structure of the Sermon on the Mount. At the beginning, Jesus is distinguishing himself (in Matthew 5: 17 - 20) from the Jewish community, arising out of the Old Testament, that based its religious life on the Law of Moses (that's the Law that's being referred to here.) The Law of Moses was a systematic series of commands that God gave - over 600 commands - for the Jewish community as they formed themselves in the land of Israel when they first arrived there - the promised land. They became the Old Testament community of God, the people of God. Jesus is pointing out to his followers - and to everyone else listening in - that he is bringing to completion, or ‘fulfilling’ , the purpose of that Law. That Law is fading away, in fact it's going to become obsolete when Jesus died on the cross. We no longer need the Law of Moses as a way of relating to God; we now have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is, as it were, replacing the Mosaic Law with some principles and guidance for his followers which are going to be the framework of the discipleship community and those principles and guidance are in that section between Matthew 5: 17 and Matthew 7: 12, where he says,
‘“Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”’Matthew 7:12, NIV
Loving other people, through following Christ and obeying him, is the fulfilment of the ultimate purpose of the Law of the Old Testament and of the whole Old Testament period. There's a transition going on here from the people of Israel to the new community of God, called the Church, which in those days was just the discipleship community that followed Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is very significant and every generation of the Church needs to return to study it, reflect on it and align our lives, orientate our lives more precisely to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, if we want to be true disciples, or followers, of Jesus and I trust that's your greatest desire.
Teaching for the Disciples and Wider Community
Jesus is speaking to many people on this occasion. We know that he is primarily speaking to the disciples because it says (in the beginning, in Matthew 5: 1)
‘when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.’Matthew 5:1-2, NIV
This is aimed at the discipleship community but there are crowds in the vicinity. They're also mentioned in our passage today, Matthew 7: verse 28,
‘When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching.’Matthew 7:28, NIV
Jesus is not only instructing his immediate followers but he's also explaining to the wider community, represented by the crowds, what it means to follow him. This is what it means. The Sermon on the Mount provides the way and other teaching which Jesus gives elsewhere in the Gospels can be added in, to get a much fuller picture and add in other dimensions that aren't specifically mentioned here. The Sermon on the Mount is the foundation; it's the first formal block of teaching that Jesus gives in his ministry and it's very comprehensive and significant.
This section that we're going to deal with today is presenting a choice, it's saying to the disciples that the choice they've made is one of great significance and permanent benefit to them, in terms of leading them to salvation, but it's offering a choice to all the other listeners in the crowds. Through the scriptural text, Jesus is offering that choice to anyone else who reads or hears the text in any era of history - and that includes you today. You, personally, have a choice whether to follow Jesus Christ or not and you, if you haven't made that choice but you're looking in now, by the end of what I've said today you'll be offered the choice to say, “Yes, I want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Or you may choose to say, “No, I'll ignore that, or I'll turn against it.” That's choosing the alternative.
What's the significance of the choice? Does it matter? Is this all just a matter of personal opinion? Does every road lead to God? Are all religions the same, as some people say in the modern world? Jesus didn't think so for one second. He taught quite the opposite. He taught that there was one way to salvation and that was through him. Let's read the text; it's very clear and it's very challenging. Matthew 7: 13 - 29:
‘13“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. 15“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16By their fruit (you'll) recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ 24“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on (a) rock. 25The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation(s) on the rock. 26But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” 28When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29because he taught as one who had authority, ... not as their teachers of the law.’Matthew 7:13-29, NIV
This is very powerful stuff. Jesus uses a number of different metaphors or analogies, and examples, to explain the choice that mankind faces. The background to this choice is the belief in Judaism that every person is, first of all, a sinner. This is taught through the Old Testament and Jesus reinforces with his teaching. In other words, there is an inbuilt inclination in every single human being to live independently of God and to be morally corrupt and selfish to one degree or another. There's a sense in which we're cut off from God and in need of a rescue or a salvation - forgiveness, a new start. Jesus, later on in his life, makes it clear, through his teaching and then through his death and resurrection, that it's his death that is the ransom, the act of forgiveness and atonement that he makes for us, and which makes available to us genuine forgiveness and a fresh start. The Jews and the Early Church also believed, and Jesus explicitly taught, that at the end of your life comes judgement - comes God's assessment of your life and either he'll receive you into eternity with him - in glory, in heaven, in his new creation that he's making - or he'll turn you away to a place of punishment. All these things are taught here and implied in Jesus' teaching, without giving all the full theological background to them. I'm just mentioning the wider picture here before we look at the detail. Later on in the Gospels, Jesus goes into more detail about judgement - eternal judgement - and about the distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous, the saved the unsaved.
The Journey of Faith
Here we see in a number of different analogies, or metaphors - the fact that your life is either going in one direction or another. There's actually only two possibilities. There aren't three, four, five or six possibilities - there are actually two possibilities for you and for me. The first is the one concerning the two gates: there's a narrow gate and there's a wide gate. You have to go through the narrow gate to get on the road that leads to eternal life and if you go through the broad gate, which is easy to do, you're heading on a broad road, a wide road that leads to destruction and to judgement. There is a choice: which gate are you going to go through? These things don't just happen to you; you make choices and, generally speaking, only a small proportion of people make the choice to follow Christ in most societies and at most times in history. Occasionally you get a majority Christian population but it's very rare - generally speaking, only a small proportion of people make that choice. If you're a disciple, almost certainly you're in a minority in your country - maybe a very small minority. Be comforted, Jesus knew that. He knew the gate was small and he knew that most people in your country are going to choose the broad road and go through the broad gate and head to a certain judgement by God at the end of their lives. The road is either broad or narrow.
Here Jesus uses the analogy of life as a journey along the road - that's a great analogy. People often use it in religious and philosophical discussion - life's a journey, you're on the road, things happen to you on the road. That's how it feels, isn't it? I've been on the road of discipleship for a number of decades now - since I was 15, and I'm now in my late 50s. It's been a long road; it's taken me to many places. It's faced me with many decisions. There have been many challenges, many blessings, many encouragements and some extreme difficulties that I've faced along the road but that road is heading in a certain direction - it's heading to eternal life. The narrow road is harder; the broad road that leads away from Christ is, according to this analogy, easier to follow - you're just drifting along with the crowd. I wonder whether you're drifting along with the crowd or whether you've made a tough, but very exciting, choice to go through that narrow gate and follow Christ to his eternal salvation?
There are two destinies at the end, one is life and one is destruction. Jesus, on many occasions, teaches that there are two destinies - one choice, two destinies for mankind. Let's take a really famous passage - one of the most famous verses in the whole Bible - John 3:16. I want to read that verse but I want to read the verses that follow it which are usually forgotten but are explaining the significance and context of John 3:16. John 3:16 says,
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’John 3:16, NIV
But John 3:17 and 18, and all the way through to verse 21, gives some important detail:
‘17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because (they've) not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. 19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.’John 3:17-21, NIV
We see in this passage a clear division: some will follow Christ and some won't. There'll be a different destination for us according to the decision that we make.
True and False Prophets
Jesus then goes on (in verse 15 - 20) to talk about true and false prophets. This is an important section too. He says that prophets will come, religious teachers, who propose to you that they have the authority, revelation and insight of God. Such people exist in all cultures and, in countries where Christianity is well-known; there can be many people who claim to be prophets. Jesus said some of them will be false and some of them will be true. How can you tell the difference? You recognise them by the outcomes of their life - or their ‘fruit.’ What is the fruit of somebody's life? You don't recognise them by the excitement that they create in meetings, or in media, or on television; you don't judge them, even by the supposed miraculous things that they might do; you judge them by their life and their lifestyle. The implication, here, is that the lifestyle Jesus has in mind is actually the lifestyle of the Sermon on the Mount - the very spiritual disciplines that we're talking about here: prayer, fasting, giving to the poor, not taking a condemning attitude, not being materialistic and acquiring a lot of wealth, having a good attitude to sexual morality, a good attitude to the words you speak and the integrity of the things you do, having a good attitude towards other people and not being angry and vengeful towards them. Are people fulfilling these criteria in their lifestyles if they claim to be prophets?
It's often said that there are three areas you can judge people in terms of the integrity of their lives that are common areas of difficulty for people who are living by double standards and are hypocrites. We call these three areas money, sex and power. When we see people who propose that they have some special ministry from God, some prophetic status but we find that they are accumulating significant amounts of personal wealth, we should ask serious questions and we should doubt the integrity and the truthfulness of those people. In many parts of the world, wealth is a sign of divine blessing and we think that because people have achieved a lot of wealth through their religious leadership and they are somehow blessed by God. But this is not the message of the Sermon on the Mount or Jesus' teaching generally. He says very explicitly, and we've already seen it just in a few episodes earlier, ‘“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,”’ Matthew 6: 19. He's shown that money is not a good master. We should be serving God, keeping life simple, avoiding the acquisition of too much money and wealth. Sex is the second one. Sexual integrity is right at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. A man or a woman needs to be showing integrity in the relationships they have with people - particularly of the opposite sex - and their own marriage relationships should be relationships of integrity and exclusivity. This is quite a clear part of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. If you find people claiming great religious knowledge and power but whose relationships and sexual activities are contrary to the New Testament teaching and the explicit teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, we ought to seriously question whether we should trust them, whether they may not end up being false prophets. Money, sex and power. Some people use a religious status in certain nations to gain powerful influence in the media, with politicians, with people in public life, with people on television. They want widespread influence over people through what they do. Our influence as Christians should come through the power of the Gospel, not through the power of our own personal empire that we are building up. Jesus is quite clear: ‘“by their fruit you will recognise them.”’
True and False Disciples
Not only are there true and false prophets but there are also true and false disciples.
‘“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”’Matthew 7:21, NIV
It turns out, verses 21 to 23, that within the Church there will be true disciples - who follow Christ based on a living faith and live out the type of lifestyle that we've seen in the Sermon on the Mount - there'll be those people and there'll also be what we might call nominal Christians - people who are Christians in name only but with no real personal relationship with God - no real certainty of salvation, no real credibility of being disciples, no real intention to follow the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus warns that those who are just nominal believers in Christ cannot be certain of salvation; they might be turned away on the Day of Judgement with those terrible words, ‘“I never knew you.”’ We need a living relationship with God through the forgiveness of our sins, through regeneration, through the Holy Spirit living within us.
It turns out, finally, that the way we live our lives is like two men building a house for their families: one choosing a very strong foundation on rocky ground and one choosing a very insubstantial foundation, in very sandy ground. As the story goes, when the storms and floods come and the high winds, one house stands and another one falls. If we don't choose to live our lives based on a complete commitment to Jesus Christ, we run the risk that when the storms come - when the judgement of God comes - the house of our life will collapse and be shown to lack integrity.
There it is, that is the Sermon on the Mount, that's the conclusion: it presents you and I with a choice and I'm encouraging you, with all my heart, to choose to follow Christ. If you're already a disciple, just underline your commitment. Use the Sermon on the Mount is a primary text in your life; go over it frequently and seek to follow its teaching accurately. If you are a nominal Christian, I'm encouraging you to seek to find a living relationship with God through the death of Jesus - his atonement and his forgiveness. Confess your sins, confess your independence, seek to be born again and to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
As we conclude we have one or two more thoughts to add concerning the Sermon on the Mount in general. There's a wonderful introduction in Matthew 5: 1 - 16 (which includes the Beatitudes). It's well worth going back to study those again. The main part of the Sermon on the Mount describes ethical and lifestyle issues (from Matthew 5: 17, to Matthew 7: 12) Then the conclusion comes (Matthew 7: 13 - 29) which offers all the readers and listeners the choice and invites them to choose to follow Christ. No-one can underestimate the vital importance of the Sermon on the Mount as a primary text of the Christian faith and I'm very glad that I've had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the Sermon on the Mount, reflecting on all its major teachings. I hope you'll continue with us into series 5, as we carry on with the story of Jesus' very exciting public ministry, mostly based in Galilee, in the next stage of the story.
Thank you for being with us.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What is the choice facing every person in every age, and every country?
- If your ‘journey of faith’ is a journey - what stage of the journey are you on? What does it look like going forward?
- What is the most challenging part of the Sermon on the Mount - for you personally, or your church?
- Read John 3:16 - 21 again.How is the context of John 3:16 very important ?